Scripture Readings: Genesis 18:1-15, Luke 18:15-17
If I say that an open church requires open minds and open hearts, most Christians will readily agree. Certainly, Christians should be open-minded rather than judgmental and should welcome strangers including people of different ethnic origins and social classes. All that's left to discuss is where we draw the line, as to how open-minded and inclusive we are. Right? Wrong!
Having an open mind is not the same as being tolerant or even inquisitive, although both are important. The Bible calls us to open our minds to God.
This is the key to the riddle of what "opening our hearts" means. The challenge is not so much welcoming those who are different from us, although that is a challenge and central to the church’s calling. The greatest challenge is opening our hearts to God, who is manifested in the world as it is – not just in the spiritual, loving and beautiful aspects of our world.
It isn't really hard to look for God, and to think that we've found God, in what is inspiring or wondrous or morally uplifting. In fact, this is where all religion promises that we will find God. But the Bible urges us to open our hearts to God as we walk the everyday, material path of life. In the Bible we encounter God where we least expect, not just in a spiritual or supernatural world. This is why opening our hearts to God is an extraordinary challenge.
Consider the story in Genesis 18:1-15. Strangers approach the oaks of Mamre, where Abraham's tent is pitched, and Abraham warmly welcomes them. In a way that is not explained, the LORD is present among these visitors, but Sarah is not impressed. When Sarah hears from the LORD that she will give birth in her old age, she laughs. (This is one of the few humorous moments in the Bible. Sarah is laughing at God, and we are laughing at her, because we know she will give birth to Isaac.) Might we discover God in Sarah’s laughter? Here’s the LORD, walking around, visiting an old man, and arguing with his old lady. :) The passage is meant to be funny.
Life is full of the unexpected, of disappointments, and of surprising delights. If our hearts are open, we might both laugh at life and find God in our laughter, as well as in our lives.
In the New Testament Jesus "stiffs" religion to use the slang of our time. He rebels against the religious rules that constrain the spiritual path. By throwing moneychangers out of the temple, Jesus disrupts the religious practice of the holiest place in the Jewish world. His point is not that collecting money from worshippers is corrupting religion. And it's a good thing this isn't his point, as we do the same every Sunday! (Laughter? I hope so.) His point is that the temple is not where God will be found.
We have to open our hearts! In the New Testament Jesus is not promoting religion, and if he is promoting spirituality it is a spiritual path walked in the material world. Jesus does not organize prayer retreats or teach meditation techniques. Moreover, he only tells his disciples how to pray when they ask, and he does not explain how his disciples are to organize worship on Sunday.
What does he do? Jesus heals, he hangs out with social outcasts, tax-collectors, and women, he teaches, and he debates and confronts religious and political leaders. With our minds, we understand why Jesus is reaching out to those who have been rejected. Jesus is "being God" to people who feel condemned and cut off from God. Yet, what we don't understand is that Jesus is finding God in these "unspiritual" and "non-religious" folk – and so showing us the way to God!
In Luke 18:15-17, and also in Matthew 19:13-15 and Mark 10:13-16, Jesus teaches that to enter the kingdom of God we need to be like children. In first century Palestine children were worthless, except to their parents. In the story mothers bring their children to Jesus to be touched and blessed. But the disciples knew "the God business" has nothing to do with the dirty, crying kids these equally worthless women are pressing on Jesus. Wisdom and spirituality, as we well know, are for discerning adults.
In the first century, however, wisdom and spirituality were for "discerning" men. So what does Jesus do? He heals women and allows women to touch him, travels with women as well as men, teaches women, and includes women as well as men in his ministry. Moreover, Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God by using images from the world of women's work – water, earth, dough, home. (Mk. 4:1-9, 26-29, 30-32; Mt. 13:24-30, 33, 44-46; Lk. 13:20-21, 15:8-10, 19:12-27)
We are misled, if we think that "the kingdom of God" is like an earthly kingdom with a male sovereign. The Hebrew behind this phrase means the "reigning" of God – which is what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer when we say "thy will be done." That’s the "kingdom of God."
The teaching of Jesus undermines the traditional religious view that the rule of God is a patriarchal hierarchy with God as the celestial CEO and ranks of spiritual men carrying out orders. The Bible does at times depict God as ruling a court of divine beings in heaven. But in the New Testament, Jesus argues that God’s kingdom is present on earth – in common tasks like cleaning, cooking and parenting.
Jesus prays to God as "Abba" – an Aramaic word meaning father. Jesus directs prayers to Abba to free us from our earthly fathers – and from the patriarchal "rule" of our religious, social and political institutions.
In three of the New Testament gospels Jesus says that those who follow him are a new family – his mother, brothers and sisters. (Mk. 3:31-35, Mt. 12:46-48, Lk. 8:19-21) Jesus omits the image of "father" from this family of faith, except for God as father (Abba). God as the only "father figure" enables the family of faith to be new – to be non-patriarchal, egalitarian, simply human. This is the spiritual path of the Christian Bible. This is where God is to be found! Not in patriarchal structures of religion, family, and state. Instead, in daily life and in human love.
The message is shocking! The first shall be last. The divine is human. Heaven is on earth. The kingdom of God is within us. Here. In the world. In our lives. Now. May we open our hearts. May we open our hearts…and laugh! Amen.