Kingdom Challenges

Kingdom Challenges

Sermon for the 4th Sunday After Epiphany, B, Feb 1, 2015 on Mark 1:21-28

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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On Mondays we have a group that meets together to practice Lectio Divina, or “spiritual reading” of a bible text.  Lectio Divina is an ancient practice with four parts: a reading of a text, spontaneous reflections about the text offered by several of the group, a brief time of silent prayer about the text, followed by a 20 minute silent, contemplative meditation.

In that silent time, we use a word or a phrase or an idea that came to mind during the reading or reflection time as our anchor, to keep our minds at rest in the present moment and in the presence of God.

A Sunny Day in Capernaum

4th cent. Synagogue built on site of 1st cent. synagogue in Capernaum
4th cent. Synagogue built on site of 1st cent. synagogue in Capernaum

So, Monday we read this gospel text about Jesus’ experience in the synagogue in Capernaum.  As we read, I was imagining the story – for me, it was a sunny day.  Jesus and his new followers went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, probably in the same frame of mind that we had when we showed up here today.  They, like we, were expecting to worship, to sing, pray, hear from scripture, and go home, hopefully encouraged and spiritually blessed.

So Jesus went into the synagogue to teach.  Normally the teaching was from the Hebrew Bible, perhaps from the prophet Isaiah which was apparently one of Jesus’ favorites.

People were impressed.  I imagine some elbow nudges were going on and some glances were being exchanged.  He seemed to know what he was talking about in a way that appeared authoritative – like he really “got it” at a deep level.  It was literally “remarkable,” and people remarked to each other about it.

Mark does not tell us what Jesus was teaching.  Up to this point (we are still in chapter 1) all Jesus has “taught” has been one sentence:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 

So far, Jesus has done nothing to antagonize anyone, so I imagine he and everyone there was surprised by the outburst that

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followed.  A man, who is  only identified by the “unclean spirit” he is under the influence of, confronts Jesus with obvious aggression.  We are not told anything about him, though I picture someone ugly and misshapen – I know, I’ve seen too many movies.

The voice that comes from the man is hostile.  It speaks using first person plurals:

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

The demonic voices assume that Jesus is the one being aggressive; they assume that Jesus’ presence and teaching are a threat.  I picture the man sneering and maybe even slobbering as he screams is venomous accusations.

Picturing this man and his outburst, by the way, is not good at all for the brain.  It is completely negative, maybe it even brings up fears; certainly disgust.  Neuroscientists tell us that these kind of thoughts make the brain send stress hormones shooting around our bodies.  Well, sorry, but this is how the story goes.

So, this ugly screeching, de-humanized person fires off an odd sentence, strangely reverting to first person singular:

“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Elisha the prophet was called that too, so probably the assumption is that Jesus is a powerful prophet.  But why scream it out like that?   In those days, the idea was that if you named a spiritual being you had power over it.  Probably the demon wanted to overpower Jesus.

But the attempt fails.  Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit.  It threw him down, but then went out of him, and the newly re-humanized man was left unharmed.

The people, Mark tells us, were amazed.  Not only does Jesus teach with the authority of an insider with God, he clearly has authority over the spiritual realm as well.  They say,

“What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!” 

So, I guess the demons were right to think that Jesus was a threat to them.  He  rebuked them, silenced them, and dispatched them.  Bad news for unclean spirits.

But to the person who had been their victim, what Jesus did was good.  He released a person who had been in bondage.

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Setting the captives free is what he came to do.  It is what Moses did, also by the power of God, many years ago.  It is what God wants to do for all of us.

As I pictured this in our Lectio Divina group the phrase that came to me was this:

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”   – Romans 12:21.

So, for the next 20 minutes in silence, I used that phrase as my anchor.

Spirituality: Enough?

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Meditation has become quite popular now.  You see and hear articles about it everywhere.  People have been practicing mindfulness meditation for centuries – maybe millennia.  Now, neuroscientists report its benefits.  It is great for your brain, and from there its benefits affect all your body’s systems.  So, it is great, and it works, and I recommend it highly.   Most people say it even makes you more compassionate, which is always a good thing.

There are a growing number of people who practice meditation but who are not connected to the church.  They feel alienated from institutional religion.  They sometimes define themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”

I have great sympathy for them.  Just like the in the story, in which a man with an unclean spirit was harboring inside the synagogue – as if at home there (no one seemed to be surprised that he was there) so too, the church, through its history, has had some bad people in it, doing bad things.  For many, the church has been an unwelcoming place, even a place that practiced open discrimination.

But even though I get the reasons why the “spiritual but not religious” people have rejected the church, nevertheless, for me, it is not enough to be spiritual in some vague, general way.  For me, it is important that my spirituality be connected with a set of teachings, specifically the teachings of Jesus.

The Kingdom Confronts Evil

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Why?  Because, though it is bad for your brain to dwell on it, there really is such a thing as evil.  Whether or not you believe in literal demons and demonic possession is completely beside the point.  The point is that the one teaching of Jesus we have heard so far in Mark,

Repent, the Kingdom of God has come near,”

means that we are called to take sides in a cosmic struggle against evil.

This means that simply being personally spiritual, meditating or taking nature walks or other spiritual practices is great, but not enough, if it leaves us un-engaged.

And this is exactly why we turn to the teachings of Jesus and hold them up as our authority.   To follow Jesus is to be a person of both deep personal spirituality and of active engagement on the side of good, on the side of setting the captives free.

Not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.”

An Insider: Me

Reflecting on the story, I thought about how that man with the unclean spirit was found inside the synagogue.  He was an insider.  This makes me think about insiders like me.  The evil in me.  My pride.  My selfishness.  My reluctance to turn the other cheek or go the second mile.  My relationship with my money.  But especially, my own tendency to demonize others instead of finding ways of overcoming evil with good.

These, for me, are powerful reasons for developing and maintaining spiritual practices, like silent prayerful meditation, the daily examen, and lectio divina.  I need them all. They all  help, and they also reveal how much room for improvement I have.  They both draw me to God and make me more mindfully aware of how I am living.  They push open doors to compassion too.

And these practices expose me, on a daily basis, to the teachings of Jesus that were so amazing to the people who heard them for the first time in Capernaum that day.  I need to hear them, daily.  I need to learn to look at my world with eyes open.  To ask myself “What does it mean to live as one aware that the kingdom of God has come near?”  What does it mean that the first word in Jesus’ kingdom proclamation is “repent” “change your thinking” “embrace a higher level of consciousness” as we discussed last week.

Seeing the Victims

I believe the teachings of Jesus make me more sensitive to seeing the victims, the people who are being dehumanized by evil.   For example, I go down the street and see all these Pay Day Lenders and Title Loan sharks who squeeze the last few dollars off people who are in financial trouble already, and I grieve for the pain they cause.  This is one of the reasons we and other churches started the Christian Service Center and work hard to keep its food pantry open.

In fact, Jesus’ teachings open my eyes to see that every victim is my neighbor, because I learn that the question that began as “Who is my neighbor?” quickly became “Who was a neighbor to him?” in the story of the Good Samaritan.

So, Jesus teaches me that I am a neighbor to all the people on the Edmund Pettus Bridge bridge in Selma. Jesus teaches me that I am a neighbor to the children who the Presbyterian Home for Children ministers to.  I am a neighbor to everyone who is being discriminated against, with no exceptions.  And I am a neighbor, as St. Francis figured out, to “father sun and sister moon,” to the whole eco-system that supports life for all of my neighbors on this fragile planet.  As a neighbor, I am called to be an advocate for all of them.

The Community under Jesus’ Authority

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Jesus also teaches us to be a new community, a family, a church, so that we can journey as followers together.  We organize so that we can worship together, learn together, and find ways to “overcome evil with good” together.  Today we will install a new session of elders to lead us in that quest to be a worshiping community, following the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus teaches us to recognize him, among us, in the breaking of the bread.  So today we will celebrate the Lord’s supper, according to his instructions.

We are something like the people in that synagogue in Capernaum: we too are amazed by Jesus’ teaching.  And we too take them as our authority.  We too, have heard his call to follow, and we have responded.

The only question we have left is how can we live in such a way that we are not overcome by evil, in us and around us, but find effective ways to overcome evil with good.   This is the kingdom challenge.

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Being Followers

Being Followers

Sermon on Genesis 12:1-3 & Mark 1:14-20 for 3rd Epiphany, B, January 25, 2014

 Genesis 12:1-3
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 

Mark 1:14-20
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Sometimes, the most profound truths are hiding in plain sight.  Like this one. Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 8.59.50 PM

According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life,  of the world’s population, as of 2010 people who self-identify as Christians comprise 32%, Muslims 23%, and Jews 0.2%.  So, these three major monotheistic religions account for over half of the world’s population.

They all have a the same foundational narrative.  All three faiths tell the story of Abraham and Sarah who are called to leave home and to go on a journey.  God says,

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” 

If the three monotheistic religions are doing their job well, half the world should already know that the spiritual journey beings with leaving behind the safety nets that, up to that point, had defined us.  The journey towards spiritual maturity begins when we respond to the call to move on from one kind of consciousness to a higher level of consciousness, which always involves a leaving.

The Original Call of JesusScreen Shot 2015-01-23 at 8.58.18 PM

So, Jesus begins his ministry, just after his baptism and following his period of wilderness temptations, by calling followers to leave home.  Simon and Andrew, James and John, all fishermen, hear the call and respond.

Mark could have told us this story without any mention of nets, boats or parents.  He could have just said that Jesus met them, called them, and they followed.  But he draws our attention to nets, boats, and parents, to make the point: the call to follow Jesus involved leaving behind things that had been essential to their lives.

They were fishermen; that was their identity.  Their nets and boats defined them.  So did their families.  They had names, first names and tribal names inherited from their fathers.  And Jesus was calling them to leave these behind, just as Abraham and Sarah had done so long ago.   Mark tells us:

“immediately they left their nets and followed him…Immediately…they left their father…in the boat” Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 10.14.42 AM

The Two Halves of Life

What does this leaving look like?  In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr unfolds the spiritual journey using Carl Jung’s paradigm of the two halves of life.

In the first half of life, we all needed to work on forming a sense of who we are, and of course, we did that by reference first to our families of origin.  If that process went well, we developed a good sense of self-worth and resilience.

Later, we established ourselves as adults.  We identified with our roles and titles.  Many Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 10.23.04 AMof us took on the role of being fathers or mothers.  We identified with our jobs – we became stay-at-home parents, or engineers, teachers, or business people, maybe even fishermen.

We defined ourselves by our permanent features like our race, gender, and sexual-orientation.  We identified with the groups that we were part of, like our nation, our religion, our political party and so on.

Rohr likes to use the analogy of the container.  Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.07.25 PMThink of your life as a container.  All of these ways we developed our identities were like features of our container.   He says,

the task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s life and answer the first essential questions: “What makes me significant?” “How can I support myself?” and “Who will go with me?

(Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, p. 1).

So what is the task of the second half of life?  He says “It is, quite simply, to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver.”

Once we have completed the task of building the container in the first half of life, we are ready to answer the call to the task of the second half of life.

The call to the spiritual life is a call to a journey that will require leaving behind the well-built container with its iron-clad certainties, its rules for how things have to go in order to be acceptable to us, and its notion that following the leaders we like makes us the good guys.

In short, the journey of the spiritual life is always a risk.  It is, like Abraham and Sarah learned, a call to an unknown land that lacks map boarders.  Like the disciples, it is a call to leave behind what used to work so well in order to take the next step towards spiritual maturity.

Jesus’ Proclamation 

I love the way Mark describes the process for us.  Jesus comes, Mark says,

proclaiming the good news of God”.

Remember, the people he is “proclaiming” to are Jewish – they know all about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses and the prophets.

So what is God’s good news that Jesus proclaims?Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 8.58.45 PM

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The time is fulfilled.

The moment has come.  The moment is now.  The present moment is where it starts.  It begins with the mindful awareness that this moment now is the only moment we ever get to live in.  In this moment, we live our lives.  The past is gone and cannot be altered.  The future is always in the future, whether we long for it or dread it.  The only moment we have is now.

I just saw a Facebook post from the philosopher Winnie the Pooh.  Winnie and Piglet are out for a walk.  “What day is it?” Pooh asked.  “It’s today” squeaked Piglet.”  “My favorite day.”  said Pooh.  Exactly, since today is the only day we ever get to live.

So today, in this moment, we are called to “repent” which literally means to change our thinking.  This means letting go of an old way of imagining the world and my place in it, and becoming open to a new way of understanding, a new consciousness.  Leaving the nets and the boats and the nest behind.

In a moment we will run through some of Jesus’ central perspectives, and this is what we are going to see.  Jesus constantly called people to a higher level of conscious, to an awakening.

Here is the way it looks:  The old consciousness was literalistic.  In the first half of life we had either-or, black or white, all or nothing, in or out, for-me or against-me kinds of categories.  This is called dualistic thinking.

There is no room for paradox or mystery.  All the coloring must be within the lines;  the music permits no improvisation.  The call is to move on to a higher level of non-dual consciousness.

So, here is the question: if the time is fulfilled, the present moment is the moment in which we are living, and the call is to repentance, to a change of thinking, to a new non-dual consciousness, on what basis do we take the risk to follow?

Jesus proclaims,

the kingdom of God has come near

Jesus’ Kingdom Project

Jesus will spend all of his short life inviting people to accept the good news that the kingdom of God has actually come near.  Listen to all of these challenges to a higher level of non-dual consciousness:

He will heal people and announce that their sins are forgiven without recourse to a temple, a sacrifice or a priest.  He will turn the concept of Sabbath upside down and teach that people are not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for the benefit of people.

He will teach the parables of the kingdom, explaining that it is not a physical kingdom to kill and die for, but a present reality, like seed sown on four kinds of soils; like an illuminating lamp on a stand, like invisibly growing seeds that suddenly sprout, or like a huge plant bursting up from a tiny mustard seed.

Through all of these, Jesus will be inviting people to abandon their old dualistic thinking and embrace a new consciousness.  He will coax and bemuse and sometimes irritate people, calling them to embrace a reality that is present, but present only to those who are open to receiving its presence.

The good news is that the kingdom of God has indeed come near.  Forgiveness is a fact.  Healing of old wounds and cancers of the soul like bitterness and envy is possible.  We can be forgiven forgivers who turn the other cheek.

Guilt and shame are categories that can now be abandoned, in favor of grace and liberation.  God can be known as Jesus knew him, as Abba-Father instead of as the rigid score-keeper.

Us-and-them dualistic thinking can be left behind, back at the shore with the old nets and the boat, and a new openness to others who are different, but equally loved by God can blossom.

Lost sheep and prodigal sons and daughters are welcome.  Sinners and tax collectors are welcome.  Samaritans and Gentiles are welcome, lepers, the sick and the lame are all invited to live into their true identities as sons and daughters of God.  When a person can accept that, then the kingdom of God has come near for them.

The Call to UsScreen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.00.39 PM

This call is for all of us.  Jesus comes to us inviting us to journey into the second half of life.  “Follow me” he calls.

Leave the nets and the boats.  Leave the nest.  Let go of the group-think, the herd mentality, the devotion to the status quo, the dualistic either-or consciousness.  The moment is now, the present.  There is a much richer, more satisfying, holistic  and open way to live.  It is life lived fully aware and connected with God, and compassionately involved in the real world.

Follow me” Jesus calls all of us.  Follow me out to the place of solitude and silence.  Follow me to the practice of prayer and contemplation where the ego can be ignored and contemplative consciousness can grow.

Follow me” to the crowds that need food.  Follow me to the sick who need healing compassion.  Because the good news is that the kingdom of God is at hand!

Come; follow me” Jesus invites us.  Find the contents of your container – your true self, in God.  Know that you are loved.  Believe that you are forgiven.  Come to recognize the presence of God in everything.  Learn what the great spiritual teachers know, that:

“God comes to you disguised as your life”  (source: Paula D’Arcy, in Falling Upward, p. 66, by Richard Rohr.)

Yes, there will be suffering and pain.  Life is difficult.  But God will be there for us.  There will be obstacles and even enemies, but even these can be redeemed for good.  There will be deaths, but resurrections will follow.  This is the pattern built into the universe.

Come” Jesus calls us, “the time is the present moment, the kingdom of God has come near, change your consciousness; follow me.”

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Being the Called

Being the Called

Sermon for January 18, 2015, 2nd Epiphany, B, (Ordinary 2), on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51

John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 5.11.27 PM

We read the story of the call of the boy Samuel.  I have noticed that when there is a story with children in it, people think of it as a children’s story.  But there is a big difference between a story about children and a story for children.  I am not sure who should be reading Little Red Riding Hood, for example, because it ends with way more blood on the floor than children should ever have to imagine, not to mention all the innuendos that we cannot discuss here.

I first heard this first story about the call of Samuel as a child, and I bet you did too.  On one level, that is a good thing.  I hope every child gets to hear someone call their name and say, “God is calling you.”  I hope we all learned that the response of the called is to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

A Life Changing Call

On another level, this is not at all a children’s story.  Samuel was called to say some pretty adult things to an adult, about bad things to come, based on bad things done in the past by adults, and none of it is fit for children.   I have often said that the bible is an adult book, and this story is one of the reasons.

We call this story a “call narrative” because it tells of a person receiving a calling.  Being called is life changing.  When a person understands that they are called to do or to be something, a new chapter in their life starts.  Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 5.17.01 PM

We read another call narrative today; actually two call narratives.   We read of Jesus’ call to Phillip and then Phillip’s call to Nathanael.

John tells us that Philip, Andrew and Peter were from Bethsaida. I am always curious when an insignificant detail is mentioned, especially in the Gospel of John where nearly everything seems to have both a literal and a figurative meaning.  It turns out that Bethsaida means “house of hunting or house of fishing” and that is exactly what is going on in this scene.  People are hunted or fished for, which is another way of saying they are “called.”

Jesus’ call to Phillip is simple and direct:  “Follow me.”  Phillip does follow.  The first thing Phillip does as a follower of Jesus is to hunt or fish for Nathanael and call him to follow as well.

Nathanael is a bit skeptical.  His call has come, not from Jesus directly, but second-hand.  Philip recognizes this obstacle and immediately offers a brilliant solution: “Come and see.”  Meet Jesus personally for yourself, as I have done, and you will be drawn to follow as I have been.  Simply, “come and see.”

Being CalledScreen Shot 2015-01-16 at 5.25.53 PM

This call narrative is written for us.  I hope you see yourself in these first disciples.  I hope you are able to picture yourself in this story.  I wonder when you first became aware that you have been personally called to be a follower of Jesus?  I wonder when you first responded to that double call: “follow me…come and see.”?

Certainly our calling began at our baptisms when we were called by our Christian name and someone said, “Child of the covenant, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  We became children of God, recipients of God’s spirit.

Most of us were too young to remember the water that touched our skin at our baptisms, but we have felt the call, the tug, the pull on our hearts to follow Jesus.  Probably we have felt called for the same reason Phillip did and offered to Nathanael: we have come and seen.

Seeing 

We have seen, in Jesus, a life lived as intended; fully human, fully alive.  Awake to God’s presence in the world, open to experiencing God in the moment, welcoming people into his life of all sorts, without distinction, and allowing God to bless them through him.   We have “come and seen” in Jesus, a possibility of life as God intended.

This past week we probably all saw the news about the climbers who made it to the top of 3,000-foot Dawn Wall in YosemiteScreen Shot 2015-01-16 at 5.11.37 PM Valley’s El Capitan Meadow. Tommy Caldwell, and Kevin Jorgeson free claimed to the summit.  That meant enduring incredible pain as their fingers were cut and scraped by the rock face.  Climbers are amazing people; the very presence of difficult mountains seems to inspire them.  They feel a call to a challenge, and they welcome it.

Challenge

I thought of them as I was reflecting on these call narratives we read this week.  There are some obvious similarities.  Samuel, as well as Philip, Nathanael and all the rest of the disciples were called to face enormous challenges.  And yet, the call was compelling.

What does the call to follow Jesus mean?  It is not a call to comfort, nor convenience. It is not a call to confirmation of all our previously held conclusions.  It is not even a call to certainty about where the following will lead.

But it is a compelling call, to us, because we have come and seen something in Jesus that gives us a glimpse of the life we long for.

ConnectionScreen Shot 2015-01-16 at 5.30.18 PM

Nathanael was pretty impressed when he came to Jesus and learned that he had been seen under the fig tree before Phillip found him.  But Jesus tells him that was nothing compared to what he is going to see: “angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

As I said, John’s gospel is full of figurative language.  We are meant to remember the dream Jacob had of the stairway, or as our translations often have it, the ladder between heaven and earth, on which angels are ascending and descending (Gen. 28:12).   It is a meeting point of heaven and earth; God’s realm and the human realm seamlessly connected.

John is making the point that in Jesus, the divine and the human are totally connected.  And this is exactly what the call to follow Jesus is all about.  It is a call to live life totally connected with God.

Union

I know that Protestants are far more comfortable speaking of “communion” with God rather than “union” with God, but we need to get over it.  Union with God, oneness with God is what Jesus prays for all of us to know (John 17).

Union with God means living in the reality that we are beloved sons and daughters of God.  It means living with complete trust.  We trust that God is with us, we trust that God is for us, we trust that God will lead us through every step of our mortal lives; that God is our source and our final destiny.

This can be a source of great comfort and encouragement, which I hope it is for you.  But remember, a call to follow Jesus and to experience union with God is not a call to comfort or convenience.

We are human.  There are a lot of obstacles that get in the way.  Some of them we bring on ourselves.  And we live in a world that seems to be rigged against those who try to follow the Jesus path.

So what does the call to follow Jesus, the call to “follow” and to “come and see” involve, if not comfort and convenience?

Silence

For me, it means answering the call to contemplation, the call to silence. If following Jesus means, at least, at some level, imitation, then it means following Jesus by imitating his practice of solitude and silence.

Silence is hard.  In silence, we die to ourselves.  It is, in fact, difficult to sit for twenty or thirty minutes without speaking, and without mentally speaking to ourselves as we normally do.  We die, in that time of silence, to the voice in our heads narrating our plans for the future and ruminating about our past experiences.  We die to our narratives of self-justification for our past and our narratives of control over our futures.

But, somehow, in that silence, we become more present to the Presence of God.    We become more conscious of our true union with God, the source of everything. We become more mindful of the present moment, the only moment we ever get to live in.

And the effect of the practice of silence, over time, is that we become more alive and more present to the moments  we are living.  We become more mindful throughout the day.

CompassionScreen Shot 2015-01-16 at 4.31.14 PM

The practice of silent, centering prayer leads to greater compassion.  We develop a greater capacity to see, as Jesus saw, the real people around us and the pain they carry.  We become better listeners to the stories of others.  We become more conscious of how much we are alike, despite surface differences.

I have not doubt that it was Jesus’ practice of solitude and silence that enabled him to see the world as he saw it and to know how to respond to what he saw.  He was at one with the Father and knew himself as God’s son, and was able to see people with compassion.

Instead of being disgusted by disease, as the natural response is, Jesus reached out and touched people in healing ways.  Instead of being put off by people who were different – ethnically different like Samaritans or Romans, or different from him by gender, or age, or status, he was able to welcome and engage them in life-giving conversations.

Instead of seeing hopeless tragedy, in the presence of thousands of poor hungry people, he took, bless, broke, and shared what was available, and multitudes went away satisfied by the abundance.  There was even left over abundance.

Justice

I believe it was also Jesus’ time in solitude and silence that enabled him to see with God’s eyes the injustice going on at the temple in those days and to take the risk of acting against it.  It was Jesus’ seamless sense of connection with God, his Father, that inspired him to say, to the money changers in the temple, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!

So, both Jesus’ compassion for people in pain, and passion for justice were direct products of his practice of silent union with his Father.

Being The Called

Follow me” Jesus calls to all of us.  Follow me, he calls us, into union with the Father.  Follow me to a life of compassionate welcome and healing.  Follow me to a risk-taking passion for justice, for advocacy on behalf of the powerless and on behalf of our fragile, hurting planet.

Follow me” Jesus calls to all of us.  Come and see what life can be like.  Come and follow the one who knew what it was to live personally with heaven and earth in seamless contact.

And then, Jesus calls us,  “follow me” out to places of pain and suffering, people in desperate need of compassion, and accept the challenge ahead.

We always close our Contemporary service by singing a musical setting of  “Prayer of Good Courage,” which I think is fitting for us:

O God you have called us,Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 4.26.55 PM
to ventures where we cannot see the end,
by paths never yet taken,
through perils unknown.
Give us good courage,not knowing where we go,
to know that your hand is leading us
wherever we might go.
Amen.

Leadership?

Here is how my day went.  This morning I stopped by a hospital were Bob, a 93 year old, was dying.   Later, in the afternoon, I Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 11.19.44 PMgot a call to come back to the hospital because it appeared that he was close to the end.  So I went back, met with the family members who had been there, keeping watch, and about two hours later, Bod died.  During the wait, I read scripture, prayed, and was present.  When Bob died, I read another scripture, and said a prayer of commendation to the Lord, of the deceased.  Then I stayed awhile with Bob’s son as he took in his father’s death.

Then, I went back to the church, met with a couple to plan the memorial service for the woman’s brother.

Immediately after that, I gave the blessing prayer for the Wednesday night church supper.  After supper I led the younger youth in a game of “Mother, may I?” followed by music, and a lesson on Psalm 23.  In between, I worked hard on the bible study I will lead tomorrow on Exodus.  That was my day.

Two days before this day, I attended a clergy seminar focused on “leadership.”

I want to be a good leader.  I know I have a lot to learn.  I know I have failings.  I never knew, before this weekend, that if my “to do” list did not have a date for each “to do” then it was killing me.

I have never been able to put a date beside a “to do” such as “be there when Bob dies.”

I want to be an effective leader.  I don’t think I know much about that.  I feel badly that I could be a much better leader than I am. I did not take any courses in management or business, and I have read a few, but only a few books on the subject since then.

Here is my question: how much of what I do falls under the rubric of “leadership”?  Some, for sure.  But how much?  Is it even 50%?  I don’t know.  I doubt it.

At the pastor’s leadership seminar, we talked some about having a vision.  What is my vision for my congregation?  I think there is fertile ground here.  I want to have a congregation with a sense of shared vision.  That seems like a good idea.

But how does it fit into a vision statement to say: “I want to be a pastor to people who are dying and to their families.”?   This is part of my vision.   And so is this: “I want to help develop the faith of 10 year olds, beginning with the game “Mother, may I?”.

Here is what my day will be like tomorrow: First is prayer group: a gathering of 3 ladies and me who pray for the world, the church, and people in need.  Then, there is bible study.  About 40 people will gather expecting solid bible study from me.  In the afternoon, praise team practice.  I will lead the musicians in rehearsal of the songs we will play in the contemporary worship service this Sunday.

Then I will drive 50 miles to visit Wes in the hospital, recovering from a head injury after a parking lot fall. Wes is  93 years old; part of our Winter Family from Indiana.

So, I attended a seminar on leadership.  And I want to be a good leader.

And that aspect of my life and ministry seems rather narrow at the moment.  Important, but narrow.

I’m struggling with this.

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Being The Baptized

Being The Baptized

Sermon on Mark 1:4-11for Baptism of Jesus, Year B, Jan. 11, 2015

Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Being The BaptizedScreen Shot 2015-01-10 at 7.02.56 PM

I do not often remember my dreams, though I wish I did.  People tell me there is a lot to discover by examining our dreams.  But when I do have a dream that I recall in the morning, I have noticed that the memory of it dissipates quickly.  In fact, even when I have told my wife about a dream I had, I seem to forget it quickly.

I have also noticed what a hard time I have describing the dream.  It is just hard to put in words the odd dream experiences – where it happens, who is there, what is said.

Religious Experience and Dreams

Powerful religious experiences are both like and unlike dreams.  Like dreams, powerful religious experiences are often hard to describe in words.  People will say  God “told them” something, but usually they do not mean they actually heard a voice.  So how did God say it?  It is hard to put in to language.  So, in that way, religious experiences are like dreams.

But unlike dreams, religious experiences often have lasting effects.  In fact, just the opposite of a dream that fades before suppertime, often religious experiences have profound effects that change the course of a person’s life and that remain with a person for the rest of their lives.  I am aware that some of you, probably many of you have had profound and transformative religious experiences.

Jesus’ Religious Experience

Have you ever wondered about Jesus’ religious experiences? We just read Mark’s description of one: the transformative experience he had at his baptism.

It is uncommon that all four gospels record the same events in Jesus’ life, besides the action in the temple and his crucifixion.  But all four have the same basic outline for this baptismal experience; it was that important.  Here is how it happened: early in Jesus’ adult life he went out to the wilderness area at the Jordan River where his cousin John has been baptizing people, and he was baptized by John.

The details differ a bit, but all agree that this was a powerful experience Jesus had with two lasting and transformative effects: first, Jesus became aware that the Spirit of God had come on him in a unique and dramatic way; and second, that his identity was God’s beloved child, God’s beloved son.

Shortly after this powerful religious experience, Jesus then began his public ministry, proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of God.

What is Baptism About?

"Mikveh" baptismal pool at Qumran, Israel
“Mikveh” baptismal pool at Qumran, Israel

Now, let us pause for a moment to consider what baptism involved.   You had to have water – either a natural source like the Jordan River or, like out at the Qumran community, a small pool called a ‘mikveh,’ with stairs leading down into the water.

At Qumran they practiced the baptismal ritual often, even multiple times a day, because it symbolized becoming purified – like a bath.  And that is one of the lasting meanings of our baptism: a cleansing.

But John’s baptism was a single event.  He called it a baptism of repentance.  Mark tells us people went to confess their sins.  There is a cleansing aspect, but the main idea is that this was an initiation rite.  By being baptized, you were joining a movement.  It is a renewal movement.   In fact, a Jewish renewal movement.

All the symbolics were solidly Jewish.  John’s very wardrobe, rustic as it was, is exactly the outfit worn by the prophet Elijah of old.  He was a Jewish reformer as well.  His confrontation with corrupt king Ahab actually brought down the government.  Should John, in Elijah costume, make king Herod nervous?  Clearly, he did, and with reason.

The Jordan river is another rich Jewish symbol.  Crossing the river was how you go from wandering in the wilderness to living in the promised land.  It is a boundary.  To re-enter those waters is to come out in a new place, with a new identity.

Question: why is going down into water the best way to initiate someone into this renewal movement?  Besides the fact that the Jordan river as a literal boundary, there is one more powerful symbol that baptism in water displays.  To go under water and to rise up again is like going down into the silent grave and coming up in resurrection.  It is like a death followed by a rebirth.  It signifies that an old way of being has come to and end and a new life has begun.

Forgiveness without Temple or Priest

John was doing something radical and risky as he called people to come for baptism.  He said it was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

I can hear someone saying, “Wait a minute John!  Who are you to hand out forgiveness on no more basis than repentance and water baptism?  Was not the power to pronounce forgiveness the prerogative of the authorized priests in the one temple in Jerusalem?  If forgiveness was available to people apart from the whole system of sacrifice – of bloody victims and scapegoats, the whole system would be undermined.”

Yes indeed.  This renewal movement was radical and should have been a threat to both the politics of king Herod and the notion of a necessary priestly mediator between God and the people.

Repentance and Responsibility

The people were ready for renewal.  They had an instinctive understanding that things were not right and needed to change.  They felt a longing for something more; for renewal; for transformation.  Many of us can identify with that longing.  And so they came to John.

Look at what they did:  they came repenting and confessing their sins.  This is powerful.  In Thursday bible study we are looking at Exodus.  We have noticed that the Jews were slaves in Egypt for many years and that assimilation was well advanced by the time Moses was born.

Perhaps they had forgotten their identity as people of the covenant; people of the promise, and so had even stopped circumcising their babies, as the Rabbis speculated. And perhaps without this last distinguishing mark Pharaoh was not entirely to blame for forgetting that these were the people of Joseph who had saved the nation from famine.

Perhaps their assimilation contributed to their brutal treatment.  The Rabbi’s want to call attention to the fact that it is only when a person takes responsibility for their role in the condition they are in that change can come.  Owning up to the part I have played in the situation I am in is the only way I can move from victim to liberation.  “Owning up to” is another way of saying, “confession.”

So the people came to John confessing their responsibility. And they “repented”.  That is they had a change of mind, they embraced an expanded consciousness – which is the essence of what “repentance” means.

Jesus and BaptismScreen Shot 2015-01-10 at 9.58.14 PM

And Jesus also came and was baptized and then had the profound experience of being filled with God’s Holy Spirit, and identified as God’s beloved son.

What does it mean that Jesus entered those waters?  Do  you remember the days when African Americans could not go swimming with Caucasian Americans?  Mixed bathing was forbidden.  Why?  There is something about being in the same water with someone that involves being okay with them.  When you are not okay with people, you do not get into the pool with them.

Well, these were the waters of baptism.  The waters that the sinful people went  into.  These were the waters of the grave, that all of these people were going down into and rising up from, the people who were taking responsibility for their own involvement in evil.  And Jesus got in there with them.

This means that Jesus totally embraced both John’s renewal perspective and the people who joined it.  Jesus affirmed this radical reform in the understanding of God.  Forgiveness was not dispensed exclusively by the professionals at the temple with animal blood on their hands.  Forgiveness was what God alone did, and exactly what God wants us to understand that God constantly does.  Forgiveness is a free gift of grace, and a grace being given every day.

So Jesus went down into those confessional waters and allowed John to lower him into that symbolic grave, and to lift him up into a new reality.  It was his initiation into a renewal of the Jewish promise: the promise to bless all the families of the earth.  He had the experience of receiving the Spirit, hearing himself called God’s beloved Son.  And then hen went out to proclaim the arrival of the kingdom of God.

Being the Baptized Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 10.03.20 PM

Jesus’ experience that day was unique to him.  But everyone who went out to be baptized was changed.  They were initiated into a new way of being.  They crossed the Jordan and entered the promised land.  They began to wear the identity of the baptized.

We too have been baptized.  Most of us were babies at the time of our initiation into the Christian family.  At that moment, someone said our name, and called us, a child of the covenant.  We put on a new identity.

We no longer lower people into pools of water in our denomination.  Just like the Lord’s supper reduces a full banquet down into its most basic essentials: one small bit of bread and a sip of the fruit of the vine, so our baptismal tradition reduces the act of immersion to its basic reality: we come in direct contact with water.  But by that sacramental act, we still get the full impact.  We are dead to an old identity, and old world, and alive with a new identity.

So, what does it mean then to live as the baptized people?  How does our identity as baptized people open doors to renewal and transformation?

People of the Spirit

At baptism, just like Jesus, we too become people of the Spirit of God.  As the baptized, we are people in whom God’s spirit dwells.  God’s Spirit lives in us, the baptized, and walks through every moment of our lives with us, filling us with the possibility of living in the present moment with trust.  That is the essence of what it means to follow Jesus.

Being The Beloved

And just like Jesus, who heard the voice calling him God’s beloved son, so we the baptized are now able to live into the identity of being God’s beloved children.  As I was reflecting about this text this week I looked up the many places in which we Christians are called “beloved” in the New Testament.  Probably my favorite is Colossians 3:12

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

As God’s baptized, you are beloved.  And as a beloved person, “clothe yourselves,” or wear the garments befitting the baptized: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.  That is what the baptized do.   They wear the garments of the beloved.

I am sure you have heard about Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  I cannot tell you how ugly and wrong-headed that perspective about what God is like is.  How about: sinners invited to know God as the one who forgives, the one who calls us “beloved” and who is willing to give us the identity of God’s sons and daughters, and even to send the Holy Spirit to be present with us in every moment?  This is the God Jesus believed in and proclaimed.

Being the Dangerous

So how do the baptized live?  We become personally transformed people, and they become dangerous.  The baptized start following Jesus.  We start finding the hungry, feeding the hungry, and then asking the political question: why are they hungry?

The baptized, who have seen and named the evil in themselves, also see and name the evil in the world’s systems.  The systems that discriminate against people of color or against people who are poor should shake when the baptized show up.

The baptized who wear the identity of the beloved children of God look at their communities with transformed eyes.  They look at the pain and say, how can the Spirit in me  be a force for good, a healing, helping presence?  Maybe I can tutor middle school students.  Maybe I can advocate to protect our environment from disaster.  Maybe I can be a voice for the homeless.  Certainly I can use my financial resources to empower ministries of justice and compassion.

We are the baptized.  Let us celebrate this!

We have been initiated into the family of God.  We are the beloved children.  We have been given God’s Spirit.

We have gone down into the watery grave and now are able to be dead to the false identities that our violence-loving, ego-driven, consumer culture tries to force us to wear.

We have come up out of the waters as the baptized: re-born into a new world.

Now, our calling is simply to live as the baptized, following Jesus every moment.

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What God is Really Like?

What God is Really Like?

Sermon on John 1:1-18 for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, Year B, Jan 4, 2015,   

John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

For many people, 2014 was not the best of years.  Facebook’s “Year in Review” was not welcomed by everyone.   Year-end Screen Shot 2015-01-03 at 11.51.11 AMnews reviews list international items  including  the ebola outbreak, ISIS militants, conflicts in Syria, Gaza, Russia and Ukraine, trouble with North Korea, and Malaysian airplane crashes. Here at home, the news has been filled with political deadlock, mythical conspiracy theories, and racial tensions at levels unheard of for decades.

On a personal level, we all have our own struggles. We have lost people we loved this past year too; some quite unexpectedly.

But there were some really good things that happened this past year too.  In our family there were graduations and births to celebrate.  I read some fantastic books last year, and made more progress in eliminating clutter in several areas from the closet to the email in-box.  I am making space available for some new beginnings.

Here at the church we receive a major bequest that enabled us to take the bold step of adding full time staff, and we are already beginning to see the lasting fruit God is producing through the new ministries that have begun.

New Beginnings

This is the beginning of 2015.  Beginnings are good.  They provide an opportunity to pause, to look back, to reflect, and to think about the future.  A beginning is a chance for a fresh start.  My prayer for all of us is that we will make use of the opportunity of a new year to pause and reflect and ask ourselves what new beginnings God wants for our lives this year.

We begin this calendar year with the beginning of the gospel of John.  Let us be open to how this text may guide us into new beginnings, as we start this new year.  Screen Shot 2015-01-03 at 12.05.31 PM

John starts at the very beginning just like Genesis does.  In fact John is consciously echoing the creation story.  “In the beginning” is how it starts.  In the beginning there was nothing ordered, nothing life-supporting until God spoke the words, “Let there be”.  That is the word John begins with: in the beginning was the Word, the divine Logos.

By the way, just to be clear, I believe in God as creator, but I do not believe that the Genesis story was ever intended to be read literally.  That being said, however, over the holidays I have been reading articles and hearing a number of lectures by scientists discussing theories of the origins of the universe and of life.  Long story short: scientific theories are sounding downright metaphysical to me (a multiverse produced by vibrating strings?!), though as a non-scientist, I am not in a position to evaluate it.

But anyway, biblical accounts of origins are about theology: they invite us to a way of understanding God and humanity, and how we relate to each other.

The Creative Word at the BeginningScreen Shot 2015-01-03 at 12.10.10 PM

So, in the beginning was the creative Word of God.  That creative word spoke a life-sustaining, bountiful, healthy, harmonious, peaceful, world out of the formless void of chaos.  God spoke the word, and created light where there had only been darkness before.

And in the original story, on the climactic sixth day, as a crowning achievement, God made humans in God’s own image, male and female.  With another word, God blessed them with fruitfulness – well-being, human flourishing, eudaimonia.   Our understanding of who we are starts here.

This is exactly what God wants for all of us.  This is the place to start to understand what God is like: God is good, God’s physical world is good, and people like us are the special objects of God’s good will.  God wills our life, our shalom, our well-being.

In that first creation story, there is a pristine state of closeness between God and humans.  God walks and talks with Adam and Eve at the time of the evening breeze.  People understand God’s word to them.  They are in a state of communion.  This is also what we were made for, and what we long for.

Of course that perfect world does not last long.  The biblical story is completely open and honest about the tragic aspect of life.  We humans have a remarkable capacity to mess things up.  We all do.  We make choices.  Like Adam and Eve in the story, we are easily seduced.  We blame others.

We wind up way outside the Garden.  God feels distant – we all sense that.  God’s word grows faint.  We all long to re-establish contact.  We sense that there is more for us; we want to hear the word, to know God, but we seem unable.

God’s Presence in the Word

As our Jewish ancestors reflected on the human condition – on both the blessed and tragic aspects of it, they thought about God’s presence in evolving ways.  In the stories of the ancestors, God was in the distant heaven, communicating at a distance, often through dream states.  Jacob dreams of a ladder on which angels go up and down to deliver God’s word to earth.  Screen Shot 2015-01-03 at 12.18.25 PM

Moses gets closer to a direct experience with God, first at the burning bush, and then, up on the smoking Mount Sinai where he saw God’s glory from behind.  He  comes down with Torah, God’s word now written on tablets of stone.

Moses orders a tabernacle tent-shrine made as the people wander in the wilderness, and he deposits God’s written word inside it.  This will symbolize God’s presence among the people.  The tabernacle and the word travel with the people to the promised land.  People in those days spoke of God’s presence as a tabernacling presence.

Eventually Solomon builds a permanent temple so God’s word moves from the tabernacle tent into its new home in the holy of holies, inside the holy place, inside the concentric temple courts.  Only the high priest may enter, and only on the one sacred day, and only after elaborate rites.

But God’s word and presence is more dynamic than that.  Jewish people knew  that God’s creative word could not be contained in a human box in a man-made temple.  God had things to say to people that needed to be  said at a far deeper level than words on stone could go.

So, in the Jewish tradition, prophets emerged who spoke the word of God in new and fresh ways – often confronting the people in control, speaking truth to power – even to the kings and priests.  The prophetic word broke out of the box and demanded that a new light shine onto the man-made darkness of evil, injustice and corruption.

Prophets cried out, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like and everflowing stream.”  They pictured a new day, a new beginning on which God’s anointed would come, full of grace and truth.

The God who was high and lifted up, enthroned, as in Isaiah’s vision, and the Chariot vision of Ezekiel, would one day do a new thing through an anointed one, a Messiah, one like a human, a son of man.

The Jewish Wisdom Tradition

In the Jewish tradition, after the destruction of the temple at the hands of the Babylonians, a new concept developed.  God’s word also took another form.  God’s creative word could call out  to ordinary people outside of tScreen Shot 2015-01-03 at 12.24.36 PMemples and apart from priests and prophets.  God could be known in common and ordinary life, if a person was open and humble.

Like a lady calling out to people, God’s word was wisdom, sophia, inviting people to find life and favor; grace.

At the end of a poetic hymn to lady wisdom, who was with God and part of God’s means of creation of the world, she says,

For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the LORD; (Prov. 8:35)

As wisdom, God’s word was immanent; present to ordinary people.  God could touch life directly.  To walk in wisdom is to walk with God personally, intimately.

The Jesus Path 

Now let us return to the gospel of John.  John begins with a hymn to the Word, the Logos, the wisdom who was with God at the Creation of the world.  Screen Shot 2015-01-03 at 12.33.46 PM

“In the beginning was the Logos, Wisdom the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He, the Logos, the Word, was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him (the Word), and without  him (the Word) not one thing came into being.” 

The Logos-Word not only brought the world into existence, it then enlightened the world:

What has come into being” in him (the Word) was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 

And, amazingly, John says this word showed up among us in the flesh:

“And the Word became flesh and lived (literally “tabernacled”) among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” 

Is it now possible to see God?  John says,

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” 

People who encountered Jesus, encountered in him, the living union with God they had been longing for.  In Jesus, God has been made known.

They saw in Jesus a life lived in communion with the Creator.  They witnessed a life lived in the light so immediately present that no amount of darkness could overcome it.  They came to understand that Jesus’ way was the way of wisdom, the way of walking in the presence of God, the way of life.

A New Beginning Moment for Us

Here, at the beginning of 2015, we have come to a moment of newness – at least an opportunity to make this moment a new beginning.

The message we need to hear first is the message of Creation: God is Good.  God created each of us in God’s image to live in communion with God.  God desires our blessing, our fruitfulness, our well-being.

The second message we need to hear is that God is present to us.  God is not confined in a box, and God’s dynamic word is not limited to letters chiseled on stone.  God is not contained in a temple’s inner sanctum, but is present with us, among us, in every moment.

God’s presence comes as a light in the darkness.  God’s light brings insight into our  human condition and shows us that in spite of our human tendency to mess things up, God is here to give us grace upon grace, in fact, full of grace and truth.

The path to transformation, to newness, is the Jesus path.  It is the path of a full-hearted embrace of God, as Jesus did, without fear or shame or guilt.  The Jesus path leads to knowing “I and the Father are One.” “That they may be one as we are one” Jesus prayed.

The Jesus path is the journey-inward of spiritual practices of prayer, meditation and silence, of communion and worship.

And then the Jesus path leads outwards to God’s people – the ones who are sick, the untouchables, the hungry, and the lost sheep.

So, here, at the beginning of 2015, let us pause for a time of reflection.  Where in our lives is newness needed?

Let us all ask:  What are the practices and disciplines we need to make space for in our lives in a new way this year?

How can we follow the Jesus path and experience enlightenment in new ways?

Come!  Make a new start.  Follow the Jesus path to God.