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.

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I don’t want to go…

A sermon from when God drops into the life of one man and calls forth a movement people, based on the Narrative Lectionary Year 1.

Genesis 12: 1-9

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. ~Lao Tzu

Here are some questions I have about this story:

How did Abram even hear God?

How did he know it was this God? His God? We’ve come to call our God the God of Abraham… the God of the ancient Israelites but that story has yet to be told… How did Abram know God’s voice?

How do we know God’s voice?? How do we discern when it really really God calling us out?

And how would you respond to a call like Abram’s?

I’m going to tell you the truth. This week. This moment. After the sting of the flood story still fresh in my memory, with nothing more to go on than an ambiguous blessing… If I were Abraham I’d say no.

If I were Abraham, I’d say: I don’t want to go. 


Think about all that Abraham has to lose… according to chapter 11 of Genesis his family had lived for hundreds of years in the land of Ur of Chaldean and then moved in his adulthood to Haran where they have just build a life together. He and Sarah and their siblings and his family and her family, they had land and livelihood, livestock and belongings… in other words… some amount of stability.

There are other stories of a call to action, for a people to migrate that make sense to me later in our biblical story… when we come to the exodus story – for sure – those folks are going to want to escape the tyranny of Egypt… and later when the Israelites find themselves under siege they have no choice but to move into exile… but this. This is the beginning of the story – this feels like the defining moment of being asked to be a moving people – a people who God will never stop calling to move, to transform, to change direction and to change the world, this is the moment God makes a promise that will take generations to unfold, a promise that still hasn’t come completely to fruition. It’s a mighty calling requiring so much of them… so much of us…

I think I might say: I don’t want to go.

How many of you know something about Dr. Who?

At the crux of this story that spans generations there is a constant character called the Doctor…  similar to our biblical heroes, this character’s age and how time passes in his story is unclear, but the story goes that he is an ancient character that has moved forward and backwards in time for something like 1000 years… I love a lot of things about this story… it’s a great adventure and I love the way it delves into the concept of time and history, what’s written in stone and how the story can be changed with the simplest encounter… but the piece I love the most is the transformation the Doctor goes through every few hundred years…

This is a TV show that has spanned years and if you were cynical you might write these transitions off as a clever way to change up actors and still keep a storyline intact but these transformations are written into the story as a heartbreaking necessity… there comes a time the world requires that the Doctor take on a new form, a new identity, even a new personality… his memories remain somewhat intact but he goes through a process of transformation… of regeneration… that requires him to let go a great many things go so he can live into the future…

This clip is of the Dr.… right before he is transformed (regenerated), and he knows he must go, and he knows he will still be, but he also knows that things will never be the same… I don’t want to go… 

It’s such a natural response when we face a great change isn’t it?

Can you think of the times you’ve encountered great change?

When you’ve made a move or changed professions?

Become a parent or partner?

When you’ve said yes even though you felt unqualified and unprepared?

When you’ve had to move forward into an unknown future?

What gave you courage to move forward? Why did you say yes?

Sometimes we go because we’re naïve – we go because we hear this story, we hear this promise:

I will make of you a great nation (tribe, family, community)

I will bless you.

I will make your name respected…

You will be a blessing.

We move forward because we believe in the blessing and want to be a blessing… and we trust a story that isn’t yet written and we have no idea that it’s going to be much harder and heartbreaking than we can imagine…

When I got to the end of my three years in seminary I sat with a panel of professors, my advisor and a couple of other Profs. I had invited… and one of them asked me towards the end of our lovely conversation, almost in passing, “was there anything I would have done differently?” and without thinking twice I said, “yeah, I wouldn’t have come.”

Don’t get me wrong… I loved seminary, I loved the way it stretched and challenged me, I loved the community that we created there, I loved the way my faith was deepened and my identity was shaped in what was really such a short but intense time… but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that if you had sat down my naïve and hopeful twenty-something, small town Iowa self and said:

“The next three years will be harder than you can imagine. You will be confronted by all the ways in which you fall short, you will have to face your own inner demons and make peace with the broken parts of yourself if you have any hope of loving others in a whole and pastoral way… your sense of call, your faith and the gifts that you think you’re bringing to ministry will feel inadequate in the face of the overwhelming loss and the deep needs you will actually encounter… your theological notions, all your ideas about who God is and how God works in the world will be deconstructed and put to the test and then in the midst of practicing ministry you will be invited to reconstruct something from the rubble, you will struggle to find your voice and hold on to it, your family will be stretched and your marriage will end… you will have to confront some things and let go of some things and you will rediscover who you are again and again.”

I told them, “If I had known then what I know now, I would have said, no, I don’t want to go…”

Isn’t that the true story of all the hardest and best parts of our lives? That had we known how hard the work — the job of parenting, of adult care-giving, of loving someone besides ourselves, even truly loving ourselves would be – if we knew up front what it would require us to give and give up we would never agree to take even the first step into the great unknown… and that’s crux of it… later on, after Abraham has already begun the journey, God tells Abraham, it’s going to be a struggle… its going to be a long, long journey, a journey that included bondage and exile, wilderness and famine… “days will come that I couldn’t feel farther away.”

I don’t know about you but there are days in which God truly does feel far away. We continue to fight with one another, in our churches and in the world… we’re still, thousands of years after this story is told and recorded, we are still arguing over who this blessing… this blessing we are reading and preaching and praying about this morning, belongs to. And it’s not just this blessing we fight over, the religious community is as polarized as the politics in this country. I read article after article about how the church is dying, how we don’t know how or simply don’t want to be relevant, how folks are continuously wounded and rejected… it’s a terrible story and I’m so tired of this story… of this life-sucking narrative… but in many ways it’s an easier story to tell than the great-unknown story staring at us from the future…

After Abraham agrees to follow God’s instructions, after he has already made his way south towards the land of Canaan God take Abraham outside and says,

“Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then God said to Abram, “So shall your descendants be.” And Abraham trusted God; and God recognized Abram’s righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6)

There are billions of stars, in our galaxy alone, and the ones we look up and see are light years away – some of them already dead and others just being born… what an amazing ancient analogy for our contemporary eyes… there is more to life, there is more living and dying and more hope and struggle, there is more time and space and creation than we can possibly see… and the only thing to do is stand in wonder… to be amazed.

Recently I was painting at a conference in Atlanta and Brian McLaren was talking to mostly progressive mainline folks (like myself) about some of things that we must let go of if we are going to live into the future God is calling the church… if we are not only to survive but to be a life-giving movement of God’s love in the world… I can’t remember everything he listed that would help get us moving but at one point he said, “we have to give up our cynicism.” And man, I almost dropped my paint stick… give up cynicism?! Dude, I love cynicism … I am at home in my cynicism… I am comfortable in my progressive, self-righteous cynicism… to tell you the truth, I’ve been cynical about Brian McLaren… it was like being doubly convicted!

And yet, Immediately, I knew he was right… If I am going to live a life of faith, if I’m going to put one foot in front of the other and believe God is calling us into a transforming future then I’m going to have to lay down my cynicism and put my wide-eyed wonder on and trust God.

Can we trust God with this infinite human story that doesn’t end with us? Can you? What must you leave behind in order to move on? What will you say in answer to God’s call? Will you stay or will you go?doctor

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What do you know?

Sermon for Sunday March 2, 2014 (Narrative Lectionary)

“Human beings must be known to be loved; but Divine beings must be loved to be known.” ~Blaise Pascal

We read John 9:1-41 the story of the Man Born Blind with the refrain, Open our eyes Lord, We want to see Jesus… you should read the whole story of this man born blind and sing a song about seeing Jesus.

 

Sermon: What do you know? 

In our tradition, this is what we call Transfiguration Sunday… in our other three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke there is a story of Jesus taking three of his closest friends and disciples and climbing to the top of high mountain to pray, while they are there Jesus’ face is transfigured (or changed) – and he shines like the sun, so brilliantly it blinds the disciples…

(Not surprisingly) John doesn’t offer us this traditional transfiguration story. There’s no mountain top or blinding light or God’s voice speaking from the clouds… instead, there is a man, born blind, there is spit and dirt and mud packed on eyes… and there is a transfiguration… yes, there is an alteration but instead of Jesus, it is the man who is forever changed…

I say changed and not healed for a reason… I say changed and not restored… because it’s important that we tune in at the very start of this story and hear some key things about these characters…

Jesus has just left the temple… where he’s been arguing and almost arrested by the authorities for making bold claims about himself, for siding with sinners and for performing miracles… or as we know John loves to call them, signs, on the Sabbath… Jesus is with his disciples and they encounter this man… a man born blind who sits by the temple gates begging… he is not alone in the world, he has a family – parents – who are later called upon to testify but in the social order and religious beliefs of this time blindness such as his was considered a blemish – evidence that someone has done something terribly wrong. So engrained was this belief that when the disciples see him, they don’t pause for a moment to wonder if he’d done something wrong but instead asked the question “Who has sinned? This man, or his parents?”

And Jesus says something radical… something so difficult for us to hear, so hard for us to believe, so very different from everything his culture and ours tells us over and over again… Jesus says, Nothing. Neither this man nor his parents have done a thing to earn this. They haven’t sinned, they haven’t made God angry, this isn’t punishment or shame or castigation.

How many times have you heard the voices in the crowd, on the news, in your own communities, even in your own heads, that heap on the shame… this pain, this difficulty, this difference… it must be punishment. Or it’s the refrain that pops into our head (unbid) when we encounter brokenness, difference or suffering in another… This one of oldest and most harmful stories we tell about God.

There are so many voices… in Jesus’ time, in the generation the Gospel of John was first written for and in our own time, that declare God’s wrathful judgment where it isn’t. There are voices that claim that every disaster and illness even our differences – whether physical or biological, if something sets us apart it must be our punishment. Voices that shame parents of difficult or differently-abled children, voices that claim that God is only interested in loving whom society deems perfect… and yet here is a radical notion. The man who was born blind was just fine… In fact more than fine. The problem wasn’t him, but the community that defined him. Jesus said so. He was perfect – the perfect vessel, the perfect disciple, the perfect teacher to partner with Jesus in a story that would transfigure our understanding of who truly sees… and who is truly blind.

Let’s trace this unfolding scene for just a moment… the man born blind gets progressively more aware as the story unfolds… receiving sight is the signal or catalyst of the change… but he comes to understand… to know who Jesus is gradually as the story unfolds… first his neighbors don’t even recognize him… which seems strange doesn’t it? Another failure to see who and what is right in front of them… at first the man simply describes Jesus as the “man called Jesus”… then when the authorities question him, he realizes Jesus must be a prophet and tells them so… when questioned a second time he asks if others want to become Jesus’ disciple as well… and insists Jesus must come from God… how else could he wield such power?

My favorite part of this whole story is the man doesn’t actually see Jesus with his own eyes until the very end of the story… remember he went away from Jesus with mud covering his eyes… and yet he came to know who Jesus was, what wisdom and power he held… through his actions… through his words… through his touch before he ever laid eyes on him. Jesus comes to him after he is thrown out of the temple and has to introduce himself… “you are speaking to him.” Says Jesus. By then the man has already come to know and love Jesus, and so when he sees him, he worships him.

The opposite happens to the Pharisees (religious authorities) doesn’t it? They can see Jesus from the start… and they can see the blind man… and they can see the way the world works… bad things happen to bad people… and physical differences are blemishes, and people who experience loss or suffering or pain have deserved it. Messiah’s don’t come from working families in Galilee. Messiah’s are royal and untouchable… you don’t know their mothers and brothers… God doesn’t work through ordinary people; and certainly not poor ones. God only lives inside the temple not outside laying around the gates…  and miracles don’t happen on the Sabbath.

The authorities were afraid, and fear always stands in the way of vision. They don’t have a vision for the world working any way but the way they’ve always known, and so they eliminate the possibility of God standing right there in front of them… they cannot see the truth… they can’t even imagine it. They have physical sight but no vision… they have shame but no grace, they have a rulebook but have forgotten whom it’s pointing to and worship the rules instead.

Does your fear ever cloud your vision?

Has God ever stood right in front of you but you couldn’t see?

What gets in your way of knowing this God?

What is the difference between what we see and what we know?

When the religious authorities question the man and his parents, insisting that some one has to be a sinner in this story… there must always be a bad guy mustn’t there? I love that in that moment he doesn’t even care if Jesus is a sinner or a saint…

The man answered, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.” (John 9:25)

Here’s what I know… what a great way of understanding how we come to know God. Here’s what I know. Here’s my lived experience. For the blind man it goes like this: I was blind and now I see.

What do you know?

What is your lived experiences of God?

Of life or love, of fear or doubt?

When has someone stopped and seen you? Really seen you?

Jesus spits in the dirt and makes mud and smears it all over this man’s face. This is an intimate and embodied act… have you ever had an experience like that?

Has anyone ever looked at your wounds, or the parts of you the world’s voice, or even your own voice, has declared broken and shameful or a sign of weakness and called it a strength? Have you ever come to know someone so well that you recognize them with out having to lay eyes on them? You know them by their words and deeds…

This is the invitation John extends to every seeker… come and get to know this man called Jesus… this prophet, this one who comes from God, who embodies light in the most unexpected places… come and know him, not by looking but by living… set aside your assumptions and shame and come to know him… encounter him in the generosity of the poor, in the stories of those born blind, or different, seek him out in the life of the ones you thought at first glance were the powerless… seek him out in your own life.

I think there is a reason this story doesn’t often win out in the public discourse we have about religion and faith… for all the grief I give these “religious authorities” I also understand them. I understand the need to have an answer… even a terrible answer can quiet our fears a bit better than no answer. And there are times God feels downright unknowable aren’t there?

Jesus never does get to the question of the man’s blindness – there is no explanation. I was blind and now I see… and that’s enough for the man for now. There so many things in our lived experiences we’d like an answer for. We live a lot of our lives like these Pharisees trying to make logical sense of why the world works like it does… why bad things happen, why people suffer, why it feels at times as if God is very far away. And if we think we have an answer, boy do we cling to it, don’t we?

But we also know there are no simple answers. This is the complex story of what it means to be a people of faith… we draw close to God and move far away and then circle back again. We find community and build families and relationships and at times we stretch them and even break them, and we learn to mend and rebuild and remake them. We are transfigured by our faith over and over again and there is cadence to our lives… a desire to know and be known by God… to see and be seen by Jesus, to love and be loved by one another.

And so we come to know by doing. We come to know the love of God because we enact it here – in this place, in our prayers and when we come to the table and when we go out into the world. We enact it in our lives as we reflect and refract and carry the light of Christ for one another. We take turns leading and following and leaning on the one who seems to have the clearest vision in each moment – depending on one another’s imaginations and trusting God to keep revealing God’s self in our midst. Amen.

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