SPIRITUAL PRACTICES FOR 21ST CENTURY PEOPLE: Summer 2017
When I was away in Montreal during our shared sabbatical two years ago, I had an insight about my heart for ministry and our lives together. In a word, it became clearer and clearer to me that in whatever time remained for us to sojourn together, my call was to emphasize Christ-ianity rather than Church-ianity – for there is a huge difference. A popular meme on Facebook restates this challenge with clarity: let’s leave church growth to God while we concentrate on training disciples. Disciples visibly embody Jesus in the world. Disciples consciously take on the character of Christ sharing compassion and love in their ordinary lives. Disciples are committed to the unforced rhythms of grace as practiced by Jesus when he invited all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens to come unto him and find rest for our souls.
- Old timers used to say that disciples are made not born; they are women and men trained and disciplined in the way of Jesus rather than self-selecting members of a religious social club.
- Do you grasp the distinction? In other words, the church is always one generation away from extinction for the way of Jesus is never inherited but passed on through disciple-making.
There are two, intertwined tiers in the practice of discipleship: the personal and the social. On one we nourish an intimacy with God; on the other, we learn the habits of the heart in community. Elizabeth O’Connor likes to call this the inward and outward journey, practicing our faith personally and socially, because both are essential for those devoted to the way of Jesus. What has happened in our generation over the past 60 years – and what happens periodically in the life of the Christian Church in history – is that the personal and social ways of Christ have become separated. Divided. Oppositional rather than embracing. We have lost touch with the wisdom and practice of both spiritual discipline and compassionate neighborliness to such a degree that frenzy and angst, fear and loathing, social conflict and mistrust have become the new normal.
Old Testament scholar and preacher, Walter Brueggemann reminds us, however, that at the core of Christianity is Christ’s call to love our neighbor as we love God and ourselves: Biblical ethics and spirituality are always pre-occupied with learning how to become good neighbors.
Neighbors who trust God’s abundance, neighbors who welcome the stranger and protect the vulnerable, neighbors who practice the unforced rhythms of grace, and neighbors who know that whenever we act like we have a monopoly upon wisdom and truth, danger lurks right around the corner: When we live according to our fears and our hates, (our own privileges and myopic vision) our lives become small and defensive, lacking the deep, joyous generosity of God. If you find some part of your life where your daily round has grown thin and controlling and resentful, (something is out of whack because) life with God is much, much larger, shattering our little categories of control, permitting us to say that God’s purposes lead us well beyond ourselves to live and forgive, to create lives we could never have imagined” if left just to our own vision. (Brueggemann)
- That is why we’re taking significant time this summer to explore, practice and wrestle with the integration of the inward and outward journeys. Discipleship, you see, is God’s antidote for anxiety, alienation, fear, bigotry, boredom and the illusion we have to do everything all by ourselves. Paul confessed as much in today’s passage from Romans 7saying that when he relied solely upon himself, what?
- He could not consistently accomplish what was loving or healthy: I do the things I hate and the things I love remain left undone. Such are the inevitable consequences of spiritual and social amnesia: we find ourselves physically weary, emotionally anxious, politically despairing and spiritually unmoored from the tender harbor Christ offers us in his unforced rhythms of grace. Brother Brueggemann reminds us that: We practice prayer because our life comes from God and we yield it back to God in our prayer. Prayer is the great antidote to the illusion that we are self-made.
So as I have done before – and will continue to do throughout the summer – let me ask you what you learned, experienced, and discerned from practicing our simple prayer of rejoicing that we are the Lord’s beloved? How did it go…?
Our loss of connection to the spiritual practices that can open us to Christ’s unforced rhythms of grace and the blessings of discipleship has a context and history. Our tradition emerged through conflict: the founders of the Protestant Reformation not only challenged the popular piety of their age, but also the way disciples were trained and nourished. We gave up a sacramental spirituality – using our senses to touch, feel, taste, hear and smell the goodness of the Lord – for a rigorous intellectual and doctrinal faith.
Howard Rice, Professor of Ministry and Chaplain Emeritus of San Francisco Theological Seminary, put it like this in his history of Reformed Spirituality : John Calvin taught that knowledge of the Lord is the soul of discipleship saying: “To know God is to know oneself and to know oneself is to know the Lord.” But two very different understandings of the word knowledge emerged over time. One was experiential, the other was intellectual. Calvin meant both, insisting that knowledge of the Lord was empirical and subjective, inward and outward, writing that “believers experience God as they experience – but can hardly be said to comprehend – thunder. This was one of Calvin’s favorite metaphors for religious experience. As thunder inspires us to awe, so the experience of God is so majestic and powerful that it defies expression and does not lend itself to logical explanations.”
But many who followed in the Reformed Protestant tradition after Calvin broke the experiential apart from the intellect. “Too often,” Rice observes, “knowledge of the Lord has been interpreted as rational and dispassionate so that to know God is to be able to describe God’s qualities correctly.” This is the doctrinal path – the composed and detached theology born of the mind – wherein our creation in the image of the Lord is to be found in our ability to think rationally. This is one of the reasons spirituality and disciple-making has fallen out of favor in our part of the church. The other is that since the early 1900s, we have taught that mainstream faith is a synthesis of science and ethics, reason and ritual, culture and theology.
Ours was a religion that opposed fundamentalism. In 1925, when Clarence Darrow defended John Scopes in the so-called Monkey Trials of Tennessee, the social elites and growing middle-class in America rejected the “old time religion” that abolished nuance and metaphor from religion. We joined churches that gave glory to God rationally. We affirmed a synthesis of intellect alongside the poetry of Genesis, casting off the God who literally created the world in seven exact days for one who set in motion the rational process of evolution.
By the late 1950s, however, this world view was losing influence – and by the 1980s it was no longer the dominant heart of American Christianity. Truth was now relative as the hard science of physics destroyed any notion of “timeless, objective veracity.” White privilege, male sexism and middle class morality were turned upside down by the proliferation of liberation movements around the world. And our abstract assumption “that God was too preoccupied with the cosmos to get involved in the nitty-gritty of personal intimacy with believers” no longer brought solace, hope or rest. In a word, our worldview collapsed.
And while this collapse is currently unnerving, it is also exciting for we are now living through the third great reformation: a time without theological consensus that is simultaneously pregnant with compassionate albeit diverse possibilities. Hence my emphasis on spiritual practices – discipleship – a return to the heart of piety that let’s God sort out institutional problems and church growth while we nourish the personal and community practices of following Jesus in our generation. I submit to you that the more we experience from the inside out that we are God’s beloved, the more we can act like it within our souls as well as our society. Knowing – trusting – celebrating that we are God’s beloved is the foundation upon which everything else is built – and this leads me to three insights from today’s gospel according to St. Matthew.
First we read that in Matthew’s day that there was an internal disagreement about what it meant to be a disciple: Matthew uses a comparison and contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus to make his point. At the start of chapter 11, Matthew quotes Jesus speaking to his disciples about himself as well as the difference in the Baptist’s ministry and his own. He paints John the Baptist as a fierce, bold and judgmental prophet from the wilderness. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at” he asks? A reed shaken by the wind? Someone dressed in soft robes? No, you went out to see a wild and demanding prophet in the desert.” Then Jesus speaks of himself in contrast: “When asked by John the Baptist whether or not I am the Messiah, Jesus replied, go tell the prophet what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor experience hope.”
Do you grasp the distinctions being made here? Matthew is clarifying for his community that the way of John is over for Christians and the way of Jesus, the coming one, is breaking into history. For the community of Christ, the way of the Baptist is complete and now a new way of living for God is to be incarnated.
Second we’re told that because both the way of the Baptist as prophet and Jesus as messiah are of the Lord, they upset the status quo : paraphrasing a Jewish wisdom text Matthew says that society is much like a group of fickle children in the marketplace too distracted and noisy to pay deep attention. Jesus came playing a flute with an invitation to the dance and the feast and he was slandered as a drunk. John came wailing and mourning calling us to the burial of the status quo and he was labeled a demon. Judgment is inevitable for those who follow either path. For Christian discipleship we must pay more attention to God’s love than the carping children complaining in the market place. Matthew wants us to know that the way of Jesus is not always obvious. It is confusing. Like John locked in a prison cell, the way of Jesus often seems baffling especially in a culture like our own. So we need to pay attention to the fact that the Baptist asked questions about the way of Jesus, ok? We all have questions: personal questions and ultimate questions, questions of what it will cost us to pick up our Cross and follow Jesus, questions of what following Jesus looks like in our own era. Questions are important?
Matthew then adds some commentary to clarify the upside-down wisdom of discipleship in the kingdom of God: it is what later theologians call the Paschal Mystery, the foolishness of the Cross that isn’t visible to those who rely only upon their intellect, status, wealth or pedigree for it is revealed to the wounded, broken and vulnerable when all they have left is trusting God. “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden (the good news) from the wise, the wealthy, the intelligent and those too smart for their own good, but have revealed it to infants.” This is another way of saying what Jesus proclaimed at the start of Matthew’s text in the Sermon on the Mount: You are blessed when you are at the end of your rope for with less of you there is more room for God.
“Faith does not grow from testing Jesus against our rational criteria to see if he measures up; Jesus is not merely the best example of values we already have; validated on the basis of our intellect.” (Eugene Boring) Rather, the way of faith comes from the heart – from revelation and love from above – that is nourished and brought into the light of day by practicing trust not rational discourse. Those who know they are exhausted – burned out on religion to use Peterson’s phrase – emotionally, spiritually and physically fried after trying to consistently love and be open to joy in the face of hardship and failing over and over, these are the ones who are ready to come and take on the yoke of the kingdom. These are the ones willing to relearn how to live, to trust like a child again the unforced rhythms of grace, to practice spiritual exercises so that our old ways are worn down like water on a rough stone so that the new and beautiful ways of the Lord might be reborn in our flesh from the inside out.
I have often quoted from the writing of the late, great disciple of Jesus, Henri Nouwen. I love his work. I also love the fact that Nouwen was so vulnerable for most of his ministry. He eventually owned and disclosed his brokenness, but for decades tried to hide it. He was successful in the academy, revered by his students, but not an intellectual so felt shamed and judged by the elite at Harvard and Yale. When he left teaching, he travelled to Latin America to try living the life of a poor, liberation theology priest only to discover that he missed the world of the intellect and didn’t experience community with the Spanish speaking campesinos. He felt guilty for his bourgeois affectations. He visited with Mother Theresa in India and asked her the secret of spiritual rest but wasn’t satisfied when she told him to mostly stay on his knees in silence for one hour every day and suck it up. Nouwen was confused thinking himself a failure as an academic, a liberationist as well a monastic.
In time the Lord led him to a friendship with Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, and Nouwen began to find his true calling as the resident spiritual advisor to the Daybreak Community in Toronto. But even there he ran into his shadow which eventually resulted in an emotional and physical break down. You see, Henri was a closeted gay priest who would not openly challenge his bishop or the Pope. As long as he remained busy and obsessed over where he didn’t fit in, he didn’t have to deal much with his sexuality. But, in Toronto, in a supportive community that felt safe and unhurried, he fell head over heels in love with another man – and it wasn’t reciprocated. Not that Nouwen wished to violate his vow of chastity. He simply was over taken with a deep love that crushed his heart because his beloved rejected him.
For two years this brilliant but broken priest was devastated. “Where is God in all of this?” he pleaded in his private prayer journal. “What blessing could possibly come from such grief and rejection?” Vanier helped Nouwen get into therapy – and spend time on retreat in prayer – and after another year Henri began to discover a new life as the primary care giver to one severely intellectually and physically challenged man by the name of Adam. Nouwen came to call Adam – wheelchair bound and mostly non-verbal – his most important spiritual director. Because with Adam time as we know it stopped: all that mattered was caring for a vulnerable and loving little man. Nouwen learned to take as much time every day as was needed to make sure he loved and served Adam as one of God’s beloved.
As Henri healed, he showed his prayer journals from his breakdown to a few friends who universally agreed that they were the BEST and most IMPORTANT writing he had ever done. They were thoroughly honest about hitting bottom. They were tenderly open about questioning God’s love and existence.
And they showed how the light of grace broke through the darkness to lead Nouwen back into a life of love and service that he never imagined possible. In time Adam died and a year after that death Nouwen died suddenly, too. During what became his last year on this side of life, Fr. Henri wrote a great deal about coming home to God as the Beloved. He used the parable of the Prodigal Son and the Loving Father as his inspiration. He also wrote about what he had learned about the hidden, mysterious but life-changing grace of God that was poured into his heart when he took on the yoke of the Lord.
You are not what others, or even you, think about yourself. You are not what you do. You are not what you have. You are a full member of the human family, having been known before you were conceived and molded in your mother’s womb… God loved you before you were born, and God will love you after you die. In Scripture God says, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.’ This is a fundamental truth of your identity. This is who you are whether you feel it or not. You belong to God from eternity to eternity. Life is just a little opportunity for you during a few years to say, ‘I love you, too… so choose now and continue to choose this incredible truth: claim and reclaim your primal identity as beloved daughter or son of a personal and love Creator and Lord.
EASTER SUNDAY HOMILY 2017
There’s a story I want to tell you this Easter morning – a story of hope and a little bit of healing in the middle of an ordinary life – but first I need to set the stage. And let me say right out of the gate that because this is the Feast of the Resurrection – THE most sacred day in the Christian tradition – I want to give you what I’ve come to trust is the essence of Easter: intimacy with our Lord Jesus. So bear with me for a moment…
Start to play “Pay Day” and set up the groove…
About 10 days ago I walked into a club in Ottawa, Canada and a white bluesman was playing this exact tune. To paraphrase the late Otis Redding: I’ve been loving the sound of this song too long – at least for 50 years. It’s by Mississippi John Hurt, a sly and humble little guitar player from Avalon, MI, who owns a style of playing called “country blues.” It’s country because it tends towards the quiet and gentler sounds – finger picking the strings – but it’s the blues too because it’s about living with the disappointments of life while hanging on to the possibility that things could get better.
Well I did all I could do, and I can’t get along with you
Gonna take you to your momma come pay day
Pay day – pay day – gonna take you to your momma come pay day
Now here’s the thing about country blues: there’s no blame and no shame in these songs. Just the heart of things simply stated: life can be tough and things don’t always work out at first. So, come pay day, you have to regroup, get another chance and move on. The second verse makes this even clearer.
Well the rabbit’s in the log, I ain’t got no rabbit dog
And I hate to see that rabbit get away
Get away – get away, Lord, Lord – and I hate to see that rabbit get away
No blame and no shame going on here, just a little sorrow mixed with a taste of ironic humor and set to a sweet, mellow tune…
The great, Alberta Hunter, gospel and jazz singer extraordinaire once said: “The blues means what milk does to a baby. The blues is what the spirit is to the preacher. We sing the blues because our hearts have been hurt and our souls have been disturbed… but this ain’t the end of the story.” Bono of U2 called the Psalms of the Bible written by King David the first Jewish blues song for they describe the aching of the human heart and flesh with stunning clarity even as they reach out to the Lord for comfort. Today’s Psalm puts it like this: We may be hurting, but suffering is not our only reality; we may be frightened, but our limited imagination does not inhibit the Lord; for even our stumbling blocks can become the source of new faith and blessing if we have eyes to see.
- And this takes me back to the story I started to share at the outset: when I walked into that blues club in Ottawa and heard this very song being sung by John Carroll, I knew something was up. Something special was brewing. Something infused with the holy in the mists of this all too human joint – I just didn’t know what it was. (Play the chorus riff again…)
So I ordered a glass of French wine, a small appetizer salad and sat back in anticipation – and let me tell you what happened. The cat playing the blues was really good – amazingly good – bigly good! And that was treat enough. I’ve been to enough dives to know that the quality of the music can often be… let’s say uneven in these places. But his music was well-honed and masterfully executed. He did songs by the Rev. Fred McDowell like “See That My Grace Is Kept Clean,” a number of originals as well as a wildly entertaining take on Talking Heads.
After about an hour, things were kind of slow so the waitress sat down at my small table and began talking about her day. I can’t tell you why she chose an old guy like me – maybe she thought I was Arlo Guthrie, I don’t know – but she started to tell me how hard it was to be a young woman working in a blues club. Too many guys get trashed and act out; too many women treat her with disdain because she’s young and cute. And too many people in general don’t tip enough. I didn’t exactly grasp what was happening in this conversation for a few minutes, but then it hit me: this was a secular confession. After all, it was almost Holy Week, and she was talking to me about the state of her soul. So I started to listen more carefully. Now please understand that she had no idea that I was clergy.
I don’t go around wearing clerical collar or a robe – especially in a blues bar – but she needed to unburden herself during the break… and I was paying attention. There were two things that were confessed that evening that hit me hard. Working in a blues bar has caused her to construct a high wall around her heart in order to get through her day. “I need really high boundaries” she continued “so that I don’t get jerked around. Let’s just say I’ve learned this the hard way.” My reply had something to do with the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis: “You know that story in the Bible about Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden? It’s like what you were talking about,” I told her. “A double whammy – they received knowledge of good and evil – they learned how the real world works – but it was a costly lesson, too for they gave up some peace and innocence. Wisdom,” I said ruefully “always comes with a high price.”
She pondered that for a moment in silence and then something that blew me away: with a real sadness – a genuine case of the blues – she told me that she’d tried going to church but it didn’t work out. “Too much judgment there. When people found out I worked in blues bar all they could say was that I had surrounded myself in sin and was corrupting my own soul. It was a Pentecostal Church,” she added, “and I loved the mix of people and the music. But damn – all that judgment and shame – I couldn’t take it even though I wanted to get closer to God’s love.”
And THAT, dear people, is my point for Easter Sunday – and maybe for the rest of my time on God’s green earth: Jesus would have hated what happened to that young waitress. He did not come to the earth or go to the cross to fill us with more guilt and shame. He came to set us free for joy. He came to sing the blues with us so that we might know that suffering is NOT the end of the story. So I told her as the blues man was getting ready to start his second set: “What happens in many churches would make Jesus throw up. But don’t give up. God’s love for you is stronger than the stupidity of the church.” She returned a quiet and vulnerable smile and then brought me a little more wine – on the house – before getting back to work.
And I can’t quit thinking about this confession as it relates to our gathering today on Easter Sunday. So let me suggest to you three “take aways” that have been strengthened in my heart. First, so many of the people all around us are lonely, afraid and filled with a shame that the church should be cleansing not reinforcing.
Fr. Richard Rohr recently wrote: When Christians defined Jesus on Easter in a small way—as a mere problem solver for human sin—we soon became preoccupied with sin itself, which is a largely negative foundation. We became blind to so much else that was going on in this world except sin and its effects, that sin became the preoccupation of monks as well as reformers. One well- known Protestant preacher actually spoke of “total depravity” to characterize the human situation; another said of human nature that we are “a pile of manure covered with the snow of Christ.” With such a negative anthropology and without a place for inherent human dignity, it is very hard for even a good theology to succeed. Grace can only build on—and perfect—nature; it cannot undo it, says a deeper truth. That is why we must start where the Bible begins in Genesis 1: “When God created It was good, it was good . . . it was very good. Our focus on shame and guilt, atonement and reparation, as if we were children frightened of an abusive father must be up-ended and deep-sixed so that we start sharing the gospel of grace and hope rather than our obsession on shame.
Second, any place can become a holy place – even a blues bar or the burial place of Christ Jesus – if we are attentive, have our eyes open and expect God to show up like the women who went to the Lord’s tomb in anticipation. Unlike the other gospels, Matthew tells us that the women went in anticipation of something life changing. They had been silent for most of this story – watching and waiting – listening carefully to both the Lord’s teaching while he was alive and the promises he gave foreshadowing his death. For them as well as for you and me, greeting the resurrection requires both a profound inner stillness as well as a sweeping commitment to trusting that God’s steadfast love that endures forever will show up in the most unexpected places. When I walked into that club in Ottawa I wasn’t anticipating anything profound until I was awakened by the blues – and then I found myself hearing a secular confession and offering the blessing of absolution to a wounded waitress. Whoda thunk it?
And that brings me to the third take away for Easter Sunday: the women in our story today are well schooled in paying attention and providing for those all around them. Professor of New Testament theology at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Holly Hearon, writes: When the women are first introduced in Matthew’s gospel we learn that they have followed Jesus from Galilee and have “provided” for him. That word “provide” (Greek: diakonei from which we get the word deacon) reveals a good deal about these women because it is used for only s a highly select group of souls. After Jesus had been tempted in the wilderness, angels come and “provide” for him (4:11). The next person to “provide” for Jesus is Peter’s mother-in-law after she has been raised from her sickbed (8:15). And in Mt. 25:44 the sheep are those who “provide” for Jesus by tending all who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, sick, or imprisoned.
Think about that: angels, those who have tasted healing not shame and isolation, and people who have learned how to see the face of Jesus in the least of these our sisters and brothers are identified as those who provide a measure of God’s grace to a broken world in Matthew’s story. On Easter, the women from Galilee are joined to the great cloud of witnesses who keep the love of Jesus flowing. The (male) disciples never come near this word. In fact, the only other person associated with the word diakonei in Matthew’s gospel is Jesus himself, who declares that he has come into the world not to be provided for, but to provide others with blessings for the healing of the world (20:28). These women were no latter day tag-alongs. They have been intimately bound to Jesus from the very first days in Galilee. And in following him, have pursued the path of discipleship that Jesus’ himself models.
Every day as I wrestle with the pain of the world – from the fear-mongering, saber-rattling antics of this hour to the cynical gassing to death of Syrian children and famine in Sudan – I hear Jesus singing the blues. I hear his heart breaking with a grief that causes me to weep along with him. I hope you are weeping, too and not too busy for Christ’s tomb in our day.
At the very same time of my tears, however, I also hear the women of the Easter story calling to me me: if you hear the blues, man, pay attention because the blues always lead you to some place unexpected. You could find yourself blessed by some extraordinarily beautiful soul music in an unexpected club in Ottawa. Or maybe be called upon to provide a little compassion and encouragement to a stranger who feels lost in the brokenness? Until last Thursday I would never have considered Mississippi John Hurt’s little country blues song a call to prayer, but the Spirit of the Lord has awakened my eyes to see and ears to hear. That’s what happens to the women who watch and wait in the spirit of Easter – even our blues become a way to provide for God’s grace in a broken world – and what was true for them once is true for us today.
Pay day… pay day… mmmmm the Lord will be my shelter come
WORSHIP NOTES: Annual Meeting 2017
Today is our time for blessing: blessing one another, welcoming the Lord’s blessing in each of our unique lives, blessing the broken but beautiful world we live in, and blessing this moment in time with a commitment to humility. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said. “Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are you when you are at the end of your rope, blessed are you when your heart is broken… for when there is less of you, there is more of God and God’s kingdom.” (Matthew 5)
Blessings saturate our scriptures today, but we may need a little help honoring this truth for our era. So let me call to your attention the way Ernest Kurtz speaks about blessings and humility in his little book: A Spirituality of Imperfection. It is one of my favorites. Using the 12 Steps of AA as a lens through which to organize his thinking, Kurtz writes: “To be humble is to learn to live with and even rejoice in reality.” (p. 190) Humility rejects perfectionism and challenges all-or-nothing thinking. Like St. Paul told us from inside a prison cell, humility empowers us to “rejoice in the Lord always.” Not just when we feel like it or when it is convenient; not simply when we’re well fed and rested or when we know someone in authority Is looking – but always. To embrace the blessings of Christian humility is to learn to live with and even rejoice in reality. Leonard Cohen put it so poetically when he sang: “There is a crack, a crack, in everything: that’s how the light gets in.”
Like the Bible, he knew that the world is broken – our politics are broken – some of our finances are broken – and many of our hearts are broken, too. That is how we were made back in the beginning. And when we slow down long enough to recognize reality, we see that everything is broken and this can make us want to laugh or cry. I know that there have been times when all I could do was howl in outrage and agony. And there’s nothing wrong, weak or shameful about our tears. Jesus wept, right? Tears can be a sacred body prayer when we only have sighs to deep for human words. “To everything there is a season,” said the sage of the Old Testament, “a time to weep and a time to laugh… a time to mourn and a time to dance… a time for silence and a time to speak.” When the tears are over, however, humility – rejoicing in the blessing of reality – asks us to learn how to laugh, too –mostly laugh at ourselves tenderly. It is a spiritual paradox – a theological conundrum – even a part of the sacred dialectic that becoming a person of balance, integrity and compassion is fundamentally about knowing when to laugh at our brokenness rather than fight ourselves and the way the Lord created us.
This morning, therefore, on the occasion of our annual meeting that follows today’s worship – as well as my last Sunday as a full-time preacher of Christ’s gospel after 35 years – I feel called to speak with you about laughter and brokenness, blessings and serving God in a new way at First Church that pushes us out into the community. This will be my take on the foolishness of the Cross through the lens of the 10 foot rule – a reflection on why it matters that the words human, humor and humility all have their origins in the word humus .
To be human and humble starts with earthiness – being grounded – for that’s what humus means in both science and Scripture. Humus is defined in the dictionary as “a brown or black substance resulting from the partial decay of plant and animal matter.” And what does the Lord our God create man and woman out of in the oldest Hebrew story of our origins but… humus!? Genesis Two is wonderfully gritty: in the beginning, God formed from the dust of the ground human beings and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life. In this the mud man and woman became living beings – adam ha admah – people of humus filled with nephesh chayyah: the breath of life given by God. Our ancestors in faith understood that humanity is always a mixture of dirt and dung filled with the Holy Spirit. To appreciate this unique combination, let alone honor it, we’re asked to learn to laugh at ourselves. For if we’re honest, we’re a real piece of work: from dust we came and to dust we shall return and at the very same time we are created just a little lower than the angels both at the same time.
One of my favorite stories from the Jewish tradition tells of the rabbi who in a moment of religious passion rushed into the Sanctuary, fell to his knees before the ark, began to beat his breast and cried out, “I am nobody, Lord, I am nobody!” The cantor of the synagogue, impressed by this example of humility, joined the rabbi on his knees saying, “I am nobody. I am nobody!” Watching from the corner, the custodian couldn’t restrain himself either; so he rushed forward to join the other two on their knees, crying out, “I am nobody, Lord, nobody!” At which point the rabbi nudges the cantor with his elbow, points at the custodian on the floor and says, “Look who thinks he’s nobody!”
Humility is about honesty and earthiness. When we can laugh at ourselves, celebrating both the humus and the Holy Spirit, we’re close to what the ancient prophets taught about the purpose in life. The heart of God’s righteous requirement, prophesied Micah, is all about doing justice, sharing compassion and walking with humility in the presence of God’s reality. And do you know when I knew that God still had plans for First Church in this community – that God had not yet finished with us yet?
Ten years ago when I was candidating to be your pastor and you spontaneous doubled over in a wave of laughter when I told you the story about the minister, the priest and the rabbi who bet one another they could convert a black bear to their religious tradition. Remember that? If you had simply tittered, or acted like the frozen chosen, I would have known you were toast! There is a link, you see, between humor, humility and the movement of the holy spirit in our human hearts. The willingness and ability to laugh at ourselves is proof that the Spirit is at work bringing blessing to our lives even when we don’t realize it. We are not in control. The Spirit blows where it will – and if we’re receptive it will bring us joy and our laughter will be spontaneous. That’s the first blessing I want to remind you about today; and the second has to do with the way our own humility can empower us to connect our brokenness with the wounds of the world.
You know, when I first arrived here, besides the laughter, we were kind of stiff about some things. No one had ever felt they could wear jeans to Sunday worship before. Every single door in this place was bolted and locked. And we had serious arguments about what color to paint the hallway. Now here’s the thing about the old ways: if they help us serve God’s love, tradition is beautiful. But when it becomes calcified, tradition becomes tradionalism – and that becomes a prison. When this congregation was at the center of community life – the FIRST church – filled with the elite and powerful, those old traditions probably served us well. Not so much any-more, right? Now circumstances beyond our control have pushed us to the periphery of power in Pittsfield so that we might become partners not only in the preservation of our building, but in the renewal of our town – no longer as movers and shakers – but in a way that is more humble.
That’s how I understand St. Paul when he speaks to us of the foolishness of the Cross. “God decided to use what looks like foolishness – brokenness and powerlessness – to save the world. Some trust their knowledge, others use their influence and wealth, but we look to the Cross as the power of God even when this seems like folly to the world. We know, through Jesus Christ, that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God on the Cross is stronger than all human strength.” (I Corinthians 1: 18-25) Please recall that Paul didn’t learn this in school, business or on vacation; this wisdom came through the failure of his arrogance that drove him to his knees. Like each of us, Paul came to trust God’s revelation on the Cross only when he ran out of power, influence, wisdom and pride. “God chose what is weak in the world, despised in the world, low and on the periphery of the world… to bring about healing, hope and right relations between people.”
And that’s where I see our second blessing in 2017 – from the side-lines, not the center– standing without significant influence in order that we might serve as authentic allies with others working for the common good. I think we have been humbled so that we might live as Christ’s disciples in our shared brokenness. People who practice more listening than speaking – women and men of hospitality rather than titles – adults who live more like children of God than CEOs, administrators, financial advisors, engineers, educators and all the rest. After last summer’s cottage meetings, you clearly stated that you wanted to remain in this beautiful place to worship and to celebrate being a radically Open and Affirming congregation. You also recognized that we could no longer afford to do this like we used to. And I believe that you were right in both areas – we can no longer afford to do things the way we used to – but not simply because money is tight. We don’t worship a balanced budget – that’s idolatry. No we’ve been called to exchange old fears and habits for the blessings of being a more humble church guided by the foolishness of the Cross.
At least that’s how I see it as your pastor – even your part-time pastor. It is my task to do something unique in our life together. I am called to study God’s word given to us in Jesus Christ, listen for God’s spirit shared with us in community and attempt to give these blessings shape and form so that we can act upon them. Our tradition calls this mission interpretation and claiming a vision for God’s people because without a vision… what? God’s people perish! Here’s the way I see it in 2017: The time has come to lay aside all anxiety. We are no longer a large and influential church for God has now called us into a season of greater humility. This is a blessing. Our legacy in privilege and power has come to an end so that we might mature in servanthood and solidarity. This renewed calling frees us to practice radical hospitality in a harsh and fearful culture. Without old fears, we can support the grass roots renewal of Pittsfield with our time, talent and treasure in creative ways. And celebrate God’s grace in worship so that we might live as partners with God’s compassion in our Pittsfield.
This is where the 10 foot rule becomes instructive: it actually shapes what Matthew’s gospel is telling us. The Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount are not general words of piety filled with abstractions; rather they are blessings born of solidarity with the real lives of God’s people in history. One scholar suggested that if we generalize these blessings without understanding their historical context for Jewish Christians gathering in fear after fleeing the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem and the war Rome waged on ancient Israel between 66-70 CE, we sanitize the upside-down wisdom of Jesus Christ, stripping his blessings of their true significance and rendering them impotent and sentimental when they are anything but harmless.
So here’s the real deal – and why it matters to us – on this day of blessings. Matthew is interpreting the ministry of Jesus to a first century community of Jewish Christians who not only know but cherish the Old Testament. Matthew’s goal was to inspire his people to keep the gospel real even in the midst of oppression, fear and disappointment. It is not accidental that Matthew opens his story with a genealogy connecting Jesus to King David – son of Abraham – nor is it a fluke that other beloved Old Testament stories are reinterpreted in a new light. And the key story that sets the stage for the Sermon on the Mount is Rachel weeping and wailing for her slain children. New Testament professor, Richard Swanson, puts it like this: Rachel was brought into the story from the deep memory of the Jewish people who knew she mourned the exiles being force-marched into oblivion. Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 587 BCE. The Temple had once given the people a sense that life was stable, safe, and predictable. They had lived through Assyria destroying 10/12s of Israel just a generation earlier, so they clung to God’s promises to Sarah and Abraham and David and the Temple… only to be scattered and thrown to the wind by Babylon. Matthew takes this story of Rachel from 500 years before Jesus to focus attention on another act of destruction: King Herod’s likely murder of innocent Jewish toddlers under the age of two. What Matthew’s people were experiencing, you see, was not grief in general; it was grief still fresh and raw as the corpses of little children littering the storytelling stage of this community and this memory is vividly alive. (Richard Swanson, Working Preacher.)
It is these mourners – these broken hearted, humbled and bereft refugees of the first century who are only ten feet away from Matthew – who Matthew is trying to comfort. And we must be clear what this comfort meant for: “it is NOT the comfort of hand-holding in impotence. The New Testament Greek word for comfort, paraklethesontai, calls a mourner out of the immobility of grief and into action.” (Swanson) Specifically, this comfort calls a mourner to speak the truth about an injustice in their live out loud like a witness would in court – a witness who had experienced the horror of seeing innocent children murdered for crass political power. Now, these voices could not undo the evil. Yet something restorative takes place whenever broken people find their voice and speak that truth in public. It both interrupts the inner cycle of shame and creates a climate where others are encouraged to embrace us, help us carry our burdens, and become partners with us in sharing the agony of the Cross. In a word, their voices unlock our solidarity and compassion. And lest there be no ambiguity, Jesus goes on to tell us that those who are poor in spirit – literally those whose breath has been broken within them by sobbing – that’s what the word pneuma translated here as spirit can also mean – breath.
Those sobbing with broken hearts and jagged breath are promised the healing of God’s kingdom come to earth as it is already done in heaven. Do you see how very specific these blessings are, Christian friends, do you see the relevance of the 10 foot rule in this embodied humility? Well, it doesn’t stop there but applies to those who are persecuted because they hunger and thirst for righteousness, too. Do you know that the word persecuted – dioke in Greek – means those who are hunted? They are being hunted for cherishing the way of Torah – doing justice, sharing compassion and nurturing humility with God – hunted, in a word, for being Jews in the heart of the Roman Empire.
Now, if you are anything like me – if you watch even one newscast a week or casually glance at a newspaper even once a month – you can’t help but notice that all around us are people who sense that they are now the hunted: because of their faith, because of their race, because of who they love. Back in the fall when Jewish Family Services held a meeting at the Athenaeum about welcoming 50 Syrian refugees into Pittsfield, some rose up in anger and fear wanting to lock the doors of love in our town to those who worshipped Allah. Look, it wasn’t all that long ago that Jews were hunted down in Europe – or excluded from towns like the one I grew up in back in Connecticut – and now we want to do it again to Muslims? Such sentiments have traction in France, Poland and much of Europe these days. And now there’s serious talk about building a wall at the Mexican border, registering Muslims, outlawing righteous, nonviolent protest in five US states and turning back the clock of compassion on LGBTQ marriage equality! Have I been clear that the blessings Jesus spoke of once were never abstract pieties, but always shared acts of compassion for very specific people who felt hunted? Nothing has changed today.
Authentic Christian humility must always bring healing and hope to specific wounds. We must always carry and share the burdens of our sisters and brothers in solidarity.
That is why I do not believe it is a coincidence that God has brought us to the possibility of partnering with Pitts-field in humility at this moment in our history. In our weakness, God makes us ALL strong. Once we were leaders; now we can be allies in the foolishness of the Cross. Once we were at the center, today we must be out on the streets joining others carrying our neighbors’ burdens as if they were the Cross of our Lord. And the more we practice and learn from Mother Humility, the greater the blessings. Some of you know that FDR’s grandson, James Roosevelt, was in our Sanctuary three weeks ago – and he was in awe of this place. He said, “Do you know my grandmother once spoke here – and that Marion Anderson sang in your parlor, too?”
Two or three other people went out of their way last week to repeat that story to me – and it got me thinking about what the great African American opera singer, Marian Anderson has to teach us humor, humanity and humility in the spirit of Jesus. There is a story that Ms. Anderson’s manager, Sol Hurok, used to tell.
He often said that Marian Anderson had not simply grown great, she’d grown great simply. “A few years ago” he said, “a reporter interviewed Marian and asked her to name the greatest moment in her life. I was in her dressing room at the time and was curious to hear the answer. I knew she had many big moments to choose from. There was the night Toscanini told her that hers was the finest voice of the century. There was the private concert she gave at the White House for the Roosevelts and the King and Queen of England. She had received a $10,000 Bok Award as the person who had done the most for her home town of Philadelphia. And to top it all, there was an Easter Sunday in Washington when she stood beneath the Lincoln statue and sang for a crowd of 75,000 people including Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices, and most members of Congress. Which of those big moments would she choose? None of them,” said Hurok. “Miss Anderson told the reporter that the greatest moment of her life was the day she went home and told her mother she would no longer have to take in washing anymore.”
God chose what is weak in the world, despised in the world, low and on the periphery of the world… to bring about healing, hope and right relations between people.” This is the blessing of the foolishness of the Cross and God is calling us to affirm it and rejoice in its reality. O Lord, may we have ears to hear.
A VISION FOR OUR LIFE TOGETHER: August 22, 2016 – One of the most vexing – infuriating – creatively challenging – professionally troubling and morally significant challenges facing North American churches at this moment in time is: how do we enthusiastically embrace the spiritual wisdom and radical compassion of Christ Jesus as Lord while living in a cynical culture simultaneously addicted to fear and in ethical bondage to the idolatry of greed? Whew – that’s a mouthful, I know. And yet for 35 years of parish ministry – and 8 years of community organizing before that – I have had to explore various strategies for living into a loving alternative to the confines of fear and greed that increasingly define my home-land. And as my ministry draws closer to its formal conclusion, it has become clear to me that in 2016 – as opposed to 1968 – ours nation is paradoxically more loving and more hateful than I could ever have imagined when first I was called to serve the Lord in the aftershocks of Dr. King’s assassination. Think about it:
- Marriage equality is now the law of the land and embedded in the hearts of a super majority of our kin as an essential human right, and, at the same time, candidates for a variety political offices openly advocate hatred and even the possibility that their opponents be brought to death by second amendment gun enthusiasts.
- We have become a creatively diverse community of peoples racially, ethnically and spiritually, taking the American experiment with equality to new levels of beauty while violence and discrimination wound our sisters and brothers of color with growing intensity.
- Our economy is stronger while the white, middle class shrinks. We have made a quantum leap in reversing fluorocarbon pollution yet continue to experience climate change tragedies of biblical proportions like that the recent flooding in Louisiana. And America’s fastest growing demographic is interracial children in the land of opportunity even as hate crimes are ascending.
As Krista Tippett so persuasively reminds us, a new Reformation is beginning to take place all around us as we realize that the old economic, religious, educational and political structures are not working. We can’t yet discern what these new forms will be, but they real. “We have riches of knowledge and insight, tools both tangible and spiritual to rise to this challenge…” alongside immense fear and social confusion. It is into this context that once again our ancient tradition invites us to reconsider what it means to practice and honor the Sabbath as holy.
- The ancient prophetic poet of Israel, Isaiah, wrote in the 5th century BCE: If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob… Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
- Jesus of Nazareth, celebrating the wisdom of his Jewish tradition, put it like this two thousand years ago: Hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
- And Walter Brueggemann, 21st century Bible scholar and prophetic teacher in our tradition, said: Sabbath, in the first instance is NOT about worship – it is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawing from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined only by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being. Sabbath, you see, is about caring for our neighbor and making certain we have the time, energy and vision to do so.
So today I want to share with you why I believe it is critical for us – First Church – to reclaim a renewed and reformed commitment to honoring the Sabbath. Last week I listened carefully to how you answered my question about what we are passionate about as a congregation. And, with all due respect and genuine pastoral affection, I must say I wasn’t surprised that many of our replies were tepid. Not bad, of course, and not wrong but more in the vein of harmless generalities than passionate ministries. In fact, while some will disagree, we sounded more like a tender-hearted social club to me than a community of faith shaped and guided by the Cross of Jesus Christ. So, before I leave on vacation later next week, I want to offer you an alternative to see how it resonates with you.
You see, I believe God is working within and among us – and some of us are passionate to respond – but we are so nervous about trusting the Lord for guidance that we slide back into old habits of privilege that prop-up the status quo more than the kingdom of God. Some, of course, don’t really care what happens and others are burned out.
But I believe there is a critical mass among – small but eager – who willing to go the extra mile in creativity and commitment – and I’m talking to you today. The great American scientist who fled Nazi Germany, Albert Einstein, once observed that, “We cannot solve our problems with the same mode of thinking that created them in the first place.” So let me first share two insights with you about honoring the Sabbath: one from Isaiah and one from Jesus. And then I will give you three broad themes about doing ministry in this era that I am passionate about.
In the text appointed for today from Isaiah 58, we would do well to recall that it takes place after Israel’s best and brightest have lived for 70 years of exile in Babylon: their grandchildren have returned home to Jerusalem, they have begun to build a fortress wall around the city to protect the new temple and differentiate between who is an insider and outsider, and are hoping to renew lives that celebrate the favor of God’s grace.
But something is going wrong. After experiencing and accepting God’s judgment and their own season of grief in exile, inwardly Israel has embraced the Lord’s forgiveness for their sins but outwardly fear, anger and discord rules the day. They pray along with their priests Psalm 103: As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him… the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments – but something is out of whack. And a careful reading of the prophet tells us two truths that have implications for our own congregational dilemma: First, the people are fasting but God doesn’t appear to notice; and second, there is no sense of compassion active in the community. The wealthy hoard their resources. The Sabbath becomes a forum for commercialization. Those with privilege look out for themselves without passionate concern for the common good.
One of the deceptive dangers of privilege in any generation is that we think we can walk away from a problem and it won’t matter because our life doesn’t change. But that is short sighted and illusionary deceptiony because what wounds one eventually wounds us all. White America walked away from attending to race hatred for 50 years after passing a variety of laws in the 1960s only to be shocked two years ago at the horror that people of color still endure daily when social media documented murder and cruelty run amuck at the hands of some law enforcement agents in Black, Latino and Asian neighborhoods.
The same could be said of climate change – we were able to look the other way, dispute the hard facts of science and exist in privileged indifference – until the floods came or the heat baked once productive soil into dust. Our spiritual tradition, you see, teaches that we were made for community and caring: when we wound or ignore some, all of us bear the consequences in time. So Isaiah, called by the Lord, must awaken God’s privileged people, call out their self-centered addictions and urge them to become passionately reconnected to the common good: This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, then you will be free.
Sabbath, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, is practicing trust: we trust God to be in charge for 24 hours – learning that the Lord’s ways are greater than our ways. Then, when we are rested – having practiced letting go of control for a full day and night – then there is the possibility that we might trust God’s love to take up more spacer in our hearts and activities for the rest of the week. But this is impossible just by thinking about Sabbath rest – or talking about justice and compassion – they must be practiced with a passionate intensity that changes habits, hearts and homes.
And that is what Jesus was doing in the second lesson related to Sabbath keeping. He was not taking on Judaism or suggesting a better way with Christianity; Jesus was passionately reminding both the scholars and the crowd that compassion and work stoppage are at the core of Sabbath. The Tanakh of Israel, the code of sacred law, enjoins work on the Sabbath, yes; but never defines what constitutes work. Do you grasp that nuance? What Jesus is actually asking here is what good the embodied values of our religious tradition if they don’t set people free? That’s a great question for us, too: What does it matter if we are the oldest congregation in Pittsfield if our presence doesn’t help set people free? In Luke’s gospel, there are five times when Jesus brings healing to a person on the Sabbath: So let us be clear: Jesus is not anti-Semitic nor superseding his own faith tradition. In fact, all of his healing on the Sabbath – the demoniac in Capernaum, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in Galilee, the man with a withered hand, the woman crippled for 18 years and the man with dropsy or arthritis who was cured outside the home of a Pharisee – are acceptable in Jewish law.
The Law of Judaism proclaims “Pikuach nefesh” –saving a life – always overrides any other Sabbath obligation. And the fact that the crowd cheers Jesus at the close of our lesson suggests that they too find no violation of halakhah – Jewish ethical regulations. This story asks us to wrestle with whether or not our understanding of tradition is liberating and about human freedom or keeping people locked out of love and hope because of an obsession with tradition? Sr. Simone Campbell, whom some of know as the face of the “Nuns on the Bus,” puts it like this: God asks us to ask ourselves, “Am I responding to this moment or situation with generosity or selfish-ness? Am I responding in a way that builds up people around me, that builds me up, that is respectful of who I am?” Or am I tearing things down with cynicism? That is precisely what Jesus asks, too.
Those who practice and honor the Sabbath know that Sabbath is about saving life in all its forms – starting with rest – but moving into justice, freedom and compassion, too. Now, just as we know religious zealots in our day who advocate hatred and cruelty in the name of God, this text tells us that this problem has been around forever. It happened in the time of Moses, it hadn’t gone away for the prophet Isaiah and Jesus had to take it on during his ministry. And if that was true for the founders, it is not likely that we’re going to escape its poison in our generation either, right?
So pay careful attention to the fact that in this story the word faith was never mentioned in connection with freedom: No reminder that your faith has made you well – or by faith we see God’s grace as through a glass darkly – not at all. There is simply a sense of needing to love this woman back into wholeness and sharing love with her in humility. This strikes me as an authentically pro-life commitment that is not truncated by narrow ideological or political limitations. Sr. Joan Chittister once said: “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. And we need a much broader conversation on what the morality of a true pro-life ethic is all about” if we’re serious about following Jesus.
And THAT, beloved, is where my passionate sense of calling for our congregation comes into focus: I ache for us to be radically pro-life in public like Jesus whose first sermon called for caring for the poor, setting free all who are imprisoned and sharing resources so that everyone tasted the goodness of God’s love.
Everyone: Jew and Gentile, Christian and Muslim, Buddhist and atheist – male and female – adult and child – gay, straight and transgendered, animal, mineral, air and water – everyone and everything. I yearn for First Church to live as a community in solidarity with everyone who yearns to be free. That advocates for peace and justice in our community and world – never out of a shallow political agenda – but always out of a sense of love, tenderness and commitment to Sabbath. Out of the spirit of the Lord who anointed Jesus – and all people – so that we come to know and trust that we are God’s beloved. Out of our deep formation in prayer, service and sharing. Out of a calling grounded in God’s kingdom being done on earth as it is already being done in heaven. So here are three manifestations of this passionate ministry that touch my heart.
- First, we have a unique constellation of artists here – men, women and children who are not just musicians (although we have more talented music makers among us than many places) – but also dancers, poets, actors, visual artists, sculptors, cooks and more. We also have profound relationships with artists and movers and shakers throughout this community – people of many faiths and no faith – who care for the common welfare of all as sisters and brothers. So why not harness these gifts in a passionate way to build common ground and hope? Why not dedicate ourselves to documenting an alternative to hate and fear through bold acts of beauty shared for the well-being of all? Why not create artistic expressions of Sabbath freedom so that we might move beyond cynicism into celebration? We could do that – we could use this place to be a showcase of artistic hope for the whole Berkshires – if we were called with passionate about it. I have a dream that we could create a travelling showcase for God’s grace where for 45 minutes we share stories, music, images and poetry while some of our great cooks prepare a feast. And then sit down to break bread together and practice deep listening and storytelling so that we come to know one another and trust one another and stand-up for one another when their backs are up against the wall. That’s one way aspect of a passionate presence in Pittsfield that is unique and essential for the healing of our broken community.
- A second involves grounding our presence in Pittsfield in Sabbath rest. Our generation has lost touch with awe and reverence. We no longer know how to grieve and then move back into lives of holy trust. Too many are trapped in depression or cynicism. Fundamentally because all we really know is how to work and fret and distract ourselves from the haunting anxiety of our age with chemicals, cheap sex and entertainment.
But our tradition is steeped in prayer and play, contemplation and creativity, feasting and fasting, laughter, tears, hope and carrying one another’s burdens beyond our alienated addiction to work and business metrics. Like Isaiah said: Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, then you will be free. Everywhere I go I hear people talking about their hurts, wounds, fears and anxieties. We have the resources to become a small center of healing alternatives for our wounded culture if we honor the Sabbath, practice our spiritual disciplines and share them with joy. So what’s holding us back?
- And then there is our calling to be an Open and Affirming community: Pittsfield has a superabundance of charity centers from St. Joseph’s Kitchen to the Food Bank – and they are all needed and necessary – but we don’t need to become another. What Pittsfield doesn’t have is a playful, compassionate justice church that celebrates diversity, advocates and organizes for the poor and cuts across all divisions to honor human dignity in the real world. Three years ago I gave a lot of time to helping bring BIO to birth – Berkshire Interfaith Organizing – and a few of you including our moderator, Lauryn, did vital work in the early days, too. Well, BIO needs our help – and the Berkshires need a force for creative, practical justice making beyond slogans and the ups and downs of our emotions – so, like Rabbi Hillel once asked, I wonder: “If not now, tell me when?”
Three objectives that I am passionate about: focusing our artistic blessings on behalf of common ground, nourishing our spiritual disciplines in a playful, joyful manner – including Sabbath keeping – and deepening our ONA commitment into disciplined acts of social justice with BIO. No harmless generalities here –no disembodied, abstract theology either – just kingdom oriented hospitality and bold acts of beauty as antidotes to the cynicism, brokenness and despair. Twenty first century people don’t need 19th century theology and 20th century piety in 2016: we need God’s eternal love embodied in real people we can trust. I just finished reading what the president of the American Booksellers Association has concluded about independent books stores. Betsey Burton has discovered that America’s independent bookstores are more than the sum of their books. “They provide safe havens, centers of community, where people go to see friends or strangers who are interesting meet to talk. But they are also places of refuge from fear and cynicism.” Burton recalls that on the morning of September 11:
“…her bookstore was mobbed by people not buying books but looking for a place of support, empathy and community because – and listen to this with care – because her bookstore was more inclusive that our churches, more communal than cultural events and more intimate than a bar.”
One of my spiritual mentors, Jean Vanier of the L’Arche Community, explains that people of love must learn to love what is real – not what was in the past, not what we expect or desire the future to be, and not what our fantasies or fears suggest, but what is real right now. For when we bring God’s love to bear on reality, then Isaiah becomes true for our generation: Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, then you will be free. May it be so within and among us, for God’s sake – and ours as well.
CONFIRMATION SUNDAY: June 26, 2016. This is an important Sunday for me because, in all likelihood, you are one of the last classes I will have the privilege and responsibility of teaching something about the way of Christ to in my ministry. I’m getting near the end of my run, right? So while I’m not finished serving the Lord quite yet – and this congregation is not done with ministry either – things are definitely in flux.
- I’m getting older, fewer and fewer people are interested in the disciplined ways of Jesus Christ in our culture, you are getting busier and busier, the demands on your families are increasing rather than getting easier. And, we as a congregation are starting to rethink what does the Lord require of us at this moment in time? It is an exciting and potentially holy time for all of us.
- So, because I have come to love and respect each of you over the course of our time together, I’ve chosen what I consider to be the four most important passages from Scripture to talk about with you today, knowing full well that after the summer our paths will not cross very often. I feel a unique responsibility to you and your families – and to the whole Body of Christ we know as the Church – to give you one more clear message about why all this church stuff matters.
Since the start of the new year we’ve talked about the Apostle’s Creed – the oldest poem about belief in our tradition – the gospel of Luke – the New Testament book with the most parables of Jesus – we’ve memorized the 23 Psalm – the best loved song in the Scriptures – and shared a few conversations about how confirmation is like a bar or bat mitzvah. Someone asked me not too long ago: is this year’s confirmation class READY to become members? Do they know what is required of them and how to do so responsibly? And I have to tell you that all I could do was laugh, because the answer is NO – of course we’re not READY in a traditional, testing, let’s get all the right answers sense – but that would be true for ALL of us here. Who is ever really ready to say: Ok, Lord, NOW I’m all set to be your disciple? I get what grace is all about – I comprehend the mystery of the Cross – and I am fully prepared to die to myself so that I might live completely as a living sacrifice for you in the world! None of us – now or in the past – are ever really READY.
But we ARE ready to take another step on the journey of becoming disciples – we ARE prepared (as much as we can comprehend right now) to say YES to following Jesus on the path of life– and we ARE aware that we do this by faith not sight. We trust God more than we understand God. We accept that now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face. Confirmation in the 21st century, you see, is NOT about facts and information; it is about relationships, especially relationships built upon faith, hope and love. So, I can’t tell you that these young people KNOW what it means to become a Christian. All I can say is that we’ve spent some time getting to know one another: they’ve read and talked about the gospel according to St. Luke with their mentors and we’ve answered a few of one another’s questions trusting that that is sufficient for right now. But I do have one final lesson for this confirmation group and I predict it will take the rest of your lives to make it real, ok?
The first passage I want you to know about is Micah 6: 6-8. Micah was a prophet in ancient Israel – so that would put him in the Old Testament – and he told his people that the heart of faithful living involved three essential commitments: do justice, love compassion and walk through this world with humility. Let me explain because you’re not going to get this anyplace else in your young lives:
- Micah wants us to know that God expects us to live in ways that look like God to others. That means our words, actions, habits and worship are not to be shared as chore or a drag, but a joy. God doesn’t love us grudgingly or because somebody made Her love us: God loves us for the joy of it. So Micah tells us that the way we live should be equally joyful – and the best way to experience joy is to make life more joyful for other. This is something that we don’t know how to do that very well all by ourselves. We need guidance and practice, we need encouragement and accountability – and we need a safe place to ask questions, make mistakes, be forgiven and discover what the real purpose of life is all about.
- Some of you have wondered why you have to go to church on a regular basis, right? I’m really glad you felt safe enough and loved enough to ask that question so boldly. And while we’ve tried to give you some answers, I realized that I never told you the real deal, so let me be clear: you have to go to church regularly because you don’t already know everything there is to know – and you are a kid – not an adult. That’s the real reason: you are not yet in charge of your life. You are part of a family – and you are part of a community – and families and communities have rules to help us live life as God desires.
- Church is where we practice and remember what the Lord requires of us – and that means you are required to go because you aren’t going to hear these truths any other place. You aren’t going to hear about doing justice according to God’s love when you get a job – or take a part in a dance or theatre group – because in that world you have to compete to be the best. In that world the emphasis is on getting what you And while there’s nothing wrong with competition – it isn’t the only truth in creation – and it isn’t how God loves us. God doesn’t love us based upon how big our house is or how much money we’ve gathered or how important people think we are. And if all you learn as a child is about getting your own way and operating according to the rules of competition, you will grow into a selfish, greedy adult – and there are already too many of them.
So, you come here to discover that God’s justice is about making sure everyone has a fair chance. To do justice – mishpat in Hebrew – is a verb that means living in ways that make certain food, love, housing, hope and health are shared among ALL people. Not just those you know and like, but all people, the winners and the losers, the ones who deserve and those who don’t. You come here also to learn about compassion – hesed in Hebrew – caring for those closest to you with tenderness rather than selfishness and going beyond your comfort zone with those you don’t know. And you come here to practice humility – tsana in Hebrew – living like you don’t deserve anything more than anyone else.
That’s one reason you are required to come to church regularly: to learn how to become a generous, tender and honest person, you need help. You won’t and can’t figure it out all by yourself. So we ask: what does the Lord require? And the answer is mishpat – doing justice so that everyone shares – hesed – sharing compassion to those most in need – and tsana – nourishing humility so you don’[t become an aggressive, loud mouthed bully. And if you are really paying attention, really on the ball, you’ll notice that the words from the ancient prophet Micah shape the mission statement of this church: In community with God and each other, we gather to worship, reflect on our Christian faith, do just and share compassion. That’s one reason why you are required to come.
The second reason we gather together as church is to practice using our bodies and minds in ways that makes God’s love real to other people. Over the past six months, I have gotten to know some of your specialties – a few of the things that make you different, unique and wonderful – for example:
- Cate is a dancer, Aidan is an athlete, Colin is a runner, Max is a thespian and Ella is a deep thinker. Each one of you is an excellent student, too. I know, I talk to your parents – I see your pictures posted on Facebook – I pray for you almost every day in my quiet time at home. So I know that you bring your best to your favorite activities. You know how to use your bodies to practice dance and theatre, soccer and running, learning your lines and singing or playing great music.
- What St. Paul is telling us in Romans is that to become a full human being you have to learn how to do the same thing with your physical bodies for God that you already do in preparation for a recital or a game or a concert or a play. In church you learn how to use your body as a servant – you feed the hungry, you carry the babies when they cry, you help the old people not slip on the ice, you sing Christmas carols for our friends in nursing homes, you write letters to congress to help them become more loving, you serve as liturgist, you bring food to someone who is sick and you help the homeless find shelter.
And once you learn how to use your bodies being loving here, Paul says, then you do it out there: you present your physical bodies – as well as your words and thoughts and habits and work – to the world as a living sacrifice – an offering – just like the prophet Micah told us. Your life, you see, becomes a gift to God in the world that makes love and hope and justice and compassion visible. Now this is where Paul is blunt – and he doesn’t care if he hurts our feelings or asks us to do something hard – when he says that we aren’t going to learn how to train our bodies for compassion and justice just doing what we want to: you didn’t learn ballet all by yourself or overnight – you didn’t learn to kick a soccer ball without practice – or sing or play the trumpet or run cross country like a champ just because you thought about it. It took practice – and the more you practiced, the better you got at doing it well.
So Paul, who was one of the earliest Christians, tells us if we REALLY want a world that matters, a world that strengthens love and creates hope for all kinds of people, then we cannot be conformed to habits of competition only – we must learn how to let go of some of our selfishness through practicing acts of service to others. That’s the second reason why you are required to come to church regularly: so that you practice becoming a holy non-conformist – who values love and tenderness more than winning. Here’s what I want you to do, Paul writes to us from prison: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking… because that will drag you down into everlasting immaturity. But grow up so that God brings out the best in you.
And the third reason you are required to get out of bed on Sunday mornings and drag your tired, young body to church when you’d rather stay asleep is this: you are not going to learn how to be still and quiet – you are not going to learn the way of prayer and trust – any other place in creation but here. It doesn’t happen at the Mall. Or at Ramblewild. Or plugged into your Smartphone. The words of Jesus are clear: come to me that is follow me and I will show you how to be refreshed without being worn out. Did you hear how that word practice popped up again? Practice being quiet, practice being gentle with yourself, practice listening for what you love the most, practice being a servant to others. Practice even being humble like the prophet Micah taught – and the more you practice, the more inner rest, peace and refreshment will become yours – from the inside out.
- One of the hardest realities for me this year in our confirmation class was not the tough questions you came up with – I loved those – no, it was trying to find enough time in your schedules to get to know you. You are a busy bunch of kids and we were rarely able to all be together at the same time. I think that it happened maybe… once?
- So, I was able to share with you information – and talk with you one-on-one sometimes – but we never got to spend time together as a group. And that made me sad because there are things to learn about the Lord that you can only do in a group. Like practice being still and silent in community. We can’t change what was but that was something we gave up this year because life was just too full.
We do confirmation class – we come to church regularly – we take time in our personal lives for prayer to practice, to learn, to serve, to worship and to see that there is more to real life than just ourselves and what makes us happy. We practice being a community. We practice being silent. We practice listening to the Lord and singing songs of worship and love. We practice being young and old together – mentors and confirmands together – beginners and old-timers together. We live in an incredibly segregated world, but church shows us that it is possible to break down barriers and live into God’s justice and compassion through humility. And now, because you are likely to be the last confirmation class on my watch, I want to be very, very personal for a moment.
- Ella – I have come to value your quiet honesty so very much. You weren’t always able to be with us in the group for a variety of reasons. You lead a complicated life and you hold a lot inside. When you were able to join us, I was touched by how deeply you think about life and how deeply you feel things. You are wise beyond your years and I pray that you continue to nourish the path of wisdom in your life. You could be a great and tender teacher – and the world needs more wise souls like you. In your own way you call to my mind the words written about the mother of Jesus, Mary, who is often described as “quietly holding all things within and pondering them in her heart.” Stay strong and open, Ella, you have blessings to share.
- Colin – I love the passion with which you grab a hold of life. You throw yourself into the things you love wildly and enthusiastically whether that’s running or memorizing lines in the Christmas pageant. In this, you remind me of St. Peter, whom Jesus gave the nick name, the Rock. Now there’s an upside and a downside to being a rock: a rock is solid and strong and creates a solid foundation; a rock can also become a bolder running down a hill that gets out of control. Jesus spoke about this to Peter often and by the end of Peter’s life he had learned to use being a rock for love and beauty and healing. That is my prayer for you, too.
- Cate – you were one of the first children I met when we visited from Arizona – and you were so little and funny. I remember eating hamburgers with your family at your old house and watching you get some kind of baseball bat thing going with your father – and all I could do was laugh because you kept spinning around and round trying to hit the ball that you looked like a little, female gyroscope. And now you are poised and graceful, a careful thinker who takes her responsibilities seriously even as you dedicate yourself to dance. My prayer for you is that you come to know how important sharing your art is with the world. The philosophers say that beauty can save the world – it wakes us up and lets us see new possibilities – and you could become like the woman who anointed Christ’s feet with oil. That act, like dance, is extravagant; so shine on and shine brightly because the world came to say of this woman: she did something beautiful for the Lord.
- Aidan – my man! We’ve been in this thing together for a long time! When I first met you, you were about seven inches tall and had more energy in that little body than half the town of Pittsfield. When you loved something, you were totally into it and when you hated it…. Well you weren’t shy about sharing that either! And now you are a young man whom others look up to, a student who thinks deep thoughts and an athlete playing soccer all over New England. I could be wrong but I think you have the soul and spirit of a poet, little brother, and I mean that: a poet. So let me encourage you like St. Paul encouraged his younger friend, Timothy, to cultivate your strength but never forget how to be tender, too. God needs both from you – and you have been blessed with both in abundance.
- And Maxx – young man of incredible depth, big and sensitive feelings and an even bigger heart. When I heard you sing “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” I went home with tears of joy. You have blossomed so much as an artist, a musician, a disciple of Jesus and a joyful member of this congregation. You can light up the room, dude, when you want to. My prayer for you is that as you explore your art deeper – your singing as well as your acting and performance on your instruments – that you know you are living into a sacred calling. Not everyone can bring joy to the world, not every can carry a tune, not everyone feels as deeply as you do. I remember one time being out on Park Square with you collecting funds for the CROP Walk with John and Lauryn and your parents and brother and I thought: this guy is St. Francis – he loves everything – and feels everything. So I want to thank you for sharing some of yourself with us and tell you I can’t wait to see where the Lord takes you on your journey of faith.
People of God, this is a quirky bunch of confirmation kids – quirky and holy – and that makes sense because we are a quirky church and faith community. Our quirkiness is a sacred gift – our smallness allows us the space and time to build trust and love as we get to know one another as Christ’s disciples – and it also stands as a tender symbol of sacred nonconformity in a world that insists that bigger is better. We know differently – and I give thanks to God for that knowledge. So, as we get ready to confirm this quirky confirmation class, I pray that you give thanks to the Lord, too for God has brought us together for precisely this moment in time. We are on holy ground, beloved, let us cherish and honor it with all our hearts.
ORDINARY TIME 2016: June 5, 2016. There is so much that I want to share with you today – and so precious little time – so let me try to state clearly at the outset what is at the heart of my concern this morning as we listen, wrestle with and seek guidance from the Lord through the Scriptures:
- Most of us, myself included, and maybe I should say ALL of us; go through ups and downs, right? We all experience times when we feel in-tune with creation and all is right with the world; and, we know clearly times when the polar opposite feels true, too: times when we feel out-of-balance and out-of-sorts with God, ourselves and the world.
- Such is the human experience: we ALL know ups and downs. The ancient Psalmist wasn’t kidding when she sang: You, O God, have drawn me up from the pit of death and despair – you brought me up when I was down low – and turned my weeping and mourning in the night into a glad morning song of joy in the day – you have turned my dirge into a dance and undone my sackcloth for robes of joy.
- Eugene Peterson’s reworking of the text is even more ecstatic: You did it, Lord: you changed wild lament into whirling dance; you ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers. I’m about to burst with song and can’t keep quiet about you. Because, God, my God, I can’t thank you enough.
Now, these are stunning songs of reversal, powerful poems of uplift and renewal, which speak to us of the universal tension we all experience as human beings: some days we’re up, some days we’re down, sometimes we feel connected with God’s grace and in balance and sometimes we feel as if we’ve fallen into a pit of darkness and can’t get out. All of us know THIS reality… what many of us are not so good with, however, is knowing how to journey with God when life feels out of sync – when we are uncertain about what next steps to take in life that would be faithful – or even just what to do when we feel disconnected from God’s guidance. Do you know what I’m talking about? You can call it discernment – holy patience – the via negativa or anything else that works for you: what I’m trying to say is that most people in our generation have lost touch with the time-tested spiritual tools that can help us learn to walk in the darkness and trust that God is there even beyond our feelings.
I wrestle with this nearly half my waking days – especially right now when we as a faith community are trying to discern the faithful next steps to take in our journey of renewal – I want my dirge of darkness to become a wild dance of clarity and light. I want some of the closing of Psalm 30 without having to go through the lament, the crying out or the uncertainty. To put it another way, I want the healing from the Elijah story or the blessing that Jesus brings in today’s gospel, but not the emptiness, the fear or the ambiguity. I want a fairy tale not real life – magical thinking instead of faithful waiting – I want the miracles of the Lord but not his Cross.
- But the wisdom of the Cross is what the appointed readings for this season are all about whether I want to engage them or not. And whether we’re talking about the fidelity of the prophet Elijah in ancient Israel or the blessings Jesus brings in the gospel, we’re still talking about the wisdom of the Cross.
- It isn’t a unique spiritual insight to Christianity – although it is central to our practice – but other wisdom traditions speak of the same truth: In the men’s movement it is called the Great Defeat – the admission of powerlessness – while women learn about relinquishing. The Franciscans call it poverty, the Carmelites call it nothingness or the dark night of the soul; the Buddhists speak of emptiness while Judaism calls it the desert or wilderness. Jesus calls it the sign of Jonah and the New Testaments calls it the Way of the Cross.
Whatever we call it, it is the way to live close to God when there is no obvious evidence of direction in our world or an absence of happy feelings or tranquility within our souls. And one of the key reasons we gather every week to hear the stories of dead people we do not even know (to paraphrase one of this year’s confirmands) is that in these stories we are reminded of three truths: 1) we all face emptiness; 2) most of the time we try to fill this emptiness with denial and distractions that always fail us; and 3) if we get sick and tired of being sick and tired we open ourselves to the path of real peace and hope that comes only by learning to live the way of the Cross. And here’s the challenge: apparently most us need to relearn this insight over and over again throughout our whole lives. I know that is true for me – and it rings true with the stories from Scripture – so my hunch is that it is true for you, too. St. Paul in Romans 12 put it to us like this: I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and mature.
- This was perhaps the first passage of Scripture I memorized as an adult because I was taken with the ling sacrifice portion – as well as the renewal of your mind part – and when I asked my spiritual director at the time, “What does this really mean?” she said: Paul calls us a living sacrifice, I think, because we keep crawling OFF the altar! A dead sacrifice would just lie there, but we tend to keep getting up there only to choose to try and escape over and over again. We’re slow learners and ingenious in the ways we try to get away from the Cross – and that is just the fact, Jack!
- So, because we keep crawling off the altar we call the Cross, we need reminders and guides and times to practice – REGULAR reminders, guides and times to practice – whether they be 12 Step meetings, small groups of accountability or public worship. We can’t – and won’t – learn the way of the Cross all by ourselves and we are incapable of maintaining consistency without practice.
That’s one of the things that worries and troubles me about this moment in time: we are so disconnected and even obsessed with doing our own thing. I was reading earlier this week about the father of Process Theology, John Cobb, who quoted Nietzsche in describing contemporary America. Cobb was writing about what used to be called the “death of God” movement and his observation rings true to me:
Toward the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche realized that something had changed in the culture of Western Europe – and he spoke of this change as the death of God – not that a literal deity had died. Rather it was the way most people still talked about God and thought and acted as if nothing had changed, when in fact whatever belief people had in God no longer shaped their basic convictions or the way they understood what was happening. The most perceptive poets and artists and philosophers saw this, and saw that what influence belief still had was fading. Nietzsche understood that this was not a minor matter, that Western civilization was abandoning its foundation and setting itself adrift.
Well, he was right – and what started then has been realized full blown now – our culture and a great deal of our religion operates as functional atheists: we use holy words but don’t trust them, we read from the Scriptures but don’t comprehend them, and we live our lives without a time-tested ethical center besides what we ourselves feel is most satisfying at any given moment in our up and down cycle of life. And what causes me angst, beloved, what wakes me up in the middle of the night sometimes, is not so much giving up of the old religion.
It needed to go. No what worries me is the profound conviction that we can learn a better way all by ourselves. That’s what adolescents do – they throw away all the rules and try to reinvent life according to their feelings – and given enough space, boundaries, guidance, mistakes and time, they grow up and out of adolescents to become adults. They become mature – individuals who are willing to be taught and trained the wisdom hard won by their cultures elders – those who have embraced the way of the Cross. That is part of what today’s stories tell us: we cannot comprehend the way of grace nor find a way into intimacy with God when we’re in hard times all by ourselves.
- Elijah was led out of Israel into the Gentile realm of Syro-Phoenicia by the Spirit of the Lord because his own community had become toxic. King Ahab of Israel had married Queen Jezebel of Phoenicia to form a military alliance of power. In the process, Ahab threw out his Jewish religious practices and brought in a spirituality of idol worship. And the more Elijah challenged the powers, the harder his life became so God called him out of the fray to relearn the wisdom of the wilderness and desert – for without it he would not be able to help his people get back on track.
- In the story right before the one read out loud this morning, Elijah is hiding in a crevice in a mountain outside of Jerusalem. And he is starving because he has run out of provisions. What the story tells us is that God provides for him in an unexpected way: the Lord sends night ravens – birds of prey which are considered unclean – to bring the prophet some scraps of food so that he will not starve. This is a fascinating little detail filled with nuance and insight, yes? A great deal could be said here, but let me be concise: this is a story to remind us that despair and deprivation are not the final truth – no matter what we see, feel or think.
And this is replicated over and over again in the Elijah cycle: God sends the prophet into situations of bewildering sorrow and suffering – in other words, real life – and when the suffering servants connect in compassion and turn their hearts to God’s love, a blessing occurs. First, a little bit of food becomes enough to sustain the widow, her starving son and the prophet; then, the widow’s love empowers the prophet to prayer and another unexpected blessing takes place. Same thing with the gospel story: when the Lord’s heart is broken by compassion and human community, new blessings are given to us that lead us through and beyond our suffering. The point is not to explain the miracles, but to point to a greater truth: the way of the Cross is how to stay connected to God.
For most of Christian history, however, we have down-played the wisdom and way of the Cross. Theologian, Douglas John Hall, rightly notes that we have emphasized what both Luther and Calvin called a theology of glory: we want to explain and comprehend and control all things – as if we can stay close to God by thinking. But our thoughts and feelings are insufficient for intimacy with the Lord – we need to relinquish our ego and fear and independence – so that God can fill us from the inside out. We have to die to ourselves – pick up our Cross and follow – learn the wisdom of the wilderness and honor the insights of our emptiness.
So let me give to you what Hall teaches are the three key practices of the wisdom and way of the Cross. They emphasize a spirituality that can lead us to trust and inner peace even when life seems upside down or filled with darkness and fear. And I keep going back to them over and over again because like Paul said: apparently even your pastor crawls down off that altar of the Cross and tries to figure things out my own way. And that is always a dead end. Here’s how Douglas John Hall articulates how we can live into the wisdom of the Cross.
St. Paul gives us the heart of Christian virtues – faith, hope and love – and claims that for many in our culture these virtues have become clichés because we have emphasized only the positive side of their truth and separated them from the wisdom they negate. But it is only in our consideration of what they negate that we find a way to stay close to God in our empty and trying times for this gives us light and dark, hope and doubt all within God’s embracing grace.
- First there is faith: What does this term negate? The metaphor that crops up time and again in Paul’s writings is “sight.” Faith, which “comes by hearing” is precisely a not-seeing. Paul says: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The eschatological element (that which has to do with God’s purpose in all of creation) points to what the tradition calls the “not yet” side of religion. The way of the cross understands faith in a humble and human way: In the act of trusting, the One trusted is glimpsed— but only as through a glass darkly; never seen fully. Faith that is not sight is thus a faith warned against presumption and arrogance. It is a faith able to live with its antithesis, doubt, for faith without doubt is an idol and dead. That means if you fret, you are alive. If you have worries and doubts, your emptiness is also your intimacy with God. This is why Paul can say in Romans 5: we boast when we are suffering because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because hope is God’s Holy Spirit being poured into our hearts. Faith and doubt are intertwined and both connect us to the Lord.
- Second there is hope. Hope is at once an orientation to the future and a recognition that the present is still lacking its promised fulfillment. Hope realized and experienced is no longer hope. The stance that we call hope is one that constantly makes us conscious of the fact that the present… is a falling-short of what is most desired. It is the awareness that this moment is not the end of the story: Elijah will not starve – nor will the widow and her son. Christ will not remain in the grave forever but rise on Easter Sunday. But if faith must live with doubt, so hope must live with its antithesis, hopelessness or despair. What is hoped for must not be taken for granted, as though it were already an experienced reality or something already “seen – nor must the suffering of despair be denied or dismissed. It must be recognized as real in the anticipation that God’s story is not yet finished even when we are impatient, angry and confused. Our feelings, thus, are another connection to the Lord for even when we are at wits end, this, too is a connection. The way of the Cross is upside down, to be sure, the via negativa, but it is true.
- And third there is love. Love negates many things, as St. Paul makes plain in the famous hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13. Do you remember that great text? Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or 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. But what must receive priority where we are concerned is power. “Love does not insist on its own way. “The crux of the cross,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr “is its revelation of the fact that the final power of God over us is derived from the self-imposed weakness of his love.” This is of the essence in our way of the Cross and it is hard for all to accept if we think of God chiefly in terms of power—omnipotence, almighty-ness. But if God is love, then the divine power must accommodate itself to divine love, and not vice versa. For the theology and way of the cross, this is basic.
Living within this wisdom, this spirituality, this time-tested truth is why the Psalmist can call unto God from the core of her agony and trust that God is present in the pain. Living within this practice Jesus can let his heart be broken by the grief of the widow and share love – even a love that will lead him to his own wounds and death on the Cross. Nobody gets this all by themselves, dear people, nobody – not Elijah, not Moses, not Mary Magdalene or Jesus Christ or St. Paul or Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Pope Francis or me or you or anyone.
It must be learned and practiced and refined and relearned again and again and again. So let me leave you with the way another broken pilgrim of our tradition, the late Paul Tillich, put it in a sermon:
One of Luther’s most profound insights was that God made himself small for us in Christ. In doing so, He left us our freedom and our humanity. He showed us His heart, so that our hearts could be won. When we look at the misery of our world, its evil and its sin, especially in these days which seem to mark the end of a world period, we long for divine interference, so that the world and its daemonic rulers might be overcome. We long for a king of peace within history, or for a king of glory above history. We long for a Christ of power. Yet if He were to come and transform us and our world, we should have to pay the one price we could not pay: we would have to lose our freedom, our humanity, and our spiritual dignity. Perhaps we would be happier; but we should also be lower beings, our present misery, struggle and despair notwithstanding. We should be more like blessed animals than men and women made in the image of God. Those who dream of a better life and try to avoid the Cross… and those who hope for a Christ and attempt to exclude the Crucified, have no knowledge of the mystery of God and humankind. The way of the cross is a commitment to faith (but not sight); to hope (but not consummation); and to love (but not power).
SERMON: Today is May 1st – almost impossible to believe that this time last year Dianne and I had departed on our magical, mystery tour of sabbatical – and were transitioning from busyness to Sabbath rest in NYC! What a grand paradox and blessing. May 1st is, as perhaps you know, both the start of spring celebrations in some of the ancient earth-based spiritualities around the world as well as International Workers Day. Another impressive paradox to my mind wherein fertility rites and workers rights meet for a day of rest, hope and recreation: the pre-Christian Celts honored this day with an agricultural festival not fundamentally different from those that influenced the Jewish liturgical calendar.
As society changed – and became markedly more urban and mechanized – the memory of picking flowers in the woods and dancing around the Maypole lingered and morphed into parades of solidarity and picnic feasts on a day set aside to honor all who labored. And there is still something festive calling to us from within the collective unconscious on May Day that invites rejoicing, tenderness and hope; at least for a season or two, we trust that the light will return to warm our bodies and souls and new life will emerge from within the darkness.
And that is what I want to call to your attention this morning – trusting that the light will return and that new life will emerge from out of the darkness – because in a nuanced way that is precisely what our texts tell us today. In the story of Paul and Silas, we’re given clues about discernment. In the Psalm we’re invited to see the connection between rejoicing and the rhythms of the earth. And in the gospel of St. John we’re asked to look beyond the obvious in order to discover how God’s Spirit is working to bring new life from out of our old habits, traditions and expectations. So, I want to step back briefly from our discussion of how to read the Bible amid the Israeli and Palestinian conflict today so that we might apply the wisdom of Scripture to the challenges of our own destiny.
Specifically, I want to share with you: 1) some clues about listening for the invitation of the Holy Spirit in your life; 2) how Christians are encouraged by Scripture to discern the implication of the Spirit’s calling in community; and 3) how trust that God will bring new life and deeper meaning to us by living into the costs and joys of discipleship is at the core of all our activity. So, would you please pray with me that we might hear the word of the Lord in this message?
Over the next eight months our whole congregation is going to have to wrestle with a set of challenges that will reshape not only what our ministry looks like physically and practically, but will also involve how we do ministry and who does what for whom: big and exciting changes are ahead of us that have to do with our building and our programming, so I want us to be as prepared as possible to discern the blessing of the Holy Spirit within these changes. You see, throughout the United States and Western Europe and Canada, a dramatic realignment is taking place in Christianity. One scholar spoke of it as “the Third Reformation” noting that about every 500 years the Holy Spirit shakes up the Church so that we might become livelier, more merciful and grounded in trust.
- Now, whether we’re ready or not, this is apparently one of those times where we are being called by God to reprioritize our resources, our personnel, our public and private priorities, our traditions and rituals – really everything! You can see it in the ministry of Pope Francis as he sweeps out the cobwebs of habit from the Vatican so that tenderness might take up residence once more in the heart of the Church.
- You can see it in the closing of American seminaries – or their reorganization – or even in their selling off precious real estate so that their property can become a resource for ministry rather than simply unfertile soil, concrete and steel. It is going on all around us – and now we’re being called to connect with this charism in a way that will redesign our way of doing church so that we’re ready for the 21st
We’ve already set aside an all-church potluck on Saturday, May 21st to share some of the immediate challenges and opportunities with you so I hope you will make the effort to be present. There will be other times to gather for prayer and conversation as the summer unfolds, too. So here is my deepest concern as we strive to link ourselves to the invitation of the Holy Spirit for this era: are we ready to listen? Are we prepared to let God lead us? Will we trust that the Lord is always faithful even when all we can see is obscurity? In my reading of this morning’s texts, those with eyes to see and ears to hear are given some clues about how to discern the calling of the Spirit, how to explore the Spirit’s gift in community and how to trust that God is in charge even while our earthly process is unfolding.
- So let me share with you my take on why the story of Paul and Lydia has value for us.
- And then offer an idea from John’s text concerning why this matters to First Church, ok?
I see five clues concerning how to proceed by faith whenever we’re trying to figure out our next step for ministry that come from activity of Paul, Silas, Timothy and Lydia. And if we pay attention to their wrestling, we won’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to reshaping and refining our own mission. Here’s what I see:
- When this story starts, Paul and his companions Silas and Timothy are at a loss about where they should go next in bringing the gospel to the world. No matter what they come up with on their own, they run into one barrier after another and become confused. Verses 6-8 put it like this… So the first take away is that confusion is normal when trying to reshape ministry. So is anxiety. What’s more, God uses both our confusion and anxiety to help us get ready to listen; you see, ALL ministry comes from God and the Spirit “often speaks to us through frustrating and difficult” times of discernment – that’s clue number one.
- Clue number two takes place when Paul has a vision during his sleep: he senses that God will send to him a man from Macedonia who will lead them into their next phase of ministry. But here’s the thing: visions and dreams need interpretation – and not by just one person – but by the community of faith. The narrative in Acts shifts at this point in the story from speaking the words of Paul to talking about “we” – we stayed in the city after the dream for some days. Why? Because the “we” – the faith community – needed to talk and pray, discuss and discern what the vision might mean for them. God’s call here, you see, is NOT just to an individual, but to all who gathered with Paul to help spread the gospel. It takes time for the community to interpret the vision – and their participation in insight is essential for the mission to bear fruit – clue number two.
- The third clue is that this mission does not belong to Paul alone: as one scholar put it, “the mission doesn’t even belong to the church because it is God’s” Yes, the church is called to discern and act on the Lord’s inspiration, but it is God who literally inspires the vision by filling it full of the Sprit. And more often than not, God’s vision takes us beyond ourselves, our comfort zones and our Sanctuary. In this story we’re told that Paul and his companions are to head into Macedonia – and beyond – places well beyond anything in their imaginations.
- Fourth, while there is inevitably a time of wandering in confusion before they discern God’s will for their mission, once this community gets it, they take off. And what they grasp is key: they are to bring to Philippi a radically different way of living than the one celebrated by Roman culture.
They are to offer the vision of Jesus, not empire, to this outpost of Roman society: they are to make flesh God’s compassion not human oppression. In a word, they are to become living signs of faith, hope and love to the people of Philippi who are held in bondage by the cruel constraints of Roman culture.
- And fifth, there are always surprises to be encountered on the road that even the most faithful community cannot foresee when embracing God’s new mission. In our story, it is a woman from Macedonia, Lydia, who greets the missionaries and leads them into real ministry in a new land. Paul was certain it would be a man who met them, because his own limited vision clouded God’s radical inclusivity. “Simple expectations about God’s mission are often going to be wrong” the story suggests so we have to be on guard and ready for shocks and surprises.
Now that’s my take on this story: confusion is one of the ways God gets us ready for a radical change, it takes the whole community to discern new directions rather than one person, sometimes we get parts of the vision wrong so we need to be open to surprises, and the ministry God calls us to is always about a life-changing alternative to fear, hatred, bigotry and the ways of death in our culture, because ministry comes from God. I think these clues are a stunning gift to the church – especially for us at this moment in our own renewal – but let me ask you what you are thinking and feeling about what I’ve shared so far, ok?
- What did you hear in the clues I lifted up? Why does that matter to us right now?
- What did you sense that I missed or left out? Anything else you want to share?
Now can we shift gears to the gospel of St. John for one closing insight? Beyond the obvious drama in this story that appears to pit the way of Jesus against Judaism – a conclusion that is both wrong and simplistic when it posits that Jesus is all about tenderness and Judaism is about rigid laws – there is an invitation from the Holy Spirit to honor diversity, patience and solidarity in all human interaction if we have eyes to see. Most of us don’t know that by the time the gospel of John was written between 90 and 110 CE, there were a variety of small house churches throughout the Middle East and moving into Europe that embraced boldly different theologies about Jesus – often in profound opposition to one another – that still found ways of celebrating koinonia – fellowship – with one another so that no one was barred from Christ’s radical table of grace and Eucharist. No one.
Think about this: according to the late Raymond Brown, the American Jesuit scholar who advanced our modern knowledge of the gospel of John more than most, by the start of the second century there were:
- Three clusters of churches emphasizing different insights about Jesus that came from the Apostle Paul
- There were two geographic groups of congregations inspired by the teaching of John
- There was one group that honored the wisdom of Peter
- And another Jewish/Gentile mix following the more conservative path of Matthew and James
In some of these churches there was practically no difference between Jew and Gentile – both were accepted and trusted and welcomed in synagogue and ecclesia alike – while in others there was animosity, fear and eventually expulsion from one or the other. In some churches women held positions of great authority, but not in others. And in some churches there was a grassroots internal organization while in others there was a top down hierarchy that called all the shots.
- In John’s community, which began in Palestine but fled to what we now know as Syria and Lebanon during Rome’s brutal attack on Judaism that began in 68 CE and culminated in the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70, they began with love and cooperation between Jews and Jewish Christians. And this trust continued for a few generations.
- But as oppression from Rome against Jews increased – and as the small church following the way of John welcomed Samaritans and Gentiles into their evolving congregation – antagonisms broke out that eventually led to John’s people being prohibited from interacting with the synagogue and the dispersed people of Israel. And that is why we read over and over again words in John’s gospel that are anachronistic to Jesus and portray him in opposition to the Jews.
- You see, by the time John’s stories were collected, there was a full blown family feud taking place between synagogue and church – and you know how ugly family fights can become, yes? Some of that venom was codified in the gospel where it continues to do incredible damage adding fuel to the fire of anti-Semitism all over the world. It took 400 years after the ministry of Jesus to finally cause an irreparable schism between Judaism and Christianity because Jesus was a Jew who did NOT abandon his tradition and the early church knew it.
So, please do not universalize the battle between John’s small community and regional rabbis during late first century of the Roman Empire. Such a mistake denies both the vibrant pluralism of that era and its promise for us today. The deeper truth born of Jesus the Jew is this text is that rituals have their place in our lives. They can ground us in tradition and help us move through the cycles of life with a sense of security. Just consider the importance of seasons, holidays like May Day or the circle of life: they help us move through life with stability.
And yet, there are times when God’s grace calls us beyond everything we know – rituals included – so that new life – resurrection life – can restore healing and hope to a broken world. That is what I think the healing story really means: God’s grace can bring new life into the mix even where we expect it least – like the Sabbath. What we read in today’s gospel is the Johannine community using the legacy of Christ’s healing ministry to pick yet another fight with their Jewish neighbors. And on the surface, it does sound to us like a confrontation between mercy and Sabbath. But binary thinking and simplistic analysis always reinforces a mechanical and mean-spirited vision that demonizes those with whom we disagree and romanticizes those who share our perspective.
- In truth, even while John’s people were fighting their Jewish cousins, in other parts of the church they were breaking bread together – finding ways to share compassion and conversation in the real world – even learning how to agree to disagree in love.
- That is to say, in all things biblical and theological, there is never simply ONE true way of being faithful – and our own theological history teaches this if we’re willing to listen. After all, the deeper truth that both Jesus and the Jewish rabbis celebrated about Sabbath comes from the prophetic poetry of Isaiah 58:
If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you make the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you respect it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs then you shall take delight in the LORD and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob… so remember: Is this not the fast that I choose: to lose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every form of bondage?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am.
When I consider all the new ministries the rest of this year holds for us – from working with local real estate developers to use our building as an asset for mercy rather than wasted space to ordaining Robert Hyde into full time Christian ministry, confirming five young adults into the faith at the end of next month, empowering more lay led home study groups like Eva Perri’s to say nothing of the growth of our arts, music and justice ministries – I sense the Lord’s blessings. This is an exciting time – and I hope you make the effort to be a part of the blessing.
Because if we fail to listen and discern well, if we choose instead to wander under our own delusions like Paul or bicker in fear like the community of John did rather than embrace their Jewish cousins – then shame on us: we will have ignored the call of Christ’s Holy Spirit coming to lift us into new life.
- The testimony of the Scriptures is clear: God will use our fears, uncertainties, confusion and even disagreements to move us into new and healing forms of ministry for the 21st century if we are listening.
- God will bring us surprises and resurrection, too if we are paying attention and actually show up for worship, koinonia and community life.
Because it is God who is calling to us – not our finances, our endowment, our fears or even our tradition or rituals – it is God. And God will use whatever it takes – money and buildings included – to lead us into the way of mercy and blessing. May this be a season for us where we confess that the Lord is merciful, making the light of God’s face to shine up us and be gracious unto us as we listen and discern and share and trust the Lord like never before: Five hundred years before Jesus walked the earth the people of Israel sang, Let the peoples praise you, O God, let ALL the peoples praise you, now and forever.” And what was true then continues to be true today for those who have ears to hear.
EASTER 2016: Easter Sunday is a hard one to preach – always has been and always will be – fundamentally because it was and is and always shall be so unexpected. Even though Jesus spoke of his own death and resurrection a number of times according the Scriptures, it still startled, perplexed and even terrified those who were first on the scene. One old preacher put it like this:
No one greets the news that God has raised Jesus from the grave and defeated death and the devil by saying, “Praise God!” No one shouts “Hallelujah” when they first hear that their friend and Lord has been raised to life. And absolutely no one, upon hearing the news that death itself could not hold the Lord of Glory captive, says, “I knew it – just like he said – I knew it!” (David Lose, Working Preacher)
It doesn’t happen – in scripture, in tradition, in our ordinary lives of faith – because no one expects resurrection. And, at first, no one believes it.
- The women in the gospel of Luke had no expectation that Christ would be raised from the dead by God. They didn’t go to the tomb with any such anticipation, right? They went to care for and cleanse a corpse.
- It took two angelic strangers dressed in dazzling white garments to remind them of what Jesus had already told them and still they were incredulous. And in their bewilderment, when they rushed back to tell the brothers about what God had done, they are greeted there not with joy but with profound skepticism. In fact, the text tells us that the women’s words were considered an “idle tale.” Scholars say that “an idle tale” is a rather generous translation of the word leros in Greek from which we derive the word delirious. In reality the male disciples first thought these women were nuts – crazy – bonkers – hysterical women filled with utter nonsense.
Which probably rings true for many of us when it comes to trusting, believing and living into the promise of Christ’s resurrection, right? Not only does it call into question almost everything we know about how the world works, but it also tells us that God’s love is not bound by any of the rules or limitations that we depend upon nearly every day.
That’s why throughout the 40 days of Lent I’ve been saying: the opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is control. I’ve needed to hear that over and over and you’ve needed to have it reinforced, too because at the heart of our faith is something that turns everything upside down. And the upside down kingdom of God is lovely and cherished when it comes to the forgiveness of our sins. But start spreading that grace around to everybody in the form of resurrection – including our enemies all the while insisting that God’s love can break ALL our rules, upset every apple cart and make ALL things new including a new life for the crucified Messiah – then we aren’t so certain. Then this whole grace and Easter business becomes more complicated and uncomfortable, profoundly harder to fathom.
- Small wonder that what the Bible tells us – and the first witnesses proclaimed – happened in the dark. Have you noticed how each of the four gospels are not entirely clear what occurred in that Easter darkness?
- Think about it: in Matthew there is a rolled away stone – and an earthquake. In Mark, Mary Magdalene and another Mary flee in pure shock and awe after a single angelic visitor speaks to them. In Luke, it was two angels and a whole group of women. And in John, it is Jesus who appears speaking first to Magdalene, then Peter and John, and later all the disciples locked in the upper room and a week later to Thomas and then again to Peter out by the Sea of Galilee.
And all of it takes place in the dark causing Frederick Buechner to ask: What the devil DID happen?
Confusion was clearly everywhere and there is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself (in these stories.) Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom? What did he say? What did he do? If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell this story in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. But here there is no skill, no fanfare for they seem to be telling a story simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete and dark as life itself. When it comes to just the facts, there can be no certainty
Except to say that something totally unexpected happened that led them from the darkness into the light. So here’s what I want to tell you from my heart: we can’t prove that God raised Jesus the Christ from the dead by reading the Bible alone; nor can we verify what took place on that first Easter by appealing to science or human reason. So if you are having a hard time getting your head around all of this – if you find the resurrection story hard to believe – please know you are in good company. All of Jesus’ first disciples had an equally difficult time with “this new reality for the resurrection overthrows death, triumphs over sin and declares once and for all that life in God’s love is more powerful and enduring than any and all tragedy.” (David Lose, Working Preacher)
- For way too long Christianity has insisted that authentic faith casts off all doubt, right? But the testimony of our story suggests that faith and doubt are woven closely together, so skepticism and questions are vital not forbidden.
- Faith, as the book of Hebrews announces, is the assurance of things hoped for: it is not the absence of doubt, but rather the relinquishment of control – a willingness to be inspired by hope so that we can live more fully into this new and blessed gift from God.
- You know that old rabbi Saul of Tarsus got it right when we spoke about the link between trust and hope in Romans 5. He told the early church that they could endure suffering and shame once the Spirit had poured hope into their hearts because hope is not manufactured by human beings. It is not bought or sold either; he said: we can even boast in our suffering knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. And once God starts to fill us, there is nothing that can stop us.
Trusting the truth of Easter took me a long time to come to grips with. As a young man, I came of age when it was de rigueur to question everything: don’t trust anyone over 30, don’t trust institutions, don’t trust the church. And I know I didn’t want to look like a fool, so I didn’t buy this stuff at all. After all, there are plenty of good reasons not to trust the resurrection. It violates the natural order of life as we know it. In fact, the only two things that are certain in this world are… what? Death and taxes.
But preacher, David Lose, has reframed all of this by asking: what would be possible if it were true? Can you think about that? What would be possible if God’s love was, in fact, greater than our ability to comprehend?
Death would not have the final word. Love and life would be stronger than fear and death. We could expect to see those we’ve loved and lost again. In fact, we could trust that God has a future in store for each and all of us because in the resurrection anything is possible with God. (Lose, Working Preacher)
That may be hard for some here today – I think imagining the possibilities of hope is always hard – but here is what I have experienced on my own journey of faith: when I am open to trust, all things become possible.
In my lifetime, I’ve seen down and dirty junkies get clean – and stay clean for decades. I’ve seen arrogant and mean-spirited politicians give up the BS and become humble servants of the poor. I’ve seen soldiers advance the cause of peace and bigots learn to love their Black, Asian and Hispanic neighbors as part of their own family. I’ve seen those who have been scarred by sexual abuse learn to love their bodies and trust their lovers with vulner-ability. I’ve seen the staunchest Southern segregationist and bigot, Strom Thurmond, change his heart to become an advocate for HIV/AIDS research in African. I’ve seen Jews love Muslims and Muslims love Jews. I’ve seen the strong become weak and the humble become leaders. I’ve seen homophobes come to trust their gay and lesbian sisters and brothers as kin, I’ve seen those scandalized by the church’s historic hatred come to trust their straight allies, too. I’ve seen people of all races breaking bread – and marching together in Black Lives Matter rallies across America – I’ve seen bodies healed, minds opened and hope restored because with God all things are possible. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for…
There is a story Harry Belafonte tells about MLK and the days when the Civil Rights movement seemed to have hit a brick wall. Robert Kennedy was the Attorney General and he would not budge when it came to supporting action that would expand or protect African American voting rights. So some of Dr. King’s lieutenants began to disparage and denigrate RFK during a strategy session. And after a short time, MLK called the whole thing to a close: we can not and will not continue talking about Mr. Kennedy in this way – with hatred rather than love. So this conversation is over. Dr. King went on to charge his aides with finding a way built on love to change the Attorney General’s heart while making it explicit there would be no more Kennedy bashing.
Chagrined, these civil rights leaders sulked at first, but later strategized and came to realize that Kennedy was a devout Roman Catholic who went to Mass almost daily. So, they started meeting and talking with his Bishop. In time, the Bishop’s heart was changed – and that led to some deep conversations with RFK. And over the course of a year, there was a change of heart born of repentance that helped move Kennedy into an alliance with the civil rights movement. And in time, RFK became an advocate.
So what I’m trying to say is that through the eyes of faith, the power of God’s love at work in ordinary human lives has compelled me to trust that this same love was at work raising Christ Jesus from the dead. I don’t control this love. I don’t comprehend how it works. And it certainly wasn’t persuasive to me all at once – it never is.
Resurrection faith comes slowly to everyone including Christ’s first disciples: the women ran away, the men dismissed their sisters as delusional, the soldiers stood in fear and no one grasped what love was doing in the world. But when you, like the first disciples, start to see amazing grace in action – when you have experienced your own release from the bondage of sin and the oppression of fear – then you know from the inside out that the Easter proclamation is the most important truth in all creation – and it is NOT idle talk.
On that first Easter Sunday, after “dissing” the women, Peter ran to the tomb for now he starting to imagine what might be possible if God’s promise were true. And stooping and looking into the empty tomb, he saw some resurrection evidence in the linens lying on the floor. So he went home puzzled – puzzled but amazed – letting God’s hope be poured into his heart by trust. And at just the right moment, in God’s time not Peter’s, he too encountered the Risen Christ. And then from the inside out he knew the Christ was risen indeed.
It takes time, beloved, God does not expect us to grasp the magnitude of this blessing all at once or overnight. So be tender and gentle with yourselves on this day of days. And also consider what all the saints have come to trust from Peter and Paul, to Mary the Mother of our Lord and Mary Magdalene: that faith is the assurance that Christ has been raised from the dead by the uncontrollable love of God being poured into your heart as hope. He is risen, sisters and brothers, he is risen indeed.
Lent 2016: A Call to Non-Violent Resistance in Worship and the Arts: More than three thousand years ago, ancient Israel’s prophetic poet composed a prayer/psalm/song to the Lord that is remarkably contemporary three millennia later:
Let me share with you the wisdom of creation – an instruction about the way you should construct your life – let me counsel you with my own insight: be not like a horse or a mule – a beast of burden – without sense, the bit and the harness his adornment that keeps him on task… but trust in the Lord’s kindness and steadfast love… and God will become your hiding place – your shelter – who will enfold you with love.
There seems to be something in the way we are constructed that aches to control every moment of every day. We want to be winners, we want to advance our needs over those of our competitors and we want to triumph over our opponents and enemies over and over again. That is how our schools are organized, our businesses constructed, our politics implemented and our habits solidified: winner take all. And yet this is the polar opposite of how human beings mature and the antithesis of how human beings ripen into spiritual wisdom.
- The 23rd Psalm, perhaps the most cherished verse in the Bible, does NOT say: I am my own shepherd so I shall not want; it reads what? The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. Nor does it say: Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil because… I am the biggest, baldest SOB in the valley! Not at all – rather we are taught that we can walk through even the valley of the shadow of death because THOU, O Lord art with me.
- Likewise the words of Jesus whom we claim as Lord and Savior do not say: Blessed are the billionaires, the fear and hate mongers who manipulate our hearts to their selfish advantage, right? Eugene Peterson’s brilliant restatement of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount begins with: You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. And you’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
The short version of what I’m trying to say is this: The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is control. And when 98% of our eating, breathing, thinking, working, walking around and creative life is spent serving the false idol of control, is it any wonder so much of our experience in the world is messed up? Out of balance? Broken? Back in 1965 the late Martin Luther King, Jr. told us that “our scientific and technological power has outrun our spiritual power because we have guided missiles and misguided women and men.” A popular Face Book meme falsely attributed to George Carlin, but no less biting than his normal social commentary, puts it like this twenty five years later:
The paradox of our time is that we have taller buildings, but shorter tempers; wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less; we own more, but enjoy it less. We have bigger houses and smaller families; more conveniences, but less time; we have more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more experts, but more problems; more medicine, but less wellness.
We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry too quickly, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too seldom, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We love too seldom, and hate too often. We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life; we’ve added years to life, not life to years. We’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We’ve split the atom, but not our prejudice. We’ve learned to rush, but not to wait. These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion; tall men, and short character; steep profits, and shallow relationships. It is a time when there is much in the show window and nothing in the stockroom; a time when technology can bring a message to you, a time when you can choose either to share this insight or to just hit delete.
T.S. Elliot warned us in his way in 1934:
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying, the endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment, brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence; knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word. All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance, all our ignorance brings us nearer to death, Nearness to death no nearer to GOD. Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.
Twenty years later, the Beat genius, Allen Ginsberg updated his prophecy in “Howl.”
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…
Dylan shouted it in the 60s, Marvin Gaye sang about it in the 70s, the early hip-hop artists put it out there in the 80s, Lauryn Hill and Sara McLaughlin carried on the chorus of protest in the 90s and Lady Gaga nailed it to the wall for the millennial generation: the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is control. Serving the false master is always deadly personally, spiritually, politically and ecologically.
- Have I made it clear how troubled and even afraid I am of our addiction to the idol of control? It has infected our politics, polluted our environment and threatens to upend our moral equilibrium to say nothing of the damage it does to our souls.
- And the fact that it has always been a problem for humanity does not render it any less onerous in our age – mostly because there is so little opposition to its noxious allure in our culture.
There was a time, you see, when a countervailing influence to this obsession with control was at least tolerated in our culture. James Hillman, the brilliant neo-Jungian psychoanalyst who worked with Robert Bly in the men’s movement, observed that throughout human history the arts were trusted to bring an alternative vision of hope and sanity to the madness of the world through a presentation of beauty. Beauty has historically been celebrated as part of the Trinity of salvific virtues alongside truth and goodness. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in fact, paraphrased Dostoevsky in his Nobel Peace Prize address saying: beauty can save the world. Why? Because beauty in all of the arts – from the purity of nature to the majesty of a symphony a ballet, a film, a poem or a novel – is one of the ways God breaks through our control to fertilize our imagination. Hope is not a product we can manufacture nor is it even in our prevue to evoke. Hope always is poured into the world from beyond – hope comes from the Lord – and more often than not it takes a work of beauty to awaken us to our slavery to control.
That is what those held in bondage in ancient Israel discovered during the time of servitude in Babylonian exile: no matter how hard they tried, all they could muster was grief. Until, of course, the Lord was ready to pour hope into their consciousness. And then hope appeared… in their dreams, in their songs, in their art. The prophet Joel testified to this giff saying: In the fullness of time, I the Lord your God, will pour out my spirit upon all flesh so that your sons and your daughters will prophesy; your elderly will dream dreams and your children shall see visions. But this won’t take place simply because you want it to. Nor will it occur through your control. No, hope is of the Lord and only those who know how to… what? WAIT UPON THE LORD shall renew their strength.
This has always been the minority report in human history – that God uses beauty in the arts to awaken us to what is missing or broken in our lives – but today, as Hillman notes, when our atrophied imagination considers the arts it is only to:
…dismiss them, regarding beauty only as the pretty, the simple, the pleasing, the mindless and the easy. Because beauty is conceived so naively, it appears as merely naive, and can be tolerated only if complicated by discord, shock, violence, and harsh terrestrial realities. I therefore feel justified in speaking of the repression of beauty.
- Ours is a culture – an economy – and often a spirituality that represses beauty. We ridicule it as incidental and denigrate it as unnecessary – something to purchase only after all our work is done – and then only if it brings us distraction from the rat race. Beauty and the arts are treated like non-utilitarian after thoughts that only make the modern day production line more tolerable.
- Which should be heard as a bleak and frustrating indictment of the status quo but is usually ignored in the real world of life in the fast lane – and that is why I give thanks to God for this morning’s gospel!
If you heard it in relationship to both the Hebrew Bible and the Psalm you heard a testimony that no matter how back-assward we become – no matter how stubborn, addicted, addled, frustrated or obeisant to false gods – the Lord our God refuses to take our NO for the end of the story. In fact, what we are told is that God’s grace is relentless; always searching for what is lost, whether that is a person, a culture, an imagination or even a nation. Did you hear me? God’s grace is relentless no matter HOW lost we become!
The story this morning is clear: Jesus is on his way to the Cross in Jerusalem, he is surrounded by those out to get him, and still he speaks about grace and God’s pursuit of all that is lost. And he is marvelously earthy in these lost passages: the shepherd searches for the lost sheep, the woman is relentless with her broom until she finds the lost coin and the parent is perpetually alert for the possibility of the return of the prodigal child. We may not be able to manufacture hope. In fact, when we try, we get it wrong and cause more pain than solace. But God can – and does – over and over and over again bring hope to the helpless and love to the broken hearted.
Now let me take a calculated risk with you and tell you something vital about why we have been insisting upon this extended time of contemplation, walking meditation in music during our Lenten worship. It is an act of non-violent resistance to the repression of beauty that has grasped our culture by the throat and is shaking it to death. One of my mentors in the exploration of aesthetics, worship and the care of our souls, Makoto Fujiumura, has devoted his life to the reclamation of beauty in our world. “Beauty” he observes, empowers us to ask the ‘what if’ questions that open us up to God’s gifts of hope, justice and compassion by taking these ideas out of the realm of theory and into the dross of our everyday experiences. Earlier this week, Mako put it like this in an address on culture care delivered in Pasadena, CA:
To ask “what if?” is not just idealism or false hope or fantasy. “What if” questions are filled with hope and faith while acknowledging our struggle for that quest. To ask “what if?” today is to say, “I have a dream.” So what I call “culture care” is a non-violent resistance to culture war; culture care is not to wage war over territories of culture which only leads to polarization, but it is to lay down the weapons of ideology, and instead to sow seeds of goodness, truth, and beauty into the ecosystem of culture—into the cultural soil of our cities… To say “I have a dream today” is to plant seeds of hope in the arid soil of disappointment and despair; to say “I have a dream” today is to raise seedlings of joy and peace in the midst of the bitter taste of suffering and injustice; to say “I have a dream” today is to water the “oaks of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:3) in a land full of fissures of division and polarization. To say “I have a dream today” is to—even in tainted ground such as Japanese soil poisoned by the fallout of nuclear attacks—plant sunflower seeds, as one Japanese farmer did soon after the 3/11 tsunami catastrophe. He planted them because sunflowers remove the radioactive isotopes out of the soil. To say “I have a dream” today is to create beauty as the pursuit of the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Ours has become an era of apocalyptic despair fundamentally because we have repressed the healing power of beauty. It is no accident, people of God, that throughout the ages God has chosen the dreams and songs, the poems and dances, of prophetic artists to reawaken us to what has gone dead within and among us. Beauty and prayer are NOT incidentals to existence, but nutritious soul foods – and without time for quiet reflection and the inspiration of beauty we wither and die even while punching the time clock.
- Liturgy that is saturated with song and silence is an act of non-violent resistance to the utilitarian obsessions of our broken culture. Worship bathed in beauty and the arts offers us an encounter with the dreams of the prophets. Because, you see, liturgy means what? The work of the people – the practice of God’s people – in becoming advocates for hope, integrity and justice.
- The way we become more than beasts of burden – or random individuals addicted to fear and self-absorbed onions – is through practicing, owning, living and celebrating the wisdom of God’s beauty expressed in liturgy. It is, indeed, essential for the healing of the culture wars that continue to pollute the very air we breathe. To which Mako concludes:
What we are experiencing this election cycle is (NOT a necessary explosion of status quo politics) but a disfigurement of democracy. Instead of aspiring to the “better angels of our nature,” we have become dark, mutated angels fallen to the temptations of culture war. Mr Trump, I suggest, is fallout from those wars, a gusher erupting from the fissures of culture wars. He successfully took advantage of culture war polarity to focus the media on himself and his own ideas of “winning.” He gained this dominance first by intentionally firing incendiary remarks to pressure the fault lines of culture wars, recasting everyone other than himself “losers” from the starting line. We may yet be able to elect the culture wars candidates of our choice, but we all lose in that process, degrading the integrity of our culture in the process. No matter who wins this election, an age of disillusionment will be ushered in with the new occupant of the White House.
We have been invited and encouraged – some would even say called – by Christ Jesus to be nourished by our better angels, by the hope of God’s relentless pursuit of all that is lost, by a love that will not let us go. Let me invite you now to let the beauty and safety of this place lead you deeper into God’s love.
Introduction: There is a stark, simple beauty and truth to both the desert and the season of winter. The Quaker educator, Parker Palmer, put it like this in his spirituality of winter:
Winter has an even greater gift to give us than quiet and beauty: It comes when the sky is clear, the sun brilliant, the trees bare, and the first snow has yet to arrive. It is the gift of utter clarity. In winter, one can walk into woods that had been opaque with summer growth only a few months earlier and see the trees clearly, singly and together, and see the ground that they are rooted in.
In this, winter is like the retreat house I used to visit at the start of nearly every Lent in Tucson. The Desert House of Prayer was dedicated to the spirituality of Thomas Merton. You may know Merton as the father of contem-porary contemplation and social action in the United States. He taught that the severe clarity of the desert had much to offer a hyper-stimulated America – especially when it comes to being honest with ourselves. Like our New England winters, the desert clears the landscape of our souls so that we can see ourselves plainly – brutally and without encumbrance – even to the core of our being.
Small wonder that the season of Lent always starts with the journey of Jesus into the desert: we all need extended times to free our heads of stress and expectations. So Jesus models this for us with his wandering in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. He makes a pilgrimage of sorts into the desert for two reasons:
- First, because the desert was a place of mystery, uncertainty, and testing for Israel. In our tradition, God’s people left their bondage in Egypt only to spend 40 years being purified, tested, and refined in the desert before they were able to enter the Land of Promise as new beings. Lent speaks to us of our own sorting and refinement – a late winter cleansing of the soul – for this is our season of Exodus.
- And second, because pilgrimage is a symbolic way of giving shape and form to our inner quest for the Lord, there are specific Lenten practices to embody on our way to the Promised Land. This season has always been spoken of as a physical journey through a barren place rather than a compilation of doctrine: from the start, Christianity has recognized the human beings need to practice externally what we ache to become within: namely, authentic, healthy and faithful children of God.
Insights:Christians, you see, have been experimenting with unifying body and mind through the practice of pilgrimage since our origins: the prophets made a practice of extended retreats; Jesus went on a pilgrimage to the desert, the mountains as well as the sea and the Jordan River from time to time; and after Easter, Christ’s followers periodically performed their prayers by traveling to similar places of significance and solitude.
- The earliest pilgrims went to Jerusalem to walk the Way of the Cross. There were no established places for these spiritual wanderers to stop for reflection, so in the early days they just began at the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane and walked until they were inspired by the Spirit to rest and pray. In time their route became known as the Via Dolorosa – an informal Way of Sorrows – where people found something of God’s mercy by walking to the story of Jesus and his Cross.
- By the 12th century of the Common Era, a surge of interest in pilgrimage throughout the Middle East and Europe arose. But the warfare of the Crusades made it dangerous and complicated so two alternatives to travelling to Jerusalem were created: the Labyrinth and the Stations of the Cross. The labyrinth – like that in the Cathedral of Chartres completed in 1193 – allowed people to spiritually walk to Jerusalem in the relative safety of their regional holy place. And the Stations of the Cross – probably first suggested by St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century – linked 14 regional churches together each with a specific meaning and prayer based on the passion of the Christ.
- In time, two other possibilities for pilgrimage emerged. Additional holy places closer to home like the Camino de Santiago – a shrine to St. James the brother of Jesus in Spain – or the font of Celtic Christianity at the Isle of Iona became Lenten pilgrimage destinations. And, for those who could not afford to make these trips, the 14 different regional churches that St. Francis had suggested might replace a trip to Jerusalem started to be incorporated inside individual Roman Catholic sanctuaries. Now each local congregation could create shrines along the walls of their Sanctuary depicting the Stations of the Cross.
Now the whole point of making a pilgrimage is to incorporate your body into your prayers: you let your feet move you closer to God’s love, you choose to leave your comfort zone for the as yet undiscovered blessings of mystery and paradox, you let your eyes and other senses open your soul to possibilities, and you do all of this as part of a community.
Like the discipline of yoga, that integrates body and breath with postures and meditation, pilgrimage honors body and soul in a way that is deeply personal and boldly communal. And because we have such a huge Sanctuary that is woefully underused each Sunday – mostly we simply sit and stand and sometimes sing – I thought we ought to have a go at exploring the spirituality of pilgrimage for our time.
- So, if you have noticed, there are five rest stops located throughout our Sanctuary. As I understand it, on any traditional pilgrimage during Lent, in addition to the sacred places of devotion like the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized or the Golgotha where he was crucified, there are also planned places for rest. There is a rhythm to spirituality of pilgrimage – you are active in walking, then you pause for reflection; you are physically on the go and then you stop your body to let new insights rise up from your experiences – and that’s part of what I hope we will play with during Lent.
- The other hope I have for our journey is that we practice our pilgrimage slowly, mindfully, and quietly. Let me encourage you to saunter to one of the rest stops – you can go to the first one or you can go to any of the others – as you pause to light a candle. You can go in chronological order or you can make up your own order. But do so in a sauntering spirit. The word saunter comes from the Middle English santren – to muse – but I like Thoreau’s take on the word. It isn’t technically true, but is He speaks of walking as those French souls who were on their way to the Holy Land – Sainte Terre – people who would take all the time necessary to be gently observant about their journey.
What a truly meditative and spiritually counter-cultural practice in this age of busyness and deadlines. It makes me think of walking with my grandson, Louie, who has no particular place to go and is in no particular rush to get there. In this, we might let Lent help us become playful children of the Lord. Henri Nouwen once wrote that the key to spiritual maturity is to receive all love as a pure and free gift: So much of the time, however, we let all “our obvious failures and disappointments convince ourselves that we are really not worth being loved. Because what do we have to show for ourselves? But for a person of faith the opposite is actually true. The many failures can open that place in us where we have nothing to brag about but every-thing to be loved for. It is how we become a child again, a child who is loved simply for being, simply for smiling, simply for reaching out.” That’s what Lent is truly for: helping us become spiritually mature enough that we cherish beginner’s mind – like a child – one that is loved simply for being. This requires getting out of our heads for a time…
I don’t believe that Lent was ever intended to be a punitive time – it can be a season of harsh honesty, ok – but only in service of clearing our heads and freeing our hearts of distraction. It can be a season of relinquishment that encourages greater compassion for ourselves, our neighbors and our world. At another time, Nouwen offered this insight that I hope you will carry with you throughout Lent. He said: Judgment in the eyes of the Lord begins with Jesus becoming one of us in humility. So God does not really judge us but rather reveals to us what we have become to one another. The day of judgment is in fact the day of recognition, the day on which we see for ourselves what we have done to our brothers and sisters, and how we have treated the divine body of which we are part. So the question: ‘What have you done for the least of mine?’ is not only the question of injustice and the question of peace, it also is the question by which we judge ourselves. The answer to that question will determine the existence or nonexistence of our human family.” Are you with me? Lent is about a humble honesty that leads us towards compassion.
- Today’s gospel story tells us that after the Lord’s baptism, he went into the desert to get honest with himself. In his baptism he heard God’s blessing – YOU ARE MY BELOVED – and that is a promise made to each and all of us. Our baptism is a reminder that we have been bathed and saturated in God’s blessing. We, like Jesus, are God’s beloved. And like Jesus, we, too have challenges – temptations – shadows that can obscure and even diminish God’s blessings in our lives.
- That’s what the story of these temptations is about: wrestling with what it means to be God’s beloved sharing love and hope in the world but in a vulnerable and sometimes broken body. Jesus got brutally honest with himself out in the desert – he owned his weaknesses – his desire for power, his ego, his deep hungers. He didn’t deny them – he faced them, experienced them, confessed them – and that’s what Lent asks of us, too. Fr. Ed Hays, who drew the images we’re using around our Sanctuary, put it like this: Like the Master, you also will frequently be tempted to choose the ways of the world instead of the ways of your cross. Daily you will be tempted to be practical as you confront the problems of life. The seduction is to behave like a realistic son or daughter of the pragmatic world instead of responding as a beloved daughter or son of God.
One of my favorite musicians, Carrie Newcomer, recently addressed the temptation to give up being God’s beloved in favor of being realistic or pragmatic when she wrote: What would it be like if everyday everyone did something that was all heart, something that might seem senseless to the sensible world?
I do believe there would be more songs and poems, more fruit pies and chalk drawings on the sidewalk. More people would grab their sweetheart and dance in the kitchen or lay down in the green woods just to feel the earth support them. I think more people would vote their conscience and not hedge their bets. More of us would bring apples and chocolate to share at work just because. We’d call someone in the middle of the day just to say “I’m sorry” or “I miss you” or “You are a treasure to me beyond words or measure.” We’d probably be surprised, delighted and chagrined more often. We might end up in places we did not expect to go. It might feel more risky…but it would surely be interesting. So maybe today is the day to listen to your heart and do something that does not compute.
Lent should give us the space – the time and the safety, too – to saunter around God’s holy land with these kinds of questions for a while. Someone said that when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” the truth is that God never leads us into temptation, we get there all by ourselves. It is always our choice – and as long as we are vulnerable and human we will have to wrestle with our choices. Sometimes we’ll pause and invite God’s guidance – at other times we’ll rush to judgment, shoot from the hip and give in to the temptation. But, please understand, it is always our choice.
Conclusion: So, during Lent let’s tenderly wrestle with – and clarify for ourselves – what God is asking you to relinquish. Let’s take the time to saunter together, letting our Sanctuary become a resting place on our pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And let’s connect our bodies to our minds in prayer as we move about this place. Remember: you are the beloved so please nourish and strengthen the sacred love that is within your sweet self. We’re going to give you some meditative traveling music so: alors laissez le pèlerinage en terre sainte commence!
Introduction to Epiphany: Today is the Feast Day of Christ’s Baptism: it is a time to remember our own vows of commitment to the way of Jesus, a time to carefully consider how those vows make a difference in a broken and wounded world, and a time to learn again a lesson that regularly eludes all people of faith no matter what faith tradition they proclaim. Namely, that faith is simultaneously personal and political – subjective in all its mystical richness, privately powerful in prayer and inward renewal – but also always objective in both form and content. For faith is the Word made Flesh. The inward journey embodied and revealed within reality. The core of our deepest truths and values personified so that we become Jesus for another in our daily life.
St. Teresa of Avila, the 14th century Spanish mystic, wasn’t kidding when she told us: Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. For Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
So for the next five weeks I will be conducting a refresher course of sorts – for myself and our whole community – on what the outrageous, objective poems first articulated by the Hebrew prophets might mean for 21st century people of faith. Using the wisdom of Walter Brueggemann, our tradition’s wisest, most insightful scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures as a guide, I will attempt to express what the prophetic task might mean for our contemporary realm. Brueggemann is, of course, unambiguous:
In our time as in ancient Jerusalem, the prophetic task is to counter the governing ideology of exceptionalism whether American or Hebraic. That prophetic task, you see, is to expose the distorted view of societal reality sustained by lies that breeds unrealistic notions of entitlement, privilege and superiority (over others.) And, at the same time, advocate for and enact alternatives… that show how o a dismissal of God and disregard of our neighbor always leads to disaster.
“The prophetic church,” the good professor concludes, “bears witness to the irreducible reality of God and the irreducibility of the neighbor as the reference points for a viable life in the world that even our exceptionalism cannot nullify. To put it more simply: people of faith make themselves search for the face of God in our neighbors trusting that the One who was born in an anonymous stable is waiting to be born again in our time, too.
Insights: Now let me be wildly candid about something before I really get going: much of what I am about to share with you over these next five weeks – and everything that Brother Brueggemann posits in his book (which I encourage you to get and read along with me) – is predicated upon knowing at least the broad contours of the story of Israel. And that already puts me on shaky ground because in 21st century American Christianity not only are we at vastly different places in our recollection of the Biblical story, but we often have a complicated and competing constellation of ways to interpret these formerly shared stories.
- Even within our relatively small congregation, on any given Sunday, there will be fundamentalists and humanists listening to what is said in worship; there will be Unitarians and Trinitarians, Buddhists, Taoists, a few New Agers as well as traditional Calvinists, Lutherans, cradle Congregationalists, former Roman Catholics and Methodists plus a few good souls who aren’t really sure if any of this is true but they like the music. Or the Sanctuary. Or the people.
- So please know at the outset that this is a daunting task It reminds me of the old story of the grey haired preacher interviewing a recent seminary grad for her first full time position as settled pastor. The Search Committee had done due diligence checking references and had finally invited the young woman for a closing interview. And as was his style, the old preacher asked, “So do you know the Bible pretty well?” “Yes, sir, pretty good,” she replied. To which the chair asked, “And which part do you know best?”
The candidate responded, “I know the New Testament best.” “And which part of the New Testament do you know best,” was the next question so the young minister said, “Several parts.” “Well, can you tell us the story of the Prodigal Son” the retiring pastor proposed. “Fine” was her reply… Once upon a time there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, who went down to Jericho by night and he fell upon stony ground and the thorns choked him half to death. The next morning Solomon and his wife, Gomorrah, came by and carried him down to the ark for Moses to take care of. But, as he was going through the Eastern Gate into the Ark, he caught his hair in a limb and he hung there forty days and forty nights and he afterwards did die of hunger. And, the ravens came and fed him. Well, the next day, the three wise men came and carried him down to the boat dock and he caught a ship to Ninevah. And when he got there he found Delilah sitting on the wall and shouted, “Chunk her down, boys, chunk her down.” And, they said, “How many times shall we chunk her down, till seven times seven?” And he said, “Nay, but seventy times seven.” So they chucked her down four hundred and ninety times. And, she burst asunder in their midst. So they picked up twelve baskets of leftovers and asked: in the resurrection whose wife shall she be?” For a moment there was a stunned silence after she finished until the chair of the Search Committee said with astonishment: “I don’t know about you, sisters and brothers, but I think we ought to ask the church to call her as our new minister. She may be awfully young, but she sure does know her Bible.”
And with that caveat, let me offer three essential historical facts about the prophetic project in Israel and then close with two interpretive insights related to our national politics and life together as a small 21st century congregation in New England. In the opening Scriptures, three competing understandings of God’s call to Israel to live in covenant with the Lord were expressed.
- The first reading, from Genesis 12, tells the story of Israel’s patriarch Abraham and is clear that God’s covenant – that is, God’s promise of both land and blessing – will be upon the lineage and seed of Abraham for all time. It is an eternal covenant and specifically applies to those who come from Abraham’s family, or, to use Brueggemann’s term: it is a covenant of the flesh. (read text…)
- The second story, from Exodus 19, speaks of God’s covenant with Moses and those who fled oppression in Egypt. It is neither family specific nor eternal, but conditional. And the condition is that those who have been blessed with freedom and the land will commit to a life shaped by Torah. Brueggemann speaks of this as an adherence covenant that requires the practice of love of God and love of neighbor as a response to grace. (read text…)
Do you sense the differences here? One is eternal, one is beyond the constraints of time; one is racial and family specific, the other is relational and available to all. One emphasizes exceptionality; the other is all about gratitude for God’s gift. And there is a third approach, Psalm 78, which links God’s covenant to King David and the city of Jerusalem: this suggests that all who follow the ways of the monarch are the true heirs of both Abraham’s blessings and the Law given to Moses. (read text…)
Now the reason why this is important – both to our appreciation of the message of the ancient Hebrew prophets then, as well as their wisdom for us today – is this: each of these covenants offers us different relationships to God and to one another, and each has social, political and spiritual consequences. In the develop-ment of ancient Israel as a nation, for example, those who affirmed the Mosaic Covenant handed down on Mt. Sinai emphasized living into compassion and justice as an expression of gratitude to God for the gift of freedom and land.
Think of the 10 Commandments – they are all about loving God and loving neighbor – so much so that in Deuteronomy, Torah begins with the words: I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me… and goes on to speak of Sabbath keeping like this: remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day holy. Covenant living – being faithful – in this tradition was about right relationships between God’s people and their neighbors as gratitude.
Those who embraced the Abrahamic Covenant – those who understood them-selves to be born of an eternal promise to a specific family – were not always so neighborly. They laid claim to a timeless promise that was race specific – part of the challenge even today in the Palestinian/Jewish conflict. And by the age of King David – roughly 1000 BCE – when Jerusalem had become the center of power, politics, wealth and religion – an ancient Washington, DC mixed with NYC and Los Angeles – the elite made sure only the hybrid Davidic Covenant was taught and celebrated in the Temple.
Over and over again, the emphasis coming from David in what we call the “Songs of Zion” tells us that all is well in both the Temple and God’s Creation but only so long as David and his followers are on the throne. Psalm 46 is explicit: I will tell of the decrees of the Lord: God said to David, you are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession… O kings, be wise, be warned, O rulers of the earth: serve the Lord and his king… lest God’s wrath be kindled.
I can’t help but think of Lord Acton’s adage that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even the word of the Lord in Scripture, you see, was used to reinforce political and theological alliances. And while all of these readings have a personal and subjective role to play in our inward, private lives of faith, they also have public and political implications that we must wrestle with from time to time, too – because not all the stories in the Bible are equal.
Without interpretation, some can become oppressive and dangerous. So, that’s the first historical fact: there are competing covenants and factions in the story of ancient Israel and knowing this can help us evaluate the competing factions in our own American religion and politics today.
The second fact is that these competing factions clashed profoundly especially after the national disaster we know of as the fall of the Jerusalem Temple in 587 BCE. This took place after Israel’s kings played power politics and lost to Babylon. For years the walled city of Jerusalem was under siege– and its citizens slowly starved – until the walls were breached, the Temple destroyed and the best and the brightest taken in chains to Babylon where they lived for three generations.
- Do you remember how you felt after the terrorist attacks of September 11th? I was in shock. I was furious and afraid – totally unglued and uncertain of what end was up – and I wept and wanted revenge. I felt powerless and patriotic at the same time. And I wanted America to do something bold to hurt our enemies and avenge our innocent dead.
- Brueggemann suggests that the way many of us felt and reacted after this attack is neither new nor unique. He writes that many in ancient Israel felt the same way because – and this is crucial – Israel, like America, has always thought of themselves as special God’s chosen. We and they are a city on a hill, doing the work and will of the Lord in the wider world.
Exceptionalism – the belief that we alone are uniquely God’s people – blinded us to the reality just below the surface of the September 11th terrorist attack. It blinded the elite of ancient Israel, too. Because in truth, we are all just like everyone else: no better, no worse and certainly no more chosen despite what our history teaches. Or so many hymns proclaim, to say nothing of our national holidays. To believe that we are uniquely precious unto the Lord is fundamentally untrue and destructive. And when ancient Israel’s sacred Temple was defiled and obliterated, the people were shocked and speechless, unable to comprehend how this could happen. They were so cut off from reality that they didn’t even know how to grieve.
Do you know the Psalm “By the Waters of Babylon?” There we sat and wept when we remembered Zion – when we remembered the Temple on Mt. Zion in flames in Jerusalem – they were in total shock. I know that feeling – you probably do too – from the time we watched the Twin Towers collapse in flames. I went to Ground Zero less than a month after the attack with my daughters and stood there and wept… and wept… and wept. That was all I could do. I still weep in stunned horror every time I visit that place.
And it connects me to the second truth for today: when ancient Jerusalem was sacked, those who lived out of the Abrahamic or Davidic covenant were undone emotionally, theologically and socially. They hadn’t accepted reality so they found themselves confounded and devastated when their lives became no different than those of any other suffering mass of human flesh.
Now here’s the third historical fact: there had always been an alternative vision of what being God’s chosen meant within ancient Israel – and it came as the prophets raised up the Sinai Covenant as the true way of the Lord over and again. If you read the poetry of the prophets, it proclaims one truth: Love of God means sharing compassion and doing justice with your neighbors in gratitude for God’s grace. THIS law is the way God’s world works: the love you take is equal to the love you make. And if you upset this law of creation, there will be consequences. The prophet Micah is unequivocal – and this is the prophet who gave shape and form to our mission statement: What does the Lord require but TO DO JUSTICE, TO LOVE MERCY AND TO WALK WITH HUMILITY WITH OUR GOD.
- While the priests and politicians were trying to understand why the chosen people had been blown to hell and back in a hand basket, the prophets were saying: we warned you, we told you, why are you surprised? The way of God is gratitude, humility, neighborliness and compassion.
- Essentially, the prophets grasped that being the chosen and beloved of God is NOT about race, birth, political stature or family pedigree, but… love. In obedience and Torah we thank God and embody shalom.
And that is exactly what Jesus taught his disciples. Like the prophets he told us that the whole of Torah is: Love one another, sisters and brothers, as I love you. And just so that there would be no ambiguity, he put a towel around his neck, knelt to wash the feel of his disciples and said: Do THIS in remembrance of me.
Are you still with me? I know that’s a lot of Biblical interpretation to take in at one sitting, but it is so important – especially at this moment in our life together as Americans and members of First Church. You see, the fear mongering, cruelty and xenophobia of so many of our politicians is related to the lie that we are the chosen or the exception by birth. Not true – for the United States, for Israel, for Saudi Arabia, Canada, Russia or anywhere. And yet we’ve heard it for so long that we want to believe – and keep on believing – that we are God’s uniquely holy people. We want it so badly that some among us are we’re willing to kill others and spend away our future to preserve this illusion.
Listen to Ted Cruz – he’s clear that everyone is out to get us. Columnist David Brooks writes in the NY Times that his belligerence is bullying a reasonable man like Marco Rubio into inauthentic positions that are dangerous to everyone. And I won’t even comment today on the wicked hyperbole of the Donald.
Now please: don’t mishear me! I am NOT saying that Americans aren’t loved by the Lord. We are – and I love the unique blessings and beauty of our land, our people and our system. But we are no better than any other people, faith, politics or heritage. What’s more, our obsession with maintaining our exceptionalism is making some of our politicians crazy: they hate having a Black man in the White House. They hate sharing God’s green, but all too quickly becoming brown, good earth with the rest of our neighbors in creation as the recent Paris Climate Summit revealed. They hate sharing information about genetically altered foods with us because, after all, they really know better than we do what leads to health, well-being and prosperity. And they hate the idea that ALL of God’s children should have access to quality health care – or safe schools – or equal pay for equal work.
But do they ever love to point out all our so-called enemies whom they are certain are NOT on the side of the Lord: like Central American children flooding across our borders to escape drug-related gang wars; or Syrian refugees fleeing cluster bombs and chemical attacks; or anyone who insists that we must affirm that Black Lives Matter. Rather than finding common ground in pursuit of the common good, these politicians and religious leaders gin up the lies. And that not only encourages white domestic terrorists like the young man who opened fire on a Bible study in a Black South Carolina church but gives demagogues like the Donald permission to gasoline on the fire of our fears and hateful emotions at rally after rally after rally. People of God, these are trying times, but we have been given the gift of the Biblical prophets who have something to tell us about how best to proceed rather than shake our heads in despair.
Conclusion: And one of the only reasons I continue to come to church these days rather than drift off quietly into the sunset to jazz with my friends and entertain my beloved grandson Louie is that the way of the prophets and the way of the Lord matters. They can help us find the light in the darkness so that we save lives and bring glory to God. They can point us towards a way of being the church that binds us together in love. And they can instruct our hearts and minds to the consequences of what remaining silent in the face of the mounting violence, fear and chaos means .
You see, the ancient prophets have a handle on something indispensable for us a congregation. Grieving – not as others do who have no hope, as St. Paul told us, but grieving like the prophets. Grief puts us in touch with reality. It opens us to God’s broken heart and compels us to go beyond our safety zones. Over the next two weeks I’ll share more with you about how prophetic grief works and why it is imperative for the renewal of First Church as well as American politics.
But for now: can anybody tell me what this is? It’s a turban that we’ve started to use again in our inter-generational Epiphany Pageant. For the first seven years I was here – and I just for the record I just completed my 9th Christmas – I’d heard about these costumes and the old way of doing pageants during the glory days of First Church – but I never saw them. I was never even told where they were hidden or stored.
Like so much of our past, they were locked away behind strong doors so that they wouldn’t be stolen. Or used. Or, I submit to you, used in a way that was different from our glory days. In the glory days, we were a church of power and prestige – and the pageant was serious business – performed and orchestrated by adults in costumes modeled after those on display in Manhattan. But when the world changed and Pittsfield was rattled by job loss and economic depression; when heartbreak, tragedy and disappointment took up residence within this faith community, these costumes were locked away. Not necessarily on purpose and certainly not for the reasons I’ve just mentioned. But I don’t think they would ever have seen the light of day again because they were symbols that evoked so much sorrow and loss.
Now somehow last year, while searching for something else, we stumbled upon the closet where these ancient costumes were stored; and as we pulled them out, the delight and awe they elicited from our children made it clear to me that these turbans HAD to be taken out of mothballs and worn again. Like so much that is locked away but not grieved with prophetic intent, these old treasures held a clue to our emerging renewal if we were bold enough to use them. It wouldn’t be like the old pageant – that had its own life and its own purpose – and these were new times. But the old resources still had value, albeit in a much more humble way and on a much smaller scale – just like First Church in the 21st century.
So we rounded up as many youth and children as were available – and recruited some angels and shepherds from the adults who gathered for worship , too– and stumbled into a way of being church that holds incredible promise for us at this moment in time. It was a pageant that was a little ragged around the edges – just like us.
And it was amusing in ways that were often unintended – God’s grace is full of surprises, don’t you think? And it was no longer a spectacle, but rather a simple act of shared ministry that had its own life, its own integrity and a tender sense of hope. I have come to believe that this new pageant in all its quirky glory has something to teach us about God’s new calling for our church.
- It symbolically mixes the old with the new, grief with joy, and leads us into a way of being that is humble, sacred and small. That’s what I see Jesus offering to us at his baptism: he accepted God’s call to humility when he gave himself over to John’s hands in the Jordan.
- Jesus identified himself as part of a new world – not the elite, not the exceptional, but the world of all who are hurting, afraid and grieving. After all, he was in the muddy river NOT the Temple in Jerusalem, right?
In this he became the embodiment of sacred solidarity. And that is the journey I sense we are being called into as a new First Church: a community of humility, solidarity and compassion. These acts give us eyes to see the Lord in our neighbors. And like Jesus coming up from the waters of humility, as we do this the promise is that we too shall hear a voice from above saying: YOU – and you and you and you – YOU are my beloved with whom I am well-pleased. Go and do THIS in remembrance of me.