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. 

 

Christ of the River

IMG_2483

 “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.

 

 

 

Making Room for Joy

cranes2013

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

heart-2482579_960_720

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.