Monday, May 28, 2018

5-27-18 “Three-Part Harmony”

5-27-18  “Three-Part Harmony”

   When I think of three-part harmony, the music of the iconic folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary is the first thing that comes to mind. Noel Paul Stookey has a deep bass baritone voice that when combined with the late Mary Travers’ rich alto and Peter Yarrow’s light and dancing tenor blends into a tight, moving, masterpiece of harmony. I saw them perform live on three different occasions and have several recordings of their music. And while each of the three recorded music on their own apart from the trio, none of them had the success as solo artists that their work together brought them. There was a mutual “indwelling,” if you will, that was birthed when they sang together, a flow of both melody and harmony that was as unique to them and their genre as Louis Armstrong’s music and voice was to his. You just know, when you hear one of their songs on the radio, who it is that is singing.

   Today, Trinity Sunday, immediately follows Pentecost in the liturgical calendar and is the day we think about, celebrate even, the idea of a triune God - or as described in song, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” And the Trinity is not an easy concept - certainly not as easy as many preachers try to make it sound. As preachers, youth leaders, and Sunday School teachers, we often try to help people understand this idea of God as “three-in-one” by comparing God’s nature to a three-leafed clover, or by thinking about God the way we think about the states of water: as liquid, as solid, or as vapor. 

   And if it were simply about a math problem of some kinds, then we could find other comparisons to make as well, such as the Triple Crown of horse-racing or the three periods of a hockey game. But God is not a clover, nor is God water. And the nature of God resembles neither a series of horse races, nor a hockey game. The Trinity is not an idea that is easily understood or explained. Any time we talk about God, in fact, our language is by necessity symbolic, or metaphoric, or even poetic. Our mere words do not begin to convey the essence or nature of God. As is often said, if we think we understand God, then it is not God we are understanding. God is beyond our ability to comprehend or describe, even as we are made in God’s image. So our words about God, our descriptions of God, are at their best inadequate, and can be, at their worst, destructive. But as I have said before, how we think about God matters because it shapes what we think about God. And that may be one of the reasons that many pastors avoid preaching on Trinity Sunday, taking this as a Sunday out of the pulpit to allow an associate pastor or lay minister to preach on this week. 
   I don’t shy away from talking about the Trinity because it allows me the opportunity to admit my ignorance upfront and to then explore ideas with you that might help us both better appreciate what truly trinitarian thinking might mean for our faith. And I say “admit my ignorance” for one simple reason - in my opinion, any preacher who claims to truly understand the Trinity is fooling him or herself. While Trinitarian theology is certainly taught in our United Methodist seminaries, I can’t say with any certainty that it is covered in non-denominational schools or in Bible colleges. The word “Trinity” is found nowhere in Scripture - it’s simply not there. A line-by-line expository teaching of the Bible will not unearth the word or a Greek or Latin relative. The concept of the Trinity and the doctrine that followed, evolved over the course of the second to fourth centuries in the church out of ideas and phrasing within scripture and from ritual practices within the early church. The Nicene Creed, the church’s most prolific creed, or statement of belief, about God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, goes to great lengths to try to explain the nature of the three being of the same substance, and how the Christ “is begotten” of God while the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from God - all in an effort to explain how the three are equal, yet God the Creator is a little more equal than the others (a heretical idea for some) but not really. At the Council of Nicaea, where the Nicene Creed was formulated, the participants nearly came to blows over the wording used in this statement of faith. And while this was all well and good in the pre-modern, pre-enlightenment era, for those of us on this side of those time periods, in a post-enlightenment, post-industrial world who often feel like we have to figure out exactly how this or that works, precisely how A relates to B and why, the kind of soupy ambiguity that is often ascribed to the creeds in general and the idea of the Trinity in particular, often results in arguments akin to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin - the result of which is a general sense of irrelevance to our every day life of faith. So my hope today is to help you think about the Trinity a little differently, so that perhaps it can help guide you in living out your faith instead of just being some “religious” thing that makes no sense.

   When we talk about the Trinity what we’re really talking about is the relationship between God the Creator, Jesus Christ the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, the Sustainer. These three together are referred to as the Godhead. Now, in our creeds and in much of the language used about God, we often hear God referred to as Father. Jesus refers to God as Father, translated from the word abba, which is an intimate term comparable to “daddy.” Some take Jesus’ words to the disciples, when telling them how to pray “Our Father, who art in heaven” as not only instructive but as prescriptive. But that is not the case - Jesus’ wording is about intimacy, not gender. The intimacy Jesus felt with God was as if God was his “daddy.” That may or may not be the case for you. It isn’t for many people. If your father was cold or abusive, that may not be a healthy God image for you. It isn’t for me for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t have a strong father-figure growing up since he died when I was a child, my father was absent in that sense, so my concept of God has never been tied to a Father figure. But second, the title Father implies gender, it suggests maleness, and God is not male, God has no gender. Scripture describes God in many more ways - including with female pronouns or attributes - than just as Father. So I, like many others, strive to use gender inclusive language when I speak and think about God - not because it is “politically correct” as some accuse - but because it is generous and inclusive, and the Trinity is, if nothing else, an inclusive concept and description of an extravagantly generous God. 

   It is helpful, when thinking about the triune nature of God, to think of it as the ways in which we experience God in our lives and in our faith. So for example, we experience God as Creator when we see and experience creation all around us, but also when we consider that we are created in the image of God and that we, too, are creative and creating beings. We experience God as Redeemer when we hear and experience the words and teachings of Jesus Christ and understand that our redemption and salvation come to us through him and the way he taught us to live and to be with one another. And we experience God as Sustainer in the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit, the way that Jesus promised he would be with us always, to the end of time, and when we see the Spirit at work in people, in the church and in our own lives, giving us the power to follow Christ’s way.
   But it goes deeper than that. One of the $1.50 words theologians use when talking about the Trinity is the word “perichoresis.” The official theological dictionary definition is on the screen: A more practical way of thinking of it, and as it has been described by others before, is as a dance - the dance of the the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer together. 

   The Rev. Peter Samuelson, a Lutheran pastor in Atlanta, Georgia, referred to the trinity as “the ultimate dancing with the stars.” He writes, “In ballroom dance there are two partners: a lead and a follow…  And as they say - it takes two to tango.  More specifically, it takes a lead and a follow to tango. When the two are properly positioned  ("in frame" to use ballroom dance lingo) they really then move as one.  This is the magic of ballroom dance: that two bodies become one - they move as one.  There is a lead who initiates the movement and a follow who responds to the movement but they move as one unit.  They are two in one.
     “If ‘it takes two to tango,’ how can a dance represent the Trinity?  Well, you can't really have a dance - and you certainly can't have ballroom dance - without music.  In this way you need three parts to make a ballroom dance: you need a lead; a follow; and you need music.
  The Holy Spirit is the music, the beat, the pulse, the rhythm by which the Trinity moves. The key element of this image of the Trinity - the reason that a dance is a good picture of what God in three persons is like is that it depicts God as movement. God is nothing if not on the move. Consider how God moved over the waters in Creation (Gen. 1) or how the Spirit drove Jesus into the Wilderness (Lk. 4) or how the Spirit (Acts 2) appeared as tongues of fire moving the reluctant disciples to witness. 
   While ballroom dance has certainly become a popular spectator sport, it is much more joyous as a participant. How do we participate in the "dance of the Trinity?"  It is through our participation in Christ. Paul teaches us that through baptism we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ (Romans 6).  Paul provides an enduring metaphor for our participation in the resurrected life of Christ when he declares in 1 Corinthians 12: "You are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (v. 27).  In the dance of the Trinity, then, we participate as Christ's body, following God's lead, into community.  God indicates to us to do those moves that God has led throughout the ages: moves of justice, mercy, peace and love.  It all moves to the music of the Holy Spirit who provides the inspiration, the pace, the occasion and the heart of the dance.”

   In addition to movement as Rev. Samuelson offers, though, I would also suggest that the nature of the Trinity is community. That is, the presence, the essence of God is community - an inclusive community of three in one. And that to dance the dance of Trinity means dancing both in community and with community. IN community of fellow Christ followers and WITH community of those we are called to engage, as in the passage from Matthew’s gospel known as the Great Commission.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.: (Mt. 28:19)

  We may think of this passage typically in connection with sending missionaries or in terms of evangelism. In these contexts, we probably hear it as something like "go and get people into the church to do what Jesus taught.” But today we are invited to hear it more deeply, and differently. 
  A little sentence diagramming reveals that the first word of this text in Greek is not in the form of an imperative, but is a participle. That is, the idea of going somewhere else is not commanded, but rather is assumed. 
Jesus’ words are better understood as "As you go," not as simply "GO!"
   The only independent verb in the Commission is often translated "make disciples." However, to our modern ears, where the word make brings to mind perhaps production lines or business models, this may easily sound like disciples are something to be produced like so many widgets on an assembly line! In Greek, "to disciple" is a verb, and the command here might be better understood, not as “make disciples in every nation,” but more as "disciple people in every nation,” or “be disciples in every nation.”
   Discipling means to do with others what Jesus has done with his own disciples, and with us. It's not about putting people through classes or programs. It's not even about conversion or getting them to agree to become professing members of a congregation. It's about coming alongside people, walking with people in community, in the power of the Spirit so they, and we, learn to live the way of Jesus, the way of God's reign. And not just live it — participate in it, announce it to others, go where the Spirit sends us, and act fully as Christ's representatives in the world. Discipling others is coming along side them, and inviting them to experience and respond to the fullness of the Triune God alive and active - always and everywhere.
   The participles that follow specify parts of what that involves. The first is "baptizing people in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit." One image, seen more readily in the practice of baptism by immersion, is the drowning of death and sin and the raising again to life freed from the power of sin and death to walk in newness of life in Trinity, in community. 
This is not a call to baptize everyone we see, offering no instruction or relationship prior. To baptize someone in the name of our Triune God implies at least some process of coming alongside and helping them understand the nature of this Three-in-One God who gives new life and new birth in baptism. The community nature of this sacrament is one reason why we only do baptisms within the worship community and not separately or privately. 
   And so the second participle is "teaching them to keep what I have instructed you." The act of teaching here is not a synonym for the verb "discipling" above, but it is one part of the way discipling happens. The verb here especially means to help people learn the story, but it’s more than that. The teaching to be passed on faithfully is about how a disciple lives more than it is what they know. It’s something to be modeled rather than explained.
   Jesus asks those first disciples, and us, to teach others "to keep" or "to commit to practice" what he has instructed - not just know it but practice it - do it. There is content to be learned and lived. The stories, parables, and other teachings of Jesus and the church that continue to express that teaching are part of that. But the reason those stories, parables, and other teachings are there is not simply so we'll know them, but so we'll live them. So here Jesus commissions his own disciples to disciple others — not simply to teach them about Jesus then, but rather how to live fully as citizens and agents of the Triune God, in whose name we are baptized.

   The Holy Trinity is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to enter into more deeply. It’s a mystery of of inclusion. And such inclusion prevents us from understanding one Person of the Trinity without the others. God the Creator must ALWAYS be understood together with Christ the Redeemer and the Holy Spirit the Sustainer and so forth. They are ALWAYS together - distinct yet inseparable. Remember, one aspect of that definition of perichoresis was the idea of “interpenetration.” They are an inseparable part of one another. And the nature of God in this sense is more than our human thoughts and language can bear at times.
   Now, someone might think: So there are three gods? There would be if they were alongside but unrelated to the others; there would be except for the relating and inclusion of the three divine Persons - that perichoresis word. To think in terms of the metaphor of voices in three-part harmony - the Trinity is not three musicians who come together to play a trio - it is the harmonious song.      And it is a song that has always been playing...for eternity. The Three do not first exist then relate.      There wasn’t a start date for God - God is and was and always will be - another concept that is difficult for the modern mind to grasp. Without beginning and without end, the three - God, the Christ, and the Spirit - live together and are interconnected. That is why they are the one triune God, here and everywhere, in whom we live and breathe and have our being. They are the song, they are the dance. When the Godhead chose to take on human form, to incarnate, to show God’s love for all of creation, God the Christ took on flesh as Jesus of Nazareth that we might begin to know the true nature of God. The Trinity is the community in which we are a part and into which we are called to live, with and for others. Living in that way is what it means to be a disciple.
   What is this space in which we gather but a sign of our life together as the body of Jesus Christ? Here we listen for the Word of God the Creator, the Teaching of God the Redeemer, and find the power and inspiration of God the Holy Spirit who sustains us as we travel from Font, to Table, to the world to bear witness to all that we have known and seen and experienced in the deep fellowship of this all-inclusive community, this Triune God. 
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord, God Almighty! God in three persons, blessed Trinity. Amen.

Monday, May 21, 2018

5-20-18 “Journey: The Places We Will Go” (Final in the "Emerge!" Series

5-20-18  “Journey: The Places We Will Go”

   I shared with you last week about my love of flying in spite of  how harrowing my first experience of flying had been. And several of you shared with me after worship about some of the “less-than-ideal” flight experiences you’ve had over the years as well. And I can understand why some people refuse to fly for one reason or another - 30,000 feet is over five miles up - that’s a long way up…or down. So, I understand that fear. At the same time, millions of people fly safely every day, and statistics tell us that flying is actually statistically safer than driving.
   I’m more surprised, though, when I hear about people who have never traveled out of their state, their county, or even their city. When I was with Kmart in Zanesville, it was not uncommon to find people who had never been to Columbus, who refused to drive on the highway. And by highway some weren’t talking about Interstate 70, but US 40. And even more confounding, while I’ve been here at Crossroads I did encounter one woman one time who told me that she had lived on the westside for over 60 years and had never been east of High Street in downtown Columbus. So there’s that…

   Our scripture readings today point to two different things happening in the early church. The first, the familiar passage from Acts chapter 2 about the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Jesus community on the Day of Pentecost, initiates what we think of as the church, as the first Christian community following the death and resurrection of Jesus. And here we read that suddenly a strong wind came up and something like tongues of flame rested on each of those gathered together, and that they suddenly began speaking in other languages that were foreign to them. Now, to be clear, they were not doing what is often referred to as “speaking in tongues,” that is an unintelligible language that can only be understood by someone with the spiritual gift for understanding. No, the passage is clear that they were speaking in foreign languages, languages of other known countries and peoples. And we understand this image to mean that the Holy Spirit descended on, the message of Jesus Christ was to be disseminated to, people of all nations. 

   The reading then jumps to the end of chapter 2 where it describes what life was like in the early church. And what did this church look like? Well, it looked like regular potlucks, and weekly communion, and small group bible studies meeting in peoples’ homes, learning from the teaching of the disciples. And it says that the people who made up these churches praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to EVERYONE.

   So we see, in a very short time, a change or progression in what the church looks like, moving from a few dozen people in the immediate aftermath of the resurrection to three thousand that it says became part of the church on that Day of Pentecost. And the book, The Acts of the Apostles, what we commonly refer to simply as Acts, tracks how the message of the early church is carried to other people and other places over the years by the eleven disciples and eventually by Paul. 

   Later, in chapter 10, we encounter the story of Peter and Cornelius, which marks yet another significant change or transformation in the life of the church. 
And we see a move from generalities about the ever-changing church in chapter 2, to some very specific instances of what brought about these advances in the later chapters. In chapter 10, as our dramatic reading presented, we’re first introduced to Cornelius, whom we are told right away is an “outsider,” that he is a Centurion - that is a commander of one hundred Roman soldiers - but that he is a devout follower of the Jewish God. And the writer tells us that Cornelius, “consistently and generously gave to the poor, and he practiced constant prayer to God.” So we’re to understand that, while he is not one of the “chosen people,” and while he is not a “disciple of Jesus,” he is a good man. 
   So God’s messenger comes to this outsider and tells him to send men to Joppa to find the Apostle Peter, who is in the home of one Simon the Tanner, and ask Peter to share his message with Cornelius. And with that our story jumps to Peter, and immediately we get a sense of transition or change that continues to happen with him as well. We’re told that Peter is in the home of Simon the Tanner. So at this point we might wonder, what does a tanner do? Well, a tanner works with animal hides, removing the hides from dead animals and processing them into leather for use in bags, belts, shoes, and whatever else might be needed. The fact that he works with dead animals would render him perpetually, almost permanently, unclean from a ritualistic standpoint, along with anyone or anything that he touches; meaning that he couldn’t partake in temple or synagogue activities, couldn’t make sacrifice, couldn’t do anything without first going through an elaborate days-long purification process that would require him to stop working, to  stop earning money to feed and support his family and household first.
   This is where we find the devout Jew and Apostle Peter staying, and this is where we see the first sign of a really big change that is taking place not only within the church, but in Peter himself.

   But I want us to pause here for a moment and consider the bigger question of change in the church. For some, when we think about change in the church we localize it and think only of change within our own congregation. Others think more broadly of a denomination or the church as an institution. 
But when considering the prospect of change in the church, both groups often express a resistance to change, a desire to stay the same or revert to what it once was, or at least what they perceive that it once was. On the other hand, there are some - those who perhaps have no real understanding of history, or at least of church history, who don’t perceive of any real change in the church at all over the years, or even over the centuries. I read an interesting article this week by Daniel Clendenin, in which he talked about a book by theologian and historian Garry Wills titled The Future of the Church With Pope Francis. And as Clendenin describes him, Wills is “both a fierce critic and devoted son of the church.”
   So while Wills is Roman Catholic, it is helpful for us as Protestants to remember that until the 16th century, there was no Catholic-Protestant divide, there was only one church, the Holy Roman Catholic (or universal) Church. So when he talks about the early history of the Catholic church, he’s talking about our history as well. And in his book Wills asks the rhetorical question “can the church ever change?” and then goes on to suggest that those who think the church will never change are among those with a limited knowledge of history.
   And Clendenin, quoting from Wills’ book says, “It's believing a fiction to say that the church has had an immutable [that is, unchanging] past, "that the church was always what it has become." That's patently false. The church didn't always have priests (a "failed tradition” he calls them) and popes. 
For thirteen hundred years it didn't teach transubstantiation, and for almost nineteen hundred years there was no such thing as papal infallibility.”
   And he goes on to say that, “In ways both large and small, for good and for ill, the church has always changed. Change is the "respiration" of the church, 
"its way of breathing in and breathing out." And just as it's a fiction to say that the church has had an immutable past, so too is the idea that its future is a foregone conclusion.” And then he points out several ways that Wills says that the Catholic Church, again understood as the “universal church,” has changed across the centuries.
   And the first thing he points out is that for a thousand years, Latin was the official and common language for a universal church, in spite of the fact that only a very few understood it. Thought of another way -  for the first thousand years of the church, half of it’s total existence, only the priests could read Scripture. It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press, around the same time as the Protestant Reformation, that is 500 years ago, that the Bible began to be translated into common languages and that common people had access to it. 

   A second major change that Wills points to is the changing nature of the church-state relationship. At first,” he writes, “the state ignored the church. Then it persecuted the church. And if Emperor Constantine later took over the church, Wills observes, in the high Middle Ages it's just as true that the church took over the sword of the state with its "crusades, inquisitions, interdictions, in the christening and excommunicating of kings." More recently, liberation theology has opposed the state in defense of the poor.”
   Wills also looks at changing views of contraception, patriarchy, and abortion within what we know as the  post-Reformation Roman Catholic Church. 
“By the 1990s, so few Catholics agreed with papal teaching on contraception that those who did were "statistically non-existent." It was a good example of how sometimes church authorities don't exactly retract their positions, "they just accept the fact that the People of God have moved on.” That same “moving on” is happening among Catholics on the issue of abortion, where a majority now support a woman’s right to choose, and to a slightly lesser degree on the issue of homosexuality.

   And these issues not only are bringing about change in the Roman Catholic church, but in the Protestant denominations as well. And as you know, in our own United Methodist Church in particular, the issues of homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of openly gay clergy are hot topics. There has been a battle going on within the United Methodist Church over these issues for nearly the entire fifty year existence of the UMC as we know it, post 1968 merger. As those who support the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church and in ordained ministry have grown in strength, those who oppose that have grown increasingly immutable in their interpretation of both Scripture and the United Methodist Book of Discipline. It finally came to a head at our General Conference in 2016, where when faced with an impasse between opposing sides, the Conference turned to our Council of Bishops and asked them to make a recommendation on how we move forward as a denomination. The Council of Bishops, basically the governing authority within our denomination whose role, among others, is to carry out the decisions of the General Conference, created what is called the Commission on the Way Forward, made up of United Methodists from across the spectrum, clergy and laity, progressive and conservative, gay and straight, male and female, black and white, to explore and make a recommendation to the Council of Bishops for how we should proceed. This recommendation will be brought to a specially called General Conference in 2019, next year. We don’t know exactly what will happen during or in the aftermath of that Conference, but we do know that regardless of the decision made by those Conference delegates, it will bring significant change to The United Methodist Church as we know it. 
   The UMC and its historical predecessor churches have seen change before, though. Whether it was splits over the role or position of bishops in the eighteenth century, divisions over slavery in the nineteenth century, or fights over the role and ordination of women in the 20th, the only constant, in the church or in the world for that matter, is change.

   One of the most radical changes in the early church, though, is that which is described by Luke in our reading for today. I’ve already pointed out the major change that is represented simply by Peter’s being willing to stay in the home of Simon the Tanner. But as Peter is waiting on lunch one day he has a vision of something like a sheet descending from above full of what he understands to be “unclean” animals, and a voice, presumably of God, telling him to kill and eat. And Peter replies,  “No way, Lord! These animals are forbidden in the dietary laws of the Hebrew Scriptures!” Now, notice here how Peter is so concerned about remaining kosher and following the dietary laws, while he seems totally unconcerned about the purity laws he’s violating by being in the home of this tanner. “I’ve never eaten non-kosher foods like these before—not once in my life!” he declared. His sudden claim of righteousness, or self-righteousness perhaps, is shot down, however, when the voice responds, “If God calls something permissible and clean, you must not call it forbidden and dirty!”And it says that “Peter saw this vision three times; but the third time, the container of animals flew up through the rift in the sky, the rift healed, and Peter was confused and unsettled as he tried to make sense of this strange vision.”

   At that point, the messengers from Cornelius arrive and share the invitation they bring, and the following day Peter leaves with them in route to the home of the Centurion. Arriving at 3pm the following day, we’re told that when Peter meets Cornelius, the Centurion drops to his knees before Peter as if to worship him, but that Peter tells him to stand up, that he is just a man. 
And then Peter, the effects of all that he has encountered in the last few days being made known through him, says to Cornelius, “You know I am a Jew. We Jews consider it a breach of divine law to associate, much less share hospitality, with outsiders. But God has shown me something in recent days: I should no longer consider any human beneath me or unclean. That’s why I made no objection when you invited me; rather, I came willingly.”
   And Clendenin points out to us that while “there are many layers to this story,” we should “notice the obvious — that the real convert here, the person who really needs a radical change of mind and heart, is not Cornelius the centurion but Peter the believer. And so he repents, confessing, "God has shown me that I should not call any person impure or unclean.”

   And Clendenin continues, “We should hope and pray and work for a better church. But we should also reject the purist's dream of a perfect church. 
Jesus described his kingdom as a field of wheat that's infested with weeds, a net full of good and bad fish, and as a field of wheat that needs to be winnowed.”
   "Nothing in our sinful world is perfect,” Wills reminds us, “not the church and not the state. Only…at the End of this Age, do we enter an ideal community in heaven. Until then, living between the heavenly city of God and earthly city of Man, we do the best we can in an imperfect "third city" here and now.
   So we see in the emerging of the church in the book of Acts, a series of events in the life of Peter that lead him to the understanding that God shows no partiality and that all are welcome in this journey of new life in Christ. Upon this rock, the Spirit builds a church that offers hope to the hopeless, strength for the weary and new life to those who think theirs is over. This is what the church is called to do and to be, and if it doesn’t do this, it’s not being the church. This is who and how we’re called to be as disciples of Jesus Christ, and if we don’t do this…well.
   This kind of openness and inclusion, an attitude of welcoming and caring for the other, is what the world needs from the church right now. Not more fighting, certainly not more judgement - much of the world already largely views Christians and the church as both too judgmental and subsequently, irrelevant to their lives. But if we are willing to make the journey of faith, to commit to living and following the way of Jesus Christ that is given for all people in all places, then as that great theologian Dr. Seuss told us, “Oh the places you will go!” Amen.

Monday, May 14, 2018

5/13/18 “Fly: Daring New Heights

5/13/18  “Fly: Daring New Heights

   I was an adult the first time I flew in an airplane. 
I had just moved to Columbus in mid May of 1985 with Kmart and the company allowed me to fly home over Memorial Day weekend that year for my anniversary and to see my five month old daughter.  I had only been in Columbus for 2 weeks, my family hadn’t relocated yet, and I was staying in motel in Grove City. So getting to fly home, rather than drive 7 hours each way as a treat. I flew from Columbus to Indianapolis in a larger plane, but the flight from Indy to Evansville, the nearest airport to my home was aboard a regional carrier’s turbo prop plane that held maybe 20 people. There was one row of seats down each side of the aisle and the only thing separating the cabin from the cockpit was a curtain - an open curtain. The first part of the flight from Columbus to Indy was smooth but the flight to Evansville was turbulent. Storms brought lightning and thunder, hard rain, and strong winds that tossed the plane back and forth, seemingly bouncing it off the sides of clouds. And I remember, as we descended to land in Evansville, with that cockpit curtain open, I could see the runway lights. And I could see when we were lined up with them, and when we weren’t. I could see how much the plane was moving back and forth, up and down, twisting and turning as we got closer and closer to the ground, and then right at the last moment everything calmed and we touched down on the ground. It was frightening, but at the same time it was exhilarating! And one might think after having that as a first flight experience I would never fly again, but I love flying. I look forward to trips we take where we can fly. 

   Last year, Lynn and the girls, knowing how much I love flying, bought me an introductory flight lesson that I took up at Don Scott field. I have to admit I was quite nervous going into it, but once we were airborn and I had control of the plane, it was a blast.  I subsequently decided against going ahead with additional flight lessons after that for one simple reason - I can play an awful lot of golf for the cost of getting a pilot’s license and renting airplanes to fly, and I couldn’t justify, or afford, both. So I find other ways to enjoy that or similar sensations. I enjoy playing flight simulation video games for one. And while it is land-locked, I really enjoy driving my convertible with the top down and the wind whistling all around me. There’s something about not having that roof over my head while driving that reminds me of flying - it’s not the same, but it kind of scratches that itch for me. Maybe it’s feeling closer to or being able to see the sky more clearly that is the fascination for me. Or perhaps it’s because a roof is designed to keep things out - like rain, snow, and hail - that at the same time it seems very constricting to me, I don’t know. 

   I do know that I’m not the only one who experiences these kinds of longings. The desire for openness and views of the sky are well represented in architectural design. Whether its large windows and skylights in residential architecture, or the advent of retractable roofs in sports stadiums from baseball, to football, to tennis, the desire to see and perhaps, be one with the sky is common. When the people in our story today did a DIY skylight installation in Jesus’ house though, I don’t think it was the view of the stars and the sky  that motivated them. Let’s look more closely at this story.

   The chapter begins with the line, “after a few days, Jesus went back to Capernaum, and people heard that he was at home.”  Jesus has returned, to Capernaum, and is “at home.” According to Mark, it was in Capernaum that Jesus made a home for himself. And in this first story that we read today, the home in which Jesus is preaching is Jesus’ own house in Capernaum; it’s Jesus’ roof that is torn off in order to lower the paralyzed man into the room. This little detail suggests to us that the house is of typical Palestinian design, where the houses had roofs made of mud and branches in which, when accessed by an outside set of stairs, a hole could be made. It also goes against the argument that some have made that Jesus was homeless. According to Mark, Jesus’ home in Capernaum was the base of operations for his ministry.
   And we find Jesus leading what was basically a “house church” in his own home, with people crowded around everywhere. Four men approach, carrying a mat or stretcher on which lies a fifth man who is paralyzed. There were so many people around, Mark tells us, that the door was blocked and they were unable to get inside. So, being enterprising and creative persons, they made their way to the roof, dug through the mud, clay, and branches from which the roof would have been constructed, and lowered the mat bearing the man down to Jesus’ feet. We don’t know Jesus’ reaction to this newly hewn hole in his roof, but we do know that his reaction to this man and his friends was one of compassion. 
And Mark writes that Jesus, when he saw their faith, said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”

   So let’s unpack this a little bit. What does Jesus say, and what doe he not say in this passage? A cursory reading would suggest that the man’s disability is linked to his sinfulness. After all, he clearly needs to be healed of his paralysis and the first thing Jesus says is “your sins are forgiven.” That was certainly the commonly held belief in that time, going back to the early books of the Bible. But remember, Jesus contradicts that thinking when, at another time outside the Temple, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he is crippled?” and Jesus responded, “neither.” That is, disability is not tied to, connected with, or the result of a disabled person’s sinfulness. We’re all sinful - if that were the connection we wouldn’t have room in here for all the wheelchairs we would need! No, Jesus denies the existence of a cause-effect connection between disability and sinfulness. The subsequent challenge from the legal experts helps us to understand better what Jesus means:
“Why does he speak this way? He’s insulting God. Only the one God can forgive sins.”
Jesus immediately recognized what they were discussing, and he said to them, “Why do you fill your minds with these questions? Which is easier—to say to a paralyzed person, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk’? 10  But so you will know that the Human One has authority on the earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed, 11 “Get up, take your mat, and go home.”

   The issue in this story isn’t about a link between sinfulness and disability, the issue is the nature of who Jesus is and what he can do. The legal experts think him a blashphemer for declaring the forgiveness of sins - never mind that this paralyzed man can now walk - something they also believed only God can do. Jesus, on the other hand is saying that the Human One, the Son of Man, fully human yet fully empowered by God, is capable of those very things that they think only possible with God, both forgive sins and make a lame man walk. 
And so, assuming a somewhat snarky tone with them, Jesus asks “which is easier, to say this or to say that? But just so you’ll know upon whose authority I work, get up, take your bed, and go!”

   And with that, Jesus blew the roof off everything they thought they knew about the law and faith and sin and health and God. This man who had been carried in by friends and lowered through a hole in the roof, rose up to his full height, picked up the bed upon which he had lived, and walked out the door. You can imagine how the crowd of people must have parted like the Red Sea to let him pass through. It’s an amazing story!

   Today, besides being the Seventh Sunday after Easter in the liturgical calendar, is also what is known as Ascension Sunday - the Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ ascension before Pentecost, which is next Sunday. 
And that reading from the lectionary imagines Jesus rising up above us and, as the Apostles Creed says, “ascending into heaven.” 
But even as that story often makes us think of Jesus as “up there,” Theologian Peter Woods offers a different perspective that is also worth considering. 
Talking about how the paralytic man’s friends had to lower the man down to Jesus, he notes “sometimes Jesus is not above us, but below,” and suggests that sometimes it is we who are ascendent when we have an encounter with Jesus down here.

   And he says, “As the bed hit the dirt floor in front of Jesus and I heard him say, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”, I suddenly remembered that [the great theologian] Paul Tillich had the insight that in that moment Jesus wasn’t forgiving the sins of the paralyzed one, he was proclaiming that in the sight of God the man was sinless.”

   And he goes on to say, as I suggested earlier, 
In Jesus day, (and more subtly in ours), religion proclaimed that human suffering was the consequence of human failure. Sufferers had done something very wrong to slight God or at least upset the balance of the rules of prosperity.  To be sick or invalid was to have broken the rules. This gospel story underlines that Jesus didn’t have to forgive sins. He simply had to point out that God wasn’t offended by humanity. (Another way of understanding “Your sins are forgiven“) Grasping that - I am not an offense to God neither am I an offender - was such a liberation that often the perceived penalty would disappear as the perceived offense was annulled.  Healing happened.”

   And I think that’s what this passage is about. 
The idea that the God who is love and who invites us to consider God as a loving parent would inflict disease, or disability, or death on someone because they have somehow offended God, is the really offensive notion that, as Woods says, “has held the Church, and Christians, captive and paralyzed for millennia. 
Isn’t it time we blew the roof off that lie and walked out of the prisons of our fearful dogma?”
   Jesus raised up this man who had been held down by society as much as by his disease. And this man, flat on his back for who knows how long, not only rose up and walked, but his spirit took wing and flew. While Jesus did tell the man that his sins are forgiven, he never implies that he is sick because he sinned. Culture, society, and religion read that into the story. No, as Donald Gowan reminds us, “Sin and sickness do come together in Jesus’ work; not because one is necessarily the cause of the other, but because he came to save us from both. Each involves a different kind of alienation.”

   Jesus doesn’t ask about where the illness comes from or who or what has caused it. It’s not about sin or guilt or an explanation of any kind. What is crucial in this story is that in the presence and action of Jesus, sin, illness, even death, lose their power. Jesus brings forgiveness and healing, not one after the other, not one because of the other, he brings them together in order to restore the man to wholeness and to lift him up in his humanity and belovedness.

   So what are we to take from this story? 
What questions might we ask ourselves as a result of hearing this passage? Perhaps we should ask, what are we doing, either intentionally or unintentionally, as a congregation or as individuals, that is blocking the access of others to the worship and service of God, especially those who are somehow disabled or who have been marginalized by society or the church? Are we, as one pastor cleverly suggested, a church where the paralyzed man cannot be carried through the front door “because all the church people are in the way, and they are refusing to move from their seats?” Or, are we a church that, like the friends of the paralytic, will go to any length, will find creative and innovative solutions, will blow the roof off of whatever holds us back, from being faithful as Jesus is faithful, to those in our community who need us to be stretcher-bearers for them? Are we willing to be tenacious, imaginative, and bold in our efforts to to make sure those we’re called to share Christ’s love and compassion with have full access to the life of our faith community? 

   Christ invites us to blast through those roofs, those ceilings, glass or otherwise, that hold us back from living fully into, and inviting others to live fully into, that way of life that is being a disciple of Jesus Christ. 
If we will dismiss that debilitating dogma and embrace the love and compassion that is faith in Jesus Christ, then he will enable us to fly, daring new heights, for the kingdom of God. Amen.

Monday, May 7, 2018

5-6-18 “Let Go: Leaving Behind What We Don’t Need”

5-6-18   “Let Go: Leaving Behind What We Don’t Need”

   As you know, Lynn and I like to travel when we take vacation. Staying at home, a staycation, doesn’t provide the rest and relaxation that we need, or at least that I need, so we go away whenever possible. If our kids still lived at home it would be more difficult to be able to get away as frequently as we do, and we know that at some point in our lives, when we’re older, it may be more difficult for us to travel, so as the saying goes, 
we “make hay while the sun’s shining.” 

   But one of the issues we have at times is knowing what to take with us on vacation, especially clothing. For example, when we left on vacation to Tennessee a couple of weeks ago, on the day we left it was in the 30s, and it snowed on us nearly the entire trip down there. The following day it rained. The day after that it was sunny and 75. The next day was windy and in the 40s. And then the next three days were mostly dry with daytime temperatures in the 50s and low 60s but very  windy. So, figuring out how to pack for those kinds of variation becomes a challenge without just taking everything - which is sometimes what it seems like we do.

   What to take is one thing, but other times the question is what to leave behind. With all of the wildfires in California, or the flooding that has occurred around the country, we see in the news all the time people who have had to pack up and leave their homes, sometimes with little or no notice. And we see in the aftermath that sometimes they took little with them, that they were forced to leave behind nearly everything they owned. Some, who had experienced this kind of emergency evacuation before, had essential documents, photos, and those kinds of things already packed in bags or boxes they could just grab and go. But others had to just grab a few things, some clothes or whatever, and escape. In either case, the vast majority of what they had accumulated over a lifetime had to be left behind.

   Do any of you watch those home-remodel shows on HGTV? I always enjoy watching the show “Good Bones,” about a mother and daughter team who rehab homes in Indianapolis. They buy the worst house in the neighborhood and sometimes the things they find left behind are absolutely disgusting. 
Whether it is a refrigerator full of rotting food or a toilet full of something else, they empty everything that was left behind into dumpsters, stripping the house down to the studs before they even begin the process of giving that home a new life. Thinking theologically about it, you can see it as a real death and resurrection cycle.

   Somewhere in the midst of these various examples of deciding  what to keep and what to leave behind in life, we find something akin to what the people of Israel encountered in our story today. After all the confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh and all the curses brought by God on Egypt - including the final curse of the death of all the first-born of Egypt - when it was finally time for Israel to leave Egypt, there wasn’t time to call Two Men and Truck to neatly and orderly pack up their goods for the move - they had to skedaddle. They didn’t even have time to allow for their bread to rise, they had to eat and run. They grabbed some food, they grabbed some valuables and they were on the road. 
   So as we catch up with them today, they’ve been on the road for two weeks and they’re getting that aching feeling that many get when they’ve been away a little too long - they want to go home. But where is home? They’ve been in Egypt for centuries, but as slaves. Is that home? Well, in the spirit of "choosing-the-devil-you-know-over-the-devil-you-don’t-know," the Israelites have already begun to selectively forget how awful their situation was in Egypt when confronted with the difficulty of their current status.

   So what do they do? They complain. Oh, do they complain. In fact, complaint becomes a regular part of their travel litany. In chapter 14 they complain about Pharoah’s army chasing them down. In chapter 15 they complain about thirst. And now in chapter 16 they complain about hunger. In each of the first two episodes they complain to Moses and Aaron, and God intervenes and remedies their situation, but here they act as if God has never done anything for them.  “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.”
   How short are their memories, right? It wasn’t the Lord who threatened to put them to death, it was Pharaoh. God saved them! And they weren’t leisurely sitting around dining from pots full of meat and eating their fill of bread, they were being forced to produce more and more bricks with less and less material. 
No, the harsh servitude the people endured in Egypt, described in the earlier chapters of Exodus, bears no resemblance to this revisionist description of the plenty they claim they enjoyed there. Their hunger, along with their recurring lack of trust in God, leads them to what seems to be a willful forgetfulness. 

   And theologian Callie Plunket-Brewton suggests that God uses this episode as a test - a test of the faithfulness of this largely unknown people. She writes that, “while Moses and Aaron appear to be frustrated with the people, the text portrays God as focused on the people and their needs rather than disturbed by their demands. Indeed, the complaint and the occasion that prompts it provides God with an opening to learn more about them by means of a test.”

   She continues, “The test itself is multilayered. 
On the surface, the test enables God to know the people’s response to the gift of manna: will they follow God’s instruction and gather only what they need according to the day? Will they respect the Sabbath? The answers to these questions seem to be the overall purpose of the test according to 16:4, but the test also serves another, perhaps more important, purpose: the gathering of manna in the wilderness -- with specific amounts brought in on certain days -- creates a structure in the people’s lives that is a reliable constant in the turmoil of their wilderness wandering,” she concludes.
   Turmoil. That’s a good way of describing what they’ve been going through. The video that we began worship with today, Tina Turner’s song “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” speaks to the idea of constant turmoil as well. Think about these song lyrics through the lens of our story today: 

Out of the ruins, out from the wreckage
Can't make the same mistakes this time
We are the children, the last generation
We are the ones they left behind
And I wonder when we are ever gonna change?
Living under the fear, till nothing else remains
We don't need another hero,
We don't need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome

   Life beyond the thunderdome. The Urban Dictionary defines a thunderdome as  “turbulence, utter mayhem, a state of violent confusion, commotion, or turmoil.”
   The life of the people of Israel must have felt like life in a thunderdome. In a rush to gain their freedom the people of Israel left behind the remnants of their old lives. In order to escape they couldn’t pack up everything - they packed some things and left behind others - never to return. And now, searching for something reliable, something they can trust in, a sense of insecurity grows within these people about where they will live, what they will eat, how they will survive. With each complaint they have raised toward their leaders, their needs have been met. But instead of learning to trust in God, like Pavlov’s dog they become conditioned to the idea that by complaining often and loudly their leaders, or God, will do something for them. 

   God, wanting to break this cycle and desiring to truly develop trust within the people, provides bread for them - manna. And it comes with very specific instructions. The people gather in the morning what they need for the day and no more, except on the day before the Sabbath when they gather enough for both days. There are no days on which the manna fails to appear. Although neither the reader of this saga nor the people themselves are yet aware that this journey to their new land will take forty years, the narrator notes that this provision of daily bread lasts the entirety of the trip (16:35). In this way order is established in the midst of chaos by means of this rhythm of divine provision. 
The people come to God on a daily basis and God feeds them on a daily basis. And that is a message given to us every bit as much as it was given to Israel.
   This story of God’s provision of manna in the wilderness, which continues long past the end of our reading for today, begins with the people complaining about the lack of food and longing for the false memory of bread and meat in Egypt and concludes with Moses’ declaration in response to the peoples’ wonder at this new and unexpected food source, “it is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” And so laid out before them, and us, is the difference between the former reality of their lives in Egypt and their present reality in the hands of a trustworthy God, who provides for them even in the wilderness; the idealized and unwarranted memories of Pharaoh’s food are to be replaced with the genuine memories of the bread from God. God is telling the people to let go of what they misremember as the “good old days” in Egypt, and embrace that the world is changing, that God is present in the change, and that God will provide throughout the change, if they are but faithful.

   This story also suggests to us that often times, the things we no longer need, those things that we need to leave behind are not only physical. Sometimes it’s a condition, a feeling, an attitude, a belief, or an idea that we need to walk away from, leave behind, or abandon. The idea that we somehow don’t need God is an idea to be abandoned. The idea that we don’t don’t need one another is an idea to be left behind. The belief that the God of all Creation is a tribal God who cares only for minority of people is an idea to be rejected. The mindset that all in the world would be just fine if everyone just believed the same way we do, lived the same way we do, goes against the diversity with which God created all of this, and should be vacated. It’s the kind of thing that leads people and nations into the stress, chaos, and thunder-dome of a wilderness so intense and so debilitating that we turn away from trust in God and rely instead on complaint and those who would echo and amplify our complaints. As the people of Israel long to go back to what they have convinced themselves was a better place and a better time, God’s grace pushes them forward into God’s preferred future, by providing strength for the journey in the form of food and a structure to their days and weeks by the instructions regarding the keeping of the Sabbath.

   In preparing to preach this text, I couldn’t help but think of so many people of you who have experienced upheaval and uncertainty in your lives, who have experienced illness, pain, disruption, and loss. It is natural for us, when faced with the wilderness of conflict, turmoil, and chaos that some life events force upon us, to want to retreat into our past, into our memories; to complain about how unfair is life, to question how loving is God, and to even turn to some other god that we, like the people of Israel, craft from our own hands. But we don’t need other gods; as the song said, we don’t need another hero.

   This story gives the wonderful promise of God’s provision, meant to be reassuring for all of us. It also serves as a guide for us when we’re in the midst of stressful or difficult times to let the rhythms of religious observance -- daily prayer, daily time in scripture, and weekly worship, for example -- bring order to the chaos. It is in prayer that we recenter our lives and our thinking in the love and will of God. It is in scripture that we find the ongoing reassurance that God is love, and that God does provide when we are faithful and trusting. And it is in the spirit of worship in community that we are reminded that God calls us to come together, not be apart, and that God reminds us as we share time together with others who have experienced turbulence, chaos and pain in their own lives from within our community, that God’s work of healing, restoration, and resurrection takes places in the presence of the people of God who journey through the wilderness together. Each of us has a story that speaks to the presence of God and that, given the chance, can be inspirational and strengthening to others in the community who are dealing now with what you faced before. Whether you realize it or not, sometimes you are the daily bread that feeds and restores another soul.

  And so as we prepare as a community to come to the table of the Lord today, be reminded, that this bread, blessed and broken by Christ, is “the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” We are called to let go of anything else that we hold on to or that holds onto us, that we might be fed from the hand of God. And we are called to not only receive the bread of life, but to be the bread of life for others. Amen.