When the Spirit Speaks

On the sixth day of Sivan, seven weeks and one day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the day of Shavuot which the Hellenized Jews call Pentekosta, the streets of Jerusalem were filled with people from every tribe and nation, from the far reaches of the empire and beyond, some even from Cush, Iberia and Ethiopia, from Scythia and the Parthian empire.  Jews and proselytes, curious gentiles and ambitious traders had come from everywhere to be in the Holy City for the festival of the first fruits of spring and to remember the giving of Torah to Moses.  

The followers of Jesus were in the city, too, gathered all together in one place, in one room, waiting as Jesus had instructed, waiting for a signal, waiting for what was to come next.  Then suddenly the house where they were sitting was filled with a sound from heaven, a sound like a hurricane.  It filled the house and drove them to their feet while something that looked like tongues of fire danced between them until a flame seemed to alight on the head of each one of them.  They felt a presence swell up inside them and knew it was the Holy Spirit.  

The Spirit drove them out of the house and into the street where they began to speak to the crowd in languages they had never known as the Spirit spoke through them proclaiming the love and grace of God as it had been made known to them in Jesus the Christ.  They spoke of God’s works of power through Jesus, his feeding of multitudes, his healings, his teaching.  They spoke of how he welcomed strangers and touched lepers.  They spoke of how he challenged the self-righteous and embraced the neglected.

On the day of Shavuot, the Festival of Harvest which was also called Pentekosta, the day on which Moses had been give the Law, the Holy Spirit began to spread the good news of the Reign of God through Jesus, the Christ, across the empire of Caesar and beyond.

Now two millennia later, on the 31st day of May, on the day that Christians call Pentecost which is also called Whitsunday or Whitsun, we are not all together in one place.  We are not all together in one room, though we may be gathered in one ZOOM.  

This is a strange birthday for the Church as we begin to contemplate moving back into our facilities, our sanctuary, after months apart in our homes.  There are so many practical questions to consider.  Is it really safe yet?  Will our people be able to adapt to the new practices required for safe worship in this time of pandemic or will they revert to old, ways of doing things simply out of habit—ways which are now unsafe?  With all the restrictions and safeguards, is it even worth doing now?  Should we wait until there is a vaccine?   Those are all good questions.  Necessary questions.

But I have other questions.

What have we learned from this time of isolation?  How has the Holy Spirt spoken to us?  Was this, somehow, the work of the Holy Spirit—not the virus, to be clear—but the separation?  Was it the work of the Spirit to send us out of our sanctuary and into our homes for a time—a time of contemplation and reflection?  Have we used this time to reflect on what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ?  Have we used this time to listen to the Spirit, to discern what Christ is calling us to do and to become?  Are we listening now?

The Spirit has been speaking as always.  I’ve been hearing the Holy Spirt, not in the tongues of xenolalia or glossolalia, but in the everyday voices and silences of the congregation.  I’ve been hearing the Spirit and seeing the Spirit in phone calls, in prayer requests, in ZOOM meetings, in emails, in cards, letters and postcards, and on social media.  The Church is alive even if we are not all together in one place.  The church is open even if the building is closed.  The Spirit is still speaking.

On that first Pentecost the Spirit came upon them with the sound of a hurricane.  What kind of sound is the Spirit making now?

Sometimes, certainly, the Spirit speaks in silence.  The silence of our isolation.  The silence of our thoughts.  Sometimes in that silence the Spirit speaks to us with sighs too deep for words about our own lives and hearts and hopes and dreams.  As I listen to the Spirit in silence, I have been hearing the silence of a nation that has not yet grieved for 100,000 dead.

I believe, though, that there is also a sound that is carrying the presence of the Holy Spirit, a sound louder and deeper and broader than a hurricane and more turbulent than an earthquake, and yet often we seem deaf to it.  I wonder if we haven’t been sent out of our places of worship and into our homes so we could hear it better and learn to see the hand of God at work.  I wonder if our ears and minds and even our souls haven’t been so preoccupied with our hymns and liturgies and the pageantry of worship that we’ve been deaf and blind to the things the Spirit of God is engaged in, the things God is call us engage with.

At the beginning of creation the Spirit moved over the turbulent welter and waste of the waters to bring order out of chaos.  On this day of Pentecost is the sound of melting glaciers and rising seas the sound of the Spirit calling us to begin an era of re-creation, to take meaningful action in the battle against climate change?  Are we being called anew to fight pollution, to restore the earth, to cherish God’s creation?

In his day, the prophet Amos was filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to challenge the economic disparities of Israel and to predict catastrophe for the wealthy.  In a country where 10% of the households have 70% of the wealth, in a country where 40 million have filed for unemployment as businesses have closed due to the pandemic, where Wall Street seems disconnected from Main Street, is the Spirit calling us to reexamine our priorities and restructure our economic systems?

In an era when the people of Israel thought that all God cared about was religion done rightly and in the right place, the Holy Spirit spoke through Isaiah and later through Micah and said quite literally, “I do not want your bull.  Not while the poor are languishing.  Not while there is rampant injustice.  Take care of those in need.  Give justice where it has been subverted. Bring me a contrite spirit and a broken heart and then we’ll talk about worship.”  In a day when we get caught up in discussions about the propriety or impropriety of on-line communion, when we’re deep in discussions about when and how to open our sanctuaries, when the very issue of reopening our churches has become a political flash point and fodder for the political divide, is the Holy Spirit, maybe telling us to cool our jets, to make sure first that our ministries and priorities are in order, that our hearts are in the right place, and then we can talk about worship in our buildings?

On that first Pentecost the Holy Spirit used a sound like a hurricane and tongues of flame to move the followers of Jesus into the streets.  On this day of Pentecost there is another sound and another fire as the Spirit of God moves through our streets.  It is the sound of the grief, the anger, and frustration of those who have been unheard, a grief and anger long suppressed and now unleashed.  The flames are flames of rage that have long been suppressed in the hearts of our sisters and brothers of African descent.  It is the wail of mourning for George Floyd, for Ahmaud Aubrey, for Breonna Taylor, for Eric Garner, for Trevon Martin, for the 9 killed at Bible Study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church, for Emmett Till, and for countless others.  The raging wind we hear is the sound of millions of voices sighing together the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, that they as a people and as individuals, are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  It is the Spirit, the Breath of God, squeezed from a people who are crying out “I can’t breathe.”

When I listen to the Spirit at this time of Pentecost I hear all of this.  A voice says, “Cry out!” and I say “What shall I cry out?”  And I hear the Spirit say, “Fix This!”  

When I listen to the Spirit I hear the words of Jesus reading from the scroll in the synagogue, words we drank in with our baptism when his mission became ours: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.  The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to open the eyes of those who have been blinded by ugly ways of thinking, to liberate those who have been oppressed by hideous words and evil ideas, and to set the captives free.  Fix This.”

When I listen to the Spirit at this time of Pentecost I hear the narrative voice of the Gospel of John, words about Jesus that also became words about us in our communion: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to judge or condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved, healed, made whole through him.  Fix This.”

When I listen to the Spirit at this time of Pentecost that’s what I hear.  I hear the brokenness.  I hear the lament and anger.  

But I also hear the promise and the call of God.  I hear the reminder that we have been anointed, empowered and called by the Spirit to be God’s tools of healing and restoration.  I hear the Spirit calling us to fulfill the promise.  

I hear the Spirit saying Fix This.  Fix it in your heart and in your mind.  Then help others fix it in theirs.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, calling us to transform the flames of anger and fear into flames of love.  May the winds of lament become the breath of grace and kindness and healing.  And with the power of the Spirit, immersed in the love of Christ, we will fix this.

That’s what I hear.  

What do you hear?

A Prayer for Us

John 17:1-7

Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come…”

When I read those words they triggered an old song in my memory…

And now, the time has come

And so I face the final curtain…

Do you remember the song My Way?  Paul Anka took the melody of a popular French song, Comme D’habitude by French songwriter Jacques Revaux, and wrote English lyrics to fit the Revaux’s melody.  Anka wrote the English lyric, which has nothing at all to do with the French lyric, with Frank Sinatra in mind and it ended up becoming Sinatra’s signature song.  

My Way really struck a chord with my parents and a lot of people from their generation.  I have more than once had to gently discourage people from using it at a funeral or memorial service.  I mean, do you really want to meet your Maker with this as your walk-in music?  A little heavy on the hubris, don’t you think? 

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows
I took the blows
And did it my way
Yes, it was my way.

Okay, so 10 points for bravado and maybe the angels can use a good laugh.

But mercy!  Personally, I think it might be safer to go with Just as I Am Without One Plea or Amazing Grace. 

In the Gospel of John, on the night before his crucifixion Jesus sits down with his disciples for a long heart-to-heart.  Five chapters long. He has a lot to say before he goes.  In chapter 17, he ends this long discourse with a prayer. Sometimes it’s called the High Priestly Prayer or The Farewell Prayer.  Some call it The Other Lord’s Prayer.  The entire prayer is 26 verses long, the longest prayer Jesus prays in the gospels.

Everything Jesus asks for in this prayer is for the benefit of others.  Even the one thing he seems to ask for himself is for the greater glory of the Father: “Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.”  And the thing that you absolutely have to remember here is that in this context, in this prayer, the glorification Jesus is talking about is not the heavens opening and angels singing and great displays of power.  It’s the cross.  God will be glorified, Jesus will be glorified, in an act of self-sacrifice.

It’s pretty much the polar opposite of My Way.

Everything in his prayer is a reminder that he has been doing things God’s way.

Everything in his prayer is for someone else’s benefit; he prays for someone else or about someone else.

He prays that his disciples will know God, the only true God, and thereby have eternal life.

He prays that his disciples would know that he came from God to do God’s will and work.

He prays that they would know that they belong to God.

He prays that God would protect them.

He prays for their unity, that they would experience the same kind of unity that Jesus knows with God.

In the full version of the prayer he goes on to pray for those who will come to believe in the future because of the testimony of the disciples.  In other words, he prays for us.

He reminds us in this prayer that we were a gift from the Father to him and he, in turn, is giving us back to the Father.

He prays that we would be immersed in God and God in us and that we would be enveloped in the eternal relationship of love between Christ and God so that we might live in an unbreakable unity of heart and spirit.

I don’t know about you, buy my prayers look pretty pale compared to this model from Jesus. That’s to be expected, I suppose.  After all, he’s Jesus.

Still, when I take a serious look at my prayers there’s way too much My Way.

Even when I’m praying for others, I have a tendency to want to micromanage God.  And I know better.  I know I should begin my prayer by asking for guidance on how to pray.  It’s easy enough to ask, “Lord, how should I pray about this?” 

There is nothing wrong with telling God what we want.  Prayer is how we build a relationship with God and that relationship has to be honest.  And, hello, you can’t lie to God anyway because, well, God is God, so why fool yourself?   

If you don’t know what to say, St. Paul reminds us that the Spirit will speak for us even if all we have are “sighs too deep for words.” But sometimes we have too many words.  That’s when I need to remind myself that Jesus told us not to “pile up empty words” and that God knows what we need even before we ask.

But look again at what Jesus asks for in this prayer.  He asked that God would be honored. Then he prayed for us.  He asked that we would be protected.  And he asks that we would be unified with the same unity he experiences with the Father.

How often do we pray for those things?  

Jesus prayed for us.  How often do we pray for each other? Anne Lamott in her book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers wrote, “As it turns out, if one person is praying for you, buckle up. Things can happen.”

Jesus gives us a model here.  It’s a good template that we can use as a pattern for our own prayer. 

There are three dimensions to our prayers.  First, your prayer is your prayer.  It’s your conversation with God.  It’s the expression of your relationship with God.  You don’t have to make sure you’ve got all your ducks in a row before you have that conversation.  You don’t have to learn special language or a format or formula.  To quote Anne Lamott again, “Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.” 

Secondly, your prayer affects the community.  Jesus commands us to love each other.  That means praying for each other as a way to enact our love.  That’s an action that sends out ripples into the world—and we pray for the world, too, out of love.  

Thirdly, your prayer is transformative.  It will change you.  C.S. Lewis was asked by a friend if he thought his prayers changed God’s mind.  Lewis replied, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

Jesus prayed for us.  He didn’t pray to change God, he prayed that we might be changed.  He prayed that we might be one. He prayed that we might move past My Way to Our Way to God’s Way.

Anne Lamott suggests that Help, Thanks and Wow are the three essential prayers.  She’s right.  Those prayers are essential.  But I think I would add your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.

And make us one.  

In Jesus’ name.  

The Capo D’astro Bar

Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Back in the early 1960s a young copywriter named Bud Robbins was given an assignment to write an ad for the Aeolian Piano Company’s concert grand piano.  The ad was to be a full page in the New York Times.  The deadline was tight, and Bud had almost no information about the piano except for a few faded photos and copies of a previous ad, so he asked if he could go to the factory for more information.

“Oh, you’re one of those,” said the Account Executive.  Bud acknowledged that he was, indeed, ‘one of those,’ which resulted in getting him kicked up the food chain to a meeting with the head of the agency.  In that meeting he told the boss of his bosses that he not only did not play the piano but he couldn’t imagine why anyone would pay $5000 for an Aeolian piano ($5000 was serious money in those days) when they could buy a Baldwin or a Steinway.  His boss and his boss’s boss confided that they didn’t know either, so they arranged for Bud to tour the Aeolian factory.

The tour lasted two days and, although the craftsmanship and care seemed to be top notch, when all was said and done, Bud still thought $5000 was a pretty steep price.  But all was notyet said and done.

As Bud was preparing to leave, the factory manager took him through the showroom.  There in the showroom, side by side, were three gleaming concert grand pianos; a Baldwin, a Steinway and, of course, an Aeolian.  To Bud’s eye they looked identical except for the branding.

“They sure look alike,” said Bud.

“They sure do,” said the manager.  About the only real difference is the shipping weight—our is heavier.”

“Heavier?” asked Bud. “What makes ours heavier?”
“The Capo d’astro bar,” said the manager.
“What’s a Capo d’astro bar?” asked Bud.
“Here, I’ll show you,” said the manager and he invited Bud to get down to look at the underside of the piano.  Under the piano the manager pointed out a stout cast iron bar fixed across the harp and bearing down on the higher octaves. “That’s the Capo d’astro bar,” he said.  “It takes 50 years before the harp in the piano warps. That’s when the Capo d’astro bar goes to work. It prevents warping.”

When Bud looked at the Capo D’astro bars in the Baldwin and the Steinway he saw that they looked like Tinkertoys.  “You mean the Capo d’astro bar really doesn’t go to work for 50 years?” Bud asked. “That’s right,” the manager replied. “That’s probably why the Met uses an Aeolian.  In fact our piano is about the only thing they’re taking with them in their move to Lincoln Center.”

And that became the headline for the Aeolian’s ad: “About the only thing the Met is taking with them is their piano.”  Response to that ad campaign resulted in a six-year waiting list between order and delivery.

That story became legendary in advertising and marketing.  When an agency first takes on a new client or product, one of the first things the creative team is likely to ask is “What’s your Capo d’astro bar?”—what is it that makes you unique?

I think, sometimes, that Christianity—that we as Christians—have often forgotten what our Capo d’astro bar really is.  Because I had worked for such a long time in advertising, when I first became ordained people would often suggest that my skills from that industry would be useful in ministry.  Truth be told, some of those skills have been very useful.  But I also have to tell you that there’s a subtext in the suggestion that makes me really uncomfortable:  it’s the idea that our faith can be marketed like a product.

Christianity is not a product.  It is not an idea in the marketplace of ideas.  It is not a philosophy.  It is not a mental or intellectual bargain one makes with God.

The Christian faith is a life-long love affair with God, with Creation, and with others.  It is a way of life.

In Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church Rachel Held Evans wrote:

“[My friends] reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community.  I need the church.”

Christianity is relationship.  The Trinity is relationship.  Discipleship is relationship.  Communion is relationship.

Why, then, have Christians so often tried to sell the faith or Jesus or the scriptures as something other than what they are?

We’ve seen crusades, touring performances, that might as well have been called Escape from Damnation.  We’ve seen “religious services” that are in reality just endless feelgood infomercials for a Pathway to Prosperity.  We’ve seen famous faith healers, Solvers of Sciatica who put on a heck of a show. There’s a whole host of TV preachers focused on telling us that the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket because society in general is sick with evil.  And then there are the preachers selling magic “blessed” hankies and holy elixirs while fleecing the flock for funds for their new private jets.

It’s all very entertaining.  But where is the commandment of Christ in all of this?   Where is the love?

The word evangelism comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning Good News.  But when you hear the words “Evangelical” attached to something in a news story, is your first thought, “Oh boy, Good News!” That’s not usually my reaction.  I confess that when I see even the word Christian in a headline I don’t tend to react with the butterflies of happiness.  Instead, my gut clenches as I ask myself, “Oh Lord, what now? Who’s judging whom for what?”

Is that what our faith is about?  Is this how Jesus wanted the world to react to his followers?  Is that the call of Christ?

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence,” we read in 1 Peter 3:15-16.

There are some important words in those two brief verses that deserve attention.  The first word is “defense.”  The Greek word here is apologia.  Our word apology comes from that same Greek word, but an apologia doesn’t mean to say you’re sorry, it means to give a well-reasoned explanation.   The next word is “demands.”  The Greek is aitounti which means to ask urgently.  Then there’s the phrase “to give an accounting.” The important Greek word here is logon.  In this context it means to give a reason.  Lastly, let’s look at the word “reverence.”  The Greek word here is phobou.  Its most basic meaning is fear, but it can also mean reverence which is how the NRSV translates it.  Other translations chose respect.  So think respect, but maybe with a tinge of caution because you want to be careful not to offend.  At least that’s how I think of it.

So translating again, we could hear it this way:  “Always be ready to give a well-reasoned response to anyone who urgently asks from you a reason for the hope that is in you; but do it with gentleness and respect.”

St. Paul understood this.  In Acts 17 we get a wonderful example of this kind of gentleness and respect in action as he finds an opportunity to share his faith in front if the Areopagus in Athens.  It must have pained his Jewish monotheistic sensibilities to find himself surrounded by all those idols.  But instead of railing against Athenian idolatry, he finds a doorway into conversation:  “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’”  That was his doorway and he went on to even quote some of their philosophers, describing God as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”

Paul wasn’t selling anything, least of all himself.  Paul wasn’t putting on a show or trying to raise cash.  He wasn’t there to debate or argue or harangue or judge.  Paul was seeing the spiritual hunger of the city expressed in a multitude of idols and telling them he had the only thing that could feed that hunger.

Paul was acting out of love–love for Christ and love for the Athenians.

Love is the music in our piano.  Love is our purpose, the thing we were made for:  to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  It is the music in which we live and move and have our being.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” said Jesus.  He had given his commandments to the disciples only a moment before, so that moment was still fresh in their minds.  Well, commandment.  He only gave the one:  “A new commandment I give to you: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another.”

But love, the kind of love Jesus was talking about, takes stamina—more stamina than human willpower alone can manage.  Jesus understood that.  Jesus understood that if the melody of God’s love is going to continue in the world it will take a strength beyond human strength, a will beyond human will.  He understood that without support, after a time the harp of our instrument could warp.  The notes could fall out of tune.  So he gave us a Capo D’astro bar.

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” (John 14:16-17)

This is our Capo d’astro bar who helps to ensure that the music of our faith is the harmonious melody of Christ and not the dissonance of our own misunderstandings or desires. This is the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, our helper and partner, the Breath of God’s love in every note we sing, our inspiration in every breath we inhale, reminding us in whom we live and move and have our being.  This is the Spirit, who keeps us attuned and in tune, and reminds us why we’re here: to love and be loved.  In Jesus’ name.

Goodbye Old God

John 14:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” says Jesus. “Trust God and trust me.”  The anxiety at the table is so thick you could squeeze it.  He’s told them at dinner that he’s about to be betrayed.  Their imaginations are running wild with what might happen next.  But he looks at them calmly and says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust God.  Trust me.” Actually what it says in the Greek is “Trust into God.  Trust also into me.”  I’ll come back to that.

In what seems like a hard left turn, Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

You can almost hear them thinking, “Wait…what?”

I confess that I feel a lot of sympathy with Thomas and Phillip.  I suspect they were saying what the others were thinking.  When Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?” that resonates, doesn’t it?  I mean, yes, Jesus has told them that he’s going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house, but do they know where that is?  Do they understand what he’s talking about?

I think we can appreciate the disciples’ confusion.  And as a purely practical matter, haven’t we all asked Jesus, asked God more than once, “Lord, where are you going?  What are you up to?  What are we—what am I—supposed to be doing?  What do you want from me?  Show us—show me—the way.  How can we know the way if we don’t know where you’re going?”

I find myself asking this a lot lately.

Lord, your church is in decline.  Our hearts are troubled.  Where are you going?  What is our path?  Show us the way.

Lord, some people are anxious to reopen the country for business but many are worried that it’s too soon.  The virus is still out there.  The numbers are still frightening.  We’re divided and it’s getting ugly.  Our hearts are troubled.  Where are you going?  What is our path?  Show us the way.

Lord, we keep seeing just how deeply infected this country is with the malignancy of racism.  We see justice delayed, almost overlooked, in the shooting of Ahmaud Arberey.  We see people of color suffering disproportionately from the Corona virus.  How do we root out this hatefulness that’s lodged so deeply in our national soul?  Our hearts are troubled.  Where are you going?  What is our path?  Show us the way.

Lord, when we emerge back into the world, do we rebuild things the way they were and return to the normal we knew, a “normal” that was leaving so many behind,  or do we use this chance to build something new– new systems and economies that might work better for more people but might cause new problems that we can’t forsee?   Our hearts are troubled.  Where are you going?  What is our path?  Show us the way.

“I am the way,” says Jesus. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

We Christians have misunderstood and misinterpreted these words of Christ with some pretty sad results.  The first way we’ve abused them is that we’ve completely spiritualized them, as if Jesus being the way applies only to our pathway to heaven, as if Jesus being the truth applies only to metaphysical truths, as if Jesus being the life applies only to life after death.  We’ve used these words of Jesus to make him our password to pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.  But that’s not how the community that first lived with this Gospel of John understood these words of Jesus.  They understood that the way was not just the way to heaven, but the way to walk daily in the presence of God.  They understood that truth is not just an esoteric philosophical construct, but a practical standard for daily use and guidance.  They understood that there is no disconnect between this life and the next,  there is only one life, that this life is eternal, and that the truest life is lived into Christ.

“I am the way,” says Jesus.  “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  I am the way forward.  I am the way into the world God has envisioned, the world of equity and equality and health.

Too often we’ve used these words as a litmus test to exclude people rather than as a doorway of invitation and a guide for our own path and way of life.  We’ve used these words of Jesus as hammer of judgment, to consign whole swaths of the world to eternal damnation because they don’t believe what we believe.  But Jesus doesn’t say that believing in him is the way.  He says that he is the way.

Here’s how Frederick Buechner clarifies this in his book Wishful Thinking:

Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).  He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.” He said that it was only by him—by living, participating in, being caught up by the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.

Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.

A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.

Oh, but if only we could see God, says Phillip.  Things would be so much clearer.  “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”  And what Jesus replies to Phillip is tantamount to saying, “You people don’t recognize God when God is standing right in front of you.”

Phillip’s problem is our problem.  He can’t recognize the presence of God in Jesus because Jesus doesn’t look like the god of his imagination, the god he’s used to thinking about.  Before he can recognize the presence of God in Jesus and Jesus in God, he has to say goodbye to the god of his imagination.

In the Hebrew Book of Yasher, a book that was not included in the Bible, there is a story that when Abraham still lived in Ur, his father, Terah, was in the business of making idols.  When Abraham first encountered the true God, he immediately went to his father’s house and destroyed all the idols.  This story is also told in the Quran.  The instructive point of this story is that we all have idols—imaginary gods—and we all have to keep destroying them.

Debie Thomas wrote, “Who knew that my life with God would actually be one long goodbye?  That to know God, I would have to unknow God?  To shed my neat conceptions of the divine like so many old snakeskins, and emerge into the world bare, vulnerable, and new, again and again?”  She goes on to list the gods she has had to discard:  the god who bargains, the god who guarantees our safety, the god who controls everything down to getting a good parking space, the god who makes faith easy and answers all questions, the god who comes when called and leaves when dismissed.

It can be challenging to let go of these gods, to say goodbye to them.  They’re easy to carry in your head.  They’re easy to love.  They’re the gods we want because they serve us.  But can you really trust them?  And who, in the end, is really god if the god is serving you?

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” says Jesus.  “Trust into God.  Trust also into me.”  The language is important here.  Your translation might read “Believe in God.  Believe also in me.”  But trust is the better translation here. And trusting into is more precise, too.  It indicates an ongoing relationship, a trust that’s active and ongoing.  In means a trust that immerses you into the mystery of God, the hidden depths of Jesus, a mystery and depth that is beyond human understanding, a mystery and depth that is unfathomable.  You let yourself fall into it, like falling in love, and you keep going into it, deeper and deeper forever, because there is not end to the depths of God.  So you trust into God.  You trust into Christ.

For too many of us to believe simply means to accept something as an intellectual construct.  But trust?  That’s a different thing altogether.  “Show me what you trust,” wrote Martin Luther, “what your heart clings to, and I will show you your god.”

God isn’t what we think God is.  God is greater, deeper, more full of love and grace and creativity.  Next to God, the god of our imagining is less than a hint of a shadow.  Jesus isn’t what we think he is.  His way more consuming and all-encompassing and compassionate than the boundaries we like to set around him.  He doesn’t command us to believe in him.  He affirms what little bit of trust we have and invites us to trust into him more deeply still, to fall into his unity with the God, to lose ourselves in that realm with many dwelling places.

There in those depths we will find that God is warm and generous and welcoming.  We will find that there is room in God—room for our doubts and fears and troubled hearts, room for our questions, room for our obtuse failure to understand, room for our blindness and stubbornness, room for our humanity.

In God’s realm there are many dwelling places.  And we know the way.

 

 

 

Abundantly Alive

John 10:1-10

Did you ever play on a roundabout when you were a kid?  You still see them on playgrounds in some places.  They’re those kid-powered merry-go-rounds with a flat round platform and rising bars.  A few kids would stand or sit on the platform while other kids would push the bars or run with them to make it spin.  Well according to the BBC, with the streets in many towns empty during the Corona virus lockdown in Great Britain, sheep in several places have taken to wandering into children’s playgrounds and apparently, they seem to get a great big kick out of riding on the roundabout!  Neighbors who live close to the playgrounds have captured video of these sheep making the thing spin by trotting along on the platform much in the same way that hamsters make their exercise wheels spin. One video shows some sheep riding while others push, just like human kids!

So with the gate left ajar and no shepherd to keep them from wandering off, the sheep headed straight for the playground.  Apparently they got bored with just grazing in the same old pasture day after day, even though it was the safest place in the world for them to be.  They wanted something different.  They wanted something fun.

As I watched the video of these sheep playing on the roundabout, I couldn’t help but think of all the people here in Southern California who flocked to the beach on the first hot, sunny day even though we’re all still under a stay-at-home order.  For the sheep in those British villages, romping on the playgrounds is fairly safe.  There are no people around, no predators, very few cars and trucks on the road, and sheep can’t catch the Corona virus.  For the people on the beach, it’s much more risky.

Like those sheep, we seem to get tired of just nosing our way around the same space every day, even though we know it’s for our own good.  We want to get out and do something different.  Something new.  We’re impatient for this to end.  We want it to change.

Impatience and a desire for change isn’t all bad.  It makes us creative.  It makes us adaptive; it helps us envision a different way of doing and being.  But impatience and a hunger for change can also make us take unnecessary risks.  It can make us miss things that are right in front of us.  And it can lead us to thoughtlessly damage things because we don’t fully understand what’s at stake.

Do you know why white people are called Haole in Hawaii?  The word haole in the Hawaiian language means “no breath.”  The Hawaiians called the white settlers Haole because they were always in a hurry—they seemed to never take a breath.  They were in a hurry to cut down the Sandalwood trees because sandalwood was valuable for trade in China.  They were in a hurry to clear the land for sugar plantations.  They were in a hurry to dig irrigation canals.  They never seemed to stop to see what was already there, how each Hawaiian village was a self-sustaining system.  From the Hawaiians’ point of view, the Haole were in a breathless hurry to get on to the next thing.  In their religion the Haole spoke of a Good Shepherd, but they didn’t seem to stop much to listen to him. The Hawaiians, on the other hand did listen to the Good Shepherd.  They liked Jesus.  He sounded in many ways like their god, Kane, who had filled the earth with good things so that they could live a life of abundance, so they very much liked the teaching of Jesus.  They liked the Good Shepherd and many decided to follow him.

I am the gate.” Said Jesus. “Whoever enters by me will be saved (a better translation is ‘will be kept safe’) “and will come in and go out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

 Life is one of those key words that gets repeated frequently in the Gospel of John.  There are three different words in the Greek New Testament that we translate as life.  Bios is, essentially, biological life.  Psyche is soul or self but can also mean your life. It’s the word that’s used when Jesus asks, “What does it profit you if you gain the whole world but give up your life (psyche)?”  Then there’s zoe, which is the word used here.  It could best be understood as aliveness.  It’s the same word Jesus uses in John 14:6 when he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  I am the aliveness.  “I came that you might have aliveness and have it abundantly.”

So what does that mean?  Obviously it doesn’t mean that Jesus came so we would all have cash flow like Jeff Bezos.  What it does mean, though, is that Jesus came so that we would be abundantly alive to the world and to our own lives, so that we would be aware and engaged whatever our circumstances.  I came that you might have aliveness in abundance, spiritually, psychologically, physically, intellectually.

There are all kinds of things that can and will steal that life, that aliveness, from us, the thieves that “climb in by another way.”  Anxiety is one of those thieves.  Greed, lack of self-control, procrastination… I’m sure if we put our heads together we could come up with a long list of things that steal our aliveness from us.  But right now the one I worry about most as we brace ourselves for yet another week of sheltering at home is impatience.

Jesus, as both the gate and gatekeeper of our lives can safeguard us from our own anxieties, impatience and lack of self-control.  He can lead us in to the safer space of our interior life to thoughtfully reflect on what is happening and how we’re responding, to give us time and space to carefully evaluate the differing voices that are pressing for other actions.  He can lead us out to safe green pastures where we can be nourished by appropriate interactions with others even if those green pastures are virtual spaces supplied by our computers and phones.  He can guide us away from being breathless haoles who continually move from one thing to the next without taking time to experience the fullness and vitality of the moment we’re in.

The day will come soon enough when we can all head for our favorite playgrounds again and be as carefree as those sheep on the roundabout.  But until that time there is still joy to be had if we are abundantly alive to the moment in Christ and Christ in the moment.

Sacrifice the Weak?

“Sacrifice the Weak.  Reopen TN,” said the sign.  It was arresting.  Shocking, stark and heartless, the sign was held by a woman at a protest rally in Tennessee, a gathering of people frustrated with a shut-down economy and tired of being ordered to stay at home to prevent the spread of the Corona virus.  They want businesses to reopen.  They want life to get back to normal.  I suppose they think that by protesting they can make that happen sooner.

In the pictures in the news, the woman with the sign and others at similar protests are not following the proper protocols for physical distancing.  Many are not wearing masks, although the woman with the sign was wearing one and her sign seemed to acknowledge the potential deadliness of the contagion.  I can’t help but wonder how many of them will come down with the virus.  I hope they don’t, but the odds are not in their favor.  I wonder if they understand that.  I wonder if they understand that even if they never experience so much as the sniffles they still might carry the virus home with them or into the grocery store, that they might pass it on to someone else who won’t be so lucky, that they might become the instrument of someone’s death.

In explaining their reasons for protesting, some of the protesters cite the stay-at-home orders and the shuttering of businesses as an infringement of their civil liberties.  It’s true that certain rights are being curtailed for the time being in order to protect public health, to keep people from getting sick and dying.  Other protesters cite economic concerns. They want businesses reopened.  They want the money to flow.  Sacrifices must be made, they say.  And yet they don’t seem so willing to make the sacrifice of staying home to protect the health of others.

According to Planet Money, the podcast from NPR, the official US Government value of a human life is $10 million. There are all kinds of valid reasons why the government had to come up with such a number.  (For more information about that you can listen to the podcast: Planet Money, episode 991: Lives vs. The Economy.)  Thinking only in terms of numbers for a moment, that means that every 100 persons who have died because of Covid 19 represent a $1 billion hit to the economy.  This doesn’t take into account the cost of hospitalization, equipment, medication, personnel and other costs associated with fighting the virus.  So far we’ve lost more than 40,000 persons.  Do the math.  Clearly, the most cost effective way to deal with it is to prevent people from getting it.  But that’s all just cold, hard dollars.  Aren’t lives worth more than dollars?

The thing I find hardest to deal with is the attitude.  Or attitudes.  Plural.  What are civil liberties worth if they are exercised without responsibility?  Should their right to assemble jeopardize your right and my right to good health?  How important is getting the economy running again if doing so kills ten percent or more of the population?  What would be an acceptable percentage?  Whose life are we willing to sacrifice?  How do we decide that?  On what basis?

I could pretty easily build a biblical argument to question this rush to get the cash flowing.  “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” springs pretty immediately to mind.  (1 Timothy 6:10)  “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10)  But Jesus, as always, puts it best: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13)   So who is being served by a rush to reopen?

As for those who say they are protecting their civil liberties, I am mindful of St. Paul’s words to the church at Corinth, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  (1 Corinthians 13:1)

I could go on.  But I suspect that quoting scripture won’t mean much to those who carry signs that say “sacrifice the weak” or to those who believe their individual rights and freedoms outweigh the safety and health of others.  I suspect that Christ’s words about serving two masters will be lost on those who are already dedicated to the dollar.  I cannot help but wonder how these values became so widespread, at how so many stop short of critical thinking, at how many seem to have misplaced their souls.

Clearly this new status quo is already wearing thin for a lot of people.  It’s working our nerves.  Patience is not our strong suit in 21st century America.  But it helps me to remember that we are all enduring this sequestering out of love.  “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

So let’s be patient.  Let’s be kind.  Let’s not be arrogant or rude or envious or boastful. Let’s not insist on doing things our own way.  Let us not gleefully do the wrong thing.  Let’s listen carefully for the truth.  Let’s bear up under the circumstances.  Let’s believe that with God’s help and each other’s prayers and help we’ll get through this.  Let’s hope for the solution, a vaccine and better days.  And until then, let’s endure.  In other words, let’s love.

The Presence and the Absence

Luke 24:13-35

As I sat with this week’s gospel lesson, the story of Jesus meeting with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, I found myself remembering a wonderful, bittersweet book I hadn’t read in years, The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne.  In that book Christopher Robin is trying to find a way to tell Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Eeyore and the others that life is about to become very different for them because he’s leaving for boarding school.  Pooh and the animals get the gist of the idea that something is changing; there is a vague uneasiness in the Hundred Acre Wood, but mostly they don’t understand.  In the midst of their uneasiness, without realizing they’re doing it, they begin to cling to each other and their relationships a little more closely.

I found myself especially remembering a brief, touching moment between Piglet and Pooh where Piglet reaches out for a little reassurance.

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.

“Pooh!” he whispered.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

I just wanted to be sure of you.  I think we’ve all known that feeling.  I think that’s why, if your family is at all like ours, you’re texting and messaging and calling each other a lot more during this time of pandemic isolation.  We feel the absence of those we love more keenly than in normal times when we know we could just go see them if we wanted to or needed to.  But right now it’s dangerous to go see each other, so we reach out in other ways for reassurance.  It’s our way of saying “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

We want to feel their presence in their absence.

The resurrection stories in the gospels, and particularly the Road to Emmaus story, are stories of Jesus’ presence and absence.  They are reminders that the risen Christ both appears and disappears.  They are also reminders that Jesus gave us ways to reach out for reassurance.

In the Road to Emmaus story, Luke gives us a pattern for how Jesus interacts with us in our own lives.  Jesus meets us on the road.  He falls in step with where we’re headed and inserts himself into the conversation, even if it’s an internal conversation we’re having in our own heads.  He asks questions and gets us to restate what’s worrying us or troubling us or making us feel whatever it is we’re feeling.  He listens to our whole spiel even though he already knows the story better and from a much better perspective.  He accepts our feelings, even our anger—even if we’re angry at God, at him.  He accepts our disappointment.  He accepts our doubt and disbelief.  He accepts our anxieties and fears.

And then he teaches.  He helps us see another way.  He restores our hope.  He restores our calm.  He helps us see how God might be at work in things that look godforsaken.

And while Jesus is doing all this, unless we’re very, very perceptive and accustomed to his company, we usually don’t recognize him.

The disciples on the Emmaus Road didn’t recognize him, but they found comfort in his presence, his listening and his teaching.  So they invited him to stay.

“Stay with us because it’s almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”  How many times have we prayed that prayer?  The light is fading on the horizon.  I see the edge of darkness.  I just want to be sure of you.  Stay with me.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.

This is the way we recognize Christ’s presence, the way we reach out for a touch of reassurance.  This is communion.  Blessing, breaking and sharing bread.  Such an everyday event.  I don’t want to take any luster from the sacrament—I’m a pastor in a sacramental church—but I do want to say this: if Christ is present then any meal is sacramental.  There is a holiness in everyday things if you are mindful of Christ’s presence.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

This, too, is part of the pattern.  The presence and then the absence.  But even when we feel the absence most keenly Jesus is with us.  We share with each other the feelings and thoughts Jesus has inspired in us.  We share with others our stories of times our hearts burned within us.  We break bread.

And in between times, when we’re sequestered and isolated because of circumstances beyond our control, we remember.  We keep our own experience alive, we remember that Jesus promised to be with us always, and we hold Christ in our hearts the way Christopher Robin and Pooh held each other in their hearts. That’s how The House at Pooh Corner ends—with Pooh and Christopher Robin holding each other in their hearts.

Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world, with his chin in his hand, called out “Pooh!”

“Yes?” said Pooh.

“When I’m–when–Pooh!”

“Yes, Christopher Robin?”

“I’m not going to do Nothing anymore.”

“Never again?”

“Well, not so much. They don’t let you.”

Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.

“Yes, Christopher Robin?” said Pooh helpfully.

“Pooh, when I’m–you know–when I’m not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?”

“Just me?”

“Yes, Pooh.”

“Will you be here too?”

“Yes Pooh, I will be really. I promise I will be Pooh.”

“That’s good,” said Pooh.

“Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.”

Pooh thought for a little. “How old shall I be then?”

“Ninety-nine.”

Pooh nodded. “I promise,” he said.

Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt Pooh’s paw. “Pooh,” said Christopher Robin earnestly, “if I–if I’m not quite–” he stopped and tried again– “Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?”

“Understand what?”

“Oh, nothing.” He laughed and jumped to his feet. “Come on!”

“Where?” said Pooh.

“Anywhere.” said Christopher Robin.

So, they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

It’s something like that for us with Jesus.  If we are running off anywhere in the world, he is with us.  If we are sitting alone in isolation and feeling his absence, he is with us.  When we bless our bread and break it and share it he is with us in the promise he made.  We can reach out and touch it—touch him– because, as Piglet said, “I just wanted to be sure of you.”