John 3:14-21 "God So Loved the Cosmos"

IurIf there was just one verse in the Bible you wanted everyone to know by heart, which one would it be?   If you grew up as a Bible Belt Baptist like me, John 3:16 was that verse.   I could recite it from 4th grade on, until it could be said in one breath, like it was one word, “Godsolovedtheworldthathegavehisonlybegottensonthat



You may have noticed John 3:16 signs in public places, held up behind the football goalposts so people can see it when the extra point is kicked.  “Its good!  (John 3:16).”  So I guess people are supposed to put down their chicken wing to save their immortal soul. 


This verse became so core that you could call American Evangelicalism “John 3:16 Christianity.”  It was core for Billy Graham revivals and Campus Crusade and so on.   Here is how salvation works in this model.   We are sinners and this upsets God.  We deserve punishment and what is a just God to do?  God can’t just let us off, or some people will just do whatever they want.  It will be chaos.  So Jesus, the God-man is sent to take on our punishment, so our debt is relieved.  This sets the score straight (this is the game winning kick of the ball through the uprights!) and if you believe in Jesus (and this process), and stop sinning, then you will go to heaven.  But if you don’t, well- just read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to find out the eternal punishment that awaits you.


Now this theology troubles me.  How did “God so loved the world” become a theology of judgment, where God slams down the gavel against us, then sends Jesus to serve our sentence, so we can get out the jail, the mortality of this life, so we can get to heaven?   I don’t think this is the real meaning of John 3:16.  This Satisfaction/Substitutionary atonement of fundamentalist Christianity is not the early belief of the church, it is not contained in the Apostles or Nicene Creed, nor is it what Jesus taught in the Gospels. 


The roots of this theology are in the 11th century with Anselm of Canterbury.  It made sense to them because it mirrored the worldview of the feudal order.  European lords lived in defensive castles surrounded by village folk who paid homage- in words, deeds, money and goods.  In return, the lords we to protect them from roving bands of vandals and hostile neighboring estates.  The Lord of the Manor was the justice system, and if his honor was offended, a debt was incurred.  The serf had to pay a fine or take a punishment.  Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “I demand satisfaction.”  The word satisfaction meant honor had been offended and a debt had been paid. 


So Anselm saw God as the Soveriegn Lord of the feudal universe.  If we sin, God’s honor is offended and we have broken the order of the universe.  The debt needs to be paid, but we mortals cannot pay it, so either we are stuck in eternal punishment, or someone immortal must come along and take our punishment, so Jesus was seen as taking this role.  IF you were an 11th century serf, you might find some relief from this view.  Your world was the village you lived in, it was flat and the sun, moon and stars revolved around us in our English village.  This worked for centuries because it fit their world.  When they heard the words, “God so loved the world” the feudal order of things was the world God loved.


But we hear it differently because this is our world.  (Pick up globe.)  Think for moment what “world” mean when we look at this globe.  It does not mean, God loved only Europeans, or only Americans, it does not say that God so loved only Catholics, or Protestants, or even only Christians.  It doesn’t even say God so loved the church, or the true believers.  God so loved the world…(spin the globe.)  In fact, the world God loves does not even have all these convenient national boundaries drawn in for us.  God gets the Apollo view of the world of oceans, deserts and rainforests, and some bright lights at night to show that there are humans here. 


Here is another way to think of world.  The Greek word for world will probably blow your mind.  It is kosmos.  God so loved the Cosmos.  Not simply our tiny, blue planet, but the sun, moon and stars, the giant Horseshoe nebula, all the galaxies hidden out in the Big Dipper, Quasars, Supernovas, black holes and dark matter.  That is God’s world. 


This is what Rob Bell was writing about in the second chapter of “What We Mean When We Talk about God.”  The point is- our view of world is constantly expanding, and the ways that we have defined reality, the theories by which we have sliced and diced how things work, the boundaries we have drawn on the map and the ways we define who is on our side, or who belongs to God and who doesn’t, the certainties we defend, the things we argue and fight about, the stuff we stress and worry over, seem very insignificant when we define world as cosmos.  It has taken us centuries, millions of years, to develop our brains and our civilizations to this point, so we can finally scratch the surface of what cosmos is.  I think our species has finally made it to Jr. High.  We are at the age where God can’t tell us anything anymore, but we are still pretty impulsive, self-centered, and worry too much of what everyone thinks about us. 


Cosmos has a second meaning, it is not just the vast reaches of the universe, it also means “the order of things.”   Greek philosophy loved to contemplate the order of things, from geometry, architecture, statutes of the ideal human form, and the ideal government.  Cosmos refers to way things are ordered at every level, the human body, the family structure, the changing seasons, the political climate, it is all interconnected.  If the Greeks could have discovered the subatomic world, their joy would have been complete.  If Plato would have known that his chair, a solid object upon which he sits, was really billions of fast moving subatomic particles crashing into each other at an astonishing rate, so to appear solid, he would have been in rapture.  And we could probably use a little more awe and wonder in our worldview as well.  The cosmos, from electrons to quasars, is stupendous.  No wonder God loves it and calls us to love it as well.


But John is saying one more things about the world God loves.  The world also has disorder.  People reject how things should be, they fail to love, ignore the interconnections and relatedness of living things, and injustice results.  John sees a world that is alienated from its creator.  He lived in a time of great persecution, as the Roman Emperor Diocletian was persecuting Christians.  John’s Gospel makes a profound statement about this disorder.  God does not simply love the good and reject and judge the bad.  God loves the disordered nature of humanity as well, and seeks to reconcile it with love.  John 3: says Christ came not to judge the world by to save it. 


Save it…salvation…Latin:salve…English: salve…that which heals the wound. 


John’s Gospel is the only one to contain the words of Jesus, as he carries his cross, and he is being jeered and says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  That is how God reconciles through Jesus.  This Jesus does not die on a cross to satisfy God’s honor and wrath at sin, but to show God’s reconciling love even as humanity does its worst.  God loves the cosmos, even the angry crowds, the unjust rulers, and the imperfect people we all can be.  God so loved the world…and still does.  That seems about as awesome to me as my body is made up of flying subatomic particles.  Can you believe it?


“Tear Open the Heavens”

This text was in my mind while watching news from Ferguson, and a young protestor was asked what his agenda was, and he said it was for racial justice and they were going to “shake the heavens.” I don’t know if he knew the lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent, Year B, but the words were unmistakably there. I pondered the parallels of how the Civil War is our nation’s great cataclysm, and how we struggle still with its legacy. The 90-second deadly encounter between Michael Brown and Officer Daren Wilson has exposed the nation’s conflicted soul once again. If this were a movie instead of real life, we might say that Brown is an ambiguous character who personifies young black men who could go either way, on the one hand enrolled in college and hopeful about the future, and yet he could be sucked into the violence of urban street culture that is amplified for evening news and police shows. There is a ready-made narrative for that side of Michael Brown. The same could be said of Daren Wilson, who presents as Joe Average, not particularly racist, and yet he is surrounded by a militarized police force that looked more ready to go to Fallujah than Ferguson. These two men are as unclear to us the 90 seconds they shared.   Like the OJ trial and Rodney King, we may see them through the narratives about race that are already in our mind’s eye.

Full Sermon here:

Is Atheism an Intellectual Luxury for the Wealthy?

Chris Arnade wrote an interesting article in the Guardian with this title.  I'm fascinated because Chris is an atheist who worked on Wall Street and then became a photographer of homeless people in the South Bronx.  He reveals the humanity of his subjects and their beauty amidst the brokeness in their lives.  In his conclusion he reveals his startling thought:

They have their faith because what they believe in doesn't judge them. Who am I to tell them that what they believe is irrational? Who am I to tell them the one thing that gives them hope and allows them to find some beauty in an awful world is inconsistent? I cannot tell them that there is nothing beyond this physical life. It would be cruel and pointless. 

In these last three years, out from behind my computers, I have been reminded that life is not rational and that everyone makes mistakes. Or, in Biblical terms, we are all sinners. 

We are all sinners. On the streets the addicts, with their daily battles and proximity to death, have come to understand this viscerally. Many successful people don't. Their sense of entitlement and emotional distance has  numbed their understanding of our fallibility.

Soon I saw my atheism for what it is: an intellectual belief most accessible to those who have done well.

I read the article reposted on Alternet, where he gets hammered in the discussion boards for defending the "silly crutch" of religion.  Since I worked in a homeless shelter, I saw a kindred spirit in this atheist who could see everyone's humanity, so I posted this reply:


I was a program manager for homeless programs for 8 years and saw profound and beautiful faith of people bearing painful lives, brokenness that started very young. Thanks for giving voice to them, in words and photos. The faith of many people would not stand up to my own seminary-trained reasoning, but this faith often helps people move forward in recovery and healing. What people need most to move on from the shelter was hope. I could offer programs and life skills groups and job training, but if there was no hope, it did not matter. If an intellectually inconsistent and confused faith gives hope, helps people love and carry on, who am I to knock it down? In truth who among us really is totally consistent?  

Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke at my church last Spring and someone skewered him about supporting production of parts for the F-35 fighter jet in Vermont while claiming to be against wasteful military spending. Bernie basically said, "Bingo, you got me. Some tech companies in Vermont also make military-related stuff. But I'm tired of people saying, 'I can't support you, Bernie, because I only agree with you on 99 percent of the issues.' Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."  

Logic and reason is not always the best test of a human being. I'm going to be religious here for a moment and quote that crazy, confusing book called the Bible. "By their fruits you shall know them." (from Jesus in Matthew) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Apostle Paul to the Galatians.) Whether you are a Christian, atheist, Muslim, or anything else, if you embrace this kind of life, my heart is glad for it.

Bill Maher and Michael Moore just don't get progressive religion...

Michael Moore and Bill Maher are still missing the point. Many of us are both liberals AND Christians or Jews or Muslims. We do take on the extremists in our sermons, and feed and house the homeless, fight for GLBTQ people, and yet Bill continues to paint all of us with the same brush. Maher's critique of Islam paints Malala Yousefzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, with the same brush as ISIS. Neither Moore or Maher seem to get that many of us act for love and justice BECAUSE of our religion.

Here is Moore's full defense of Maher's argument with Ben Afleck:

By Michael Moore (@MMFlint)

Bill Maher is a friend of mine. He stood up for me when I was attacked after my Oscar speech (given on the fourth night of the Iraq War, a war Bill publicly opposed while 70% of the country, including the majority of Democrats in the U.S. Senate, supported it), and I stood up for him when ABC fired him and cancelled his show when he attempted to stop the hysteria and fear-mongering after 9-11 -- resulting in the Bush White House publicly ordering him to watch what he says -- or else. When Bill got his HBO show, he went on a 7-year tear against the Bush administration and became one of our most unapologetic and unrelenting voices against the insanity being shoved down our throats. 

I, for one, am glad there's at least one top comedian who isn't afraid to say the word "capitalism" or give credence to the good of socialism.
You may not agree with Bill on everything. Yet I'm guessing you love it when he goes after the Uterun Police/Protectors of Child Rapists (also known as The Vatican), or when he brilliantly satirizes the crazy Christian Right which has controlled much of our politics for the past 33 years. I certainly do. 

But when Bill goes after Islam, or crazy people professing to be Muslim, we grow uncomfortable. Why is that? Because when he bravely ridicules and attacks Christian assassins of abortion doctors who cite the Bible as justification for their evil acts, we heartily applaud him. But when he mercilessly stomps on Islamic assassins who cite the Koran, we grow uneasy. Why the switch on our part? Is it because Bill doesn't just stop with the Islamic assassins -- he thinks anyone who follows the Koran is a bit nuts? Or the Bible or the Talmud or the... you name it. He thinks it's all coo coo for cocoa puffs. 

I have, when I'm on Bill's show, told him there are far more examples historically of the death and destruction that Christians have brought to the planet, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to the wiping out of Native Americans to the Holocaust. But he points out that, in truth, the Jesus followers seem to have taken a break lately in their genocidial lust -- and that the debate should be about the present; i.e., which religion is now doing most of the terrorizing?

Though I would maintain that it is still the Judeo-Christian West whose armies and banks and institutions keep much of the third world under a heavy economic boot, resulting in a lot of hunger, suffering and death, Bill asks, "If I draw a cartoon of Jesus in a dress, will Christian leaders issue a call to assassinate me?" 

I can't speak to Bill's drawing skills, but it's safe to say that in the USA he can draw whatever he wants. In fact, other than those murdered abortion doctors, a hundred bombed or ransacked Planned Parenthood clinics and a few people like me, there are not many activists or artists who have to worry about Baptists blowing up their homes. Sinead O'Connor was not beheaded for beheading a photo of the Pope on NBC. Your middle name can be 'Hussein' and you can still win the state of Virginia if you're running for President. 

Sure, I can make a daily list of all the horrible things so-called Christians still do in this country. Rarely, though, do their actions involve decapitation.

But if you're a Dutch filmmaker who makes a movie about violence against women in some Islamic countries, or if you're a Danish cartoonist who draws an image making fun of the Prophet -- well, you are then either shot to death or you are now in hiding.

So if Bill is taking the same exact position liberals usually take whenever we see free speech being threatened, or women being abused or people forced to submit to fundamentalist dictates, why then is he facing any criticism for speaking out against these wrongs? When Christians do these things we speak up -- loudly. So why not speak out when Muslims do it? 'Cause it's none of our business? Isn't it?

I think I may have a couple answers as to why some liberals are uncomfortable with Bill's humor when it comes to Islam:

1. We have witnessed, since 9/11, Arabs and Muslims in this country undergoing huge amounts of prejudice, bigotry and sometimes outright violence. This sickens us (as I know it does Bill). So we are extra sensitive to what sounds like, as it goes through the liberal filter in our ears, any "anti-Arab" comments. We don't want to hear anything even remotely anti-Muslim. But we have to be careful that this doesn't stop us from listening to legitimate criticisms about things that go on in the Muslim world. I just think that, due to our illegal actions (invasions) of the past decade, our government lacks any moral authority on this and should be forbidden from any attempts to "fix" those problems. 

2. Liberals are intensely fed up with these two wars against mostly Muslim populations (not to mention the indiscriminate drone strikes on at least four other nations). And now the party that won the elections last Tuesday would like a war with Iran. An ignorant American public was manipulated with fear and lies to start and maintain the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars -- and that manipulation continues today in order to justify things like the mass spying by the NSA on our entire citizenry. When the Cold War ended (25 years ago today in Berlin), the defense industry went berserk with worry that their salad days were over. A new enemy was needed. Arab terrorists fit the bill perfectly! Not only has the defense industry since thrived, a whole new fake industry has arisen -- the Homeland Security behemoth. As our infrastructure, our freedoms and our middle class vaporize, billions are spent as a grossly out-of-proportion response to a few shitty disasters. 

So we liberals don't want to hear another word about an "Islamic threat" or some non-existent Iranian nukes or... or whatever! We know we're being set up to get behind another war effort, another arms race, another diversion intended to make the point-one-percenters even filthier rich -- and the rest of us distracted with false fears and hatreds. 

I don't even know if I want to see Jon Stewart's new film about the Iranian who was unjustly imprisoned. WHY not? It's a true story! It happened! But the liberal panic button says this film will be used in ways to pump up fear of Muslims. At the very least, it will be the first thing Jon Stewart has done that the Republicans will like. So does that mean he shouldn't have made it? 

Two weeks ago on Bill's HBO show, he had on the wonderful Palestinian writer Rula Jebreal. They had a good and testy back and forth (Bill often has Muslims who disagree with him on his show, like the great Ben al-Afleck). Rula was giving it to Bill pretty hard, but when he paused and asked her if he were a Muslim, living in certain Muslim countries, and he walked into the Men's Club one day and announced he was now a Presbyterian, would that be ok? She paused, and then said "No."

Comedy is and should be a dangerous business. Those comedians who play it safe are far less interesting, less funny and, frankly, are often boring. Those who are willing to take their comedy to the Line That Shall Not Be Crossed -- and maybe step over it from time to time -- are the ones we are drawn to. But in order to encourage them to take those chances, we have to give them some leeway, give them a break when, in our mind, they've crossed that line. To not do so is to encourage them to go toward the bland, the passe and to the non-offensive. Those comedians like Bill Maher who are willing to take the risk of being the court jester -- saying the things that the rest of us are often thinking (or wish we were thinking) but are afraid to say -- should be supported, not silenced. 

Michael Moore

"The Gratitude Economy" Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2-15

UnfairLife is so unfair!  It starts the day we are born.  One baby is born a girl in Lahore, Pakistan and another a boy in Palo Alto, CA.  You already have in mind a picture of their destiny.  Life gets more unfair as soon as your next sibling is born.  We are hard wired to make sure the cookie gets divided down the middle.  Some people are born short, you might think I was born to be tall, however I wanted to be 6’8” and play in the NBA, so I feel too short.   Some people are born ahead of their time in a world not ready for their ideas, and far to many die far to young when they still had so much to give.  A lifelong smoker can hack away till they are 95 while people in perfectly good health with great habits die of cancer in the prime of life.  Some people complain about teacher’s salaries while the world’s billionaires make that much money every minute of every day!  And guess who pays a higher percentage in taxes!  Have I convinced you yet that life is unfair?

One of our biggest theological conundrums is trying to understand how God can be called just when life is so obviously unfair.  God clearly has a different view of justice than we do, just read randomly through the Gospels.  Who do you identify with first in today’s Gospel Lesson?  Are you thinking, “It is so nice that even those who worked just a little still got a day’s wage?  Life should be more like that.”  Or do you want to yell at this Vineyard owner for being ridiculously unfair?  Who ever heard of such a thing, paying everyone the same no matter how much they worked?  Don’t you know Communism failed?  Russia is capitalist now, and their leader, Vladimir Putin, is the wealthiest man in the world.  So there!  So my point is….I’m not sure what…I just know this is not fair.

Are you envious because I am generous?” says the vineyard owner.  “Of course I am.”  Why?  Because everyone did not get what they deserve.  That is the unspoken belief underlying our sense of justice.  Justice is getting what you deserve.  You work hard and it pays off.  If you are slacker, there are consequences.  But what do you deserve?  How would you know, who decides?  Would you really want to get what you deserve in all circumstances, even when you really blew it?   It sounds great to get what you deserve, until I am the one who made a bad choice, said the wrong thing, feel short.  Then I want a break.  How fair do I really want life to be?

Jesus seldom appeals to our sense of fairness.  In reality he challenges are self-serving ideas about fairness and instead models the moral world by a generous spirit, a forgiving heart, and a reconciling love.  Here the vineyard owner’s question again: “Are you envious because I am generous?”  The older brother of the Prodigal Son was.  He was upset because he was the deserving one.  Those who wanted to stone to death a woman caught in adultery were stopped in the tracks when asked, “Those without sin may cast the first stone.”  Jesus is the generous bringer of a new Kingdom, and new Commonwealth where a generous spirit reigns, where all people matter.

Manna-stalactites1God’s generosity does not begin with Jesus.  It was there even in the wilderness with freed slaves marching to a new world.  They were hungry and tired and wondered if they starve or die of thirst.  But Moses had lived in that wilderness for years.  He knew strong winds off the Mediterranean blew flocks of quail down to the Sinai to rest, and it was easy to catch them by hand.  He had gone out many mornings and harvested the sweet, sticky residue of the Tamarisk plant as the sun dried it, and balled it up in his finger and popped it into his mouth.  He showed it to his fellow travelers and they called it “Manna” which is Hebrew for “What is this stuff?”  And then he preached to them and said, “Here is the word of God: you shall have bread by morning, and you shall have meat by evening, and God will provide for you even here in the wilderness.”

And he turned manna into an object lesson, a metaphor for our faith in God.  “You can only gather enough of it for one day, for it spoils the next.  But don’t worry, because God is generous and will provide for you the next.”   We struggle to really believe there will be enough for us.  We hoard, try to store it all up, but it is all for not.  We must continuously be replenished. 

Climate changeThis is how the economy of God works.  (And by economy I don’t mean just finance, but that too.  Greek for economy is “oikos” which means “the household.”  God’s household is a place of generosity, with enough food for all members, overflowing love for all, forgiveness to heal the heart, justice to order activities, and peace when we work within this generous spirit of this household.  Hunger, injustice and evil all result when we break the flow of God’s generosity.  “Earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.” said Mahatma Gandhi.  That is why people are marching in New York today to draw attention to global climate change.  Protecting the planet and living in harmony with it is not bad for the economy, for the earth is the source of the economy.   The wind and the sun, the tides and waterfalls, and geothermal energy from the earth can provide an abundance of energy if that is our goal.  There is only one reason to relentlessly pull oil, gas and coal from the ground and pour carbon into our atmosphere, foul our air and water.  Greed.  There is enough for our need, but not for our greed. 

I started this sermon noting that life is not fair.  It never will be.  But I don’t need everything to be fair.  I trust that God is generous.  I know there is enough love to go around.  I have hope that humanity can overcome our urgent challenge to secure our future as the climate changes.  I have faith that our actions make a difference, because God hears our prayers and gives us strength and courage.  I have confidence that God is still speaking, and that we are still listening!