Message Received

Matthew 10:40-42

I’ve been thinking a lot about Eric.  I remember how Eric was attracted by the crowd one Sunday evening when we were doing Stories, Songs, and Supper.  I was pretty sure when I first saw him that he was homeless although to be fair, his clothes were cleaner and neater than most in that condition.  

He stood at the church door and asked what was happening as he saw people gathering, greeting each other, laughing, and we told him, “It’s a thing we do called Stories, Songs, and Supper.  We share a meal then sing a bunch of old familiar songs, then someone tells a story, then we sing a little more.”  We invited him to come in and join us.  So he did.

While he was eating he told us a bit about himself—he had a gift of gab—then after supper he helped clear the tables.  He joined right in with the singing and he had a pretty decent voice.  Somewhere in the midst of all that let it be known in his own gregarious way that joining with us that evening was a particular treat for him because it happened to be his birthday.  So we all sang Happy Birthday to him.  At the end of the evening, as he was leaving, he asked if he could borrow a book from the book table in the fellowship hall.  He took a novel and promised to return it.

The next Sunday, Eric was there for Sunday morning worship.  Soon he was participating in Adult Education classes and Bible study.  He joined in with one of our small groups in the work they were doing with Lutheran Social Services.  In almost no time Eric had become an important member of our little family of faith. 

We welcomed Eric into our lives and Eric welcomed us into his.  And we were all richer for it.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” said Jesus in the tenth chapter of Matthew.  This is the same gospel in which Jesus later says, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Christ often comes to us in ways we’re not expecting.  When we welcome the unexpected stranger, or graciously accept a welcome when we are the unexpected stranger, we experience the presence and grace of God in new and enriching ways.

I remember one dreary afternoon when the sky was the color of lead and the rain was relentless.  The light coming in my office window had unconditionally surrendered to winter and my mood matched the weather.  Suddenly I heard this bright, jazzy music coming from downstairs.  I ran down the stairs and there in the Fellowship Hall was Eric, pounding out boogie-woogie on the old out-of-tune piano.  Who knew?  He had come in to the hall to get out of the rain and the mood had come on him to just sit down and play.  He apologized for disturbing me and I told him, “No apologies necessary!  You brought light into a gloomy day! Keep playing.”

“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”

We learned a lot from Eric.  We learned a little about life on the streets.  We learned more than we wanted to know about our neighbors’ attitudes toward the homeless.  We learned how the police and the justice system in our city respond to those who are experiencing homelessness.  We learned about our own attitudes toward those living rough.  Most of all, though, we experienced an energy and vitality that’s been missing since he left us.  All this because we welcomed one gregarious man into our party on his birthday.

As I read the scriptures and the history of the Church, I see a story where the Holy Spirit is always trying to open the door of welcome wider.  Sadly, though, every time the Spirit pushes the door open wider, there are more than a few trying to close it.  

God made a covenant with Abraham and told him that his descendants would be a blessing to all nations, but then his descendants tried to make it a “descendants only” club. 

Jesus welcomed “tax collectors and sinners” to his fellowship table but the Pharisees were scandalized and critical.  How could he be from God if he associated with such people?  Then down through the years, even the followers of Christ, people calling themselves by his name, would make all kinds of gateway tests of belief and morality to decide who was worthy of coming to Christ’s table.

When the Church was barely up and running Peter, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, baptized Cornelius and his household, Roman gentiles.  In response, James and the other Apostles back at headquarters in Jerusalem had a tizzy fit and raised all kinds “who gave you permission” questions.  

St. Paul placed women in the pastorate and leadership ranks of the congregations he established (Junia, Julia, Prisca, Lydia, Euodia, Scyntyche), but before he was cold in his grave other patriarchal hands were editing his writing (1 Cor. 14:34-36) while still others borrowed his name to write  the women out of their jobs (1 Timothy 2).  

Not exactly welcoming.

This month in the ELCA we celebrate the 50th anniversary of a change in wording in the bylaws of the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church, two of the predecessor bodies of the ELCA.  Fifty years ago they voted to change the word “man” to the word “person” in their bylaws, thereby opening the door for the ordination of women. 

Fifty years later, women clergy often struggle with challenges that male clergy do not.  They deal with sexual harassment, disrespect, and often lower pay due to gender-based discrimination.  Some congregations still refuse to call a woman as pastor even when there are no other candidates.  The saddest part of that is that in doing so these congregations are depriving themselves of the gifts these talented women bring with them, gifts that could revitalize and renew them.  

When I think of the women pastors I know, I feel a tremendous hope and confidence for the future of the church.  If anyone can lead us to a brighter day, they can.

“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Eric taught us this lesson well: When we welcome the unexpected guest, we receive unexpected gifts. 

Fifty years ago the Spirit moved to open the door wider so that the church could receive the bountiful gifts that women bring through ordained service.  Eleven years ago the Spirit opened the door wider again when the ELCA voted to allow the ordination of LGTBQ persons.  And the church is richer for their ministry.

Today we stand at the edge of a tidal shift in our culture in regard to race, economic structures, and societal systems.  The Holy Spirit is pushing the door open yet again and maybe, maybe even pushing down the walls.  Church will be different.  There are new prophetic voices to hear.  New righteous persons to receive.  New gifts being given.  The only question is, will we welcome them?

In Jesus’ name.

 

Don’t Be Afraid

Matthew 10:24-39

[Jesus said,]   “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;  25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 

26  “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.  28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Gehenna) 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 

32  “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven;  33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 

34   “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 

35       For I have come to set a man against his father,

         and a daughter against her mother

         and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 

36       and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;  38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Standing up for what you believe in, standing up for the right thing, can cost you. 

When Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter dash in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, they stood on the awards podium with their black-gloved fists raised in what the press called a Black Power salute to call attention to  the ongoing fight for civil rights in the United States.  Tommie Smith and John Carlos called it a Human Rights Salute.  Standing with them on the podium was the silver medalist, a white man, an Australian named Peter Norman.  Norman didn’t raise his fist but he did something else that brought down the whirlwind.   In solidarity with Smith and Carlos, he wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his uniform.  

After the race, Carlos and Smith had told Norman what they planned to do during the ceremony and Norman encouraged them.  They asked Norman if he believed in human rights.  He said he did.  Then Smith and Carlos asked Norman if he believed in God.  He said he believed strongly in God and that what they were about to do was more important than any athletic accomplishment.  And then he said, “I’ll stand with you.” On their way to the medals ceremony Norman saw the Human Rights badge being worn by Paul Hoffman, a white member of the US rowing team and asked if he could borrow it for the ceremony.  He didn’t feel it was appropriate to raise his fist because that particular symbol belonged to the people whose civil rights were being denied.  But he could wear the patch.

That moment of solidarity was costly for Peter Norman.  He never returned to the Olympics.  Back in Australia he became a figure of controversy and got somewhat lost in his own life.  “If we were getting beat up,” said John Carlos years later, “Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.”

A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;  it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” says Jesus in today’s gospel reading.  In other words, if they’re going to call Jesus himself the devil, don’t be surprised if they call you worse.  

This comes near the end of a long  section where Jesus is sending his disciples out on their first mission to proclaim the Good News—remember the good news?  the Reign of God is arriving?—but  now he’s telling them that this Good News, this news that people have waited for for eons is going to be disruptive, and some people aren’t going to like that.  

People are funny.  We can pray week after week, day after day, year after year “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  But when it gets down to actually working to make that happen, people get cranky because then we actually have to change things—our politics, our religious practices, our structures and systems…even ourselves.  “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” makes a lovely needlepoint but it can turn everything upside down when you actually put it in practice, especially the do  justice part.

Don’t be afraid, says Jesus. Do not be afraid of opposition.  You know it’s coming so just face it.  If you trust me, if you believe in what I’ve been teaching, then live by it.  Proclaim it.  Act on it.  Shout it from the rooftops. What’s the worst they can do to you?  Kill you?

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Gehenna)

Okay, two things here, and I’ll take the last one first.  Hell.  Hell isn’t hell. The actual word here is Gehenna which was a valley just outside Jerusalem where all the city trash was dumped and burned, including the carcasses of dead animals. It’s not the Hell of popular imagination.  Think city dump.  So, fear the One who can toss your whole self into the trash heap.

The second thing:  Soul.  The Greek word here is psyche.  Soul is one translation.  It can also mean life.  In this context, though, maybe think of it as your true self.  Jesus is saying don’t be afraid of those who can only kill your body.  Save your fear for God who can completely undo you.  Remember in Isaiah chapter 6 where Isaiah stands before the throne of God and says, “Woe is me for I am lost.”?  The Hebrew word there which we translate as lost is nidmeti.  It can mean lost or silenced.  It can also mean unmade. It’s the same idea here. 

Fear the One who can destroy both body and soul.  Fear the One who can destroy your true self.  God is one of only two entities in the universe who can unravel your true self.  And, spoiler, God won’t.  God will not.  God loves you with a passion.  God may work furiously to reshape you, to rid you of poisonous thoughts, ideas and attitudes, to smooth certain rough edges, but God will not destroy you.  

God may, however, let you destroy yourself.  God loves you enough to give you free will.  And you are the only other entity in the universe who can destroy your soul, you should be careful and thoughtful with that gift.  

One of the reasons, I think, that Christ gives us the high honor and calling of announcing and building the beloved community is to help steer us away from the numerous rabbit holes of self-destruction we could dive into, and also to give us trustworthy companions for the journey of life.  But, to take us back to where we started, Jesus knew that doing this, announcing that it’s time for a systemic do-over, would bring opposition and confrontation.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” 

There’s a similar passage in Luke 12 where Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled.”  I don’t think that Jesus is saying in these passages that he is intent on creating conflict.  I think he is simply acknowledging that conflict is inevitable when we proclaim the kingdom and work for it because the whole and healthy society that God envisions, the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God is very much at odds with business as usual in the earth of empires and economies.

There will be opposition.  There is opposition. And some of it is brutal.  That’s why Jesus said, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Scholar and theologian John Howard Yoder points out that the cross was “the standard punishment for insurrection for the refusal to confess Caesar’s lordship.”  The phrase ‘take up your cross’ was commonly used by Zealots when they were recruiting.  It was a call to stand in defiance and opposition to Rome and the systems of empire that perpetuated oppression.  

But there was another dimension to it.  Roman citizens could not be crucified.  If a citizen was guilty of a capital offence, even insurrection, they would be beheaded.  Crucifixion was reserved for those of lesser stature, the invisible non-persons of the empire who opposed it.  “Take up your cross” was not just a call to stand in defiance of Rome, it was also a call to identify with the people on the margins.  It was a way of saying “Stand with the poor, the downtrodden, the nobodies.” 

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  And here we find the word psyche again in the Greek text, this time translated as life.  Life. Soul.  Self.  This is such a cryptic saying from Jesus.  Here’s how I understand it:  If you go looking for yourself, you’ll lose yourself, but if you lose yourself in the life of Christ, you’ll find yourself.  

I think maybe Jesus is saying stop worrying about the meaning of your life or what, exactly your soul is, or even who you are deep down in your soul.  Let go of all those esoteric questions and lose yourself in the business of the reign of God.  Work for equality and equity.  Feed the hungry.  House the homeless. Take care of the sick.  Bring hope to the hopeless.  Stand with those who need you to stand with them.  Act on your faith.  It may cost you.  There will be opposition.  Don’t be afraid.  The reign of God, the kingdom of heaven is in reach.  In Jesus’ name.

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?

The Problem With Creeds

Here we are almost at the end of the season of Epiphany and I can’t help but think of the epiphanies I’ve experienced.  I’ve had my share of “aha!” moments, but most of my epiphanies roll out slowly with the cover peeled back a bit at a time until I realize that I’m seeing or understanding things differently than before. What are your epiphanies like? How do they happen?  What new light of understanding illuminates your world so that you see something differently than you did a month ago, a year ago, a decade ago, a generation ago?  

God won’t be boxed in.

God is almost entirely unpredictable.  I say almost entirely because the one thing we can predict is that regardless of circumstances, God loves us.  God will love us in, with, under and through all things, but trying to predict what that love will look like, what shape it will take, how it will work?  That’s crazy-making.  God won’t be boxed in.  

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called When Jesus Became God by Richard Rubenstein, which is about the fascinating theological and political battle surrounding the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE in which the first prototype of the Nicene Creed was formulated.  The Emperor Constantine called the Council to settle a raging theological dispute that pivoted around several theological questions:  Was Jesus divine?  What did that mean, exactly?  What was Jesus’ relationship to the Father?  And the Spirit?  Was Jesus subordinate to the Father?  Was Jesus co-eternal with the Father or was he created? 

These questions had simmered in the background since the very beginning of Christianity but most Christians were more or less content to live with differing opinions on these matters.  But when Emperor Constantine became a Christian, stopped the persecutions, and made the religion legal, suddenly it seemed important to find official answers and establish doctrine.   

The Council of Nicaea was supposed to settle these matters once and for all, but, even though the Trinitarians “won” the debate and formulated most of the language of the Creed, the Arians continued to push for their interpretation of the faith for more than a century and often were in the majority.  They believed that Jesus was created by the Father and was not co-eternal, that he had a kindof divinity as the son of God, but was not equal to the Father, was instead subordinate to the Father. And so on.  So while the Creed gave language to the first official doctrine of the Church, in practice it really failed to unify the Church in any meaningful way.

Creeds can be useful.  Up to a point.  They are useful to help clarify what we think.  They draw lines that determine the boundaries of what we understand about God and our relationship with God, and help us identify ideas that don’t seem consistent with what we’ve known and experienced of God.  They tell us who’s in and who’s out—who agrees with the official line and who does not. But that’s also part of their limitation.  God is bigger, deeper, wider and more innovative than any boundaries we draw.  God is not a cat.  God does not want to curl up inside our box.  

Another problem with creeds is that they emphasize some aspects of our faith over others, sometimes even ignoring things that are vitally important.  In both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed, for instance, more and more Christian thinkers are calling attention to what’s being called The Great Comma.

“But have you ever noticed the huge leap the creed makes between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate”? A single comma connects the two statements, and falling into that yawning gap, as if it were a mere detail, is everything Jesus said and did between his birth and his death! Called the “Great Comma,” the gap certainly invites some serious questions. Did all the things Jesus said and did in those years not count for much? Were they nothing to “believe” in? Was it only his birth and death that mattered? Does the gap in some way explain Christianity’s often dismal record of imitating Jesus’ life and teaching?” –Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story

Perhaps the greatest problem with our creeds, though, is that they focus on what we think about God and not what we’re doing to live out our relationship with God.  There is nothing in their language about service. There’s nothing about love. There is nothing about hope.  There is nothing in them about helping “the least of these brothers and sisters”, or life together in a family of faith.  Forgiveness of sins is mentioned but there is no actual call to forgive each other as we have been forgiven.  In fact, there is no call to action at all. The creeds are, instead, a historical snapshot of what the men who formulated them (and they were all men) understood to be the most important philosophical premises of their faith. And to be clear, these were the statements formulated by those who won the battles—battles that were sometimes physical and not just philosophical.  One can’t help but wonder how Jesus felt about that…or feels now, for that matter.

Yes, we do believe.  But more importantly, we are called to follow Christ and to live as the Body of Christ.  I wonder… what would a creed look like that focused on that?  What language would move our statement of faith out of our heads and into our hearts and hands and feet?

Waiting

“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.”– Frederick Buechner, Advent

Waiting.  It’s about waiting.  It’s about holding your breath as you pause for what’s coming.  It’s about remembering to breathe so you’re awake to see it arrive.  It’s about closing your eyes so you can hold on to the dream of what is possible, what might be.  It’s about opening your eyes to the beauty and pain and joy and sorrow and harshness and gentleness and passion and peace of everything that already is and everything about to unfold.  It is the excited pins and needles of anticipation.  It is the queasy uneasiness of suspense. Waiting.  We live in a season of waiting.

waiting“The thing I love most about Advent is the heartbreak. The utter and complete heartbreak.” –Jerusalem Jackson Greer; A Homemade Year: The Blessings of Cooking, Crafting, and Coming Together

Yearning.  Feel the yearning.  Let yourself fall into it for a moment.  Wallow in it for a moment.  Let it break your heart that the world is not yet made whole.  Let it break your heart that the promise is not fulfilled.  Let your eyes well with unshed tears for all the tears shed in this world. Stare hard at the reality that our species seems to be forever a painful work in progress. Feel the weighty disappointment of our failure to be what God made us to be and balance it on the sharp pinpoint of the promise we, all of us, feel—the promise of what we could be, the promise of what we’re supposed to be.  Let yourself feel that deep knowing that things are not now as they are intended to be. Let it break your heart.  Then understand that it is through the broken heart that God enters the world.  It is through the broken heart that the promise is revived.  It is through the broken heart that the vision of what should be moves forward toward what will be.  It is through today’s broken heart that we see tomorrow’s vision of the world God is calling us to build together.  It is the light aglow in the broken heart that illuminates the faces of those around us whose hearts are also breaking.  It is in the yearning of the broken heart that we find the Advent of Emmanuel, God With Us.

“Advent is the time of promise; it is not yet the time of fulfillment. We are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.…Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernable as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today.”–Alfred Delp; Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944

 Arriving.  But not yet.  Almost.  Get ready. It’s coming.  It’s arriving.  But we are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.  Keep moving toward the moment.  Keep moving toward the encounter.  Keep still in the not-yetness of it all.  Decorate. Decorate your house.  Decorate your heart.  Decorate your language.  Decorate your greetings, your symbols, your understanding.  Decorate your soul—from decoratusin the old poetic Latin that still connects our thoughts and words with those who decorated before us, who handed down their most important and enduring ornaments.  Decorare – the verb that tells us to adorn, to beautify, to embellish.  From decus—to make fit, to make proper so that we might be ready with decorum.  And yes, we need to decorate.  Yes, we need to fill the space around us, to fill our homes, our souls, our hearts with brighter things to see, more solid and enduring visions than the shadow parade of destruction and annihilation.  We need to fill our ears with more stirring melodies than shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, songs that lift the heart above the drone of lamentation, the weeping of despair and helplessness.  We need to keep moving toward the music and the light.  We need to lift our eyes to that first mild light of radiant fulfillment to come.  We need to fill our ears with the first notes of pipes and voices no matter how faint and far they may seem.  We need to hum and sing and play the old familiar songs that move our hearts to that softer, readier place where the True Song will be born.  We need to light the ancient candles one at a time to guide our steps down the corridor of waiting, the pathway of arrival.  We need to bring each flame to the heart until the soul is aglow with the depth of its meaning and power.  We need to reignite the flame of Hope to show us our way through the numbing fog of sameness.  We need to internalize the flame of Peace to quiet our anxieties and give us patience. We need to swallow whole the flame of Joy to whet our appetite for the feast to come.  We need to embody the flame of Love to warm us as we journey together, to show us again that we are walking arm in arm and our fates are intertwined, to illuminate the purpose of life, to lead us to the Light of the World.

“For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.”–Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

 Arrive.  But understand in your arriving that even after the meaningful journey of Advent we don’t arrive at Christmas.  Christmas arrives to us.  The Gift comes to meet us on the road to take us to a place we could never attain on our own. We celebrate.  We ponder. We dance and revel in the laughing lights of Hope and Peace and Joy and Love that we carried with us, that brought us to this place.  We gaze amazed at the Gift before us, almost comically humble and plain, artlessly displayed and wiggling inside its wrappings, laid out on a bed of straw in a manger, and yet more artistically subtle, more beautiful and precious than the Magi gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  And if you take a moment to think about what this Gift really is, what this baby really means to the world and what this baby means to you, in particular, you may just hear the voice of Emmanuel saying, “Now the journey begins in earnest.  Be not afraid.  I am with you.”

Tonight’s the Night the World Begins Again

Christmas Eve Sermon, 2016. 

I’ve been thinking about some Christmas gifts…and by that I mean some of the gifts that Christmas gives us.

It’s a season of giving – yes, it’s over-commercialized –but in the right spirit that can help us develop a habit and spirit of generosity.  And that’s a gift.

The months leading up to Christmas are a good time to practice delayed gratification.  Don’t buy that now…Christmas is coming.   I know I need to practice that sometimes.  So that’s a gift.

For some it’s a change of habit just to be thinking about what to get for other people, thinking more about others—who they are, what they need.  It can feel like an obligation but it can become a healthy, joyful, even life-giving habit.  That’s a gift.

At Christmastime we are intentional about asking people what they want.  That’s a good exercise for keeping us from being “curved in upon the self.”

Christmas, itself, is a gift.  It’s a change of focus.  It comes with some built-in themes that are important.  Giving.  Receiving. Gathering.  Family.  Peace. Hope.  Joy.  Love. Remembering.  Birth.  The Presence of God.  Wonder.

I don’t know about you, but I  really need the gift of Christmas, itself, this year. It’s been that kind of year.

I need to be reminded to stop and breathe and think about giving and receiving and gathering and family.  I need time to stop and remember.

I need to let words like hope and peace and light fill up my soul for awhile.

I need a time to stop and listen to songs about beauty and joy and angels and promises fulfilled…and God showing up in surprising ways and surprising places.

I need the wonder of it all.

I need the songs.  I especially need the songs and carols… because the music goes straight to my heart and heals me and rekindles my hope and my joy and my faith faster than words alone can ever do. “Those who sing pray twice,” said Martin Luther.

Do you have a favorite Christmas song or carol? Is there one—or maybe there are several?—that touch you in some particularly powerful way?

There are a lot of Christmas songs and carols that I dearly love and I listen to them over and over and over again.  But there’s one Christmas song in particular I keep coming back to these past few Christmases.  And this year, especially, I’ve been listening to it a lot.  In fact I’ve been listening to it off and on all year long.

It’s fairly recent—it came out in 2005, so by Christmas Song standards it’s almost brand new.  It’s called Better Daysby the Goo Goo Dolls, written by John Rzeznik.  Yeah, I know.  Goo Goo Dolls.  Silly name, but a great band.  And a powerful song.  Listen to these words:

And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

 

‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings

And designer love and empty things

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

Better days.  When all is said and done, isn’t that what we all want?  For ourselves, for our families and friends?  For….  Everyone? Better days.

I need some place simple where we could live

And something only you can give

And that’s faith and trust and peace while we’re alive

Those are some pretty good gifts we can give to each other.  For Christmas.  For every day.  And the song is right… we’ll only have faith and trust and peace while we’re alive if we give those things to each other.  Faith.  Trust. Peace.  But the song knows we need something else if we’re going to be able to give each other faith and trust and peace…

And the one poor child who saved this world

And there’s ten million more who probably could

If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them

The one poor child who saved this world. That’s why we’re here tonight. That’s what we’re here to celebrate. But we’re also here to be reminded that because of that child, Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us, we have the example and the power to save the world together.  God came in person to give us what we need so we can give each other the gifts of faith and trust and peace. 

 I wish everyone was loved tonight

And we could somehow stop this endless fight

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

The thing is, everyone is loved tonight—loved by God, at least.  But they don’t all know it and they certainly don’t all feel it.  If they did, if they all felt loved, if we all felt loved, maybe it would stop the endless fight that seems to be the curse of the human race.  But the only way for that to happen is if we take the love God gives us and let it be real and meaningful in our lives.  And then give it to each other in real and meaningful ways.

Brené Brown said,  “Jesus comes to show us what love looks like.  God is love.  But God knows that if God just comes down and says I am love and I want you to love each other, we’re going to go straight to hearts and unicorns.  We know it’s difficult and we don’t like difficult, so we’re going to romanticize it.  Hearts and unicorns.  But love is difficult.  So Jesus comes to show us how to do it.  He comes to show us that love doesn’t tolerate shaming.  Love doesn’t exclude people because they’re different.  Love reaches out and touches and embraces all the people we don’t want to touch or embrace. Love does the hard work.  Love does the hard things.”

But there’s something else that God shows us about love by coming as a baby, by coming, especially, as a poor baby.  Right at the beginning—Jesus shows us, God shows us, that love is willing to be vulnerable.  Love is willing to let down all its defenses.

When you think of all the ways that God could have come to us–all the ways we imagined throughout history that God would come to us—most of that imagery is all about power and royalty and thunder and smoke and lightning.  And then God shows up as a baby.  A poor baby. In a poor country.  A homeless baby.  A migrant born on the road on a journey his parents were forced to take.  A refugee baby forced to flee for his life.

One poor child who saved the world.

I haven’t quoted the refrain that runs through the song.  It’s repeated twice between the verses, but the song ends with it, too.  It’s both a promise and a call to action:

So take these words and sing out loud

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now

‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

Take these words and sing out loud.  That’s the call to action.

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.  That’s the promise. It’s also another great gift of Christmas.  In this baby, who is God With Us, we have a chance to start over with a clean slate.

In this baby, who is love itself coming to us in its most human and dependent and vulnerable form, we can find forgiveness and we can learn to give forgiveness— and if we can forgive and be forgiven, if we can let go of old hurts and forgive others, then we really can give each other the gifts of faith and trust and peace while we’re alive.  And then there really is a chance that maybe we’ll find better days.

So take these words and sing out loud,

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.

And tonight’s the night the world begins again.

 

Tonight’s the night the world begins again.

Hesitant to Enter the Endless Understanding

“Remember, mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand—it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, ‘I’ve got it.’ Always and forever, mystery gets you!” –Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance

I was at the Paul Simon farewell tour concert at the Hollywood Bowl a couple weeks ago, along with my family. Go ahead, take a moment to envy us. I’ll wait. I’ve been to some truly amazing concerts by some truly inspiring performers in my life, but this one topped them all. Really. That’s not just hyperbole. It’s true that his voice is not quite what it once was, though not at all bad for a 76 year old guy singing in such a wide variety of styles. But you don’t really think much about his vocal quality because he still has that astonishing and unique combination of intimacy and energy, humility and confidence that just draw you in to him and the music. Well, I could go on. And on and on. Because Paul Simon is in my not-at-all-humble opinion the very best songwriter and lyricist of my lifetime and I’ll be more than happy to defend that assertion if you’d like to quibble. But I digress.

Part of what made this concert so powerful was the amazing musicians who were performing with him on stage: Vincent Nguini, the impressive Nigerian guitarist; Mark Stewart, the astonishing multi-instrumentalist from New York; yMusic, the avant-garde string ensemble… the horns, the percussionists…I’m telling you, that was a killer band up there on the stage with him. And as they played together all the music of the decades of his life as a songwriter—his songs with South American roots, his songs with African roots, his songs that floated up out of the Louisiana bayou and cemeteries of New Orleans, and even a few of his old original 60s folkish songs, I couldn’t help but reflect on the decades of his musical journey, the path of his creativity, and how he had taken so many of us along for the ride with him.

I found myself remembering back to the first time I saw him in concert. It was November 15, 1969 at the Long Beach Arena. I confess, I had to look up the date, but I can close my eyes and still see and hear moments of that concert. It was Simon and Garfunkel, then and they were near the apex of their popularity as a duo. For the first two thirds of the evening they sang all the popular songs we all knew and loved from the albums we all already owned. Paul played guitar. I think a pianist and a couple of string players accompanied them on a few songs. Then Paul said they would like to introduce some new songs from their new album that was about to be released. With that a drum kit, a bass amp and a couple of electric guitar amps were rolled onto the stage along with some other percussion instruments, and an assortment of new musicians stepped up and plugged in to this new group of instruments. This did not look like Simon and Garfunkel folkish music. This looked like Rock. And some people started to boo.

Hard to believe, but more than a few people started to boo. I thought of that as I watched Paul Simon perform all these decades later accompanied by two electric guitars, a bass, a full horn section, an accordion, a zydeco organ, a very full percussion section including two large drum kits—I thought of those people who booed all those years ago and wondered if any of them were with us on this night to celebrate where the journey of music had taken him. I wondered if they regretted booing him in 1969. I wondered if they even remembered.

On that night in 1969, when the people booed, he simply smiled and said, “Now, now, give it a chance. I think you’ll like it.” And then they played Cecilia. And then El Condor Pasa. Then Keep the Customer Satisfied, and Baby Driver… and when they played Bridge Over Troubled Water there wasn’t a dry eye in the arena. And from then on they could do no wrong.  And I think we began to get an inkling that their music, his music, was going to take us in a new direction.  And behold, it was good.

NEW YORK, NY – JANUARY 20: Paul Simon performs onstage during The Nearness Of You Benefit Concert at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on January 20, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)

When we love the old familiar songs so dearly it is sometimes hard to allow room in our hearts and minds for the new songs. Mary Chapin Carpenter once quipped at a concert that she wanted to break some songs out of “new song jail.” I think this same dynamic can apply to our theological thinking. Sometimes we’re reluctant to hear the melodies of our beliefs rearranged and played by different instrumentation, to different rhythms. We’ve lived so long with words like “grace,” and “atonement,” and “Trinity,” and “Incarnation,” and even “Creation” that they can sometimes trigger within us a neuro-theological version of Name That Tune. Just hearing the word activates a mental shortcut to an old recording of a belief structure and it’s enough to know it’s there even if we haven’t actually payed any attention to it in ages. And yet, if we dare to listen what some unexpected voices are singing on these themes, we might hear the ancient songs come alive and dance in a whole new way that reinvigorates our faith and our lives. And if you don’t like the new arrangements…well the old cantatas will still always be there.

“Music is forever; music should grow and mature with you, following you right on up until you die.” –Paul Simon

The same can be said for theology.

How Are You Translating?

For this is how God loved the world—all of it, everything: God gave God’s unique son so that everyone who trusts into him need not be destroyed but may have eternal life. For God did not send this son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be made whole through him. – John 3:16-17 (my translation)

I know.  That’s not the way your Bible says it.  It’s not the way my Bibles say it, either.  I have several.  It goes with the job.  No, that’s not the way it reads in your Bible or mine, but it is a perfectly legitimate translation from the ancient Greek text.

So how does it sound to you, this word about the Word in different words?  Does “trust into him” make you pause?  Before you mentally substituted the more familiar “believe in him” did you stop to think about the difference?  What do you mean when you say “believe?”  Is there a difference between believing as intellectual affirmation versus trusting?  Can you believe in someone but still not trust them with your life?  What’s the difference between in and into?  Subtle, that one.  But doesn’t in sound more like stasis, something settled, while into is more of an ongoing process?  Why do so many translations say condemn when the Greek word most frequently means to judge.  True, it can mean condemn, but why leap to that?  Oh, and saved.  Such an interesting, interesting word.  Sozo in Greek.  It can mean to be rescued, to be made safe, to be removed from danger, but its oldest meaning is to be healed, to be made whole.

So how do you prefer to hear it?  Heard one way it can be about God’s plan for fire insurance of the eternal kind. Heard another way it can be a message about God’s intervention to heal this world, all of us and everything else.  Which translation speaks to you?

How are you translating the world around you?  How are you translating the other people you encounter in life?  How are you translating yourself?

“Love one another as I have loved you,” says Jesus, later in the Gospel of John.  He makes it a commandment of all things.  Really loving each other involves learning to really hear each other and see each other. David Augsburger wrote, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” To love you, I need to hear you.  To love me, you need to hear me.  We need to translate each other accurately.  To do that we each need to know something about how the other person is translating the world and interpreting their experience.

We are not looking at the world through the same eyes or hearing it through the same ears, but if, when we disagree, we stop to ask why we are seeing and hearing things so differently—if we take the first step in translating each other—then we’re taking the first steps in loving each other.  If nothing else, paying close attention to those around us can teach us all kinds of interesting things, even when they are not being particularly relational. “I learned silence from the talkative and tolerance from the intolerant and kindness from the unkind,” wrote Khalil Gibran.  And that’s love, too.

gethsemane_thumb11
After your feet have been washed
and the perfect meal’s been served
and all has been said that need saying,
will you be staying?

Thursdays are so busy.
There’s still so much we must get through.
But tomorrow will be worse,
so may your host make one request of you?

Could you stay with me a little while?
Would you pray with me for just a while?
A little while?

I know a little garden
up on a hillside, set apart,
where we can share all our troubles,
heart to heart.

I know it’s late.  You’re tired.
Frankly, so am I.
But tonight I need your moral support
because tomorrow there’s a harder hill to climb.

So will you stay with me for just a while?
Please– pray with me a little while…
a little while.

After your feet have been washed
and the perfect meal’s been served
and all has been said that needs saying,
will you be staying–
will you be praying
with me
for just a little while?

 

Thursday Night

The Gift

The little boy stopped in his tracks and pulled his mother’s hand tight to his chest.  His father, catching up to them, stopped and rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  The fog of the boy’s breath sparkled for a moment with a halo from the streetlamp before vanishing into the cold night air, and his glistening eyes reflected a kaleidoscope of colors from countless lights on the amply decorated houses competitively decked out for the season.  A passable version of Jingle Bells wafted down the street from a group of not-too-bad carolers but was soon overwhelmed by an odd assortment of recorded music pouring out of various holiday displays, some sacred, some not so much.

The thing that had stopped the boy as he skipped down the street was not the seemingly endless cascade of colored light nor one of the comical inflated cartoon characters in Santa hats, nor even the impressive electric train set and miniature Alpine village filling an entire front yard.  The thing that stopped him stone still there on the cold December sidewalk was an old-fashioned crèche, a simple manger scene.

Compared to all the other neighborhood displays the crèche was almost embarrassingly understated.  There were no shepherds or angels or magi in this tableau, just Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.  Their figures, though, were particularly well crafted and cunningly lit.  They looked so real that one had to do a double-take to make sure that they were, in fact, sculptures and not human actors holding a pose.  The figures looked decidedly Middle-Eastern and even, if such a thing is possible, a bit dislocated in time, as if they had been transported to this sanitary American cul de sac from a dusty, distant, Palestinian past. But perhaps the thing that was most arresting was the way they looked at you if you stood just where the boy and his parents were standing.

Mary is usually depicted with her hands on her heart as she ponders her child in the manger.  Joseph, too, is most often shown gazing at the baby.  But this scene was different.  The boy, the mother, the father almost felt as if they had intruded, as if they had inadvertently stumbled into something serious and secret and would now have to be initiated into its mysteries.  Joseph seemed to be giving them a stare of careful appraisal and assessment as he looked directly into their eyes. “Can you handle this?  Can you treasure this precious thing you did not ask for, this responsibility, this honor, this gift that will give you everything and also demand everything? Can you stay with him when it would be easier to walk away?” he seemed to be asking.  Mary, too, gazed intently, unblinking, into their eyes and seemed to be asking, “Do you understand the weight of this gift?  Do you even begin to understand what you have here? Do you know what is happening here? Do you know who he is?  Will you let him show you who you are?”

And then there was the baby.  How to describe this baby?  He, too, seemed to be looking straight into their souls, but in his face there were no questions.  There was instead an indescribable mix of innocence and wisdom.  There was promise and foreshadowing.  There was the shining hint of divinity and the burbling drool of humanity.  There was life, organic and messy, full of merriment and ecstasy and pain and tears and plain everydayness.  There was light, revealing, illuminating, probing, warming, piercing and soothing, burning and healing.  There was love, gentle and compassionate, fierce and yearning, ruthless and gracious. Love in all its purest shades.  Love in all its joy.  Love in all its anguish.  There was all that in that baby face and something else.  Deep in those eyes was God’s own Yes.

They stood transfixed at the crèche for what seemed like a long time—a moment out of time—one small family regarding another across and through time, still-life speaking to life in a held breath of stillness, until the not-too-bad carolers drew near and broke through the little family’s reverie with  tidings of comfort and joy that were a just a bit rushed ever so slightly out of tune.

A few minutes later, without much thinking about it, the boy, the mother and the father found themselves in their car making their way home.   The father drove a little more slowly than usual as they rolled across the familiar bumps and dips of familiar streets.  The boy watched the reflections of Christmas lights dance and swirl across the windows of passing cars.  And the mother’s eyes were focused on something only she could see as she softly hummed Silent Night.