Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Homily for Epiphany 1 
The Baptism of Jesus 
January 12, 2014 
From the words of the Gospel: 
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by John. 
✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠
God, what can we do as a society to make the world a better place?  A world of peace, and not worship materialistic things? 

Keep this question in mind as we dip into the Gospel Reading today.  It is one of our “One-Question-I-Want-To-Ask-God” questions from last spring, and it might surprise you how it fits the Reading. 
Let’s start by remembering or by learning the context for Baptism of Jesus.  What, first of all, is the context for John the Baptist? 
In our Bible, John plays such a subservient and brief role, that most of us know embarrassing little about John, or about the baptism that he practiced. There are followers of John the Baptist, however, to this day.  Their sect has continued to survive in the middle east, in particular in Iraq and Khuzistan, and they refer to themselves at the Mandaeans, which comes from an Aramaic word, and it means “to have knowledge.” 
They believe that Jesus was a false messiah, they generally reject messianism altogether, and they revere John as a Divine Teacher who baptized, taught, and worked miracles, leading his disciples into the spiritual knowledge of healing the world. 
John’s baptism had its own history and context.  Long before the time of John the Baptist, which means, John the Baptizer, or John the Immerser, there were water and washing rituals.  From the time of Moses, there were ceremonial washings of anyone or anything who was unclean, there was the immersion of the priests at their consecrations, there was the washing of sacrifices, the washing of the priests hands before offering a sacrifice, the baptizing (immersion) of Gentile proselytes, the washing of one’s body after it was defiled by touching anything unclean, the healing of lepers or the official pronouncement of their healing by immersion, and even the metaphorical washing of the heart from wickedness. 
The meanings of these washings ranged from the making people or things spiritually clean, to the symbolic participation of converts in the Mosaic salvation through the Red Sea.  What began as a Temple ritual of purity became a more general ritual, not just for cleansing, but for preparing, or initiating, or presenting. That’s the long history and context of baptizing. 
And John the Baptist apparently belonged to a community, the Essenes, who practiced a daily baptizing.  It was John who gave his once-for-all baptizing a sense of urgency.  For John, the Old Age was coming to a close, and a New Age was coming. 
His baptism was a preparation for this immanent coming of the New Age.  And in keeping with the general context of baptism, no one was allowed to participate unless they were willing to admit their guilt in not keeping the Jewish laws and expectations, and were willing to recommit themselves to a holy and faithful life. 
The ultimate standard to which he believed the Jews were held, was to be a light to the nations, or as it later came to be known, Tikkun olam, which means “the repair or healing of the world.” 
So even though John baptized individuals, each person was understood in the context of the larger community.  Each individual was professing his or her solidarity in the Jewish community, and his or her solidarity in the great work of being a light to the nations, of healing the whole world. 
So there you have it.  The larger context of baptism and of John the Baptist, whose followers have survived to this day. 
✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠
The Christian scriptures, of course, have a different spin on John the Baptist relative to Jesus, who Christians know as the Messiah, or the Christ, not the political, military Messiah or Christ that some people in the time of Jesus expected, but a spiritual Christ who introduced a spiritual Kingdom. 
To overcome some of the difficulties of Jesus the Christ being baptized by John the Baptist, Matthew, who started out with Mark’s version of the baptism, added this conversation between John and Jesus that sort of explains why Jesus needed to be baptized - “to fulfill all righteousness,” he says, which for the very Jewish Matthew, means something like, “to fulfill the Jewish Scriptures.” 
For the early church, the baptism of Jesus and the symbolism of the heavens being opened, and the dove, and the voice, and the proclamation that Jesus is “my beloved” are all ways of communicating that the Jesus is the true light that has been born into the world. 
Jesus himself apparently didn’t practice baptism, but obviously, at some point, his followers did.  Not as a repeatable sacrament like other sects, but as a one-time, sacramental event, which meant what?  What would you think that the sacrament of baptism meant to the early Christian community? 
What meanings could the early church have adopted from the Jewish washing rituals?  What meanings would they have added? 
Some of the Jewish meanings that apparently carried over included: purification or cleansing initiation of converts solidarity with a community saved by passing through water preparation for a New Age.
A new layer of meanings apparently included dying and rising with Christ - dying to an old life or an old identity, and rising to a New Life or a New Identity, in solidarity with all the Baptized, dying to mortality and rising to immortality with all the saints. 
Eventually, even deeper levels of the sacrament of Baptism became clear.  We are not just the passive recipients of grace - we are baptized to do something.  We are empowered in Baptism to do the great work, as the Jews put it, of Tikkun Olam, of healing the world, or, as Jesus put it, of bringing in the Kingdom of God.  
And we are not just declared through baptism to be God’s beloved, we are given the powers to do our job - together.  We are given all the wisdom, all the strength, all the courage, all the compassion, all the kindness, all the vision we need to partner with God in doing the job God has given us to do.  
Even if they lie dormant and hidden within us, life, grace, and effort draw our powers out of us.  In our Baptisms we are, as Gregory of Nazianzus put it, Christened (Christ-ened).  We are fully vested with our true Christ Selves.  And we spend the rest of our lives, perhaps the rest of eternity, living into our Baptisms, living into our true Christ selves, living into our mission in the world, 
So there it is. The development of a Sacrament whose history and context span the centuries and connects us with John and Jesus and with all the Baptized in this world and in the world to come. It’s an incredible and huge vision of what it means to be Christian, of what it means to be human. 
So where does this touch you?  What does it speak to you?  Where does it grab you mentally or emotionally or spiritually?  Or how does it respond to the question: God, what can we do as a society to make the world a better place?  A world of peace, and not worship materialistic things?
Let’s take a few minutes to share. 
Where it touches me....  I have a daughter who has to learn everything through personal experience. She can’t learn through vicarious wisdom. During her teenage years, she had to try some things and learn some things the hard way.  Several years later, it’s still easy for her to see herself as an ADHD kid who messed up. 
As a dad, my job is to see in her the potential to answer some of the world’s great problems.  With the training she is getting in social work, she will at least make the world a better place one family at a time.  Sometimes our job is just to see in others what they can’t see in themselves.  
As the Baptized, we all have it is us, working together, to make this world a better place,  to transform the world into the Kingdom of God.  We seldom see that in ourselves, and, if the truth be told, we seldom see it in each other. God sees in us what we can’t see in ourselves. God help us to see Christ in, be Christ to, receive Christ from, everyone we meet.  

Unto Him be worship and power, dominion and splendor, for ever and ever.  Amen.  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Homily for Christmas 2 
January 5, 2014

From the words of the Gospel: 

Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.

✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠

God, will all people, regardless of faith and beliefs, or lack thereof, be re-united with you when our lives on earth end? 

What a great question to go with today’s Gospel Reading.  You probably recognize that question as one of the “one-question-I-would-like-to-ask-God” questions that was sent to me last spring, and which I promised to address in the homily time this year.  So let’s see what we can do with it.
As usual, the starting point is the Gospel Reading itself, which is from our Gospel storyteller for the year - St Matthew.  The truth is that this Gospel, like all our other Gospels, circulated anonymously until sometime in the second century when Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, assigned names and authorship to them. This one, he attributed to Matthew. 
One of the unique characteristics of this Gospel is that it is so Jewish. It is the most Jewish Gospel of any of the gospels in our Bible. For Matthew, the events in the life and ministry and death of Jesus are always fulfillments of some prophecy or expectation of the Jews.  Keeping the Torah is crucial to the Jesus movement, as Matthew understood it.  In Matthew, Jesus himself says, “I did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.” 
The story for today about the wise men and Jesus, is nowhere to be found, other than in this one particular Gospel. And every detail is connected in some way to Matthew’s Jewish heritage. The references to the East, to Jerusalem, to Bethlehem of Judea, and to “their own country” are all related to symbolic Jewish landmarks. 
Bethlehem was an unlikely but predicted site for the birth of the Messiah. Jerusalem was the power base for the Jewish authorities who continually rejected God, and the East is the land of the Gentiles, the “nations,” who God had on his heart from the beginning when he promised Abraham that he would be a blessing “to all nations.” 
So the story of Jesus, as Matthew sets it up in the very beginning of his Gospel, is that Jesus is the Messiah prophesied by the Jewish scriptures. Not the Messiah the Jewish authorities wanted or expected, but the one that is most truly predicted by the scriptures. 
According to this story, if Jesus is the new Moses, Herod is like the new Pharaoh, killing all the first born in the next chapter while Jesus, Joseph, and Mary flee to the symbolic land of Egypt. And since the Jews were not willing or able to recognize or accept Jesus as the long awaited Messiah, God led the Gentiles to him, represented by the three wise men.  
That’s one of the major themes we will see again and again this year as we follow the Gospel of Matthew - the Gentiles will take the place forfeited by the Jews, and the Church will become the true Israel of the last days, destined to share in the joys of the new age. 
The bottom line: Jesus, not Herod, is the true King. He is the true Messiah, and the Church (increasingly made up of Gentile converts to Judaism) is the true Israel. That’s the main point Matthew is making in this story. 
The one extra twist in the story is that the Gentiles, as willing as they may be, are nevertheless unable to discover Jesus without consulting the Jewish authorities who consult the Jewish teachers.  That’s Matthew’s redemption of the Judaism he continues to believe in. 
✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠

Many a sermon and commentary has focused on the mysterious wise men or the mysterious star as the main point. A great deal of interesting speculation has been written about these unknown figures, some of which has been enlightening, but not really the point of Matthew’s story. 
Although…. we are now on the other side of some phenomenal archeological digs and other discoveries that have revealed the significance of these wise men, even for Matthew, and, I think, even for us. 
The term Magi comes from the old Iranian word, magimeaning “priest,” and referring to a priestly tribe or cast in Zoroastrian Iran who had to be present for any ritual of the ancient Iranian religion to be valid, who were the guardians of the spiritual knowledge and of the ritual procedures of Zoroastrianism. They would have been well known to Matthew, and deeply respected, sort of like the Pope or the Dalai Lama. The translators of our Bible have translated them away with the unoffensive term “wise men.” 
The Jewish legends of the Magi, which were likely known to Matthew, included the legend that prophetic knowledge concealed on the Mount of Triumph by Seth, the son of Adam, predicted the birth of the Messiah (the Christ) at the end of the age, and were found by the ancestors of the ancient Magi. 
For centuries, the Magi made pilgrimages to the mountain, expecting that a star would one day descend from the skies, enter the holy cave on the mountain top,  and take the form of a royal child. 
What finally happened, according to legend, was that the Magi eventually saw a great star descend to the mountain peak, but it did not enter the cave. Instead it led the Magi on their long pilgrimage to Bethlehem, where they found the child born in a cave and gave him their gifts.  

This was the Jewish version of the original Iranian legends which predicted a reincarnation of Zoroaster at the end of the age.  
And as odd as it now sounds to us, this Jewish-Iranian mysticism in Matthew preserves, in rather startling clarity, the identity of the oriental priests who travelled so far to see the birth of the one “born to be king.” 

✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠

So the question for the day is: God, will all people, regardless of faith and beliefs, or lack thereof, be re-united with you when our lives on earth end?  And what have we got to work with? 
What we’ve got is a very Jewish author of a gospel attributed to Matthew, who alone tells this fascinating story, using symbolic references to the Jewish scriptures, to say that Jesus (a Jewish teacher and healer rejected by his fellow Jews), is the true Messiah, and that the Church (a movement made up of increasingly Gentile converts who DO accept Jesus) is the true Israel.  
And furthermore, we have an author, well acquainted with Jewish-Iranian mysticism, who uses references to combined mystical traditions to say that the most sacred and revered priests of the Gentile world, guardians of true spiritual knowledge, have followed the heart wisdom of generations to the discover that the prince of the new age, is none other than Jesus. 
So where does that leave you? Where does this touch you? What message does it have for you? How would you answer a question like: Will all people, regardless of faith and beliefs, or lack thereof, be re-united with you when our lives on earth end? 

Let’s take a minute to share whatever is on your mind or heart. 


To me, the key word in the question is “re-united,” or as we sometimes put it “at-one-ment,” which is actually the goal of all religions - the re-union, the “comm-union” of the Creator and the creation, of heaven and earth, of Divine nature and human nature. 
  • The two triangles that come together to form the star of David, 
  • the yin and yang of Taoism which represents dynamic unity, 
  • the Buddhist Wheel of Life which represents the Eight Noble Paths that lead to the center where all things are one,
  • the symbol of Islam, which is not the Crescent and Star but the Arabic script for Allah, meaning “The One” - 
  • the cross which was a symbol of the intersection of the horizontal and vertical axes of reality at the point of union even before Jesus died on one - 

all the symbols of the major wisdom traditions speak of their ultimate vision of unity.  

For me, Jesus is the Teacher, Guide and Friend who I follow. But I am perfectly ready to go with the Gospel of John, in which Jesus is the manifestation of Logos, the Word, the Wisdom, the Self-Manifestation of God, and to allow for other manifestations, at least to other degrees, of the One God at the center of all things. 
So in the end, the bottom line for me is that the sooner we all stop being so fundamentalist about who is right and who is wrong, and the sooner we can commit ourselves to the re union of all people, religions, and things, and the better we can set boundaries on the behavior of extremists without demonizing other religions, the sooner we will all reach our vision, which, to me, is the dream of God himself. 

As a thirteenth century Suffi put it, 
“Beyond our ideas of right and wrong, 
there is a field.  
I’ll meet you there.”

Unto Him be worship and power, dominion and splendor, for ever and ever.  Amen.  

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Power to Become Little Christs

A Homily for Christmas 1 
December 29, 2013

From the words of the Gospel: 

"But to all who received him, ... he gave power to become children of God.” 

✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠

Why is the process to Christhood so hard to achieve - if we ever get to Christhood? 

I’ll bet you remember that question. Ever since someone contributed that question last spring, and I agreed to address your questions during the year, this one has come up several times. Our scriptures may not answer all our questions. In fact, the real function is to question us rather than just to answer us. But this question about Christhood is one that scripture continues to address over and over.
In the reading from the Gospel of John this morning, it is the indeed the prime question… Why is the process to Christhood so hard to achieve - if we ever get to Christhood?
So let’s see what we can do with it. 
✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠
Just to get started, let’s get a grip on the unique context of John, which is quite different from any of the other gospels. 

In particular, this account of the incarnation from John is quite different from the account of the incarnation we heard from Luke on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 
Luke tells the story of Christmas on a very small and humble scale, as a drama acted out on the stage of the little town of Bethlehem, by a cast of three.  The principle role is that of a baby.  The location is a stable, the cradle is a manger, and when additional actors appear, they are only shepherds, poor, homeless shepherds, who turn out to be the ones who were filled with the wisdom of God, and who interpreted this wisdom to Joseph and Mary, who pondered these things in her heart. 
John tells the story of Christmas from the grandest possible scale.  This is a cosmic history,  sweeping from the dawn of creation to the realization of the glory of God in the face of Jesus the Christ…  (“In the beginning was the Word…”)
Luke stresses the newness of the Christmas event.  It is the story of a new baby and a new sign, of unexpected joy and the amazement of the shepherds.  On the other hand, 
John stresses the oldness of the Christmas story. It is eternal.  Jesus has not introduced a novelty; he has just laid bare the inner meaning of the universe, the Logos, translated, the “Word,” but also translatable as the “grammar,” the “self-expression” the “underlying logic and purpose” of the universe. It is a synonym of Sophia, which means “wisdom.” 
This Logos is not only with God, but IS God, and this inner meaning of being has now been exposed in and through a human person.  Everything Jesus stands for has always been there; but now it is profoundly visible and knowable.  Now the inner meaning of the universe greets us, loves us, confronts us, as a human being. 
That’s John. 
✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠
Here is some further context. 
This was not the original Christian gospel.  The original Christian gospel was the proclamation of the death and resurrection.  It was in the death and resurrection  that the first disciples saw the fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 2 - “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” 
However, even before the Bible as we know it had been put together, Christians had become discontented with this concentration on the end of Jesus’ life. They wanted to show that he had also been functioning as Lord and Messiah (or Christ) in his teaching and healing.  They wanted to demonstrate that he had always been Lord and Messiah, that he had been born as God’s son, not only from the empty tomb but also from the womb of Mary. 
And so the stories of Jesus birth and infancy came into being through Matthew and Luke, woven beautifully from the threads of Jewish expectations in the Hebrew Scripture (which came to be called the “Old Testament”), threads which include oriental magicians, a star, shepherds (who among other things, represented the true Israel of God), a young maiden (which came to be translated as “young virgin”), and many other symbolic elements.  
And yet, embedded in these birth stories were the major elements of the gospel of the resurrected Christ.  From his conception, the Messiah (the Christ) was born to be a liberator, but the liberation he would offer was not to be merely political.  It would be, as Zachariah proclaimed, an inner liberation as well as an outer one, “for he will save his people from their sins - their inner failings and shortcomings.”  He would save people from themselves. 
It would be, as Mary sang, a liberation for the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed, and not just for the successful and powerful. 
And the means of the Messiah’s coming would anticipate the paradoxes of the rest of his life: out of poverty comes inner wealth; out of weakness, strength; out of humility, a new destiny; out of danger, wisdom and maturity. 
So these birth stories of Matthew and Luke were a little gospel in themselves. 
But John’s birth story is not about what happened one dark, cold night in a stable in Bethlehem, that transformed some shepherds and wise men. 
John’s meditation on the birth of Jesus is an eternal event, that transforms human beings in every time and place.  At its heart re the words, “To all who received him… he gave power to become children of God.”  Not just human beings born of the flesh, but divine beings born of God. 
Those who received the “thought,” the “wisdom,” the heart of God - not just those who believed that in Jesus, God was with us, but to those who trusted in the potential within us 
as it was manifest in Jesus, and who were open and inspired to realize that potential in themselves - to them he gave the power to become sons and daughters of God, to become collectively the Messiah (the Christ) of their own age, the agents of liberation of prisoners of sin, poverty, and oppression of their own time.  
To receive the Christ is to be the Christ, to participate in the Divine nature, to share in the Divine vocation of transforming the world.  That is the huge, mystical, cosmic reality of the Christmas story in the Gospel of John. 
As St Athanasius so succinctly put it, “God became man, so that man could become God.”  Or St Peter elaborated in his second epistle, “God has granted us all things that pertain to life and godliness… that through them you may become participants in the divine nature.”  Or St Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.”  

✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠

For those who just want a sentimental Christmas that celebrates the birthday of baby Jesus, the Gospel of John disturbs us. For those who take solace in quips like, “We’re only human,” John pushes out of our comfort zone.  Even for those who believe that in Jesus, God is with us, John invites us to a totally new possibility - the potential of God within us. 
At this point Christmas loses its cuteness, its greeting card quaintness, and becomes a time of challenge.  To truly see Christ is not to imagine him in that poor and lonely stable, but to see him in ourselves, and in one another.  The stable is where we live and work. The shepherds are our friends and neighbors.  The call is to transform the world. 
So the question for today is Why is the process to Christhood so hard to achieve - if we ever get to Christhood?

How could we answer that question?  How does it touch us?  What does it invite us to do, or be, or change?  Now that we’ve got a taste of what that means for John, what does it mean for you?  Or what new questions do you have now?  Let’s take a few minutes to share. 
For myself, the challenge to Christhood is not so much in trying harder to act like Christ outwardly. It’s in the simple act of remembering that I am a little Christ.  Since my deepest identity is not obvious to me on the surface, I have to take time to retrain my consciousness, or as Jesus would say, to “raise” my consciousness. 
Partly I do that in the same way I used to try to become a man - I took time to look at things the way my Dad did, which is what I think people are doing when they stop and ask, “What would Jesus do?” 
But I also have to practice things like Centering Prayer, walking the labyrinth, and slowing down, and other practices that simply create a space for my consciousness to be raised, practices that make it possible for me to experience my real self, my Christ self. 
And the other challenge for me is to remember that I can’t do this by myself. I live in an individualist, competitive culture.  But I have to remind myself  that Christhood is a collective process.  It is not I, but we, who are called to Christhood - together. 

So my calling is not just to be Christ to others, but to see Christ in others, and to receive Christ from others, and to inspire Christ in others, and to remind others of their deepest and truest identity. 

Christhood is all for one, and one for all.  And that collaborative interdependency is another whole process of remembering and retraining.  It is also a confession that I am not complete, I am not whole, without you. 
But that’s the great cosmic miracle of transformation, that for John is the true miracle of Christmas… "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become their true child-of-God selves, who were born, not of blood nor of human will, but of God.”
Unto Him be worship and power, dominion and splendor, for ever and ever.  Amen.  

Saturday, December 28, 2013

John or Jesus?

A Homily for Advent 2A 
December 8, 2013

From the words of the Gospel: 

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠

Should we follow the Lord because we love him or out of fear for what he will (or might) do if we don’t?

That’s one of our “one-question-I-want-to-ask-God” questions that someone turned in last spring.  It’s was the focus question for the sermon last week, and it is the focus question for the sermon today. The Advent readings, especially early in the season, lend themselves exactly to questions like this. 
So here it is: Should we follow the Lord because we love him or out of fear for what he will (or might) do if we don’t?
It may seem like a simple question with an obvious answer, but like we talked about last week, our hearts have had years of conditioning that keeps this question alive and burning inside of us.  
So let’s listen to Matthew, and to John, and to Jesus, and then to our hearts, and then to each other, as we work in this question… Should we follow the Lord because we love him or out of fear for what he will (or might) do if we don’t?
✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠
For Matthew, that might have really been a tough question.  Of all the Gospel storytellers, Matthew is the most likely to resonate with John the Baptist.  And yet, Matthew belongs to the Jesus movement, not to the John movement.  Matthew is a good Jewish Christian, who values obedience to the Jewish law and the ethical and ritual purity that comes through faithful following of the law. 
Matthew is the one who quotes Jesus as saying things like, “I did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”  Matthew is among those who believe that a day is coming when all the nations will be judged, when, as he tells it, they will be separated like sheep and goats, some to eternal reward and some to eternal punishment. 
So among all the Gospel storytellers, Matthew is the most likely to resonate with John the Baptist and with his fiery, end-of-the-world kind of preaching.  But Matthew didn’t join the John movement, which was still alive and well in his time. He was a leader of the Jesus movement.  So he is careful to tell the story from the perspective of the Jesus movement, which saw John merely as a forerunner of Jesus.  
He starts with the Mark version he has in hand and elaborates on the superiority of Jesus, who, for Matthew, fulfills John’s prophecy, pretty much the same way as he fulfills the Jewish law. 

And that’s what we get from the storyteller we call Matthew.  If Matthew’s Jewish Christianity had become predominate rather than the Gentile Christianity of Luke and John (especially Luke), we might all have a different perspective of John and Jesus. 

 ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠

But Gentile Christianity, as well as the modern “quest for the historical Jesus,” (the literary analysis by bible scholars which has begun to recover the Jesus of history, the Jesus as he was in his own time, before the memory of his life and teachings was projected and elaborated in different directions as we now have in our bible) - Gentile Christianity and the modern “quest for the historical Jesus” expose the contrast between the historical John and the historical Jesus. 
They see John and Jesus more like this…  John, on the one hand, still had one foot in the Old Covenant, where God was so often portrayed as jealous, vengeful, and as inclined to punish as to succor.  Many of the storytellers of the Hebrew history told of a God who punished Adam and Eve, Cain, Lot's wife, the people of Sodom, Noah, David, the Israelites, and on and on, up to the new era.  John also, from this perspective, seemed to suffer from his own lack of imagination to see how Messiah would deal with sin. John could only see lines separating good from evil, sheep from goats, wheat from chaff, and God punishing those on the wrong side. 

Jesus himself, on the other hand, 
took a different path.  Even though he was thoroughly Jewish, Jesus did not stick with the stream of Judaism he received from the one who had baptized him in the Joran River.  He forgave sins.  He ate with sinners. He stood by a notorious sinner when a righteous mob turned on her.  He touched the untouchable, healed the unworthy, loved his enemies and commended his people to do the same.

John expected Jesus to burn the wicked with "unquenchable fire."  
Instead, he died on the cross for them.  John expected Jesus to hold a "winnowing fork," not a loaf of bread.  He saw Jesus taking an ax to fruitless trees, rather than giving the tree one more chance, as Jesus put it in one of his parables. 

In other words, 
from the perspective of the Gentile Christianity we know from storytellers like Luke at near the turn of the second century, and from the perspective of the Bible scholars who have uncovered the first century Jesus of history in our time, John had it exactly wrong  He didn't see what a break with the past Jesus represented.  John speaks to the hardness of our hearts. Jesus softens and changes our hearts. 

✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠

So there you have it:  Matthew’s version of a Jesus who fulfilled the spirit and the prophesy of John the Baptist,  and the version of the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus, in which Jesus is pretty much the opposite of John the Baptist, and which is more like the version of early Gentile Christianity. 
For better or for worse, even the church of Gentile Christianity soon enough began to resemble John more than Jesus.  Driven by the institutional need for uniformity and control, the early church, particularly in the West, soon enough began to turn to fear and guilt, and a heavy emphasis on sin, as the way motivate its flock and keep everyone in line. 
To this day, we lose touch with the radical Jesus who, although he never thought of himself as anything other than Jewish, represented an outrageous break with the past. Jesus actually disrupted that "old time religion" - and still does. 
He spurned tradition, created a cadre of change agents and insisted that all things become new.  While we value continuity, elevate historic tradition, reward pillars of stability, fight to prevent change, and use fear and guilt to keep each other in line. 

✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠ ✠

So where does that leave you? After listening to Matthew, to John, to Jesus, to second century Gentiles to modern day scholars, and to the institutional church, what do we hear when we listen to our own hearts?  What do we hear when we listen to each other? 
Let’s take a minute to see.  After a moment of quiet, let’s share what touches us from the Gospel reading for today, or from the question - Should we follow the Lord because we love him or out of fear for what he will (or might) do if we don’t?  What are your thought or feelings or observations?  Where does this touch you?  


What came to me in my personal reflection, was that there is a natural tension between the language of responsibility and the language of grace.  I think that John the Baptist probably had an understanding and appreciation of grace.  And I think that Jesus had an understanding and appreciation of responsibility. 

Here is a story from a contemporary author, William Muehl, that puts grace and responsibility together for me in an interesting way: 
One December afternoon… a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school 
waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class session.  As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands the “surprise,” the brightly wrapped package on which he had been working diligently for two weeks. 
One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents, all at the same time, slipped and fell.  The “surprise” flew from his grasp, landed on the floor and broke with an obvious ceramic crash.  
The child… began to cry inconsolably.  His father, trying to minimize the incident and comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, “Now, that’s all right sone.  It doesn’t matter.  It really doesn’t matter at all.” 
But the child’s mother, somewhat wiser in such situations, swept the boy into her arms and said, “Oh, but it does matter.  It matters a great deal.” And she wept with her son. 
Responsibility says that what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone, does matter.  That is matters a great deal. 

Grace weeps with us. 

Unto God be worship and power, dominion and splendor, for ever and ever.  Amen.