Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ordinary Compassion
Rom. 12:1-8[1]
I think many people in our society may be looking for God in all the wrong places. They look for God in the “perfect” church, which tends to be very large, with a smorgasbord of programs so broad that everyone in the family can find something they like. Others look for God in some spectacular, supernatural experience—whether a “miracle” or a special vision, or a unique calling. Others look for God by turning inward and shutting out “the world” as a dangerous place full of hostile people. But I don’t think any of those places are the place to look for God. I think we are meant to look for God in the ordinary compassion we share with the people around us.
I’ve mentioned to some of you that I recently read (and thoroughly enjoyed) a book called Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, by Paul F. Knitter. The author is a Catholic theologian who’s lived out a dialogue with Buddhism for 40 years—primarily through his relationship with his wife, who is a practicing Buddhist! One of his major themes is the idea that there are some significant connections between Christianity and Buddhism. He uses those connections as a way of re-framing Christian faith where it seems to have gone astray—as in where to look to find God. In essence, Knitter has found a way to be more “Christian” through the influence of Buddhism!
One of the primary teachings of Buddhism is reflected in the greeting, “Namasté.” It’s a greeting that means, “the light within me honors the light within you.”[2] It seems to me that someone who greets you by saying “Namasté” is in effect saying, “the goodness in me acknowledges and honors the goodness in you.” And that applies to everyone we meet. It’s not a matter of applying this to only “good people,” because Buddhism teaches that everyone we meet has all the same goodness that is in us, regardless of their faults and failures. It’s almost as if it is the reverse of our Christian idea of fallenness—when I see anyone doing something I detest, I must acknowledge that I am just as fallen and therefore have the capacity to do the same things. Buddhists turn that around and honor the goodness in everyone
When you have that kind of mindset about other people, it changes the way you relate to people. In a very real sense, when you can recognize and honor the goodness in others, you are recognizing and honoring the fact that we all belong to one another.[3] Much as the Apostle Paul talks about the church being the body of Christ, and therefore “individually we are members one of another” (Rom. 12:5), which simply means that each of us belongs to one another. St. Paul was talking about the church, and he was still stuck in the mindset of avoiding “the world” as a hostile place.[4] But I think there’s something to be said for applying this idea of a “body” to the whole human family. As beloved children of the one creator God and friends of the one loving redeemer, there is much to point us to the conclusion that we all belong to one another. When that is the case, how can we not acknowledge and honor the goodness in each other? How can we not relate to one another with compassion and kindness?
This mindset changes the way you live, and in a very real sense, it changes you. It reminds me again of St. Paul talking about being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” so that you may discern the will of God. What could be more appropriate to the will of God than relating to everyone you meet in a way that expresses God’s compassion for us all!
But what does all this have to do with the original question of where we look for God? I think one of the things that happens to you when you begin to relate to everyone you encounter with God’s compassion is that you begin to become aware that God’s compassion is constantly surrounding us all. We find the answer to the question where to look for God in the way we relate to one another. As it turns out, loving other people is what it means to know and love God. Sounds biblical, doesn’t it!
When we look at everyone we encounter as a beloved brother or sister, and recognize that all the goodness in us is also present in them, we find that God is there. When we relate to the people around us with compassion, we find God’s compassion surrounding us all. That’s where we look for God. Not in the busyness of a big church, or in some supernatural experience, but in ordinary, everyday compassion towards other people. We find God’s love waiting for us in a hug from a friend or in the embrace of a child or a parent. We find God’s love waiting for us in the satisfaction of a good day’s work with friends. We find God’s love waiting for us as we extend ordinary compassion to another human being who is hurting—for whatever reason. When we offer simple respect and kindness to those we meet, we find God who is constantly surrounding us with compassion.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/21/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Ram Dass, in Grist for the Mill, explains it this way: “In India when we meet and part we often say, ‘Namaste,’ which means I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides. I honor the place in you of love, of light, of truth, of peace. I honor the place within you where if you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.”Cited in a review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, accessed at id=19335 .
[3] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian,181: Buddism teaches us to respond to the moment “with the wisdom of feeling your connectedness with everyone and everything, and then respond with the compassion that naturally results when you feel so connected.” Cf. also ibid., 202-203.
[4] So much is this the case that it influences even one so astute as Karl Barth to adopt a similar outlook. Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:713-14. Cf. also Robert Jewett, Romans, 744.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Gifts are for Sharing
Gen 45:1-15, Rom. 11:31; Mt. 15:21-28[1]
A few years ago, I wrote a Bible Study on sharing, and I asked the students to identify their most prized possession, and then begin to look for ways to give it away. At that time, mine was a classical guitar. It was a particularly nice guitar. I must confess that at the time, I wasn’t sure I could ever give that guitar away. But gifts are for sharing. Our granddaughter Avery and our nephew Eli—who are both three years old—are learning the concept of sharing. And of course, for them sharing is a matter of learning “mine” and “yours.” As you can imagine, they do a lot better with “mine” than they do with “yours.” The other day, however, as we were having breakfast with Eli’s family, we witnessed a blessed event—three-year-olds sharing toys. He had brought some of his sister Tyler’s rings with him, and of course Avery wanted to play with them too. When he offered to share a couple of them with her, she gave him a kiss!
Gifts are for sharing. When we receive a gift, it’s always more enjoyable if we can “share” it with someone. How many times have you found yourself in that position, just dying to tell someone? There is something to that—perhaps it points us in the direction of literally sharing our gifts, not just telling someone about it. That pattern of sharing gifts is built into the way God relates to us, and the way God calls us to relate to each other. When we truly know ourselves to be people who have been given grace and mercy, we will share it with those around us, extending grace and mercy even to those who are hard to like.
I think that’s what happened to Joseph—sold into slavery by brothers who hated him. Later elevated to the position of Pharaoh’s Prime Minister. And when famine struck their world and his brothers came to Egypt to buy grain for their families, Joseph recognized them! There they were, those brothers who hated him so, and he had the power of life or death over them and their wives and their children! And he extended to them kindness, and love, and generosity. I think Joseph had received the gift of God’s grace and mercy in his life, and so he shared that grace and mercy with his brothers by letting them off the hook for their past deeds.
We, like students of Scripture throughout the generations, have ample evidence that mercy is a gift that is meant to be shared.[2] And yet we, like Jesus’ own disciples, constantly have to re-learn the lesson that we who have received mercy must in turn extend that mercy to others. To some extent, I think that’s what is going on in our Gospel lesson. It has often been said that Jesus’ strange interaction with the Canaanite woman was a test of her faith.[3] But I would say that it was not the woman Jesus was testing, but rather the disciples. After showing them they could be channels of divine grace and mercy at the miraculous feeding of a vast multitude, when Jesus’ disciples encountered a person in need, they once again wanted to send her away.
I think that’s why Jesus utters the sentiments about being sent only to “the lost sheep of Israel” and not giving the children’s bread to dogs, sentiments that seem offensive to us because they are so out of character with what we see of Jesus elsewhere. I think it’s likely they were the very thoughts Jesus’ disciples were thinking as good reason for sending her away. Because she was a despised Gentile, she was beneath their mercy! But I think Jesus wants to teach them that no one is beneath their mercy.!
That situation is reversed in our lesson from St. Paul. One of the problems he was dealing with was the fact that a Jewish Messiah was largely rejected by his own people, while Gentiles were responding to him in faith. In a very real sense, that meant that Gentile believers faced the temptation to look down on people of Jewish faith. Still do, in fact. But Paul insisted that it was all a part of God’s plan to extend mercy to all people— as improbable and unimaginable as that is. St. Paul says it this way, “by the mercy shown to you they too may receive mercy” (Rom. 11:31).[4] Isn’t that always the way it is with God’s mercy? We receive it not to boast about it, or to show the world that we are God’s special favorites. We receive God’s mercy as a gift so that we will in turn share that mercy with others—all others.[5]
  Sharing is something that doesn’t come easy to me. Especially sharing a gift as dear to me as my classical guitar. I had played that guitar for hours during my seven-month severance from the Seminary. And I had played it again for hours when I adjusted to life on my own after my divorce. To me it was like an old friend, a faithful companion. At the time I wrote that Bible Study, the thought of giving it away was something I couldn’t fathom. At the time I had no idea to whom I would even give it. But I did give that guitar away—to my son Zach when he went off to school and needed a classical guitar. I enjoyed the gift of that guitar in some particularly difficult times of my life. And now Zach enjoys the gift of that guitar—and he plays it better than I ever did! Gifts are for sharing—especially the gift of mercy. We receive God’s mercy as a gift so that we will in turn share that mercy with others—all others. No ifs ands or buts. No discriminating. No exceptions. No exclusions. Gifts are for sharing, and so is mercy.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/14/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 189, where he points to the theme that “God responds to disobedience with mercy” as a thread that runs throughout Scripture.
[3] In fact, many suggest that the episode was actually a test for Jesus, one that convinced him to extend God’s salvation to Gentiles. Cf. Judith Gundry-Volf, “Spirit, Mercy and the Other,” Theology Today 51 (Jan 1995): 519-22.
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:303-4: he sums up Paul’s logic by saying, “God’s mercy would not be the present of the Gentiles if it were not the future of the Jews also.” The end result of this bewildering plan of God is that “everywhere we begin with human disobedience and everywhere we end with divine mercy—everywhere and for all.”
[5] Cf. Cynthia Jarvis, “Siding with Grace,” The Christian Century (July 31 2002) 20.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

“Living” the Dream
Gen 37:1-28; Ps 105:16-22[1]
Dreamers can have difficulty with the harsh realities of life. Most of you know our two boys, Zach and Michael. After years of dreaming about being musicians, they are beginning to actually get paying gigs—for actual money! Of course, the reality is that they count themselves lucky if they clear $50 a night after expenses! Their word for it is “living the dream.” The irony in that is the way they (like most teenagers) used to dream about becoming celebrities and living the lifestyle of the rich and famous! These days, I think they will be happy if they can actually make a living as musicians—by teaching, or performing, or all of the above! Dreamers can have difficulty with the harsh realities of life.
Joseph was a dreamer. Although our lesson for today doesn’t mention it, one of the first things we learn about Joseph was that he had a couple of amazing dreams—both of which seemed to hint that he would one day be exalted to a position of great authority. In the beginning, it would seem that he was in fact rather cocky about his dream. But Joseph’s dream took him to places he never counted on as a young man. The Psalmist has an interesting phrase for it—“until what he had said came to pass, the word of the Lord kept testing him.” (Ps. 105:19). I think the idea is that Joseph’s vision put him through a refining process that he would never have imagined when he had the dream.[2] When he had the dream, he must have thought he had it made in this life. The reality is that it would be much more difficult.
Initially, Joseph’s refining process was a matter of humiliation. Because of his arrogance, his brothers hated him so much that they sold him into slavery. Suddenly he went from being the favored son of a wealthy man to being a slave with no rights, no family, no home. Talk about humiliating! In point of fact, however, apparently Joseph was so good at serving in the house of Potiphar that he quickly learned how to run the whole place and was elevated to head steward. The humiliating experience of being sold into slavery refined Joseph by preparing him with skills he would need later.
Unfortunately things didn’t work out so well, because his master’s wife accused him of trying to seduce her. So the ‘word of the Lord” kept refining Joseph—this time in prison. We have to remember that prison in that day was nothing like prison in our day. There were no rights in prison. You had no right to an attorney, no right to a speedy trial, and there was no such thing as habeas corpus to compel the powers that be to be fair in the way they treated you (at least theoretically). “Prison” in the ancient world meant being thrown into the dungeon, where you may not even be able to stay alive, let alone eat or sleep in a bed or any of the other things we take for granted. But while Joseph was in the dungeon, some of Pharoah’s personal attendants spent some time there. They too had dreams, and Joseph interpreted them. When Pharaoh had a dream, one of them told him about Joseph, and Joseph wound up as the Prime Minister of the most powerful nation in the ancient world!
It was a long and winding road for Joseph from being a young dreamer to becoming the chief administrator of Egypt. Why did Joseph have to go through such a long and painful process? Why did it take years of suffering to prepare him for “living” the dream he had in his youth?[3] Besides the obvious answers, it would seem built into the nature of what it means to commit yourself to a “dream.”[4] In a very real sense, this is part of how we truly “live” our dream for the world. It’s how the dream gets inside us. Until that happens, until it gets inside you so that you live, eat, and breathe it, you’re in no position to try to go out and see that vision realized in life.[5] We cannot hope to bring compassion to the world if we don’t have compassion in our hearts for other people—all of them. We cannot hope to bring peace to the world if we haven’t yet become peace—towards everyone.
Like Joseph, we may have to go through a refining process to get there. It may be frustrating for us to continue to try to hold on to our dream, only to keep being disappointed with the way life actually works. One of the lessons we learn when we’re undergoing this refining process is that the first step toward “living” the dream is to surrender our expectations of what that’s going to look like and to accept life, the world, and others as they are.[6] That’s the only way we can ever hope to learn how to respond to real human beings in a real world with compassion and peace.
It’s not easy being a dreamer in this world. Dreamers can have difficulty with the harsh realities of life. When you stake your life on a vision for the way things can be different, it will “keep testing you.” It may take years for the vision of the God’s compassion and peace and justice and freedom to really get inside us. But when it does, when we become the compassion and peace we long for in this world, then we will be truly “living” the dream.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/7/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Although it would seem that most scholars think this is a reference to his interpretation of the dreams of Pharoah’s attendants (cf. H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 311), I think there is merit in the idea that it includes Joseph’s initial dreams (cf. Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, 58).
[3] Cf. Charles Spurgeon, “Trial by the Word,” a sermon delivered Feb. 6 1876 at the Metropolitan Tabernacle; accessed at, where he says, “visions tarry, and we must wait for them.”
[4]John Caputo, On Religion, 15, describes it as “longing with a restless heart for a reality beyond reality.”
[5] Cf. Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could not Be a Christian, 183-85.
[6] Cf. Knitter, Without Buddha, 185-86.
Channels of Compassion
Mt. 14:13-21[1]
I think our generation must be the most analyzed generation of human beings in the history of the world. After all, psychology didn’t even begin as a formal scientific discipline until the late 19th Century. And it didn’t really take hold in our society as something helpful until the last 50 years or so. One of the results of the rising interest in the human being as a mental, emotional, and social creature is that there is now a fairly massive self-help movement. Much of this is good—for example various forms of 12-step programs have literally saved many lives. But sometimes too much of a good thing can be not so good.
One of the lessons of the self-help movement is that we have personal “boundaries” that we can maintain in our relationships with others. Again, this is a very healthy thing—especially in a culture like ours where people have been raised to be subservient to those around them, and wind up giving so much of themselves away that they have nothing left. But as with any helpful lesson, it has to be applied with care and thought, not just used as a hammer for any and every situation. When we apply that lesson with wisdom and compassion, I think we learn that there are times when we should maintain our boundaries and take good care of ourselves; and there are other times when we should set our needs and wants aside and offer kindness and care to those who are in need around us.
I think this is at least part of the lesson from our Gospel reading for this week. Jesus had given so much of himself to those around him that he withdrew to a deserted place to be alone. To make that happen, he took a boat from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other. Now, I think we’d have to say that this was a good and wise choice on his part. He must have been tired from all he had been doing, and he was taking care of himself. But the crowds actually walked around the lake to find him. They literally took the long way around! And when they showed up, the Scripture says that he had compassion for them. It seems to me that Jesus’ interaction with the crowds that followed him provides us with an example of the lesson that there is a time for self-care, but there is also a time for putting our own concerns aside and simply offering ourselves as channels of compassion for those around us who are in need.
The story that follows is intriguing, because although it is the only miracle of Jesus recounted by all four Gospels, there is also no mention of what actually happened to make the five loaves and two fish feed such a massive crowd! Some have suggested that the example of generosity inspired those in the crowd to share their food with others. We don’t know that. Popular movies have depicted it as an instantaneous miracle—Jesus lifts the food in a basket to heaven to bless it, and when he brings it down the basket is overflowing with loaves and fishes. But we don’t know that either. We really don’t know and may never be able to explain how Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish.[2]
What we do know is that initially the disciples wanted to send the crowds away. I would imagine they too were tired and wanted to have some down time. After all, the whole reason why they got in the boat and went to a deserted place was to be alone. Or perhaps, in their characteristic “little faith,” they were afraid there would not be enough food.[3] Probably a pretty reasonable concern! And what we do know is that Jesus gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
This brings us no closer to explaining this story. But I wonder if it could be that it was in the act of the disciples being willing to put their own concerns aside and to simply give the food they had to the crowds that the miracle occurred?[4] We still don’t know that for sure, but it does seem significant that the disciples who wanted to send everybody away turned around and served their food to the hungry crowds around them. And it would seem that the miracle happened somehow in giving. By setting aside their own concerns, their fears and their doubts, Jesus disciples became channels for God’s miraculous work. Perhaps one of the lessons is that true miracles happen in ways we can never explain.[5]
We’ll probably never know for sure exactly what happened that day by the Sea of Galilee, but I think this might point us in a direction. When we remain excessively focused on maintaining our boundaries, when we stay in our fears that there will not be enough or perhaps we aren’t good enough, when we just want to send others away to fend themselves, we inevitably withhold the loving kindness and compassion that we have been so generously given. On the other hand, when we let go our fears and concerns about our own well being—at least when the situation calls for it—and open our hearts to the people we encounter with a giving spirit, we become channels of the divine compassion that can have a truly miraculous effect.
Our compassion, our loving kindness may be small and faltering, but if we will just give what we have, perhaps in the giving it will be multiplied to meet the needs. When we give compassion freely, it ripples out far beyond our ability to explain or even imagine. When we open ourselves to be channels of compassion, those streams of kindness and mercy that flow through us have an effect that only God knows.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/31/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Douglas Hare, Matthew, 165, says that all the efforts to “explain” the miracle “hardly do justice to the story in the Gospels.”
[3] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible 8:324.
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:447, where he says that Jesus feeds the multitude “with the little that the apostles themselves have to offer them, and all that truly remains for them is to deliver and offer the much that He gives in the form of the little that they have to give.”
[5] Cf. Charles L. Allen, “A Sermon: When Worlds Break Open,” Encounter 65.1 (2004): 75.
Something Unexpected
Mt. 13:31-33[1]
If you’ve spent any significant time in the Southeastern United States, you know that “Kudzu” is bad word. A very bad word. People in that part of the country hate Kudzu with a passion. The reason is that it is one of the fastest growing invasive plants ever to make it to our shores. Ironically, Kudzu was originally cultivated in the U. S. about a hundred years ago as a means of controlling erosion. But talk about too much of a good thing. By the 1950’s the agriculture folks knew there was a problem. By the 1970’s it would seem that the problem was out of hand. These days, the authorities in the worst-affected areas spare no effort to eradicate Kudzu. Or at least to try to stop it from spreading.
I think one would be hard-pressed to make the case with people in these areas that Kudzu might have any beneficial uses. In fact, however, in Southeast Asia Kudzu is considered a food crop! According to Wikipedia, in its native China Kudzu is considered one of the “fifty fundamental herbs” and is used as an herbal remedy for the treatment of alcohol related problems, including treating liver problems! There are even some hints that it may show promise for treating migraines, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer! Wouldn’t that be a twist—if medical science discovered the ultimate cure for cancer in the plant that our neighbors are spending millions of dollars to eradicate!
Something like this kind of twist is involved in Jesus’ parables from our gospel reading for today. To use a mustard seed as a means of describing God’s kingdom would have been about as shocking in that day as telling a native of Alabama that Kudzu might become the next miracle cure. It just doesn’t compute. Mustard was just about as virulent as Kudzu. Once it took hold in a field, it would eventually take over the whole place. It’s just about impossible to eradicate. Modern farmers hate it because it gets in their crops. Ranchers hate it because it irritates the eyes of their livestock. What possible good could come from mustard seed?
But in a very real sense, that’s precisely the point. God’s realm of justice and peace and freedom in this world is something unexpected. It works contrary to our expectations. The eventual success of God’s kingdom at transforming this world into a place of justice and peace and freedom would have been about as unexpected to the people who originally heard this parable as Kudzu turning out to cure all our most serious ailments.[2] It just didn’t make much sense.
One of the biggest obstacles to our ability to wrap our heads around the idea that a kingdom of humility and self-sacrifice and mercy would somehow transform this whole world is that it just isn’t the way the world works. In our world money talks. Might makes right. Nice guys finish last. Those who lay down their lives for others become doormats. Humility means weakness. Mercy means being taken advantage. In a world that works like that, Jesus’ vision of a new realm that would bring justice and peace and freedom seems ludicrous.
What tends to happen, it seems to me, is that even those who identify themselves as disciples of Jesus adopt the means of this world to “force” the issue. Not content to just continue sowing Gospel seeds, waiting patiently for the harvest, leaving the outcome vulnerable to circumstance and luck, with no guarantees but the promise of faith and hope, many who call themselves Christian take the shortcuts that they see working in this world. They try to guarantee the success of God’s realm by shrewd calculation and slick marketing. They try to ensure the success of their Gospel seeds by any and every means, including manipulation and deceit. But what they miss is the plain truth that you cannot promote the justice and peace and freedom of God’s realm by methods that are unjust and unpeaceful and unfree. You may find some success by those means, but it will not be God’s realm that you are promoting. It will much more likely be something of your own devising.
In the midst of all this, Jesus’ strange parables remain as an encouragement to those who will wait in faith and hope. The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast in the dough both suggest that, despite all obstacles, and despite all indications to the contrary, God’s realm of justice and peace and freedom is here; it is real among us now. And these parables point to the promise that one day God’s realm will define all of life in this world.[3] As unlikely as that may sound, Jesus was no fool. I think he knew that his message about God’s realm was unlikely at best—as unlikely as the success of weeds and leaven—and at worst it came off as ludicrous. The “kingdom” that he brought to the people who were looking for it was something different entirely from what they were expecting. But if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that sometimes something unexpected can be more satisfying than anything we could have imagined. When and where and how we least expect it, God’s justice, God’s peace, and God’s freedom break out in this world in unlikely ways and unlikely places.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/24/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2]Cf. Linda McKinnish Bridges, “Preaching the Parables of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel in Ordinary Time,” Review and Expositor 104 (Spring 2007): 344. Cf. also Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 390; Ulrich Luz and Helmut Koester, Matthew: A Commentary, 261; and M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible 8:311-312.
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.1: 301; Boring, 8:309; and Luz and Koester, 262.