The cost of forgiveness…

Forgiveness is the final form of love. ~Reinhold Niebuhr

Have you ever had to beg for forgiveness? Have you ever thrown yourself at the mercy of someone in power? Has forgiveness ever knocked you off your feet?

I wonder if begging hardens our hearts or cracks them open? I wonder what part power plays in our ability to seek and find forgiveness…IMG_0026

The Narrative Lectionary has gifted us with a series of challenging parables this lenten season. According to the Gospel of Matthew Jesus told these parables as a way of illuminating what the Kingdom of Heaven – that is God’s alternative world order – might look like. This week’s parable from Matthew 18: 15-35 is often called the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant but the reality is no one in this a parable is very forgiving… right before the parable Jesus tells the disciples that forgiveness has no limits… but the servant’s master takes back his supposed forgiveness in a heartbeat.

It seems such a challenge for us to imagine a God who’s love is not transactional. To imagine a being, a God, who holds such immense power, and yet, is willing to relinquish it, willing to let the very creation God so lovingly crafted to crack God’s heart open again and again.

Telling the Truth About Ourselves

So how do we forgive from the heart?

How do we seek forgiveness

and ask forgiveness

without belittling the pain?

How do we learn compassion

but never tolerate abuse?

It begins with telling the truth.

To unbind the wounded parts of our hearts,

and face the wounds we’ve inflicted on one another,

to face the grief of the world and take it in,

and take on our share of the responsibility and our share of the pain

is no small thing.

However,

if we can find the courage,

it will

set us free.

[silence is kept]

God Blesses & Forgive Us

Abandon your fear and leave your disappointment in the dust.

Believe in the abundant forgiveness found along this road

That leads to love.

Dig your feet into the earth and wait for the promise of spring.

Let your heart be broken open

like a seed that cracks open in order to absorb the nutrients that will bring it to life.

Get ready to lean in towards the rising sun

and open your eyes to it’s incandescent light.

This is the beginning of the journey home

to the one who piles grace upon grace.

 

(1026)

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.

(741)

The Whole Story

A sermon about the time Joshua called all the folks from ALL over Canaan together in a Sacred Place and teased, and cajoled and invited them to remember who they are…

 “i imagine that yes is the only living thing.”
~e.e. cummings

Prologue: Since receiving the Ten Words from God the Israelites have traveled the Wilderness for forty long years… generations have passed, Moses has died and Joshua takes leadership… they have passed through the Jordon and are making a life in Canaan – “the promise land” and today Joshua calls the people together at Shechem – We first hear of this sacred place Shechem (in Canaan) in the book of Genesis when God first promises this very land to Abram… Abram builds an altar in this very place and worships God… before continuing his own journey.

The book of Joshua records their passage into Canaan in it’s early chapters and the 12 tribes of Israel have spread out across the land… Joshua calls the Israelites from all over Canaan to gather once again at Shechem to renew their commitment to God.

 

Covenant at Shechem

Covenant at Shechem

Joshua 24:1-15

1 Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people,

“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; 4 and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt.

5 Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. 6 When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. 7 When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness a long time. 8 Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you.

9 Then King Balak son of Zippor of Moab, set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, 10 but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I rescued you out of his hand. 11 When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you. 12 I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. 13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.” 

14Then Joshua said, “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve the Lord in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Have any of you heard a mama turn to her sassy child… young or old and say, “listen up… I carried you in my womb for nine whole months, and I wasn’t just sick in the morning, but noon and night… my feet swelled up and by skin stretched to hold you and my belly grew and grew until I was as big as a house…  and then I gave birth to you… 18 hours of backbreaking labor to push you into this world.”

Or, if you were adopted like me it might go more like, “we waited and waited and waited for you, we thought we would never ever have children, and then we met you, and fell in love with you and we chose you and brought you home and made your ours.” And then she goes on…

“All these years I’ve fed you and clothed you, I’ve run you around and I’ve learned new math and had to remember old math to help you with your homework, I’ve taken care of you when you were sick, staying up all night – even the time you puked all over me, I stayed right there by your side. I’ve dried your tears and held your hand when you’re afraid… I’ve loved you and I’ve never, never asked for anything in return…”

And it’s not just Mama’s who do it, is it? We all do it. We do it to our parents and our children, to our spouses and partners and friends… we do it in community – in families and churches and baseball teams We love to tell and retell our origin stories, origins of life, origins of friendship, origins of relationships, stories of the most, the best, the worst… and we don’t tell them in some neutral or scientific way… we tell them in a way that gives them the MOST meaning and the RICHEST life and IMPORTANT purpose. We shape the stories in ways that describe who we were and who we HOPE to become…

I love this story from Joshua… I love the way his God sounds like my Mama… “After all I’ve done for you,” says this Mama God… “After I’ve chosen you and loved you, after I’ve rescued you and born you out of what enslaves you and after I’ve given you a new life; after I’ve shaped you into a community and fed you and nourished you; after I’ve walked, carried, led and conquered the world for you… now You’re going to worship another God… now you’re going to serve yourself and forget about me?!”

I love how Joshua goads the people… “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living…”

Just like a Mama, “Go on now… do what you want, pay no mind to me… I only gave you life.”

I don’t say this to dismiss Joshua (or our Mama’s); just like those who have shaped our stories, whether our actual mothers or other wise folks who have come before us, whose ancestors told them the story – Joshua is doing the important work of communal historianwhat Joshua is saying is, “Remember who you are… you’ve seen this God at work, you’ve heard these stories, you are these stories…  There’s no better GOD than this… will you choose this God? Will you love and serve this God?”

Joshua is one in a long line of oral historians that have been telling the story of God back to the community since Abram was first called to leave Haran and become a movement people. And each voice has a different tact and different flavor… for different times and places in the unfolding story of the ancient Israelites. And we can see how the people of God’s ideas about God – their theology and their moral philosophies, their ethics and their own relationships evolve through the voices of these historians… I want to spend a little time thinking about the story Joshua is telling and why… and what stories we are telling and why?

Questions to ask about this story and our stories:

It is a good story? And by that I don’t mean happy endings and simplicity…

Does it compel the people? Does it serve them? Is it life-giving? Does it bear essential truths about their identity and God’s identity?

What about the stories we tell about ourselves and about God? Are they compelling and life-giving? Do the bear real truth about who we are? About who God is?

What does Joshua include? What does he leave out? Why? What parts do we tell and leave out?

Why is God always on the side of Ancient Israel? Is God ALWAYS on our side in the stories we tell?

What does it mean to tell a story about belonging to God and claiming God in the midst of exile? 

It’s likely Joshua’s version of this story is coming from the dust and ashes of exile… it wasn’t written down in real time but in the midst of fear and doubt… in the midst of losing members of the exiled Israelite community to other rituals and traditions, to other families and cultures… this was a period of deep theological development, discovery and rediscovery – the Israelites faced the very real risk of assimilation after living for a generation in exile… These stories about their history and about God invited them to remember, to reimagine and reevaluate who they are.

Transient, homeless, enslaved, exiled, abandoned and yet chosen, remembered, loved… this is an identity that is rich in the imagination of the Ancient Israelites and has been their lived experience before… this is a story of hope… of promise that the morning does and will come, if only they hold onto God and one another. Imagine hearing these words, from a loving, goading, promising God, in the midst of utter despair.

I love the next part of this story even more than the first – in the second half of chapter 24 the people answer Joshua (Joshua 24-16-28)

16Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods…

19But Joshua said to the people (nudging them along), “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins…

21And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” 

22Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” 25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

26Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. 27Joshua said to all the people, “See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.” 28So Joshua sent the people away to their inheritances.

It’s not just Joshua that chooses God but all the people gathered at Shechem. And ALL of their stories are important, ALL of their voices are important. For those living in exile, this story is an invitation to renewal – to reclaim the God of their ancestors and the God of their future… of their own inheritance.

Story is power.

It can shape us and move us.

Or it can bind us and defeat us.

We have a different story than the Ancient Israelites. We are not exiles. We are not prisoners. But we have a story.

Joshua told the story of the Ancient Israelites as God’s chosen people – a protected people – but that’s not the whole story is it? Remember the time they wanted to turn back to Egypt at the first sight of the Reed Sea? Remember how they first greeted Moses when he came down the mountain with God’s Ten Words? Remember how they failed and forgot and lost? These parts are recorded in other parts of the Bible, and the book of Judges tells a less dramatic, a less violent story of how the people came to live in Canaan.

The first hearers of these words knew the whole story and so do we, but in that moment Joshua told the story they needed to hear most. And what they needed was a word of hope…  even if it was a goading word of hope.

Like that story our mama tells, it’s not a story we tell because it’s historical or factual but because it’s true on a deep and visceral level. She’s telling it to compel us to listen, to behave, to remember who we are.

Joshua charges the whole community to be witnesses to one another’s’ stories – he reminds them that he is not the only storyteller, that the combined voices of the community bear the whole story of who God is.

Telling the whole story as a people of faith in our time is even more complex. There isn’t a monolithic experience of God but there is a central story about a God who hears, rescues, claims and challenges. About a God that coaxes and pushes and goads us into covenantal life, into a believing and loving God in return. What we’re being rescued from might be vastly different here in Norwood Park, than it is in Englewood. What God’s claim on us means is different here in the U.S. than in Palestine. And how God is calling us to respond, to serve, to love might look very different as well. We must listen to the chorus of voices, to their differences, and their commonalities, in order to hear the whole story of God.

How would Joshua goad us if he were here? What would he say to nudge us towards God?

What are the stories we need to tell that will give us hope?

What are the stories we need to tell that will give us courage?

What are the stories we need to tell that will call us to action?

What are the stories that you will tell about who you are and the God you claim?

This is our story. And it’s an ongoing, living, moving, breathing, dynamic story about a living, moving, breathing, dynamic God of which our we are only a part… and we’re invited to claim this God as our own and to join our voices to it, to add our lived experiences – and to listen for the experiences of others until the whole story of God gets told. Amen.

(792)

Standing In the Mud

At Friendship Presbyterian Church where I am the pastor we are starting our second year on the Narrative Lectionary offered by the good people at workingpreacher.

flood waters

com. Eachweek I’m hoping to post notes, a bit of liturgy and, after it’s preached, my sermon (if it’s of the manuscript variety). This Sunday we kick off the fall season by going back to the beginning, to the genesis of our story…

We will hear two portions of the epic and ancient flood story (Genesis 6:16-22 & 9:8-15), it is a story about life and loss, about preservation and destruction, about a wild God and God’s wild creation. So come, come and stand in the mud with us and wrestle with this promise: “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 

How do we stand in the mud and live, hope, and believe this promise?

In the midst of beheadings and war zones, in the face of fear and hatred and with the ugliness of racism, and xenophobia on display all around how do we participate in this covenant? How do we recognize our own part the world’s destruction and human despair? Wouldn’t it be easier to blame the divine? Wouldn’t it be easier to hide our heads in the sand, than to put our hands in the muck and mud and plant seeds of a new creation?

 What is our part to play in making God’s promise a reality? 

For starters… We Tell The Truth About Ourselves                                                       (At Friendship this is how we describe our time of Confession.)

Fear rises like the floodwaters of ancient days,

We turn inward,

absorbed in our own pain,

groaning in our suffering,

groping in our anger,

the darkness of despair threatens to wash over us.

If we look outward the world seems to be going under with the tide,

The complexity of power goes unacknowledged,

it is brandished and misused,

We struggle to love well,

to resist deceit, hatred and violence.

Rising, rising waters of hopelessness threaten to engulf us.

 Make good on your promise O God; do not let these floodwaters consume us.

And this will be our Blessing:

You are made in God’s image,

you are beautiful creatures of wisdom and promise,

you are forgiven

and you are chosen.

But God’s promise isn’t for you alone; it is for all of creation.

Carry this blessing with you,

let this promise inspire hope in you,

and all whom you encounter,

make it a symbol of freedom,

flying in the face of indignity, pain and injustice,

make it a call to action, for justice and peace,

until all of creation can breathe the deep breath of God’s promise.

 

If you would like to use my words please feel free, 
but give me a shout out! 
Something akin to © Shawna Bowman 
at shawnabowman.com is perfect :)

(2055)

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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Unbinding – Sermon Sept. 15 (Narrative Lectionary)

If you’d rather hear the audio click below! 

Love is a binding force, by which another is joined to me and cherished by myself. ~Thomas Aquinaslove-21

Before I read the scripture I reminded folks that we’re using the Narrative Lectionary – that it includes longer portions of text so that we can see the arc of the story… but even with these longer passages moving from the creation story to the middle of Abraham’s story in Genesis 22 is quite a leap; and so I began by asking: Do you remember the beginning of Abraham’s story? When God first called him? Genesis 12 tells us that Abraham was 75 years old when God told him, “I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.” Blessed to be a blessing… it a beautiful beginning to a story in which God comes along side Abraham again and again as they travel together. God saves Abraham’s skin and Abraham goes where God tells him… over the years and miles Abraham challenges God, welcomes God and even laughs at God when God tells him that Sarah is going to have a child. Do you remember when Sarah laughed too? But then it came true…

Genesis 21:1-3 tells us,

21:1 The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. 2 She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. 3 Abraham named his son—the one Sarah bore him—Isaac (meaning laughter).

then in Genesis 22:1-19

22:1 after these events [Many years later… some scholars say at least 10 or 11 but some rabbinic sources say 30.], God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!”

Abraham answered, “Here I am.”

2 God said, “Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burned offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you.” 3 Abraham got up early in the morning, harnessed his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, together with his son Isaac. He split the wood for the entirely burned offering, set out, and went to the place God had described to him.

4 On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place at a distance. 5 Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will walk up there, worship, and then come back to you.”

6 Abraham took the wood for the entirely burned offering and laid it on his son Isaac. He took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two of them walked on together.

7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?”

Abraham said, “Here I am, my son.”

Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”

8 Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will provide (or see) it, my son.” The two of them walked on together.

9 They arrived at the place God had described to him. Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice.

11 But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?”

Abraham said, “Here I am.”

12 The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.”13 Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. 14 Abraham named that place “the Lord sees (or provides).” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.”

Sermon: Unbinding

So, this is terrible story… there’s simply no way around it… according to the Genesis story-teller God sets out to test Abraham… Abraham who is an old man, Abraham who has followed God, fought for God, believed God, loved God… Abraham who has given up his other son already, Ishmael and Hagar have already been exiled and when Abraham argued for them to stay God promised Abraham… that while Ishmael would be safe it was Isaac who would bear their family’s future… and now God demands this unthinkable sacrifice…

Who is this God? Why would the God of life command Abraham to do this? The God who brought the world to life in our Genesis story from last week. How does that jive with this image of God… this picture of what it means to be faithful? When I read this story I can’t help but think of all the horrifying things human beings have done to one another, to our children in the name of God – even in our own time. What kind of God would ask for such a thing? Does God really give tests? To find out if we love God enough? If we fear God enough?

I keep winding my way in and out of the story, looking for a loop hole, looking for an explanation then realize I’ve really only bound God or myself up in a whole other mess… and that was an ah-ha moment… the moment I realized this story binds up God… as much as it does Isaac.

This is where how we read the bible becomes really important. Some would argue that if the bible is the Word of God then it is perfect, that it is never wrong… but it is compiled of stories told and written by imperfect people and about imperfect people – just like us. Our biblical stories were written by people who were influenced by the time and place they lived. Their lives informed how they understood the world around them, and most importantly how they understood God. The perfection in our sacred texts is not in its ability to be factual or historical – there are places where this is the case – but it’s perfection is it’s ability to point to the way God enters into our human story again and again… we’re invited to read the bible as the story of how the people of God, work, wrestle with and learn about God… how they hear, explain and are moved and changed by God… and maybe even how God is changed by them.

 

This is one of those stories that is really hard to peel back and hear from Abraham’s perspective… it has been used to bind up God for so long… it’s been told as a parable to elicit obedience. It’s been used to make God into a hungry monster, in need of appeasement, it’s been used to describe the need for blood sacrifice to pay for human sin… but for Abraham the emphasis of the story is not on the need for sacrifice… but the moment that need is lifted.

The language of sacrifice wasn’t uncommon in ancient cultures it was the norm. There were religious cults that sacrificed someone every time the sun rose. It was common practice to offer one’s self as a sacrifice and sacrifice was seen as a way to both honor God and give a portion of what belongs to God back to God…

Last week I told you that most scholars believe these Genesis stories – the Abrahamic tradition – was written down or compiled during the Babylonian exile or right after. Surrounded by a culture of sacrifice and violence the Israelites were learning to describe their God differently. Just like the creation story paints a picture of a creative and life-giving God… in a weird way this story does the same. Imagine telling this story in a setting where the first half isn’t at all surprising or out of the ordinary… imagine telling the story to a crowd of people who are nodding affirmatively when you say that part about God testing Abraham… yeah, that seems right… I’ve heard of gods doing that…

Then comes the part where God requires a sacrifice… yeah, heads nod… gods always seem to need that…

The story unfolds, the audience was likely ready for it to happen, like it had so many times before. An entirely burnt offering, consumed by the fire, offered to God as a sign of repentance, honor, gratitude.

But then the story takes a surprising turn, from out of no where comes a young ram… and God calling out to Abraham, I know you revere me, don’t do anything to harm him. God lifts the requirement of human sacrifice… God unbind Isaac, God unbinds Abraham, God unbinds the story of violence and death.

Israel continues to tell stories in opposition to the stories around them… non-violent creation stories… alternative ending to child sacrifice… it’s a counter testimony. The true God doesn’t work through violent means, does not require the sacrifice of our lives… but provides for our life.

It would take many more generations and the destruction of the temple for the people of Israel to let go of animal sacrifice – Abraham substituted the ram for Isaac, as he seemed to believe that some sacrifice must be made. But this is a wonderful story about a turning point in the way the people of God understand what God truly requires.

The evolution of how we see and understand who God is unfolds in these sacrificial stories. The book of Leviticus is filled with instructions about making sacrifices to God but then later in proverbs it says “Doing charity and justice is more desirable to the Lord than sacrifice” (21:3).

The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God never intended for the people to sacrifice their children, he says this is the word God, “Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind… this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter.” (19: 4-6)

And then the prophet Ezekiel reports that God says this of sacrificial practices, “Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live.” (20:25-26)

And in Hosea we read, “Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when ‘Loving-kindness I desire, not sacrifice.’” (6:6)

These prophets show how complex our story of God is, but they also give us permission to not only see the way in which the people of God change but how God might be changed by the people… a friend of mine suggests that it is God that learns something in this story, “God learns that God’s capable of wounding God’s loved ones, even though God was sure it was the right thing to challenge and grow Abraham’s faith in this dramatic way.” He says, “Maybe God finally learned how fragile people are, and how little God knows about them, maybe it’s events like these that makes God finally determine to, ultimately, simply become one of us.” (David Huth, via facebook!)

How we read the biblical stories matter… are we reading them for facts or something deeper, something more true? Do we hear the stories of the people of God as stagnant, frozen in time and place or do we believe the story of God is a living breath, ongoing story still in the making?

The biblical story is not meant to bind God. The bible is meant to open God, to shed light on God and our path towards God… and God’s path towards us.

Binding up the rope (I actually had a rope and started binding it up) – In our context we need to ask ourselves, are there ways in which we bind God, squeezing the life out? How do we understand the role God takes in the midst of the violence in our world? Do we witness death and destruction, experience loss, confusion, and rejections and then project it onto God? Obvious examples are Westboro Baptist Church or Jerry Falwell – and we stand in opposition to their views about God’s punishment, violent activity through natural disaster and hate… but where does this way of seeing God creep into our own stories about how the world works?

How often when I was a chaplain – meeting with folks from every religion and even no religion and I would often hear the desperate plea, why is God doing this to me? Why is God punishing me? It’s like this story of a vengeful God is imprinted on our hearts and can’t be undone.

I would say,” God isn’t against you, God is with you, God does not hate you, God loves you. God has not abandoned you.”

Where does this bound up idea of God get us?  How do we bind ourselves up in stories of anxiety (scarcity), anger (pain and suffering), hatred (when we imagine life is easier for others), disappointment (when we don’t get what we expected…hoped etc – sacrificing ourselves on the alter of fear – are there ways in which we haven’t relinquished the notion that God requires, even causes our pain?

Then there is an unbinding of the rope (unfurled the rope in my hands) – Can we imagine an unbinding? Can we imagine a God that doesn’t incite fear, but love – that doesn’t punish us for our fears but comes along side us? Can we look at the whole of the story of God, and see that God never, never abandons us? Can we hear the good news that just as God sees and provides for Abraham and Isaac God will do the same for us? Do we hear God’s promise, God’s release?

For Christians the ultimate story of God’s unbinding is in God’s willingness to enter into human experience, to become human and walk among us. No longer a God far away, but a God here and now, dirty feet planted on the earth, come in person to challenge the forces of hate and destruction… unable to even be bound by the cross… he defeats death on a quiet morning slipping among his disciples, men and women, whispering words of life in their ears… whispering words of life in ours…

The questions we’re asking through out this fall: Who Is God in me? Who am I in God? (Diana Butler Bass) It was a lot easier and more fun to ask and answer this question last week when it was about a creative life-giving God wasn’t it! What about an unbound God?

Who is the unbound God in me?

What if God is flowing freely through you? What is undoing in you? How is God softening your heart? Loosening your tongue? What is God setting you free from? What words of life does God have for you?

Who am I, unbound in God?

What if you are a force for change in the world? What words of life do you have for those around you, for God? 

There is also a good binding… the binding we do in communities like this one, where we bind our stories and ourselves together as a people of God, and imperfectly go about doing God’s work in the world together. In doing this we bind ourselves to God, not in a painful or bloody way, but in a life-giving way. We entrust our story to the story of God that is bigger than us, that has been unfolding for generations and will continue to unfold long after we leave this earth.  It is not a stagnant story or a dying story; it is a living, breathing story without end. Amen.

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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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Use Your Words, September 13.2012

James 3: 5-9
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
And the tongue is a fire.
The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.
For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.

The author of James is not kidding around, after making several metaphors of how the human tongue sets the course and manages our behaviors he compares the tongue in these verses to a fire. And not just a small campfire, no he’s talking about a wild and uncontrollable forest fire, an all consuming hellish fire…

James does a great job living into the negative aspect of this metaphor. As many of us have experienced, whether it has been our own tongue that has gotten us in trouble or another’s that has been used against us, the fallout of such an experience does seem to spread like a wildfire burning out of control doesn’t it?

On the other hand, we know that fire can be the light in the darkness that guides us home. That a well tended fire can sustain and nurture us, it can produce heat for food and warmth on a cold night. A fire burning brightly on the tip of a candle wick can symbolize an attitude of prayer, peacefulness, even celebration.

James is warning his people of the danger of words that are cast about with the intention of hurting another, of putting someone in their place. He warns of the danger of using words to paint an image of ourselves that is unrealistic or deceptive. He warns us to be careful as people of faith not to say words about who we are and about God that we aren’t willing to live into. He speaks not as an outsider but as insider, one who has experienced first hand both the blessing of words spoken in genuine love and the pain brought forth by words used carelessly or destructively.

I remember when my children were small and first learning to speak. Speaking words was an effort, it took time, thoughtfulness and intention. When they would get frustrated they would resort instead to crying or yelling and we would say to them, “use your words.” We wanted them to use their words to describe what they needed, what they were thinking and how they were feeling.

We learn at a very young age that words are the secret to communication, words give us a way to express ourselves, to tell our stories and to speak up for ourselves. We live in a world of almost constant communication, words are being emailed, posted, blogged, texted, spoken, sung, written, yelled, whispered and spelled out, back and forth between us, constantly filling up all the spaces between us.

What are the quality of the words you exchange in the length of a day? How often are you exchanging information, telling your story, asking for help and offering to help another? How often do the words you speak to others mirror the words you speak to God in prayer?

James invites us to be intentional with our tongues. To match our words about God and to God with the words we send into the universe all day every day.

May your words be a warm fire that sustains another,
May the words of your family, friends and community nurture you,
May you refrain from using words that will destroy another,
May you listen as often as you speak and
May your words be a blessing to those who have long been silenced,
May your words encourage them to speak up and tell their own story,
And may all our words together honor God forever.
AMEN

Peace, Shawna

Musical Mediation
Man On Fire 
Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros 
(PS: I love this video 🙂 )

(Yesterday the image wasn’t working in my reflection post, I’d love for you to see it because I drew it for just that occasion, you can find it if you click here!)

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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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