Beginning with beloved…

A sermon about the time John the Baptist waded into the Jordan and baptized Jesus even though he didn’t want to. (Matthew 3:1-17)

Spiritual identity means we are not what we do or what people say about us. And we are not what we have. We are the beloved children of God. ~Henri Nouwen

Last week we heard the story of the Magi who came to see the tiny child that the skies had announced with a shining star and voices of angels and this week we find ourselves peering up at the sky once again, this time, with Jesus. Not baby Jesus, but a grown man who has come with the crowds to be baptized… who has come to this sacred place fraught with history and meaning…

Jesus has come to the river his ancestor Jacob crossed with but a staff…

Jesus has come to the river his ancestor Joshua led the people across on their journey from bondage to freedom

Jesus has come to the river the crossed by Elijah and Elisha – also on dry ground

Jesus has come to the river Elisha bid Naaman to go and wash and be healed

This is the riverbank in which John the Baptist has chosen to occupyThis is the riverbank John the Baptist has chosen to protest the powerful and elite and those who are using God’s word like a weapon in the synagogues and in the name of Rome… John the Baptist has returned to this place where God has rescued the people of God before and proclaims God’s power to do so again… he wades into the river and invites others to do to the same… to wade in, and immerse themselves in waters of redemption and transformation.

To be clear… John isn’t baptizing folks so they will be saved when they die. He’s marking them and reminding them of their entire salvation history and inviting them to claim it. John has become the prophet he was born to be and his words are powerful! Come and be baptized and live like the claimed, liberated, loved, empowered, powerful people of God you are! Make this day a new day!

Like the prophets that have come before, John chooses to create a movement on the margins and the people come… “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan” (Matthew 3:5) crowds were streaming to the Jordan for renewal and repentance… not a ritual for rituals sake but as part of a revolution… for the common Jew quashed by the Roman Empire and at the mercy of the Temple Elite repentance meant relinquishing their dependence and their loyalty to the very authorities who controlled their lives.

And according to the Gospel of Matthew, this is where Jesus turns up for the first moments of his public ministry, not the temple or the synagogue, not to confer with the high priests or those in positions of power. Instead he arrives on the river bank – this sacred, contested, political, spiritual and religious space… and asks to be baptized.

This isn’t the first time Jesus and John meet… we know they’ve met before, still in the wombs of their courageous mothers… when Mary sang her own liberation anthem… and I wonder if they hear it’s echo as they greet one another in the flesh on the riverbank.

At first John refuses to baptize Jesus, but Jesus insists… for some Jesus’ insistence is cause for discomfort… why would a sinless man repent, why would God’s own son submit to someone else’s authority, how could this cleansing act have any power over someone already so perfect?

Jesus will defy expectations throughout his life and ministry. He will scandalize the established religious community and disappoint his disciples again and again…. he will refuse the hospitality of rich and sit on the floor of the poor… he will dismiss the wise and encourage children and women and outcast to sit at his feet… he will forgo religious talk for dinner and stories… he won’t claim a throne or pick up a sword – even in the name of righteousness. Even John will one day write him and ask… are you sure you’re the one??

But for now John finally agrees– he plunges the body of Christ… this wholly human wholly divine man under the surface of the Jordan.

I wonder if Jesus’ whole life flashes through his mind’s eye as he sinks beneath the surface. Not just his embodied life, but his life that began at the beginning – when all of creation first burst forth. Beginning with that first infinite breath of God and on and on through his own life, death and resurrection. And then forward through time all the way to ours.

When we baptize today we often say the words, “remember your baptism” – can you remember? Can you tap into this collective memory – can your imagine yourself part of the whole? The ALL of creation? Plunged beneath the waters of God’s making and rising to hear God’s words:

“This is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It’s a bold claim – to suppose that these words are for us right along with Jesus. But Jesus spends his life making it abundantly clear: no one is excluded, or exempt or abandoned by God. No one is out of reach or untouchable or too terrible for God to love. Jesus insists on being baptized right along with everyone else and so here we are, right along with Jesus, rising out of the river to hear these words:

“This is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

 As someone raised up in our Christian tradition and trained up as a Presbyterian Pastor… as someone who loves the communities and ritual we’ve created I worry and I wonder about what we’ve done with this particular sacrament, this baptismal moment… we’ve taken this baptismal moment… a ritual created as an act of protest against the temple authorities, an act meant to symbolize the power of the river, the people, the margins, of God’s ability to turn the world on it’s head and we’ve institutionalized and domesticated it… we’ve written rules about it, who can do it and what they can say and can’t say about it when they do. We’ve treated this moment like a ticket to be redeemed for salvation or a place at the table or to a place in heaven…

But the waters of baptism aren’t meant to save us, they are meant to renew and empower us. They aren’t meant to transport us to safety but to transform us into people who aren’t afraid to live – who aren’t afraid to stand against hate and oppression, who aren’t afraid to love; The waters of our own baptism are meant to stir our communal memory – to connect us to the God story that can hold our story and the next person and the next person’s story… until they are all woven together into one big beautiful, mess of a story and we don’t know who’s is whose and we can’t separate ourselves out or line ourselves up according to who’s the best or smartest or strongest or most deserving and so we all have to accept the fact that when God calls out you are mine, you are beloved, it is with you I am most pleased that God is talking to ALL of us….

When I first encountered this idea, maybe 15 years ago, that in Christ’s baptism, God calls us each beloved – I believe in Henri Nouwen’s book, Life of the Beloved, I was astounded… I wasn’t sure I could believe it about myself – that God would love me like God loved Christ, so I started telling my boys who were tiny at the time, every night at bedtime: “You belong to God, you are belovedyou are mine, you are beloved.” such a simple and yet, such a powerful statement – so easy to say and yet… so hard to believe about ourselves, isn’t it?

What might the world look like if we all knew ourselves to be claimed and loved?What might the world look like if we all knew one another as claimed and loved?

I found this simple truth so hard to hold onto over the years – especially in the times of loss or failure that I finally got it tattooed on my arm… yep. Tattooed. On my arm. You are beloved. Where I could see it. Every day.

cropped-youarebeloved.jpg

Nouwen says the biggest obstacle to knowing God’s love is that we can’t seem to hold on to this simple truth when we are hurt, rejected, abandoned or failures… We can’t believe we are beloved in the face of hatred or abuse and so we acquiesce, we reject ourselves… but what if we didn’t? What if Leelah Alcorn the young transgender woman who committed suicide by stepping in front of a truck in the last weeks had known herself as beloved before she heard the names rejection or abandoned? What if we taught small children to look in the mirror and see beloved before they saw strong or weak, big or small, black, brown or white?

Nouwen says when  truly believe this about ourselves – that we are beloved, we can’t help but believe it about others as well… I know, it’s idealistic isn’t it? But isn’t that what Jesus modeled throughout his whole life and ministry?  A ridiculously expansive grace that even his followers wished he would tone down? What if police officers… What if protesters, What if Americans…. What if Christians… What if Muslims and Jews… What if we saw one another first as beloved? What if that’s where we began?

Instead of tattoos to remember that you’re beloved… I’m not going to ask you all to get tattoos today but I am going to invite you to remember, during the next hymn we’re going to flick and fling and smear this water (in small bowls) on one another – I’d like to invite you to share the love… shower one another with a bit of water and remember…You are beloved.

God doesn’t tear through time and space to confer judgment or rapture folks off to heaven or leave some folks behind. God breaks into the human story to name and claim and love us. “You are mine. You are beloved. That’s the beginning of our story. Don’t you forget it. Amen.

(656)

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Rip into our world, O God…

Rip into our world once again, O God, and give us the good sense to be absolutely overwhelmed with joy at your proclamation,

 “This is my child, this is my beloved, this is my greatest pleasure.”

You know what I’m afraid of?

That in the midst of trying to name and attend to all the pain the Church has inflicted on folks over the centuries in the name of God, I’m afraid that sometimes I preach and paint an image of God that is so gentle, so simple, so easy on the eyes, and the ears, and the heart, that it is stripped of it’s power to comfort, let alone transform our starving souls.

On the day of Jesus’ baptism, nothing is simple. Nothing is easy. God rips into the world of human experience. God tears the sky and comes crashing through space and time to make an extraordinary claim.

Rather than a disembodied experience this baptismal moment is one of super-embodiment – it’s a sensory overloading, heart-stopping, genesis of life moment.

I wonder if Jesus’ whole life flashes through his mind’s eye as he is dunked beneath the surface of the Jordan. Not just his embodied life but his life that began at the beginning – when all of creation first burst forth. Beginning with that first infinite breath of God and on and on through his own life, death and resurrection. And ours.

I wonder, if just for a moment our physical reality, the one in which we rely because we can see it with our eyes, didn’t collapse in and expand back out as he came up out of the Jordan gasping for breath.

Here’s where we tell the truth about ourselves:

You call us to dive into your holy water with abandon O God,

To be caught up in the current of your love

And to be buoyed by your grace.

But your holy water scares us O God,

We worry it will overwhelm us,

We lose our footing and fall beneath the surface,

Pulled under by our fear and self-loathing.

We are lost. Any peace we might know is drowned out by

Anger

Hatred

Distrust

And Disbelief.

[silence is kept]

God Blesses & Forgive Us

Trouble the holy water in which we swim, O God.

Do not let its placidness lull us into complacency,

send your wild and holy spirit to agitate the quiet waters of our apathy.

Enliven the tide of justice,

stir our passion and nourish our resilience,

so that when we rise from your holy water

and step back onto the banks of our lives

we know our names our

Forgiven

Claimed

Beloved

and Sent.

(594)

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What if this was our starting place?

A Sermon from the time the Ancient Israelites returned to the Holy Mountain where Moses had first heard God. They weren’t disappointed, God was waiting with Ten Words that would shape them for generations…

 “I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.” ~Ani DiFranco

Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenantyou shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.

Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom & a holy nation.

These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”

So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. (Exodus 19:3-7)

So we’re going to stop here for a moment…

Before we get to the list of what we’ve long called God’s Ten Commandments it’s so important for us to hear where God begins, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself…” God doesn’t say I’ve brought you to my mountain, or I’ve brought you out to wander the wilderness, or here we are, the end of the road, catch you later. God says, “I have drawn you to myself – to the center of my being… I called you and I heard you and I’ve rescued you, I’ve born you and carried you on my wings to freedom” And where is the place of freedom? God says, “I have brought you to myself.” Freedom is being gathered to the very center of God’s being.

 

What if this was our starting place every time we turned to the biblical text? What if this was our starting place at the beginning of each day? What if this was our starting place in every encounter with those we love and those we don’t? What if this was our starting place with every neighbor and stranger and we meet? What if we remembered that in all things, no matter who or where we are, where we’ve been or where we’re going, our story begins at the center of God?

God’s calling, rescuing, loving, drawing us to God’s self is the starting point… it began with Noah standing in the mud and then Abraham and Sarah who laughed and journeyed and believed and with Joseph who trusted God even though his life kept falling apart and now here we are again, and God says this, this is what love looks like.

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God,

who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses God’s name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.

For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother,

so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

 God says, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, (that is, if you follow these words, make these the spiritual and communal practices of your life), you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine (all of creation, including you, already belongs to me), but YOU shall be for me a priestly kingdom & a holy nation.” (Exodus 20:1-17)

It’s as if God says, listen up folks… this is what it looks like to be a covenant people, this is what real freedom and real love looks like. This is not an edict, it’s a relationship – and if a relationship is to be grounded in freedom and life-giving love it means giving up the desperate, taking, hiding, stealing and killing that kept you alive in Egypt. It looks like believing that there is enough, enough food and water and time and love to share. If you can believe this, if you can really take this in, then you will truly come to know me… if you can live like free people you will know what it is to live a precious and holy life…

And that’s been our life’s work for generations, hasn’t it? Believing there’s enough… enough God, enough to eat and drink, enough time and enough space, enough love – so much so that we could just start giving it away?

These Ten Words that we’ve often translated as commandments are not meant to be arbitrary prohibitions – they’re meant to be words that ground us, and remind us that God’s story is a radically different story than the world’s story… The world told the Ancient Israelites that they were sub-human, unworthy of just pay or safe homes; the world treated them like property to be controlled, discarded and abused… But God said, “You are worthy of my love and protection, you are called and blessed and set apart to be a people who will demonstrate a WHOLE NEW WAY OF LIFE.

This new way of life takes practice… like learning an instrument or an art form or new skill or craft… to be transformed from a student plunking keys to pianist you start at the beginning and work the steps over and over again… like putting in the time on the potters wheel… hours and hours of lumps and messes and crappy pots until you craft something beautiful. What if we read these Ten Words like the 12 step program…another kind of practice. Instead of a checklist it’s a way of life and when you stumble and fall you go back and work the steps, practicing and practicing again and again until they are inscribed on you… until they transform you.

These Ten Words are meant to craft a people, to shape their identity, to resurrect their hope and purpose and worth. For centuries these Words will shape the identity of the Israelite people as they continue their journey, and they will struggle and they will make progress and they will teach and learn these Words again and again, they will forget them and God will remind them – sometimes not so politely. Sometimes they will really, really suck at living these words (just wait a few weeks the Narrative Lectionary is bringing back the drama) and then there will be times they surprise themselves and God with their capacity to love God and their NEIGHBORS.

That word neighbor comes up a lot in these Ten Words. Often times when we read this story we hear the word neighbor and we think, oh, the person sitting next to me, that’s my neighbor, or the person living in the next tent over… or just down the block in our case. But what if when God talked of the Ancient Israelites’ neighbors God wasn’t talking about other Israelites? What if God was talking about the strangers they would encounter on their journey? What if God was speaking of the neighboring communities, the people already living in the promise land?

What if the most radical part of these Ten Words is that they weren’t about protecting the Ancient Israelites (who God has already rescued and drawn to God’s self) but their neighbors?

What if the most radical part of these Ten Words is that they aren’t for our protection, but our neighbors?

Wouldn’t that be a kicker, if it turned out that this isn’t even about us?

In the history of Christian Doctrine we’ve absorbed these Ten Words as Ten Great Commandments and they run deep in our cultural story like no other people…  in the United States we have held tightly to these Ten Words, insisting they be predominately displayed and we’ve modeled our civic laws and social morality on what we think they mean. These words, once meant to shape the identity of a minority people, to set them apart as a radical community to demonstrate God’s abundance and neighborly love have been used in our time to stand in judgment of those who are different, to reject those who society deems failures. To hold accountable those we believe have fallen short. Have we only used these Words to protect ourselves? What would it look like if they protected our neighbors instead? It’s a radical notion isn’t it? That God’s covenant is bigger than we can imagine?

Today is World Communion Sunday – a day we celebrate the global village of believers – a day we recognize that God’s table is bigger and wider than our table – that God’s love is greater than what we can imagine, even on our very best most loving day… Can we imagine God calling us to extend that love beyond the borders of our comfortable communities, even beyond the borders of our own tradition?

Can we celebrate and deepen our particular identities as well as our place in the global community without degrading or diminishing one another?

If we can hear them anew, God’s Ten Words teach us how. Celebrating and deepening our identities in God is what the first half of the Ten Words is about… Remembering and belonging to God… Loving God above all else… how might a love like that shape us as a people?

And the second half is about how that love will enliven our relationships with everyone else… how to feed and clothe and care for, how to respect and engage and protect the other.

God’s table is big and wide… God’s story is big and wide… and we gather at our communion table to celebrate our story… the story of a Jewish man named Jesus whose whole life was the best demonstration of these Ten Words the world had seen… a man who sat at some of the worst tables, with believers and unbelievers, with sinners and saints, with ordinary folk and messy folk and righteous folk and folks who didn’t know one from the other… and again and again he said there was room for one more. We remember and we celebrate a man who gave his life for love, a man who in the most radical and mysterious way is also God.

And so on this day, we will celebrate at the table where there is always room for one more. One more voice, one more story, one more song and we will eat these Ten Words like bread until they nourish our soul, until we believe every word of them, until they truly set us free. Amen.

(520)

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Returning to what is sacred…

This week the Narrative Lectionary hones in on the story of God’s Ten Words (or Ten Commandments) for the newly forming Israelite people. The story takes us back to the foot of a mountain in search of God. Back to a mountain where Moses has stood before. Back to a mountain Moses has climbed many times before. Back to a place Moses has met God before. Back to the holy ground where God first called him by name, “Moses, Moses.”

The biblical writers use two names for this mountain, some call it Horeb while others call it Sinai and of course, we readers, scholars and storytellers don’t all agree about the whereabouts of this mountain or whether there are one or two, or whether it is a geographical location or a mystical one. But what I love about this story and about this man Moses is how raw and deeply human he is.

How many times have you returned to a holy place hoping to find God again? 

I have. I have walked the holy halls of old schools decades after I sat in their classrooms and I have sat quietly in the empty sanctuary where I was once sung too and baptized even though I am a stranger to the community who worships there now. I have returned to the sites of hard conversations and promises made, listening for the lingering hope and stirring passion that made them sacred. I have walked the same roads and trails hoping to encounter the holy in the beauty and wonder of creation just as I have before. I have revisited the prayers and poems that have consecrated the brokenness and the beauty my life has born. And I return each sunday for worship in a space made holy by it’s gracious people and sacred by God’s willingness to show up and break open our hearts again and again.

Our Call To Worship this week at Friendship (see below) honors the way in which we return to what we know is sacred… the holy places in our lives – the geographic and the mystical – in order to rekindle, to listen, to learn and to experience God again and again.

holygroundApproaching God On Holy Ground

We have returned with Moses,

to the foot of the mountain

where we’ve seen you before O God.

Once again we will remove our shoes

and stand on this sacred ground.

We are looking for your word,

your promise,

your protection.

Reveal yourself to us again,

like you did on that ancient day

to the one who dared to answer,

“Here I am”.

Here we are, O God,

Curious

Hopeful

Attentive

Afraid

Listening

Ready

Open

Joyful

Surprised

Hungry

for your presence.

(614)

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Creator God – Sermon, Sept. 8 (Narrative Lectionary)

God is really only another artist. God invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. God has no real style. God just keeps on trying other things. ~ Pablo Picasso

 Our Prayer For Illumination: O God of beauty and delight, make space in our lives to celebrate all that you have made, to enter into the complexity of life, that which is easy and that which is hard, with your voice in our heads and your words inscribed on our hearts, declaring that indeed, it is good, very good. And may we carry your Word into the world until it is made so. Amen. 

Our Reading from Genesis 1:1-2:4a (Common English Bible – mostly) We read this as a community, as the story pop-corned around the room, told by more than 30 voices we watched it unfold in images on the screen accompanied by the beauty of the soundtrack from Tree of Life)

When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness.God named the light Day and the darkness Night.

There was evening and there was morning: the first day.

God said, “Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate the waters from each other.”God made the dome and separated the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome. And it happened in that way. God named the dome Sky.

There was evening and there was morning: the second day.

God said, “Let the waters under the sky come together into one place so that the dry land can appear.” And that’s what happened. 10 God named the dry land Earth, and he named the gathered waters Seas. God saw how good it was. 11 God said, “Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seeds and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind throughout the earth.” And that’s what happened. 12 The earth produced plant life: plants yielding seeds, each according to its kind, and trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was.

13 There was evening and there was morning: the third day.

14 God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will mark events, sacred seasons, days, and years. 15 They will be lights in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth.” And that’s what happened. 16 God made the stars and two great lights: the larger light to rule over the day and the smaller light to rule over the night. 17 God put them in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was.

19 There was evening and there was morning: the fourth day.

20 God said, “Let the waters swarm with living things, and let birds fly above the earth up in the dome of the sky.” 21 God created the great sea animals and all the tiny living things that swarm in the waters, each according to its kind, and all the winged birds, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was.22 Then God blessed them: “Be fertile and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.”

23 There was evening and there was morning: the fifth day.

24 God said, “Let the earth produce every kind of living thing: livestock, crawling things, and wildlife.” And that’s what happened. 25 God made every kind of wildlife, every kind of livestock, and every kind of creature that crawls on the ground. God saw how good it was. 26 Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”

27 God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,[b]
male and female God created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food. 30 To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened. 31 God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.

There was evening and there was morning: the sixth day.

The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed. On the sixth [a] day God completed all the work that he had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation.[b] This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

Sermon: Creator God

So today we are marking the beginning of a new season… in my newsletter article last month I described it as a season of experimentation… in that letter I focused on this worship experiment that we are embarking on today, we’re not only going to see what its like to have multiple services, in the coming weeks we will experiment with styles of worship, with music, with what liturgy or preaching means… we are using a new lectionary, called the narrative lectionary that will take us on a journey through the whole arc of the biblical story beginning today with creation… I’m excited about this season but anxious too…

And our experimenting isn’t relegated to the worshiping moment… As part of our ongoing discernment our session is reading a book called Christianity after Religion… the author, Diana Butler Bass, is encouraging communities of Christian faith to enter into a season of exploration, of asking questions about who we are and who God is calling us to be. We are going to be working together to tackle these questions this year. These questions are exciting but also nerve racking when the answers seem hard to grasp – hard to hang onto…

And for many of us, it’s not just here at Friendship that we are marking the changing of a season. We are starting new jobs, new relationships, new schools, gaining independence, moving from childhood to adulthood, or maybe we are becoming more dependent, moving to new homes and saying goodbye to places we’ve long loved and called home. For others, we facing decisions about where to make a home, our healthcare and families, decisions that will shape our lives in the coming months and years… we are facing news, some joy-filled news and some heart-wrenching and we are asking questions – like we do when new phases of life confront us, when seasons change – who am I in this phase of my life? Where is God and where is God calling me? These are good and hard questions…

I wonder if facing a new season, looking deep into the unknown, unsure of what to expect is how God feels when staring out over the face of the deep… breathing that deep breath of wind… 

In the beautiful song of creation that we just told together God looks out upon the deep, sometimes described as dark and chaotic, and God speaks light into being… not so much light to expel the darkness – the story doesn’t tell us that it’s evil or out of control, just that it’s messy – one poetic rendition from African American poet, James Weldon Johnson, says,

“And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!”

So God sheds a bit of light on the situation… and that is good – having enough light to pick our way forward into the unknown, but God doesn’t just call the light good – over and over again God keeps surveying the whole of what is coming to life – the darkness and the light – and calls it all good.

Is this how we face the unknown? The deep darkness, the chaos in our own lives?

For some (what I learned growing up) this is the story of God creating order out of the primordial chaos, of God demanding its compliance, bending it to God’s will… exercising God’s power. And there are times this can be a comfort – imagining a God who can control the elements of the natural world, creating boundaries between sky and earth, darkness and light, good and evil… this is a God who can save and protect us.

But it can also make God feel very far away from us, not part of us, but some external force… it can also give us reason to approach our own lives in a similar manner… as something to be subdued and controlled.

And if we divide our world into parts – into two halves: order and chaos, goodness and evil, known and unknown then won’t all of our energy go into drawing a line in the sand and then won’t we spend all of our lives holding that line? Shoring it up, working to keep chaos at bay? Will we ever choose being curious over being comfortable? Can we face the unknown with something besides fear?

I wonder if there is another way to understand this “chaos” from which God draws life in this story.

What if we imagine God’s act of creating as a lavish work of creativity, of curiosity and the chaos teeming with a diversity that will make for a full life? Instead of a demonstration of fierce power, what if the power is in God’s imaginative act of entering into this raw material and coaxing it towards life, shaping it so that it generates and regenerates, what if we understood God’s “order”, not as control, but as a divine balance? God doesn’t do battle in this creation story, God doesn’t win while creation loses, God creates and collaborates…

Listen to the story… God seems to be singing to creation,

 “Let the waters swarm with living things…let birds fly above the earth up in the dome of the sky… Let the earth produce every kind of living thing…” (Gen. 1:20-24)

Over and over again God coaxes life forth and invites all of creation to participate in it’s making… it reminds me of a gardener… In the process of planting a garden we plant seeds deep in the soil, and we rely on creation to work with us, to offer itself to the project of birthing new life, the gardeners job is to provide the space for life to take root and flourish… to take on a life of it’s own…

When this Genesis story says God made dome, it means God carved out a great expanse so that life could burst forth, God did not build walls but makes space, and this is the image that we are created in…

God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” (Gen. 1:26)

Can we imagine that we resemble God? That God invites us to the act of creating rather than control? This passage… to take charge of the earth, often translated as dominion, has gotten us into a lot of trouble through the centuries as humans have imagined themselves in the image of a God that subdues the world through violence if necessary, as one who forces the earth and it’s creatures to bend to it’s will…

But rather than dominion meaning a repressive or even just a maintaining force… let’s imagine it, for a moment, in the way God demonstrates dominion in the act of creation… by reaching into the depths making the way for life to flourish… we are created in God’s image as the midwife, the gardener, the artist, the lover, the creator…

How do we as humans made in this image of this God face the unknown? How do we survey the deep or approach the chaos of our lives?

Explaining our theme… In her book, Christianity after religion (that I mentioned earlier), Diana Butler Bass says that sometimes weforget that spiritual journeys are entwined with the Great I AM.”[i] We forget who and whose we are, in part, because we get caught up in the chaos of our lives, of the drama or mundane moments, and it seems that God is something very far away. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the unknown when it feels as if we are facing it alone.

Diana Butler Bass says that we’ve gotten accustomed to asking the ‘who are we’ question as if we are alone in the world, untethered or disconnected… and it’s an awfully tough question to answer in isolation. She suggests that we push the questions a bit further, remembering that we are grounded in a larger relationship with God; she suggests we ask ourselves two questions:

Who am I in God? And who is God in me?

In the creation story of a God who moves into the world and generates life from the inside out, where do we locate ourselves in this work? Are we insiders or outsiders? Part of the creative process? Co-creators with God? For the Israelites who first told this story it became an anthem of new life beyond Babylonian control, it became a protest of the world-view that kept them in bondage… “While their oppressors saw the origins of the universe as violent and bloody, the Israelites told their children a different story rooted in goodness and blessing. Light came from the deepest night, and order from chaos. The sun and the moon and the stars were set as signs of beauty and the changing of the seasons, providing light and direction and the keeping of time. God filled the earth with vegetation that was fruitful and nourishing, moved the waters back from the land and provided a home for the creatures that crawled across it, walked upon it, and flew over it. In the midst of this loveliness, humankind was tenderly placed, and blessed, and called to be caretakers and stewards of an abundance of gifts.”[ii]

How we orient ourselves to God matters.

  • It matters when facing decisions about military action in Syria and how we relate to human beings around the globe.
  • It matters when we try to understand the violence in our own city.
  • It matters when we are beginning new journey, beginning new work and relationships.
  • It matters when we are confronted with chaos, heartbreak or crisis.
  • How is God working in me? How am I working in God?

We are going to use these questions through out our worship experiment, reminding ourselves that this isn’t simply an exercise in finding ourselves but finding ourselves in God and discovering how God is moving in us. What if we truly believe that we were made in God’s image, not just imitators of God, but that we live and move in God and that God lives and moves and breathes into us?

This week as you face a new season or settle into a place already well known:

Ask yourself, who am I in God as a creator… a creative force, a generator, life-maker?Imagine God is inviting you to generate new life… where, who, how will you be a force for creativity?

Ask yourself who is God in me as a creatormoving as a creative force, a generator, life-maker? Where might God carve out a place for new life? What are the spaces in your life teeming with the possibility?

Where are the vast depths and the darkness? Instead of facing them with fear, imagine this:

God smiles,
And the light breaks,
And the darkness rolls up on one side,
And the light stands shining on the other,
And God says: This is very good!”

Amen.


[i] Bass, Diana Butler (2012-03-13). Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Huey, Kate. Feed Your Spirit, Weekly Seeds at ucc.org

 

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Two-face Jesus? September 12.2012

MARK 8:27-33
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that I am?”
And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them,
“But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

I don’t know about you, but when I read this text I really feel for Peter. First, it seems as if Jesus is baiting the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” What are folks saying about me?” And it’s Peter who seems to land on the right answer, declaring Jesus the “Messiah”. This is no small title. For the first time in Mark’s Gospel Jesus has been identified as the one for whom the community has been waiting. Peter steps forward and makes an audacious claim, Jesus is not simply a devout Jew, not just a really compelling Rabbi, not only a prophet but the Messiah.

For a people who can’t seem to get ahead, who are constantly under the thumb of the ruling class, who are pushed to the outside again and again this is a scandalous statement. It’s brave and crazy to imagine that finally, the one who will save them — who will bring them justice and win the day — has come.
And just as shockingly Jesus confirms this news. But then, in an even more incredible twist he goes on to describe what is about to unfold in the days and weeks ahead. Rather than triumph and power he describes a scene of violence and death. His death. He paints a picture of those who will turn against him, his own people, the ruling class, the government, even his own friends.

I grieve for Peter in this moment… this isn’t at all what he thought he was describing when he declared Jesus the Messiah. The one who comes to save them will be arrested and put to death in the most shameful of ways? Peter’s head must have been reeling when he pulled Jesus aside and demanded an explanation.

Have you ever signed up for something and then found out it wasn’t at all what you thought? It required much more from you than you expected? Have you ever believed in someone with your whole heart? Thrown your whole self into following and supporting them only to discover that they weren’t quite what you thought? Maybe you romanticized or idolized them and then they turned around and got real… it turned out they were more than what you imagined, more complex than simply meeting your personal needs.
In this crucial moment Peter finds out that what he thought would save him didn’t look at all like the salvation he’d hoped for. This was his first glimpse at what loving Christ would cost him and at God’s vision for reconciliation that didn’t entail a hostile takeover but instead included a road right through the valley of death before it would emerge into the beauty of a mountaintop resurrection story that could heal the world.

Sometimes it’s those crucial moments, when the rug is pulled out from under us, when the veil is lifted, when we’re confronted by the complexity of life and we begin to see the raw, messy and hard truth of it; in these moments we learn who we truly are and who we are truly called to be.

Peter’s life will never be the same, he’s looked into the eyes of his Messiah and seen the truth. This isn’t the Messiah that he expected but it is the one the world desperately needs.

May the many faces of Christ take you by surprise,
And stretch your imagination,
May the cause of love that is bigger than winning,
and larger than just one life,
turn your expectations on their head.
May this surprising Messiah who is more than we could ever expect
continue to bring new  life to darkest places in your life,
and healing to the world.
AMEN

Peace, Shawna

Musical Mediation
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Rolling Stones

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Absorbing God, September 11. 2012

PSALM 19:1-3 & 14
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
  
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

Psalm 19 is a beautiful Psalm, it declares all the beauty of the earth to be the voice of God. It goes on for many verses claiming that God is like the sun whose heat radiates and extends across the earth. Nothing escapes it’s light and warmth. Later in the Psalm the psalmist makes this same claim about the laws of God.

Often times when we hear the word law we think of rules that we shouldn’t break or precepts that are meant to keep us safe but so much of God’s law is about how we understand ourselves in relationship to God and one another. How do you understand the idea of God’s law? Is it something you feel you have to mind like traffic rules or other regulations? Or does God’s law give you guidance in your most important relationships?

In the story of the Israelites, God’s people are invited again and again to write God’s laws on the hearts. To move towards God while caring for and loving one another. The Psalmist ends this beautiful prose by getting personal. Instead of leaving off only describing who God is the author writes this prayer for himself, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

It’s common to hear this prayer before the sermon in the course of a worship service but the Psalmist isn’t using it as an introduction to an official proclamation moment. Instead, it’s almost as if it’s a reflection or response to who God is. It could serve as a daily prayer or mantra. In light of God’s willingness to enter into relationship with humanity, to enter into the darkness and the shadows, to warm our hearts and to write on them the story of who we are the Psalmist makes this commitment. To respond to the beauty and graciousness of God by mirroring God in their own life and relationships. To absorb God in order to be more like God.

It’s such a simple phrase isn’t it? And yet such a difficult one to live out. I know I am likely to jump in with criticism or sarcasm, ready to shut down someone I disagree with or misunderstand. I often feel the need to be heard or to win in a heated debate. What happens to our relationships to one another when being heard trumps truly hearing another?

There are times in which speaking up and speaking out is necessary but I wonder how turning to God like we turn our faces to the sun and absorb it’s warmth on a summer day might change our tone or capacity for compassion in the most tense or troublesome  moments.

May all that you are God,
all that you have created,
bubble up within us so that
every word that escapes our lips,
every thought in our heads
and every feeling in our hearts,
be an extension of you, O God,
to whom we turn to and rely on.
AMEN
Peace, Shawna
Musical Mediation
Beautiful God
Shawn McDonald

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