Thursday, January 25, 2018

Behind Stone and Stained Glass

The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark the 1st Chapter

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. 

“I bet you can think of something that matters to you, that you WISH mattered to more people.”  That’s how Nina Simon, the director of the MAH, the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, California, opens her TED talk.  When she arrived as it’s new director they were out of money.  But actually, that wasn’t their biggest problem.  More people in town knew the building that housed the MAH was the former jail, than knew it was now a museum… and it had been a museum for 20 years!  They had to find a way to make their museum matter to those on the outside.  But you can’t just scream, “WE MATTER!” and expect those on the outside to come piling in, can you?  Those on the outside have to DECIDE you matter and to do that, they have to find a way inside.

In the synagogue, the things Jesus was teaching, mattered!  People were ASTOUNDED, after all!  In Corinth, what Paul had to say also mattered.  And right here behind our own stone and stained glass, what we have to offer really matters!  We have a radical welcome here, in a world that spins people apart instead of pulling them together.  In here everyone has a place.  In here there’s a deep and genuine caring for one another which is very unique.  In here everyone matters and that’s ASTOUNDING! 

The trouble in that synagogue where Jesus was teaching, was that unclean spirit with all of it’s drama, was in effect, slamming the door shut on what Jesus had to say.  In Corinth too, the door to people being able to hear and experience God’s infinite love was being slammed shut as well.  The Christians were buying meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  To Paul and the Christian insiders, they knew idols weren’t real.  To the insiders, this was just meat!  But to the outsiders, Christians saying, “There is only one God” and then eating this meat sacrificed to idols was confusing.  That confusion kept the outsiders outside.  

You and I… we’re insiders here.  We KNOW the astoundingly good stuff here behind our stone and stained glass!  We KNOW we’re welcome… we KNOW we have a place… we KNOW we’re loved and cared for here just as we are!  But as outsiders drive by every day, they’re asking themselves, “Is what happens in there… behind that stone and stained glass… Is it worth the effort to try to find a way inside?”  We KNOW it is!  But they can’t see past the stone and stained glass any more than the people could hear Jesus over the rantings of that demon or the Corinthians could see past their confusion about the meat sacrificed to idols.  Casting out that demon opened a new door that let in the outsiders.  Choosing to avoid meat sacrificed to idols opened a new door which let Corinthian outsiders inside that Christian community.  At the MAH they brought their museum out to a bar so those who had always driven by before, might find a new doorway to get inside.

But demons, change and new doors are't easy.  Demons always promise to be quiet if we just do things the way we’ve always done them.  Change is easier to swallow if it’s those on the outside who do the changing and it’s always easier to open old doors wider than it is to knock a hole in a wall and put in some strange, new door.  But God sent Jesus, not more commandments and Paul asked the insiders to change for the sake of those on the outside.  

It’s true, the old, familiar ways work for insiders, but “insiders” aren’t EVERYONE and God is obsessed with including everyone!  So, demons need to be confronted, comfortable ways need to change and new doors need to be opened so that those folks who have always just driven by might now see a way to come inside and see what’s going on in here behind the stone and stained glass.  

What’s that look like?  THAT’S a good question!  I’m not sure, but I suspect, it will feel a little itchy.  At the MAH, Nina Simon did a VERY provocative pop-up museum, not at the museum, but in a bar.  People who had never been inside the MAH before, suddenly had a way to experience it!  But their museum in a bar made the MAH insiders a little itchy.   She had, in effect, blasted a hole in the wall of the museum and installed a crazy, new, neon-pink door to get inside.  “Why do we need this crazy new, neon-pink way in to our museum?  The regular door's always worked fine for us!”  The the insiders asked.  To which Nina Simon replied, “Because the outsiders never used that door and we needed to find a way to let them in so they could see! 

Jesus did just that.  He opened new doors.  It’s not that the old doors were bad or broken or obsolete.  It’s just that there were still too many of God’s children stuck on the other side, who, for one reason or another, couldn’t find a way inside.  A new door needed to be opened so that ALL of God’s children could find their way in!  

What we’ve got in here, behind our stone and stained glass, isn’t meant to be a secret.  It’s WAY too good to be kept a secret!  May we trust Jesus to sweep away and cast out the things that get in the way of people finding their way to this side of our stone and stained glass.  May we trust God to get us through the itchiness that always happens when you open new doors.  And may the people of Sheffield, who have always driven by the outside of our stone and stained glass… may they discover a new door through each one of us, so that they too, might come in and be ASTOUNDED.  Amen.  

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Let There Be Light!

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

The Road Not Taken 
by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

When Robert Frost wrote that poem, he wrote something that communicated deep truth.  It had pattern and meter, rhythm and rhyme.  It connects with people deeply, powerfully… even spiritually.  What he DIDN’T write were literal directions to be followed when walking in a wood… yellow, or otherwise.  He wasn’t being literal.  He wasn’t trying to be Google Maps!  SO, using this poem literally… to find your way home after church, for example… well, that’ll probably just get you LOST!  But that doesn’t mean it has no value.  That doesn’t make this poem un-true.  When read as intended… it’s DEEPLY true.  

In a similar way, when we open up and read the first Chapter in Genesis, like we did today, we too should ask what were the authors intending to do when they wrote this?  Were they trying to record natural history?  Were they communicating scientific observation?  Or, maybe something else?  That requires a little educated sleuthing.  This part of Genesis was written by priests when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon.  Read in Hebrew, it has pattern and meter, rhythm and rhyme that suggests this was liturgical… it was worship material.  These were words said over and over and over again every time they gathered for worship.  Just like we say, “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit…” they said, “And God said, let there be light.”    

Were they attempting to out-science Neil deGrasse Tyson in astrophysics?  Probably not. The people of Israel were in a bad spot when this was written.  They had been beaten and marched out of Israel and now were stuck, living in exile, in Babylon.  In those days, if your army beat my army, most people believed that meant that your god was stronger, bigger, and more powerful than my god.  These word come from a time when the Babylonians were likely telling the people of Israel day after day that, not only were they were losers, but their god was a loser too and they should just give up their worthless faith!  

This liturgy was written to be the Jewish community’s reply to that Babylonian taunting and trolling… This was the way the people of Israel stood up and countered that Babylonian message.  Using the timeless, powerful technique all people use when taunted by a bully… The people of Israel stood up and liturgically proclaimed… “NUH UH!”  Your Babylonian gods are NOT as powerful as our God!  NUH UH!  Our God has NOT abandoned us!  NUH UH!  We will not abandon our faith!

Now, the reason it had to be written as liturgy and the reason it had to be repeated week after week, Sabbath after Sabbath is that frankly, if the people of Israel were honest, the actual situation out the window looked bleak.  They WERE in captivity.  They HAD BEEN beat.  There didn’t look like there was any hope.  Their kids WERE abandoning the faith!  So to push back against ALL THAT darkness… they had to speak their deeper truth over and over and over again, to help them faithfully wait for the day when the words they spoke finally became reality!   Every week they repeated them like a mantra, “Let there be!  And there was!  And it was Good!  Let there be!  And there was!  And it was Good!  Let there be!  And there was!  And it was Good!”  They said it over and over and over.  It had happened before when God first said, “Let there be light” THEREFORE we believe God will say the Word again and light will shine in our lives once again!

This wasn’t written to be astro physics.  This was written as a statement of faith.  A liturgy proclaiming God’s faithfulness and light, even in the face of overwhelming darkness.  That’s why insisting Genesis is science isn’t just bad science.  It also abandons this liturgy as a powerful witness of faithfulness in the face of overwhelming darkness.  For those who insist this is a literal, scientific account, that means it can’t be anything else.  BUT, if we allow this text to live as it was intended… as a poem, as liturgy, as a powerful, transformational truth spoken in faith into the depths of despair… if you can recognize THAT’S what this was for the people back then… THEN this liturgy is FREE to function in that VERY SAME way for us, in our darkness today!  

Now, we don’t live in exile in Babylon, but we do live in the shadow of two world leaders fighting about the size of their nuclear buttons over twitter!  We’re not captive in Babylon, but we’re certainly captive to an unpredictable news cycle with roller coaster like highs and lows.  But HERE, in the liturgy of Genesis we have been given a gift.  Like the people then, we too gather as a faith community.  Like them we repeat the words of our liturgy like a mantra spoken into our dark times.  And just like the people of Israel, we too proclaim:  NUH UH!  We will NOT accept this as normal!  NUH UH!  This darkness is NOT forever!  We too believe that God, with just a WORD, created LIGHT!  And with God’s WORD made flesh, God brings light into EVERY darkness… EVERY… SINGLE… WACKADOODLE DARKNESS… including ours right now!  

With the words we repeat in our liturgy, we hold faithfully to God’s love for all of creation.  We NEVER have to go a single day without hope!  SO, even when we look out the window and are forced to admit that it's pretty dark out there, we still can hold tight to a DEEPER truth and proclaim confidently into the craziness and shout into the darkness… NUH UH! … God is faithful and God WILL… ABSOLUTELY WILL, ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY, NO DOUBT WILL say once again, "Let there be light!"  And there WILL again be light!  Amen.