Tag Archives: Cynthia Bourgeault

Lent Lesson #3: Why? Love.

A Sermon for 11 March 2018


A reading from the gospel of John 3:1-21.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.   16 “For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!


On Wednesday night, six of us spent a little over two hours together with about 200 other people at the Enrichment Center of First Presbyterian Church, Nashville.  After donning a hairnet and sanitizing our hands, we entered the gym for a short prayer.  Then, the high-energy, full-of-facts Rise Against Hunger organizer took the microphone.  Before explaining in about 5 minutes exactly how we were going to pack 20,000 meals in a short two hours, he told us why we were doing what we were about to do.  He told us:  “815 million people worldwide don’t get the food they need to live a healthy life.  66 million primary school-age children across the developing world attend classes hungry.  Malnutrition in all its forms – from wasting to obesity – directly affects one in three people.”  He told us too that “Rise Against Hunger has a goal to end hunger worldwide by 2030” (https://www.riseagainsthunger.org/understanding-hunger/world-hunger-facts/).  Why we were there was to pack the plentiful food we have here to be sent to those worldwide who do not have enough.  Our efforts and daily efforts by organizations like Rise Against Hunger and others, are working towards the goal of ensuring that from the year 2030 on, no one on this planet again will suffer from hunger.  Indeed, it is a lofty goal to accomplish in the next 12 years, but if efforts get duplicated daily like the ones of the helping hands we saw in one place one night this week; I think we have a shot to make it!

As I reflected upon the experience, I realized that it would have been easy on Wednesday night for our Rise Against Hunger instructor simply to demonstrate how we were supposed to pack the sealed food bags.  Then let us get to work!  With something like 200 excited people from the ages of 4 years old to at least 80 ready to get going, he could have skipped the stories of the families he has met who have only salted clay cakes with which they try to quell the pangs of hunger in their empty bellies.  He didn’t have to tell us that the world produces enough food to be eaten per person each day as the equivalent of something like 17 Big Macs per person per day – if only food was distributed properly worldwide.  He didn’t even have to tell us that Rise Against Hunger is partnering with other global hunger-relief organizations to bring an end to hunger everywhere by 2030.  He could have just told us to put the flavor pack in the bottom of the plastic bag, add a mug-full of crushed soy next, one small scoop of the vegetable mix, the cup of rice on top, to be measured to between 3.89-3.94 ounces, sealed securely so nothing gets out or in in transit, then placed in the boxes for shipping.  We’re famous in the church for jumping right to the how, without remembering that if we do not connect the why of any action to the how, sustainable efforts are likely to fail.

Why do we do any of it?  Why show up to pack meals, or attend a potluck after worship to discover our talents for ministry, or even gather to worship at all?  Why commit to a life of faith when faithfully following the way of Christ is a daily challenge to our time, our ethics, our check books, and our choices?  Why keep trying when our efforts seem lost on a younger generation and the challenges of finding ways to be relevant as a people of faith today appear to be dauntingly hard work?  Why start with the why at all?

In the lengthy gospel of John reading we heard today, Jesus clarifies the why.  Why he even is here.  . . .  A wise man of faith comes to see Jesus one night.  It’s not really clear why he seeks him out, but he must have been curious.  Curious to know more about the one that just put the Temple in an uproar at Passover when, in a burst of great passion, he cleared out the money changers, animals, and coins.  Nicodemus comes to him to state:  “we know you are a teacher from God, for none can do as you do apart from God’s Presence.”  Jesus launches into an esoteric proclamation about needing to be born from above – or as some translations read:  needing to be born anew.  As one great teacher hears in the concrete literal realm, the other great teacher waxes eloquently on a whole different level.  Born of the Spirit, Jesus says.  As mysteriously as wind that blows, though where it starts and where it stops, who can know?  It’s passages like this that remind us that Jesus was less like a common carpenter and more like a sage among his people. Unlike a regular instructor, he stood his ground in the tradition of great Wisdom teachers.  Gurus they’re called in India.  Shaman’s in indigenous cultures.  Moshels, in the Near East – including in Judaism itself:  ones who teach wisdom for the transformation of the whole human being (The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault, Shambhala, 2008; p. 23).  If we can’t see that, we’ll end up as confused as Nicodemus by Jesus’ words.  We’ve got to be born anew – initiated onto a path that changes us a little bit more each day.  Deepening our trust in God.  Increasing our willingness to follow.  Walking more and more to the Light so that that in us that is contrary to God daily will diminish.

But why, we might be thinking.  Why?  . . .  In what may be one of the most famous verses among Christians, Jesus tells us why – why we do any of it.  John 3:16 part A:  “For God so loved the world.”  And I’m going to stop it there.  Too long the tradition has focused on the latter half of the verse, thinking it the reason why.  Making the promise of some sort of reward here and now and forever yet to be the motivating factor of faith.  Like domesticated pets who perform on command in order to be given a treat; we’ve long lived as if an eternal reward is what Christianity is all about.  When we keep our focus on part A of 3:16, human beings retain dignity while God remains something so much bigger than One doling out eternal treats.  The why of it all is A:  for God so loved the world.

Love is the reason for it all.

As the story goes, it might seem a little ridiculous for love to be the reason for it all.  Why love a world prone to wander?  Why keep covenant with a people who too often turn their backs – and I’m not just talking about all the sinners out there.  Why would God continue to love ones such as us?  Ones settled in our ways and satisfied – kinda – with going through the motions of our days.  Though it’s easier to bring to mind people out there who don’t even seem to be trying, we know ourselves – and all the ways we’re really not that loveable.  Why would God keep on loving the mess which is us?  Another John on another occasion sincerely wrote these words, 1 John 4:7-12:  “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way:  God sent God’s only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent the Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”  It goes like this, in the words of the translation of the bible called The Message:  “My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God.  Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God.  The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know God if you don’t love.  This is how God showed love for us:  God sent the Son into the world so we might live through him.  This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once-upon-a-time loved God, but that God loved us and sent the Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.  My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other.  No one has seen God, ever.  But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and God’s love becomes complete in us—perfect love!”

Why we do any of it is LOVE.  Why we love one another – which doesn’t mean turning our cheek to let any old behavior in ourselves or another go.  That’s not love, to be so passively disinterested in all of us living our best lives for God.  We love ourselves, each other, and those beyond the walls of this facility because God loves the world.  Because God is love; therefore, we love as deeply as God loves.  We pack meals for the hungry around the world because God loves every one of us – those who hoard and those hunger.  We gather at a potluck to discover our talents for ministry because God loves for our talents to be used for God’s purposes in this world.  God loves those who will benefit from the ways we use our talents.  We invest ourselves in ministry in this community – with the families who bring their children for Playcare, the people who live beside us in this neighborhood, and those who spend their days in Hillwood-West Meade at work, study, and play because God loves them.  God has called us to be a church for this community because God loves this community.  We are here to enact that love.  We don’t have to do everything – but we do have to do something – the something that enlists our talents to embody God’s love from this place.  We’ll get to the how – we Christians are a savvy people who throughout history have figured it out.  But let us remember every day the why:  the why of all of it:  love.  God’s love.  Abiding love for all the world.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018

Not of this World?

A Sermon for 22 November 2015 – Christ the King Sunday

A reading from the gospel of John 18:33-37. We break into the portion of the gospel when Jesus has been brought before Pilate to be condemned to crucifixion. Already Pilate has been outside to talk to the religious leaders who have brought Jesus to the local Roman ruler. And Pilate’s wondered if this man isn’t innocent. He returns to his headquarters to speak to Jesus directly. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!


There’s a couple in my new neighborhood who have been really welcoming to me. The first day when I was moving in some boxes, they walked by and made a point to introduce themselves. Then a few weeks ago they stopped in to tell me of an upcoming neighborhood potluck. I didn’t know for sure where they lived until one morning when I passed by a house and the man was outside doing something to his car. He’s always so chipper – no matter the early hour. It’s impressive to me as I barely am awake most mornings when I’m out there walking my dog. One day I noticed a sticker on the back window of their car. It reads: “Not of this world.” . . . I’ve been a little confused as to what exactly they intend with their sticker. Especially because it’s on the back window of their sleek, silver Infiniti, which leaves me wondering if they bought the car to keep themselves focused on infinity, as in eternity; or if they really are focused on a luxury vehicle and the sticker is just an after-thought.

I’m not so sure I like the sticker – what with a long Christian history of abuse of physical matter in this world due to misguided understandings of God. After all, if spirit was all good and matter was all bad, God never would have created physical matter. This beautiful earth with all its creatures including us, who are an interesting elixir of spirit and matter. The breath of God breathed into the soil of the earth, according to the Genesis 2 telling of it (Genesis 2:7). If the world was all bad and the spirit was all that was good, then certainly God wouldn’t have taken on our physical flesh in Jesus the Christ. I know we focus a lot on his death and resurrection, but he really was a living human being – like each one of us. It must have been so cool to be him – excited each day to wake up in a home with parents around him, and feet to put on the ground, and taste buds to take in that first sip of whatever it was he’d drink each morning. He finally had ears to hear the sweet songs of the birds and muscles to feel the strain of physical labor – the wood in his hands as he worked alongside his dad. He could feel the hot sun on his back as they built and notice the beautiful colors as it began to set each night. He had a brain to think and try to keep calm. And a heart beating in the center of his chest with which he could feel the full range of human emotions. I do believe that if God didn’t value the physical stuff of this world – including all the stuff of human flesh, then God never would have chosen to be in-fleshed among us in Jesus the Christ. . . . I don’t like stickers that lead people to believe that the matter of this world somehow needs to be escaped. Because we wouldn’t need to waste any time on Advent and Christmas if that was the case. . . . For God so loved this world, God in Christ came to us in a new and wonderful way!

It’s Christ the King Sunday – the final Sunday of the liturgical year. It’s the culmination of the cyclical story that takes us in Advent through the waiting, waiting, waiting for God to act among us in a new way, to the in-breaking of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem, to his radical way of living among us which led directly to his death but could not be the end for a God who is Life and would start something amazing among us through the Spirit so that we would grow together in this world to walk that same radical path of love. Today we remember Christ is King! He reigns supreme with the strongest power known in the universe. Not force, in which the powers of this world put all their hope; but love.

This year in the Christ the King lectionary, we’re taken right to the judgment seat of Pilate. Here in the gospel of John a seemingly private conversation between Jesus and Pilate is recorded. . . . It might be helpful to remember that John is the latest written gospel and it begins with that beautiful poetry of “In the beginning” (John 1:1-14). There was God. There was Word. There was Spirit and the outflow of their love created the world. The continuing outflow of their love caused it to be that Word would take on flesh to dwell among us. . . . Jesus attempts to explain this to Nicodemus when Nicodemus comes to him in the shadow of night trying to understand what Jesus might be up to. As the gospel of John records the story, it’s the first teaching of Jesus and it begins like this: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3). If you’re scratching your head going: “Huh?” Don’t be alarmed. Supposedly Nicodemus was a part of those who devoted their whole lives to understanding God and he’s just as confused as the next.

In her book entitled The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind, Cynthia Bourgeault makes the case that Jesus isn’t just the Savior of the world – here to die and be raised to new life for us, as we’ve primarily come to emphasize in the Christian tradition of the West. Jesus also is a wisdom teacher – one among us to perk our consciousness that we might come to know how to live. How to follow the path of his Way. It’s why so much of what Jesus teaches is hard for us to grasp. People seek to take him at face value like he’s a teacher who rattles off fact after concrete literal fact. When wisdom teachers speak, according to Bourgeault, “pithy sayings, puzzles, and parables” all for the sake of the transformation of the human being (The Wisdom Jesus, p. 23). Bougeault points out that much of Western Christianity has seen the kingdom of God in one of two different ways. She writes: “A lot of Christians . . . assume that the Kingdom of Heaven (or of God) means the place where you go when you die – if you’ve been good.” . . . Others “equate the Kingdom of Heaven with an earthly utopia . . . a realm of peace and justice, where human beings live together in harmony and fair distribution of economic assets” (Ibid., p. 30). I’ve heard of both, haven’t you? In fact, one or the other, or both, seem the concern of Pilate. He’s Rome’s representative in Jerusalem, after all. If Jesus is a King, he needs to know if the Caesarea has anything to be worried about.

As Jesus stands before Pilate, he’s asked: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33). In the vein of a true teacher of wisdom, Jesus turns back the question on the questioner: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (John 18:34). He might as well have been saying: “What do you think, Pilate? You see the leaders out there wanting to do me in. Am I the King of the Jews?” Insisting Jesus reveal his crimes, Jesus finally tells Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. That’s easy enough to see or else my followers would be here storming the gates to free me. Using the very same force Rome and the powers of this world rely upon” (John 18:36). . . . I wish the gospel writer would have used a word other than the same one used in the rest of the gospel of John. Like instead of saying: “The Word was in the world, and the world came into being through him . . . And for God so loved the world” (John 1 & 3); I wish the word on Jesus’ lips before Pilate would have been translated society. Culture. Even way, as in: “my kingdom is not like your way.” Anything to keep us from thinking that Jesus wants nothing to do with the physical stuff of this world. His kingdom is not of this world in the sense of the norms, rituals, and values of so much of our society. But it is right here and now; in this world. . . . He says it himself when elsewhere the Pharisees ask him when the Kingdom of God will arrive. Luke 17:20-21 records his answer as: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed . . . for in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.” . . . In Putting on the Mind of Christ, Jim Marion suggests a third way to think about it. He concludes that the kingdom of God might just be “a metaphor for a state of consciousness . . . a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place” . . . an awareness that sees no separation between God and humans, and humans and other humans. (The Wisdom Jesus, pp. 30-31). It’s a Oneness. A mutual indwelling, which Jesus tells his followers about a few chapters earlier in the gospel of John when they gather together that fatal night. He tells them: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you . . . abide in me” (John 14:20; 15:4). When we’re aware of that kind of oneness – when we’re living that kind of unified sense, then the kingdom of God indeed is in us.

I want to believe that’s how my new neighbors mean it as they dash around the neighborhood in their Infiniti. It could be the source of the man’s cheeriness every morning. For maybe when he greets me, he realizes I’m no stranger. Not some other who moved into the house one of his dear friends had to move out of in order to sell it. Maybe he sees us as one. Knows we’re not of this world because we’re in Christ and Christ in us; which makes us foreigners really to the ways propped up as heroic in the society in which we live. Maybe we’re both celebrating today that Christ is King – the One reigning in the kingdom that is present in us each and every day because we are citizens first of that Way. I want to believe we’ve both heard that truth from the lips of the One who deeply loves the physical, living matter of this world – you and me and all this precious earth. The One who shows us how to live in this world as ones not of this world. That’s Christ our King.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)