I Want to Be Ready

treeoflife

a reflection on Revelation 21:1-6 and 22:2-2

I don’t know if books of the Bible have feelings, but if they did, I think the book of Revelation might be feeling a little neglected, at least here in the United Church of Christ. It’s a neighborhood of the Bible we don’t explore together very often. Which is understandable, because this Revelation to John can be a pretty rough neighborhood. Wandering its streets are fierce dragons and warring angels. There are unidentified demons and a seven-headed beast with ten horns. Here we read that the world has been engulfed in the great and final battle between good and evil and that the four horsemen of the apocalypse have arrived, waving their swords of famine and plague, war and destruction. Here, even Jesus has morphed into a divine warrior, bursting out of heaven on his white horse, striking down the nations with his sword, and condemning the unfaithful to burn for all eternity in a lake of fire, while a select and righteous few are saved, chosen to reign with Christ in triumph for a thousand years.

I think it’s safe to say that this is not a section of the Bible that can ease you back to sleep in the middle of the night.

This is weird and disturbing stuff. And if the weirdness of the imagery itself makes us uncomfortable, perhaps even more troubling are the ways in which Christians throughout history have used this particular book of the Bible to condemn their perceived enemies to that vast lake of fire, and to condone their own violence in the name of God.

What I’d like to talk about this morning is how persistent and compelling this book seems to be…even for those of us who don’t read it very often.

Take, for example, the hymn we often sing right here on Sunday mornings: I want to be ready…to walk in Jerusalem just like John.

This is John of Patmos we’re singing about! The very same John who claims to have written down this revelation, this vision he received while in exile on the Island of Patmos off the coast of Turkey. John was among the second generation of Jewish Jesus followers. A man who, in his own lifetime, had very likely witnessed the utter destruction of the actual city of Jerusalem around the year 70, when sixty thousand Roman soldiers arrived in Jerusalem to starve and slaughter the city’s inhabitants, leaving the Temple itself—God’s home on earth—burned to the ground, and the city in ruins. It’s no wonder that John is haunted by visions of death and destruction. John is a man who, nearly 100 years after Jesus’ death, is wondering when the Christ of God will finally return to set this broken world right. A man who, in a state of fasting and prayer, receives a spectacular vision of a violent world being painfully restored to God’s peace, and who writes it down for all of us to read.

 This is John who envisions the new Jerusalem, and who describes it this way: 

“…the home where God dwells with God’s people, where God will “wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more;mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

“A city where the river of the water of life, bright as crystal,flows from the throne of God … and on either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

This is a beautiful thing John sees in his mind’s eye: a vision of God’s own healing presence flowing like a river through the body of creation.

And I’m pretty sure that this is why we’re not willing to give up on Book of Revelation. Despite our misgivings about the way it has been used, the vision of healing that John records here is so beautiful, so compelling, so true to who we know ourselves to be, that we cling to it, even now. We long to walk in that city of peace. We long to wade into that crystal river. We long to eat the fruit of the tree of life. And we sing these visions on Sunday mornings as signs of hope in a suffering world.

So I want to give thanks this morning for our friend John of Patmos: a guy who doesn’t always get his due respect in progressive congregations. And I want to invite us to ask ourselves what, exactly, it might mean for us to sing, “I want to be ready…to walk in Jerusalem just like John.” What does it mean for us, like John, to look beyond the world we know, to look beyond the church we’ve always known, and receive a new vision from God? A vision that is so true to our best selves, a vision that is so aligned with our core values, that it can sustain our hope and inspire us to work, and call us back to the teachings of Jesus. Because just like John, we understand that visions—strange or impossible as they may seem–are essential to our future; a future we can just barely glimpse. And because we can glimpse it—because we can speak it and write it and sing itwe can then begin to build it, together.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that this can be difficult work. That it takes a leap of faith to let go of our old ways and trust that God will move in to fill the space that opens up. Not every church is willing to do this. Mainline protestant churches are dying every day, friends, because it is scary to live into a new vision. In contrast, visionary churches are thriving. Visionary churches all over the world today are watching and listening for what God is calling the church to be in the years ahead.  And I’ve been watching over the past few months as this congregation has been living into your calling to become visionary church. A church that is brave enough to listen for the vision that God is dreaming in you. A radical and counter-cultural vision of truly intergenerational community; a vision of justice for the earth; a vision of spiritual renewal. A vision of healing and hope that God has planted in you, for the sake of the world.

The only difference between you and John of Patmos is that you are not alone. John, exiled on that little island, didn’t know whether anyone else would ever see his vision, whether anyone else would help him hold that vision, and fight for that vision, in the face of the armies of fear. But right here, in the hush of a Sunday-morning, we have what John was longing for. A community brave enough, to risk living into a new vision.  A community strong enough to proclaim a vision of God’s healing and peace for all the world. A world where the rivers run clean and the fruits of every tree are for the sharing, and the healing, of the nations. 

This season, as we consider why this church matters to us, and why it matters to the world, I am giving thanks for our friend John of Patmos and for the radical courage of his vision. I’m giving thanks for every congregation that has the courage to pursue the healing, world-changing vision that God has entrusted to us. I’m giving thanks for the courage we are finding right here to claim and to build that vision together. 

Friends, the vision God is dreaming in us isn’t something we just think about . The vision of healing God is dreaming in us is something we live into, day by day, step by step, breath by breath. I invite you now to let the vision, and the visionary, live in you. Let carry you to your feet in body or spirit as we rise now and sing. You’ll find John’s vision in your black hymnal, #616.

Civil Disobedience for the People of God

Activists In London Join The Global Climate Strike

A reflection on Mark 11:1-11

This is quite a parade Jesus and his followers organize in our gospel story this morning. But it is more than just a palm-waving, hosannah-shouting parade. As many scholars have noted, this parade we’ve just read about is a very pointed political demonstration. It’s a protest march. A street protest in which Jesus openly defies Roman authority. Jesus, riding into Jerusalem on the back of a colt, his followers waving palm branches, stages a protest march to precisely coincide with the moment when the Roman army is riding into Jerusalem on the backs of their enormous horses, waving…not palms, but real swords in a show of overwhelming military force.

We are revisiting this scene today because through the ages, the church’s understanding of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem—the meaning we assign to this ancient story—has formed our own understanding of what it means to follow Jesus: what it means for us to live with the kind of moral courage Jesus asks of us. This is the moment in the gospel narrative in which Jesus sets in motion the events that will lead to his trial, his refusal to cooperate with the Roman authorities, and his execution by those very same authorities. In other words, this Palm Sunday parade  into Jerusalem by Jesus and his followers comes at the final and crucial stage of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry culminates here in a very public act of what today we would call “civil disobedience.” 

This season, we’ve been talking about moral courage – the kind of courage that will be required of us as we confront imminent and catastrophic climate change; the moral courage and honesty it will require for us to recognize that human activity, and our human failure to protect and steward God’s creation, have brought us to the very brink of worldwide ecological collapse. Over the past few months, we’ve been exploring some of the spiritual practices we’ve inherited from our ancestors in faith; practices that might be particularly helpful to us, and to the world, as humanity tries to find the courage and the collective will to change our ways. Last Sunday, for example, we took up the practice of praying with the news, as a way to listen for God’s call to action in difficult and sometimes overwhelming situations.

This morning, I want to suggest that our long tradition of civil disobedience—a tradition that goes back at least as far as Jesus himself—might be particularly helpful to us as we face our current climate crisis: a crisis in which humanity must decide whether or not we will  dismantle the economic and political forces that are threatening all life on earth; forces that may very well not respond to anything short of large-scale, worldwide civil disobedience.

So I thought we might take a look this morning at what this ancient spiritual practice of civil disobedience has meant for our ancestors in faith, and what it might look like for us today.

The term “civil disobedience” did not emerge until 1848, when Henry David Thoreau used it to describe his own protest against what he saw as the immoral and unjust acts of his own government. In Thoreau’s case, the precipitating immoral and unjust act was a poll tax that was being used, among other things, to finance the capture and return fugitive slaves. Thoreau went to prison for refusing to pay this tax. 

But when Thoreau coined the term “civil disobedience” in 1848, he was naming a form of action— social and moral action—that goes back at least as far as Jesus, and extends into modern times through the Boston Tea Party, the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, resistance to British rule in India, the civil rights movement in the Untied States, the resistance to apartheid in South Africa, and many more. In all these cases, the heart of civil disobedience has been a public, often non-violent, demonstration against laws and government policies that are immoral or unjust.

I’ll repeat that: a public protest against laws and government policies that are immoral or unjust. I think this is a pretty good description of what Jesus was up to as he walked this earth: a ministry of highly disciplined, non-violent civil disobedience. Let’s remember what our gospel stories tell us about what Jesus did in the face of state-sanctioned violence and in the face of a social and political system that was violating basic human needs:

He broke bread with social and religious outlaws; he advocated in the streets for the outcast and the suffering; he publicly spoke out on behalf of those who were denied legal and religious standing; and he organized a non-violent public demonstration—a march on Jerusalem—on the eve of the Passover festival. All these are acts of civil disobedience against a government that was cruel,  unjust, and immoral; a regime that was daily doing violence to the most vulnerable. 

If any want to become my followers, Jesus says. Let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. Then he turns and heads toward Jerusalem for his dramatic final protest against the power of Rome.

As followers of Jesus, I think we need to be asking ourselves whether we’re serious about following him as he takes up this particular cross of protest; if we’re serious about following Jesus as he speaks and acts out in public in order to end to unjust policies that are doing real harm to the ones Jesus calls “the least of these.” The ones who have no voice, no political power, no lobbyists in Rome or in Washington, D.C.

“The least of these.” These are the ones for whom Jesus puts his life on the line. These are the suffering ones Jesus is willing to die for. In every age, followers of Jesus have asked themselves who, in our world today, is being harmed by unjust laws? Who is being harmed by possibly legal but nevertheless immoral social policies? In every age, the risen Christ asks us: Who are the “least of these: today? Who needs us to speak up, and act up, on their behalf?

I want to be very clear that there is no one answer to this question. I believe that as followers of Jesus, we are called to discern who needs us to act on their behalf and what kinds of action we will take. That’s something we all have to decide for ourselves.

But I will tell you where I’ve landed after wrestling with this question. I believe that as people of faith, our action, or lack of action, on behalf of the earth and the earth’s most vulnerable—both the human and the more-than-human among us—is the crucial moral issue of our time. Every day now, more and more Christians of every stripe are coming to realize that Jesus calls us today to put our voices, and our resources—and yes, if necessary, our lives—on the line, in order to save a suffering planet and its climate refugees. Jesus calls us to do everything in our power to save the species, and the ice caps, and the island nations that are even now vanishing as a result of our own actions and the policies of our own governments. Policies that are possibly legal, but that are certainly not just.

It is legal to inject water at high pressure into rock to get at the petroleum and natural gas inside, contaminating groundwater in the process. But it is not just. 

It may be legal to blow the top off a mountain to get at the coal inside, destroying ecosystems and continuing our investment in fossil fuels, causing cancer and birth defects in surrounding communities. But it is not just. 

It is questionably legal for our own government to incarcerate refugees who are trying to cross our southern border—refugees from countries where up to 82% of corn and bean crops have been lost to rising temperatures and drought; climate catastrophes caused by our own carbon emissions. But this incarceration is not just. And our continued carbon emissions are not sustainable for life as we know it on this planet. 

Truly I tell you,  Jesus says. Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.

And this piece of advice, from another skilled practitioner of civil disobedience, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King: 

The church must lead rather than follow in the march toward justice. Civil disobedience, was practiced by Jesus, and it was practiced superbly – superbly!—by the early Christians.

Dr. King asks us to remember that civil disobedience was practiced by Jesus and practiced superbly by the early Christians. I wonder if he would say the same about us.

We know through experience, says the Reverend King. That freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.

To this, I would only add that when the oppressed have no voice of their own—when the earth and its creatures have no voice of their own—then freedom, and justice, and even life itself, must be demanded by those of us who do have a voice. 

 Take up your cross, Jesus says. And follow me.

If my followers were silent, Jesus says. The stones themselves would cry out.

May the stones not cry out alone. And may the followers of the risen Christ, as we take to the streets, not cry out in vain.  Amen. 

 

Filling Up and Spilling Over

close up photo of grape fruit
Photo by Henri Guérin on Pexels.com

A reflection on John 2:1-12

I recently learned that that all around the United States, from Oregon to Colorado to Virginia, there are wineries that have given themselves the name of…“Cana.” I had no idea. Anyone want to guess what business they specialize in? Wedding receptions! 

Which is kind of a brilliant idea. If you have your reception there, not only do you get to take your wedding photos among the beautiful vineyards, but you also never have to worry about running out of wine!  

Unfortunately, this is not what happened for the host of this morning’s gospel wedding banquet. What happened that day in the biblical Cana is that the wine ran out. Which was a big problem, and not just because late-arriving guests would be deprived of their beverage of choice. In first-century Palestine, wine is much more than just a beverage. For the Jewish people, Jesus’ people, wine is the tangible symbol of God’s goodness, God’s abundant blessings. If you have been blessed with fertile vineyards and plenty to eat and drink, then it’s your job, as the host of the wedding feast, to share these gifts freely with all your friends and neighbors. 

Which is why it’s a real crisis when the wine runs out in our gospel story this morning.  The host is in danger of bringing shame upon his household by  failing to share the extravagant welcome of God, the gifts of God,  that his guests have every right to expect from him. 

And so we read that Mary, aware of the impending crisis, informs Jesus that the wine has run out. 

And Jesus, amazingly, replies, “Woman. What concern is that to you and me?” 

I love this moment. I love this painful, uncomfortable, deeply honest moment in the gospel—and it’s not the only one—where Jesus gets it wrong. I am grateful for these moments where Jesus gets it wrong. And I am grateful to the gospel writers for including them. After all , it would have easy enough to edit out these awkward moments in order to make Jesus appear perfect, the way we expect him to. But I am so glad  that somebody left Jesus’ awkward moments in the story. Because our job as followers of Jesus is to allow ourselves to be formed in the image of the Christ. Follow me, Jesus says. Be as I am.

Which is a pretty tall order if the guy we’re supposed to be following is perfect all the time. On the other hand, if the one we are following is a teachable savior, a human being like us who sometimes fails to do what God calls him to do, and who is willing to learn as he goes along—well, that’s another story. That, friends, is a story that can change our life. 

This morning, we see that Jesus is mistaken in exactly the way that we, too, are sometimes mistaken when we believe that our job, here in the presence of God, here at the table where we share the feast of God’s grace, is simply to let ourselves be filled. Now that’s important, for sure. But it is not the end of the story. What Mary knows is that we are filled here at this table, here in this beloved community, for a reason. We are filled so that we can become–in our very bodies, in our very lives–the living vessels of God’s extravagant love, pouring out and sharing the grace of God that we have already received. 

This morning, Jesus makes the same very human mistake that we ourselves make. Jesus forgets that whether we’re in ancient Palestine or modern-day Salem, there is no ministry more important than extending God’s extravagant hospitality, the unconditional welcome of God that we ourselves have already received. Just for a moment, Jesus seems to forget this. Woman. What concern is that to you and me?

But Mary knows better. Mary knows that it is everybody’s job—even if you’re the Messiah—to make sure that everyone is personally welcomed to the table of God. 

What Mary knows is that it’s more than just wine that is being poured from those jugs, just as we know that it is far more than coffee being poured out at coffee hour and bulletins being handed out at the door. We know this because once upon a time, we ourselves were visitors in a new church. Once upon a time, we too were welcomed with open arms and open hearts just as we are — no matter who we are or whom we love or whether we’ve ever set foot in a church before.  And because we ourselves were once welcomed by God exactly as we are, so now we are called by God—every one of us—to extend that same unconditional welcome to everyone in this village who needs us. 

“Do whatever he tells you,” Mary says to the servants. Which, I think, might be a remarkable display of self-control on Mary’s part. I bet there are parents in this room who can think of a few other things Mary might have said to her son at that moment. But Mary seems to know her son better than he knows himself. Or perhaps it’s that she knows his better self. Mary knows that what saves us, every time, is not our perfection, but our willingness to learn, so that we might become willing vessels  of God’s extravagant grace.

And so right here, at the very beginning of the Gospel of John, before Jesus does any other miracles or teaches any parables, he learns this first crucial lesson: the kingdom of God is like a wedding feast, and our job is to invite everyone in the village  to come to this table, to this feast, and drink their fill of God’s overflowing, unconditional love. 

The kingdom of God is like a church that hangs a rainbow flag outside its building, to signal that every body, no matter who you are or whom you love, is welcome here at the table of God. The kingdom of God is like a church that shows up at Capitol Pride to show the whole village that this is what it means to follow Jesus: to welcome every body–lesbian, gay, trans, non-binary, female, male–to share in God’s abundant gifts. The kingdom of God is like a congregation that finds the courage to invite our friends and family, our coworkers and neighbors, to be filled at the feast we prepare every Sunday, right here.

Those of us who have been around this kind of church for a while can sometimes, just like Jesus, forget how important this ministry of extravagant welcome is. This ministry of going out into the community and inviting the whole village to know what kind of Christians we are. It can be tempting for us old-timers–those of us who  are already connected with friends in the church, those of us who have already been welcomed and filled with God’s grace just as we are–it can be easy for us to forget that just like Jesus, we are called to leave this place and walk out into the community, extending God’s invitation to those who have yet to experience it.

Friends, it is not enough to show up here every Sunday and say, All are welcome. It is never enough to say, Sure — anyone who happens to wander through our doors is welcome! We know, just as Jesus knows, that out there is a whole village of people who need us; people who will never find us on their own. There are young people and old people, gay people and straight people, who have no idea that there is a church that will welcome them exactly as they are, let alone how to find it. There are people in our community who have never felt welcome in a church before because their beliefs don’t fall into line with traditional church doctrine, or because their families are all different shapes and sizes, or because their partners belong to another faith altogether or because they have been so deeply wounded by a church that has used this very table to shame and to exclude.  Friends, these are the friends and neighbors who need the healing welcome of a church like this. But they are not going to come looking for us; they have no idea that this kind of church exists in the world. Because, let’s face it: an open and affirming, earth-loving, peacemaking church is not the kind of church you tend to hear about on the evening news. 

What Jesus learns this morning is that once he has tasted the wine of God’s sweet, extravagant welcome, it’s his job to share it. It’s his job to take what he has received and to walk through every village and town, pouring himself out like a river of God’s own abundance and joy. Follow me, Jesus says. Be as I am.

And I’m praying this morning that we will have the courage to do the same. For the neighbors and friends, the coworkers and strangers on the bus who need us. For the children and youth who are thirsting for a church they don’t even know exists — a church that celebrates all our different kinds of families; all the gloriously different colors of our skin; all our different walks of life; all our wildly different beliefs about God; all our gloriously different ways of loving each other and loving the world. A church that has welcomed each of us, just as we are, to the table of God’s abundant grace, and who calls us to do the same for every body — every beautiful body —  we meet.  May we learn to pour ourselves out with joy…for this beautiful, broken world world that God so loves. Amen.  

 

On Holy Ground

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A reflection on Exodus 3:1-17

Summer has arrived. Season of ripe blueberries and blackberries. Season of summer camp — that beautiful tradition of ours. I’ve been thinking about summer camp this week because I paid a visit to our own Camp Adams, and also because I’ve been reading an email from a friend named Jody, who just returned from a trip to the camp where she spent her childhood summers over 40 years ago. Jody loved that place with all her heart, and she was thrilled to return for a visit this summer. On the surface, she wrote, the landscape looked unchanged. Looking out from her cabin door, she saw the same rolling hills, the same dark-green lake spread out beneath the sky. But then she began to look a little closer. Because Jody, like Moses, is the kind of person who likes to turn aside and pay close attention. Even as a kid, Jody spent her summers at that camp peering under rocks and rotting logs to see what lived beneath them. She spent those summers digging at the edges of the lake to see what was hatching out of that muddy ground. And so on this trip back to the landscape of her childhood, Jody did the same thing: she turned over rocks and stared for a long time at the ordinary earth beneath her feet. And that’s when she noticed something very strange indeed: there were no bugs. Nothing creeping or sliming from beneath the rocks. Nothing buzzing through the torn window screens at night to bite her. Nothing hatching out in the muddy shallows of the lake.

Who else but Jody, the noticer, would have noticed such a thing? Certainly not the summer tourists who are happy to be wearing less bug spray. Not the real estate developers who are busy selling off bugless tracts of land. The person who noticed was the one who had spent her childhood summers turning aside to look more closely at that holy ground: scratching mosquito bites, marveling at stonefly cases, paying attention to things other people walked right by. Jody—the one who turned aside—was the one who saw the truth and wrote an email to tell it to the world. The bugs are gone, she tells us. Farmers are spraying insecticides all over that land, and the teeming life that once creeped over the earth and hatched from that patch of holy ground is gone.

This is not the kind of thing we tend to notice when we’re speeding down the interstate. This is the kind of holiness, the kind of wholeness, that we only notice if we turn aside to watch, very closely, the place that we love. 

Which is not unlike what what happens to Moses this morning as he leads his flocks through the most ordinary of places: a vast wilderness so dry that brushfires happen all the time. But Moses, apparently, is the kind of person who pays attention, because as he walks by, he notices something different about this particular fire: that bush is on fire all right, but it is not being consumed by the flames. Let’s stop right here for a minute. How long do you suppose a person would have to stare at a burning bush in order to realize that it is not being consumed? That’s some pretty close attention to be paying to a brush fire—more attention than most of us ever give to anything at all. But even this is not enough for Moses. Our story tells us that even after he notices that the bush is not being consumed, Moses turns aside to look even more closely, to see if he can figure out why that bush is not being consumed. And that’s when the really big event happens. When the LORD saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses answered, “Here I am.”

I think this is a very interesting sequence of events. If God really wanted to make sure that Moses stopped and paid attention, it sure seems like God could have just called out from the bush in the first place. “Moses. Yo! Over here. It’s me, God!” That would get your attention, right? But that’s not what happens. Instead, God waits until Moses—of his own free will—comes over to take a closer look. And then, only after God sees that Moses has turned aside, does God make the big announcement: “THE PLACE ON WHICH YOU ARE STANDING IS HOLY GROUND.

And this is where Moses’ experience, and Jody’s experience, and ours, all come together. For us human beings, attention—the discipline or spiritual practice of paying attention—must come first. Close attention to the details of a burning bush; close attention to a place we have loved since childhood; close attention to a planet that is even now burning—cities all over the world breaking record high temperatures; wildfires burning in Northwestern forests; ice caps melting—this is the spiritual practice of paying close attention to a planet that even now is burning, and suffering. And then, only after we’ve paid close and painful attention to what’s going on right before our eyes—only then does the holy reveal itself to us. 

And that’s the moment when everything begins to change. Because this revelation of holiness has a purpose. The sudden realization that even now we are standing on holy ground is not the end of the story: it’s only the beginning! And that’s because the holy ground we discover always contains a call. Just as it did for Moses. This world is holy, and there is something we have to do about it. “Moses!” God calls from the bush. “I have observed the misery of my people, and I have a job for you.” And Moses answers, “Here I am.” 

“Here I am.” Once Moses has said those fateful words, there’s no going back. I’m pretty sure Moses wished he could go back—he’s not exactly thrilled about having a chat with Pharaoh. But once Moses has heard God calling to him out of that bush, he knows there is work in this world that only he—only Moses—can do. And that’s his call.

Here in this summer of our own reckoning, this summer of our awakening to the holiness of a planet that needs us, our ancient story suggests that if we want to know how God is calling us—if we want to know what work in all the world God might have in mind for us–then it is a good idea to turn aside. It’s a good idea to  pay some close attention to the places and things that might seem ordinary or unimportant, but that are just waiting to reveal their holiness, if only someone—if only we—would turn aside and notice them.

The ground you are spraying is holy, Jody writes. And it is dying. And right there lies her very own, particular call—a call to save a piece of this holy, burning world that Jody has a chance of saving, but only because she is the one who turned aside long enough for its holiness to reveal itself to her. “Jody!” calls the Lord of hosts. And Jody answers: “Here I am.”

And I wonder if we have done the same. I wonder if we have turned aside long enough—if we have stared at the rivers, and the trees, and the fish that our own soul loves long enough to hear their particular call to us.

I can’t tell you what your particular call is. But if you want to hear it, if you believe that the God who called Moses is still speaking through the body of the world; if you believe that the God who called Moses has yet not finished calling God’s people to recognize and save—and save—what is holy in this world; if you believe that the God who called Moses has not yet finished calling God’s people to do justice—ecological justice as well as social justice—in the name of all that is holy in this world…then I urge you to take some time every day to turn aside. To stop and to listen for the call of the thing that is longing to reveal its secret holiness only to you. 

It might not be a flashy or famous holy thing. In fact, there is a good chance that what longs to reveal its holiness to you is an ordinary thing that no one else seems to notice; a thing that others take for granted. Like those bugs that Jody loved as a child. Like that ordinary, stubborn people of Israel that God loved: a people whom Pharaoh was using up and throwing away. A people God called holy.

Moses was the only one who turned aside to watch that burning bush and hear its call. Jody is the only one to hear the call of the beloved, dying landscape of her childhood camp. And I believe that there is something in this world, something you yourself cannot bear to see destroyed; something you cannot bear to see lost to the fires of progress or to the engines of empire and greed. I’m willing to bet that there is some secret holiness burning in the body of the world that only you can turn aside and see, and save—because it’s burning for you.

And you can be sure that when you turn aside to answer that call, you will not be alone. 

Because if Moses’ story has anything to tell us, it is that God does not issue a call and then leave us all alone to do something about it. I will be with you, God tells Moses. If anybody asks who sent you, tell them it is I, says God, the one who made this world and called it holy and good. Tell them it is I–the God who loves this holy world too much to let it burn. 

Turn aside, says the Lord of hosts. Take off your shoes. And together—together—we will yet save the ones nobody notices. 

Stoneflies. Polar bears. Spotted salamanders. White oaks. The ones who have no vote, and no voice. The ones who are always holy to God.  Amen.

 

Christ of the River

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 “Christ of the River”

A reflection onMatthew 3:13-17 for the Season of Creation

July 21, 2019

Did you ever have a place on earth that your soul loved? Maybe a mountaintop or a forest, or the shore of a lake? The kind of place where, when you are there, your body and soul remember that you are connected to God, and to every living thing in the whole world? The kind of place where you remember who you really are, and whose you really are?

I wonder if you can remember, right now, what it feels like to be in that place. I invite you to hold onto that feeling as I share a story with you…

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a little boy who loved a river. His name was John. Maybe you’ve heard of him. From the time John was a little boy, he loved two things in this world above all else:  he loved God, and he loved the river that ran through the wilderness just outside his village. Whenever John stepped into that river, he knew that the river was God’s own life flowing through the body of the world, bringing life to every creature. When John stepped into the river, he remembered that all life on earth is connected and nourished by the rivers of the world, and that everything those rivers touch is precious, and sacred, to God. That’s what John remembered every time he stepped into the river.

Well, as you probably know, when you find the place on earth your soul loves best, it can be very hard to leave. Every night at dinner time, John’s mom had to walk all the way down to the river to bring him home before it got dark. And every night, as they walked home, John said to his mom, “When I grow up, I’m never going to leave the river.” “But where will you sleep?” asked his mother. “I will sleep outside, under the stars,” said John. “And I’ll listen to the song of the river all night long.” His just mother smiled. She knew that when he grew up, John would want to live in a house in the village, just like everyone else.

But she was wrong! Because John was watching. He saw what happened to people who lived in the village, and in the big city, too. He saw how people built houses with roofs and forgot all about the stars. He saw how people cut down too many trees to build their cities, forgetting that trees are also sacred to God. John saw how people dumped their trash in the streams that ran to the river, because they forgot that the streams of the earth carry the life of God through the world. John saw that when people live in a city, it’s easy to forget that God is right here with us  in the body of the world. John saw that in the city, it’s easy for people to forget that our lives are connected to the lives of the animals and plants. “In the city,” John said, “It’s too easy to forget the ways of God. But I will not forget. I will live beside the river!” 

And so it was that as soon as John was old enough to leave home, he kissed his parents goodbye and set off for the wilderness, where he slept out under the stars and listened to the song of God’s river all night long. Some people say that John ate locusts for dinner and wild honey for dessert. And the people back in the village and in the big city knew about John, and they were glad to know that he was out there in the wilderness. Because the people in the village and in the city, so far away from the river, got lonely for God. They forgot who they were and whose they were. 

So do you know what they did? Can you guess? Whenever the people forgot who they really were, they walked out into the wilderness, all the way to the river. Then they asked John to baptize them: to dunk them in the river and wash away their tired city dreams. They wanted the river of God’s love to flow over them, so that they would feel connected again to God, and to the earth, and to all the other creatures God loves so much.

John dunked a lot of people in the river. So many that he came to be known as John the Baptizer: John, who helps people remember the river of God’s love. John, who helps people return to the ways of God. 

Maybe you’ve heard of John the Baptist. Maybe you’ve even heard that John the Baptist had a cousin who was just a few months younger than John. Anybody know who John’s little cousin was? 

One day, John was out there baptizing people in the wild river of God’s love, when out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone walking toward him from the village. John hadn’t seen his cousin in many years, but right away, he knew it was Jesus.

“Jesus!” said John. “What’s up?”

And Jesus said, “John, I want you to baptize me.”

“But why?” asked John. “I know you haven’t forgotten the ways of God.”

“I haven’t forgotten the ways of God,” said Jesus. “But so many people have! I’m pretty sure God wants me to leave my home and travel far and tell everyone that everything is connected—the rivers and the lakes and the trees and the people—all one body on earth, and that God loves all of it, every leaf and wing and heart, no exceptions. 

“If I’m going to tell people this story,” Jesus said, “I need to take the spirit of the river with me.”

So John baptized Jesus. And when Jesus came up out of the water, he was dripping with the river of God’s love. He came up with the soft river sand between his toes. He came up covered with the kisses of fishes. And Jesus knew for sure that he belonged to God, and that the river of God’s love was going to carry him into the world.

Which is a very good thing to know when you’re about to go out and do the work God is calling you to do in the world. That’s why, just like Jesus, we get baptized, too! When we get baptized, we come up dripping with the waters of our rivers, with the waters of the ocean. When get baptized, we say to each other, out loud, that just like Jesus, we also belong to the God of all creation,  and that it’s our job to make sure that the rivers, and the lakes, and the oceans, and all the waters of the world are safe, and clean. Because the waters of earth are for the life of the world, and that life—every bit of it—is sacred to God.

I wonder if you can picture Jesus in your mind, the way he might have looked when he came up out of the river, dripping with that chilly water, dripping with the rushing current of God’s own life. 

“Look,” says Jesus. “I know the wild places of the world are in big trouble. I know it sounds like the mess is too big to fix. I know,” Jesus says, “that there’s a river running through Salem, Oregon, whose fish are filled with PCB’s. I know there’s an island of trash the size of Texas floating around the Pacific Ocean.

“But this is our moment!” says Jesus as he stands there, dripping. “We were baptized for times like this; you and I were baptized in the river of God’s grace. We were made for this!” Jesus says. “Follow me!”

Then Jesus takes off, still dripping with the grace of God, dripping with the life of God’s holy river, and he’s headed for the Willamette River where the steelhead and the Chinook used to run by the tens of thousands. He’s headed for Lake Albert drying up in a cloud of dust. “I’ll meet you there!” Jesus says. “Together, we’ll stand up for every river and lake and sea. Together, we’ll walk through the body of the world dripping with blessing, dripping with healing. Together, we’ll stand up for all the wild places, in the name of the God who made them; in the name of the God who baptized us in the holy waters of the world.”

Beloved, this is Jesus’ call to us. This is John’s call to us, at this moment in history, as we follow Jesus into the sacred wilderness of all creation this season. And I wonder…what part of this broken, beautiful world is yours to love? What wild place needs your voice, your healing, your passion, and your care? Is it a place your soul loves? A place your family loves? I invite you to picture that place in your mind now. See if you can hear what it is God needs from you; what God might need you to do to save this holy place, and all the holy, wild places of the world? I invite you to make that promise now, in your heart. And when you’re ready, find a friend nearby, maybe someone you didn’t come to church with. Tell them what place is sacred to you, and what promise you are making this morning. I’ll give you a minute to find each other.

Friends, here’s the good news. The world is calling, and we do not make the journey alone. The Christ of God goes with us. The Christ of the River goes with us, dripping with the blessing, and healing, and joy that are the gifts we bring to the world. God’s wild Holy Spirit is hovering above the river even now, calling us. Let’s sing. A song for the journey ahead…

 

The Voice of the Spirit

A Reflection on Acts 2:1-21 for the Season of Pentecostpentecostposter

We are making our way through this beautiful season of Pentecost, in which the Holy Spirit arrives to live among us. Last week, we talked about all the different ways people have imagined the Holy Spirit, and also what it might feel like — in our bodies, in our minds — when that beautiful, wild Spirit is at work.

This morning, I’d like to talk about another way we can recognize the Holy Spirit’s arrival: the urge to find your voice.

We can see this happening right here at the start of the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit swoops into the room and Peter, suddenly finding his courage and his voice, stands up and quotes from the Hebrew prophet Joel: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” This is a pretty accurate description of what it means to be a prophet, of course: to listen for what the Holy Spirit is whispering in your ear, and then then to find the courage to use your voice to speak the Spirit’s words, speaking out on behalf of God’s dream of justice, God’s dream of healing, for all creation.

In the church, we like to call this an act of prophetic witness. This is what we ourselves do when we give voice to the voiceless, and it is a sure sign of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit arrives, says the prophet Joel, ordinary people just like us — old people, young people, women and men and nonbinary — become prophets. We use our own voice to speak a vision of God’s future into the world.

Now, if you’ve looked at the Bible, you don’t need me to tell you that it’s not easy to be a prophet. It takes courage to use your voice on behalf of those who have been silenced. Sometimes, we call this coming out: using our voices to come out on behalf of the marginalized. Standing up for those whose voices have traditionally been excluded from our communal conversation.

A few weeks ago, I went to a remarkable and beautiful house concert. I was going to say that I got invited to the concert, but if I’m honest, I might have to admit that I invited myself.  I knew that Zanne D’Anna had been working really hard on a whole bunch of songs, and I wanted to show up and support her. What I thought was that Zanne and her friend Deanne were taking the courageous step of standing up and singing, solo, in front of all their friends. Talk about coming out! But then the concert began. And I realized that while this was certainly a moment of personal courage and growth for both Zanne and Deanne, it was also something much more. This concert was an act of prophetic witness. Most of the songs that Zanne and Deanne had chosen were songs that give voice to those who have traditionally been silenced. They sang a whole set of brilliant music by the hilarious queer composer Paul James Frantz. Then, they sang song after beautiful song giving voice to the most vulnerable among us: schoolchildren…the devoted teachers of those schoolchildren…a rapidly warming planet…the creatures on this planet who are hanging on for dear life. It was a stunning gift to hear these voices in song! This wasn’t simply vocal performance for the sake of finding one’s own voice — though that is certainly reason enough to sing. This was vocal performance for the sake of justice, and healing, and compassion. I’m here to tell you that Zanne and Deanne were singing for all our lives: for the vulnerable, precious gift of life itself, and for the lives of those who have no vote and no voice. Talk about prophetic witness. This, friends, is what it means to let the Holy Spirit fill you. This is what it means to stand up and use your God-given voice.

And I wonder: How is the Holy Spirit calling to you to use your own voice? On whose behalf are you being called this season to speak up and speak out?

This month–the month of June, which is Gay Pride month all over the world–I’ve been listening for the whisper of the Holy Spirit. In particular, I’ve been listening for the call of this rainbow-carrying Holy Spirit who flies over our chancel all year long. And what she’s been whispering to me this month is that I need to use my own voice to ask what it means for us to be an Open and Affirming Church today, and what that ONA commitment requires of us in this particular time and place.

That Holy Spirit has been telling me that as the new pastor of what I believe to be the oldest Open-and-Affirming church in Salem, I need to use my voice to ask why the city of Salem does not celebrate Gay Pride in June. Why is it that folks in Salem think it’s okay to move Gay Pride to August? Gay Pride is not a moveable feast. It’s not just a party in the park that we can schedule any time it’s convenient.

Can you imagine anyone suggesting that we move the 4th of July to a more convenient day? It would never happen, because the 4th of July commemorates a specific date in history: the date that our nation’s Declaration of Independence was adopted.

Friends, Gay Pride takes place in June because it, too, commemorates a very specific date in our nation’s history: June 28th, 1969, when gay, lesbian, and transgender people took to the streets of Greenwich Village to fight for their rights, their freedom, and their lives in what has come to be known as the Stonewall Uprising. The Stonewall Inn was a haven for the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. As one historian put it last week, Stonewall was the only place you could go if you were too young, too poor, or too different to fit in anywhere else. And that haven was routinely raided by police, its patrons beaten and harassed, simply because they were too young, too poor, or too gay. Until the night of June 28, 1969 when the marginalized found their voice and risked their lives by taking to the streets in protest.

Friends, this is why we have a Gay Pride movement today, This is why we are an Open and Affirming church today. And this is why in every other city, we take to the streets together in the month of June, not just for a party, but for a parade. We close off the streets and have a parade to honor the street protests of 1969. How is it that Salem, Oregon has turned Gay Pride into a picnic by moving it to August and eliminating the parade? For queer folk in 1969, we know that life was no picnic. And I believe we dishonor their sacrifice and silence their voices by canceling the parade and having our celebration in August. The Holy Spirit is whispering to me that it’s my job to use my own voice this year to see if Salem can do better. And you’re invited to join me.

But that’s not all. That rainbow-carrying bird has been chatty lately, and she’s whispering to me that I need to ask you something. Beloved, I know it matters to you that you are an Open and Affirming church. I hear how proud you are of your longtime ONA commitment. What I don’t understand is why anyone walking or biking or driving through our neighborhood could easily think that St. Mark Lutheran Church, which has a rainbow symbol on its sign, is Open and Affirming, while First Congregational Church, which has no such symbol anywhere on its building or sign, is not. Why is it that there is no visible sign on our property flagging us as a safe space for LGBT folks? Is it because we have taken this safe space for granted? Have we forgotten that LGBT youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers? Have we forgotten that right here in Salem, LGBT folk of all ages need to be able find us? LGBT youth, in particular, are often not safe at home. They are often not safe at school. There are youth and adults in our community who would never think to go looking for a safe church online, because they have no idea that we exist. LGBT youth and adults need to see a rainbow on our church sign, or a flag hanging from our building–or both!–to know that this is a safe place for them. To know that we are a safe community for them.

The work of becoming Open and Affirming does not stop when a church takes a vote. Just as the work of bearing God’s extravagant love to the world didn’t stop when Peter found his voice that day in Jerusalem long ago.The disciples found their voice and came out that long-ago Pentecost day, and ever since, the church has struggled to continue hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit and to continue answering her call — to keep asking how we ourselves are called, in this time and place, to be a voice for the most vulnerable among us. This is what we mean when we say that God is Still Speaking. And so are we. Thanks be to God.

 

Call of the Wild Goose

geese

a reflection for the second Sunday after Pentecost

I invite you to close your eyes and imagine that right now, as we are gathered together in this room, the Holy Spirit comes through that open sanctuary door. What does it look like to you? What does it sound like? What does it feel like? 

The Holy Spirit is not an easy thing to pin down with words. Even the people who were in the room that morning long ago couldn’t quite agree about what happened when the Spirit arrived. “It was a mighty wind!” somebody says. “No, no—it was fire! I saw little tongues of flame on top of everybody’s head!” As long as human beings have been trying to find ways to describe the presence and action of God in the world, we’ve never been able to agree on just one image, one word, to describe how the Holy Spirit works. Sometimes it’s a rushing wind. Sometimes it looks like tongues of fire. Sometimes it’s a bird, like the one that appears in those paintings of Jesus’ baptism, where the clouds part and the rays of the sun come streaming down—and there’s the Holy Spirit, this time in the shape of a dove.

My own favorite image of the Holy Spirit comes from the Celtic Christian tradition of Britain and Ireland, who experienced the Holy Spirit as a wild goose: a wild, untamable bird that lands with a splash and takes off again whenever it pleases, flapping and honking and calling us to follow —a bird who knows about wide-open spaces and long journeys to faraway lands; the kind of bird whose life crosses every border we humans draw across God’s creation; a bird that just might have something to teach us about what it means to be a citizen of the world on a beautiful, unpredictable adventure with God.

A spirit like this can take you some pretty weird places. An invisible spirit that blows into the room and makes everybody start speaking in languages they never knew before?! This is not your normal, everyday church gathering—and it doesn’t always set too well with the kind of rational, logical folks who tend to hang out in UCC congregations. We like to be able to explain things. We like to know where we’re going how we’re going to get there. We aren’t the kind of people who sit around waiting for God to fix the world with a miracle: we jump in and get to work! Here in the United Church of Christ, we tend to pay a lot of attention to the first and second persons of the Trinity: God the creator who calls us to justice and love; and God the Christ who walks God’s love out into a broken world and calls  us to do the same. And these are not small things. We take them very seriously, these first two persons of the Trinity. We love and we follow them with all our hearts. And maybe that ought to be enough.

But then…along comes this strange season of Pentecost, with this weird tale that tells us that the church is not born — the church cannot not even exist — until the Holy Spirit shows up. Pentecost says that the church does not come into being until this mysterious third person of the Trinity swoops into the room and astonishes the feathers off everybody’s back: people from every nation in the world are suddenly speaking one another’s languages—impossible! So impossible that no one could have planned it; no human agency could have done it. Only God could have imagined such a cross-cultural communion.

This, says Pentecost, is what it means to be the Church: to be willing to let God astonish us with possibilities that we have never even dreamed of. Why? Because, just like those first disciples of Jesus, without the Holy Spirit, we humans tend to get comfortable with our own ideas about what is possible and what is not. We humans tend to get comfortable with our own ideas about whose language we understand and whose we do not; we humans get comfortable with our own ideas about who is welcome within our borders and who is not. Who is redeemable and who is not. This is human nature, friends. This is the human ego at work in the world, drawing borders between us and them. Left to our own devices, we human beings draw more lines, chart more borders, build higher walls. Tomorrow, I will not be surprised to hear a politician suggesting that we build a roof over the whole country. Sure, they’ll tell us. We might never see the sky again, but you can bet no one will be able to get in.

Let’s remember this. There was a roof on that room in Jerusalem on that long-ago Pentecost morning. There was a roof on that room and the Holy Spirit broke in anyway. On that morning long ago in Jerusalem, God’s wild, Holy Spirit broke into that room and blew the roof clear off the place. That’s what Pentecost is about. And I say: Thanks be to God. 

Thanks be to God because, as Peter tells that skeptical crowd, the way of the Holy Spirit is precisely the way of limitless hope: the hope of the Hebrew prophets whom Peter quotes in his Pentecost speech, the hope of God for all the world: slaves and free, women and men; adult and child; comfortable and desperate alike. What the Holy Spirit offers is a wild, expansive, liberating realm of possibility. What Pentecost says is that we ourselves, on our own, cannot envision this possibility. On our own, humanity cannot envision a sane future—not for ourselves, not for our children, not for the children at our border—unless make room for God to break us wide open and act on us in ways we humans have never even imagined.

This is not easy thing to do. Because we humans are not fond of changing our ways.  We like to decide who is in and who is out. We even like our congregations to stay comfortable — just they way we like them; just the way we think they’ve always been. And not only that. Just like that crowd in ancient Jerusalem, we have been taught to be skeptical and practical. Haven’t we been cautioned all our lives to beware the wild goose chase? “Wild goose chase” is our code for wasting our time, for dreaming outside the box, for being conned into following an impossible dream.

But what if breaking our lives open to God isn’t a wild goose chase after all? What if, in fact, that wild goose of God has been chasing us all along? What if that wild, holy spirit of God has never given up on us? What if it’s calling us right now, longing to be invited to land in the middle of this very room, longing to break our hearts wide open to unimagined possibility?

I wonder what might happen — for us, and for the world — if we were to make  enough time this season to look up at the sky and listen for the call of the Holy Spirit? I wonder if there is enough clear, silent, open space in our life together—in our worship, in our meetings, in our conversations—for that wild goose to touch down among us? What practices help us to become a wide-open space where the Spirit can land? What habits and comforts are keeping us closed off? How might we help one another, and the world, listen for the surprising call–that wild, lonesome call–of the still-speaking God?

I’m pretty sure that the Holy Spirit—God’s own wild, beautiful goose—is calling to you, and to me, and to the Church that was founded that long-ago day so that we might carry, on our own wings, God’s wild, healing hope for the world.

My prayer for us this season is that together, we will clear a space for the wild goose to land among us. And that when it does land, we will spend these long summer days together watching that goose very carefully—finding ways to feed it; finding ways to listen for its soft murmurings and loud honkings—so that when that wild Spirit signals to us that it’s time to fly again…when that day comes, we will answer with a holy YES, even if we have no idea in the world where that bird might take us.

Because when we say that yes—when we climb onto the back of that beautiful, wild bird—we can be sure that it is into God’s own future that we fly, with healing, and blessing, on our wings. Amen.