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

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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.

 

 

 

Making Room for Joy

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Last Sunday at just about this time, the Church as a whole body stepped across a threshold into the season of Pentecost, which stretches from the beginning of June all the way to the start of Advent in late November. That’s a pretty long season, which I think is lucky for us. Because the spiritual work of this season, the work of the holy spirit in us, takes time–at least a whole season, if not a whole lifetime!–to unfold.

At first glance, it might look as if the Holy Spirit swoops in on that long-ago Pentecost morning  and instantly overturns everybody’s ideas about what it means to be spiritual community, and what it means to answer the call of God. But in fact, while the holy spirit arrives early in the book of Acts, right here in chapter 2, it takes the rest of the book–28 chapters–for the followers of Jesus to wrestle with the changes that the arrival of the holy spirit sets in motion this season. And the reason it takes so long is that above all, the holy spirit arrives to sweep out what is no longer life giving — in order to make room for the new life that God is imagining for us. And so, all through the book of Acts, we find the apostles wrestling with change: what traditions to keep; what religious laws to observe; which cultural structures to keep in place and which old ways must be released and surrendered to the cleansing action of the wild, holy spirit that sweeps into the room this morning: more like a violent wind than a gentle breath of fresh air.

When the holy spirit arrives, it can feel like no structure is safe. When the holy spirit blows into the room, it can feel like the only smart thing to do is find a storm shelter and hide out until it passes by.

But that’s not what the apostles do this morning. Even as that gathered crowd swirls in confusion and protest, we see Peter and the apostles leaning in, remembering the Hebrew prophets, drawing on their prophetic tradition in order to make sense of sweeping change. And I’m pretty sure we’re called to do the same. Because as uncomfortable as the swirling, wild winds of change can be, some part of us knows that new life, and new joy, cannot arrive until we’re willing to let go of what we no longer need. In fact, I think it’s pretty convenient that this season of Pentecost, this season of the cleansing, life-changing holy spirit, also happens to coincide with yard sale season! Ever notice that? Just as soon the holy spirit arrives, the whole town starts clearing out  garages and closets and attics, piling stuff onto their lawns. Not because this is easy or fun, but because we understand that until we let go of what we no longer need, there will be no room in our lives for new energy, and new joy. 

So I want to talk about joy for a moment. You may recall that the apostle Paul says that joy is one of the gifts–sometimes a hard-won gift–of the Holy Spirit.  And I think this is exactly what’s at stake for us in this season of Pentecost. It is my experience that if we want to discover where God is leading us, it helps to pay very close attention to our felt sense of  joy. I believe that we human beings are made for joy, and that we have within us a reliable inner compass by which God is always leading us into a more expansive life. And this inner compass is made of joy. Our inner compass of joy points us toward God’s will, God’s dream, for our lives. I want to be clear that this compass of joy is not the same as pleasure. Take our yard sale, for example. It is not always pleasurable to go through your stuff room by room and haggle with your partner or your kids about what to save and what to keep. This is not pleasure! Pleasure is more like the cheap wine folks are talking about  in our scripture reading this morning: a source of instant and very temporary gratification. Getting drunk on cheap wine might bring a bit of pleasure in the moment, but very soon, it’s going to feel really lousy. Joy, on the other hand — the kind of joy that the Spirit promises — often requires discipline and hard work and time. In the end, though, the reward is the deep and abiding joy of a new and expansive life in God.

One person who knows a lot about this kind of deep joy is a woman named Marie Kondo. Maybe you’ve seen her Netflix series or read her book: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Don’t let the title fool you: the phrase “tidying up” is far too tame to describe the kind of radical, holy-spirit hurricane that Marie Kondo brings when she comes into your home. If you want to unclutter your life in Marie Kondo fashion, the first thing you have to do is  to take everything out of, say, your closet — everything — and pile it all in the middle of the room. If you Google Marie Kondo, you’ll see that she looks like the epitome of polite and mild-mannered gentleness. But the truth is that she’s a holy-spirit hurricane! Whoosh! Just like that, everything in your closet is suddenly in the middle of the floor. Here’s what Marie Kondo insists you must do next. Slowly, carefully, painstakingly, you must pick up each  item — every sweater, every sock — and one by one, you must hold each one to your cheek. No kidding. And while you are holding it there, you must tune into your body and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” And if the answer is no, if you can’t feel a tingle of joy when you hold that sweatshirt up to your cheek —  even if you just bought it, even if it’s the one you wear every day — if it doesn’t spark joy, you must let it go. Marie Kondo is ruthless when it comes to clearing out your life. And the people she’s helped will tell you that when they were willing to let go of that which does not spark joy, that’s the moment when their lives began to change. That’s when the spirit of new life was finally free to sweep in. As Kondo herself says, clearing out in this way will turn your home into: “a sacred space, a power spot filled with pure energy.” Sound a little like that long-ago Pentecost morning?

When I first read Marie Kondo’s book a few years ago, I recognized her as a kindred spirit. Not just because we both love cleaning out closets, but because I think she and I do similar types of work. One of the things I love most about my job is that I get to encourage all of you to hold parts of your lives up to your cheek and ask, “Does this spark joy?” In committee meetings, in council meetings, at the Ike box over a cup of tea, my work is to say to you, “I see how you light up when you talk about this new project. How can we help you make it happen?” And when I see you looking weary at the mention your job, or looking defeated and exhausted at the mention of the church committee you’ve been chairing for five years, it is my job to say, “I wonder if this is still bringing you joy.” And if the answer is no…then it is our holy work to gently remind each other to let go of that thing. Because only when we let go is there room for God’s holy spirit to move in and carry us into all kinds of new places, and all kinds of new joy in our collective life.

So here we are. Stepping into the season of Pentecost, the season of the life-changing Holy Spirit. Are you ready? This season, we are going to engage in a very careful process of discernment. We’ll be holding up pieces of our shared life: structures, committees, priorities, and asking ourselves to get very honest about whether these are serving, or stifling, the congregation God is calling us to become. The invitation this season, as Pentecost arrives, is to listen and watch together for the stirrings of the holy spirit. A season for noticing what structures and processes no longer spark joy for us. A season in which we summon the courage to let go of that which is no longer life-giving for us, and for the world. This is what the holy spirit asks of us this morning: that we spend this season patiently, faithfully noticing the spark of joy in one another’s eyes as we imagine new things together. A whole season to clear out enough space, enough room, for joy and new life to fill us once again — more than enough joy, and more than enough life, to spill out from here into this world God so loves.

What a joy it is this morning, and always, to be gathered together in this place as the holy spirit sweeps in to once again make us new. Thanks be to God. 

 

 

Show Me

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a reflection on John 20:19-29 for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

I was surprised some years ago when I learned that during the first few centuries of the church, the most important season of the year was not the season of Advent, not the season of Lent. For the early church, the most important season of the year was the season of Easter—the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost. This season, in the early church, the season we’re moving through right now, was set aside as a season of Joy. It was set aside precisely for the purpose of helping us receive and live into new life with the Risen Christ.

There is deep wisdom, I think, in the understanding that this new life is a process,–it’s not instantaneous — and that it takes time for us to let go of old habits, old ways of living that stand in the way of new life.  And so, the founders of the early church understood that these 50 days following the astonishing Easter resurrection, are a good time to start living, day by day, into the new life that God promises us. Unless, of course, like Jesus’ friends, you happen to be locked in a room, terrified. Afraid for your life.

This is exactly where we find our friends this morning. Their beloved teacher has been executed by a terrorist regime—a regime that very intentionally and publicly crucifies its enemies as a warning to anyone who might be planning disobedience of any kind.

So Jesus’ friends are hiding out  in a locked room, knowing that any moment now, someone down on the street could point to their window and identify them as followers of Jesus. Any moment now, there could be a knock on the door. And so, in the wake of the resurrection, in the wake of the first, great Easter — they don’t feel much like spreading the good news! Instead, they are locked in a room together, waiting for the other sandal to drop.

And it is into this room that Jesus suddenly appears, saying “Peace be with you.” Then he shows everybody his wounds. And they see. And believe that he’s really there.

Everybody, that is, except for Thomas, who has the bad luck to be absent on the day when his teacher appears. He’s down by the river doing his laundry or something.

So it is that Thomas does not get the benefit of seeing what the other disciples have already seen. When we meet Thomas this morning, he’s still terrified, traumatized. Most important, Thomas is still heartbroken. When we meet him this morning, Thomas is a guy who has been wounded, badly, by the loss of the friend he trusted and loved.

I’m willing to bet that Thomas isn’t the only one among us who has ever felt this way. I find it fascinating church tradition takes a guy like Thomas and blames him for having so little faith. Doubting Thomas, we call him. It’s particularly fascinating because if we look closely at the text, what we see is that Jesus himself doesn’t seem to blame Thomas at all. If Jesus blamed Thomas for his lack of faith, Jesus could have just left him to stew in his own disbelief—why bother showing up again, just for a guy who has no faith?

And yet, this is exactly what Jesus does. One week later, while the disciples are once again huddled in a locked room, Jesus appears yet again. As if he’s going out of his way to make sure that this time, Thomas will be there to see the wounds that the other disciples have already seen. As if it were the most natural thing in the world to need some evidence before we can believe. As if Jesus understands completely why Thomas—along with all the other disciples—cannot believe until his sees.

I’m pretty sure that Jesus does understand what Thomas needs, what we need, to see. Because Jesus, of all people, knows what it is to be wounded by the world. The Latin word for wound is vulnus, which is where we get our word vulnerable. Jesus, of all people, knows that to love always makes us vulnerable. Jesus, of all people, knows how terrifying it can be to love, to let your heart be vulnerable in this world.

Who better, then, to understand Thomas? Who better than the wounded Christ, the Christ of Compassion, to understand that it is Thomas’ own wounds, his own pain and disappointment, that make him afraid to believe again, afraid to believe in new life, in hope, in the possibility of joy.

“For those of you who can believe without seeing, Well, lucky you.” Jesus says. “You are blessed.” But for Thomas and the rest of us, Jesus shows up this morning to say, “Yes. I know how hard it is to believe, to trust again after you have been wounded.” To Thomas and the rest of us, Jesus says, “I know you need help to trust God again with your wounded heart. So, I will show you–I will show you!–exactly what you need to see.”

I suspect that there is something in every one of us that hesitates to reach out and claim the new life that God extends to us this season. There is a part of us—maybe our heart, maybe our soul–that has been wounded by life. Maybe even wounded by the church. And so, even in this season of new life and joy, we find ourselves still locked up in a room of fear, unable to trust in the possibility of new life. Like Thomas, we need some help, we need a reassuring sign—in order to be able to accept the offer of new life.

Lucky for us,Thomas, of all the disciples, has the courage to ask—the chutzpah, really!–to ask for the help he needs. No shame that he can’t believe. He simply asks to see. And it’s Thomas’ asking—his willingness to name what it is he needs —that seems to call Jesus in for a second visit.

And I wonder if the same might be true for us. In a minute, I’m going to stop talking and invite you to listen to any part of you that might be having some doubt this morning about all this new life business—any part of you that might, just like Thomas, be feeling a little afraid. Maybe it’s your heart. Maybe it’s your soul. A wounded inner child? I invite you to let that Thomas part of you finds its voice and ASK for whatever it might need in order to be willing to trust again…

And as you listen, I invite you to really honor what you hear by writing it down. There’s a piece of paper in your bulletin. And there should be a pencil or pen in the pew in front of you.  I invite you to write down whatever it is that your doubting, fearful heart needs to ask for this morning. You don’t have to share it with anyone; you don’t have to say it out loud. You can fold it right up and put it in your pocket. But I encourage you to listen to the voice of your own doubt this morning the way Jesus listens to Thomas. As if your very own doubt, just like Thomas’ doubt, is tender, and holy, and precious to God. Ask your own precious, vulnerable doubt what kind of a sign it needs. And then write down what you hear. I’ll give you a minute to listen, and write.

Whatever it is that you heard from your doubt this morning, I invite you to carry it with you this week. You might even want to look at it every now and then. And maybe, when you look at your own doubt, you might pray, as Thomas did, “Show me. God, show me the sign I need to see.” The sign you need to help you believe in the promise of new life that God is extending to you in this season of resurrection, this season of joy.

Above all, I invite you to be compassionate with your own doubting self. At least as compassionate as Jesus is with his beloved Thomas, the doubting one.

None of us gets through this life without being wounded. The world has its sharp, jagged edges, and they catch us, and we suffer, and we are afraid. Chances are that if we are truly going to receive new life in this season of Easter joy; if we are going to carry that new life into the world, then we’re going to need help, friends. We’re going to need each other.

If Thomas is any indication, God is ready, on a moment’s notice, to slip into the locked room of our fear and deliver to us that sign of hope, that sign of new life, if only we will ask.

And so we remember this morning, that the words, “Show me” are a complete and perfect prayer. And we give thanks to Thomas and all the faithful friends who teach us how to pray it. Thanks be to God.

 

I Took Them Up in My Arms

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A reflection on Hosea 11:1-4 and God the Mother 

Mother’s Day, 2019

I wonder if you can remember a moment when you happened to be in the right place at the right time to see a very small child, maybe only nine or ten months old, take his or her very first steps. Can you remember that moment? Maybe it was your own child, a niece or a nephew, maybe a grandchild. I wonder if there’s anything more thrilling, more remarkable, than an infant who is determined to walk; a child who is compelled by the very force of life itself to pull herself up on the edge of a coffee table and see if her own two legs will hold her. Maybe you were there at the moment when she let go of that table and took two, maybe three steps before she fell, laughing, into your waiting arms. I wonder if there is anything in the world more tender than the arms that catch a child as he takes a step and falls, takes another step and falls again.

When we witness this moment, when we are lucky enough to be right there for a child’s first steps, we know that something has changed forever. Not only for that newly walking baby. And not only for her parents, who have probably just raced off to Target to buy a baby gate for the top of the stairs: their lives have definitely changed forever. But they aren’t the only ones whose lives have changed. If you are there to witness those first steps, your life is different, too. Because when we catch that baby after his first, faltering steps, when we rejoice with that tiny girl after her first solo walk across the living room, the bonds of love are cemented between us. The shared experience of that much hope, that much love, joins our hearts and our souls in wild joy and in reverence for the milestone we’ve just shared. We’re linked forever. At least, that’s how it seems to work for us human beings.

For God, it seems that things don’t always turn out so well.

It was I, says God in our scripture reading this morning. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. (In this instance, the tribe of Ephraim stands for all of Israel.) I took them up in my arms, God says. But they did not know that I healed them.

I wonder if we can even begin to imagine the pain God is speaking about through the prophet Hosea this morning. It might be something like the pain we would feel if, as we watched that child take her first steps, we suddenly realized that when she grows up, she’s not even going to remember who we are.

I was to them, says God, Like those who lift infants to their cheeks. And still, God laments, they do not know me.

This is a heartbroken God we encounter this morning. A God who so gently, like the most tender parent, feeds and lifts and loves Her people, and yet remains invisible to them.

See if you can imagine the pain God speaks of here:  

I bent down to them and fed them, says God. And still they do not know me.

I bent down to them and fed them like a mother, says God, And still, they call me only “Lord,” only “Father,” only “Rock.”

This is not often what we think of when we picture God in our minds: a God whose heart is breaking because Her people have failed to see, have refused to recognize, God’s most tender love and care.

Instead, what we often imagine is a God who might accept our praise on Sunday mornings, but who certainly doesn’t need our understanding or our attention. Somehow, we  modern people, so independent, so technologically advanced, so able to manipulate our world and take care of ourselves in so many ways – we have created God in our own image. We have fashioning a God who is as self sufficient and independent as we imagine ourselves to be.

Not so, says the prophet Hosea. God is mother to us. God is even now bending all the way down to earth to feed us, the prophet cries. God is a mother whose heart is breaking because Her children do not recognize her for who she really is: the One who lifts each soul like a child to Her cheek and who longs for us to know Her in the fullness, in the mothering mercy, of Her love.

All through the long line of Hebrew prophets, all the way up to and including Jesus himself, what we see is a God who longs to be in intimate, loving relationship with all of creation, and with human creatures. And this morning, this Mother’s Day morning, the prophet Hosea reminds us that it is difficult to be in real relationship with anyone if we are determined to see only a small part of who they are. What I want to suggest is that the part of God we see, the side of God we are willing to recognize, has everything to do with how we treat one another and the other creatures with whom we share this world. The God we imagine—the image of God we offer to our children—has everything to do with the kind of world we leave our children and the kind of God they will find.

So I want to offer a mother’s day thank you, a mother’s day shout-out, to the prophet Hosea, who was writing in the middle of the 8th century BCE, which was a very, very dark time in his people’s history. A time when the Assyrian army was breathing down Israel’s neck, about to destroy the northern kingdom; a fearful time when any prophet could be forgiven for calling upon a vengeful, martial, punishing God. I want to give a shout-out to Hosea and to every prophet who has the courage, even in the most dangerous of times, to speak of the wholeness, and the tenderness of God. To offer us a God who is more loving, more merciful, more forgiving—and much more complete—than the judging, punishing, distant God we so often carry in our minds.

And I wonder this morning whether your own relationship with God might feel just a bit easier, maybe even more possible, if you knew for sure that ours is a mothering God. A God who even now is bending, kneeling, reaching, to gather you in. I think Mother’s Day might be the perfect day to give this God a try.

I wonder how we all might change—as a people, as a nation—if we knew for sure that God is mother to every single being. How might our criminal justice system change? How likely would we be to continue throwing errant 14-year-olds into juvenile hall if we knew that God loves those children more like a mother than like a punishing lord?

If we knew for sure that God is mother to every being, how likely would we be to continue incarcerating immigrant children and their families as they flee for their lives? It’s hard for me to imagine American corporations profiting from the incarceration of children and their families in a country whose people know, in their hearts, the tender mercy of a mothering God.

It’s hard to imagine the earth itself being plundered and poisoned for profit by a people who knows that God is even now lifting every leaf, every wing, every creature, to Her cheek with a mother’s tender love.

It was I, says God. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in my arms, God says. But they did not know that I healed them.

What might it mean for you to know the God who is longing to heal us all? What might it mean to remember the God who even now is loving you into being moment by moment, breath by breath, Her own heart leaping with joy as you learn to trust the legs of your own life? What might it mean to remember the One whose arms are reaching, even now, to catch you, to forgive you, to offer you abundant life again and again?

This day, this Mother’s Day, may we hear the cry of the God who longs to be seen in Her wholeness. A God who is as merciful, as tender, as life-giving, as the people She created us to be. Amen.

 

Choose Your Own Adventure

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a reflection on Mark 16:1-8

Easter Sunday 2019

I brought a little book to share with you this morning, and I’m guessing that even from far away, some of you might be able to recognize it, just by its cover. If you have been a kid recently, or if you’ve been reading with kids recently, you may know this series, which is called “Choose Your Own Adventure.” This particular adventure is The Abominable Snowman, but there are lots of different books in this series: adventures in outer space, adventures under the sea, all kinds of adventures! These books have been popular for a long time, and I think it’s because they do two very unusual things. First, they are written in the second person, directly the reader. So that as you read along, you can imagine that this great adventure is happening not to a character in the book, but to you.

The second thing that makes these books unusual is that whenever something interesting happens in the story, the narrative suddenly comes to a complete stop. And that’s when you, the reader, have to choose what happens next. You come upon an abandoned well? You have to decide whether you want to stick your head in and see what’s down there, or walk right by. You meet a wolf on the road? You get to decide whether to run the other way, or sit down and offer it some of your lunch.

As you might imagine, the way the story turns out depends on what you decide to do at each juncture. This particular book promises 28 different possible endings, depending on what kind of choices you make all along the way.

Which is not unlike what happens in the gospel of Mark this morning. Very early in the morning, the women make their way to the tomb. And to their great surprise, they find that not only has the stone been rolled away, but the tomb is empty! And there before them sits a figure in a white robe, who tells them that Jesus has been raised: he’s already gone. And the women are overcome, speechless with terror and amazement. And that’s it! That’s all the gospel writer wrote.

Of course, if you are reading along in your Bible, you will see that there are two more endings after this one, a shorter one and a longer one. It’s not quite the 28 endings you can get with The Abominable Snowman, but still, two extras is pretty good! But because neither of these two additional endings appears in the earliest known manuscripts, scholars agree that these extra endings were added on during the 2nd and 3rd centuries by folks who perhaps weren’t so happy with the way the original story screeches to a halt at the first news of the resurrection: “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

We can probably understand why folks would want to elaborate a bit, because this ending isn’t all that satisfying — especially if you read it on Easter morning! After everything Jesus and his friends have been through; after watching Jesus feed the people bread and fish; after watching him heal the sick and invite everybody—every body—into the kingdom of God; after watching Jesus feed the people so much HOPE—so much hope for new life, so much hope for God’s justice to come on earth—this is how it all ends? With silence and fear? Really? Somebody who seems to be an angel sits in the tomb and says, “Guess what? Christ is Risen!” And do the disciples whip out their banners and shout Alleluia! No, they do not. In the gospel of Mark, the angel announces, Christ is Risen! And the disciples reply, No Way! Imagine if we did that on Easter morning! The minister says, Christ is Risen! And the congregation responds: No way!

It doesn’t quite have the same ring! So we can imagine why people felt the need to change the ending of this gospel. The author must have made a mistake, they said. The real ending must have gotten lost. The writer couldn’t possibly have meant to end the story here.

Unless, of course, the author of the gospel of Mark was a writer who knew a thing or two about how to tell a good story. A writer who knew how to get us to put ourselves into the story. What would you do? the gospel of Mark asks us this morning. The angel has spoken. You’ve seen the empty tomb. Now you have to decide. Which adventure will you choose?

The ending of this story, says the gospel of Mark, is up to us. By leaving the ending wide open, by leaving us staring at the empty tomb while the disciples run away, the gospel of Mark suggests that what happens next, what happens to the good news of the resurrection, what happens to the good news that God is offering us new life beyond every tomb we can imagine or invent—what we do with this news is entirely up to us.

And so, on this Easter morning, we stand with the disciples at a crossroad, facing a choice. A choice we always have to make at every crossroad: will we step into new life, or will we let fear keep us right where we are? Which is probably why the first thing the angel says this morning is: Do not be alarmed. Do not be afraid.

This is what angels in the Bible always say just before they tell us something impossibly good. Something we can hardly believe.It must be in the angel instruction manual. When an angel shows up and says, Do not be afraid, you can be sure he’s about to tell you something so great, so new, that it’s terrifying.

Terrifying enough to make us ordinary mortals want to run back to our old lives and hide, just like the disciples do this morning. This is human nature, friends, and angels seem to understand it very well. It is human nature to be afraid of stepping into the new life that God offers. Even an angel knows that a new thing, a brand-new way of living, can be scary to us humans, no matter how good that new life promises to be.

And so the gospel of Mark asks us to do some soul searching this morning. Will we choose to believe in the possibility of new life? In the possibility of resurrection? Or will we, too, run away and hide?

As far as we know, God will not choose for us. As far as we know, the Divine Presence is too gentle, too respectful of our free will to choose our adventure for us. This is the great paradox at the heart of our faith: the God of all creation is also the One who is humble enough to empty God’s self on the cross; humble enough to allow us to do what we will—with God, with our lives, with all life on earth. God will even allow us to continue to crucify one another, to continue to crucify the planet itself, if we insist. God will allow us, if we choose, to refuse the offer of new life when it does not match up with our old, comfortable ways of living. This is free will, friends, and it is a gift from God: choose your own adventure.

And yet, the angel makes it very clear this morning that while the choice is ultimately ours, God is still calling to us. The Lord is going on ahead of you, says the angel. Which is true, even now! God is always just a step ahead of us, trying to lure us along: inviting us, praying for us, to follow, if we dare. And I wonder if, even now, there might be an angel, an Easter angel, holding its breath for all of humanity, waiting to see which adventure we will choose for ourselves and for the world that God loves. Will we remain set in our ways, out of habit, out of fear? Or will we accept the invitation to new life?

And I wonder if there is part of you this morning that is longing to accept the invitation to new life? Can you feel the faint stirrings of hope? Can you feel a flutter of wings urging you to believe that new life is possible, even now? Urging you not to be afraid?

I wonder what kind of support might you need in order to say a holy yes to this offer of new life? Maybe a community of friends, companions for the journey? Maybe a community where it is safe, right here, to be vulnerable in our hope and in our fear? A community where it is safe enough to take a risk—the risk of hope, the risk of believing again in new life even though our hearts have been broken so many times before?

You know, and I know, that new life does not come without risk. We know that new life comes with sacrifice and sometimes painful change. New life requires that we let go of the old life we have come to know and love. New life requires that we sacrifice our old ways of living in order to heal and care for all life on this earth. New life requires the courage to build, even now, a world where no one goes hungry, where no one grows up in fear. Hope like that is a dangerous thing. Hope like that can break your heart. A heart that has already lost so much, and so many. A heart that has already been broken at the foot of the cross.

And yet, here we are, standing with the first disciples, staring at an empty tomb. This morning, we begin the adventure known as the season of Easter: the great 50 days of Easter—a whole season in which we are invited, if we dare, to listen for the stirrings of new life, to follow the Risen One who is going on ahead of us. No matter how long we’ve been hiding, no matter how long we’ve been hurting, no matter how long we’ve been afraid to hope—we are invited this morning not to run away but to stay, and to choose new life beyond anything we’ve known before.

That’s the invitation this morning: for us, and for the world. And so, on this beautiful day of resurrection, may we find the courage we need, may we look around this room and find the brave companions we need, to help us say a holy yes to God’s own adventure. May we choose this day the adventure of truly new and abundant life—for ourselves, for our children, and for this world that God so loves. Amen. And Alleluia.