Scraps of Justice

Matthew 15:21-28

From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly.” But he didn’t respond to her at all. His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.” But Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.” But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.” He replied, “It’s not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs, …is it?” She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.” Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed.

I would like to begin today, as we consider the persistence of the Canaanite woman, by sharing a devotion I read this week by Cameron Trimble. She writes, “Some years ago I had the chance to visit Israel. We toured the entire country, studying archeology, learning about the history and seeing first-hand the strain of so many years of conflict and violence. We met many people whose stories of loss, pain, hope and faith will stay with me for a lifetime.

One woman I met changed my view of life. She was an old woman when I met her in the old city of Jerusalem. She made stoles for a living. As I was browsing through her store, I asked her how she started making them, supposing that she was some poor woman who spotted a niche in selling stoles to American pastors who are always looking for some good “bling” for their robes.

Instead, she told me about her life. Many years before, her three children had been with her in the market one day and had the bad luck of being too close to a suicide bomber. She was off buying some vegetables for their dinner that evening when she heard someone scream. She looked back just in time to watch her children – her life – as they were blown from the face of the earth. Can you imagine the horror of this? Can you imagine the sheer unspeaking, crushing pain of this?

She spent the next year of her life in a numb fog, trying to understand how and why this could happen. Until finally, she stopped. She awoke one morning realizing that there are no good answers to these questions. What would answers bring her anyway? What she had to do was to decide how to live.

Her way of living in the midst of her woundedness was to start making these stoles. To her, they became signs of peace and symbols of God’s unfailing love.  She has a vision of clergy all across the world wearing them as they stand in pulpits, march in protests, and sit with the sick. In her brokenness, she turned to love, gifting us all with her testimony, her handmade art, and her unfailing grace.

When I found the stole I wanted to buy, she placed it over my shoulders. Looking me in the eyes, she said “This is a symbol of peace that I give to you this day. May every day of your life bring peace to our earth and love to all people.” It was the most powerful commissioning I have ever known.

Were I to suffer such terrible loss in my life, I pray that I would have the faith and strength that she has. She could have become deeply bitter. She could have sought revenge. She could have lived with biting anger. But instead, she decided to live believing that God is love and grace is true.”[i]

Now, turning back to our gospel passage for today, the Canaanite woman also persisted, in spite of her grief, she also chose to believe that God is love and that grace it true. How do we know this? Well, she, a woman, a gentile, someone from outside the religion, came before Jesus and begged for justice, she pleaded for her daughter to be restored to wholeness. Remember now, in that time and culture, she had no right to even speak to Jesus, let alone ask him for anything.

And perhaps it was these cultural considerations that lead Jesus, first, to ignore her, and then he seemed to give in to the pressure of his disciples who were urging him to send her away. And when she refused, when she continued to overstep the culture norms and plead for her daughter’s mental health, Jesus called her a dog.

Let’s pause here for a moment. Does this passage make anyone else uncomfortable? I mean, doesn’t feel at all like the welcoming, inclusive Jesus we’ve come to expect, right?[ii]  It doesn’t sound like the Jesus we’ve been taught to emulate. As a matter of fact, I read a reflection from a scholar this week, who out it this way: He said, “…Jesus was caught with his compassion down.”[iii]

Maybe that was the case. But there are also other theories about why Jesus disrespected this woman. One popular one, in trying to make Jesus look “less bad”, suggest that Jesus really wasn’t being mean, but that he was simply testing the woman. Others suggest that he didn’t really mean that she was less than human, it was all a misunderstanding, or even that there was more to this story that didn’t make it into the Gospels. [iv] And while these are all plausible ways of approaching this text, my theory is a little different. I contend that Jesus changed his mind. And I think he changed his mind because of her persistence. I believe that this passage was included in the gospel text to help us to understand that change and growth beyond the limited view of what our society has taught us is acceptable. It here to show us that a foreign, non-Jewish, woman actually affected the way Jesus viewed the world.  She helped him to become more inclusive in his life and teachings.

You know, I shared this contention a number of years ago in a message on this very text to the congregation I was serving at the time. And all was well, at least on Sunday. But Monday rolled around and a got an unexpected visit from a church member who was livid about my message. And by livid, I mean he came unglued! Now, mind you, he wasn’t in church the previous day, but his wife had told him that I said, “Jesus was wrong.” I explained to him that I didn’t say he was wrong, but instead that I had said, “Jesus changed his mind.” But, unfortunately, that didn’t matter to him and he proceeded to air every grievance he had with me and the church and especially our movement toward becoming more inclusive.

Now, over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that encounter and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions. First, I concluded that for some people change is frightening. You see, his anger, I believe, was fueled by his fear of change. Not only that we were attempting to welcome people who didn’t look like him, or share his political views, or necessarily share his traditional understanding of morality, but that we were poking at the very fabric of what he had always been taught about the nature of God; that God is unchanging. Immutability is the 4 dollar theological word for this understanding of God.

And I know, I understand …there are many people, like me, who have been taught that God is unchanging. Immutable. It’s one of the core tenets of our faith. And since we hold that Jesus is God incarnate, God-in-the-flesh, or at the very least, that Jesus had a unique and unparalleled connection with the divine, it makes sense that Jesus would be unchangeable, just like God.

But here’s the thing. I’m not going to argue the finer points, the pros and cons if you will, of immutability. I’m not going to argue because whether or not God changes is beyond our purview, it’s above our pay-grade so to speak. But what we can know, I believe, is that the human perspective of God, our concept of the divine, does change. Morality, ethics, what constitutes right and wrong, for better or for worse, these things have changed over time and continue to change as humanity evolves and progresses as a species.

So, I think, it’s perfectly natural to conceive of a human Jesus who can grow, and learn, and even can change his mind. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t diminish his divinity, it enhances it! The ability to adapt to the situation, to replace old ideas with a new and more inclusive perspective, that makes Jesus closer to the nature of God in my book.

And it’s this understanding that our perception of God can change that leads us to my second conclusion from that Monday morning encounter, and it’s a conclusion that ties directly back into our text for today. It seems to me that we all persist in some ways. It seems to me that we all, like the woman who made stoles, and like the Canaanite woman from our gospel narrative, we all seek the scraps of justice that fall from the table of life. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s been my experience, that no one is beyond grief. No one can escape at least some suffering during their lifetime. We all, my friends, especially in this time of pandemic, have to deal with the temptation to simply give up. We all, in the face of the racial injustice we’re beginning to face as a nation, are sometimes overwhelmed by the enormity of the change that’s necessary to being about equality. It only human to feel this way. And this is where our faith enters the picture.

Our faith tells us to persist, even when it seems like a long-shot. Our faith asks us to hang-in-there, if not for ourselves, for the sake of others. And our faith, my friends, invites us to be and to continue to become a better version of ourselves, both individually and as a people, by changing our minds about the things that hold us back. Even those things we once held dear. Our faith challenges us in these ways because in the end, this time of change will lead us to become, to an even greater degree, a reflection of the true, inclusive, welcoming, non-judgmental, nature of God.

May it be so for you and for me.

——————

[i] Cameron Trimble Plotting Faith (cameron@convergenceceus.org) Aug 11, 2020

[ii] David Lose, The Canaanite Woman’s Lesson, Dear Partner in Preaching, August 20, 2017.

[iii] David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor eds. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2009

[iv] Rev. Louise Kalemkerian. Nevertheless, She Persisted. (www.stpaulsnorwalk.org) 2017

In the Midst of the Storm

Matthew 14:22-33 (a paraphrase)

Immediately, the disciples jumped into a boat, and went ahead of Jesus to the other side of the sea, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray. But in the twilight, a strong wind came up. It battered their boat with high waves and pushed them far from land. Early the next morning Jesus came walking towards them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him they were terrified. And they cried out in fear, “It’s a ghost!” But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “It’s me, don’t be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and beginning to sink. Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “Why do you doubt Why did you let your fear diminish your faith?” When they got back into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the chosen one of God.”

Becky and I have seen our fair share of rough waters. When we were first married we lived in Bellevue Iowa, right on the Mississippi River. So, it wasn’t unusual for us to go fishing after work. One evening, we decided to try a little further downstream than usual, pretty far from the launch. You can see where this story is headed, right? Yep, a storm suddenly came up and we were suddenly caught in a torrent of rain and lightning. We were too far away to make it back, so we pulled up to an island, got out of the boat, covered ourselves with raincoats, and waited the storm out. It was only after the rain subsided that we discovered we were surrounded by poison ivy!

You know, it’s funny, we’re more likely to remember these “rough water” experiences than all the times the sailing was smooth. Perhaps it’s because facing difficulties, overcoming challenges, creates within us a sense of confidence. A confidence that will serve us well when the next storm arises. A confidence that helps us to overcome our fear. It’s kind of like the old proverb says, “Smooth seas do not make for a skillful sailor.”

In our gospel message for today, we find the disciples experiencing  one of these “confidence building moments.” You see, they were afraid because their boat was being battered by waves and they were far from the launch. Now, the story tells us that Jesus understood their fear, so he went to them, and said, “Hey, look, it’s me! Don’t be afraid! But notice something important here in Matthew’s telling of this story. Jesus didn’t calm the waters until after Peter was back, safely, in the boat. The sea was still raging under his feet when he began to doubt, when Peter let his fear take over the situation.

Let stop here for a moment and think about how an old story like this one might be relevant to us in these troubling times? Well, as the turbulent seas of this pandemic rage on, claiming the lives of so many of our fellow Americans; and as the prospect of significant changes in how we as a nation treat all people with dignity and equality and justice, looms on the horizon; and as our entire planet, and so many species of plants and animals, continue to be decimated by climate change… Jesus continues to symbolically walk with us and toward us. And we as people of faith… we instinctively walk towards him, like Peter, knowing we are called to leave the safety of the boat and traverse unsettling waters as well.

However, we share more than just Peter’s faith; we share his fear. You see, sometimes the stepping-out-of-the-boat-part isn’t what’s most frightening. The scariest part comes when you realize that you’re actually out of the boat; that you’re standing on the precipice of change; standing amid the waves of uncertainty, and your next step isn’t all that clear.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. During the civil rights movement in the middle of the last century, a man named John Lewis stepped out of the boat and into the turbulent seas of civil unrest. The following story was told by President Barack Obama during John’s funeral service this past month. President Obama said, “…just weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that segregation of interstate bus facilities was unconstitutional, John and Bernard Lafayette bought two tickets, climbed aboard a Greyhound, sat up front, and refused to move. This was months before the first official Freedom Rides. He was doing a test. The trip was unsanctioned. Few knew what they were up to. And at every stop, through the night, apparently the angry driver stormed out of the bus and into the bus station. And John had no idea what he might come back with or who he might come back with. Nobody was there to protect them. There were no camera crews to record events. …John was only twenty years old. But he pushed all twenty of those years to the center of the table, betting everything, all of it, that his example could challenge centuries of convention, and generations of brutal violence, and countless daily indignities suffered by African Americans. Like John the Baptist preparing the way, like those Old Testament prophets speaking truth to kings, John Lewis did not hesitate — he kept on getting on board buses and sitting at lunch counters, got his mugshot taken again and again, marched again and again on a mission to change America.”[i]

Now, there’s no way John Lewis could have known the outcome of this movement. He didn’t even know if he would survive the beating he took on the Edmund Pettis Bridge as he marched with Dr. King on that fateful day we all remember from our history books. He couldn’t have known he would become a statesman, a congressman, and shining example of the American ideal. He couldn’t have known these things. But what his faith told him, what I suspect fueled his confidence, was that non-violent resistance and peaceful protest was right way to attempt to usher in change. And don’t tell me he wasn’t afraid as he sat in the front seat of that Greyhound. Don’t tell me he didn’t experience at least a fragment of doubt as he was being beaten and arrested. But here’s the thing. John Lewis didn’t let his fear overcome his faith.

I’ve said many time that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, but rather that fear is the opposite of faith. Paul Tillich reinforces this sentiment when he said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it’s an element of faith.”[ii] An element of faith! I like that! James wrote to his followers, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”

Matthew thought along these same lines as well.  Right here, in this narrative, he reinforces the place of doubt as an element of our faith journey. Peter doubted. He began to sink. But notice that he didn’t drown. In the midst of his doubt, Jesus reached out his hand and pulled Peter to safety.

That’s what it means to be saved! That’s the core, the very fabric of the nature of salvation! It doesn’t have anything to do with handing our tracts or being born again or getting others on our team. As a matter of fact, those understanding of salvation often are fraught with fear-mongering. My friends, salvation, being saved, is a free gift from God. A free gift for everyone. It’s a free gift illustrated wonderfully right here in this text. God is inviting us to overcome our fear with faith. God is reaching out to each of us, our community, and our nation, with a saving hand.

And then in turn, God is calling each of us to extend our hands to others who are sinking. We are being challenged in these troubling times, my friends, take any doubt we might be experiencing, and use that doubt to ask questions. Questions that will finally fuel our faith. Questions that will challenge us to reach out beyond ourselves and our personal fears. We’re being invited, my friends, to reach out with a hand of compassion, helping those who are homeless, or lonely, or hungry. And we are being invited, as communities of faith, to reach out with the hand of justice to our black, brown, and native sisters and brothers who have been sinking in a society that devalues them. And finally, we’re being invited, as individuals, to find our footing in these troubling, pandemic waters, even as the storm continues to rage all around us. A footing that takes us back to the basic core value of the gospel itself: to love God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves.

And do you know what? We can do this! We can overcome any fear we may be experiencing, because we are being invited, again and again and again, into the saving love of God. It’s a love that’s all around us, a love that indwells our soul, and it’s a love that interconnects all living things.

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[i] Barack Obama’s full eulogy of John Lewis found at (www.cnn.com) July 30, 2020.
[ii] Quote found at www.ucc.org/sanuel/sermon/seeds) August 9, 2020

Wouldn’t It Be Easier?

The Israelites complained to Moses, “Isn’t this the very thing we told you about while we were still in Egypt? We said, ‘Leave us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’ because it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’”               – Exodus 14:12 (paraphrase)

“You would cut off your own nose just to spite your face.” This is an old saying that I didn’t really understand when I was young. I mean, it sounds kind of silly, right? Who would mutilate themselves in order to make a point? Actually, I hadn’t thought about it for many years. Just the other day, however, as I was thinking about the great changes that we as a society are undergoing, this saying came back to me. And I began to wonder how many people “would cut off their own nose” just to avoid change? How many people would “spite their own face” just to keep the status quo?

Well, that seemed to be the sentiment among the Israelites as the reality and the cost of liberation became apparent. So, they complained to their leader, Moses, about the condition of their freedom. In essence, they wondered out-loud if it wouldn’t have been easier to have stayed in Egypt? Moses challenged them later in this passage, however, when he said, “…overcome your fear and stand firm, and you will see the deliverance that God will accomplish for you today.” Moses was reminding the Israelites, that while deliverance from bondage could be a frightening in the moment, the reward for standing firm, the prize for their steadfastness, would be greater than they could possibly fathom.

Now, in these unsettling and unusual times we too may wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to keep the status quo. But here’s the thing. The Covid-19 virus and the Black Lives Matter Movement have forever changed our society. Change is here whether we like it or not. And that being the case, it seems to me that we have a few choices to consider. I mean, will we accept the new normal of this pandemic? Will we forego some of our former activities, follow the CDC guidelines, and save the lives of as many people as possible, or will we let the fear of change lead us to cut off our own noses? And moving forward, will we accept this emerging transformation in how our differing races relate to one another or will we “spite our own face” by resorting to old stereotypes or racial slurs?

My friends, in these uncertain times, as we ask ourselves these difficult questions, and as we push-down our fears, rest assured that God is with us on the journey. We have example after example from Scripture calling us to fearlessly choose the difficult path by faithfully pursuing justice, by offering kindness, and by seeking wholeness for all of God’s people. This is the more difficult way, but in the end, it is the better way. May we find our way through the wilderness of these times, together.

Shalom and Many Blessings, Pastor Phil

A Broken Center

A Gathering Prayer

Blessed are they who fall in the mud, who jump with gusto and rip the pants, who skin the elbows, and bruise the ego, for they shall know the sweetness of risk.

Blessed are they who make giant mistakes, whose intentions are good but impact has injured, who know the hot sense of regret and ask for mercy, for their hearts will know the gift of forgiveness.

Blessed are they who have seen a D or an F or C or any letter less than perfect, who are painfully familiar with the red pen and the labels as “less than,” for they know the wisdom in the imperfect.

Blessed are they who try again, who dust off, who wash up, who extend the wish for peace, who return to sites of failure, who are dogged in their pursuit, for they will discover the secret to dreams.

Blessed are they who refuse to listen to the naysayers, for their hearts will be houses for hope.

Blessed are they who see beyond the surface of another,

for they will be able to delight in the gift of compassion.

Blessed are they who stop running the race to help a fellow traveler, who pick up the fallen, who stop for injured life, for they shall know the kindness of strangers.

Blessed are they who wildly, boldly abandon winning, for they shall know the path of justice.[i] Amen & Amen.

Scripture Reading  Mark 4:30-32 (A Paraphrase)

Once Again Jesus said, “What shall we say the Realm of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It’s like a tiny mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, as a matter of fact, it’s branches are so expansive, that the birds can perch in its shade.”

Our world feels like it is falling apart. We don’t know what to count on. We don’t know who we can trust. We don’t know what to believe. We don’t know where to go or how to be safe getting there. We don’t know if we’re infected with a virus. We don’t know if our companies will survive. We don’t know what this trauma is doing to our children. Where to we turn in these trying times?

Well, William Butler Yates might help us out here a bit. He once penned these famous lines:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
and everywhere […everywhere]  
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

My friends, the center is not holding. All that we trusted – institutions, leaders, corporations, multinational agreements, democracy, capitalism; it all seems to be falling apart. But here’s the thing. When the center is broken, we instinctively turn to the Center that’s always whole. We seek God, the One that was, is, and will always be. [ii] But as we do that, as we turn once again to the center of our faith, as we once again look to the church for reassurance, we come with new questions and with the same old questions; we come longing to begin to put the pieces together.

Now, for as long as I’ve been active in the church, people have been telling me it’s dying. With charts and graphs and data, I’ve been told many times that the center of my life, the church, used to be the right size but now it’s too small. But that’s not what I see. I view churches like mustard seeds – looking to all the world like something too small to matter but with room enough for so many in their shade. [iii]

Consider our church buildings. Some people might look at both of our beautiful church buildings, Cable and Delta United Churches of Christ, and simply see places to gather on Sunday mornings. And until this past spring, that was a big part of our identity as faithful congregations. But if this pandemic has shown our on-lookers anything, it’s that we’re more than just two well-maintained church buildings. When we say we are the “Church” we’re not talking about the buildings’ we’re talking about the people. Our congregations, our members and friends and visitors are the body of Christ on any given Sunday or Wednesday or Tuesday. We are the Church because the Church is anywhere the love of God is demonstrated through acts of compassion or justice and the Church is present anytime we seek to bring wholeness to humanity or creation.

And yes, before this virus hit, we participated in countless outreach ministries and creative mission opportunities. And in the United Church of Christ and in both of our congregations, we’ve always been a little ahead of the curve in our openness to a variety of people from many different walks of life. We’ve been, and continue to be, churches who offer an extravagant welcome by sharing God’s invitation to all people, no matter where they find themselves on life’s journey; an offer to fully participate in the life, worship, and sacraments of the church. God’s invitation is not reserved for an exclusive, righteous few, but it’s extended to all people – all people – no exceptions.

Now, with all of that being said, the fact is we’ve had to cancel or modify or postpone a whole bunch of things that define who we are as Delta and Cable United Churches of Christ. These opportunities to gather for worship or bible study or fellowship are dearly missed. I get that! This is another aspect of that broken center that Yates and I mentioned earlier. But… but here’s the thing. Out of brokenness comes an opportunity to discover wholeness, perhaps even a greater wholeness than we had before.

I mean, consider our parable for today that Jesus shared so many years ago. He looked around at those gathered there, in the dusty arid wilderness, and he struggled for a story to which they could relate. “What shall we say the Realm of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?” Notice here in Mark’s account that Jesus says nothing about faith. You see, for Mark the mustard seed represents the Kingdom or the Realm of God, a realm that was present all around them. Jesus was the center of that realm and his life was defined by love and grace and forgiveness and compassion. These attributes of Jesus, then, create for us an image of what the realm of God should look like here, in our time. An image meant to bring us peace amid chaos, justice instead of oppression, and wholeness in the midst of brokenness.

And here’s the good news!  We don’t need to have all the answers. We need but a tiny understanding of this present realm, a mustard seed of the attributes of Jesus will be sufficient to center ourselves on God and the work of compassion and extravagant welcome to which we have been called!

And here’s the better news! Even when the world seems like it’s falling apart, even when the centers of society seem broken beyond repair, we can find our center God because God is always faithful.

And finally, here’s the best news of all! God is love and each of us are loved by God. And we as God’s faithful are called and challenged to be the Church beyond our buildings by sharing God’s love with all people and by loving all of creation with that same passion.

May it be so. Amen and Amen.

 

 

 

 

[i]  A Blessing for Risk-Takers and Failures By Robin Tanner

[ii] Carmen Trimble Plotting Faith (carmon@congergenceus.org) 2020

[iii] John Edgerton Small But Spicy (dailydevotional@ucc.org) 2020

Guerrilla Gardening

Matthew 13:24-30 – The Parable of the Weeds

 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. While people were sleeping, an enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat and went away. When the stalks sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds also appeared. The servants of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Master, didn’t you plant good seed in your field? Then how is it that it has weeds?’ An enemy has done this,’ he answered. The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them?’ But the landowner said, ‘No, because if you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. Let both grow side by side until the harvest. And at harvesttime I’ll say to the harvesters, ‘First gather the weeds and tie them together in bundles to be burned. But bring the wheat into my barn.’”

I learned a new term this week. Guerrilla gardening. What is guerrilla gardening? Well, an article I read defines it as “…the illicit cultivation of someone else’s land. It is usually done in the name of improving urban space and as an action against urban blight. It can be very politicized, and it can also be informal. Sometimes it is a short-term gesture, as in throwing a seed bomb over a fence into a vacant lot. Other times it can grow into something much more permanent, like the garden plots in my neighborhood.”[i]

Now, let’s think about guerrilla gardening in light of the parable of the weeds that we have before us today. To me, it sounds like a guerrilla gardener is the opposite of the “enemy” in Jesus’ story.  The guerrilla gardener spreads “wheat” in places where only weeds had previously existed. But how might these contrasting examples of gardening speak to us today? How might we, as people of faith, spread the seeds of compassion, of grace, of justice to the “vacant lots” of our community, to the forgotten spaces in other corners of this world? How might we overcome the evil that exists all around and within us? Under what conditions might we become guerrilla gardeners?

Well, many of the same questions that trouble us also troubled the earliest Christians, including the community Matthew addresses here, in his Gospel. Now, Matthew often used language of judgment, decision and division, sometimes producing terrifying scenes of condemnation. In response to our ancestors’ struggle with the presence of evil in their midst, Matthew provided them with pictures and promises to help them endure and persist, even if their little community, and the big world beyond it, seemed infected and flawed by  the “weeds” sown by an unseen power at odds with God’s vision for the world.

Barbara Brown Taylor shares that parables are not direct answers to the questions that we want clearly and specifically answered. But instead, she says, they deliver “…their meaning in images that talk more to our hearts than to our heads. Parables are mysterious. Left alone, they teach us something different every time we hear them, speaking across great distances of time and place and understanding”[ii]

Parables are mysterious, and as I said last week, if we take them to literally or if we think we’re certain about their meaning, the parable and thus the message is in danger of become irrelevant. But if we’re made uncomfortable by the challenge of a parable, we’re probably getting a little closer to the heart of what we’re meant to gain from it. You see, “Parables are short stories that often teach by criticizing bad behavior and calling for hearers to reform their lives. These are not simply reflections on the kingdom of heaven; these are directions for how to create the kingdom of God here on earth.”[iii]

Now, like last week’s lectionary reading, our passage contains a parable with images of sowing seeds. Last week’s sower liberally spread seeds on every kind of ground, with mixed results. This week’s sower presumably uses good ground, but also gets mixed results because of the actions of an unnamed “enemy.” And this is important. It’s important because as in any good storytelling there’s tension and conflict. The enemy here actively resisted the work of God the sower. Perhaps those early Christians had a sense of their own powerlessness. Perhaps they felt small and vulnerable in opposition to the powerful enemies of their society.[iv]

But what about you? Are there times when you feel powerless or vulnerable in the face of the evils of this our society? But while this parable and the subsequent explanation seem to look forward to a final judgment day, it’s intent, in reality, is better understood in how we build up the reign of God in our present circumstances. As we work toward a society in which all people are treated with dignity and respect we will have to contend with the weeds that choke justice, literally and figuratively.

Now, I’ve seen his parable misused to justify complacency as the weeds and wheat grow together until final harvest; a “just let God sort it out” kind of thinking. But telling people who are presently suffering victimization to wait for a future reckoning only causes further harm and fails to promote God’s vision of justice. God’s eschatological justice cannot be an excuse for inaction, comfortable ignorance, or outright denial of the need for change.[v]

And this is where we come back around to guerrilla gardening. I believed with every fabric of my being that we are being called, during these most trying of times, to become “guerrilla gardeners of God’s love.” What does that mean? Well, It means continuing the process of finding ways to be sowers of wheat among the weeds of this world. But it also means considering the places where we’re the ones sowing the weed seed. We’re simultaneously represented by both the weeds and the wheat in this parable. We’re the ones who have stood up against racial injustice, for example, but at the same time we’ve also, perhaps unwittingly, participating in passive racism by utilizing social structures that advantage white-straight-men over all others.

So, what a parable like this one challenges us to do, first of all, is to become aware of these systems and then, to use our new-found awareness to influence social change. Real and lasting social change that can be realized if we are willing to lend our voices, our wallets, and our vote to insure that equality and justice is real for every single one of God’s children.

Yes, in the end, we are both weed and wheat. But we can choose to become something more, we can choose to become sowers of justice, propagators of peace, channels of God’s grace; we can, my friends, choose to become guerrilla gardeners of God’s love. And isn’t that finally, something worth considering?

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[i] David Tracey, Guerrilla Gardening: A Manual-festo (BC: New Society Publishers, 2007).

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor “Learning to Live with Weeds,” in The Seeds of Heaven (quote found at www.ucc.org/samuel/seeds) 2020

[iii] Jaime L. Waters How the Parable of the Weeds Compels us to Fight for Justice  (www.americanmagazine.org) 2020

[iv] Katheryn Matthews’ reflection on Matthew 13 (www.ucc.org/samuel/seeds) 2020

[v] Ibid. Waters

The Surprising Generosity of God

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 The Parable of the Sower

Jesus said many things to them in parables. A farmer went out to scatter seed. As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.

Jesus then went on to explain the parable.

Whenever people hear the word about the reign of God and don’t understand it, the evil of this world comes and carries off what was planted in their hearts. This is the seed that was sown on the path. As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. As for the seed that was spread among thorny plants, this refers to those who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the false appeal of wealth choke the word, and it bears no fruit. As for what was planted on good soil, this refers to those who hear and understand, and bear fruit and produce; in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.

I have a lifetime connection to farming. I grew up in a rural, farming community in Illinois, worked on dairy farms growing up, I served a country church in rural Iowa for five years, and as many of you already know, Becky and I raise chickens and turkeys, goats and geese along with two large gardens on our property here in Northern Wisconsin. So, it’s suffice to say that I know a thing or two about planting seeds and what constitutes good soil. And it would be easy to translate that knowledge into a sermon on how you should become better soil.

But I’m going to go a different direction today. I want to offer you something beyond the same old, dusty understanding of this text. I want to offer you something more than just asking, “what kind of soil are you?” I want to offer you a perspective on this parable that speaks to us in our time, in our context, in the midst of all this chaos that is 2020. I want to offer you a word about the surprising generosity of God.

I read a story this week written by a pastor who had recently spent a couple of days in Selma, Alabama. He shared his experience this way: “I stopped at a gas station at the edge of town to fill up before heading home,” he said, “but when I went inside, I noticed an elderly black man sitting in a chair against the wall. I looked at him and said hello. He just nodded and said, ‘Boss.’ And then he started. ‘Forty cents a day I plowed dem fields boss. Forty cents a day!’ Then he got louder. ‘Forty cents a day I tell you. Forty cents, boss!’ Then he got his wallet out. Held up two one dollar bills. He was quiet, calculating. Then he began waving the two dollars and said, ‘This was five days of my life boss. Forty cents a day!’”

Today’s parable makes me think about the gound upon which that old man walked. I suspect he often walked the hard-packed path of racism, a path where not much grows, where life and opportunities are too quickly snatched away. I’d be willing to bet he knew what it was like to live between a rock and hard place. On the rocky ground, life withers because you can’t put down roots. There’s no security or stability and the sun scorches. He surely walked amongst the thorns of violence, fear, anger, and poverty. I have no doubt that those thorns wrapped themselves around him and his family choking away dignity, security, and trust.

Now, you and I may not have plowed fields for forty cents a day but we all know the different landscapes of which Jesus speaks. We know the beaten path of life. We’ve stumbled through the rocky patches of life. We’ve all been scratched and cut by the thorns of life. But we’ve also planted our roots deep in the sacred soil of life. Soil that has feed us and allowed us grow into the community of faith we are today.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Jesus isn’t just describing different types of soil or circumstances of life. He is describing the inner landscape of the human heart. And if we know anything, we know that the human heart is complicated and multifaceted. And it’s precisely because we’re so complex that our hearts are represented by more than just one type of soil. We‘re actually all four. The four soils are descriptive of how we live and relate to others and to God. Jesus’ interpretation of this parable, when he tells us about what happens to the seeds, describes the consequences of each kind of life.

Now, this way of understanding today’s narrative represents both the beauty and challenge of parables. The challenge comes when we try to understand a parable as a literal. By literal, I mean the attempt to cram an ancient, pre-scientific, pre-rationalist understanding of how things work in the world into our post-modern worldview. And unfortunately, this type of literalism causes a parable to lose its relevance.

I mean, as a person who gardens, when I read about a farmer going out and sowing seeds on a public pathway, on rocky ground, and amongst the thorns, I think to myself, “That is simply wasteful, inefficient, and ineffective. That’s bad farming. You can’t plant seeds among the rocks and thorns or on a path and then act surprised when nothing grows.” So, the result of looking at this parable in these literal terms is irrelevance. But to be aware of this disconnect is how we begin to understand the deeper, culturally in-tuned, beauty of this parable. A beauty that invites us to find a meaning that speaks to us in our time and situation. And if we approach Jesus’ teachings with this kind of freedom, they will offer us a glimpse into God’s world and what God is like.

And the Parable of the Sower is, in the end, a koan of grace that invite us to indwell the surprising generosity of God. A generosity that lays at the heart of this passage. A generosity that’s revealed to us through the imagery of the four soils. As different as they are from one another, these four types of soil hold two things in common. Seeds and the sower. The sower sows the same seeds in all four soils with equal toil, equal hope, and equal generosity. And the sower does so without evaluation of the soil’s quality or potential. There’s no soil left unsown. No ground is declared undeserving of the sower’s seeds. This isn’t about the quality of dirt. It’s about the quality of God, the surprising generosity of the divine sower.

Our society, however, for hundreds of years has misunderstood the nature of God’s generosity. The privileged have used their advantage to push people of color, whether they be African American, Latinx American, Asian American, or Native American, onto the hard, rocky, thorny ground of racism. That’s the point of the old man’s rage at spending five days of his life earning only two dollars. That’s the anger inherent in his words, as he spoke of getting only 40 cents a day while working 40 dollar a day soil. And that’s the motivation behind the Black Lives Matter Movement. It isn’t about the rioting and looting, that’s the unfortunate result of a few instigators of trouble. And it isn’t about getting rid of the police, as we depicted in a ridiculous political ad recently.

Instead, the Black Live Matter movement actually speaks from the very core of this parable. It’s about coming to understand the surprising and indiscriminate generosity of our Still-Speaking God, as revealed to us in the life and teachings of Jesus. It’s about a generous God who says that no life, no race, no nationality, no sexual orientation or gender identity, no person, no soil, is left unsown. No one is beyond the grace of God and no one should be excluded from the extravagant welcome of God’s people. That’s what this parable is finally about in our context: The equal distribution of dignity and respect, of opportunity and wealth. It’s about seeing beyond the color of one’s skin and coming to understand that justice, real and true racial justice, must be for all, by all, and among all.

And finally, we’re called and challenged, as people of faith, to be prophetic in how we respond to the rapidly changing landscape around us. We’re called to be fearless in our pursuit of justice and we’re challenged, maybe now more than ever before, to love our neighbors, all of our neighbors, beyond the limits of the past, beyond even… the constraints of our imaginations. We are called, my dear ones, not only to proclaim the generosity of God in our society, but to live-out that generosity in our words and with our actions.

My friends, change is here. That’s the simple truth. That’s the reality. But the question of how we, as people of faith, as the advantaged majority, respond to this movement toward equality, that remains to be seen.[i]

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[i] Many of my thoughts in this message found their beginnings in the stories and theology of a sermon titled: It’s About God, Not the Dirt (www.interruptingthesilence.com) 2011

Growing Weary: A Message of Hope in the Midst of Hopelessness

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”

Let me begin by telling you something you already know. It has been a very hot week! Hot for Northern Wisconsin anyway. So, when it comes to working in my gardens, I’ve had to adopt a new strategy. I get up early and frantically hoe and pull weeds before it gets too hot. It’s suffice to say that gardening has become more difficult because of the heat. But here’s the thing. I still love it! Even though it’s become more difficult this week, I’m not going to give up on my vegetables.

In our gospel passage from Matthew today, Jesus invites us to adopt a new strategy when the burdens of life become heavy, when the yoke we bear seems to become unbearable, when the cost of discipleship seems too costly. Rachel Held Evans put it this way. “The yoke is hard because the teachings of Jesus are radical,” she writes, “…enemy love, unconditional forgiveness, extreme generosity. [But] The yoke is easy because it is accessible to all: the studied and the ignorant, the rich and the poor, the religious and the nonreligious.”

Jesus invites all of us who are weary and bearing heavy burdens to find rest in him. Not just those who are members of a church, not just the righteous, or the self-righteous as the case may be, but all who are weary and carrying a heavy burden are welcome. There’s no price to be paid, no creed to repeat, no doctrine to memorize. Perhaps it’s this universal invitation to sabbath that makes this one of the most beloved passages from the Gospel of Matthew. But, that being said, the contrast that I see in this passage has always been interesting to me. There’s a contrast or a tension here between resting and working, between heavy and light, between wearing the burdensome yoke of the world verses the easy yoke of Jesus.

Now, this is, for obvious reasons, a common passage used in celebration of life services. Our loved one has cast off the burdens of this life and now rests in eternity. That’s a valid and reassuring way to view this passage. But if we look at this passage within its immediate context, we soon come to realize that Matthew is really teaching us about discipleship. And this is where these contrasting images of yoke enter the picture.

But before we get into all that, I think we need to take a moment to talk about yokes. I would be willing to bet that most of us have never seen, let alone felt the weight of a yoke. For the younger ones watching or if you’re not a student of historical agricultural tools, a yoke was a large, wooden, I would say “harness” for lack of a better word, that went over the backs of either one or two animals, usually mules or oxen, so a farmer could plow his fields or pull a wagon. It would have been very heavy and very cumbersome to move around and especially difficult to lift up onto the animals backs.

So, the first impression that we’re intended to get here is one of a heavy, burdensome weight dragging us down. And not coincidentally, that’s sometimes the impression we get when we think about discipleship. The connotation of the word itself drips of weighty commitment to working for the benefit of others, no matter the personal cost, no matter the sacrifice. And I would submit that if we try to “do” discipleship by ourselves, alone, it can become just that, burdensome, like a heavy yoke.

But the thing about a yoke is that it both restrains and enables. It’s simultaneously a burden and a possibility. So, the question confronting all of us is this: which yoke will we put on? The heavy, lonely one or will we share the burden with others and with God?

Well, Matthew, here in the 11th chapter of his account, invites us to choose the latter. He invites us to discover a better way of “doing” discipleship. A way that invites us to view discipleship through the lens of two Great Commandments, loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. And when we do that, when we view our responsibilities as people of faith through the lens of love, the yoke becomes gentle, not burdensome or wearying, but light, easy, and pleasant. 

But can it really be that simple? In these days of distrust, division and disease, can we really find unity by sharing the burdens of society and by shouldering the yoke of these troubling times, together? In a word, yes. Yes we can. You see, that’s the enduring wisdom of this text and that’s the enduring wisdom of the garden. You see, a successful garden needs to be weeded, often. But if you let the weeds get away from you, in the end, your yield will be diminished. Well, the same it true as we think about reaching out to others with grace and compassion, sharing the love of God with our neighbor. The definition of discipleship. But if we don’t tend to our discipleship, if we don’t tend to the needs of our neighbor, and if we don’t tend to our personal spiritual health, our love for others will be diminished, like the yield of an untended garden.

But if we are willing to put in the work. If we are willing to cultivate justice, if we are willing to propagate peace, and if we are willing to do this work side by side and hand in hand with others in our community, the yield will be plentiful. Because I am utterly convinced, that showing grace yields more grace, that compassion when shared, expands beyond the limits of our imagination, that love comes back 100fold, and finally, that non-violent resistance leads to positive change. My friends, when we take-on of the yoke of Jesus in community, together, the burden of the world become light.

May it be so. Amen.

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Katheryn Matthews. Reflection on Matthew 11 (www.ucc.org/samuel/seeds) 2020

A Prophetic Witness: A Voice of Reason in Unreasonable Times

Jeremiah had been telling the people: “Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, or famine, or by disease. But whoever surrenders to the Babylonians will live; yes, their lives will be spared. But the officials said to the king: “This man must be put to death! By saying such things, he’s discouraging the few remaining troops left in the city, as well as all the people. This man doesn’t seek their welfare but their ruin!” So they seized Jeremiah and threw him into a muddy cistern within the prison quarters.                     -From Jeremiah 38

When I read about Jeremiah’s troubles, I couldn’t help but think about the state of our community and our nation during this ever-worsening pandemic. And for a couple of weeks now I’ve been mulling over what “a prophetic witness” might look like during such troubling times.

The first thing I came to realized is that none of us can predict the future, nor should we try. Like all of the prophets we encounter in the Bible, we’re not fortunetellers. Biblical prophecy is never about predicting the future, it’s always about improving the present.

So, bearing this in mind, how are we called to be living examples in this moment? How are we being challenged to love our neighbor in the midst of Covid-19? Well, we can do this by wearing a mask in public, by limiting our contact with large groups, and by continuing to worship and meet online. We can BE the Church by putting public safety before our own desire for things to “get back to the way they were.”

Now, I understand that holding the line on these issues isn’t easy nor is it popular. It seems like everyone else is going back to normal. Other people don’t wear masks, other people are gathering in large groups, eating out, enjoying life. Other farmer’s markets have resumed and other garage sales are going on. Other churches have resumed their in-person services. Why can’t we?

Well, this is where Jeremiah can help us out a bit. In the passage I shared above, Jeremiah was actually thrown into a cistern, into the mud at the bottom of a pit, because he stood up for public safety. Jeremiah stood up for what was right even though it wasn’t mainstream or popular. You see, he knew that his community was about to be overrun by the Babylonians. And he knew that to stay in the city and fight would mean certain death. So, he advocated for surrender, for exile. He encouraged his people to choose life over death even at the expense of their personal freedom.

Now, we’re in a similar situation. We’re being asked to give up a little bit of our freedom as this pandemic threatens to overrun us. We’re being challenged to keep our church building and our Farmers Market and our Second Chance Sale closed even though it’s not mainstream, even though it’s not popular. But like Jeremiah, we must hold the line by putting the welfare of the general public before our individual desires. Like Jeremiah, we are being asked to choose life over death.

So, how do we do this? How can we continue to be the church even as the building remains closed, with the farmer’s market cancelled, and as the garage continues to be shuttered. How can we endure this loss of freedom?

Well, I think it’s important to remember that freedom doesn’t mean we have the right to do whatever we want. Freedom is instead a responsibility. It’s a responsibility, in this case, to love our neighbor by demonstrating and advocating for the health and safety of the majority over the desires of individuals. Freedom means accepting our time in the mud for the greater good of all of God’s beloved people.

My friends. Be safe. Be well. Be a prophetic witness!

Many Blessings, Pastor Phil

 

 

 

With or Against?

A Message about Compassion.

A Reading from the Ninth Chapter of Matthew’s Account of the Good News.

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the Reign of God on earth. He cured every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

The great Henri Nouwen once said, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.”[I]

Now, I share this timely quote with you today because it’s a wonderful explanation of the nature of compassion. But compassion goes even deeper than Nouwen’s quote. Compassion can be expressed in more ways than one might think.

Maybe think of it like this. You’re out walking one day and you see a stranger stuck at the bottom of a pit. What do you do? Well, you could just mind your own business and walk right on by, but that wouldn’t square with your calling as a person of faith or as a human being for that matter. The second option might be to go for help or a ladder or a rope. All would be acceptable acts. But there’s a third option here. You could jump down in the pit with the stranger. Now, the third option is an illustration of compassion. Compassion calls us to “suffering with” someone in distress. The word compassion literally means, “to suffer with.”

But here’s the thing. Here’s the part of compassion that you might not expect. We’re not called to stay in the pit. Compassion invites us to climb out of the pit …together. In other words, compassion calls us to be with another person in need and to work with them to find our way out of the pit, toward wholeness, toward God. And it goes without saying then, that being with someone who’s struggling, or grieving, or suffering injustice, means not working against them. I know that sounds simplistic, but it’s the truth.

Now, Jesus, in our text for today, looked out across the crowds that were following him and the narrative says, “He had compassion for them.” In other words, Jesus was with them in their struggles as they suffered injustice at the hands of the Roman Empire. And he was with them as they tried to square that injustice with their spiritual lives. Jesus said they were like sheep with a shepherd.

The interesting thing I see here is that Jesus, no matter how many sick people came to him, no matter how many times his disciples questioned or doubted, no matter how many times he was accused of heresy or breaking the law; no matter how many suffering people Jesus encountered, he persisted in proclaiming the good news of the present-reign of God. The text says he “cured every disease and every sickness.”

And as we look beyond this passage to the rest of the gospel, we encounter a Jesus who didn’t care about one’s past mistakes, one’s religion, one’s status in society; he didn’t care about one’s national origin or race, he didn’t shame anyone for their sexual orientation or gender identity or lifestyle; Jesus didn’t judge people based upon on any of these criteria, he simply loved them; he simply had “compassion for them.”

So, how might this passage speak to us in our present situation? I mean, as the privileged majority, do we stand with the disadvantaged minority who are suffering racial injustice or do we work against them. Jesus’ answer seems pretty clear. We’re to have compassion for those who are struggling. We are to suffer with those on the margins of society, those who have suffered violence because of the color of their skin.

Now, despite all of the negative things going on right now, I have seen many wonderful examples of compassion. In one instance a group of police officers put down their shields and joined in a protest march. In another instance, I saw two uniformed police officers playing basketball to two young men. Time and again, I’ve seen examples good policing.

But at the same time, the deep scars of racism still pollute the minds of some, even of some police officers. My grandma would have called them, “a few bad apples.” And that, from my perspective, is what these peaceful protests are all about. Yes, there are other “bad apples” who are taking advantage of the unrest to loot and steal, and to complicate things even more, there are white supremist groups whose goal is to stir up trouble and cause even more civil unrest. But by and large, what I have witnessed are white and black and brown people, and police officers, and community leaders, and elected officials, coming together to create change, real change in law enforcement practices. And please, I implore you to tune-out the political pundits from both sides of the isle, no reasonable person wants to get rid of the police. “Defund” is a misnomer. The goal is to encourage reform through the reallocation of resources; the goal is to bring about a greater unity and a deeper understanding between peace officers and people of color, so that policing will become more just, more humane, …more compassionate.

One final thought before I move into our community time of prayer. Jesus ends this passage by saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” My friends, the harvest of injustice and racism and hatred in this nation is indeed plentiful. It’s overwhelming sometimes and it’s been exposed as never before in my lifetime over the course of the past three years. But we are called to stand against oppression, to use or voice and our vote, our prayers and our protests, to either physically or in spirit, go out as laborers into the harvest, effecting change through sharing the good news of the present reign of God in this world, and by having compassion on all whom we encounter. The Lord of the harvest has called us, the few, to stand up against the injustice of many.

But here’s the good news, the few are ever-expanding, growing in numbers and spirit every day. In the end, we will live-into the justice and equality that God intends for all humanity. I’m going to leave you today with the immortal words of Dr. King, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bend toward justice.” May we as compassionate harvesters, become a part of that arc-bending; may we as people of faith, begin to move past the evils of racism and into the fields unity, co-existence, and grace. May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

[i] Quote found at (www.ucc.org/seeds/samuel) June 14, 2020

I-God: The Ideal, The Inspirational, and The Intuitive

In observance of Earth Day several years ago, the Associated Press asked astronauts who had returned from space to recall what it felt like to look back at the earth. Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, whose 1968 pictures of our planet became famous as “Earth Rise,” spoke eloquently about perspective: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”[i]

You know, sometimes it’s prudent to take a step back and reflect for a moment in order to gain a fresh perspective. I think that’s what all of us need today. A moment of reflection. Of course, we can’t gain our new perspective from a “Bill Anders” vantage point, but we can look at the current chaos in our nation and our response as people of faith with new eyes.

Now, as I said before, today is Trinity Sunday and the doctrine of the trinity is something that could benefit from a little new perspective. I mean, I’ve been at this theology thing for a good number of years and, over the course of that time, I’ve progressed and grown in my understanding of trinitarian theology. Like most of you, I began by just accepting the concept of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three-in-one, without question. When I became a student pastor I quickly transitioned to the more inclusive and welcoming Creator, Christ, and Spirit.

But then came seminary, with all its fancy terms like perichoretic coactivity and homoousios, and just between you and me, I was more confused than ever. So, I kind of set the trinity aside. Oh, I found ways to speak of it once a year on Trinity Sunday. I compared the trinity to three forms of water, (ice, liquid, steam). Then I likened the trinity to relationships (I’m a husband to my wife, a father to my kids, a son to my parents, three different relationship, some person) Actually, that one still works pretty well because it get at the relational aspect of God.

But it still wasn’t quite enough. So, about a year ago I began to revisit the concept of trinity. I read a book by Richard Rohr called Divine Dance and that launched my quest for a deeper comprehension and a re-invigoration of my personal trinitarian theology.

Now, the premise of this book, as the title indicates, is to recapture an understanding of God as three-in-one by adopting the image of an unending dance. Creator, Christ, and Spirit, ever-twirling, ever-dancing, ever circling one another seamlessly dancing together within the mystery of the Trinity. Rohr then uses this illustration to demonstrate to us that God is in fact “community.” A community that exists among the three-persons of the Godhead and their coactivity, their movement, he contends, is always dynamic and fluid, thus, the image of the twirling dance.[ii]

Now, you’re already familiar with this concept of the divine dance because it was the core of my sermon on the Trinity last year. But my quest didn’t end with Richard Rohr and this eastern concept of the “whirling dance.” A couple of weeks ago, as our nation continued to sink deeper into crisis, I began to wonder what image of the trinity might be more practical, more healing, more hopeful in the midst of all that’s going on. So, I came up with and new perspective, a Bill Anders view from outer space if you will, I came up with the concept of “I-God.”

I-God is a practical application of the trinitarian formula for the 21st century. It’s basically the three “I’s” of the trinity: the Ideal God, the Inspirational God, and the Intuitive God. This is how it works.

The Ideal God is God as creator, mystery, other-than, the More. This is the transcendent part of God that is often beyond our grasp. How is this practical? Well, one of the most basic ideas out forth by Scripture is that God is God and we’re not. The Psalmist says that God created humans “only slightly less than divine.”[iii]

Now, the Inspirational God is an extension of the Ideal. It’s not enough to simply realize that God is mysterious, we must also understand that God is around us. Incarnate is the theological term. Jesus, of course, is the face of the Inspirational God. Jesus inspired his disciples back then, and people of faith still today, as he healed taught them and us about justice, forgiveness, and compassion, living-out those qualities all the way to the cross. And Jesus inspires all of us, above all else, to be love and he challenges us to put that love into practice. A love that when practiced becomes more than a mere concept; it becomes a part of the very fabric of our being.

And it’s this indwelling of love that constitutes the Intuitive God. The Intuitive God is the Spirit of the living God within each of us and within all living things. The Spark of the Divine. The Consciousness of God dwelling within each person. The Intuitive God is the part of God which compels us to speak out for justice, stand up for equality, and to seek peace. The Intuitive God is the part of God in which we “live and move and have our being.”[iv]

My friends, as this pandemic drags on and as the consequences of systemic racism continue to unfold, we’re not wrong to long for the kind of soul calming peace that came over us, as we saw, for the first time, those distant pictures Anders took fifty years ago.  But as history has once again taught us, we cannot truly have peace in this nation until we have justice for all. We cannot truly be the land of the free and the home of the brave until the privileged majority summons the bravery to stand up for the freedom of the disadvantaged.

But, my friends, if we summon that bravery, that courage, the courage to enact a new perspective, to live-into an updated understanding of God as Ideal, Inspirational, and Intuitive, then we can be nothing less than a faith community, and faithful individuals, who creatively find ways to become a voice for the voiceless, to advocates for racial equality, and to be promoters of non-violent resistance in the face of whatever kinds of evil we encounter. This is finally what it means to be Love …to be the Church!

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[i] Katheryn Matthews A Reflection on Psalm 8 (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermon/seeds) 2020

[ii] Richard Rohr Divine Dance (Whitaker House Publishing) 2016

[iii] Psalm 8:5 Common English Bible (CEB)

[iv] Acts 17:28 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)