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Texts for Preaching
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, `I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
One of the hallmarks of 21st century
Christian spirituality — and any religion,
philosophy, or brand of humanism —
is that we are faced with asking
really big questions
but we do not get really big answers.
So the hallmark of spiritual MATURITY
in the 21st century
is whether we are able
to live within the tension
between really big questions
and little or no answers.
Living in that tension
is in contrast to falling
into true-and-false, right-and-wrong thinking
and clutching unlikely certainties
succumbing to cynicism or apathy.
If indeed, God loves us
why does God allow Russians
to bomb churches and hospitals
harboring civilian women, children, and men?
Why, if we are sheltered
within the eagle’s wings of God’s love
doesn’t God do something
about a child with cancer,
a friend with a brain tumor,
a son or daughter imprisoned by an addiction?
In ancient times Exodus could explain why Israel
was invaded and exiled by Babylon
and why later it was redeemed
and returned by Persia.
The God of Israel managed
the events upon earth,
using whatever nations God wanted
to bring about reward or punishment on Israel.
So the struggle was to figure out
what God was doing and why.
In our times
we have difficulty
discerning that God is doing anything
The Exodus stories are great
but we see them as mythological
more than historical
We have big questions
and little or no answers.
Can we live in that tension
while living with faith?
That is the big, fat
21st century question.
Allow me to put some rather painful
flesh on these bones.
at least Exodus and Luke,
were the appointed readings
on September 16, 2001 —
the first Sunday after the 9/11 attacks.
I have gone back on occasion
to read what I preached that day
and am always disappointed
that I didn’t have more
to offer in that moment.
But I will share it with you
in a general kind of way,
because it is still all I have
since I try to live in the tension
without preaching more
than I really know.
Here is the thing that mucks up
our thinking about God and human evil,
and why bad things happen to good people.
it is supposed to be a well-ordered universe
in which the good guys get rewarded
and the bad guys get punished.
We can see that is not that way
but we keep trying to think that way
because it is how most of us were raised:
rewarded for good things
and punished for bad.
We earned praise and approval
and we received discipline and punishment.
That is the world we want
because it is predictable
and seems familiar and fair.
On the other hand,
we know from experience
that is not really the world we live in
and we presume something went wrong
because we don’t think God
wants it this way either.
But then we have a Gospel story
like the one from Luke.
It really messes with our penchant for order.
“Now the tax collectors and sinners,” it says,
“were coming near to listen to Jesus.
And the Pharisees and the scribes
‘This fellow welcomes sinners
and eats with them!’”
That little word in Luke
that Elizabethan English
preferred to translate as “sinners,”
is rooted in a more ancient Hebrew word: Resha’im.
Resha’im refers to people
who have “sinned willfully and heinously
and who did not repent.”
(J.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism).
In rabbinical literature,
Resh’im is mostly translated as, “the wicked.”
What Luke is saying
with the accusation in this story,
is that Jesus welcomed and ate with the wicked.
In Jesus’ world the wicked
were mostly people
who had professionalized their sins:
not only did they do bad stuff
but they made money doing it.
The wicked refers to
oxi and fentanyl dealers,
executives of tobacco and credit card companies,
mortgage lenders who sell bad mortgages
to customers they knew could not afford them.
You name it,
any professionalized sin
we can think of
and it qualifies for the category
of the wicked.
Jesus, Luke says without debating it,
welcomed the wicked to his table —
which means, to our table.
Now Christianity adopted
that silly formula
that IF we repent
and change our sinful ways,
THEN God will forgive us.
It is a very nice, very tidy,
almost economic formula.
God will like us
IF we have the right beliefs
and do the right things.
if we do not believe the right things
and we mess up too much,
THEN no matter what we do
we will not be able to gain God’s favor.
IF — THEN: a conditional phrase
that makes clear what the bargain is.
But Jesus mucks it all up.
He says instead: “God forgives you,
NOW go and repent.”
You are forgiven IF, is our formula.
You are forgiven, now go, is Jesus’ formula.
Jesus declares that the wicked,
not just the every day, ordinary old sinners like us,
but the wicked —
those who haven’t repented yet —
are included in the kingdom of God
whether or not they repent.
The wicked are welcome at the table.
The wicked are brought into the kingdom of God
even while they are still wicked.
The wicked are welcome
even before they make restitution,
even before they have confessed,
even before they pay for their crime.
How wrong is that?
Frankly, it is a total violation
of the way we like things ordered.
But according to Luke,
Jesus ate with the wicked
while they were still wicked,
and Jesus announced that God loves them.
THEN – if you can believe it –
Jesus forgave them
even before they had earned it!
What is worse is that Jesus says to us,
now go and do likewise.
So here is our predicament.
We know the universe does not operate
on reward and punishment
so the question is whether we will be as radical
in our embrace as God is,
and whether or not we will make our decisions
based upon the values we claim to hold
rather than the hope of reward
or the threat of punishment.
be as radical
in our embrace of the wicked
as God is?
And will we
base our decisions
on what we value
or reward and punishment?
9/11/2001 revealed the extreme pain
of this question.
Without going into everything I said,
what I believed my task was back then —
and our task still is —
was to bridge the distance
between the wicked and ourselves
and to experience that, in fact,
it is WE.
is our one and only weapon
So what I said back then,
and still say now, is that Evil is the gravitational power
of a life lived in a descending orbit
centered in the Self.
is empowered by extreme self-orbit.
Once we have allowed our Self
to be the center of our universe,
and we have been captured
by the Self’s centripetal gravity,
we are capable of ever escalating acts of Evil
because all other life
is there to protect and serve US.
So if we want to do battle with Evil
we better get ready to cross boundaries,
open the gates to our soul,
and seek an orbit
around something much greater than ourselves.
Spiritual Community – which
sounds so nebulous and squishy —
is in fact, the most powerful activity
that we can engage in
to mitigate against Evil.
It’s substance is eloquently simple
and, as in most things, Jesus offers us
the model and the voice
for spiritual community.
“They were grumbling and saying,
‘This fellow welcomes the wicked
AND EATS with them.”
His language and imagery
echoed his actions,
and in every way
Jesus hosted a spiritual community
around a radically open table.
It sounds so simplistic,
and almost stupid to say,
especially back in 2001
standing in the shadow
of 9/11 with the ashes still smoldering.
But in the face of Evil
our task is to create
Because it changes
the trajectory of our orbit
and because of that,
it keeps agitating
to be closed off
to particular people.
builds an ever-expanding sense of US
when so much of the chaos
and disorder in life
would push us toward Self
and to shun others as Them.
Really, that was the best I could offer
in that horrendous moment of national
And it is still all I’ve got.
In a universe
with big questions
and little or few answers,
what we can create
is spiritual community
around a radically open table,
at which is seated some people
we really want to think of as THEM.
But if the community
has a deep spiritual edge to it
we will eventually feel compelled
to see THEM as US.
You and I cannot stop the bombs and missiles.
We want to.
You and I cannot stop the hatred and divisions.
We want to.
You and I, on our own, cannot stop
the causes of hunger and oppression.
We want to, but we are small.
We can work on those things
and in many kinds of ways.
But the most powerful thing we can do
is build and nurture and sustain
a spiritual community
in which we are changed
and others become us.
As ridiculous as it sounds to say,
spiritual community is the answer to Evil.
What makes ordinary community spiritual
is the uniquely powerful presence of God
that becomes known
when we practice
a radical openness
around a common table.
andrew workum says
I found your sermon today mesmerizing, sad, forthright and on and on. A mix of feelings. Good that I can read different meanings into words – “ridiculous” on one hand does not describe your words as I typically hear the word. But with a little time and listening I understand. Many thanks, Father Miller
Cam Miller says
Thanks Andy. Such a modifier as “ridiculous” is an acknowledgment to those who might dismiss the what I am saying out of hand, and to invite them to keep listening (or reading). As in, “you know this is absurd, and I know this is absurd, but stay with me here…”