Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Waiting In The Darkness

Mark 3:20-35

Jesus went home and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

T.J. and Dave come out on stage and say, “Trust Us, This Is All Made Up.”  The lights go off.  No one knows where this is going.  No one.  Not the audience.  Not even T.J. and Dave!  This is improv.  But it’s improv with no starting point.  Just two guys on the barren stage looking at each other.  Waiting.  Waiting for one of them to begin.  In the few minutes that takes waiting in the darkness, some people actually leave!  They can’t take the tension of not knowing or even having a clue as to what comes next! 

We humans like do patterns.  We like to have clues and put clues together and anticipate how things will turn out.  It’s helped us survive.  We notice “leaves of three” and that pattern helps us make better hygiene decisions when camping.  It’s why we like Sherlock Holmes and Columbo.  It’s why, when T.J. or Dave eventually says something and the other responds, the tension in the theatre drops for everyone, including T.J. and Dave.  Everyone gets a clue where it’s going.  Those patterns of life are helpful… Well… helpful until they aren’t.  What happens when something new comes along?  What happens when old patterns no longer fit?  What happens when someone begins to discover, explore and live into their true, authentic, self and that authentic self is suddenly very different?  

What happens, is what happened in today’s Gospel.  People who knew Jesus before… who knew his old patterns as a good, Jewish, son and brother… they were disturbed that Jesus wasn’t following those old, established patterns.  They could no longer anticipate where he would go next so they forced him into a box they understood… they said he was crazy.  The Scribes too, couldn’t see where he was coming from or where he was going.  He didn’t fit the patterns.  He healed on the Sabbath, which shouldn’t be possible!  He was an unpredictable rebel in an occupied country.  It scared them and so they forced him into a box they knew… they said he was possessed!  

In both cases, they had trouble allowing Jesus to live into his true and authentic self as the Son of God.  Now, from our perspective it’s easy to give the family and scribes grief for not catching on, but we have 2000 years of perspective.  T.J. and Dave describe their improv process as stepping into complete darkness… into an abyss, and trusting that the next step will rise up and be there when they put their foot down.  And that’s what Jesus’ family and the Scribes were being asked to do… step out into an abyss and trust that the next step would appear.  If that was you, would you take that step?  If that was you, would you trust the unseen or would you try to fit this never before seen thing into some other, more familiar box?  If that was you, would you have let Jesus live into his true, authentic self?  

It’s still a good question for us.  How do we handle Jesus being his authentic self?  How do we do with the death part of death and resurrection?  How do we do with Salvation being for ALL of creation… including the mean people!  What do we do with an angry Jesus and the parts of Scripture that make us uncomfortable?  How are we at allowing God to be God and not insisting that God go into a box of our own making?  And what about the regular people in our lives?  Do we allow them to live into the authentic person they have been created to be?  Do we give them the space and support to explore their next step, or do we have a step in mind for them?  Are we willing to sit with them in their darkness, before the lights come up and someone finally speaks… are we willing to love them no matter who they are when those lights come on and they find their voice?  Are we willing to love ourselves as we sit in our own darkness?  

In this lesson there is a beautiful piece, in the middle of this story about Jesus, his family and the Scribes.  It might not seem beautiful at first, but if you are willing to see it authentically, it is something wonderful.  Jesus begins by saying, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.”  This is Jesus telling us that as people stop fitting into old patterns and as they begin to explore, experience and experiment to find their truly authentic selves, there is infinite grace and forgiveness for them in their journey and for us as we struggle to keep up with them along the way.  Regardless of the missteps and blunders and slips made along the way as we inevitably stumble not quite getting it right the first or even the fiftieth time.  God knows this is a difficult, but holy journey and there is infinite grace as you walk this path and stumble along the way… and there is infinite grace for us as we struggle to support others as they look to walk their path.  

The second part of that piece where Jesus says, “but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” is harsh but not nearly as easy to commit as most people worry about.  Blaspheming the Holy Spirit means waging a relentless campaign against God.  The word in Greek makes it clear, this isn’t about having questions, or searching… it’s not even about doubts or getting things terribly wrong… it’s not even about being frustrated, scared, angry or wandering lost in the darkness for a while.  To blaspheme the Holy Spirit you have to oppose God relentlessly.  To commit this sin, you need to insist that God has never and will never do anything new and you must slam the lid closed on the box you've built for God and sit on top of it without ever considering that God might just be doing something new.  

This lesson is a call for us to allow God to be fully God.  It is a call for us to be open to God doing new things in new places.  This lesson is a call for us to set out on our own journey as well... a journey to discern our authentic selves and not limit ourselves to the standard, culturally approved boxes and paths.  This lesson is a call to be gentle with those on that journey and grace for when we don't get it exactly right.  This lesson is a call to sit in the darkness, knowing it will be okay, until God brings up the lights and the Holy Spirit provides the next step.  So, this week, trust the Holy Spirit… sit in the darkness and open yourself to God’s new thing.  Amen. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Why Sabbath?

Mark 2:23-3:6

One sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

In Simon Sinek’s book, “Start with Why”, he points out a common pattern of great leaders.  While many of us start with “what” we do, great leaders begin with “why” we do it.  For him, the key, is to begin everything with WHY.  Marketing, advertising, product development, a political campaign or a movement to change the world; to really connect with people, leaders must begin with WHY.  It turns out that beginning with WHY makes connections in our brains at the deepest and most lasting levels.  From that deep beginning in WHY, then you can talk about HOW you want to do something and then talk about WHAT doing something might look like. 

In this Gospel lesson, the Pharisees were focused on WHAT people did on the Sabbath.  Was Jesus harvesting grain on the Sabbath?  Was Jesus traveling on the Sabbath?  WHAT was Jesus doing on the Sabbath?  When Jesus got to the Synagogue, he saw the man with the withered hand and he tried to get the Pharisees to go deeper.  He wanted them to consider WHY they did Sabbath.  Is the Sabbath something that gives life or takes it?  Jesus wanted them to really think about the Sabbath and not just do what they’ve always done.  Their silence left Jesus angry.  They wouldn’t even try to go deeper.  This is the only time in the Bible we read that Jesus is angry.  Even the cleansing of the Temple was not done out of anger.  

The Pharisees were stuck.  The rules God had given them to help them better connect with God and one another… the rules themselves had become their god.  Jesus asking WHY was seen as Jesus questioning god.  They were worshiping the Law rather than the One who gave the law.  Jesus knew that they were stuck in their fear of Jesus’ power and out of a fear of the wrath of the Roman Empire crashing down on them.  All that fear caused them to be unable to even talk about HOW we do Sabbath, let alone WHY.  

But you and I… we don’t have to be stuck that way.  We can think about the question the Pharisees refused to engage. So, WHY do we do Sabbath… or maybe a better question is WHY does God think Sabbath is a thing we humans should keep?  I think a bunch of ancient and modern day Pharisee types believe we need to do the Sabbath “because God says so”.  But “because I say so” has never been a satisfactory answer from anyone and it’s also not a real answer to WHY, is it?  So, WHY does God think a Sabbath is a good idea for us?  Well, it’s not to boost God’s self esteem.  God did perfectly well for all that time before humans showed up on the scene, thank you very much, so I’m sure God is just fine without us stroking the Divine Ego.  Keeping the Sabbath is also not some sort of a rung on a ladder that will help us climb up closer to God.  Ever since God breathed life into the lump of clay that became humanity, God’s been deeply and intimately connected to you and me and all of creation.  We certainly can’t get any closer to God than God has already gotten to us and every other molecule of all of creation.  So then WHY Sabbath?  

When Jesus said to the folks gathered in the Synagogue, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” he hit the WHY of doing Sabbath, right on the head.  God has told us to do Sabbath… to take one seventh of our lives as off-time… time apart… down-time… battery-charging time… God asks us to do that, because the One who designed us… the One who created us… the One who loved us into being… is also the One who best knows how we tick as human beings.  God didn’t just create us… God also wrote the instruction manual for us!  

And this one-seventh time off thing isn’t just meant to be for us humans.  God, it turns out, has designed all of creation to work that way.  Donkeys, oxen, livestock, migrant labor, men, women, boys and girls… everyone and every living thing needs one seventh of their lives spent in Sabbath time… a time of rest… a time of renewal.  

Folks often think of the ten commandments and all of God’s Law as something put in place to get in the way of us having fun… either that or a set of random rules sent by a god who just likes rules for rule’s sake.  But that isn’t the WHY of the ten commandments… that isn’t the WHY of the Law.  The best way I have heard to think about God’s Law is that God’s Law defines the playing field for being human.  Following the law keeps us on the field… it keeps us in play… it keeps us being fully human.  When we break the Law we go off the field, out of bounds, into foul territory… and when we do that, we are operating as LESS than the human being God created us to be.  

Playing by the rules.  Following the commandments was never about God setting traps for humans.  It was always about God, the One who made us, sharing with us how our human machine runs best.  God’s desire for us, and for all of creation, is for us to live an abundant, joy-filled and purpose-filled life.  The WHY of Sabbath is that Sabbath is a necessary component of experiencing that abundant life!  May we take steps toward that Abundant life, looking to the One who made us and loved us into being to guide us toward that goal, by taking Sabbath, by doing Justice, by loving Kindness and walking humbly in this world in love.  Amen.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Bueller, Bueller, Bueller

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 3rd Chapter

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have
seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.


Today is Holy Trinity Sunday.  Now, I’m a solid Trinitarian… Father, Son and Holy Spirit… sort of guy, but the preaching pitfalls on this day are legion!  Because of that, many Episcopal priests get the Deacon to preach and Lutherans are just now getting on board with Deacons… but either way, I don’t have a Deacon.  Others choose to simply lull the congregation to sleep with a history lesson on how the doctrine of the Trinity developed to avoid the theological pitfalls.  While still others just jump head first into one heresy or another trying to use water, an egg or even an apple pie to explain the infinite nature of God… and, of course, they fall miserably short.  In an attempt to avoid being either boring or heretical, I’m just going to talk about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off! 

Believe it or not, that’s not quite as crazy as it sounds!  Both Ferris Bueller in that iconic 80’s movie and Jesus in this lesson use the exact same, unique, technique to communicate with their audience.  In the movie, at various times, Ferris turns and looks right into the camera and talks, not to the other characters in the film, but to you and me in the audience.  It’s shockingly different!  It grabs your attention and that’s just what Jesus does toward the end of this lesson in John’s Gospel.  Both Jesus and Ferris break the fourth wall!

But before we get to that we’ve got to back up a little.  The Pharisees were a group of faithful Jewish folks who, about three hundred years before Jesus came on the scene, began to get uncomfortable with how much of the outside world’s traditions and ways were infiltrating the traditions and ways of the Jewish people.  The group that rose up in reaction to that change eventually became known as the Pharisees.  They were super strict, very legalistic, and an ultra exclusive group created to, well, “Make Judaism Great Again” and push back against all that change.  But then came Jesus.  

The Pharisees... ol’ Nicodemus in our story was one... didn’t know what to do with Jesus.  Jesus did miracles that they believed could only be done through the power of God, and at the same time Jesus lived a life that included every sort of foreigner and sinful person he ran into… a way of living they believed alienated you from God!  How could those two things both be true?  Nicodemus and the Pharisees had worked very, very hard for three hundred years at this point to safely place God in a very well defined and thoroughly theologized box… a box where God would be safe and sound and not subject to the ways of a changing world.  That night Jesus told Nicodemus… there is no box!   

Nicodemus couldn’t grasp any of it and who can blame him?  This was strange stuff!  Born from above… water, Spirit, and wind... What?  Imagine hearing this stuff for the first time... It’s just WEIRD!  But Jesus wasn’t TRYING to be confusing.  Jesus genuinely wanted to open Nicodemus up to the truth that God was bigger than he could imagine.  That God could not be contained in that box that he and the Pharisees had built.  

The truth and enormity of God’s nature and love is impossible to fully wrap our minds around.  The metaphors and doctrine we use to talk about God don’t fully contain God… they’re just the best we can do… they’re the best even Jesus could do!  They give little windows into the way God works, but never the full picture.  We can talk about how we experience God… as the Creator, as the Son, Jesus, and as the Holy Spirit… and they are true, but even that truth is just a part of the infinite that is God. 

At the end of this encounter, Nicodemus still didn’t really understand what Jesus was trying to tell him.  Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.”  And then it happens!  Jesus turns and breaks the fourth wall.  The Greek grammar makes it clear that Jesus is no longer talking only to Nicodemus.  Before we had been watching a scene where Jesus talked with Nicodemus, but now suddenly, Jesus turns and talks directly to you and me too!  Jesus says to us, “If I have told ya’ll about earthly things and ya’ll do not believe, how can ya’ll believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

Jesus isn’t mad, he’s simply turning to the camera and telling us all… Nicodemus isn’t alone here folks… the fullness of God is beyond your understanding too!  And it turns out that’s alright.  We don’t need to fully wrap our minds around God to receive the gift of God’s love and grace.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Jesus's got this… God’s got this!  

Our part in this is simply to believe… but not believe with our intellect.  This isn't about getting everything figured out in our heads… it's not about checking all the correct doctrinal boxes.  Our part in this is to do as Nicodemus did.  In spite of not having it all locked down, ol' Nick kept following Jesus.  He tried to get his fellow Pharisees to treat Jesus with justice.  He even followed Jesus after Jesus died, helping Joseph of Arimathea care for Jesus’ body.  

That’s what believing really is.  It’s not certainty.  It’s not getting God to fit in a box we can imagine.  It’s taking the next step to follow Jesus, even when you can’t fully wrap your mind around any of it.  Real faithfulness is following Jesus, living our lives in the Jesus way of living… struggling to be in a loving relationship with our neighbors and with a God we’ll never fully wrap our minds around and trusting that God's infinite love has got us, even when we can't ever fully get God.  Amen. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Blowing Through Doors, Burning Down Walls

A Reading from Acts, the 2nd Chapter

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

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

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


The first time I met Kelly’s dad, I was meeting a police captain and an Army sergeant major.  When our daughter brought a boyfriend home a few weeks ago, he had to meet me, BUT he ALSO had to go to church for the first time… not just the first time at THIS church… the first time he had EVER gone to any church in his entire life!  I think between the two experiences, he probably wins.  Plus he seems to be a good guy so I don’t mind him winning that contest.   

But that encounter brought to the front of my mind, something that’s been in the back of my mind for a while.  And that thought is that it might not be a bad idea, with uniquely “churchy” things, not to assume everyone knows about “churchy” things these days and I might ought to back up and start at the beginning from time to time.  So today is Pentecost, which is one of those uniquely “churchy” things, so let’s back up to the beginning!

Pentecost is one of the three big Jewish festivals where, as a faithful Jewish person back in the day, you would, if at all possible, make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate.  It happens fifty days after Passover.  Passover (another churchy thing) was the celebration of the people of Israel being freed from their bondage in Egypt where they were slaves.  Fifty days after walking out of Egypt, the people found themselves parked at Mount Sinai, where they were given the ten commandments.  That was the first Pentecost.  Now, this wasn’t so much about getting a new set of rules as it was about the creation of a new community… it was the beginning of a new way of living together as God’s people.  The old way of living in Egypt had ended.  A new way of living had begun, not as property, but as God’s children.  

The Pentecost we read about today is the story of an event that happened many years later on that Jewish festival day.  That’s why there were Parthians, Medes, and people from lots of other difficult-to-pronounce places gathered in Jerusalem.  When the SECOND Pentecost happened that day, it echoed many of the same themes as the FIRST Pentecost.  Like the FIRST Pentecost, this second Pentecost was also the beginning of a new way of living together as God’s people.  Because of that, some people call it the “Birthday” of the Church… although calling it the “Baptism” of the Church is probably better since the Holy Spirit comes to us in Baptism.  This second Pentecost, also opened a new way for God’s people to live together… a new, radically-inclusive way of living… a way all people could be included as Children of God.    

Here in the book of Acts (which is the sequel to Luke’s Gospel) the symbols of wind and fire (two of the most unpredictable things you can imagine) bring together people from all over the known world and now, through the transformational power of this Holy Spirit… things that have always divided people are blown apart.  Cultures, borders, languages, walls… everything that humans do to keep people apart from one another are burned away by this Spirit.  This second Pentecost is about God presence, in the form of this powerful, mysterious, Holy Spirit, bringing the world back together from all the millions of ways that it has been torn and broken and shattered apart.  

And that work… the work of the Holy Spirit blowing apart walls and shattering divisions and bringing people together in an inclusive community of equal human dignity… That isn’t JUST the work of the Holy Spirit.  When we are Baptized, we are baptized with that same Spirit and we too are also given the Holy Spirit’s work to do in the world.  

In Baptism we are asked in the liturgy to renounce Satan and stand up against all the forces that rebel against God’s desire for this inclusive kind of community.  We are asked to renounce the evil powers that corrupt, destroy and diminish other human beings and creation.  We are asked to accept the loving and inclusive Way of Jesus and trust in his ways of grace and love.  In Baptism we promise to continue to build this new, unified community with study, fellowship, worship and prayer.  We promise to stand together and persevere in resisting that divisive, hateful, evil.  We promise to both speak and live the ways of Jesus… live the Good News WAY Jesus lived… a way of love that is stronger than hate… a way of unity that is more powerful than division.  We promise to serve the Christ that lives equally in ALL people and we promise to strive for justice and peace in all the world and respect the dignity of every human being… a dignity that transcends every wall and border.

In the FIRST Pentecost God brought together the people of Israel.  Freed from the indignity and evil of slavery in Egypt… Freed from the people who saw them as less than human.  God rejected that evil notion and formed them into a new community.  In the SECOND Pentecost, the Holy Spirit blew apart national boundaries, cultures and languages and burned down the notion that only some were God’s chosen people and then that Holy Spirit again formed a even wider, more inclusive, unified community.  

Now at TODAY’S Pentecost… at OUR Pentecost, we look at out at the same sorts of powers at work in our world… powers that continue to to divide, build walls, reject the presence of Christ in every person and reject the dignity God gives every human being…  And at OUR Pentecost, the Holy Spirit blows and burns against all of that evil once again and insists that God’s vision for creation will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!  At our Pentecost the Holy Spirit is again burning and blowing... and God is again calling each and every one of us to join in the work begun in that first Pentecost and continued in the second Pentecost.  So, come Holy Spirit!  Burn the divisions and blow down the walls!  Move us boldly to confront the evil that demonizes and divides, and empower us to join with you in this new day, creating the world God intends for this to be!  

Friday, May 4, 2018

Acts 10:44-48

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

John 15:9-17

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

This week I saw a picture of a guy in a swimming pool.  He was up to his neck in water BUT, he was also pouring a bottle of water over his head to cool down.  Literally up to his neck in water, he was trying to refresh himself by pouring a little, tiny, 12 oz. bottle of water over his head!  The water was streaming down his face in little rivulets but it never hit his shoulders…. BECAUSE HIS SHOULDERS WERE UNDER WATER!  

You might laugh at that, and you probably should.  It’s literally swimming in irony.  But here’s the thing:  I think that’s EXACTLY how we all-too-often think about God’s love.  We know God’s love is amazing and powerful and refreshing and wondrous.  SO, we all-too-often assume it must be something in desperately short supply.  The world tells us valuable things are always in short supply, SO this valuable thing MUST be something that we’ll need to work and worry and think and pray about in order to get and feel lucky to have, in even a tiny amount that might fit in a tiny, little-bitty container… like water in a 12 oz. bottle.  We ASSUME God's love is this rare, scarce thing when the REALITY is that you, me and all of creation… we’re literally SWIMMING in it!  Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and mystic says, “We cannot ATTAIN the presence God, because we’re already, totally IN the presence of God.  What’s absent, is AWARENESS.”  Like fish swimming in water, you and I, and all of creation… we SWIM in the presence and love of God.  We breathe in God’s love with each breath, we are immersed in God’s presence with each moment of our being. 

In that lesson from the Book of Acts, you see the way God’s love functions.  God’s love isn’t small and isn't contained!  It doesn’t wait for Peter to be done blathering on with his sermon or anything else for that matter.  God’s Spirit doesn’t wait to be called or invoked or for just the right, human created rite.  God’s Spirit FALLS!  BAM!  On EVERYONE!  Like a deluge bursting through a broken dam, God’s Spirit FALLS!  

To Peter’s credit, THAT did get his attention and he stopped.  Stopped talking, stopped preaching, just stopped.  And he noticed.  He saw.  He was able, in that moment, to abide in the love of God which had FALLEN on that crowd.  And in that moment of abiding, he understood that it is not us who choose God... it is God who has already chosen us!  ALL of us!  Who are we to limit the waters of Baptism... the deluge of God’s love!?  And clearly no containers with labels like “Jew” or “Gentile” (or any other label for that matter) will contain the flood of God’s love either!  God’s love FALLS!  Full force... on you, me and on all of creation! 

That’s what Jesus was trying to get the disciples to see in the Gospel lesson.  He was trying to get them to stop frantically scrambling for just a tiny, small, teeny-weenie 12 oz. bottle of God’s love…. something that they might snatch and fight and keep to themselves for those times when they were running low.  Jesus was trying to get them to stop… to abide… to realize that what they were looking for… what they assumed only came in a limited, particular, tiny, hard-to-come-by container was actually the stuff in which they had always been swimming!  The fact was, that the Love they were looking for… the presence of God they were longing for… it was the exact same stuff they had ALWAYS been immersed in from before they were even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes.  

Jesus is still trying, even today, to get his disciples to do the exact same thing.  To stop.  For just a moment… stop.  Stop searching, stop running, stop frantically working.  Stop figuring, stop calculating, and stop theologizing.  Stop racing, stop strategizing, stop preaching… and just for a moment… not forever, because none of that stuff is intrinsically bad… but just for a moment… Jesus is asking us to stop everything… and notice… to stop everything and abide... abide in God’s love.  To be still and know.  To listen, and hear that still, small voice.  To be conscious of your next breath and know, that the Holy Spirit is in that breath and in every breath that miraculously happens without you noticing.  Jesus is asking us, for just…one…moment to STOP… to stop and notice that the love we seek… the belonging we seek… the peace, joy and the contentment we desperately seek… the stuff that the world would have you believe is so rare, so limited, and so small that it could only fill something little like a 12 oz. bottle... THAT stuff is actually the very stuff in which you and me and all of creation lives and moves and has it's being.   

Jesus knew, among many things, that enormity of God’s love is part of what makes it so hard for those disciples then, and us disciples now, to do that… to notice… to abide.  Awareness of God’s love, Jesus tells his disciples, will likely take some practice and the way we practice being aware of God’s love for us, is by loving the people around us... not with a sentimental love, but with a love that drives us to do what’s in the other’s best interest and by living lives of gratitude, compassion and generosity.  May we, like Peter, stop.  Stop and notice, how the Holy Spirit has fallen on us and all of creation and by loving our neighbor a little more each day, live into the realization that we’ve all been swimming in God’s infinite love all along!  Amen. 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Ninety Percent Needs to Go!

The Holy Gospel According to St. John the 15th Chapter


Jesus said, ”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

When we lived in New Mexico I re-landscaped our whole yard, front and back.  Part of that project was a vineyard.  Not a big vineyard, just one vine each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.  Classic Bordeaux grapes.  When the vines arrived they were just sticks, but after they were planted they grew like mad.  Then came winter and it was time to prune the vines.  Good pruning, I had read, meant that about 90% of the year’s growth should be cut away!  I could hardly bear it!  There had been so much good growth!  This meant cutting 4, 5 even 6 feet of growth back!  But the people who knew how to grow good fruit all said it had to be cut back to just two buds on one little stick for that first year!  They all said that the biggest mistake people make is that they keep too much growth from the previous year.  They insisted on a millenniums’ old, long-known truth about grape vines... Good fruit doesn’t grow on last year’s wood.  Good fruit only grows on the new year’s growth. 

Jesus is the vine and WE are those little pruned back, one inch, stubby, little branches with just a couple of buds.  But Jesus knew we branches… we’d be very tempted to second guess the Vine Grower.  He knew we’d want to keep all that growth from the past.  After all, it was amazing!  Beautiful!  Traditional!  Jesus knew, that we branches would, if given half a chance, take the pruning shears right out of the Vine Grower’s hands and keep all of that beautiful old growth from being pruned away.  

The thing is... you and me… we’re branches.  We’re not the Vine Grower!  Jesus knew, grape branches left unpruned grow lots of vine and lots of leaves and VERY few grapes.  And Jesus knew that if we were left focusing on the past, we’d end up bearing less and less fruit as the year’s ticked by.  To us branches though, pruning seems crazy!  Crazy!  Cutting away all that we worked so hard to grow!  It's crazy... like death being the path to new life-crazy!  But as it turns out, both in growing grapes and in growing abundant life, the way forward means dying to the old and rising to new life… pruning back the old growth and budding into new life.  It’s true for grapes.  It’s true for people.  It’s true for Christ Trinity.  It’s true for Lutherans and it’s true for Episcopalians.  It’s true for all of creation!  But the fact that it’s true, doesn’t change the fact that the “death” part of death and resurrection always feels terrible and the “pruning” part of cutting away so much beautiful growth always feels terrible too.

It feels particularly terrible in those Good Friday-type times, when the death part is right in your face and the resurrection part is still a long way off.  It feels particularly terrible in those pruning-type times, when the shears are out but Spring still seems infinitely far off.  I think that's why things might feel so unsettled and worrisome all throughout Christianity these days.  We're in a pruning season.  Jesus too lived in a pruning season.  The established ways of the religious systems of his day needed to change so that sheep from new folds could be brought in by the Good Shepherd (to painfully mix two week's worth of Jesus' metaphors!)  

We too are in a pruning season.  The Church, as we’ve come to know it, had been growing like mad over the last 500 years but now the season's changed.  It's time for pruning.  The last pruning season was called the Reformation.  For us, on this side of the Reformation, we jump up and down and celebrate all the growth that came out of that time, but for those who lived in it... the church they knew and loved... all the ways and methods and institutions that were deeply cherished... they were all suddenly being pruned away.  And now again, it's a pruning season.  Formerly fruitful churches, methods, ideas and institutions are struggling.  We branches look at all that beautiful growth our grandparents and great grandparents grew in the past, and now watch helpless as the Vine Grower takes out those heavenly clippers and begins to cut 90% of it away... back to just a stub and a couple of buds, and it feels... it feels TERRIBLE!  

It’s into that unsettling reality, that Jesus tells us here, in this lesson, to trust the Vine Grower.  I know... it’s hard for me too!  But Jesus is telling us to hold on and trust the Vine Grower as He goes about the work of pruning us as individuals and pruning the Church.  Jesus is telling us to trust that God, the Divine Vine Grower, really does know what God’s doing, EVEN when that means huge amounts of what we had grown before is now being dramatically pruned back to what feels like a few too-stubby, too-little shoots and a couple of tiny buds!  

Jesus is the vine and we... we are simply the branches.  As branches, second guessing the One with the pruning shears is probably not what we should be doing.  Our job, in fact our ONLY job, is to ABIDE.  To ABIDE in the vine, to live and be intimately and absolutely connected to the True Vine… to Jesus.  To do that we need to stay connected here… deeply tied to this church community… intimately connected to the Body of Christ.  Because it is here, connected with the True Vine that we are fed and cared for through Bread and Wine... Through Word and Water... through Kindness, Compassion and Generosity.  

Because it is in staying connected with God and with each other that we are able to hold onto the promise... that even though all this pruning looks and feels terrible now, the day will come... just like the Son of God came... just like Easter came... just like the Reformation came... when all the pruning of this season will break into a new season with never before seen growth that bears good fruit in an abundance we had never before even thought possible. 

It is not easy, with the Divine Viticulturist's pruning shears going nuts on the vines we've held most dear… It's not easy to trust that the Vine Grower is an artist and not a maniac... That God knows what God is doing.  It's NOT easy.  Which is why we need each other more than ever to help one another ABIDE in Christ.  We need each other more than ever to connect deeply with Jesus and with one another in worship and in service and simply in spending time in one another's company.  Because it is in that ABIDING that we will be given what we need in order to trust, that in spite of all this pruning... in due season, the Vine Grower will make through us, new and abundant life, new growth and an overwhelming harvest of the very best fruit.  Amen.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Top 3 Things You’ve Never Thought About the 23rd Psalm

Psalm 23


The Lord is my shepherd;
  I shall not be in want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures
  and leads me beside still waters.
You restore my soul, O Lord,
  and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
  for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
  you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
  and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 


Sometimes it’s the things we’re most familiar with that we take the least time to examine closely.  The Psalm for today is one of those things.  Almost everyone knows something about the 23rd Psalm.  Even people who have never been in a church have probably heard it in a movie scene or something.  Most folks, regardless of their level of churchiness, probably even know that first line… “The Lord is my shepherd.”  But have you ever taken the time to really dive into it?  To really notice what’s happening in this thing?  Yeah, me neither!  So, with a click-bait title… here are “The Top 3 Things You’ve Never Thought about the 23rd Psalm.”  

The first thing you’ve likely never thought about comes from your 8th grade English class.  Don’t worry, there won’t be a test.  The Psalm starts out with “The Lord is my Shepherd” and “The Lord makes me lie down.”  THEN, it changes to… “YOU restore my soul, O Lord.”  Did you catch that grammatical shift?  It starts out talking about God in the third person… like you were telling someone ABOUT God at the grocery store.  But then suddenly, it shifts to speaking TO God in the second person!  Oh, there you are, God!  

This is really a great reminder of how much power there is in telling and hearing the story.  When the Psalm says, “I shall not be in want” and then paints the picture of green pastures and still waters, the Jewish folks hearing that would have been immediately put in mind of the Exodus… when the people of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt and led across the wilderness to the Promised Land.  The Hebrew verb for “not being in want” used in THIS Psalm, is the same one used in THAT story when God provided manna to feed the people, just like shepherds provide green pastures to feed sheep.  And that same verb is the one used in THAT story, when water flowed from the rock to give them something to drink, just like sheep led to still waters to get a drink.

The power in remembering that ancient story isn’t that it magically forces God to suddenly show up.  No.  The power of this story is that it changes US… in the re-telling of this story we remember, no matter what’s going on around us, that God’s never left God’s people and we’re ALL God’s people!  God’s not somewhere, out there in the third person!  God’s right here… God with us… always!  

The second thing you might not have thought about is the part about the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  Because this Psalm is used at funerals… A LOT… I think we often assume “Death” is the exclusive sort of darkness this Psalm is allowed to cover.  Some less poetic, but more accurate translations, translate this instead as the “darkest valley” or the valley of the “deepest darkness.”  Those end up being more accurate because in truth, this Psalm covers EVERY sort of life’s darknesses.  The death of someone we love is for sure one of life’s deep darknesses, but life doesn’t limit dark times to just that one situation.  Life, in my experience anyway, seems to be wildly creative, dealing out ALL SORTS of deep darknesses with the generosity of Oprah giving out cars… You get some darkness and you get some darkness and you get some darkness!  This Psalm insists that God is PRESENT with us, caring for us, and walking with us through ALL of life’s darkest times.  

This part of the Psalm also reminds us that God’s M.O. is presence rather than magic.  God doesn't magic dark times away, swoop down with angels to fly us off, or numb us into a narcotic-like haze until it’s all over (all of which I’ve asked God for over the years, by the way).  God’s M.O. is to walk with us, be present with us, THROUGH those times.  Once again, reciting this Psalm, telling each other about the bad old days, doesn’t “magic” the latest darkness away… but it does remind me that in spite of how this current darkness feels… God will see me through this latest dark time too.  

The third thing you might not have ever thought about this Psalm is that bit where God prepares a table for me in the presence of my enemies, anoints my head with oil, and pours a cup to overflowing.  This DOESN’T say, “God prepared me a fabulous dinner, locks my enemies outside where they’ll be cold, hungry and finally get what they deserve!”  That may be what I WANT it to say… but it doesn’t say that.  

What this says is that this finally-able-to-let-your-guard-down, overly abundant, feast happens in the PRESENCE of my enemies.  That goodness and mercy only happens when we’ve been reconciled with our enemies… when our enemies sit down and join us at the table and become our friends.  Goodness and mercy is God’s desire for us and all of creation and God isn’t just “following us” with it.  God's "Pursuing us” with it!  Pursuing is actually a much better translation!  And God PURSUES us with enough goodness and mercy for EVERYONE… so that we can ALL finally sit down, be reconciled to one another and finally, finally, FINALLY be at peace. 

So, there you are!  “The Top 3 Things You’ve Never Thought about the 23rd Psalm.”  A grammatical reminder that God’s not far off, out there, somewhere, but always right here with us.  An honest acknowledgement that life has more than just one particular deep darkness, but that God sees us through them all.  And finally, a promise that God is not just following us, but is pursuing us, dogging us, chasing all of creation down with goodness and mercy.  So that all of creation might experience the genuine, lasting sort of peace that comes through reconciliation.  

It turns out, the Lord really IS your shepherd.  You really don’t need to worry and you’re never alone, even walking through the worst of life’s many darknesses.  And God will pursue you and me and all of creation with an abundance of goodness and mercy until we all finally accept God’s unconditional gift of real and lasting peace.  Amen.

The photo above is by Peter Ralston, a wise, good, friend. You can visit his gallery in Rockport, Maine or shop for his work at www.ralstongallery.com