Where in the World is God?

Sermon on 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 and Luke 7:1-10 for the 2nd Sunday in Pentecost Year C
May 29, 2016, Memorial Day weekend

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43

Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart,

“Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name—for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”

Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

So, we have just read two amazing stories, one from our Jewish roots and one from the Jesus story as told by Luke. They are amazing by themselves, they are more amazing together, and it is an added amazement to me that they land on the Memorial Day weekend here in the States. These texts are the regular readings of the Common Lectionary, so they will be read and reflected on in many different denominations all around the world today.

Both texts, and Memorial Day itself, bring up the question, “Where in the world is God?” Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 5.03.50 PMTo me, that question is crucial.

It is as big as the universe – we could have asked, “Where in the Universe is God?” And it is as small as my own and our own personal spiritual journeys.

Who has not asked the question, perhaps often, and at various points in life, especially when we are desperate for God to show up in our lives, “Where in the world is God?”

It is also a global question: Where in the world of nations is God? Does God take sides? Where, in world wars, is God? Where in geo-politics is God?

Where in vast multitude of people, of races and languages and religions and competing hopes and dreams is God?

I only have about twelve or thirteen minutes here – it is almost a bit crazy to raise such big questions, as if there was a hope of answering them so easily.

But as your pastor, on Memorial Day weekend, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to provide some help as we ask those questions. Where do we go for guidance? We go to our wisdom tradition.

For us, as a self-consciously Christian community, we go to the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and the Story of Jesus to find direction.

So, let us look at these stories that I have already called amazing and ask the question, “Where in the world is God?”

King Solomon’s PrayerScreen Shot 2016-05-28 at 5.07.40 PM

First, the story of Israel’s king Solomon. It is not obvious from the snippet we read, but the scene is the great dedication service for the brand new, lavish, opulent, gold-plated, wonder-of-the-world temple that he built.

I do not have time to explain the details, but know this: this story was told with bitter irony. By the time this story was written down, during the Babylonian captivity (which is the last scene in this long story, ending in 2 Kings) the temple Solomon built and dedicated has a pile of rubble; completely destroyed.

How did a small nation like Israel afford so lavish a temple? The book of Kings tells us that Solomon made Israel a slave state, conscripting forced labor from “all Israel” (1Kings 5:13).

Was it worth it? Did God need such an edifice to be present to God’s people? Well, no, actually. Seven times in his dedication prayer Solomon says, something like,

“Hear the plea… of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place”

– acknowledging that God’s dwelling place is not in a temple. Why not? Solomon already knows why not! He says this in the same dedication prayer:

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!

Where in the world is God? Not in any one temple, not even the one built for Israel’s God! Where is God?

“Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain” God.

But, humans are human. We need places of worship. From painted caves to Greek and Roman temples, people need places in which to gather to acknowledge the Holy, to contact Ultimate Reality.

We need visual cues like sacred art and architecture, and auditory cues like music and the spoken word. We need ritual and symbol, sacred actions and communal participation – all human communities have always done this in one way or another, and we always will; ask any archeologist or any anthropologist. It is in our DNA.

But let us never ever mistake the sign and the symbol for the reality they point towards. Our church cannot contain God. Nor are we so arrogant as to think that our theology can comprehend the Holy.

The Foreigner and GodScreen Shot 2016-05-28 at 5.09.08 PM

This understanding has immediate and practical implications as we ask the question “Where in the world is God?” If God is not known comprehensively by, nor contained in our tradition alone, how should we relate to people of other traditions?

Solomon voices the answer:

“…when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land… and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you…”

What? Listen to the prayers of a foreigner? An uncircumcised Gentile? Yes. Where in the world is God? God is everywhere in the world, and so can be worshipped by people who we think of as “other” than us; as foreigners, as strangers, as aliens.

Who is an alien to God? Who is a foreigner to the Creator? What human being is not made in God’s image?

Let us be guided by this text from our wisdom tradition as we seek answers to the question, “Where in the world is God?”

The Jesus StoryScreen Shot 2016-05-28 at 5.13.54 PM

Our tradition includes the Jesus-story, as I said, it is amazing how poignant todays’ reading is. This story is told by Matthew and Luke, but not Mark, so it is from the source we call Q. Matthew and Luke tell the same story, but differently.

The story is about a Roman army officer, a Centurion, who has a slave who is gravely ill. In Matthew’s story he comes personally to Jesus. In Luke’s story, which we read today, he actually never appears personally, but rather sends a delegation to represent his needs to Jesus – which wold be an act of deference, in that culture.

Hearing that Jesus has healing powers, he sends for help by means of the Jewish leadership. They are all-too-eager to comply because this Gentile Centurion has most likely become what is called a “God-fearer.” He acknowledges Israel’s God as God, or at least as one of the gods, and seeks to live a righteous life – although not submitting to circumcision, and therefore, remaining outside the Abrahamic covenant. Anyway, so fond he is of Judaism that he has put up his own funds to sponsor the building of their local synagogue, according to Luke.

The Centurion gives the Jewish elders the script he wants them to say to Jesus. It is deferential to the highest degree. He does not presume to be worthy of a personal audience with Jesus, but he gets it, that a man of authority, like himself, has power even in his spoken words of command, so he says,

“I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”

Most healings in the ancient world included some kind of medium of conveyance: a touch or, an incantation, or a potion applied to the body, but in this case, the Centurion believes that healing can be accomplished without any of that, even from a distance, simply at Jesus’ command. This is an amazing amount of faith, and it completely impresses Jesus who says, famously,

“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

Jesus thus reserves his highest words of praise, not to his disciples, not to his family, not even to another Israelite, but to a foreigner; an uncircumcised Gentile.

Where is God in the world? God is everywhere. And if we have the willingness to open our hearts, we can see God’s Spirit at work among people who are different from ourselves, even people whom we would naturally call enemies.

Remember, the Roman army was an oppressive force of occupation, even despite the personal feelings of this one Centurion. If the Jews rebelled in revolution, he would be leading his soldiers’ swords and spears against them, and there would be blood, as happened not long after those days.

But even in the context of oppression and the threat of violence, Jesus can find God at work in a person. Even a Roman.

God in the World?

Where in the world is God? Let us be guided by our wisdom traditions. They are repeatedly drawing our attention to the fact that this world cannot contain God. Where in the world is God? God is not in the world. The world is in God. God is the very ground of our being; the source of all being.

And so, it is right to say that God is everywhere in the world, as well as beyond this world. And God has not left himself without a witness in diverse cultures, and customs, in languages and religions.

On Memorial Day weekend we reflect with gratitude on the world that is so different now Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 5.15.56 PMthan it was just a generation ago. The president can go to Hiroshima where 140,000 souls perished in an instant, because now, the Japanese are our friends and allies. He can go to Germany and Italy and not find reasons for war, but partners for peace. This was unimaginable 70 years ago.

We are so thankful that fascism has been shown to be a false, horrific, small-minded and brutal ideology. The world of “us against them,” the ideology of “our people and our language and our religion and our culture against all others” only creates holocausts, and mass graves, from Auschwitz to Bosnia, from Japan, then, to the Sudan, today.

A Return to Fascism Today?

Could fascism return? Yes it could. The nationalist party was only narrowly defeated this Spring in elections in Serbia, just as their former leader, Radovan Karadzic was convicted of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Nationalist parties all across Europe are growing in number and influence. In Poland, the very country of the death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, the nationalists have been elected.

In Denmark the anti-immigration party has huge support. The extreme right wing party that started as a white supremacist group in Sweden is rising in the polls, as is Greece’s Golden Dawn and Austria’s Freedom party.

Their message is always the same: keep the foreigners out. They are a danger to us. They are not like us.

How does our Judeo-Christian tradition inform our conversations about immigration? How does the Jesus-story guide us to think about foreigners, and even about enemies?

This is as personal as the ballot that, one by one, we fill out on election day.

Being People of Christian Practice

But it is more than simply personal, in a political sense. This gets to the heart of each of our lives.

What is it in us that makes it hard to embrace the other? What is that part of our egos that feels threatened by people speaking languages we do not understand?

Why do we fear that the world of tomorrow will not look like the world of yesterday – has it ever? Look back; has it ever stayed the same in the past 100 years?

Can we not be people who practice the one thing Jesus called us to do:

“to do to others as we would have others do to ourselves?”Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 5.17.45 PM

Yes, I believe we can! But not without the help of the Spirit in our own hearts. Not without the steady, daily practices of a Christian: practices like reflecting on our wisdom traditions, the scriptures, as we have done today, and practices like prayer and meditation; the very practices that help us to tame the ego and its non-rational, fearful, exclusivist lizard brain.

So, on this Memorial Day weekend, with great gratitude to God for all that has been accomplished to bring us to this day, in this democracy, in this blessed country, let us resolve to be what we are: we are Christians. We are followers of Jesus.

Our primary foundational story is that God crossed the biggest barrier of all and came to us. This is called true love. This is what we are called to. Nothing less!

Where in the world is God? God is everywhere. God is here. God is at work right now, spiritually, luring us to goodness, to the beauty of open-heartedness, to the truth of our essential oneness with God and with all the world.


Our Story of God

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

Romans 5:1-5

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing in the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

John 16:12-15

[Jesus said:] “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

This week I have been thinking about three scenes: a cemetery, a ceiling, and a florescent Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 11.43.40 AMlight.  They represent three life situations.  Situation one, the cemetery is where you have just laid to rest a person that meant something to you.  The cemetery always makes you stop and think.  You think about life and death, and about God – what is God like?  Is God friend or foe; for us or against us?  Our biggest hope or our biggest problem?

Situation two, the ceiling is not just any ceiling, but specifically the one above the bed; the one you look at when you cannot sleep; the dark stage on which you play out the question: why am I here?  What is life about?  What is the meaning of all of this?  That too is a time to ask the God-questions.  Is there a God?  What does God have to do with my life?

The third life situation is the  florescent light.  This is what you look up from the hospital bed and see.  It is probably one of the last things many of us will see as our lives draw to a close.  And then the God questions will not only be real, they will be crucial.  Will I meet God?  What will God think of me and my life?

The cemetery, the bedroom ceiling and the hospital light are life situations among many others that bring up the God questions we all have.  They can bring up our doubts, our uncertainty, and they can call to mind our faith and hope.  Or some combination of the two that we oscillate between more than we would like to admit.

Trinity in StoryScreen Shot 2016-05-21 at 11.14.01 AM

This is Trinity Sunday – so today we are asking the God questions.  In some ways, the idea of a Trinity is supposed to be an answer to the God question: what is God?  God is Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Three in One; One in Three.

But to talk this way today is to make most people’s eyes start to glaze over as they begin to yawn.  It seems so abstract and theoretical.  The bible, thankfully, does not talk about God in those philosophical ways.  Mostly the bible tells stories.

The word Trinity does not even show up in the bible.  And yet, the Creator God and the Holy Spirit and Jesus do.  We just read from Romans.  Paul told the church,

“we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, …because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

The same is true from  the Gospel of John, in which Jesus is depicted as saying that the Spirit of Truth will be sent by the Father to guide the community towards the truth.

Matthew’s gospel has a scene at the end in which Jesus tells the disciples to baptize people in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – so already by around the year 80 we have community that is using a trinitarian baptismal formula.

But as I said, the bible is mostly stories, and those stories are about people who have experiences of God.  The vast majority are group stories about how the community experienced God.  Some are individual stories, but the big ones, like the stories of God making covenants, or the exodus from slavery, are community stories.  Anyway, all the stories of individual experiences of God are in the context of the community’s story of God as well.

Telling our God Story: Awe First

So what is our story of God?  How do we experience God today?   Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 11.11.02 AM

I think we have to start with wonder and awe.  Going down to the beach and looking out at the vastness of the water and sky does not always give me goose bumps, but when I am mindfully present the vastness still amazes me.  The same with the night sky or Friday’s lightening and thunder.  The same at the intricacy and nearly infinite variety of plant and animal life that we sampled on the walk through the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.

Whatever God is, we experience awe and wonder, and we sense a presence.  We sense that we are seen and known.  This is not particular to Christians or Jews and Christians.  This is a universal experience.  That is Paul’s argument in Romans – everyone (give or take) has a nature-based experience of God.  And whatever that God is like, God must be utterly awesome!

I know you have had those experiences.  You have your stories – your sacred stories of God-awareness moments.  And I know you will have more.  These are the experiences that come back to you as you are in deep thought in the cemetery, or looking up at the bedroom ceiling, and will be in your heart as you see that hospital light.

Spiritual PresenceScreen Shot 2016-05-21 at 11.20.14 AM

When we have these experiences, they feel like presence.  It is not just that we are standing there alone being amazed by beauty, we feel that we are not alone.   Most people have the intuitive awareness that God must be Spirit.  Whatever that amazing force that created all of this is like, it must be spiritual, because it seems to be present, though not physically so.

Israel told their story of the Creator God who even at Creation was the Spirit of God, or Breath, or Wind (all the same word) that hovered over the waters of chaos, bringing order into existence.  So, even strict monotheists get it that the story of God must be told as a story of a Creator and of a Spirit.  That is how we all experience God; spiritually.

As Jesus says to the woman at the well, in John’s story,

“God is Spirit, and worshipers of God must worship in spirit and in truth.”

But it does get complicated after that initial feeling, doesn’t it?  Because as soon as we feel God’s presence, we have this need to name it.  To give God a name is also to describe God.  And this is where all the human variety starts.  We all have different names, different descriptions.

Experiencing Complications

Part of the reason for the variety of our names and understandings for God is that our experiences of life on this amazing planet are complicated.  We see beauty, and we want to say “thank you” to a God so wonderful as to make a world of beauty and to give us the capacity to experience beauty.

I feel so blessed, not just that there is a sunset, but that unlike my dog or the horses and cows standing there as the colors in the sky change from orange to pink and then purple, but that I “get it” that it is beautiful. And I feel thankful.  I feel grateful.  I feel like the recipient of a precious gift.  Experiencing beauty, I feel loved.

But it is complicated because then, I hear about a beloved person who gets cancer and dies, leaving behind a young family.  I hear about a young woman who was murdered by the guy she was dating.  I hear about another plane crash.  I experience evil, and that complicates the whole God-story.

If I feel loved by the God who created sunsets, how should I feel about the God who allows evil: both natural evil and the evil that humans cause?  What must that God be like?

Being Morally AliveIMG_6632

And this is where it gets really complicated.  How do I know about evil?  My dog doesn’t.  She can be taught to do the things that make me happy and avoid the things I do not want her to do, but that is as far as it goes.  She never feels guilty for standing at the window longing to go tear apart the cats next door.  In fact she feels total joy at terrorizing the unsuspecting birds that land in the back yard.  If she were a human she would be a moral monster, but she is not human.  She has no morality.

But we do; so where did this come from?  And, on the theory that a stream does not rise higher than its source, it is hard to believe that a purely material universe or a universe made by a Creator God could produce this moral sense about goodness unless there was a God and unless God were Good.  So how do you account for  the evil that we experience and know as evil?

Well, one way is to imagine that the good God that we experience is angry and punishing us.  Just like our human fathers, this God has high expectations and a tricky temper.  For a long time, this was the story that our people told abut God.  God was capable of blessings, but God was also able to curse.  Blessings come when we are obedient to God’s laws, curses follow disobedience.

The Jesus Part of the Story

This is why I am so thankful, on Trinity Sunday, that when we tell the story of God, it Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 11.26.31 AMincludes Jesus.  Jesus taught us that we had the story partly correct, but partly incorrect.  The part about God being the awesome Creator; that is correct.  The understanding that God is present as Spirit; yes, right.  But the part about curses, that was a misread, according to Jesus.

The man born blind; whose sin caused it; his or his parents, Jesus was asked.  “Neither” was his answer.  Does the sun shine or the rain fall on the fields of only the good people?  “No,” Jesus said, it does not work that way.  How about the people who died when the tower fell; were they killed because they were the worst sinners, they asked Jesus?  Again, his answer was “No.”

Whatever this Creator-Spirit is like, it would be best not to think of him as a Father with high expectations and a bad temper, but as a father with high expectations and a broken heart when the prodigal son goes away and gets himself lost.  It would be better to think of him as a shepherd who searches for his lost sheep.  Or even as a woman – imagine that; God as a woman, searching for a lost coin.  Instead of cursing, God goes seeking and finding and saving.

But then what about the business of evil?  You would think this kind of God would step in and fix the DNA or the T-cell or wake up the driver just in time, right?

God In Our World With Us

So this is where our story is most profound.  The story of God becoming flesh, the Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 11.31.53 AMincarnation, is the story of God entering into human life.  It is a story of God who comes to us and suffers with us.  It is God, not at a great distance, but God present to where there are both sunsets and pediatric oncology wards.

It is the God behind that strong sense of right and wrong, that moral sense that understands justice and injustice, that is here, among us, with us, coaxing us and luring us to what is good, what is right, what is kind and compassionate.  This is our story; that when God comes to us, he comes as Jesus did, feeding the hungry, sitting at table with outcasts, touching lepers and blessing children.

This God that we see in Jesus is horrified at systems of injustice and the suffering they cause, and so is willing to go right to the source and start upsetting tables.  This is the one that came precisely to the peasants in the country side, the poor of the land and told them God’s kingdom was present; God’s love was present, and that they could become a community of equality, support and forgiveness.

This is the Trinity we experience.  Not a philosophical idea, but a living God who blows our minds with beauty, whose presence we sense spiritually, and who is as loving and kind as Jesus.

This is the God we call Father, Son and Spirit who we can know as we ponder at the cemetery, and as we lie there awake looking up at the ceiling, and who will be with us when we see that final fluorescent light for the last time.


The Spiritual Community

Sermon Acts 2:1-21
 for Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 4.26.58 PM

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'”

What would you say if you just met an interesting and likable person and they asked you, “Tell me your story.”?  Where would you begin?  Would you begin with the present “you” and then explain how you got here?  Or, would you begin with your earliest memory?

The way you start a story can make a huge difference in its meaning.  This is Pentecost Sunday.  We call this the birthday of the church.  How do we tell this story?  Where do we begin?

When Israelites told their origin story for centuries they began with Abraham and the promise God made to Abraham to bless him with land and family.  In fact, in the book of Deuteronomy, we hear Moses giving everyone a script to recite each year that tells their origin story.  Here is what he said:

“When you have come into the land that Yahweh your God is giving you…2 you shall take Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 3.36.20 PMsome of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest …, and you shall put it in a basket and go…to the priest …, and say to him, “Today I declare to Yahweh your God that I have come into the land that Yahweh swore to our ancestors to give us.”  4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of Yahweh your God,  5 you shall make this response before Yahweh your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us,  7 we cried to Yahweh, the God of our ancestors; Yahweh heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  8 Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, …  9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Yahweh, have given me.”  (Deut. 26:1-10)

So, the story that starts with Abraham quickly jumps to the Exodus story.  Liberation from slavery is at the very heart and center of the Jewish story.   God as a liberator is at the heart and center of the Jewish concept of God’s nature and purpose.  God hears the cries of the oppressed.  God wills their freedom.

The Prequel to Abraham and Exodus

Many centuries after Moses, probably during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews in the 6th Century BCE, stories that had probably circulated in various forms, oral and written sources, were brought together, including the Genesis stories.   So, the Abraham story of origin was given a prequel.  It began with the creation of the world, and with Adam and Eve, followed by Cain and Able, Noah and the famous tower of Babel.

We call these stories myths.  They are our wisdom tradition.  They are stories told to try to say things that are true, deeply true, about humans, about God, about what is good and evil, about how we are to live in the world, and about how the world got to be the way it is – both in its awesomeness and in its evil.

The last prequel story before we get to Abraham, is the story of the tower of Babel.  All the Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 3.50.13 PMpeople of the world, so the story goes, want to build a tower up to the heavens, all the way up to God.   The story, as we have it, is written with some humor; this quest is meant to look pathetic.  Even after building the tower, which to humans must have seemed tall enough to reach the stars, God has to look down from a long way off, up in heaven, to see what these little people are up to.

Anyway, it seems as though there is an implicit desire on the people’s part, not just to be near God, but to exert control over God – to get God to be their pet.  At that time, all the people of the world still spoke one language.  So God decides to confuse their languages, that is, to give them separate languages, to frustrate their project.

Amazingly, a story like this shows up in other religions as well.  In a Hindu legend, Brahma is responsible for introducing separate languages to punish a prideful tree of wisdom.  In North America the Kaska Indians tell about  “a great darkness came on, and high winds which drove…” their boats in different directions separating them from each other, so that their languages became different.  There are stories like this from upper Amazon and from Central American native peoples. (see here)

What can we learn from these?  It is deeply human to know that we all should be united in Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 3.53.59 PMone human family.  But it is also painfully true that we are not.  And language is a perfect way to talk about our state of separation.  It is almost uncanny how we have this amazing capacity to communicate that no other animal shares in anything close to our human level.  But instead of unifying us, languages divide us.

Language here is a symbol for everything that goes with it; culture, customs, costumes, music, cuisine, and of course religion.   Our differences are legion.

Getting back to the Jewish story, after the story of the tower of Babel, then the narrative zooms in to focus on one family, on Abraham and Sarah.  The story becomes personal.  This family understands itself as chosen by God, blessed by God, and called by God to a journey.  They become “wandering Arameans” seeking the fulfillment of God’s promise.

That understanding never goes away.  No matter what happens in the future, through good times, and, more often, bad times, at the root of an Israelites’ experience is the profound understanding that they are characters in God’s story.  And what God wills for them is blessing.

But of course it is a story of hardship, of slavery and oppression in Egypt for a long time.  Then it becomes a liberation story of freedom from Empire.

The Jews celebrated their liberation every year with the festival of Passover.  It remembers the night in Egypt when the angel passed over their homes, and they were free.

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As the story goes, they crossed the Red Sea, came to Mount Sinai where, after 40 days, Moses comes down with the Torah, the Words of God, the instructions for the community.   This event is celebrated every year also.  Fifty days after Passover they celebrate Pentecost.  When Moses was up on the mountain, the story says there was the loud sound of rushing wind and there was the fire of the presence of God while Moses was receiving God’s words.

For the rest of Israel’s history, their story was a story about God’s words, God’s laws.  The question was always, were they keeping them or not?  Were they faithfully obedient or not?  Were they going to the temple, were they offering sacrifices, were they bringing their tithes, were they celebrating Jubilee, releasing debts, doing justice for the widow, the orphan and the non-citizen?

Is this what God wants most; obedience to the law?  Well, according to Israel’s prophets, the answer has always been “no!”  God always wanted most a relationship of trust, even of love, that would naturally lead towards faithfulness.   Festivals like Passover and Pentecost, as important as they were, to the prophets, always were lower in priority than loving God and doing justice. (for example, see Isaiah 58)

Openness to the Spirit

This is where Jesus comes in.  With a perspective of who God is, and what God wants that Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 4.01.59 PMis completely prophet-colored, Jesus showed people what it could mean to be totally open to the Spirit.  He lived and served and taught and prayed as a person fully human, and fully alive to God’s presence and power.

What was it like to live as a Spirit-man, as Marcus Borg called Jesus?  It made him uniquely open hearted.  He was open to all people, especially to the people who others were not open to.  As a man, he was open to women, and took them seriously.  As a Jew, he was open to Gentiles, and intentionally went to their towns and brought the healing message of the kingdom to them.  As an oppressed person he was even open to his enemies, to Romans, and reached out to them with God’s love.

The story we tell on Pentecost, the story of the birthday of the Christian Church, is an origin story.   But it is a story that has to start way back with Abraham, and Moses, and further, even to the tower of Babel.

Just like in the story of Moses on the mountain, this story also has the sound of a rushing wind and the fiery presence of God.  This story also has words that come from God.  But this story has words, not in Hebrew for one people, but in all languages for all people.  Not words for one special person, like Moses, but words for everyone.

Babel has been reversed.  Everyone hears God speaking to them, in all their rich and colorful diversity.  And these words are not a new set of commands, but the new wine in the new wineskins that Jesus predicted: they are words of good news to all people.

This is what the Spirit of Christ does.  The Spirit of Christ does not end our differences, but rather refuses to consider them barriers.  The good news is that God is with us, and, by the Spirit, is in us, and for us.  It is the message, as Paul calls it, of reconciliation.  The blessing that was promised to Abraham and his family, and “to all the families of the earth” is finally including all the families of the earth.

Being a Spiritual Community

So this is what the church is: a spiritual community.  We have heard Jesus inviting us to call God Abba, papa, Father.  We have come to understand that the Spirit of Christ is alive in us; that we are actually temples of God.

And we have come to understand that this beautiful story is not an exclusive one, meant for us alone, but is for the world.  Not so that all the world will speak our language of faith, but that we will rejoice that God is speaking in their languages as well.

A spiritual community is naturally then an open-hearted community.  Following Jesus, we worship and serve a God that is Spirit.  God, as Spirit, will always be way beyond anything we can grasp or understand.  But God, as Spirit, leads us and calls us to new understandings all the time, and always follows the trajectory that Jesus pointed us towards, of openness and inclusion.

Richard Rohr who I refer to often, calls his headquarters in New Mexico the “Center for Action and Contemplation.”  I often speak of his teaching on meditation, or contemplative prayer.  But this deeply spiritual focus naturally leads to action in the world.  Action follows Contemplation as a natural work of the Spirit.

So a truly spiritual community is a community that reaches out, just as Jesus did, to the poor, to the hungry, to the vulnerable, to the weak, to the oppressed, with Spirit-motivated acts of mercy, compassion and justice.  It practices liberation from oppression, it embraces God’s opposition to the tyranny of empire.

It is not by accident that the first organized activity of the early church that was born on Pentecost was a bread ministry to poor widows.  And it was a ministry to both Jewish and non-Jewish widows.  They were a spiritual community; a community of Action and Contemplation.

That is what we are.  That is what we are called to be.  The Spirit has been poured out on us, to empower us to live transformed lives.  That is our story.  So, what will be the next chapter?  Let us be open to the Spirit, and we shall see.

 

 


At-One-Ment

Sermon on John 17:20-26, for Easter 7, Year C, May 8, 2016

John 17:20-26
[Jesus said:] “I ask not only on behalf of these,
but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,
that they may all be one.

As you, Father, are in me Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 5.35.51 PM
and I am in you,
may they also be in us,
so that the world may trust that you have sent me.

The glory that you have given me
I have given them,
so that they may be one,
as we are one,
I in them
and you in me,
that they may become completely one,
so that the world may recognize that you have sent me
and have loved them
even as you have loved me.

“Father, I desire that those also,
whom you have given me,
may be with me
where I am,
to see my glory,
which you have given me
because you loved me
before the foundation of the world.

“Righteous and Just Father,
the world does not know you,
but I know you;
and these know that you have sent me.
I made your name known to them,
and I will make it known,
so that the love with which you have loved me
may be in them,
and I in them.”

The gospel text is a perfect one for Mother’s Day because it culminates in Jesus’ prayer that we would all know love.  Jesus’ prayer, as written in John’s gospel, has a number of “so that” statements that show us the purpose behind his requests.  Listen to the “so that” which comes at the culmination of our text today:

“[Father], I made your name known to them, and I will make it known,
so that the love with which you have loved me  may be in them, and I in them.”

Jesus said that love would come from knowing God’s name.  Well, Jewish people already knew God’s name, Yahweh; the name God gave to Moses from the burning bush; the name that means pure being, “I am that I am” or perhaps, pure becoming in process, “I will be what I will be.”  But Jesus taught us to know this God of the Ground of Being also intimately as Abba, Father or Papa.  Jesus addresses this prayer, and all his prayers, to his Papa.

God as Mother

Could God, whose final purpose is that we all know that we are loved, also be known as mother? Love for her children, after all, is probably the chief characteristics of a mother.  Of course.  The Hebrew bible has several places where the mothering nature of God is celebrated.  We used one in our call to worship from Isaiah 66 which has these phrases:

[God says,]  “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you,” and Isaiah adds, “you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,  and dandled on her knees.”

God is “her”, the one who nurses children, who comforts and dandles them on her knees.  Amazingly progressive sounding, and yet the ancient world was full of female deities.  It is relatively modern to have a problem with that.

From the ancient wisdom found in the Creation story we read that the “One of the Earth” or Adam and the “Mother of all Living,” or Eve, male and female, were both made in the image of God.  The Creation poem in Genesis says,

   “So God created humankind in his image,
        in the image of God he created them;
        male and female he created them.”

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Is it possible to think of God both as a father and as a mother?  Is it possible to hold two concepts together that seem to be opposites, or at least as paradoxical?  That question is important for understanding Jesus’ prayer which we will see in a minute.  And it is crucial to understand who we are in God, and our role in the world.

But first, to prepare us for thinking about paradox, I wanted to share with you what I just learned from a scientist.   On her podcast called “On Being” Krista Tippet, interviewed Frank Wilczek, the Herman Feshbach professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Wilczek was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004.  His most recent book, on the role that beauty plays in math and science is called A Beautiful Question.

Wilczek said this, abut paradox, or what scientists call complementarity:

“For normal truths, the opposite is a falsehood. But deep propositions have a meaning that goes beyond their surface.  You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.”

He explained, for example, the question, ‘Is light a particle or  a wave?’  It is both, “and sometimes it is more useful to think of it as one than the other, or the opposite; both can be informative in circumstances, but it is impossible to apply them both at once.

Another example he discussed was space and time.  We experience them as separate and distinct, but scientists, since Einstein, know that the space-time universe as a singularity.

So, light is both a particle and a wave.  God can be thought of with the paradoxically intimate symbols of both Father or Mother, Papa and Mama, as protective and as nurturing.

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The paradox that Jesus keeps turning over in his prayer is the paradox of mutual indwelling, or what the Buddhist tradition would call “inter-being.”  God in us, and us in God.  He prays:

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us”

The paradox is between unity and separateness.  We experience our lives as separate selves: separate from each other, separate from the world around us, and separate from God.

Perhaps it was that initial separation we all experienced at birth, as we come out into the world, separate from the womb of our mothers, that left us with a permanent sense of disconnection, of separateness.

Could it be that just as our experience of the separateness of space and time is an illusion, since they are really one, or that our thinking of light as either a particle or a wave is an illusion, since it is both, so also our thinking of ourselves as separate selves is an illusion?

The Self-in-God

If what Jesus is saying is true, then our true selves are who we are, in God.  Hear again Jesus’ prayer:

“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one,
as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one”

Jesus did not invent this concept of finding our being in God’s being.  Psalm 90, attributed to Moses says,

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.”

God is home.  And yet, we feel homeless.

Richard Rohr, in his book Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self wrote:

“The deepest human need and longing is to overcome the separateness, the distance from what always seems “over there” and “beyond me,” like a perfect lover, a moment of perfection in art, music, or dance, and surely a transcendent God.”   (p. 100). Kindle Edition.

So, the spiritual quest, the journey we are on, is to find our home in God.  To know that like a mother, nursing her child, God loves us, and nothing can ever change that.  Our longing is to know our true selves that way, in God, and God in us, by the Spirit, ever present, ever faithful, moment by moment.

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It is nearly universally true that the great mystics have all come to the conclusion that our sense of separateness is an illusion.

Contemplatives often speak of the sense of unity they have been given insight into – unity of all things, all people, all of creation, unity with the divine.  Even the Greek poets which Paul quoted with approval spoke of God as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”

This is the root meaning of the word Atonement: At-One-Ment.  This is what religion is supposed to announce: the word “religion” comes from the word for re-connecting, re-ligio, re-binding, as ligaments connect bone to bone.   This is what salvation means: liberation from the bondage of guilt and shame; the freedom of forgiveness and reconciliation.  Being one with God.

Unity

The goal Jesus had in mind, the reason he taught us to know and recognize our true selves Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 6.00.22 PMas one with God, is not so that we could live contently separated lives.  The goal and consequence of being one with God is being one with each other.  Let us hear the “so that” in Jesus’ prayer again,

“so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one”

God’s goal for us is that we might live in that unity.   The most true thing we can say about who we are is that we are one.  If each is One with God, then we are one with each other.  And if God is the source of all being, the source of all that exists, the Singularity behind the big bang that produced all the stars, the planets, and eventually the atoms in our bodies, then that unity extends to all of creation as well.

Life Consequences

So, how should we then live?  I think we can say with great confidence that thoughts and words and attitudes and behaviors that work towards this unity are God’s will, and those that create disunity are contrary to God’s will.

This unity, in Jesus’ mind, is not a begrudging unity, nor an apathetic unity, but culminates in genuine love.  Again, another “so that” in Jesus’ prayer says it all:

“so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Love that defines our unity certainly entails well-being.  So thoughts and words, and attitudes and behaviors that work for the well-being of others and of this world are God’s will, and those that work against that well-being are contrary to God’s will.

Love, the Ego, and Contemplation

Love is why we must speak of the ego.  Our sense of ourselves as separate includes our inner voice, comparing ourselves with other selves, thinking of ourselves as in competition with others, judging others, and generally, looking out for our own self-interests.  To be a loving person is to have done a lot of work on the ego we all have.

This is why living a life that includes contemplative practices is so crucial.  To become a loving person, we must learn ways to overcome the ego-centric selfishness that is our natural starting place in the first half of life.

This is exactly what contemplative practices do: they train us to become aware of the inner ego voice that chatters in our heads, and to strip it of its obsessive power.  In the concentrated silence of meditation, or contemplative prayer, we deny the ego voice is platform.

And from that practice of contemplation, or meditation, we become more able to love; more aware of our essential unity with God and God’s creation, and therefore, more willing and ready to speak and act on behalf of the well-being of others and of this planet.  We experience atonement: at-one-ment.

Practical Consequences

How can this not effect every aspect of our lives; our relationships, our spending practices, our ethics, our politics, our ways of using energy and natural resources?

How can this not impact our thoughts and attitudes about our global neighbors, like people from Latin America, or Muslims?

How can this not influence our perspectives on race, on peace making, on poverty, on homelessness and healthcare and education?  How can this not compel us towards forgiveness and reconciliation in our families and in the relationships of our daily lives?

How can this not fill us with love for the God who loves us, and who fills our lives with such goodness, moment by moment?  The God we know paradoxically as protective father, and as nurturing mother.  The God in whom we live and move and have our being.  The God of total love.


The Spirituality of Teachability: God’s Home School

Sermon on John 14:23-29 for Easter 6 C, May 1, 2016

John 14:23-29
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.  And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

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I remember as a young person puzzling over the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make any sound?”  Or this one, “Do colors exist, or is my experience of a color just the interpretations my brain makes on the basis of the rods and cones in my eyes as they receive part of the light spectrum reflected in different wavelengths by different objects?

Understanding Science – really?

Recently I heard a professor who asked the question, “Would a glass of water exist if I were not looking at it?”  Apparently, the answer, from modern physics, is only “potentially so.”  The reason for that involves quantum mechanics and is so complex I will not even attempt it.  I am quite certain I do not understand it.

If the physical universe is so difficult to adequately comprehend, how much more so the non-material world?   Think of all the great minds that have struggled, over the years, with questions like: What is love?  What is freedom?  What makes life meaningful?  What is my purpose in life?   As difficult to understand and talk about as they are, these are the kinds of abstractions that people live for, and are willing to die for.

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If these non-material concepts are challenging, how much more so is the concept of God?  I was listening to the Science Mike podcast in which he was answering a question about the different dimensions, besides space and time, that modern scientists speak of.  In his explanation he said that there is no way our brains can conceptualize these other dimensions, even if mathematical models indicate their presence.  Our brains just cannot conceive of them.  The only world we experience is the world of three dimensional space and forward moving linear time.

How much more difficult is it for our brains to conceptualize God?  We use words like “infinite,” but that does not go too far to help.  Infinite is a negative, meaning not finite.  We say “immortal,” but that too only means not mortal, not subject to death.  We say “invisible,” but again, it only means that we cannot see God with human eyes.

In spite of this challenge, throughout the world, and from our earliest origins as humans, we have been attempting to speak of the Divine – the gods, or of one God.  To speak of God is to use human concepts expressed in human language.

God-Language is Symbolic

This means that all of our language about God is symbolic.  This is a hugely significant thing to say: all of our language of God is symbolic.  At the core of our tradition as Christians, and at the core of Judaism is the essential mystery of God.

The closest we can come to naming God is found in the story of Moses at the burning bush.  God’s voice, in the story, says God’s name is Yahweh, or “I am that I am” which is either pure being or, probably more accurately, pure becoming – being, in process.  Well, that may be a name, but what does it mean?

So, every serious theologian and every religious tradition speaks of the ineffability of the Divine.  So when we speak of God, we speak symbolically.  We try to speak truthfully, but it is the truth of symbol.  We use terms like, “the Ground of Being,” or “the Depth dimension of life.”  John Calvin used the words “O depth” to speak of God as mystery, which I quoted not too long ago here.

Rejecting Inadequate God-conceptions
I believe that one of the biggest reasons we see a rise in atheism now is that many people are simply rejecting conceptions of God that are totally inadequate.

For example, if God is conceived of like a Superman, a being, apart from the wScreen Shot 2016-04-30 at 7.02.33 PMorld, who has unlimited power to act on the world, and sometimes does, but most of time just stands idly by, as evil and tragedy cause suffering and harm, then that God would be a moral monster.

Of course that kind of conception of God must be rejected.  I guess if that were the only possible way of conceiving God, then rejecting that concept might make you an atheist.  But perhaps it simply means that a new way of thinking about God  is needed, which of course, is the case.

So, for me, calling God “the Ground of Being” or “the Depth dimension of life” is an attempt at being more adequate than the idle Superman concept, but these phrases have a severe limitation.  They are impersonal.

God as Personal – at least

Whatever God is, God must be at least as sophisticated and complex aScreen Shot 2016-04-30 at 7.05.51 PMs we humans are, but of course, much more.  Just as plants are more complex than rocks, and animals more than plants, so we humans are complex enough to have consciousness.  We know ourselves as persons.  We have will and purpose.  We can communicate and have relationships.  God must at least have these personal capacities.  God must at least be personal, though much more so, at a level we cannot imagine.

The Symbol of Spirit as Personal Advocate

I say all of that because we need to have that background when we read texts like the gospel of John.  John’s community was a mystical community.  Remember it is in John’s gospel alone that we hear Jesus saying, flat out, “God is Spirit.”  So how do you speak of Spirit in human language?  You must speak symbolically.

So in John we hear Jesus speaking symbolically of God, of himself, and of the Spirit.  Jesus’ favorite symbol for God is to call him Father – very personal, very relational, even intimate.  Jesus speaks of himself as mystics do, as being one with the Father.  He understands himself as a vehicle for God the Father’s message.

But John’s community lived at least six decades after Jesus walked the earth, and he was no longer present to speak with them about God.

Nevertheless, they still experienced God.  And their experience of God had a distinctively Jesus flavor.   The Spirit of Christ was still present for them.  So what symbol could they use to speak of this in human language?

In John’s gospel, we hear Jesus calling the Spirit, the Advocate.  In this symbolic language, Jesus speaks of the Father, sending the Spirit to us as an Advocate.  Advocate was a term that was relevant to their culture.  It just means someone that shows up to give you exactly the help you need in that moment.

Reminding and Teaching Further

What kind of help?  Here we learn that the Spirit helps by reminding the Christian community of what Jesus taught.  But more than that alone; the Spirit continues the teaching process further.

“the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”  (14:26)

So, if the Spirit both reminds and teaches, then our task is to remain teachable.  Our goal, as we try to follow Jesus in our culture, in our generation, is to keep open to the Spirit of Christ as he schools us.  Mature Christians practice the spirituality of teachability.

What have we learned?

And, over the years, we have, indeed, been taught.  We believe that the Spirit has taught us, after thousands of years of being unteachable, that slavery must not be tolerated. Jesus never said that, but we have been taught that by the Spirit.

The Spirit has also led us to open the doors of the church to the ministry of women, after all these years.  And finally, we have concluded that there is no basis for discrimination that finds any justification for the community that follows Jesus.  We are all and equally loved by God.  God’s grace is the one and only basis for our spiritual lives.  We have been taught to practice radical hospitality.

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So the Christ Spirit is the Advocate who shows up teaching us what it means to follow Jesus in our generation.  There is also a deeply personal aspect of the Spirit’s work as well.  By the Spirit, God is not just an external presence, but an internal reality.  The symbolic concept here is a home: God’s Spirit takes up residence inside us.

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

We live and move in God, so we could say that our home is in God, and here, we discover that God’s home is in us.  Some call this a “mutual indwelling.”  This is where even symbolic language utterly breaks down.  It ends in a paradox.  God in us, us in God.   But how else can human language say it?

What does this symbolic language mean?  It means, at least, that God is intimately involved in the moment-by-moment life we live.  God is living God’s life in the lives of each of us.  It means, at least, that God is there for us, as an Advocate, in every moment.  It means, at least, that God is for us, not against us.  It means, at least, that God is the name we give to that force in us, luring us towards love, towards the good, towards beauty and towards truth.  It means, at least, that the trajectory of compassion that Jesus set in motion, can continue in us.

Peace

And of course the personal effect of knowing that as we live in God, God lives, by the Spirit of Christ, in us, as an Advocate, a teacher and guide, can only be one thing: peace.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Peace, the opposite of anxiety and fear, is the product of a life of trust.  We trust that God is with us, spiritually, in us, helping us, and that we are not abandoned as orphans, nor merely the little people, running around like ants, observed by the idle, distant Superman.
This is the peace that continues even in times of suffering and pain.  Knowing that if God is at home in us, God is there, in fact suffering with us.  Not as an external observer of our suffering, but one with us as an Advocate in our sufferings, assuring us that we are not abandoned.  We will be alright.

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How do we experience this peace?  We experience this peace only as we are mindfully awake to the present moment.  If God is in us by the Spirit, living our lives in us, this can only be about the present moment we are living.

We do not live in the past; it is over.  We do not live in the future that has not yet happened in our experience.  We can only live in the present; in the moment.  So God’s Spirit is in the present moment.  It is in the present moment that we come to experience the peace that the Spirit gives.

How do we become more mindfully present in the moment?  Mindfulness is one of the fruits of practices like meditation.  This important and historic Christian practice almost dropped out of use by Protestants after the theological battles of the Reformation, but thankfully, meditation is being rediscovered by many today.

A regular practice of contemplative prayer, or mindfulness meditation, and other mindfulness practices such as yoga or mindful walking, produces the fruit of mindfulness in us, allowing us to experience the peace of the indwelling Spirit of Christ.

Fingers pointing at the moon

Yes, all these words are symbolic.  And, as symbols, they are inadequate.  We acknowledge that fact.  But as symbols, they point to a reality, like fingers pointing at the moon.  The fingers pointing are not the moon, but all we can do from here is point, and give gratitude.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid,”  

because, as we can only express symbolically, we have the Spirit, the Advocate, sent by the Father, at home in us, teaching us to follow the Jesus path, giving us peace.


It’s That Simple

Sermon on Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35 for the 5th Sunday in Easter, C, April 24, 2016

Acts 11:1-18
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

John 13:31-35
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

When I was a child, it happened more than once that someone had the idea of making a Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 2.02.45 PMclub.  Our close circle of friends would swear loyalty to each other  and seal it with an oath.  We would say, “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”  That is called an oath of self-cursing, or, technically, a self-maledictory oath.

These kind of oaths show up in the bible.  You may recall Ruth, promising to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi with the promise,

“The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part you and me.”

Actually, circumcision is also an acted out oath of self-cursing.  It is symbolic castration.  It is saying, “May my family line, my name, die out and be forgotten in this community if I am ever disloyal to the covenant.

Circumcision was the sign of the covenant with Abraham, according to the story.  It  was supposed to be a permanent practice for all future generations of the descendants of Abraham, those who inherit the covenant and its promised blessings.

Think about those exclusive clubs that children make with their loyalty oaths.  They are so natural and instinctive that there must be something deeply human about them.
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Probably it goes back to the very behaviors that we evolved to practice that enabled our survival.  We learned to band together in tribes, back on the African Savannah, and as a loyal group, we fought off predators, we hunted and gathered food, and we cared for our young.

So, gathering into exclusive groups was an adaptive advantage back when we were putting bones in our noses.  Whether or not it is still an advantage, the instinct remains, “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”

Growing up

Part of what it means to become a mature adult is learning that instinctive behaviors can often be completely inappropriate.  How long does it take to train siblings not to fight with each other?  Years, right?

Brain scientists know that the primitive part of our brains, which they refer to as the “lizard brain” is where that automatic impulse to fight back comes from.  There is no rational thinking in that part of the brain; when we feel threatened, the part they call the amygdala fires, and we want to fight back.  But mature people discover and learn alternatives to violence, which is preferable to a lawsuit or jail time.

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I guess we should not be too harsh with the struggle they had in the early church to avoid the instinct to make an exclusive club out of being Jesus-followers.  At the beginning, they all were all Jewish; descendants of Abraham.  They had a long history of being distinct from he Gentile nations around them.

Circumcision not only made them distinct, it was also a serious oath of loyalty.  They were used to being distinct.  Moses added other practices that made Jewish people distinct as well, especially the kosher food laws, and the prohibition of all work on the weekly Sabbath.

But for those early Christians, it was complicated.  They were self-consciously trying to follow Jesus.  Jesus had been with them and had completely transformed their lives.  He had taught them a revolutionary way of conceiving of God.

Jesus taught them that they were children of God who could call him Abba, or Papa, without temple, without priest, and without sacrifice.   He taught them that they were not to think of themselves as impure, but perhaps only lost, in need of being found, and God like a Good Shepherd or like the Father of the prodigal son, was in the finding business.

And to top it off, Jesus took this message across the Mason-Dixon line; he took it to uncircumcised Gentiles.  He went to their side of the lake, to their towns, where he healed them, he fed them; for heaven’s sake, he loved them.  From the cross, with Roman nails killing him, he forgave them.

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In the sacred scriptures of the Jews, the Torah, there were strict laws about your obligation to your neighbor.  Jewish people were taught to understand that they were a covenant community with deep moral responsibility for their neighbors, especially the weak and vulnerable, “the widow, and the orphan.”  They were not even allowed to charge each other interest on loans.

But their responsibility to non-Jews was different.  They were not “neighbors,” in the strict sense.   This is why, when Jesus summed up the whole law saying “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor” the man asked him “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan which ends with the question turned around: “Who was a neighbor to him?

So, the early church had a complicated situation.  They had the human instinct to form an exclusive club, and the cultural and religious background to think of themselves as separate, as “the chosen,”  but they had been transformed by Jesus, whose life practice and teaching was completely non-exclusive.

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Maybe this is why, in the story that Luke tells of those early days, they were open to Peter’s perspective.  But I must say, they were going way out on a limb.  They had the Word of God from Moses on one hand, with strict, specific laws, and centuries of respecting those laws, and what did Peter have?  A vision, a voice, and a visitor.

Peter’s vision was amazing.  Imagine: coming down from heaven, a banquet tablecloth with sizzling hot ham, pork chops, and bacon, along with shrimp and lobster,  and a voice saying, “Bon Appetit”!  With apologies to the vegans, vegetarians and pescatarians among us, it makes your mouth water.   But not if you have grown up considering this kind of food horrible.  Think of being offered dog meat, for example – you do not even want to think about it for a moment.

So, the banquet table cloth had to be presented three times, along the message that stands in dramatic contradiction to massive amounts of scripture,

“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Can one person’s mystical vision overturn chapter after chapter of sacred text?

Well that was not all.  Then came the voice and the visit.  Peter reports that three men, from Caesarea, arrived at the house and, he says,

“The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”

So, here we have a mystical vision followed by a report of a message from the Spirit asserting the opposite of what the Old Testament teaches, saying: “make no distinctions.

But that is not all; it was not just a vision and a message, there were real live people there.  And when Peter went and told them about the Jesus message, they had a direct experience of the Spirit, just like the Jewish disciples did on Pentecost.

So it was their personal experience that made the argument solid.  God was doing something new.

None of this should have been a surprise for followers of Jesus.  Jesus himself had already broken the ice with Gentiles.  His whole lifestyle was one of openness and inclusion.  He taught that even if we consider them our enemies, we must love our enemies.

The way John tells the Jesus story, in the upper room, on the night of his arrest, Jesus gives a solemn “new commandment” to his followers:

“love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The only distinction that separates the followers of Jesus from other people is that they are famous for loving others – and of course – love makes no separations or distinctions.  Yes, it is a paradox.  It calls for non-dual thinking.

Learning the Lesson: Meditation

How long it takes to learn this!  We have such a history of racism and discrimination – not just we Americans; this is a deeply human problem.  Anytime  you have groups of people who find reasons to think of themselves as “us” and others as “them” you have “us vs. them.”  It is as human as Cain and Able.  We find it natural, even pleasurable, to be in exclusive groups, from childhood to adulthood.

My experience of being in the Balkans has alerted me to the seductive power of the “us vs. them” message.  You can get yourself elected easily if you keep telling everyone how “us” is being threatened by “them” and their ways – their language, their religion, their views.

But friends, that is the opposite of love.  And it is the opposite of the way of Jesus.

So here is what I believe.  We must face the fact, without being in denial, that we all have this natural human condition within us.  We do.  It is there. It feels good to be in an exclusive club.   It is in our brain stems.   But we can change.

Which is exactly why we all need the very practices of Jesus to overcome our natural Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 3.44.01 PMinstincts.  Jesus was a “Spirit person” as Marcus Borg likes to say. He was deeply open to the Spirit; deeply in touch with the Divine.  As we know from the gospels, Jesus spent a great deal of time in contemplative prayer.  That was, we are told, his habitual practice.

The people who scientifically study this kind of meditation all agree that one of its powerful effects in the brain is to calm down that lizard part, where our instinctive desire to hate and fight come from.

As we practice the Christian habit of daily meditation, we begin to grow in our capacity for loving compassion.  Meditation, I believe, is indispensable today, more than ever.   There is something almost magical about what happens when a person develops the daily practice of sitting in silence for twenty minutes.  It produces a compassionate calm that is amazing.

Some people say that they cannot meditate because their minds wander.  All that means is that they  have not learned the one little mental tool used by people who meditate.  We give our minds a very small task to do, and bring our full concentrated attention to that task, as a way of anchoring ourselves in the present moment.  Some use a mantra word, some simply focus all attention on their breathing.

And yes, the mind wanders.  That is what all our minds do.  And it is okay.  When we become aware that our minds have wandered, we simply begin again, and re-focus on our anchor, on our mantra word, or our breathing.  That is all.  We sit silently in the presence of God.

But the point is that this daily practice of contemplative wordless prayer, or call it mindfulness meditation, is an indispensable Christian practice for those whose goal is to keep Jesus’ commandment  that we love one another.

It opens us to be able to love one another as Jesus did, crossing lines of gender, of race, of religion – all the lines that separate us into “us” and “them,” and make us want to form the kind of exclusive groups that the early Christians figured out they must not become.

The world needs us to be that community, famous for loving.  The deeper the divisions are in our country, the more we need bridge builders.  The more painful the wounds, the more we need healers.  The more angry the rhetoric, the more we need people of the gentle way.  The more hate there is, the more we need people like us to become experts in loving one another.


Being the Shepherd’s Sheep

Sermon on John 10:22-30 for April 17, 2016, 4th Easter C

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

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I remember how bemused I was as a young person, when someone, probably my father, pointed out to me that the bad cowboys in the TV show we were watching wore black hats, while the good cowboys wore white hats.  That was my first introduction to the concept of symbolism in story-telling.

When John tells his version of the story of Jesus, six or more decades after the first Easter Sunday, he loads his narrative with symbols.

In this scene, the first thing we learn is the timing.  The action here takes place during the festival of Dedication.  If you are trying to recall when in the Hebrew bible you read about, do not bother; it is not there.  Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 9.11.41 AM

Rather, this feast commemorates a time of re-dedication of the temple that had been desecrated by the Greek-Seleucid king, Antiochus IV.  He had been trying to wipe out Judaism, and thought that by building a statue to either himself, or to Zeus (it’s not clear) in the temple, and offing a non-Kosher pig on the alter, he could ruin it for the Jews.

Long story short, he was so aggressive and brutal in his suppression of Judaism that he provoked a predictable response; the people revolted.  The violent Maccabean revolution began, and was eventually successful.  The Greeks were defeated, the temple was restored, and in December of 167 BCE, it was dedicated.  So Jesus is in the temple at the time of that Dedication anniversary.  In case we miss the symbol, John also tells us that this gospel scene takes place in the winter.

Jesus is walking in that restored, re-dedicated temple, just at the time in which everyone was remembering the violent Maccabean revolution of the past, and many were wishing for the new violent revolution to begin, this time, against the Romans.

Recalling Solomon

The symbols continue.  John tells us that Jesus was in the part of the temple called the portico of Solomon.  Again, a symbol.  It calls to mind several thoughts.  First that this re-dedicated temple was quite the contrast to Solomon’s temple.

The priests there were not descendants of Aaron, but were appointed by Rome, and therefore under the Roman thumb.  The present King, unlike Solomon, was not a descendant of David, or even Jewish.  If you are Jewish and respect the Torah, all of this is a nightmare of in-authenticity.

But calling to mind Solomon also recalls what kind of a king he was – oppressive, self-aggrandizing, rich, and ultimately responsible for the division of Israel into  North and South from which it never recovered.  Jesus is in Solomon’ portico, in the days before a new unraveling of the nation that will even be worse.

Are You Messiah?
Jesus head shot

So, in this symbolic context, the leaders of the people (which is what John always means when he says “the Jews” – not everybody, but rather, the leadership) challenges Jesus about being the Messiah (= “the Christ”).

Jesus’ voice, in John’s gospel is quite unlike his tone and manner in the other gospels.  The overwhelming consensus among New Testament scholars is that in John, when Jesus speaks, we are not hearing the historical Jesus, but rather the Christian community’s decades-long reflection on the meaning and significance of this man Jesus, whom they experienced as the Christ, the Messiah.

In John, Jesus speaks in cryptic ways, sometimes awkwardly, as he does here.

So, they ask Jesus,

“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

You would think that if Jesus wanted to be clear, this is his golden opportunity.  But instead, he answers:

“I have told you, and you do not believe.”

Jesus then tells them the reason they do not believe him, in spite of the works that he as done in the Father’s name, which should have convinced them.  Jesus says,

“you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”

Good Sheep, Bad SheepScreen Shot 2016-04-15 at 9.01.22 PM

Now to a Jewish person, the sheep and shepherd symbol is well known.  It is not just the 23rd Psalm that makes the idea of us being God’ sheep famous.  The prophets too used the symbol.  The people are the sheep, and the kings and leadership are the shepherds.

Throughout most of Israel’s history they were horrible at their job as shepherds, unless fleecing the sheep for all they were worth was part of their job.  Protecting the sheep is not what they were in it for.

So Jesus’ response could be read as a double insult to these leaders.  Instead of being good shepherds, looking out for the interests of the sheep, they were sheep themselves.  But instead of being good sheep, they were bad sheep.  Good sheep follow the shepherd’s voice, bad sheep do not.  Jesus says,

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

And of course, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus is looking out for his sheep’s best interest, as he says,

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Eternal life,” in John’s gospel, simply means the quality of life experienced by someone who knows Jesus as the Christ. (John 17:3) Then, Jesus says, as he only does in John’s gospel, a concluding sentence that seems to come out of nowhere,

“The Father and I are one.”

The Non-violent community

If you tried to read this scene as a literal historical moment, it would be odd to say the least.  But if you read it as John’s community reflecting on their life experience as followers of Jesus, who believe that the Christ is among them spiritually, it makes great sense.

This is a community which is trying to follow Jesus, who famously refused to fight back violently, even at the cost of his life.  This is a community that practices non-violence.  So they tell the story of Jesus in contrast to the violence of the Maccabees, even in the face of the successful re-dedication of the temple.  Violence is not justified even by  its success, as if might made right.

Anyway, it was all for nothing.  By the time John wrote, they had had another violent revolution in which hundreds of thousands perished by the sword, and in the end, their temple had again been totally desecrated and destroyed.

In this context you have to ask the question, why did so many people not want to follow the Jesus path of non-violence?  Why are people still so in love with the sword?  Why are we so ready to justify every use of force for every far flung cause?  You still hear it today.

People calling for carpet bombing and killing families right along with the terrorists.  How do you explain our lust for blood and gleeful vengeance?  Our applause at “successful” drone strikes, even when collateral casualties are included?

It is hard to explain.  Maybe some people just have no intention of listening to this shepherd and belonging to his kind of sheep.

But maybe we are in a new day.  Just this week we learned that a Vatican conference was held in which bishops called for rejecting the “Just War” theory.  Arguing that this theory has been used to justify almost every war anyone wanted to fight.  They called for a complete re-thinking of what it means to follow Jesus.

One archbishop said that when Jesus, from the cross, said “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” he was referring to all of us, and that “In this statement, he united the whole of humanity under one father.”

Ego and Violence

Where does this urge to violence come from?  From where this need to fight back, to inflict wound for wound, eye for eye, tooth for tooth?

Clearly it is something we have within us.  It is natural, instinctive, and it appeals to our sense of entitlement.  Nothing celebrates the ego like vengeance.

And perhaps this is why John’s community concludes this scene with the awkward
non-sequitur from Jesus,

“The father and I are one.”

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John’s community was a mystical community.  They believed that not only was Jesus one with the Father, but that all of his followers are one with him, one with each other, and also at one with the Father.  There is a mystical union that connects all of us with each other and with God.  (John 17:20-23)

It is the tragedy of humanity that we do not know this.  It is not knowing, not understanding, not appreciating and living into our union with God that keeps us identifying ourselves as separate, as not-belonging, as not-his-sheep.

And from that mistaken sense of separateness, we feel that we must look out for ourselves.  We must fight back in kind.

Violence, aggression, anger, it all comes from the same source.  It is our ego.  Our sense of self, or what Richard Rohr calls the false self, or the small self.

We all have a sense of our identity – which we must have to be alive and healthy.  We get this identity from our family, our religion, our nation, our gender, our sexual orientation, the groups, and clubs and political parties that we join, and from our economic status.

As Rohr says, “Your False Self is what changes, passes, and dies when you die. Only your True Self lives forever.”  (From Immortal Diamond, p. 29. Kindle Edition.)

It is our false self that gets threatened, that gets defensive, that becomes offended, that gets angry, and in the end, is willing to be violent.

Your true self is who you are in God.  We are all, as the creation story says, icons of God – icon is the word image; we are made in God’s image.

God is the source of our being.  We live and move in God.  As a beautiful metaphor we could say that we are children of God the Father.  Jesus liked that metaphor.  Or we could say we are sheep in God’s fold, with God as our shepherd.  Or as Paul says, we are “in Christ.”  Or we could simply say we are one with God.  As Jesus said,

“The Father and I are one.”

Contemplative PracticesScreen Shot 2016-04-16 at 9.25.03 AM

John’s community was a mystical community that understood this union.  Today many are re-discovering the ancient contemplative practices that are indispensable in awakening us to our true identity in God.   Meditation, contemplative prayer, lectio divina, mindfulness practices, yoga, are the tools we need.  Each of them silences the ego voice of anger, resentment, vengeance and ultimately, violence.

We need these contemplative practices now more than ever.  If nothing else, the current political climate should convince us of this.  But more personally, we are all probably convinced by our own internal conditions.

Who wants to get to the end of life a bitter, angry, resentful person?  Do we not all long to be people of inner peace, of calm contentment, and equanimity?

Contemplative practices, especially meditation, produces a fruit of compassion in us.  We become more and more aware of our unity with each other, and find new sources of sympathy and understanding for each other.  We become more kind and generous, more forgiving, in fact, loving.

We become, most of all aware of the sacredness of life – all of it.  We become aware of the present moment – the only moment we ever get to live in.  And most profoundly, we become aware of our true selves, our true identity; that we do belong, that we are beloved and forgiven; that we are children of a loving Father; that we are one with God.

This gives us the courage to be; to really be; to be alive to our lives.  It gives us the courage to trust that we are upheld in an ultimate sense.  To know that there is a Good Shepherd, and we are his sheep who listen to his voice, and follow his path.

 

 


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