“All that the Father Has:” when Memorial Day weekend meets Trinity Sunday

John 16:12-15

12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for

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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.  14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

All that the Father Has

Memorial Day weekend nearly always falls on Trinity Sunday.  This always complicates my life.  Memorial day is a secular holiday for Americans alone; Trinity Sunday is a Christian holiday throughout the world.  And on the surface they are quite different.  Memorial Day honors the sacrifice of men and women who died in service to their country.  Trinity Sunday is about the nature of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Tornado Shelters?

And yet this year I made a connection I never saw before.  Perhaps it was born of my reaction to hearing news reports

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about the tragic tornado in Oklahoma City this past week.  The news media spent a lot of time on the question of storm shelters.  The school where those six children were killed had no storm shelter, though other schools did.

Of course, shelters are expensive.  Schools and education are already expensive enough; adding shelters only adds cost.  All of that cost is paid for by taxes.  Should the law require storm shelters in schools and homes?  The mayor said that Oklahoman’s are a pretty independent lot who do not like anyone, especially the government, telling them what to do.

Oklahomans and the Military

But Oklahomans are a patriotic lot; they are 6th in the nation in percentage of people who serve in the military, just ahead of 7th place Alabama.  I’m sure Memorial Day is personal for them as it is for many of us.

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Question: what is essential for a successful military?  Certainly discipline ranks as one of the highest characteristics of a successful military

What does discipline mean?  Strict obedience to the commands of a superior.  Every salute reinforces discipline, and every “Yes sir” reaffirms the duty to obey  commands.  Regardless of their personal feelings, fears for safety, doubts about potential success, fatigue, hunger, sleeplessness or any other cause of resistance, when the command is given, disciplined soldiers obey.

Command and Response at Creation

Command and response is what we see in the biblical Creation story.  In the perfect world, at the beginning, when God began to create the heavens and the earth, there was a perfect synchrony of command and fulfillment.

God said, ‘Let there be…and there was.”  “Let there be light; and there was light.”  “Let the the dry land appear; and the dry land appeared.”

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God gave the command, and in the perfect world, God’s command was perfectly obeyed.

Until people came along, that is.  Then, things changed.  God said

Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.

But they ate.  It’s as if the human’s first response to God’s command was on the level of a four year old who says to his mother, “you can’t make me!”  It takes a lot of hard work to make a disciplined soldier out of us humans, given the way our brains are initially wired.

Primitive “Lizard” brains in us

Neuroscientists tell us that our brains have evolved from a primitive state into the highly sophisticated organs they are today.  We still have the primitive part of the brain that some call the “lizard brain.”

It’s not very smart.  It’s job is to keep the animal alive.  It knows it wants food, it knows it needs to reproduce, it knows how to run from danger, and it knows how to fight.  This brain doesn’t reason, it just reacts.  The

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world is black or white, either/or, all or nothing, fight or die.  No compromises, no logic, no rational reflection.

Lizard brains are all out for themselves.  They do not cooperate.  Even in higher primates cooperation is missing.  One scientist said that the one thing you will never see two chimpanzees doing is carrying a log together.

Cooperation for the Common Good

But cooperation turns out to increase the chances of survival of a group (see E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth).  Eventually we homo sapiens developed more sophisticated brains and a concept of the common good that requires cooperation.  We developed the brain-capacity to tell our “me-only” lizard brains to be quiet.  This is called discipline.

This is what the military reinforces.  When someone yells a command at us in a harsh, demanding voice, we instinctively react negatively.  We want to say “Nobody tells me what to do!” But we have reasons to resist that primitive response in favor of obedience, for the common good.

Even adults have a hard time controlling that primitive “nobody tells me what to do” lizard brain response.  Even when the common good would clearly be served.  Even among people who have a high respect for the military and understand chain of command.  Even among Christians who know, at least in theory, about turning the other cheek and caring for others.

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Unbearable Truths

This primitive, or we could truthfully say, immature reaction to being told what to do is probably one reason why Jesus did not tell the disciples everything he wanted to.  He knew that some things they would just find unbearable.  Every time a person hears something that does not agree with their present beliefs and recent history, we say, “No way! That cannot be true!  Prove it!”  Our primitive brains  resist new ideas.

Jesus told his disciples:

“12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”

Perhaps he was thinking of unbearable truths like the fact that slavery had to end.  Perhaps he meant that women were one day no longer going to be treated as second-class citizens, in the home, the work place, or even in the church.   Maybe he was thinking about racial discrimination – or any form of discrimination against people who are different.  There are many things those twelve men around that table in the upper room would have found unbearable, even though Jesus knew they were needed, for the common good.

The Spirit’s Teaching Continues

But thankfully, on Trinity Sunday we celebrate the fact that Jesus’ teaching ministry continues by his Spirit.

13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth;

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We can still learn more of the “many” unbearable things that Jesus left unsaid as we pay attention to the Spirit.  We pay attention by daily contemplative prayer, which also helps control that lizard brain of ours.  We hear the Spirit as we, as a community, study Jesus who shows us God’s character and God’s perspective.

This is exactly what Jesus said would happen:

he [the Spirit] will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

The Spirit keeps glorifying Jesus by taking what Jesus taught us and showed us by his lifestyle, and helping his future disciples to be able to “bear it.”

So we study Jesus – we learn about his compassion, his love, his concern for the weak and vulnerable, his resolute commitment to forgiving enemies, and his willingness to utterly sacrifice himself for the common good.

Father Son and Spirit

15 All that the Father has is mine”  Jesus said, to close the trinitarian loop.  Jesus by his teaching and lifestyle was showing us the Father.  Let’s be explicit on this Trinity Sunday: We know God the Father and God’s will because the Spirit continues to teach us the “many things” that Jesus had to leave off the table because, at the time, they were “unbearable.”

Remaining Questions 

Why is it that the concept of the “common good” has been so unbearable for some of us?  Why is it that after all of these years and all of the evidence, we still find it hard to limit our own personal interests for the sake of others?

Why is it that the very thought of someone telling us what to do still evokes that primitive response?  How is it that this immature thinking that it’s “all or nothing, either/or, we’re totally free of obligation to anyone, or else we are somebody’s slave” is so alive in adults, even in Christian adults?

And how is it that a person can bring up the subject of coercive shelter laws and taxes, even before the bodies of those children are laid to rest?  Don’t we all need bridges to drive on that are not “functionally obsolete” and safe aircraft to fly in?  Is there no such a thing as the common good?

Military Lessons for Memorial Day

On this Memorial Day weekend, can we not learn the great lesson that the military teaches us: that there is enormous success that can be achieved when a group cooperates for the common good?

There is a huge benefit to all of us when we acknowledge that there are times when it is right and good to be told what to do.  That is is not unbearable to learn the truth that I was not put on this earth simply to serve myself and my own private interests.

We can function on a higher level than chimpanzees.  We can even listen to the teaching of the Spirit as he glorifies Jesus, and leads us to do the Father’s will; in the name of Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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The Jesus Trajectory in John 16:12-15

Illustrating A Trinitarian Theology of Faithful Discipleship

[Jesus speaking:] 12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  13 When the Spirit of truth

Holy Trinity icon
Holy Trinity icon

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.  14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

1.  There is Unbearable truth: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  Contexts we live in create boundaries of the bearable.  This is a temporal limitation; “now.”  There will be a day when the “many” truths we still need to be taught become bearable.  (E.g. the disgust emotion looses moral force; breakdown of systems of patriarchy, slavery, reduction of xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and the unmasking of all power claims on behalf of “interested parties” by the post-modern project of de-construction and expose of totalizing meta-narratives of Empire).

2.  There is Much to learn: “many things to say to you”  The end of the NT is not the end of the lesson.  The stated intention of Jesus is to keep teaching, not merely trivial “applications to life” of previously held positions, but includes also “many things” which have been left out of the curriculum on the grounds of having been “unbearable” to the past generations.  “Many things” is open-ended: when could the lessons be considered to have ceased?

3.  The teaching is by the Spirit: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth”  Jesus accomplishes his ongoing teaching ministry by means of the Spirit.  This includes the Spirit’s activity in the production of New Testament scripture, but there is nothing here that limits the Spirit’s teaching to a future text or book.  Disciples who are addressed by the entire Upper Room Discourse are to expect to be taught by means of the Spirit.  Spirituality, discernment, contemplation are necessary, not just academic theological reflection.  The Spirit baptizes us in to one Body of Christ, and unifies us with each other.   Spiritual truth is not a private affair but is acquired in the process of communal discernment, a project of all of the parts of the body.

4.  The Spirit extends the trajectory that Jesus marked out; it is still the Jesus Trajectory:   “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.”  We know God best through Jesus.  The Spirit helps us to see God through Jesus even further than we could see him in prior times because of the “unbearableness” of the “many things” he still had to teach.  The Spirit’s teaching is consistent with Jesus’ teaching, and extends it into previously “unbearable” territory.

 5.  God’s truth is revealed in Jesus:  “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  Jesus provides the lens through which we view God, the world, each other, and everything.  Jesus provides the paradigm of God’s work in the world.  Jesus is the template of God’s activity in the world.  Jesus’ teachings, his lifestyle, his priorities, his values, his practices of spirituality and his path that embraced suffering alongside humanity is the pattern that reveals God’s will and intention for humanity.

Sum:  There are unbearable truths, we sorrowfully but frankly admit.  We have always have and will always have much to learn.  We will learn in community by the Spirit who will lead us further down the Jesus trajectory, consistent with Jesus, working out the implications of Jesus’ teaching into previously “unbearable” territory.  What we will find as the Spirit guides us further down the Jesus-trajectory is God’s will, God’s purposes, God’s intentions for humanity.

Starting points on the Jesus Trajectory:

Of course everything Jesus taught by word, deed and lifestyle is relevant and important.  But these are, for me, foundational starting points:

1.  Jesus’ essential message: “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand” or “Change your thinking and behavior in light of the fact that God’s realm is revealed as present and God is in charge.”

2.  Jesus inaugural sermon: the time of Jubilee, liberation has begun in Jesus’ ministry with direct implications for oppressed, suffering, marginalized humanity.  Luke 4

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

3.  The essential teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, which contains the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer;

A.  The Lord’s Prayer teaches the essentials:

  1. Knowing God as Abba “Our Abba in heaven
  2. Honoring God as God, “holy is your name
  3. Submission of the will to God “your kingdom come your will be done on earth as in heaven
  4. A lifestyle of trust and simplicity “give us today our bread for today
  5. The requirement of giving forgiveness, “and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors
  6. The reality of evil and the need for vigilance “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil
  7. Living in the hope of God’s future bending the moral arc of the universe towards justice, “for yours is the kingdom and power and the glory forever

B.  The Beatitudes teaches the essentials:  (Matthew 5)

  1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
  2. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
  3.   “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
  4.   “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
  5.   “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
  6.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
  7.   “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
  8. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

4.  The “Jesus Creed”  Matthew 22

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  38 This is the greatest and first commandment.  39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Historical Examples to be celebrated (even if further work still needs to be done):

  • The end of the “divine right of kings” – end to theological justification of social class.
  • The abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement (substantial but incomplete).
  • The emancipation of women in home, workplace and church (substantial but incomplete).
  • The extension of health care and housing on a broad scale in many countries (substantial but incomplete).
  • The end of discrimination against LGBTQ persons (in progress)

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Still Teaching, Still Learning: Pentecost 2013

Pentecost Sunday, May 19, 3013, Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-2

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Acts 2:1-21 

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 

14 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. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o”clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘I n 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. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

John 14:8-26

8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

26 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. 

Still Teaching, Still Learning

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When I was in school we had to read Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.”  Though it was a good read, when I finished it, I didn’t like it.  I was young enough to think that if someone wrote a book entitled “Great Expectations” he would make sure the expectations were fulfilled – but no!  Expectations were routinely raised and then dashed, and in the end, nobody got what they wanted from life.

I think that’s how Philip felt when he said to Jesus,

“Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Jesus had raised expectations back at the beginning when he had said to Philip “Follow me” – and he did.  Philip told Nathaniel:

“We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus… Come and see.”

Expectations and Disappointment

So, Philip had great expectations.  I wonder if we are in a similar position.  Here it is, the great day of Pentecost when we remember and celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as if something utterly amazing were going to happen – not just then, but also now, to us – and, well, look around.  The great expectations for the church seem to have dwindled significantly.  We stand in Philip’s sandals.

It’s not only the obvious fact of the decline of Christianity in the Western world, nor just about our own Presbyterian decline, but we feel an even greater sense of dashed expectations for ourselves personally.

How old were you when you first heard the story of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost?   Didn’t that story and others, like the Easter resurrection story and the miracle stories about Jesus feeding and healing people, calming storms, and casting out demons, give you the sense that something big and powerful and transformative was possible in your own life?

That great expectation was certainly born in me.  And yet most of my life has been pretty normal.  I would have thought – and I did think –

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that the Holy Spirit was capable of a lot more.

The Breaking Dawn

The odd thing is, I think he is!  And I think we are living on the edge of an amazing time in which the Spirit is doing something new and powerful.  It has implications for both us as individuals and for our church.They say that it’s darkest before the dawn.  Well maybe this is the dark moment – but perhaps there are some rays of light already appearing on the horizon that can give us hope.  And it all has to do with the Spirit.

This is where the texts we read today can help us.  If we are, like Philip was, feeling that our great expectations were not being met, let’s look at Jesus’ response to Philip, and see how it applies to us.  And then we will look around at what is happening in the world these days – some glimmers of hope.seeking God framed

“Show us = Connect Us”

When Philip came to Jesus asking, “Show us the Father” what was his quest?  It was exactly what every spiritual seeker is looking for: a sense of union with God.  “Show us the Father” means get us connected to God.

What was Jesus’ answer?  It comes in two steps.  Step one: if you want to see God, look at Jesus.  Jesus came to show us in concrete, personal material ways what God is like.  Jesus said,

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

Step One: God in Material form

Step one is that Jesus shows us God, because Jesus is the Christ – the Messiah – the Anointed One.  Think about this for one second.  We believe in the Trinity – next week is Trinity Sunday.  Jesus became flesh just about two thousand years ago.  But the Son, or we could say the Anointed, the Christ, exists with God eternally.  Jesus lived in material form on the earth just for a little over 30 years, and is now again as before, as he says, “in God the Father.”

This is what Jesus was telling Philip when he said,

 “I am in the Father and the Father is in me”.  

Step one in knowing God is realizing that Jesus, as a material person, is one form of the Son or, as some have said, the Cosmic Christ, existing eternally in and with the Father.

What does this mean?  It means that it has always been God’s plan, from the start, that Spirit and Matter be unified, as in Jesus.  As Richard Rohr is fond of saying, “there is only one reality.”

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Step Two: Union with God

But step two in knowing God is where it gets practical and helpful.  Step two is that God’s plan for all time has always been that we become aware of our own personal deepest reality, which is that we also are “in the Father.”  Jesus said (v. 20):

“I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

This sounds completely strange to us.  Especially in the West, we have lost sight of a stream of biblical teaching that used to be taken for granted.  We, humans, made “in the image and likeness of God,” are meant to understand that we are literally sons and daughters of God; that our source and our eventual destiny is in God.

Difficult as this is to comprehend, Jesus told Philip that he would have help.  The third person of the Trinity, the Spirit, would be key.

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” 

The “Advocate,” that is the Spirit – whom Jesus calls here “the Spirit of Truth” will both “abide with” us and be “in us.”  So let’s complete the equation: Jesus is in God the Father, and God the Father is in Jesus.  Jesus sends the Spirit to us.  The Spirit is with us and in us.  So we are in God, and God is in us!

Just a little later, that same evening, in that same conversation (John 17) Jesus will say in a prayer to God the Father,

“I am asking… that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,… I in them and you in me”

Step one in knowing God is to know Jesus, who materially present is in fact one with God as the eternal Cosmic Christ.  Matter and spirit are, in reality, one.  Step two is knowing that we were made in God’s image, and made for union with God.

This is not easy to see in this material-looking world.  Philip sure thought it wasn’t obvious.  But the Spirit had not been given yet in the way the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost.

By Degrees: Learning from the Spirit

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I used to secretly envy Pentecostals. I assumed they had this great spiritual experience, spoke in tongues, felt super-close to God, and felt totally transformed all the time because of it.  It does appear that the first time it happened, it came with the noise of a mighty wind – perhaps like a freight train.  Tongues as of fire descending.  But that seems to have been the initial rush.

More typically, the Spirit’s work takes time and is gradual.  It’s like getting an education, one class at a time.  The Spirit’s method is the method of a teacher; daily lessons.  Jesus said,

“the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything”

Paul spoke of the Spirit’s gradual, daily ministry when he said,

“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”    (2 Cor. 4:16)

There is transformation, but it is “day by day” and by degrees, in stages, not all at once, as Paul says,

“Now the Lord is the Spirit…  And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”” (2 Cor. 3:17-18)

New Day: New Things

So here is what is so exciting about these days:  Now, at long last, the Western church is rediscovering daily Christian practices like meditation and contemplation.   As Paul would say “seeing the glory of the Lord” by resting in the awareness of God’s presence in daily contemplative meditation, or Centering prayer,  and it has a transformative effect.  It is not sudden, it is by degrees.  It is like the transformation of physical exercise that we do daily that adds up to greater fitness and healthiness.

What do people who practice contemplation discover?  A greater sense of union with God.  A sense that they have begun to receive an answer to Philip’s request “Show us the Father.”

Daily we practice meditation: turning off the chatter of our own voices in our brains, the thought-stream that keeps activating our lizard brain’s messages of fight or flight, anger and revenge, all or nothing, us and them, winners and losers.

We practice turning off that noise for twenty minutes a day during which the Spirit of Truth can perform the daily lesson that God is with us and already in us.  That true union with God is possible because, in the end, there is no such thing as a part of the world that is not a part of God.

As Colossians says, the paradox of being a material person is that the truest reality is that :

your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  (Col. 3:3)

[Notice: present tense, “is hidden” now “with Christ” – the Cosmic Christ, “in God”]

Practical Effects: unity

Shane Claiborne, Aquaponics
Shane Claiborne, Aquaponics

This re-discovery is having enormous practical effects in Christian communities that are part of the emerging church.  The re-discovery of the Spirit and spiritual practices has led to an understanding, not only of our unity with God and with God’s sons and daughters, but also, the unity of all sons and daughters.

On that first day of Pentecost, the language barrier was broken, so that no ethnic or political differences stood in the way of the good news.  On that day, Peter said Joel’s prophecy was fulfilled: the Spirit was poured out: on whom?  On young and old, ending the age barrier; on women and men, ending the gender barrier, on slaves and free, ending the socio-economic barrier.

What we see emerging in a new way today is a post-exclusionary church, just like the early church was.  We see a church open to men and women, open to diversity of age and ethnicity, open to marginalized people and to persons challenged in any way.

Mission: the Jesus Agenda

Shane Claiborne, community garden
Shane Claiborne, community garden

And we see these newly emerging, Spiritual  – even if not  traditionally religious  – churches reaching out, just like the early church did, with the agenda of Jesus front and center.

These missional communities are feeding the poor, transforming urban neighborhoods, teaching job skills, tutoring school kids, and providing addiction-recovery opportunities.

Missional Christians are being advocates on  behalf of people whose voices have been silenced or ignored – the homeless, abused and trafficked women, victims of bullying, and they are being advocates on behalf of a planet that has been abused for far too long.

Things are changing.  The future may not look exactly like the past, but the Spirit is at work, teaching and transforming in new and exciting ways. Most of the time it’s not flashy and noisy, like it was at the first Pentecost, but it is certain and steady, by degrees, in daily doses.

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All I can do is to challenge all of us to be a part of this new Spirit movement.  To commit ourselves to daily spiritual practices.  Meditate for twenty-minutes everyday – even neurologists know that this re-wires your brain.  Turn off the mental chatter of disunity and attachment, and become aware of the presence of God – all around us, and in us.

Time to ramp-up the expectations again: the Spirit has come!

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God’s Mothering Wings

Mother’s Day, May 12 2013,  The Book of Ruth, & Matthew 1:1-6

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Matthew 1:1-6

1:1   An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.  2   Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,  3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram,  4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon,  5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse,  6 and Jesse the father of King David.

Mother’s Day may have been created by the Hallmark card company to generate revenue, as the cynics say (actually that’s not true) but it has become much more than a crassly commercial day.  Now, it is a special and significant day for most of us.

I know there are sad and even tragic exceptions, but most of us have positive memories

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of our mothers.  And although Mother’s Day is not a religious holiday, nevertheless, God’s work in and through mother’s has always been enormously important.

It’s not just that there have been significant mothers in the bible, it is also important for each one of us to have known a mother’s love.  Some psychologists tell us that our sense that the world is a safe place where there is such a thing as love, and that we ourselves are worthy of being loved is the direct result of the loving care our mothers gave us as newborns.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my mother’s lap as she read to me  from a Childcraft book.  It is a memory filled with love and security; relaxed happiness.  The world was wonderful; my mother blessed me with that feeling.

Matthew’s Mothers

We read the first part of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.  Most of the time Matthew only mentions the fathers, but there are four mothers who show up, like unexpected  lumps in the mashed potatoes – we notice them.

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There is an odd back-story in each case: Tamara had to disguise herself as a prostitute to become a mother.  Rahab (or her namesake?) was already a prostitute when the spies entered Jericho.  Bathsheba, “the wife of Uriah the Hittite” was an already-married woman when David saw her and took her.  Ruth was a foreigner; not just any foreigner though, she was from the hated, despised land of Moab.

There would have been no King David without three of these four unusual mothers, just as there would be no Jesus without another unusual mother: the unwed Mary.

These mothers all played crucial roles – which is, I’m sure, why Matthew included them in the genealogy.  Each of them were part of odd plot twists, creating unexpected developments.

Ruth: the unlikely mother

Today let us look at the story of Ruth.  The whole story reaches its climax when Ruth becomes a mother.  This is the most unlikely thing that could have happened, given the way the story begins.  But after a tragic start, through a series of happy coincidences, all ends well.  Ruth becomes a mother, and so continues a family line that produces Israel’s famous king: David.

Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” so says Albert Einstein, in The World as I See It.

Coincidental Names

All of the names in the book of Ruth are part of this seemingly coincidental world.  Coincidently in the time when the judges judged and there was no king, a man whose name means “God is king”, Elimelech, has a problem.  He lives in the  city called the “House of Bread” or Bethlehem, but there is no bread.  He is forced to emigrate to the hated, despised land of Moab (lots of past history!).

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There, his two sons, Sickness and Spent, or  Mahlon and Chilion make matters even worse by marrying women from the hated-despised Moabites.  The name of the one was “Back of the Neck”, Orpah, and the other was named “Friend” – Ruth.

The two brothers, Sickness and Spent die.  Now, “Back of the Neck,” Orpah and “Friend” Ruth are widows, along with their mother-in-law “Pleasant,” Naomi.  This is now time for Naomi to reach the only conclusion that the facts of her life allow her to draw: that she is cursed.  She says, “the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”  “Don’t call me Pleasant,” she tells people, “call me Mara, Bitter.”

She has nothing left to do but to return to her motherland, Judah, and to Bethlehem, the city of bread, where, as unlikely as it was a short time ago, now, there is again bread to eat.  Orpah shows her the back of her neck as she returns to her “mother’s house” in Moab, but Ruth proves to be a true friend and stays with her mother-in-law Naomi.

You know the story, about how Friend Ruth goes out to glean and just happens to work in the field of Mr. “Strength” – or Boaz, who turns out to be a relative  of  Naomi’s deceased husband, Elimelech. Boaz, Mr. Strength shows enormous strength of character, doing the most unlikely thing: he decides to marry this despised Moabite foreign woman, Ruth, to allow the family line of Elimelech to continue.  Ruth the friend becomes Ruth the mother.

Mothering Wings

There is more motherly care in this story than is immediately apparent.  If you remember the story, you know the scene at the harvest festival when all the reaping and gleaning is over.  After a night of celebration, when all are resting, Ruth sneaks over to where Boaz is sleeping, and when he discovers her beside him, it says:

“He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.”  (Ruth 3:9)

Literally, though we translate it “cloak,” she asked him to spread his “wing” over her.  She was asking him to do for her what a mother bird

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does for her chicks: spread out her wing and cover them, giving them shelter and security.  “Be my mother-bird” she is asking, in effect.

Boaz knows that image of the mothering bird very well.  When he had first met Ruth and learned that she had stayed with her mother-in-law, as a true friend, to help her survive, he said to her:

“May you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” (Ruth 2:12)

Boaz was willing to be the mother-bird to Ruth, because he knew that Yahweh had been a mother bird to her already, spreading her wing of safety and protection over that young widow.

Some people are offended by speaking of God in feminine terms, calling God “mother” as well as “father” but we see that the mothering care of God is found in the bible, and is exactly what we need to believe, in order to know the nature of God’s loving care for us.  God’s love is motherly love.

So, Boaz did spread his wing over Ruth; they married, and the “Friend” of “Pleasant” Naomi became the mother of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David.  God used unlikely circumstances and uncanny coincidences to make a foreign woman the mother of the greatest king Israel ever knew.

Family Lines

Let us take a moment to notice one more unlikely feature of this amazing little story.  With all of its attention to family lines and motherhood, this story seems to emphasize the importance of ethnicity.   Five times when Ruth is mentioned, she is called “Ruth the Moabite” – and that’s in addition to the fact that the story told us they moved to Moab and the brothers married women from there.   It is as if the author wanted us to think of the foreignness of Ruth as her most dominant feature.

Nevertheless, what Boaz commends her for, even in spite of her despised foreignness, is her lovingkindness shown to Naomi which he believes proves that Ruth has indeed come under the Lord’s mothering wing.

And again, in spite of her foreignness, Boaz takes Ruth under his wing as well.  This story, that seems to be all about family lines and ethnicity, ends up turning ethnic purity on its head.  In the end, David, the most significant king the nation of Israel ever knew had Ruth’s foreign blood in his veins.  Not just foreign blood, despised Moabite blood!  And that was God’s doing.

Mothering Love

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In the end, the overwhelmingly powerful love of a mother bird for her chicks is the best way to describe the Lord who arranged all of the unlikely coincidences of this story in order to show her mothering love to her people.

If there is any one characteristic of mothers it is the unconditional love they have for their children.  No matter what condition they are born with, no matter what happens to them in life, a mother’s love sees only her child.  No matter what that chick grows up to do or be, even ugly and horrible things cannot prevent a mother from loving.  Even to the point of self-sacrifice.

When I was first in the world of the Hungarian Reformed churches of Romania I saw a remarkable symbol.  In the churches, most of the pulpits are raised, which emphasizes the elevated importance of the proclamation of the scriptures.   Above the   minister’s head is what they call the “pulpit crown.”  On top often is a carved image of a mother bird surrounded by her chicks.  Her head is bent down, as she takes flesh from her own breast to provide food for them.  It is a symbol of self-sacrifice, and so, a symbol of Christ, as a mother bird.

Personal Wings

Let us notice how this happened in practice in the story of Ruth.  Who sacrificed self in order to save Elimelech’s family line?  Of course Ruth did.  And so did Boaz.  Boaz allowed his own estate to be split up so that Elimelech’s line would continue.  Ruth’s son Obed, and then his son Jesse, and his son, David inherited land that Boaz could have kept for his own heirs.

Isn’t is often the case that the way God does God’s anonymous work in the world is through real people; people who are willing to practice the ethics of the imitation of God – the imitation of a mother bird.

We are all the recipient’s of God’s mothering love – first, for the majority of us, through the powerful sacrificial love of our own mothers, and then later through many people who took us under their wings at just the right time.  Does God love us and care for us now?  Yes, just like that mothering bird.

And we are all here for a purpose, just like Ruth and Boaz.  We are not here on earth to look out for ourselves and our own kind alone.   We are here to be the wings of love for others – not just others in our own family, our own race, our own nation.  We are here to be the wings of love completely ignoring the racial or ethnic status of the ones in need, and completely willing, like Boaz, to ignore the cost.

A Practical Suggestion

Kiva.org
Kiva.org

Now, on this Mother’s Day, I have a practical suggestion.  All over the world there are mothers who are raising children for whom they are the sole or primary bread-winner.  Women around the world are growing or selling vegetables, managing bakeries or small shops, sewing, raising animals, and all kinds of cottage businesses in order to support their families.   Often with just a small bit of capital, they can do much more.  Sometimes a group of women get together with a plan to run a small business that will provide for all of them.

Now, through the modern tool of the internet and through the effective efforts of micro-finance groups around the world, it is possible for us to be the wings of love spreading out over real people in need.

Organizations like Kiva are a good example.  Through Kiva you can select a person from pictures and descriptions, from around the world, make a loan of any size, and then track them as they put it to use and repay it.  When the loan has been repaid you can take your money back, or re-invest it as another loan that you choose.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our conversations at church were something like this:

“How are your investments doing?” 

“Great, my sewing business in Uganda has already paid back 50% of their loan, and my farming co-op in Guatemala has gotten off to a great start.  How about your investments?”

This is just one example; there are a wide variety of ways we can be the wings of love over people, and by so doing, be the way God spreads wings of love.

Where are people at risk?  Where are people in need?  What are the resources God has blessed me with that I can use to bless others?  What is my purpose in life?  These are the questions that we ask ourselves on mother’s day from our blessed place, under protective wings.

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Caramelized Onions

Sixth Sunday of Easter C, May 5, 2013, on John 14:23-29

First, the text:

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

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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.”

Caramelized Onions

I have always thought that when you walk in the door and smell onions in the process of being caramelized, it smells like home.  And if you are home, no matter how the day has been, you can kick off your shoes and relax.  Home is where it is OK to be yourself – in fact it’s important, at home, that you be yourself.   You have an identity at home, created by the bonds of the relationships there: you are father, or mother, or son or daughter, wife or husband.  No matter what you do or say, no matter what happens to you, these relationships stay indelibly true.  Home is where you are connected in a family – no matter how big or small.

(At least all these things are how it ought to be; victims of abusive homes have another experience of home, and I’m profoundly sorry for the suffering they have experienced.  Today, when we speak of “home” we mean it in the ideal sense.)

There’s no place like home” – as Dorothy said about Kansas, in the Wizard of Oz, and it’s true.

God’s “home”

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Where is God at home?  How do you picture God’s home?  In the book “How God Changes Your Brain” the authors report about experiments in which people of various ages are asked to draw pictures of God.  It’s interesting to think about: if I were to try to picture God, where would I put God?  Where is God’s home?  In a church?  In the sky somewhere just above the sun?  In outer space?

Some of the most remarkable words ever written are in our text for this morning.  Jesus tells his disciples where God’s home is:

“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.”

Deep and Personal: Trinity and home

This is about as theologically deep as it gets, and at the same time, as practical and personal as it can get.  The theologically deep part is the the mystery of the Trinity.  Here we have Jesus the Son, talking about God the Father, saying “we,” and in the next line speaking of the coming of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.  Trinity is as deep as it gets.

And yet, the concept of “home” is as personal as the smell of caramelized onions is to me or as Kansas to Dorothy.  What could it possibly mean that God makes his home in us?  What could it mean that I could experience God’s presence as the ultimate “at home-ness;” as family?

“Love” and “With” in the Trinity

I asked a question of my Facebook friends recently: which is the most important word in the bible: “love” or “with”?  Of course it’s a bit of a tease.  In a way, they are inseparable.

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Imagine the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – before the creation of the physical universe.  Already, the words “love” and “with” are there.  The Son loves the Father, the Father loves the Son, and they love the Spirit who loves them back.  They are not isolated, they are in relationship with one another.  Some have pictured this relational Trinity like a whirling dance of three partners; loving each other, and being with each other.

The Cosmic Christ: Creator Word

Then at some point a world is made.  Who makes the world?   Where does it come from?  The gospel of John, from which our text comes, speaks cryptically of Christ as the Cosmic, Divine “Word,” existing from the beginning, and John describes the physical world coming into being through that Divine “Word,” or as some say, the “Cosmic Christ,” the second person in the Trinity.

Theologian Richard Rohr, speaks of the Big Bang as the “first incarnation of the Cosmic  Christ.”  He has a point.  The world exists from God; the source of everything goes back, ultimately to God. No matter what else you can say about us, it fundamentally true that we are a part of this universe.   We belong.

Physicist Lawrence Krauss says that our bodies are made of the carbon of the stars that exploded those 14 billion years ago in the big bang.  He, being an atheist, does not take the final step back to God in the causal chain, but we do.  In either case, we are a part of everything – stars, stones, oxygen and water.

All of this comes from one Source and from one and only one possible motivation: the source is God, the motive is love.  The reason for the desire of God to have a physical world to be with and to love is also a mystery.  But once having set a world in motion, God loves what he made, including us, and is resolutely for us.

Our Place in the World

What is our place in this world God has made?  The Genesis story speaks of God making humans, male and female, in his image.  Humans of both genders uniquely bear the image of God; not only do we belong in this world, as much as the trees and the stars, we belong as God’s special creatures; the ones with the capacity to know God and to love God in return, freely, without coercion.

Before we leave this grandiose level of Creation, let’s remember where all of this is going.  God’s Grand Design was not just that the eternally existing Cosmic Christ create a world, but that one day, the whole world would be gathered back to himself.  Remember how Ephesians says it:

“9 [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,  10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (chapter 1)

All things in heaven and earth,” as Rohr reminds us, come from the “Cosmic Christ” and will one day again be “gathered up” in ultimate unity.  The unity of all of creation is not a hippy thought or a new-age concept.  These are not the fantasies of environmentalists: this is the fundamental reality of a God-made world.

Enter: Dual Consciousness

In the mean time though, we image-of-God bearers, we free and un-coerced creatures have broken that essential unity of the world and all of creation.  In our quest to “know good and evil,” as the original temptation is described in Genesis, we have become people of “dual consciousness.”  We want ourselves to be the independent arbiters of what is good and evil; of course we call ourselves good and we freely identify the evil in others.

Alienation from “home”

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And the result is that we are now strangely not at home in this world we were made for.  We have experienced alienation as the direct result of our quest to be independently god-like.

There is a song by a group called the Snow Patrol in which he sings, “all these places feel like home.”  I first thought that was a beautiful thought – all places being “home.”   But then I wondered; if everyplace feels like “home” then “home” must not be that one, unique special place of safety and acceptance.

Maybe the song was expressing the problem that we all feel.  Even “home” isn’t all that we want and need it to be.  There is alienation in every family.  In fact there is alienation in every soul.

How many times have you heard someone remark that a person is lucky because “s/he feels comfortable in her own skin”?  No one could have that thought or understood that phrase without knowing how uncomfortable we all feel at times, even in our own skin.  It’s like the world we were made for, and fully at home in, is somewhere else.

The Bible’s Grand Narrative Arc

This is why the great story that the bible tells is all about God’s uncanny desire to be “with” the creatures that he made, even after they became estranged from God.

The great arc of the bible’s storyline is amazing.  The story starts with the creation of the world and humans, in the perfect Garden where God walks with Adam and Eve every day.  The final vision, in the last book, Revelation, is of the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, whose defining characteristic can be summed up in the words “home” and “with.”

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

welcome home
welcome home

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
and God himself will be with them;” (Rev. 21:3)

The Incarnation of the Cosmic Christ

In between the Garden, where God is at home with Adam and Eve, and the new Jerusalem, where God is at home among mortals, is the story of when the Cosmic Christ, the Word of God, became, flesh and dwelt among us, made his home with us, pitched his tent on our campsite in the form of one of us creatures, whom we know as Jesus.

It is impossible to adequately picture the pre-creation Trinity, in that three-partner dance of mutual love and community.  Trinity is the essence of mystery.  But we can understand what it means to be “at home” with people who are family, maybe even in places like Kansas, as someone caramelizes the onions for supper.

Jesus came to make his home with us, so that we could be at home with God. He came to show us God, and to reconcile us to Godself, to end our isolation and alienation forever.

“With” and “Love” and “Yes”

If it is hard to know which word is best, between the choices of “with” and “love” it is not hard to know what word is the best word of response.  It is simply “yes.”

This is our invitation: to say “yes” to the offer of coming in the door and knowing it as “home.”  God calls us home daily; to make our home in God, just as God longs to make a home in us.   “Yes” is what lovers say to each other.

“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.”

This is what faith is all about: simply relying on the truth that when we say yes to God and open that door, there is someone there on the other side, and that God invites us in – it’s home.  We are loved.

This is just a scratch of the surface of this topic, but this is where we must leave it for now. There is plenty of mystery that remains.  The vastness of the mystery of Trinity is rivaled by the mystery of evil itself.  Bombs explode at the finish line.  Loved ones die.  Accidents and disease leave people in tragic conditions.  We keep asking the “why?” questions, along with the rest of humankind.

There are many things we do not know – perhaps cannot know as mortals in this life.  But the one thing we can know for certain is that we are not alone.  God is with us, loving us.  God is with us in our worst valleys of despair and hopelessness or pain.  He is with us, at home with us, to be there for us at every moment, simply waiting for our “yes.”

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