Friday, January 29, 2021

Movie with a Message - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - Sermon for Week ending January 30, 2021


The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, was released in 2012, with an all-star cast, including Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. I think it is a wonderful movie, full of humanity and soul. There’s also a sequel, which came out in 2015 and is almost as good. As we saw in the clip, the movie is about a group of seniors who go to Jaipur, India to live out their years in what is described as a luxury hotel for the elderly and beautiful. Each of them is at a crossroads and needs to make a change in order to survive and hopefully thrive. Evelyn’s husband has just died, and his debts wiped out their life savings, so her flat has to be sold. Her son invites her to live with him and his family, but she doesn’t want that. After 40 years with an overbearing husband who made all the decisions, she wants some independence and a chance to make her own decisions. Graham is a London high court judge who dreads being put out to pasture as he has seen  happen to his colleagues. Douglas and Jean have been disappointed in their search for assisted living, because they can’t afford what they would like to have.  Muriel, a former live-in housekeeper, needs a new hip, but there is a 6-month waiting list and it is very expensive. Her doctor tells her about a partnership they have where she can have it done in India immediately for an affordable price. Of course, when they get to Jaipur, they find that the actual Best Exotic Marigold Hotel bears little resemblance to what was advertised. But after meeting the always positive manager, Sonny, they decide to stay and try to make it work. The movie could have easily become a farce here, “The misadventures of old people on a romp through India,” But it doesn’t. It doesn’t stereotype its characters. It shows them as real, imperfect people facing disappointment, finding romance, growing, and changing. It has so many great themes. The primary one, I think, is the different ways that people in their 70s and 80s approach and deal with a new, unfamiliar life change, country, and culture. India, where most of the movie was filmed, is its own character in the movie, a magical, modern place that is a riot of noise and color. Evelyn, who has never held a job, is the one who embraces her new life the fastest.  She has to get a job to make ends meet, so she applies for one at a call center. Initially disappointed when her interviewer tells her that it is a place for ambitious young people, she gets hired as a cultural adviser, teaching the young callers how to talk to old people on the phone. She loves the noise and the crowds of the city. She even writes a daily blog about it, saying shortly after they arrived, “Old habits die easier than you think, and new ones form. Initially you are overwhelmed, but gradually you realize it’s like a wave. Dive into it, and you’ll swim out the other side. This is a new world. The challenge is not just to cope, but thrive.”  Two others embrace the culture of India very quickly. Douglas visits temples and palaces and indulges in the cuisine. Graham, who grew up in India, plays cricket with the children in the street, and when he’s asked what he finds so wonderful about Jaipur, he replies, “All life is here.” Attitude and willingness to grow and change make all the difference. These three thrive here. It becomes their home more than England ever was. For Muriel, the change was difficult.  She was the oldest of the group, and openly xenophobic.  As soon as she got her new hip, she wanted to go back to England. But she had no one there. Her change in attitude started when,  unaware of the rules and traditions of the caste system, she began to talk with the woman who brought her food, who was an untouchable. The woman was so grateful for her acknowledgement, she invited her to meet her family, and she and Muriel became friends.  Jean, Douglas’s wife, barely tries to embrace India and its culture. To her, it is poverty and squalor. She sits at the hotel all day, becoming more and more negative. And she is the one of the group who goes back to England. One of them dies, and the rest become a family. Before, like many old people, they had been made to feel like they had nothing left to contribute to society. But here, they find purpose and community. These characters speak to me and inspire me as a newish senior. You all inspire me too. I agree that attitude is everything. We can be angry and negative and refuse to grow, or we can be positive and see the possibilities for new adventure, friends, and purpose. I hope to follow that way, going forward and grabbing all the life and purpose I can. The movie ends with Evelyn narrating a blog entry about what they have learned on their journey so far.  She says, “The only real failure is the failure to try. The measure of success is how we cope with disappointment, as we always must. But it is also true that the person that risks nothing does nothing, has nothing. We came here and we tried. All of us in our different ways.  We get up in the morning. We do our best.  All we know about the future is that it will be different. Perhaps what we fear is that it will be the same. So we must celebrate the changes every day.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Sermon On The Mount 4 - Sermon for Week ending January 23, 2021

Gospel Reading

From Matthew, chapters 6 and 7.
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 
Do not judge. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?
Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.
In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the law and prophets.


Today, we are completing our sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew with Jewish Scholar Amy-Jill Levine, who reads it as Jesus’ interpretation of Jewish Law. The disciples are Jesus’ audience, and his teachings and insights here are meant to guide them as they live in the new community that they are creating together, a community that Jesus calls the Kingdom or kindom of heaven. I think kindom is a more accurate description as it is nothing like kingdoms, which are both hierarchical and patriarchal. Instead, it is a family, where members depend on one another, where they treat each other with kindness, and where the priorities are equality and justice. The teachings bless, challenge, inspire, comfort, and make uncomfortable. They encourage listeners to take inventory. To ask,   “What’s important? And what’s less important? What do we want to be known for?  What pulls us in different directions? and How better do we focus?” These teachings and insights are also for us, as followers of Jesus, as we seek to create and inhabit the kind of community that Jesus describes. I chose 3 of the 12 instructions and explanations  that Jesus gives in Matthew, chapters 6 and 7, the end of the Sermon on the Mount, which are in our gospel reading. The first is “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” Levine tells us that Jesus is not attempting to wipe out worry. He is making the point that in this community they are building, there is no reason to worry about not having food or clothes to wear, because they are committed to sharing what they have with each other. They forgive debt and don’t judge anyone on what they wear or how much or little they spend on food. Which brings us to the second lesson, “Do not judge. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” The reason Jesus gives for not judging each other is that we do not know what is in someone else’s heart. Levine says that the importance of these verses was brought home to her from her students at Riverbend maximum security prison in Nashville. They were always there to remind her that their crime was not the sum total of who they are, and ask her, “Would you want to be judged by the worst thing you have ever done in your life?” Judging each other is not our call. Instead, Jesus says, we should attend to our own blind spots, to improve our own thoughts and actions, to heal our own brokenness. Number 3 is “Beware of false prophets.” You will know the difference between real prophets and false prophets by their fruit, by what they do. False prophets preach but don’t practice. They use their power for personal gain. “They substitute charisma for good works And promises for concrete action.” Later in Matthew, Jesus says that False prophets produce great signs and omens to lead people astray. We witnessed a little over two weeks ago how people who are so easily swayed by promises and conspiracy theories followed false prophets who used lies to get them to do their bidding, leading them into a situation of lawlessness that had deadly results and left a stain on our country. The apostle Paul describes good fruit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And we saw and heard threads of them reach into our world this past Wednesday, in the voicing of a vision of hope for a new day, a new world, which prioritizes loving and doing for others. President Biden, in his address, said, “We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility. If we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes just for a moment.” Vice-President Harris said, “We not only dream, we do. We not only see what has been, we see what can be.” And no one, in my opinion, expressed this vision more eloquently or with more wisdom than 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, in her poem, “The Hill we Climb.” She said, “We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all. We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. Our people diverse and beautiful will emerge, battered and beautiful. When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid, the new dawn balloons, as we free it. For there was always light. If only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it.” All of Jesus’ teachings, and the teachings of most religions, have as their basis, The Golden Rule, which we read in Matthew 7, verse 12: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Love your neighbors, all your neighbors, as you love yourself, and love yourself. We are all part of the family of God. We are blessed. We are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. The kingdom of heaven is available to us here and now. May we be co-creators and co-inhabitants of this community in our time, as Jesus and the disciples were in theirs

Friday, January 15, 2021

Sermon On The Mount 3 - Sermon for Week Ending January 16, 2021

Gospel Reading 

 from Matthew 5: 13-16   (The Message translation)

“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.

 “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God.


We are continuing our series on the book, The Sermon on the Mount by Jewish Scholar Amy-Jill Levine, who reads the sermon in the gospel of Matthew as Rabbi Jesus’ interpretation of Torah, Jewish Law. She points out the echoes of Israel’s scriptures in the teachings and shows us how their threads reach through the whole New Testament. In today’s reading, Jesus gives the disciples more lessons about how to create and live in the new community that he calls the kingdom or kindom of heaven. In verse 13, he says, You are the salt of the earth. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, salt is a symbol of purity and wisdom. It was used by priests for anointing and for incense. In 2 kings, when Elisha saw that the water was impure, making the land unfruitful, he threw salt into the spring, making it wholesome and life-giving. In first century Palestine, the monthly payment to the Roman soldiers was in salt. So it was valuable.

Salt is an enhancer in food. So teaching and living the gospel enhances the world. As The Message translation says, it brings out the God flavors.  And both Jesus and the Old Testament writers emphasized the living part, not just words, but actions. Salt loses its saltiness when it is diluted by unnecessary things;   and too much salt is worse than not enough. Levine says, “Oversalted pastors give sermons that point to themselves, and oversalted disciples are egotistical, seeking their own reward.” Disciples who are the salt of the earth do their work not for the purpose of calling attention to themselves, but to brighten and make more alive everything and everyone around them. They recognize that their value doesn’t lie in who they are, or in what position they hold, but in what they contribute to the world. In verse 14, Jesus tells the disciples that they are the light of the world. And that their being this light means that this community they are creating will fulfill the promise God made to Israel through the prophet Isaiah, “I will give you as a light to the nations, a beacon of hope.” Lots of people do good works out of ego or for self-aggrandizement, saying, “look at me, I’m the light. I’m the city on the hill. Be like me.” We see it in the church all the time. And in the government. I personally think that John Winthrop’s declaration in 1630 that America would be the city on the hill was the beginning of our country arrogantly appointing ourselves to be the example for what the rest of the world should strive for, which led to our belief that we are exceptional; we are the chosen ones. Levine says that being the light without pointing it to ourselves can be complicated because it does involve going public. We can’t be an example if we stay in our closets. She points to the verse in Matthew 6, which says “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” and notes that Greek word dikaiosyne, which here is translated as piety, is most often translated as righteousness and justice. And that Jesus is saying that we should make sure that our righteousness is displayed for the sake of justice, not ourselves. It’s the motive that makes the difference, as we hear throughout the Sermon on the Mount. The threads of Jesus’ teachings stretch to us. We saw them in Dr. King, the Civil Rights Movement and the Poor People’s Campaign, which served to point out injustice in the world rather than point to themselves, and where their good works motivated others to help create a just world. We see it in Reverends Barber and Theoharris in the renewed Poor People’s Campaign. And In Black Lives Matter and the fight against voter suppression.  

When I was writing this,  I thought about who might be  the best modern example of actions over words, and shining the light not on herself  but on justice for others. Who comes close to being the kind of disciple that Jesus described? The person that came to mind is someone we don’t hear a lot about because she doesn’t travel around giving speeches, blowing her own horn, but she has spent her life doing good for others. Former first lady Rosalynn Carter. In the formation of the Carter Center, she used the foundation to advance developments in mental health, human rights, and poverty. She initiated the symposium on mental health at the center to focus and coordinate efforts on key issues, including mental illness in the elderly, children, and adolescents; treating mental illness in the primary care setting, and removing the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. And it is still ongoing 35 years later. She launched one of the most successful ever international programs to combat the stigma of mental illness, and called for creating equity for mental illness in our healthcare system with her book, Within our reach: Ending the mental health crisis, describing the current system as one that “continues to fail those in need.” At age 93, Mrs. Carter’s most recent work is for caregivers, through the institute for caregiving at her alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University. Its purpose is to “identify the unmet needs of family caregivers and resolve our caregiver crisis.” She does so much more, Including building houses for Habitat for Humanity. To me, Rosalynn Carter is the epitome of servant leadership, doing good works for others without seeking recognition. She uses her own privilege to help those who don’t have the resources she has. She does it all quietly, without fanfare, with the determination and humility of the disciples whom Jesus called blessed, those he chose to help create a new community, of love and compassion and justice and equality. May we seek to follow his example and hers, so that we too can bring out the God flavors and God colors in our world.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Sermon On The Mount 2 - Sermon for Week Ending January 9, 2021

Reading 1 

From Matthew, chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Reading 2

From "The Sermon On The Mount" by Amy-Jill Levine. 

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, who interprets Torah, offers wisdom sayings on how to live the way God wants, and provides practical instruction. As we read it, we understand how Jesus’ Jewish context and Jewish message help us make more sense of his teaching, and get a better sense of how his teachings would have resonated with his first followers, even as we see how this very Jewish message could have easily been transported to the Gentile (that, is Pagan) world. As always, we do not need to make Judaism look bad in order to make Jesus look good. And if we know the context, we can see that Jesus is even wiser and more profound than we might have imagined.  


We are continuing our series on The Sermon on the Mount by Jewish Scholar Amy-Jill Levine.

I like the book so much that I splurged and bought The Jewish Annotated New Testament by Levine and fellow Jewish scholar Marc Brettler, so I’m pretty sure you will be hearing much more about the Jewishness of Jesus and the echoes of Israel’s scriptures in his teachings. As we heard in the reading, Levine reads the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew as Rabbi Jesus’ interpretation of Torah, Jewish Law. She points out Israel’s scriptures in his teachings, and shows how the threads of the teachings reach through the whole gospel. Last time, we looked at the first 2 beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kindom of heaven,” and “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” And we saw how differently they can be interpreted when we read them through the lens of a Jewish rabbi,  rather than the Christian church. I find Levine’s insight into the third part of the sermon, which is our gospel reading for today, the verses that begin with, ‘You have heard that it was said, but I tell you,” even more interesting, because it is the opposite of what I learned these statements meant growing up in a fundamentalist church. There, we were taught that Jesus came to save the Jews, to offer an alternative to Judaism, (even though he clearly says that’s not his purpose.)  In many modern translations of the New Testament, these verses are still labeled antitheses, which is what we called them back then, but Levine shows us that they are not. Jesus’ words are not opposite of the Law of Moses. They are extensions. He extends it by getting to the fundamentals that motivate the actions presented. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment,’ but I say to you, ‘if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, first be reconciled with them, and then come offer your gift.’” This extension to the commandment gets to its roots. Anger, resentment, refusing to forgive, are what lead to murder. So stop them when they come up. Don’t wait for them to lead to something worse. Rabbinic Judaism calls what Jesus is doing, Building a fence around Torah. Just as a fence around a house protects what is inside, “the fence around the Torah protects the commandments by creating circumstances that make violation more difficult.” That’s what Jesus was attempting to do with his disciples in this new community they were building. He was teaching them how to make a world where angry thoughts don’t have the opportunity to lead to murder. In Verse 38, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” (this law is found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, and in each case, monetary compensation is spelled out for the offense). When he says, “But I tell you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” he is not dismissing the law. He is adding the teaching that violence can be stopped at its source, if, when you are humiliated, you neither strike back or cower. That won’t change the mind of the one who attacked you. Instead, he says, face the perpetrator and make their wrongness clear. Show them that humiliating you won’t work to their advantage. It will only make you stronger. We are reminded here of the scenes of bravery and steadfastness in the non-violent resistance that Dr. King and his followers demonstrated during the Civil Rights movement. And there are lessons for us today, as our world has become so angry, so hateful and so violent in thought and action. This past Wednesday morning, when I learned that Rafael Warnock, a black Baptist preacher from my home state of Georgia was elected to the United States senate, I realized that the threads of these teachings in The Sermon on the Mount have reached all the way to us. In his acceptance speech, he challenged all of us to stand up non-violently to the division and hatred in our country. He said, “We have a choice to make. Will we continue to divide and dishonor one another? Or will we love our neighbors as we love ourselves? Will we play political games while real people suffer? Or will we win righteous fights together, for the good of our country. Will we seek to destroy one another as enemies, or heed the call towards the common good building together, what Dr. King called the Beloved Community?” That renewed my hope. It was temporarily dampened later that day, as we all witnessed the horrendous display of white supremacist violence at the Capitol, which revealed the worst of who we are as a country. But Milt and I had a long talk about everything that had happened, good and bad, and Wednesday night, the last night of our Book Club discussion of the book Caste, we talked about all that had happened, the good and the bad. How difficult the road ahead will be.  And I thought about John Lewis, of all that he was up against and how he never stopped trying to bring about change, and about Stacey Abrams, who took up the mantle and inspires us to do the same with her actions and her words. She said, “In these dark moments, when the work doesn’t seem worth it, and change seems out of reach, out of our willingness to push through, comes a tremendous power. Use it.” Let us use our collective power to continue the work, no matter how hard it is, until the kind of community that Jesus talked about in his sermon, and Dr. King talked about in his, a community defined by doing God’s will, which is engaging in loving mutual support for one another, is realized.  


New Vision and Progressive Christianity

 New Vision is a Progressive church. That doesn’t mean that you must be progressive to be a member here. It mainly means that your pastor an...