Deep Within Our Hearts

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The great theologian Henri Nouwen once said, “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing. [But] the mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”[i]

“Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing.”

In a way, this statement by Nouwen get to the very heart of what it means to live-into our covenant with God, to live-out our shared ministry as the church, and what it truly means to be in relationship with each other. We’re invited, according to Nouwen, to use our understanding of Christ’s wisdom, his teachings, and his healing acts to demonstrate the very depths of divine love. They’ll know we are Christians by our love, right? But what if we fall short? What if my love for others isn’t as unconditional as God’s love is for me?

Well, in truth, we simply cannot be adequate conduits of God’s love; not on our own anyway. We’re far too fragile, too afraid, too, well, human. But herein lies the beauty of covenant.  Covenant is a two-way street.  We are in covenant with God, but God is also in covenant with us. So, while we may not be perfect in our love for others, this covenant that we have with God; this intrinsic, inherent, deep within our hearts knowledge of God’s love that Jeremiah espouses, will finally be enough. I say that because I believe, with every fiber of my being, that God goes before us and is there with us in all situations.

How do I know this? Well, let’s look at the history of covenant. There are many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures about covenant; from Noah and the rainbow, to Abraham and Sarah and their many descendants, to Moses and the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai, through David and the Davidic line that finally leads to Jesus.

But in this week’s reading from Jeremiah, we see a significant change in the covenant.  In this short passage, the prophet reveals a covenant that’s not carved in stone, or somehow external, but instead, one that’s written deep within each of us. And it’s through this change in perspective that Jeremiah helps us to understand God’s covenant as an on-going process. In a very real way, God’s covenant with us and our response to God’s promises are constantly forming and reforming, developing and changing. Covenant is always in the process of becoming more.

Now, contextually, Jeremiah was speaking to the people of Israel while they were still in captivity, still in exile, still steeped in loss and grief. Their city had been destroyed and their conqueror Babylon had carried many of them away to the far-off capital of its powerful empire. So, by the time we get to the 31st chapter, Jeremiah was no longer scolding the people for their sin or their lack of faithfulness to God. Instead, he was bringing the people a new message from God. A new message of comfort and hope and compassion. God’s heart, according to Jeremiah, had been touched by their suffering, and, God had forgiven them.

And it was during this time of exile that God made sweeping promises to the people of Israel; promises of restoration, of return, and, most importantly, of relationship. Once again, as in so many of the covenant stories that came before this one, God promised to be in relationship with the people. Think again about Noah and Abraham, Moses and David; God promised to abide with them; to be present with them through thick and thin.  And here, in the new covenant, relationship is again at the core of it all. God says through Jeremiah, “I will be your God, and you…you will be my people.”[ii]

And just so we know that this isn’t some temporary thing, God, says, “I will put my instruction within you and engrave it on your heart.” So, even though this covenant is new and continues to develop and progress, it never goes away.  This is what Walter Brueggemann calls the “core memory” of Israel.[iii]

And this is interesting.  It’s interesting because these “core memoires” these intrinsic instructions, this deep, primal understanding of covenant as knowing the law of God, as knowing right and wrong, doesn’t go away either. God’s covenant is always within us.

So, why is this important? Well, it’s important because this internal understanding, our “core memory” if you will, guides our decision making. We somehow know, deep within our being, right from wrong. Yes, I will grant that our experiences, our traditions, and what we have been taught by our elders greatly affect the choices we make in life.  But, I also believe that God’s intrinsic instructions guide us as well.  This is the essence of moral philosophy.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once told a story of teaching a confirmation class years ago in which he outlined the meaning of the Mosaic Covenant. He went step by step through it, explaining the promise of God, that God would rescue the Hebrew people from slavery and that they would worship only God and then act in ways that show themselves to be a liberated people. When finished he asked them as a review to tell him what he had just said. Well, he got a variety of attempts, some close and some not so close. Then one little boy raised his hand and put it better than any theologian could have. He said (quoting God), “I saved your butts, so on now and behave.”[iv]

Maybe when it’s all said and done, that’s what the new covenant calls us to do; to “go and behave.”  That’s certainly what Jesus challenged the disciples to do after his death and as they began to form those early communities of faith.  Basically, he told them to go and behave like me, right? And what might that behavior look like in our world today? Well, feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the lonely, speak up for those who have been silenced, welcome the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant.  My friends, Jesus continues to challenge us to behave according to that intrinsic covenant, that knowledge of right and wrong, that remains deep within us. “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing.” And I would add, “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him by loving all people and all creation are the same thing.”

One final thought on this subject.  In the United Church of Christ, when we talk about the Still-Speaking God, what do we mean? Is there an audible voice speaking in the world today? Some might lift-up the cries of the hungry, the homeless, the oppressed as that voice. Okay. But what if the Still-Speaking voice of God isn’t on the outside? Or audible? What if the voice of God is speaking within each of us?  Maybe that’s finally what Jeremiah was driving at here.  Maybe he understood that sharing the love of God comes not from righteousness or piety or perfection, but rather, sharing divine love comes from within our hearts.  You know, that place where our covenant with God is engraved.

So, as we near the end of our journey though Lent, perhaps the most important “take-away” from all this is love God, love others, love from deep within your being. Perhaps, that’s the meaning of covenant; perhaps that’s finally, the meaning of the cross.

Amen.

[i] Henri Nouwen In the Name of Jesus (www.journey-endurance.blogspot.com) 2007

[ii] Kathryn Matthews. God’s Love in Our Hearts (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[iii] Walter Brueggemann Theology of the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press. 2008)

[iv] Stan Duncan Written on Their Hearts (www.homebynow.blogspot.com) 2013

A Consuming Passion

John 2:13-22

The following is an excerpt from a beautiful poem by Maya Angelou called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The free bird thinks of another breeze And the trade winds soft through the sighing trees And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn and he names the sky his own. But a caged BIRD stands on the grave of dreams His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream His wings are clipped, and his feet are tied So he opens his throat to sing. The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill For the caged bird sings of freedom.[i]

I spent a fair amount of time thinking about Jesus, and lent, and our text for today, juxtaposed to Maya Angelou’s words. I mean, who was the “caged bird” in John’s narrative? Jesus? The religious leaders? The disciples? Someone else entirely? You know, there’s something intriguing; something haunting but strangely familiar about the second to last line of this poem, “…and his tune is heard on the distant hill.” I don’t know. Let’s see where this takes us.

You’re all familiar with the story, right? Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover but was upset by what he witnessed.  He saw moneychangers and merchants buying and selling in the Temple. Why? Well, people, devout Jews, were coming from all over as an observance of their religion.  Passover was a time of pilgrimage.  And one of the requirements of this pilgrimage was to bring an unblemished animal to the temple to be used as a sacrifice to God. But over the course of time, people began to realize that is was easier to buy an animal once they got to Jerusalem rather than haul one with them.  Hence, the business opportunists set up shop.  To buy these animals, however, the law required these sojourners to change their money into Roman currency. That was the job of the “moneychangers” we see in this text.

So, what’s the problem here? Well, there were a couple of things that got Jesus’ dander up. First, and most obviously, this commerce was taking place in the temple itself. But when we think about the scene, what we envision may not necessarily be accurate.  What do I mean? Well, let’s compare it to our church building. The moneychangers and merchants weren’t in the sanctuary rather the area they occupied was more akin to our fellowship hall. But this is where the comparison breaks down a bit.  It breaks down because unlike our church, not all areas were open everyone.  You see, the temple was set up in an exclusionary manner.

In the center was the “holy of holies.” This was the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept and where God stayed.  The temple theology that the Jews adhered to in that period held that God was exclusively in the Temple, and specifically, in the holy of holies! So, as you might imagine, that area was off limits to everyone.  With one exception.  Once a year, one Rabbi, selected by lot, went in to the holy of holies to perform a ritual prayer.

Now, back to our church comparison. The area just outside the holy of holies might be closest to what we call the sanctuary, but it was limited to select Jewish men only.  The fellowship hall, or perhaps even the entry way outside the fellowship hall was for everyone else. And this is where the merchants had set up shop and where Jesus cracked his whip and turned over tables. Why? Because not only did everyone except privileged Jewish men find themselves unable to worship in the sanctuary, the area they were given, was more like a marketplace than a church.

But, we must be careful here.  New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan emphasizes that Jesus was “not against the Temple as such, and not against the high priesthood as such. It was [instead] a protest from the legal and prophetic heart of Judaism against Jewish religious cooperation with Roman imperial control.”[ii] In other words, Jesus got his dander up not only because of the disparity he witnessed within the temple, but because of the injustice he saw in society.  Jesus was passionate about social justice and equality and liberation! Why does the caged bird sing? It sings for freedom.

So, what does all this mean for us? Well, freedom has long been the song of caged birds since Jesus walked the earth.  I mean, think about those held captive in the holds of slave ships coming from Africa, or the trail of tears, or the internment camps of the second World War, or the holocaust. Whenever religions or government bodies or everyday citizens give themselves over to and cooperate with the greed of imperial control, free birds get caged. Whenever good people let the hate-filled words of racism or the fear-mongering of nationalism dominate their culture, free birds get caged. This was the injustice Jesus opposed and that opposition was the passion that Jesus lived. And this is the passion that he calls us, as individuals and as the church, to demonstrate in our context as well. As a matter of fact, Jesus was so passionate about social justice, that he gave up his own life, his own freedom, to be executed on a cross.

How do we know this? Well, it comes down to the translation of a single word from Hebrew to Greek to English. When the disciples witnessed Jesus get angry, the text says they recalled a line from Psalm 69 “passion for your house consumes me.” However, the word meaning “zeal” or “passion” as it moved from Hebrew to Greek to English, carried with it a definite article. So, a wooden or exact transliteration would be “the passion.”

Now, why is this important? It’s important because the most natural rendering of this passage, because of that definite article, would then be “passion of your house consumes me,” not “for your house,” as we see in this text. So, if this is correct, then the passion of the temple consumed Jesus, which is exactly what happened.

Moreover, this view is more consistent with the over-all theme of the fourth gospel, which is not that Jesus was passionate on behalf of the temple, but that the temple representatives, the religious leaders who passionately opposed Jesus would ultimately facilitate his execution.[iii]

So, where does this leave us as we continue our Lenten journey? Well, perhaps, we are challenged by this text to be a more passionate about the things that matter in our society? In other words, what “caged birds” do we encounter every day and how might we participate in acts that lead to liberation rather than captivity?  It may not be easy. Like Jesus, when we challenge the status quo, when we make waves, the anger, the passion of those in charge of the house may be kindled against us.  But, also like Jesus, we are called to be undeterred in our quest for peace and justice, for equality and freedom, for all people and for all nations.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill For the caged bird sings of freedom

May freedom, finally, become a reality for all.

Amen.

[i] Maya Angelou. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. (100bestpoems.net)

[ii] Carl Gregg, #Occupy Church, (www.patheos.com) 2012.

[iii] John Petty. Progressive Involvement, (www.progressiveinvolvement.com) 2012.

 

The Best of the Best

John 2:1-11

“They have no wine.”

I hear a question in Mary’s voice as she points out to her son Jesus that the wedding guests have run out of wine. It’s a primal question that’s familiar to all of us, isn’t it?  Will we have enough? Will we have enough to put food on the table? Will we have enough to make a good life for our family and enjoy the life we’ve created? Will we have enough to retire and stay retired? It’s a fear of scarcity I hear in Mary’s voice. But Jesus answers her fear, as he always does, with an assurance of abundance.

This story is first of seven of the fourth gospel’s “sign” stories.  Signs are one of the ways in which John presents Jesus as the Christ, the anointed one of God.  And it’s through Jesus, the one who embodies God, who gives us a glimpse of the nature of God; it’s through Jesus that we are assured of God’s abundance. And John’s story about the wedding feast at Cana is a story about the discovery of God’s true abundance.[i]

But what is “true” abundance, really?  Well, it may not necessarily be what you think. I’m going to propose, that we, in post-modern western culture, view this scarcity vs. abundance question through a rather foggy lens. In other words, we approach this question on an individual level. Will I have enough? But, according to John, it’s God’s intention, as we see in the life of Jesus, that all people and all life should flourish. And Jesus says that our task is to tend to this flourishing by helping our neighbor flourish as well.

Now, to help us understand how we might live into this task, we can look to the words of Theologian Sallie McFague in her most recent book: Life Abundant.  First, she invites us to live “cross-shaped” lives.  So, what is a cross-shaped life? Well, it’s a life that offers an alternative vision of the beatitudes. A vision that begins with the same kind of invitation to a transformation that Matthew presented, but with a twist. Cross-shaped living offers us something more. And that “something more” is what she calls, “abundance through the practice of enough-ness.”[ii] In other words, this “enough-ness” challenges us to limit our consumption of the world’s resources in recognition of the needs of others.

Maybe think of it this way. The earth is God’s house, and as such, it only makes sense that we should abide by God’s house rules. But God’s house rules are not the same as society’s rules.  Society’s rules say that we are free to amass as many material goods as lawfully allowed, and in the process, we can use all the natural resources necessary and push aside anyone who gets in the way of the fulfillment of our accumulation of wealth. Society encourages us to look out for number one.

But God’s house rules are a little different.  God encourages us to look beyond ourselves and see, that we are in fact, living in an interconnected global home.  In other words, in God’s house we have roommates. And the rules in God’s house reflect this reality. If you’ve ever had roommates, you know what I mean. The rules are simple: “Take only your share, clean up after yourself, and keep the house in good repair for future occupants.”[iii]

Now, just for fun, let’s see what it might look like if we applied these rules to our lives.  First, “Take only your share.” When Jesus turned the water into wine he created an abundance of wine; more than enough for all the wedding guests.  But notice something here, he didn’t say that only the wedding party could partake, nor did he keep all the wine, the best wine, for only himself and his mother. The best of the best was intended for all to enjoy. God’s first house rule is to take what only what we need so there will be plenty for everyone. I almost feel foolish saying this because it’s so obvious.  We learned to share when we were in kindergarten. But today, particularly in our nation, and in the global community in general, sharing resources seems to be pretty-far down on the list of priorities.

Rule two: “Clean up after yourself.”  This one is interesting.  It’s interesting because in God’s rule book this means a whole lot more that just washing your own dishes.  “Cleaning up” refers to taking care of one’s neighbor. Let me give you an illustration of what I mean.

Many years ago, the Roman Catholic Church wanted to record something of the life and ministry of Mother Teresa in Calcutta. For several days, a camera crew went with her on her journeys throughout the city. One day, in a back alley, Mother Teresa came across a man who was sick and dying. It was a horrible sight to see. The man’s body was full of oozing sores. The smell was almost unbearable. But she stopped, called for a basin of water, a cloth, and a towel. Then she knelt-down next to this dying man and began to wash his body. Someone off camera said, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” Mother Teresa, without looking up, answered, “Neither would I.”[iv]

Jesus said, “whatever you do unto the least of my beloved ones, you do unto me.” When we reach out to the sick or the lonely; when we speak for someone whose voice has been silenced; when we seek justice for groups of people who has been marginalized or undervalued by our society; whenever we “clean up after ourselves” by serving our neighbor; we are doing it unto Jesus himself, because the poor and the oppressed are the heart of Christ. Mother Teresa understood this.  She understood that by cleaning the wounds of that dying man, she was symbolically cleaning the wounds left by humanity’s greed on the poorest among us.  She understood that this simple act of compassion was being done not only to the dying man, but unto God.

But humankind’s greed, unfortunately goes beyond just keeping the poor, well… poor; we have also neglected to care for God’s creation. God’s third roommate rule is “Keep the house in good repair for future occupants.” Pollution of the air, contamination of the ground water, over use of the earth’s natural resources, global climate change; these things and more are the result human greed and an instant gratification mentality.  And, if we’re honest here, we must admit that we’ve all have some culpability when it comes to these things. But we can change, we can make a fresh start today, we can begin to live out God’s third house rule and begin to preserve this home for future generations.

And this type of thinking was not alien to Jesus. As I have already said, at the heart of the wedding at Cana narrative is this idea of abundance; but it’s an abundance that comes in the form of a miracle. Why? Well, perhaps, it’s because the whole of creation, the forest, the lakes and streams, the eagles and robins, the bears and chipmunks, the clouds and the stars and the sun and the moon; the crisp air on a clear winter day or the lapping waves on warm summer evening; perhaps it’s because this earth is a miracle.  The extraordinary within the ordinary. And God created this earth, like the wedding party wine, with enough resources for all.

Which brings us back around to the first two rules.  You see, God’s house rules are not linear; they’re circular. You can’t leave one out or the circle will be broken. So, as we continue our Lenten journey in the days and weeks to come, we are invited to complete the circle.  We are directed to take only our share, to clean up after ourselves, and to keep this house in good repair for future occupants.

So, as we depart today, my prayer for our community and for our nation is that the unbroken circle of God’s love may move us to overcome our fear of sacristy and point us toward God’s true abundance; an abundance where there’s plenty for all. May the best of God’s best be within our hearts, guide our hands, direct our tongues, and finally, lead us all to live cross-shaped lives.  May it be so. Amen.

[i] Rev. Ann Sutherland Howard Finding Wild Space (www.Day1.org) 2010

[ii]Sallie McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril.                     (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001

[iii] Ibid. McFague

[iv] Rev. Dr. Robert Sims God’s Living People (www.Day1.org) 2004

Come & See

John 1:43-51

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.[i]  As I read these words this past week, I couldn’t help but recall hiking in a county park with my three oldest children many years ago.  It was the second day of their summer vacation, which happened to coincide with my day off.  So, we decided to go hiking.  Now, the park near our home really wasn’t really that large, but we managed to get lost.  Well, not really lost per se, but we were having trouble locating the path back to our car. We were temporary dislocated. Okay, we were lost.  But we were lost because of the unusual lay out of the trails.  You see, the parking lot was on one side of the park, and there was a side trail that lead out to the main trail, which, unknown to us at the time, was a giant loop.  You can see where this story is headed, can’t ya.  There we were hiking around and around this giant loop trail without realizing we were going around in circles. And, of course, the kids were getting hot and whining, we were all getting tired.  Now, after about the third time around this giant loop, we began to notice that certain landmarks looked familiar, and on the fourth time around, we finally figured out we were going in circles.  And it was only then, only when “the health of our eyes demanded a horizon” that we looked up and began to watch for the side trail back to the car.

Now, you and I both know that a lot has changed in the world since Emerson penned these words in 1836.  But the durability of a statement like this never ceases to amaze me. I mean, how many times in your life have you looked back and said, “I see where I went wrong, where things went off the tracks,” or “why didn’t I have the vision or the forethought to prevent this or that from happening?” Have you ever been lost on the giant loop of life because you’re looking down instead of toward the horizon?

I think that’s what Emerson was driving at here.  When we look down at our feet, when we let the everyday circumstances of life cloud our vision, that’s when we become lost.  But if we simply look up, if we gaze upon the horizon, if we seek a vision of something greater than ourselves, it’s then that we find our way. And for Emerson, this concept was a theological one.  You see, these words come from an essay he wrote called nature, which primarily focused on humankind’s relationship with the divine. And for Emerson, that relationship was very spiritual in nature.

Now, as we begin to look at our text for today from the Gospel of John, it too deals with the relationship between God and humanity. But unlike Emerson, John views this relationship in both spiritual and physical terms. I read an interpretation this week that claims this passage, “…is the critical link between the prologue’s description of the cosmic word and the main texts narration of the signs and discourses of the flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth.”[ii] What does that mean in English? Well, it means that John was speaking on a very spiritual plane in the first verses of this text.  He said, “In the beginning was the Logos, (logos) the Word, and this Logos was with God, in fact, the Logos was God. And finally, the Logos became flesh and lived among us.” He was of course talking in very spiritual terms about the incarnation of Jesus.  But here in this call story something interesting happens.  John makes a turn from the spiritual to the physical; from the theoretical to the practical.  And he does this by telling a story.

A story that John has structured around the down-to-earth, physical encounters that individuals had with Jesus and the idea that these encounters would lead to a vision of “greater things.” You see, over and again, from these early disciples, to a Pharisee named Nicodemus, to the Samaritan woman, to a man born blind, to Peter and Pilate and eventually Thomas, characters throughout John’s Gospel are encountered by Jesus, and consistently, he gives them a glimpse of something “greater.”

And so, what we see across the pages of the fourth gospel are women and men, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, powerful and vulnerable, people of all shapes and sizes and from all stations in life encountering Jesus. And to each one, in one way or another, he says “come and see.” To the blind man he said come and physically see. To the disciples he said come and see what you’re missing. To the masses, the crowds that followed him he said come and see what new thing God is up to; come and see as your future opens before you; come and see the grace of God made manifest and accessible and available to all people.[iii]

And that, in a nutshell, is the challenge of Lent.  Yes, lent is traditionally a time to take a long, hard look at ourselves, our actions and our words, and make any necessary course corrections on this journey of life and faith.  When Jesus invites us to “come and see” we must first look at ourselves.

But we simply cannot “turn around” we cannot “change our ways” we cannot “repent” unless we take very seriously the Great Commandment. Love God and love neighbor. So, God then, in our context, is enfleshed when we serve others. And God is present whenever we participate in acts of justice; whenever we attempt to propagate peace.

So, simply put, “come and see” is a twofold vision.  It is, at the same time, a call to introspection and an invitation to extend a wide welcome to all. Come and see is an offer to experience something greater than ourselves. And that “greater something” is a very real-life, down to earth, experience of God’s love. Not in some remote or far-removed way, but instead, a God who is enfleshed in Jesus Christ, present around us and within us, calling and challenging us to serve all of God’s people.

And I know what you’re thinking. There are barriers to justice. There are circumstances that stand in the way of peace. Just this past week we saw yet another school shooting.  17 young people went to school in the morning, never to return home.  And don’t think for a minute, that as a parent, that doesn’t scare the life out of me. But even though the thought of school violence scares me, I cannot let my fear take over.  I mean, there’s a reason Jesus said “fear not” more often than anything else. We simply cannot let fear eclipse our faith. We cannot close our eyes to the reality of violence and hope it just goes away on its own. Instead, we must follow our faith; we must put our faith into action. We must open our eyes and our hearts and our minds a begin to move toward a solution.

And maybe that’s the “greater something” Jesus was inviting us to “come and see” today in our context.  Maybe we are being invited to create and share a vision of God’s love in action.  Maybe this year we’re being challenged to “live-into” this twofold understanding of the Lenten journey.  Maybe we’re being challenged to see the times when our fear has lead us to inaction and to acknowledge the places in our society where self-interest and the love of money have trumped the safety of all.  Perhaps, it’s time for us to look up from the giant loop trail we’ve been following, and realized that there is an exit, a way out, when is comes to gun violence in our schools. But it will take courage, and faith, and a love for the youngest among us.

“The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.[iv]  May that horizon lead to change and may we be blessed with a vision of justice and peace and safety for all, as we continue this journey of life and faith. Amen.

[i] Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nature. (James Munroe and Company) 1836

[ii] Elton W. Brown. Feasting on the Word, Vol. 1, Year B. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor Eds. (Westminster John Knox Press) 2008.

[iii] David Lose, Come and See. In the Meantime. ( www.davidlose.net)  2015.

[iv] Ibid Emerson

From the Inside/Out

Mark 9:2-9

“Does God change?” Or to put it in more theological terms, “Is God immutable?” Ah, the time-honored question of the Immutability of God. So, first off, what is Immutability? Well, it’s the understanding that the nature, character, and covenant promises of God do not change, ever. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says it like this: “[God’s] being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth are infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.”[i]

But does God change? We know Jesus changed, right?  As his earthly life progressed he changed physically. He grew from an infant to a child, he left childhood behind and became a young adult, and from there he grew into a man.  And he grew Spiritually. He was recognized as a theological prodigy at a very young age, which, as he grew in knowledge and years, lead him to become an itinerant Rabbi. And we know that Jesus was God or, at the very least, had a mystical connection to the Divine.  So, does that mean God changes.

Well, to take on that question I think we need to examine very carefully the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.  In our reading for today, we see Jesus go up the mountain, where his appearance changed, as so poetically stated by Eugene Peterson, “from the inside/out.” Glory surrounded him, the voice of God echoed a strong sense of pride and love, and with it, a command to those in attendance to “listen to him.”

Now, this transformation, the inner change that burst forth, happened in front of three of his closest companions: Peter, James, and John. And during this transfiguration some interesting things happen. The three disciples see a vision of Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, whose symbolic mantel and message Jesus had taken on. And in that moment, that holy moment, that moment when the veil between God and humanity was as thin as it could get, Peter wanted to build three memorials, or dwellings depending upon which translation you read, because he wanted to stay in that moment.

You know, I read somewhere this week that Peter’s response was kind of like looking at a light bulb and going blind, instead of looking around the room at what the light from the bulb had revealed.[ii] I know I’ve done that. I’ve missed the beauty of the current moment because I was either lamenting the former moment or figuring out how to manipulate the upcoming one. So, maybe that’s the first lesson of this text; to stay in the moment and enjoy what’s happening right now.

But that’s not the sum of this text. As Jesus and his newly-inspired followers descended the mountain, we can safely speculate that they had been changed because of their experience. We can see from our perspective here in the 21st century, that they had begun to see everything differently. Because, up until this point in Mark’s Gospel, we’ve seen Jesus and his followers moving back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, between the Jews and the Gentiles.  But in this passage, right here in the middle of the gospel, we see a significant change.  Jesus’ face is now turned squarely toward Jerusalem and the Cross and all their travels from here on in, will be in the direction. So, it not too far of a leap to say that James, John, and Peter’s perception of Jesus, and perhaps even their understanding of God changed with the movement of this gospel.  Now, they didn’t all-of-the-sudden fully understand Jesus or the quest they were on, but the Transfiguration was a giant step in that direction.

Now, before we leave this mountaintop narrative, there’s one final nugget for us to discover. Embedded within this ancient text is something very interesting. The tense of the verb that Mark uses for “listen” in the “listen to him” is called in Greek the “present imperative.” That mean, God is commanding the disciples, the whole world, and us, the readers of this text still today, to listen to Jesus.[iii]

And this is where this ancient story and our lives intersect.  The emerging movement within the Christian tradition is based on the premise that our life journey and spiritual journey are one and the same; and that along the way, there is both changes and choices; the possibility and opportunity around each new bend in the road to meet these changes we inevitably encounter with faith or fear, hope or despair, regret or renewal, even wisdom or foolishness. It offers a new and different way of being “Christian;” yet the idea is rooted in the heart of our faith tradition. As Isaiah proclaimed, God is always up to something new.[iv] Maybe we should attend to Mark’s timeless imperative here and “listen” to Jesus and this ever-changing way of understanding the journey.

Which leads us back to our original question, “Is God unchanging?”

Well, rest assured, as usual, I’m going to give you a vague and overly simplistic answer to our question. Yes and no. Yes, God is permanent. Like an anchor in the storm; like a mighty oak that may bend, but never break; like a bush burns, but cannot be consumed; God is always, well, God. But what changes is our perception of God.  Across time God changes because humankind has changed.  Our relationship with God is dynamic, ever-evolving, and ever-in-the-process of becoming more. And it’s our perception of God that informs our understanding of the nature of God.  Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Author Brian McLaren tells the story of a conversation he had with Tutsi and Hutu tribesmen of Rwanda, in the aftermath of decades of genocide in that region.  As McLaren relates it, one of the first to speak was a man named Claude, the son of a preacher, who’d been raised in the church, but who’d heard only one sermon, over and over, his whole life. “That sermon,” he said, “went like this: ‘You’re a sinner and you are going to hell.  You need to repent and believe in Jesus. Jesus might come back today, and if he does and you are not ready, you will burn forever in hell.”  Then Claude continued, “When I got older, I realized that my entire life had been lived against the backdrop of genocide and violence, poverty and corruption … and in spite of huge amounts of foreign aid, our people remain poor, and many, hungry. Eventually I realized something.  I had never heard a sermon that addressed these realities.”

Later that day, McLaren writes, he noticed another participant, sitting alone at a table with her bowed head in her hands.  Having a translator inquire if she was all right, Justine replied, “I’m Okay, but I’m shaken up.  I don’t know if anyone else here sees it, but I do.  I see it.  Today, for the first time, I see what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. I see that it’s about changing this world, not just escaping from it and retreating into our churches.  If Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God is true, then everything must change.  Everything must change.”[v]

So, with her words in mind, when we ask the question, “Is God unchanging” I’m convinced we’re asking the wrong question.  What we should be asking instead, is how am I changed, how are my compassionate actions increased because of my changing perception of God? Justine, in her wisdom, realized that change was not only something that happens to us, but something that we are called to participate in. Or to say it another way, if a Creative God can change things, why shouldn’t we act as co-creators with God, helping God, create a better world? Perhaps we can. Perhaps we can change from the inside/out? Perhaps.

May it be so. Amen.

[i] The Westminster Shorter Catechism

[ii] Caspar Green, Scarlet Letter Bible, (www.scarletletterbible.com) 2012.

[iii] Edward F. Markquart, Transfiguration: a Gospel Analysis, (Sermons from Seattle) 2018

[iv] John Bennison. The Immutability of Change. (www.progressivechristanity.org) 2011

[v] Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change (Thomas Nelson Publishers 2008) pgs.18-23

Sacred Spaces

Mark 1:29-39

At a large church in Atlanta, a Sunday School class for parents of young children decided to rename itself. They kicked around several possibilities for appropriate names. Things like Seekers or Searchers or maybe Learners. But all of these seemed too far-removed from the everyday wear-and-tear of their lives. Finally, one idea rose to the top. It was simple, truthful, inclusive, and playful.  “Tired Parents Class” was the final decision. I think that says it all.”[i]

So, how about you? Are you a charter member of the “tired parents class”? Are you worn out from the daily grind or the stress of life? Are you “at your wits end” from constant worry; worry about your family or your well-being or your health? What “tiredness” is keeping you from fully experiencing life; from fully opening yourself to God?

Well, Jesus had some of these same kinds of issues to deal with himself.  After all, he was fully human. And in the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel we see the human side of Jesus being lived-out, even as he began to teach those gathering around him about his Divinity. I mean, we’ve seen him baptized in a river, tested in the wilderness, we’ve seen him proclaim that “the Reign of God has come near” in the synagogue. In today’s text, we witness him heal many people in a very public arena, and a woman, Simon’s mother-in-law, in the privacy of her own home. And this is where we’re invited enter the narrative. Jesus got up early, before dawn the text says, to find a quiet place so he could spend some time in prayer. For a little while anyway, in the cool, quiet of the pre-dawn, the pace of his life slowed down a bit.”[ii]

And that’s the challenge we face as well. Our challenge is to find a corner of solitude; a sacred place where we too can find the time and space to be in the presence of God. A time of day when we might squirrel away in a soft chair and lose ourselves in prayer.  We, like Jesus all those year ago, seek those sacred moments when the pace of life slows down a bit.

But is this the only image “sacred space” we have? Could there be more to finding inner peace? Well, Rabi Tagore, the 20th century Nobel Prize-winning poet, once wrote: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

So, according to Tagore, joy in life comes when we serve others.  But we know from experience that our lives can be difficult; that both physical and emotional pain can be crippling; and that the grief pain produces can prevents us from preforming acts of service. But I would contend that this is only true to a point.  Let me explain.  The people who came to Jesus for healing weren’t living easy, comfortable lives. They knew about conflict and oppression; they knew about the isolating effects of their illnesses, illnesses that segregated them from the rest of the community; they knew about tragedy and they lived in almost constant grief. But Jesus, as he healed their physical and mental illnesses, told them about another way of viewing the world. Jesus said that in him, in the Reign of God that was realized in his human life, there was meaning and grace and compassion. And he used these words as verbs, action words! “This is my commandment,” he said to them, “that you love one another.”

And here’s the best part! This Reign of God he spoke of continues to be present with us right here, right now.  My friends, we can know and experience God’s wealth of love today! How? Well, by following God’s call to love one another. Now please do not confuse this call with some mushy Valentine’s Day sentiment.  In this gospel we learn that Mark understands love as a way of being. He holds Jesus up as a “wealth of love” which is realized in us when we fully give of ourselves. And it’s through this giving of ourselves fully to life and to one another that we truly realize the joy of living.

And this is finally the purpose of the religious life and of the church; to awaken joy through service to and for one another. Joy is about connection, intimate connection. You see, true religion, any religion, isn’t about doctrine or dogma, it isn’t fundamentally about being right, rather, it’s about this intimate connection; it’s about re-binding all of life together, and it’s in this “re-binding” that we find our inner peace.”[iii]

So, yes, our sacred space can be a cushy chair in the morning, with a cup of coffee, lost in prayer. And I wish that for all of us. But that can’t be the sum of it.  Notice that Jesus didn’t stay in that remote place for very long.  The world was looking for him to come and heal the masses. And this is important because the other part of finding inner peace is sharing that peace with others. And I’ve noticed something over the years, our healing, the healing of our souls, begins by participating in the healing of others.

As Gandhi once said, “When we attend to ourselves with compassion and mercy, more healing is made available for others. And when we serve others with an open and generous heart, great healing comes to us.”[iv]  So, as we come to the table today, may the elements, the bread and the juice, symbolically heal our weary souls. But, may that healing find its way beyond our inner being, touching the lives of others.  May today’s sacrament, indeed, be a sacrament of healing to all the ends of the earth.

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

[i] Rev. James Lamkin. When Life Comes at You (www.Day1.org) 2015

[ii] Kathryn Matthews.  Called to Healing (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[iii] Rev. Dan Crosby. I Dreamt of the Ocean. (www.danny-crosby.blogspot.com) 2013

[iv] Ibid. Crosby.

The Story of God

Excerpt from How We Imagine God Matters by Marcus Borg.

From beginning to end, the Bible is the “Story of God.” What we often call “The Word of God.” That’s a term I often use.  But perhaps that language isn’t completely accurate.  Why? Because the Bible is finally a collection of many individual narratives, many unique and shared experiences of God. The Hebrew Bible is ancient Israel’s story of God, and the New Testament is the early Christian movement’s story of God, especially as revealed in Jesus.

The Bible does not provide a simple answer, but instead imagines God in two very different ways that stand in tension with each other. On one hand, the Bible often uses personal imagery to speak of God. God is spoken of in anthropomorphic images as being like a person: God as king, lord, father, mother, warrior, shepherd, and potter, to cite a partial list. The sheer number of images points to the fact that they are metaphors. God is not literally any of these, but is like a king, like a parent, like a warrior, like a shepherd, and so forth. But when we take these anthropomorphic metaphors literally, we generate a way of seeing God commonly called “supernatural theism.” That is, we see God as someone “out there” who created the universe a long time ago as something separate from God.

On the other hand, the Bible also describes God’s relationship to the universe as “right here” as well as “more” than right here. This way of imagining God sees the deity as the encompassing Spirit: a non-material dimension of reality that surrounds us and everything around us. In this way of thinking, God is like wind, like breath. Imagine what “wind” meant to ancient people. They did not think of it as a material reality, as molecules in motion. Rather, they experienced wind as a powerful, invisible force. Breath is similar. It is an invisible life force within us. God is like the wind that moves outside of us and the breath that moves inside of us. We are in God, even as God is also within us.

How does one resolve the tension between these two ways of seeing God? I think it’s normal to personify God in worship and devotion. We address God as if God were a person; this helps us understand that God is not an “it,” not simply inanimate “stuff.” God is a presence, a “you.” But we shouldn’t take these personifications literally. When we do, supernatural theism is the result. God becomes another being in addition to the universe, separate from the universe, and far away.

So, it matters that the Bible also describes God as the encompassing Spirit. This way of understanding God does not create the intellectual problems generated by supernatural theism. Furthermore, this way of imagining God sees God as close at hand, right here, as close to us as our own breath. It sees the religious life not as believing in a God who may or may not exist, but as entering into a relationship with the God who is “right here.”

The Authority to Do

Mark 1:21-2

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century Philosopher, once said, “Justice and power must be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just.” As we begin to explore the concept of authority today, Pascal’s words should ring true for us. Authority, or how one uses the power bestowed upon them, can be the catalyst for great things or, if misused, can have dire consequences.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. A corrupt person in power, like a dishonest judge for example, has “authority.” And they can use that authority to make biased decisions. Decisions based upon their own beliefs or ideology or prejudice rather than one based upon a common understanding of justice. But here’s the thing.  Each of us, you and I, have a measure of authority as well.  But it’s a little different from that of a Judge. We can speak with “authority” if we embody a wisdom and propagate an integrity that others find compelling. So, each one, the corrupt judge and the average person, hold a different kind of power. One comes from the outside, like that given to a judge, while the other comes from within.[i]

Now, I can hear the wheels turning in your heads! “But how can I,” you might say, “as an average Joe or Jane, discover and utilize this inner authority in such a way that I can make a positive difference in my community and the world?”  Well, two things come to mind here.

First, snowflakes. If you were to look outside just as it’s beginning to snow, you would see, what, one for two flakes gently drifting down.  No big deal.  But if you get billions of those little guys together you have a blizzard. And that’s what today’s social justice movement looks like.  When we choose to stand against corruption, when we come together as people of faith and say no to injustice, no to racism, sexism, or any of the other “isms” that plague us; when we choose to speak with a unified voice, we become a blizzard.  And when we take up the cross of justice, as a community of faith, then, the forces of corruption that stand against us, like the unclean spirit in Mark’s narrative, haven’t got a chance.

And this leads us to the second way we find our inner authority. But this way comes to us on a more personal level.  The authority Jesus used to “cast out the unclean spirit” is emblematic of what God does for each of us. What do I mean? Well, think about the man in Mark’s story for a second.  The man and his unclean spirit are identical in some ways; one would encounter both at the same time. But if we merely saw the unclean spirit as a different entity than the man, we would be ignoring the genuine tragedy of his life, the degree to which his “unclean spirit” had damaged his psyche, his body, his relationships, his ability to be productive or loving or happy. And it seems to me that the full dimension of this man’s tragic situation is being honored by the way Mark describes him in this story.[ii]

So, with this description in mind, what do you think Mark’s up to here, especially as it relates to us? Well, to be honest, I think much of the opening chapters of Mark revolve around Jesus’ first and very short sermon, “The time is fulfilled,” he said, “…and the Reign of God has come near.” Looking closely at this statement, Karoline Lewis suggests that we might “see the series of miracles Mark narrates up front as describing for us what the Reign of God might look like. But right up front, Mark describes Jesus as what? An exorcist? Maybe, but I think it’s actually a whole lot more!”[iii]

My friends, she’s right on the money when she says there’s “a whole lot more” going on here. Because if we’re honest with ourselves, we all have these “unclean spirit” moments in our lives.  Rather than bless, sometimes we curse; rather than build up, we tear down; rather than encourage, we disparage; rather than promote love, we sow hate; rather than lift-up someone’s whose fallen, we tweet or post words that rub it in or push them down even further; in a nutshell, we sometimes seek to separate people rather than draw them together.[iv]

So, if this is the case, maybe we could boil down the first chapter of Mark in this way: Jesus had been baptized, tempted in the wilderness, and came to proclaim and demonstrate the Reign of God on earth, and he did so by opposing the internal forces of evil that lead us away from loving our neighbor.

I mean, think about the creative ways human beings, Christians included, have concocted to divide ourselves and harm one-another. We separate ourselves by race, by lines on a globe, by our faith, our gender, our ideologies.  And we reinforce this separation with hate-filled words and with walls; we have excused violence and promoted wars, all in the name of excluding “the other.”

But here’s the hope in all this.  Jesus is at work cleansing us from these metaphorical unclean spirits.  How? Well, one example comes to us from Thomas Troeger, the composer of many hymns in our hymnal.  He says that the Hymn Silence! Frenzied, Unclean Spirit represented an attempt to come to terms with his own figurative “unclean spirit” (his personal depression) and the profound emotional turmoil he encountered in so many people as a pastor.  He wanted to draw on the strength of Christ’s healing of this unnamed man for facing these painful situations. And with that background in mind, one of the lines of this hymn caught my attention. It goes: “clear our thought and calm our feeling, still the fractured, warring soul. By the power of your healing make us faithful, true, and whole.”[v]

My friends, the cleansing of our spirit is finally a type of healing.  It renews us, restores us, and frees us to be authentic in all our relationships, including our relationship with God.  The cleansing of our spirit validates our pain and helps us to deal with difficult situations and people. And it’s this inner healing that allows us to reach out to those around us.  The cleansing of our soul gives us the freedom to touch the untouchables, to laugh with the joyous and weep with the mournful, we are free to dream with the dreamers, to walk with the refugee, to shout with the disenfranchised, and to be in community with the lonely.

“Justice and power must be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just.”

May it be so. Amen.

—————–

[i] Kathryn Matthews.  Called to Truthful Love (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[ii] D. Mark Davis.  Separating a Man from His Cage (www.leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com) 2018

[iii] David Lose. Possessed (www.workingpreacher.org) 2012

[iv] Ibid. Lose.

[v] Thomas H. Troeger. Silence! Frenzied, Unclean Spirit. (The New Century Hymnal) 1995

Fish or Cut Bait?

Mark 1:14-20

You heard about Sven and Ole? Sven and Ole died in a snowmobiling accident, don’t ya know, and found themselves in the company of the devil.  But the devil observed that they were really enjoying themselves.  So, he said to them ‘Doesn’t the heat and smoke bother you?’ ‘Vel,”Ole replied, ‘ya know, ve’re from nordern Minnesota, da land of snow an ice, an ve’re just happy fer a chance ta warm up a little bit, don’t ya know.

Well, the devil decides that these two aren’t miserable enough, so he turns up the heat even more. And when he returns to the room of the two from Minnesota, he finds them grilling Walleye and drinking beer. The devil is astonished and exclaims, ‘Everyone down here is in misery, and you two seem to be enjoying yourselves?’ Sven replies, ‘Vell, ya know, ve just got ta haff a fish fry vhen da veather’s dis nice.’

Now, the devil is absolutely furious. He can hardly see straight. So, he decides to turn all the heat off in Hell. The next morning, the temperature is 60 below zero, icicles are hanging everywhere, and people are shivering so hard that they’re unable to wail, moan, or even gnash their teeth. The devil smiles and heads for Sven and Ole’s room. But when he gets there he finds them jumping up and down, cheering, ad screaming like mad men.

The devil is dumbfounded, ‘I don’t understand, when I turn up the heat you’re happy. Now its freezing cold and you’re still happy. What is wrong with you two?’ They both look at the devil in surprise and say, ‘Vell, don’t ya know, if hell is froze over, dat must mean da Vikings won da Super Bowl.”[i]

Okay.  That has nothing to do with the Scripture for today, but this one does! One day, Sven and Ole were bragging about their secret fishing spots.  Sven said, “Ole, I got the best fish ‘in hole in all the nort-woods, don’t ya know?” “Really,” said Ole. “Yep,” said Sven, “As a matter of fact, da fish are so hungry and ready to bite, dat I have to hide behind a tree to bait my hook.”

Now, as we look at today’s text, the calling of Andrew and Peter and of James and John, it seems like evangelism is a piece of cake.  Whether we’re the one being called or the one doing the calling, Jesus’ example makes inviting others to “come and follow” seem simple. Mark makes is seem like people are so anxious to join us that, like Sven, we must hide behind the nearest tree to keep from being overwhelmed. But you and I know both know that’s simply not the case.  People today are resistant to even acknowledge the existence of God, let alone commit to joining a faith community. But why? Why do we have so much trouble getting others to join us?

Well, it might be helpful here for us to look at some of the features that set Mark’s Gospel apart from the others. First, it’s the shortest gospel and moves at the quickest pace. And Mark’s Gospel conveys a sense of the urgency in the ministry of Jesus. There are no birth narratives; no manger, no shepherds, no elderly prophets singing praise to God in the temple as they hold the promised One in their arms. Instead, Mark sets the scene with some very concise accounts of John the Baptist preaching, Jesus being baptized, and then driven out into the wilderness. And then he moves very rapidly into the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. I mean, by the end of today’s reading, we’re not even halfway through chapter 1! Time, then, and urgency are at the heart of this passage.[ii]

So, Mark isn’t saying that inviting others is going to be an easy proposition, but instead, that evangelism contains or requires a certain sense of urgency. But how does that translate to our experience of God? How is this “urgency” a part of our call to fish for people?

Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward, says that, “True religion is always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good, despite our best efforts to deny it or avoid it. In fact, the best of modern theology is revealing a strong ‘turn toward participation,’ as opposed to religion as mere observation, affirmation, moralism, or group belonging. There is nothing to join, only something to recognize, suffer, and enjoy as a participant.”[iii]

And this makes a whole lotta sense to me. Evangelism, extending the call of Jesus to others, is best done through example; through participation in the mission of Christ.  In my first call, I became involved in an area wide ministry called Outreach Africa. This group would gather a couple of times a year to package thousands of meals for people who were starving.  Now, when I presented this opportunity to my congregation, I could have just shown them the poster and said, “If you’re interested go.” But instead, I decided to give a power-point presentation about the plight of those in the Sudan. And I concluded my presentation by telling them that Becky and I were going to help and invited the whole congregation to come and participate with us.

Now, this might seem like a little thing, but you must understand that participating in a mission project, beyond just bringing canned goods once a month or giving money, was way outside the comfort zone of this congregation. So, an invitation to “join” us rather than just “go” was important and effective.  You see, 30 adults and about 15 youth joined with many others to package meals for people an ocean away.  As a matter of fact, participating in this mission was so heartwarming, that the mission committee began to wonder why we couldn’t host such an event ourselves.

So, participation, boots on the ground outreach, is a vital component to inviting others.  In other words, our actions speak louder than our words. But in addition to participation we must also be authentic.  We can’t be all things to all people. We must be ourselves. We must be the church that God is calling us to be. So, as a congregation, who are we? How is Jesus calling us to be fishers of people?

Well, maybe the words of Anne Lamott might help us out here as we approach this question.  She says, “I think joy and sweetness and affection are a spiritual path. We’re here to know God, to love and serve God, and to be blown away by the beauty and miracle of nature. You just have to get rid of so much baggage to be light enough to dance, to sing, to play. You don’t have time to carry grudges; you don’t have time to cling to the need to be right.”[iv]

There’s an awful lot of wisdom in her words. Joy and sweetness and affection, these aren’t your typical theological words: but I like um.  Too often, I fear we get caught up in the dogmatic “thou-shalt-nots” and forget to meet people where they’re at.  We forget to be authentic as we relate to others, sharing our vulnerability, our fears, and our doubts.

But Jesus was authentic, and his authenticity drew others to come and participate in a gathering movement. A movement that would change the face of the world. A movement that would be vehemently opposed by the religious authorities and catch the notice of Rome. A movement that would lead to a ministry of reconciliation and restoration, of social justice, and the propagation of peace.

But Jesus didn’t begin this ministry in the Temple or by recruiting the religious mucky-mucks.  He started with simple fisherman. He began his ministry at the grass roots level.  He chose to reach out to the common people, meeting them on their terms and amid their crises.  When he went fish ‘in, Jesus didn’t use doctrine or arcane rules or traditions as bait, rather he used the promise of healing and restoration, of compassion and kindness; he promised a closer relationship with God. And yes, he challenged his followers to take up their cross, but these metaphorical crosses we bear are not cast upon us by God, rather made lighter because of Christ.

And this is where it all comes together. Our ministry begins with a wide welcome.  In our church and in the United Church of Christ we offer an extravagant welcome to “all” because we are a part of the “all.”  We’re no better or worse than anyone else. And it’s this understanding of being on equal footing that allows us to echo and expand upon the words of Paul. “In Christ,” he said, “we are no longer male or female, Greek or Jew, servant or free,” …and we might add: “In Christ we are no longer rich or poor, white or black, citizen or dreamer, native or refugee, gay or straight; in Christ we are no longer us or them. But in Christ, because of Christ, we are “all” one people.

So, here’s the question we’re left with today; are we going to fish or just cut bait? Are we going to hide behind the nearest tree or are we going to step out into the world, participating in the mission and ministry of our congregation and of the United Church of Christ? What’s preventing us from dropping our symbolic nets, whatever those nets may be, and offer an extravagant welcome to all our neighbors, inviting them to join us on this journey of faith? What’s stop us from offering an authentic invitation to those who are on the fringes of society, to come and walk with us, pray with us, weep with us, laugh with us… just as we are? What’s to prevent us from go ‘in fish ‘in? I don’t know. Perhaps, nothing…?

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen.

 

[i] (an email forward from Patty Anderson)

[ii] Kathryn Matthews Casting Call (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[iii] Richard Rohr.  Falling Upwards (Jossey-Bass, 2011)

[iv] Quote from Anne Lamott (www.goodreads.com) 2018

Known & Loved

Psalm 139

How do you experience love?

Well, back in 1995 a minister and marriage counselor named Gary Chapman considered this question.  You see over the course of his years as a therapist, he noticed that couples experienced problems in their marriage because they did not understand how their partner experienced love.  So, he wrote a book that outlined five ways to express and experience love which he called the “love languages.” These five ways or categories are: gift giving, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of devotion, and physical touch. The book is called The Five Love Languages. And in this book, Chapman suggests that to discover another person’s love language, one must observe the way they express love to others. He theorizes that people tend to naturally give love in the way that they prefer to receive love, and better communication between couples can be accomplished when one can demonstrate caring to the other person in a love language that the recipient understands.

Here’s an example of what I mean. If a husband’s love language is acts of service, he may be confused when he does the laundry and his wife doesn’t perceive that as an act of love but rather as simply performing household duties.  The disconnect in communication here comes because her love language is perhaps words of affirmation; verbal affirmation that he loves her. Thus, she may try to use what she values, words of affirmation, to express her love to him, which he would not value as much as she does. But if she would come to understand his love language and let’s say, mow the lawn for him, he would perceive it as an act of love; and likewise, if he would tell her that he loves her, she would value that as an act of love.[i]

So, the crux of Chapman’s premise leads us to conclude that understanding how another person feels love and being able to communicate in that language is the key to a successful relationship.  Now, what if we were to apply this same logic to our relationship with God. What if we were to take a step back and think about how we feel loved by God.

This is where Psalm 139 might help up out. 139 is a “creation psalm.”  But not one that delves into the vast mysteries of how the universe came into being.  Instead, this psalm is about God’s ongoing work in bringing human beings to fullness of life, unwrapping the mystery of us, and loving us all the while. In a very real way, this psalm expresses God’s love language in a very personal and intimate way.  You see, while much of the Bible is about “the people,” this one is about a person, you, and tells you that you are unique and of immeasurable worth.[ii] I’ve heard it said like this: “we are not mass-produced but custom-made.”

But isn’t a relationship supposed to be reciprocal? If we are known and loved by God, how might we express our knowledge and love back to God? Well, a couple of things come to mind here.

First, we need to be authentic. I read a story recently about a “young Rabbi Zusya, who was quite discouraged about his failures and weaknesses. In his desperation he consulted and senior rabbi, saying, “why can’t I be more like Moses?” Said an older rabbi to him, ‘When you get to heaven, God is not going to say to you, “Why weren’t you Moses?” No, God will say, “Why weren’t you Zusya?” So why don’t you stop trying to be Moses, and start being the Zusya God created you to be?'”[iii]

An important part of being uniquely created is to recognize, and then live out, our uniqueness.  We’re all different from one another.  We’re all on individual paths of faith; the path we were created to follow.  And all people are created in the likeness and image of God; an image that transcends color or race or nationality; it transcends gender or sexual orientation or religion. And this is important.  It’s important because none of us travel this path alone.  We’re surrounded by family, friends, and a faith community.  And our journey is affected by relationships beyond our inner circle; we are influenced by the wider culture.

But it’s within this diversity that we find our greatest strength and purpose. And that leads us to the other aspect or our “expression of love back to God” that I would like to lift-up today; we authentically live out our love of God, and our uniqueness, by loving others. And this speaks to the purpose of the church.  We are a diverse collection of individuals finding our way together.  Walter Brueggemann says of this journey, “What a stunning vocation for the church, to stand free and hope-filled in a world gone fearful – and to think, imagine, dream, and vision a future that God will yet enact.”[iv]

My friends, as we move forward into the coming year, how might we, as individuals, think or imagine our way ahead? How might we as a church community dream into reality a future that God will yet enact?

One final thought this morning.  This weekend we are invited to celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by serving our neighbor. His nephew said (and I’m paraphrasing here) he said that Monday isn’t a day to rest, or a time to pull out the grill, rather it’s a day to live-into the ideals of his uncle.  It’s a day to think of the other before self. It seems to me that this invitation is in lock-step with the gospel message.

However, as a nation, I fear we’ve wandered from the path. Over the course of this past year, we see racism, sexism, isolationism, and fear-mongering dominate the conversation. Make no mistake, these -isms and perpetuations of fear fly-in-the-face of the gospel message. And this isn’t a political position, it’s a Christian position.  The core of Christ’s ministry and the tone of his message challenged his listeners to be more accepting, more loving, more compassionate; and he challenges us, still today, to think of the other before self. Psalm 139, along with many other passages from the Hebrew Scriptures informed Jesus’ teachings. He treated all people as if they were beloved by God. Because he knew they were. He crossed religious and social boundaries because for him the ideals of justice and equality and peace outweighed the dogma of the religious and political leaders. Jesus respected the uniqueness of all people while showing them, and us, a better way.

I would like to leave you today with a quote from Martin Luther King.  It’s one that I’ve used before, but I’ll say it again because it finally leaves us with at least a fragment of hope today. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” he said, “but it bends toward justice.”[v] May it be so. Amen.

 

[i] Gary Chapman The Five Love Languages (Northfield Publishing) 1995 (via Wikipedia)

[ii] Kathryn Matthews Discerning God’s Call (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[iii] Ibid Matthews.

[iv] Walter Brueggemann. Quote found at (www.ucc.org/samuel)2018

[v] (www.brainyquote.com/quotes/martin_luther_king_jr)