Mind the Gap


Today we heard Luke’s version of the Blessings, the Beatitudes.  (The Latin word for blessed is beati.) We are used to hearing Matthew’s version.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Luke’s version says, “Blessed are the poor.”  Matthew says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  Luke says, “Blessed are you who hunger now.” And Luke has woes as well. Woe to the rich, to those with full stomachs, to the laughing, to those who gain public approval.  Matthew has no woes.  

Whose version is right?  I assume Jesus expressed the same idea in several different ways when he went along teaching.  Whose version is popular?  Matthew’s, of course.  Matthew’s blessings are spiritual and vague enough to let us off the hook.  There are whole books that try to explain what they mean. Luke’s blessings, and his woes, are blunt and offensive.  They challenge our wallets and our good opinions of ourselves.  So they have largely been ignored.


Luke’s blessings and woes are Jesus turning the conventional meaning of blessing on its head, to announce God’s upside-down Kingdom with its radical blessings: the Good News of God.  And it really is good news.  And those woes…  I don’t think Luke meant to condemn every instance of wealth or dinner parties or laughing.  But he expects us to share the wealth, and invite unlikely people to our dinner parties, and keep mourners company, and to be troublemakers.  Woe to us if we have the means to bless, and we don’t.  Luke fondly reports some women who had been healed by Jesus, supporting the male disciples out of their resources.  This includes Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward.  A rich lady, sharing her wealth. 

****
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
February 17, 2019
Video version of this sermon is at: BCUCC's facebook page.

Mind the Gap

Luke 6:17-26   He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18  They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  19  And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. 
20      Then he looked up at his disciples and said:  
            “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 
21      “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. 
            “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 
22    “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  23  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 
24      “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 
25      “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. 
            “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 
26  “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

When Scott and I lived in northern Virginia a couple of years ago, we didn’t have a car there.  We were a half block away from the Ballston station of the DC Metro, so we didn’t need one. Subways are not always pretty but they move people quickly in cities where the street traffic goes at a crawl. They’re out of the weather.  And subways are great for people watching.  All kinds of people ride subways: business people in suits carrying briefcases, tourists looking confused, people dressed for dinner parties, students with backpacks, people carrying their groceries, people looking shabby and sketchy, teenagers looking punky.  I love riding on subways.

London has the Tube, that’s what they call their subway.  Every time a train stops at a Tube station, a recorded voice rings out in a proper British accent,  “Mind the gap.  Mind the gap.”  It refers to the gap between the train and the platform.  It’s not a much of a gap.  Neither is the gap in most subways, between rich and poor—we are all together on that underground people mover.  

Today we heard Luke’s version of the Blessings, the Beatitudes.  (The Latin word for blessed is beati.) We are used to hearing Matthew’s version.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Luke’s version says, “Blessed are the poor.”  Matthew says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  Luke says, “Blessed are you who hunger now.” And Luke has woes as well. Woe to the rich, to those with full stomachs, to the laughing, to those who gain public approval.  Matthew has no woes.  

Whose version is right?  I assume Jesus expressed the same idea in several different ways when he went along teaching.  Whose version is popular?  Matthew’s, of course.  Matthew’s blessings are spiritual and vague enough to let us off the hook.  There are whole books that try to explain what they mean. Luke’s blessings, and his woes, are blunt and offensive.  They challenge our wallets and our good opinions of ourselves.  So they have largely been ignored.

Luke’s blessings and woes are Jesus turning the conventional meaning of blessing on its head, to announce God’s upside-down Kingdom with its radical blessings: the Good News of God.  And it really is good news.  And those woes…  I don’t think Luke meant to condemn every instance of wealth or dinner parties or laughing.  But he expects us to share the wealth, and invite unlikely people to our dinner parties, and keep mourners company, and to be troublemakers.  Woe to us if we have the means to bless, and we don’t.  Luke fondly reports some women who had been healed by Jesus, supporting the male disciples out of their resources.  This includes Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward.  A rich lady, sharing her wealth. 

The radical blessings in Luke promise us that if we are struggling for survival, struggling to find hope or dignity, struggling to stay faithful in the face of criticism or abuse, God is with us and for us. That is Good News, and it’s not conventional thinking.  And guess who gets to share that good news?  People with resources.  

If we already have conventional blessings and are so insulated from people who are struggling that we no longer mind the gap between the haves and the have nots, if we are content to ignore others’ suffering, if we’re so at peace with the status quo that we never irritate the Powers that Be, how desolate we will be when it’s our turn to suffer?  Upside-down Kingdom indeed.

I’ve got to think the Gospel has mostly missed Orange County. The OC creed is NIMBY, Not In My Back Yard.  Go suffer in the next city, or better yet, the next county. Make that gap deep and wide between us virtuous taxpaying homeowners and Those People who don’t match our image of who we think we are.  Up until the late 1960’s or beyond, there were restrictive real estate covenants and unwritten ordinances to keep out people of color.  These days, the gated community is the epitome of Not In My Back Yard.  Homeowners come to city council meetings to veto low-income housing.  Let retail workers and child care workers and restaurant workers live in some other town, to say nothing of homeless people. Mind you, those workers can’t afford the low-income housing Habitat for Humanity is trying to build in Irvine.  You need an income of $90,000. to afford it.  Crazy, isn’t it?  

There has always been a gap between the conventionally blessed and the struggling.  And the gap is usually about more than money.  It’s about acceptance and rejection, showing off and hiding, pride and shame.  Being on the far side of the gap can mean trying to hide that you live in your car, as some of my previous parishioners have done.  That you can’t afford to go out to lunch.  That when you lose a tooth, you surely can’t afford to replace it.  Or that you are being evicted.

Luke’s stories of Christian community are not utopia.  They’re about people from all walks of life trying to follow Jesus together, and not doing it perfectly.  But if we truly all are children of one God, we want to mind that gap that could alienate us, and destroy the dignity of some.  We can do that by avoiding looking up the hill at those richer than us and thinking we’re missing something.  Which is exactly the opposite of what TV shows and advertising do for us.  We can cultivate gratitude for having what we need.  We can advocate for political and economic policies that level the economic playing field.  We can support nonprofits that help people in need.  And a crucial way to mind the gap is to know and love people who are on the other side of it.

I have had wealthy friends, and I have had friends who were really struggling.  Living on social security disability.  Unemployed single mom.  I have learned some of the things those struggling friends do to get by, and some of the things they give up, and the shame they struggle with.  I can’t fix the gap between us, but I can mind that gap and not make it any wider than it needs to be with my thoughtlessness.  In minding that gap, I realize how much I have, and how much I have to share.   

I recently visited our two nearest interfaith groups.  One is in Yorba Linda, and one is in Fullerton. They both talked about homelessness. The one in Yorba Linda wanted to have an educational forum.  That would be a good idea, because they were clueless about what homeless people needed and what was and wasn’t available.  It was all theoretical to them.  There was a cavernous gap.  The group in Fullerton was a different story.  Several of the churches cook free meals on a weekly basis.  They are working to develop relationships with their city council members to advocate for the needs of the people they serve. YIMBY. Yes, In My Backyard.  Gospel. 

One Fullerton Catholic church allows homeless people to sleep in the open air on their property.  That priest had some great ideas.  He got those great ideas from talking to his homeless guests at length about why they didn’t want to sleep in the Fullerton Armory.  First, germs and bedbugs.  That’s what you can get in a wide open space with hundreds of people together, no screening and no medical care.  Idea number one: medical staff on call to treat or at least quarantine sick people, and intake procedures to remove vermin.  Second, if you go into the armory you have to give up all your stuff. The bulk of that stuff is bedding, which you will need when the armory closes its shelter periodically for its intended functions, national guard business.  Idea number two: storage bins.  And third, the priest said residents must vacate the armory at 5 am. In addition to being pointlessly inhumane, this policy puts shelter guests out on the city streets in the dark when everything is closed, looking for shelter in doorways and carports.  To the neighbors it looks as if they’ve been there all night.  Idea number three:  humane hours. That priest is struggling to figure out how to do these things, on behalf of people he knows and cares about.

Mind the gap.  It’s part of living the gospel.  It will happen naturally when we do not isolate ourselves in sterile suburbs, and remember that everyone, no matter their condition, is a child of God, deserving of our respect and care. 

It is news to some people that our worth is not in our home, or our car, or our bank account.  But it is Good News.  In fact, it is a traditional Christian and Jewish view that all we possess is just on loan to us from God, for us to keep body and soul together and to do God’s work. People before stuff.  What a concept.

Dorothy Day has been called a saint.  She was also called a troublemaker.  She lived Luke’s blessings.  She created Catholic Worker houses during the Great Depression to mind the gap.  People in need could come for hot coffee, a meal, a bed, and some dignity.  Once a wealthy woman toured the house with Dorothy.  She was so moved by what she saw that she gave Dorothy the diamond ring off her finger.  Dorothy thanked her for it and put it in her pocket.  Later that day a mentally ill woman came in, a regular.  Dorothy took the diamond ring out of her pocket and gave it to that woman.  Someone on the staff said to Dorothy, “Wouldn’t it have been better if we sold the ring, and paid that woman’s rent for a year?”  Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do what she liked with the ring.  She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas.  Or she could enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her hand like the woman who gave it away.  “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”[1]  Does this act sound ridiculous to you?  Or intriguing, calling our conventional values into question?

We have our own Catholic Worker House in Orange County, Isaiah House in Santa Ana.  The staff live in the house with the guests, about two dozen women.  The guests maintain the house and grounds.  They help cook over 3000 meals every week, many of which they carry downtown to feed other people. I share with you their mission statement:
  • To be a community seeking God by living with the poor
  • To share dignity through home-cooked meals, friendship,
    and the offering of shelter and other basic services;
  • To resist the dominant culture of violence and addiction through adherence to Christ's law of non-violence, service and serenity
  • To embrace the Gospel values of simple living and trust in God's providence
  • To encounter God through prayer, liturgy, service, and contemplation
Aware of our individual and societal illnesses, and through the gift of our faith in a healing God, we are encouraged to face pain, speak truth, and celebrate resurrection.

What a mission statement.  Which reminds us of another important gap.  The gap between who we are and who God invites us to become. Freed of the need for greed.  Sharing and caring.  Blessed to be a blessing.  Loved, healed, transformed.  I want to get on that train.  Amen. 



[1]Widely quoted story from Tom Cornell.

Can I Get into Your Boat?



There’s this huge crowd who listen to Jesus passively, and hopefully gets the message.  When you go to a church and sit in the back and are anonymous, you’re in the crowd. When you love your church and visit it occasionally, you’re in the crowd.  These days the crowd mostly doesn’t even bother coming to church.  If you get your spirituality from videos and books, you’re in the crowd.  It’s OK to be in the crowd.  Hard to get close to Jesus, and some people like it better that way.  It’s pretty hard around this church to be in the crowd. And that is the blessing of being a small church.  What we do makes a difference.

The first thing Jesus said to Simon Peter was, “This crowd is pushing me into the lake.  Can I get into your boat?”  Probably Jesus has never said exactly that to you, “Can I get into your boat?”  But how about…

“Can I get into your car, with some canned goods to deliver to the food shelf?” 

“Can I get into your fellowship hall, to house a couple of friends?  And would you mind cooking us a few meals too?”

“Can I get you to do some caretaking for this relative or that friend?  Can I get you to lend your time and your voice for this nonprofit or that advocacy group?”

“Can I get into your schedule? Can I get into your bank account?  Can I get into your life and stir things up? ”  

When that happens, you are invited out of the crowd.  Jesus’ questions interrupt what we thought we were supposed to be doing.  Note the difference between listening to Jesus, that’s what the crowd does, and letting him into your boat, that’s what his followers do.  Listening is easy, and cheap, and doesn’t mess with your plans.  Letting Jesus into your boat means you really don’t know what may happen next, and that’s OK.
****
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
February 10, 2019

To Be Honest

Luke 5:1-11  Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God,   he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.   He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.   When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”   Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”   When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.  So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.   But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”   For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10  and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be  afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”  11  When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.


Our gospels contain lots of fish stories, well, fishing boat stories anyway. Jesus and his disciples lived on the shores of Lake Galilee, also known as Lake Tiberias (in John’s gospel) or Lake Gennesaret; the first disciples were fishermen by trade.  So Jesus calms storms, preaches from boats, walks on water, and he occasionally orchestrates huge catches of fish.  And to be honest, I always get a little queasy when I get to the stories that talk about boats full of fish and being “fishers of people” or of “catching people”.  You know.  Evangelism.   I’ll jump into the deep end of the lake with Jesus. But evangelism?  It sounds great in theory, but I have no idea how to catch people with integrity.  For one thing, the metaphor of fishing lacks the element of choice that I would want for people to come to. 

Another thing, the fish are onto us.  Either they walk right in the front door of their own choice or they go out of their way to avoid us.  I have this clergy collar.  I tried wearing it at the Starbucks at Brea Boulevard and Imperial to hang out and work. I had heard from other pastors that they had office hours in a coffee shop, and had strangers come up and chat, and had all kinds of deep and meaningful conversations.  That may work in other parts of the country.  For me, at a Brea Starbucks, it was like wearing an invisibility cloak.  Everyone’s eyes just slid right off me.  It was the weirdest experience.  This is not an intrinsic property of a clergy collar in Orange County.  I can wear my collar to political rallies and I’m not invisible.  I’m received with enthusiasm.  But I look at that “catch people” invitation, and I do not know how to do that.  

And then there’s all the fish.  Not at Starbucks, in our reading.  So many fish, they started to sink the boats, even though it was the wrong time of day to catch fish.  That mind-blowing miracle that proved to everyone that God was at work.  To be honest, I’m skeptical of those kinds of showy miracles.  Sometimes I do need to be hit over the head before I get the message, but so many fish they sink the boat?  Really? This stunt just makes us dubious of our own experiences of the sacred that are much less showy.  Even Simon Peter didn’t enjoy this display of overabundance.  “Too much, I don’t deserve it, and you’re embarrassing me in front of my friends!” 

The story is clearly symbolic.  Jesus has a message to get through to a whole lot of people.  Who’s going to help him? Simon Peter and his friends did abandon their fishing business and go on the road with Jesus, to catch people you could say. And aren’t we supposed to be helping? Luke was helping, and his was a different world than ours.

It’s hard for us to imagine the Roman beliefs that Luke was trying to transform by his evangelism.  In that world gods were amoral powers.  They not only didn’t care about morality; they didn’t care about people.  If they looked on humans at all, they saw us as pawns, servants for their convenience.  Maybe you could bribe a god with a good offering.  Just as likely, you would anger one by not leaving the right offering at the right shrine. I know this way of thinking is hard to picture.  I met a man who was raised with a worldview like this.  He had grown up in rural Laos.  Every rock and every crossroads might have a spirit that you could offend, and that spirit could curse you.  You never felt safe.  He was so relieved when he became a Christian, because Jesus would handle any spirits that wanted to mess with him.  He no longer had to live in fear.  What a relief!  

Rome also had a state religion, but that was just about power, loyalty to the emperor and the civic order, and everybody just went through the motions.  Ordinary people could not aspire to heaven; heaven was only for heroes and rulers, and maybe a few people who participated in expensive mystery cults.  Ordinary people, when they died, went to Hades, land of the shades, and slowly faded away. 

In the book of Colossians, Luke is called the beloved physician.   He clearly wanted to heal not just bodies but souls.  The Good News for Luke is that followers of Jesus can access the God of the Jews.  That ancient and moral and powerful God is now available to all people.  And heaven!  Jesus opened the gates of heaven and made it available to ordinary people.  

That doesn’t impress us at all.  Most of us have grown up knowing that we could get to heaven, perhaps with some requirements of belief or behavior.  This idea that ordinary people like you and I could get into heaven was brand new in Luke’s time.  Ordinary people can be filled with God’s spirit?  Ordinary people invited to the heavenly banquet?  God cares about ordinary people?   And more.  Despised minorities, women and children, slaves, all these people (or non-people, as they were thought of) had eternal value.  This was news, Good News.  This was the message of salvation that Luke helped bring to the Roman world.  Salvation means rescue, in this case from Hades— and salvation means healing, from worthlessness, to eternal value.  Even if you don’t care about otherworldly things, remember that for Luke it was both-and: both heaven and earth.  The heavenly banquet is the template for social justice on earth. 

Luke, beloved physician, had a soft spot for hopeless cases.  Luke’s is the gospel with the most beautiful stories of love and forgiveness. The Good Samaritan is only in Luke. The Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son are only in Luke.  From the cross, Jesus says, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing,” only in Luke.  OK, Luke, I’ll try to stop whining about evangelism and enjoy your good news, even if it’s a little different flavor than our good news.  Our Good News is in our mission statement.[1]  Salvation? Yes, rescue for those who think that God would exclude them because of who they are.  And healing: relationships, and our planet.  Good News indeed. 

Back to our fish story. There’s this huge crowd who listen to Jesus passively, and hopefully gets the message.  When you go to a church and sit in the back and are anonymous, you’re in the crowd. When you love your church and visit it occasionally, you’re in the crowd.  These days the crowd mostly doesn’t even bother coming to church.  If you get your spirituality from videos and books, you’re in the crowd.  It’s OK to be in the crowd.  Hard to get close to Jesus, and some people like it better that way.  It’s pretty hard around this church to be in the crowd. And that is the blessing of being a small church.  What we do makes a difference.

The first thing Jesus said to Simon Peter was, “This crowd is pushing me into the lake.  Can I get into your boat?”  Probably Jesus has never said exactly that to you, “Can I get into your boat?”  But how about…

“Can I get into your car, with some canned goods to deliver to the food shelf?” 

“Can I get into your fellowship hall, to house a couple of friends?  And would you mind cooking us a few meals too?”

“Can I get you to do some caretaking for this relative or that friend?  Can I get you to lend your time and your voice for this nonprofit or that advocacy group?”

“Can I get into your schedule? Can I get into your bank account?  Can I get into your life and stir things up? ”  

When that happens, you are invited out of the crowd.  Jesus’ questions interrupt what we thought we were supposed to be doing.  Note the difference between listening to Jesus, that’s what the crowd does, and letting him into your boat, that’s what his followers do.  Listening is easy, and cheap, and doesn’t mess with your plans.  Letting Jesus into your boat means you really don’t know what may happen next, and that’s OK.

It’s fun letting Jesus into you boat.  Hey, we’re making a contribution.  But then Jesus challenges us further.  “Go do something a little wacky for me, would you?  I know you think it won’t work, but humor me.”  In Simon Peter’s case, throwing the nets out in the deep, in the middle of the day.  In your case?  To be honest, I have no idea.  In the case of this church?  Hmm… interesting question.

A funny thing happens as we compute the cost-benefit of the imposition of following Jesus, the call to generosity, or to compassion, or to solidarity.   We discover that our math is all messed up.  What should have cost us time and energy and sleep actually blessed us and inspired us.  We gave more and we came out ahead.  Not in the miraculous fashion of this fish story, but in meaning, in hope, in relationship, in awe.

To be honest, that is not how we have been taught that blessing works.  We’ve been taught the bootstrap method of achievement.  Either it’s our virtue and diligence and hard work that earns the blessing–  no wonder Simon Peter feels guilty–  or else we have a mighty big debt to pay off.  But God doesn’t work that way.  The thing that we need to give to the world gives us inspiration and satisfaction.  

We are a little church.  By the measure of fish overflowing out of boats, we are not cutting it.  Or are we?  How many lives do each of us touch in a week?  And what little morsels of good news can each of us share?  How do we witness gently and respectfully to the salvation, the healing and rescue that Jesus offers, in our work and our caring and our conversation and our giving and our quiet smiles?  To be honest, I have no idea.  But I suspect it matters more than we realize.  

Our culture has taught us that bigger is better.  But Jesus never asked us for bigger.  He just wants to get in our boat.   What a gift, what a blessing, to be the means of sharing the Good News of God’s salvation: that God’s welcome is for all, that God lifts up the oppressed, that God heals and restores and blesses all.  Luke did it in his way, and you will do it in yours.  So… try letting Jesus into our boat?  Make room for healing, inspiration, social justice, in our daily life. Maybe it won’t look like what you think. Maybe you do your best ministry just talking to your neighbors, or at work, about things that seem off-topic.  To be honest, I can’t know what will happen when Jesus gets into your boat.  It will be an adventure.  Amen.



[1]Brea Congregational United Church of Christ is an Open and Affirming hospitality-based community of faith. We welcome in worship and service all of God’s children of any race, origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, or ability. We celebrate and trust the transforming power of God, which was manifested through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We work to provide an environment of peace, social justice, personal empowerment, and spiritual growth, and to dedicate ourselves to the care of God’s Creation. Our ethical guides are to honor Christian openness to share our beliefs, doubts, struggles, and growth within the context of mutual respect. Therefore, our purpose is to reach out, taking the risk of opening ourselves to the possibility of making the stranger a friend.


Troublemaker


We are tribal creatures, hive creatures.  Our brains are wired that way, and we need that for our communities to function.  We are wired to think that our side is right and our people are trustworthy.  Even gangs think this way.  We see only the facts that match our team’s bias. We can’t see our team’s bad behavior. We are wired to think that the other side is wrong and their people are ignorant if not immoral.  

This team spirit can serve religion.  We need to belong to something, to support one another in living together.  But team spirit does not always serve the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The Good News is not that we who follow Jesus are right and moral and chosen by God. We mess up as individuals, and as a church, and as a community.  The Good News is that God loves us anyway, and continues to invite us to enter into the divine, into loving and respectful relationship with the Spirit that in and through all.  How?  Well, we could practice on our neighbor.  The one on the other team.  Or the one calling our team to account, as Jesus did to his home team.  Love and respect the troublemaker.  Because Jesus was a troublemaker.

****

Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
February 3, 2019

Troublemaker

Luke 4:2-30Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  22  All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  23  He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”  24  And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.  25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;  26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27  There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”  28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  29  They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.  30  But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Is there a football game happening today?  I didn’t remember until somebody was surprised that the small group Scott and I host monthly is scheduled to meet this evening.  I wonder who’s playing. Well, not really, I looked it up.  I am severely sports-challenged.  

Sports tap our instinct for belonging.  Jonathan Haidt describes this in his book The Righteous Mind  (2012).
Every Saturday in the fall, at colleges across the United States, millions of people pack themselves into stadiums to participate in a ritual that can only be described as tribal.  At the University of Virginia [where Haidt taught for many years] the ritual begins in the morning as students dress in special costumes.  Some students paint the logo of… the Cavaliers (a V crossed with two swords) on their faces or other body parts.  
He goes on to describe pregame brunches with alcohol, tailgate parties where friends, relatives, or unknown alumni gather together with more food, more alcohol, and more face painting.  The alcohol helps the 50,000 fans overcome self-consciousness and participate fully in the chants, cheers and fist pump rituals that fill the three hours of the game. Strangers all lock arms and sing.  Why?  Here’s what Haidt says.
From a na├»ve perspective…college football is an extravagant, costly, wasteful institution that impairs people’s ability to think rationally while leaving a long trail of victims (including the players themselves, plus the many fans who suffer alcohol-related injuries.)  But…it flips a hive switch [because people are animals that cooperate on an immense scale, like bees in hives], and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply part of a whole.”  It augments the school spirit for which UVA is renowned, which in turn attracts better students and more alumni donations, which in turn improves the experience for the whole community, including [people] who have no interest in sports.

Haidt is telling us about UVA football to show the human need to belong, to be in community. The fruit of that belonging is loyalty, identity and trust and commitment.  Wonderful values that help UVA to be a first-rate university.  

Belonging is not a conscious, rational decision.  It is a powerful, primal need.  As individuals, we crave belonging, identity and trust and commitment.  Our society needs these things so that people can work together to survive and thrive.  But when our team is threatened, what do we do? The same tribal instinct that builds human community circles the wagons of “us” and lashes out at “them.”  Those good values of belonging and loyalty can turn into something ugly.  When a football game is at stake, otherwise civil people may find themselves screaming and cussing out the referee.  When the perceived safety of “us” is at stake, that tribal instinct can turn violent.

Which brings us to this bizarre reading we heard from the gospel of Luke.  It is the follow-up of last week’s lovely harmonious reading.  Jesus has just declared himself the messiah, the Christ, God’s chosen.  And his homies say, “Yay Rah!  Go Team Jesus!  Go Team Nazareth!  Go Team Israel!  The synagogue gets into that tribal ecstasy without even drinking or face painting; chanting the ritual prayers and familiar bible verses is enough.   As visions of victories and honors and possibly even hotel franchises begin to swirl in their heads, Jesus says, “Whoa, wait a minute. I don’t think you were tracking on the details.  I am not here for your team.  I’m here for God.  If I’m doing my job, I will disappoint your team.  The God whose Spirit fills me is not on your team.  Our God is for everyone.  The power God gives me is for everyone.  Remember when “our” God, acting with our greatest prophets, chose “them”, non-Israelites, to heal and feed and bless instead of us?”  That Jesus! What a troublemaker!

So, with true team spirit, the people Jesus grew up get pushy.  They push him right to the edge of a cliff.  He does not fight them. He doesn’t try to convince them.  He know that in the tribal mindset, nobody can think rationally.  Jesus merely slips away.  We can presume that some of his “pushy” friends and neighbors regretted this episode. Some of them eventually welcomed the Good News he brought.  But it may have taken years.  We can also be sure that some of them never did hear his message.  

This cliff incident may or may not be historical.  Nevertheless, it is true.  All four gospels record some version of the saying, “A prophet is not accepted in his own home town.” Some Jewish leaders felt so threatened by Jesus that they helped the Romans to kill him.  A generation after Jesus’ death, Team Israel and Team Jesus split.  Some Christians have been bad-mouthing and scapegoating Jews ever since, imagining that God is on our team now, not theirs.  Some Christians have claimed that everyone not on our team is going to burn in hell eternally.  That’s awfully pushy.  How God must grieve.  These are the kinds of divisions of “us” and ‘them” that were in everyone’s mind when the New Testament was written.  Our present-day divisions are mostly along political and cultural lines, but the bad behavior is the same.  

We are tribal creatures, hive creatures.  Our brains are wired that way, and we need that for our communities to function.  We are wired to think that our side is right and our people are trustworthy.  Even gangs think this way.  We see only the facts that match our team’s bias. We can’t see our team’s bad behavior. We are wired to think that the other side is wrong and their people are ignorant if not immoral.  You see how this works?  

This team spirit can serve religion.  We need to belong to something, to support one another in living together.  But team spirit does not always serve the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The Good News is not that we who follow Jesus are right and moral and chosen by God. We mess up as individuals, and as a church, and as a community.  The Good News is that God loves us anyway, and continues to invite us to enter into the divine, into loving and respectful relationship with the Spirit that in and through all.  How?  Well, we could practice on our neighbor.  The one on the other team.  Or the one calling our team to account, as Jesus did to his home team.  Love and respect the troublemaker.  Because Jesus was a troublemaker.

Martin Luther King was a troublemaker.  The Me Too movement and the Women’s marchers are troublemakers.  Muckraking journalists are troublemakers.  The Black Lives Matter movement are troublemakers. Would-be monument removers and school name changers are troublemakers too.  They challenge our assumptions that our team is right, our people are good people who would never do that.  But if they did, they were right in doing it, but they didn’t...  

A few troublemakers resort to violence, and that’s not OK.  But all troublemakers threaten us.  They threaten our group identity as right and moral.  It is a human instinct to defend ourselves against threat.  Protect our identity and our belonging and our commitment and our story of being right. And to anyone who doesn’t belong to our team, that defense looks awfully pushy.  It looks like attack.  No, says the team, it’s the troublemakers who are attacking us.  Attacking what?  Our team’s identity of being right and good and moral all the time?  Our stories that whitewash the ugly bits?  Wouldn’t it be nice if all the troublemakers just went away and didn’t ask us hard questions?  About pedophile priests or poisoned water or the sins of our forefathers or illegal campaign practices?  It would be nice for the status quo, and it would be nice for the people in power, who make the rules of the game, if we pushed all the troublemakers off a cliff. 

Are we loyal to our team, our institutions, to our country?  Then let us listen to those troublemakers who point out where it might be failing to live up to its values, and let us grieve, and let us seek a better way.  Are we loyal to our political agenda?  Then let us remember that our team will lose political battles that grieve us sorely, and we can still keep our voices and our values and refrain from pushing anyone too hard.  Because our national politics have been pushed to the edge by people using foul play.

I wonder, what does it mean to be on Jesus’ team?  To be loyal to our faith?  It means belonging in a church community (Thank you!) singing and praying and pot-lucking, but more than that.  It might mean listening to the still-speaking God, staying humble, and admitting we do not know how best to live our values, and often we forget to even try.  It might mean pondering the messages of troublemakers.  If you are called to be a troublemaker like I am sometimes, it means doing a whole lot of praying, because it’s really easy for the troublemaking team to do that same kind of tribal defend-attack thing we are trying to undo. Nobody’s right all the time; troublemakers get it wrong too.

What if we trusted our identity as beloved children of God enough not to fear the challenge of the troublemakers?  What if we trusted God enough to engage in the struggle, and not push too hard, not insist on winning at the cost of our souls?  What if we trusted God enough not to have to be right, to face our own flaws and shortcomings and brokenness in the light of God’s love? 

In the gospel of Luke, spiritual things have social and political and economic consequences. In the real world, social and political and economic things have spiritual consequences.  We are God’s children all the time, not just on Sunday morning.  In the stadium and at the march and when we’re venting to our friends what we really think.  God help us remember and honor our first loyalty, to the Good News that cuts down the proud and lifts up the destitute, to that Presence that is beyond and around and inside every person, even the people we think are just wrong.  To the God who laughs and cries with us and for us in our struggles, and loves every one of us no matter what, the troublemakers and the team players alike, let us be loyal.  Amen.