Sunday, August 20, 2017

Jesus' Implicit and Explicit Bias

August 20, 2017
Matthew 15: 21-28

         I’d originally planned to preach from the Old Testament this morning.  I love all the twists and turns of Joseph’s story.  But after the events in Charlottesville last weekend, after listening to the national conversation brewing around me, I realized that I had to start over and preach about the Gospel.
Because right now this story is our story.
Jesus and his disciples are on the move, visiting the region of Tyre and Sidon.  These two places have been repeatedly condemned by the prophets of old.  The Israelites were instructed to stay away from this region when they entered the promised land.  And while Jesus and his disciples are there, this Canaanite woman approaches.  The Canaanites were held-up as “enemy” by the Israelites, identified with idolatry and perverted religion.  Additionally, this is a woman, with no clout, status or voice.  So this Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon is at least trice marginalized — by her race, religion and sex.
This woman is pleading with Jesus to heal her daughter who is being tormented by a demon.  This is what Jesus does!  The stories of his healings have been told far and wide; that’s what attracts this woman to Jesus.  But does Jesus take this desperate mother into his arms?  Does he turn to her with care and concern as we’d expect?  No!  Jesus starts by completely ignoring her.  He sees her desperation, he hears her pleas, and he doesn’t answer her at all.
Like I said, unfortunately, this is our story.  This is how it began, and, as much as we like to think we’ve moved on to a fresh new chapter, this is how it has continued for centuries.  The names and faces have changed, but the story remains.  We’ve pretended not to see the pain of people who have been marginalized.  It’s easier to look away than to get involved.  
And so we write them out of our history books.  Pervert our science and political ideals to make them worth less.  Ignore their pleas for help. Create structures that allow us to see them only when necessary.  
        This is what allows the cancer to grow and spread.
When Jesus doesn’t respond, the disciples urge him to send this woman away.  She is such a nuisance, interrupting their work and their peace.  Not one of them suggests that Jesus heal her, even though they see her need and know first-hand the miracles that Jesus is capable of.  She is not one of them; her pain does not affect them.  And so they too become complicit, playing their own parts in this all-too-familiar story.  
They move away from her neighborhood.  Send their kids to different schools.  Avoid those kinds of places.
But it gets worse.  Without addressing the woman, Jesus coldly explains himself to the disciples.  He “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Apparently she is outside his circle of concern.  
We’ve all heard, or maybe unthinkingly spoken, these sorts of defensive explanations before.  Some things are necessary to keep our children safe, to make our country great.  After all, there may not be enough for everyone.
It’s hard to know how the unnamed Canaanite woman feels about all this.  Possibly this sort of treatment is so common that she is numb to the hurt and exclusion.  
After all this time, she’s probably learned not to wear her hoodie pulled over her head.  Not to show emotion to police officers.  Not to go alone into bathrooms.  She knows where it is safe to shop in her head covering, and which restaurants will serve her without jeers, and which men can be trusted not to touch and hurt her.  
        She’s learned how to survive.
Maybe under ordinary circumstances she would have walked away, ashamed and embarrassed.  But her daughter’s life is at stake.  And so despite Jesus’ iciness and the disgusted looks from the disciples, the woman kneels in front of Jesus and begs him again: “Lord, help me!”  Now Jesus doesn’t just ignore her, he downright insults her by comparing her to a dog who doesn’t deserve the children’s food.
Often scholars and commentators try to explain away Jesus’ bad behavior.  Maybe Jesus was really putting on a show for his disciples so they’d see how ugly their behavior was.  Maybe Jesus was testing this woman’s faith.  Maybe this was a friendlier conversation that it seems – the Greek word for “dog” in this passage really means “pet dog” so the insult wasn’t so terrible after all.  Maybe this conversation is a later addition. 
Or maybe not.  Maybe this was Jesus.  A fully human Jesus that makes us uncomfortable because he saw this woman from the lens of his cultural and religious and racial background and perspective.  No one raised when and where Jesus was would expect God’s favor to extend to this woman.  And Jesus, it seems, was no different.  In his humanness, like us, he was subject to the bias, explicit and implicit, of his time and place.  Jesus hadn’t yet begun to see the extent of the unearned privileges that were his because of his sex, his race, his religion.
His religion didn’t stop his family from immigrating to Egypt to escape violence in their homeland.  No one assumes he isn’t qualified for his job because of his sex.  He could shop in the fruit and olive stands without being followed or harassed because of his skin color.
So the woman persists.  She knows that she needs mercy, and believes that Jesus’ God is merciful and compassionate.  And so she creatively answers Jesus and exposes his faulty reasoning: “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  It shocks us, but at this moment in time, the vision of the Kingdom of God of this foreign, impure woman aligns more closely with God than Jesus’ vision does.  
Peppered throughout the story of our country, there have been countless people like this Canaanite woman.  People bravely speaking up even though they are met with jeers and violence and sometimes even death.  People marching and writing and preaching and loving and imagining a more perfect vision into being against all odds.  People like Harriet Tubman and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Deitrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King and now, tragically, Heather Heyer.
But the Canaanite woman doesn’t give up on her vision of a loving and compassionate God.  And so she ends up changing the scope of Jesus’ ministry.  She changes the story.  She knows Jesus, as it turns out, better than he knows himself.  This is a turning point for Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. 
That’s when the Jesus we expect shows up – the one who so lovingly tells her: “Great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  He listened to this woman and learned from her and was open to changing.  And from then on, we see his ministry expand to include all kinds of unexpected people — women, sinners, foreigners, and Gentiles — all within his healing touch.  This is when Jesus begins to fully understand that people that might be considered disposable to society are essential to God.  From then on, Jesus knows their story is part of his story - and part of God’s story - and part of ours.  This is the story that we are still writing with every fiber of our beings.
I’ll close with one of my favorite prayers from our prayer book, a prayer “For the Human Family”:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth, Oh My!

July 30, 2017
Matthew 13:31-52

At first, our Gospel reading from Matthew seemed like the perfect reading for me to preach about after two weeks spent several national parks in the wilderness of California.  Especially the growth-from-small-seeds part.   My family spent time among the giant sequoias at Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks and we were shocked to pick up the surprisingly tiny little pine cones that held the seeds to these unbelievably massive trees that my entire family of five’s arms outspread could not reach around!  It seemed impossible that the two could be related.  
So I was ready to hang with Matthew and his mustard seed with its explosive growth.  That little pine cone, so precious that signs everywhere told us we must not take them from the park, was firmly in my mind.
But then I read more closely.  And got to the part about the weeping and gnashing of teeth and the fiery furnace.  Really, Matthew?!  We are going on week three of that stuff now - enough already!  Two weeks ago doomsday Matthew gave us the Parable of the Sower with the evil one snatching away the good seeds that were planted in certain hearts.  Then last Sunday, he was at it again, with all causes of sin and all evildoers being thrown into the furnace of fire.  And here he is again!
Why today of all days, in this otherwise beautiful reading full of lovely and light parables that are all about abundance and value.  A small seed’s dramatic growth; a small amount of yeast lightening huge amounts of dough; a unexpectedly discovered treasure; a pearl worth everthing. The Kingdom of Heaven is like those things!  I can totally get on board with all of that!  Growth and goodness and provision and abundance and value.
So why this nasty addition, Matthew?  
“The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind….”  Now, if he’d stopped there, it’s perfect.  I love this image of an inclusive net, gathering up everything, just as God gathers us.
But then it starts to go downhill:
“… when [the net] was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.”
This separation stuff is never my favorite.  But even then, I appreciate the point.  It isn’t for us to judge which among us are the good fish or to separate the good from the bad; that work is above our pay grade.  
It’s what happens next that really makes me cringe.
“…So it will be at the end of the age.  The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Really, Matthew?  Was that really necessary?
I asked John if by chance he would mind if I just snipped that piece off of our reading.  Because otherwise, it’s really all perfectly fine sermon stuff.  But John assured me that he already preached two weeks ago about how most commentators agree that these terror-inducing fire and damnation passages likely weren’t Jesus’ words, but the early Church’s.  So that’s good.  I can check that off my list of worries.  
But it turned out that John’s resistance to my request to edit this passage to suit my theology was a good thing.  Because while I don’t see that gnashing and fire language being consistent with the core of Jesus’ message, it did make me take a closer look at this passage.  It made me struggle and wrestle with it, rather than just letting it slide by, pretty and neat and fairly unremarkable.
And upon closer inspection, these parables are anything but pretty and neat and unremarkable.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…
Mustard.  Not some inoffensive pretty yellow flower like I first imagined, and definitely not some majestic kingly sequoia, but more like the insidious kudzu that takes over the tall trees along the highways in the south, the poison ivy that cunningly blends in along the edge of the trail along the GW Parkway, the dandelions that take over my grass.  
The mustard that Jesus talks about here was the menace that took over crops in his day, the stubborn nuisance plant that couldn’t ever be completely rooted out.  The kingdom of heaven is like that.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…
Yeast.  Not the useful dry little particles that we buy in neat packets in the store, but the rotten stench of dough gone bad that good religious people of Jesus’ time equated with death and corruption and impurity, and put out of their homes for their religious observations of Passover.  
The kingdom of heaven is like that.
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure in a field which someone found and then hid…
That treasure finder - not an innocent hiker happening by, but a trespasser, a thief, who, while digging around in someone else's field, came upon something so beloved and precious that it had been stored for safety underground and out of sight.  But, rather than alerting its proper owner, the finder obtained it by trickery and omission.  
The kingdom of heaven is like that.
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant…
A merchant.  He sounds respectable and hard-working to our modern ears, but he would have been the equivalent of a used-car salesman or a telemarketer to Jesus’ hearers.  Someone looked upon dubiously because he so often tried to pass off mediocre goods as first-rate.  
The kingdom of heaven is like that.
These are compared to the kingdom of heaven!  These are subversive parables, with shady characters and disrespected items being used to describe God’s kingdom.  Not kings or respected leaders or life-saving substances or majestic sequoias.  Whatever the Kingdom of Heaven is, it isn’t just what we expect, it isn’t just what we find grand or remarkable or even acceptable.  The Kingdom of Heaven is present in the most ordinary, and even the most disruptive and disreputable places and people around us.  The Kingdom of Heaven is a radical challenge.
Seeing the underbelly of those parables is what makes the next one so important.  The one I wanted to cut out.
The kingdom of heaven is like a net that caught fish of ever kind…
Fish of every kind.  This net is inclusive beyond my comfort zone.  Not just the well-behaved and socially-acceptable.  Not just the pure and safe and successful and good-looking.  Not only does this net not discriminate, it goes so far as to gather up everything and everyone — no matter how despised — into the here and now and possible of the kingdom of heaven.  Together!  All swept up into the growth, the goodness, the provision, the value, the abundance of God’s kingdom.
And while I’d still happily take out the fire and teeth-gnashing stuff, even that starts to ring true.
Because we need to know that all of us — every piece of our being — including our less savory and presentable underbelly — is invited into God’s kingdom — where healing grows like weeds, and forgiveness spreads like mold, and our best parts can be unearthed no matter how deeply covered in muck they’ve become, and God can take whatever mediocre offerings we have and transform them into something of great price.  
And maybe we also need to know that every part of our experience, no matter how messy or disruptive or unwelcome or painful, no matter how much it makes us weep and gnash our teeth, can also be swept up into God’s kingdom.
Even those destructive and fiery parts.  
There was a wildfire raging about 20 miles outside Yosemite while we were staying there, much bigger than they’d seen so close in quite a while.  
On a bus ride up to Glacier Point in Yosemite, the driver was talking about the effect of fires on the forests.  I’ve always been taught about the terrible dangers of wildfires.  And everywhere you turn in the park there were, rightly, signs about the danger of fires and the dryness of the season.  Absolutely no smoking.  No campfires without permits and proper placement.  But our driver told us that the giant sequoias actually thrive in the wildfires.  Their thick outer bark protects their more delicate inner core from ruin. And the heat from the fire actually opens their seed cones and allows the seeds to be released onto the ground.  The destructive flames recycle nutrients into the soil to help the seeds grow.  And the fire clears the forest canopy so that sunlight can reach the young sequoia seedlings.
Maybe sometimes the kingdom of heaven is even like that.  Like a raging wildfire that causes us to unclench whatever we are holding onto too tightly so that unexpected new life can emerge into a once too-full space.
The Kingdom of Heaven is tucked into every nook and cranny of life.  It is as close as the next weed or patch of dirt or loaf of bread.  And its potential is present even in the pieces of life that feel scary and overwhelming and destructive.  God is forever invading our orderly sense of things.  All that we expect and everything we know has potential to be transformed by our surprising God.

Who knows where God will turn up next?

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Horrible Story Reimagined

July 2, 2017
Genesis 22:1-14

Did you know that my name, Isaac, means laughter?  What a joke that is.  I think the last time I really laughed was way back when with my brother Ishmael.  Before my mother sent him away.  But ever since then, any time something starts to bring a smile to my face, that terror comes back to me.  There I am again trudging up the mountain loaded down with wood for the fire.  My father silently walking next to me.  In my dreams I can see myself as I was then, still trusting that my father has my best interests at heart, still believing that I am a child of promise like my parents always tell me.  I try to scream, to shake my boy-self awake, to warn him to turn around, to drop the wood and run away and never look back.  But I can’t make a sound.  And the silence is deafening. 
After that time on the mountain I rushed down a different path from my father and never talked to him or my mother again.  But I never really got free.  They were still part of me when I married Rebecca and had my own kids.  I thought it would be different for us, but all Esau and Jacob brought was more jealousy, more deception.  Maybe God is the one laughing - at all of us.   

   It all started out so well for Abraham and me.  Although we’d been married forever, it seemed, without any children.  And then one day he came up to me with his eyes lit up.  “Sarah, it’s time for an adventure!”  We left everything and started out under the stars - so full of promise, so sure that our God was with us.
I’ll never forget that morning when everything changed.  I woke up early, as I always do, to start my chores, and both Abraham and little Isaac were gone.  I didn’t think much about it at first - they’d probably just gone out to do some hunting.  But as the morning sun rose in the sky and started baking my laundry dry, a sinking feeling of horror made its home inside my heart.  Something was happening that couldn’t be undone.  For days I stayed inside, praying and waiting.  Until finally they returned.  But not together.  Abraham came first, looking older even than the old man he was.  There was something in his eyes that I’d never seen before.  Maybe fear, or self-doubt? That scared me more than the waiting, seeing that uncertainty from this man who always seemed so certain he knew the right thing to do.  Isaac didn’t come home until days later.  He looked much older too, his body sagging, his eyes accusing.
When he looked at me, I saw Hagar’s eyes.  Her look when I forced Abraham to get rid of her and that child Ishmael because I couldn’t stand them being near us.  I couldn’t stand the reminder of my pain during all those childless years.  My hasty insistence that Abraham get a child from her.  My ugly jealousy all those years when she had a child that Abraham loved and I didn’t.  And then the even uglier years when I finally had Isaac and couldn’t stop hating Hagar anyway.  I finally made Abraham take her and her son into the wilderness, hoping they would die there.  Hoping all my ugliness and hate and jealousy would die with them.  But when Hagar looked at me with those knowing and accusing eyes, I knew all of that would stay with me forever.  
And I realized then that maybe everything had really started changing a long time before.  We hadn’t been full of promise, we hadn’t trusted God to provide for us, for years.  I couldn’t point my finger to the moment when we started turning away from God and making our own way, but I could trace that moment to this one.
I never found out exactly what happened to Abraham and Isaac when they went away, but whatever it was the end for me.  My sweet boy who had always been so full of love and laughter never hugged me again.  Never laughed again.  He was like a shadow living in the house.  The pieces of my heart never came back together again.
I’ll never forget when I first heard God’s voice.  “Abraham, I will make you the father of a great nation!”  When God promised that through my offspring all the world would be blessed, it sent shivers down my spine.  I would do anything to keep that closeness with God.  And so Sarah and I left our home and families and headed out into the great unknown.  So trusting, so full of certainty and joy.  Every night I stopped at the edge of the desert and looked out at the stars and made an altar to the God who had chosen me.  Me!  
But then nothing happened.  There was no offspring. The adventure began to feel foolhardy.  And Sarah stopped believing that I was really hearing from God.  I can’t blame her.  Especially after I passed her off as my sister when we traveled through Egypt.  I certainly wasn’t listening to God then.  I was just scared.  Scared I might get killed because someone wanted my beautiful wife for themselves and I was just a stranger in the land.  When the Pharaoh found out his new concubine was already married he sent her back to me, thank God.  Sarah looked at me with those accusing eyes.  Said that Pharaoh might not have my “promise” but he seemed to have higher moral standards.
But I started rubbing off on her.  And before long she was looking for ways to speed along God’s plan too.  Bringing me Hagar to try to get a child, and I could tell, almost instantly, Sarah regretted it.  It just got worse when Ishmael was born.  But when our son Isaac was finally born, we seemed to return to that old feeling of adventure.  The promise seemed real again.  We started laughing again.  We knew what love was again.  But it wasn’t long before that wore away.  Sarah started getting jealous of Hagar and Ishmael again.  And I just got weak. 
I think that’s what made me do it.  I was so tired of being weak.  I wanted to hear God’s voice again - to feel again like I was the Father of a Great Nation.  I thought if I could just prove my loyalty to God, I could feel that blessing, that promise again.  I could be important again.  And so I took matters into my own hands.
I listened to the nagging voice in my head.  The one that berated me for my impotence.  The one that mocked the promise.  The one that looked longingly at the simple faith of the heathens that sacrificed their sons to Baal to win their god’s favor.  And I thought, “I can do that.  I can prove my love to God.”  And so I walked up that mountain with Isaac, hypnotized in the fog of my own ego.  I laid him on the altar, avoiding his gaze, the voices in my head drowning out his questions and his tears. But as I lifted the knife, I heard another voice, a familiar voice, the one that had always been full of promise and blessing.  Now it just sounded tired and sad.  But it was forceful when it called me by name, “Abraham!  Abraham!” and told me to lay down my knife.  I looked out and saw the ram, caught in the thicket.  I realized I’d gotten God all wrong.  I’d gotten the promise all wrong.  And suddenly all the voices went silent.

I thought my promise - the promise of the God Who Made Heaven and Earth - would be enough, but it never seems to be enough.  Somehow my people always forget.  Instead of love and blessing, they keep seeing fear and scarcity. 
But it wasn’t until I saw Abraham with his eyes glazed over and that huge knife poised over Isaac that I realized how completely Abraham had gotten it wrong.  After all this time, he still doesn’t believe that I desire love, not sacrifice.  After all this time, Abraham still doesn’t trust the blessing.  Abraham still doesn’t understand that I am with him and for him.  
And that’s when it hit me - Abraham is testing me.
And so I shouted out his name and wrestled the knife out of his hand.  I didn’t tell him what a stupid idea this all had been.  I didn’t tell him that his wife and son would never forgive him.  He knew that already, I could tell.  Instead, I wrapped my blessing around him more tightly.  And I stopped laying the weight of my voice on his ears.

Maybe in time Abraham will see that he doesn’t have to earn my promise, maybe someday they’ll all understand.  But until then, I will do what I always do.  I will love them and be merciful to them.  I will walk alongside them, promise intact, just as I always have.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Mission: The Mystery of the Trinity

June 11, 2017
Trinity Sunday

Somewhere chugging along in outer space right now is the Cassini orbiter, a probe that NASA sent up into space in 1997 to get a closer look at Saturn, a planet had previously been virtually unknowable.  
Saturn is so ridiculously far away - more than 746 million miles - that it took the Cassini 7 years to get there.  Since it arrived, it has been orbiting Saturn and its moons, taking pictures and samples and giving a steady and amazing trove of insights that have been surprising and delighting scientists.  I love reading all about the various discoveries.  About how it tracked a monster storm that stretched around the planet and then consumed itself.  
And how it landed a probe on Saturn’s largest moon — the first-ever landing on any world in the outer solar system.  
About how it discovered two previously unknown moons and a few new rings around Saturn.  It detected atmosphere around one of Saturn’s moons — the first time molecules of an oxygen atmosphere have been captured at a world other than earth.  And it found evidence of an underground ocean on another moon.
Exciting stuff with implication I can only pretend to begin to understand.  And of course, every time something new is discovered, every time some clue appears to some long-standing scientific mystery, it leads to entirely new questions, new possibilities of discovery.  By the time the probe’s work is done, it will have been orbiting Saturn for 13 years.  And we still only know the tip of the iceberg about Saturn and its surroundings.  If anything, we just realize now how infinite are the questions we have yet to ask, we’ve just uncovered more unknowns worth exploring.  And yet somehow, despite its distance from Earth, Saturn seems closer than ever before.
Which seems a fitting topic for this Trinity Sunday, a day when we celebrate a doctrine that no one understands and that tends to lead to more questions than answers.
But at it’s heart, at it’s best, the Trinity isn’t really about doctrine, but about falling in love with mystery.
At the beginning, there were people who experienced God as beyond them, as the transcendent creator of all things, beyond knowledge and understanding.  But then Jesus came along, and these people realized that they were experiencing God with them, in and through Jesus.  And they could see that somehow Jesus had an intimacy with God that was unlike anything they’d known was possible.  And so they began to understand Jesus as The Christ, the Son of God.  And then Jesus died, but these people realized that they felt a dynamic and divine presence within them.  And so they began to understand that power as Holy Spirit.  They didn’t know why or how all of this worked; it was a mystery — a beautiful, awe-inspiring, experiential mystery — that moved and changed and challenged them.
These people fell in love with mystery.  And they wanted a way to talk about all that, a way to speak about their trifold experience of God more fully, and a way to be able to invite other people into it.  So they began using the kinds of words we hear in our New Testament readings today:
From Paul’s letter to the community of Jesus followers gathered in Corinth written about 20 years after Jesus’ death: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” 
And from Matthew’s Gospel, written about 30 years after that, explaining how to fully immerse believers into this new Way by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
But it wasn’t too terribly long before it became less a description of a mysterious relationship and more something to fight about.  Over the course of a few centuries, the Doctrine of the Trinity became a line in the sand that separated people into ‘in’ and ‘out’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  It became a Doctrine that got codified into Creeds.  A Doctrine that involved impressive words with Latin and Greek roots, like ‘homoousios’ and ‘consubstantial’ and ‘hypostases’.
And ever since, people have been trying to pin down this doctrine.  Writing more and more scholarly articles about it.  Using more words to describe it.  Words that just lead to more questions….  How does the Trinity work within itself?  How are the three persons of the Godhead related?  How are they alike and how are they different?  How do each of them relate to us?  And which one came first?   
For almost 2000 years, we’ve been doing our best to conquer the mystery that this doctrine was meant to describe, rather than embrace it.
This is how we humans work.  We want to understand things.  Get to the bottom of things.  We want to know why.  And so we work to find answers, we use words to explain, we keep unearthing things hoping that someday they’ll make sense.  
The problem is that, as satisfying as it is to figure everything out, that doesn’t seem to work when it comes to God.  God isn’t so easily solved.  Whenever we try to cement some explanation, we end up raising more questions.  And sometimes we get so focused on the solving of questions that we forget about the mystery, the experience that made us ask the question to begin with.
That’s why I love the second sentence in our Gospel reading for today.  It says that when the disciples “saw [the risen Jesus], they worshiped him; but some doubted.”  But some commentators I read disagreed with this translation from the Greek, arguing that a better reading might be: “When they saw him, they worshiped but they doubted.”  Or even: “When they saw him, despite their doubt, they worshiped him.”  I love the idea of worship and doubt coexisting in this verse, just like they do in us.  Our experience of God can go hand-in-hand with our frustrating inability to have all our questions answered to our satisfaction.  The mystery of God, and our experience of that mystery, doesn’t depend on our not having doubt.  It doesn’t depend on our being able to wrap it all up into neat doctrines that we can all agree on.  In fact, the mystery of God almost certainly makes all of that impossible, because experiencing God usually ends up challenging our assumptions about God.  But that doubt, that challenge, is what makes us wonder and think and probe and search.  And ultimately draws us deeper into the kind of holy relationship that the early church was trying to express when they used their flailing human words to talk about the mystery and paradox of the Trinity in the first place.
Back to Saturn for just a minute.  Hearing about all the discoveries of the Cassini orbiter was very cool, though often over my head.  Seeing the photos taken from new angles and distances was incredible.  But what really grabbed me was the enthusiasm of the scientists.  
These were discoveries of a lifetime for them, and getting to be involved in this historic mission is clearly life-giving for them.  They are learning a lot, to be sure, but what seems to be really energizing them is the experience of it all.  It is their excitement that made me want to learn more, to see what they saw.  That was what made me start reading the updates about the mission and looking at the photos from the orbiter.  Their enthusiasm about their experience is what makes Saturn feel realer and closer than ever.
And that’s the heart of the Trinity.  Not didactic explanations full of fancy words, but experiences that made God feel closer and more meaningful and so moved people in the early church that they wanted to share it so that we could explore it for ourselves and have our own experiences of awe and wonder.  So that God could feel realer and closer than ever.  The Trinity is how we tell the story of God and find our place in that story.  The Trinity is an invitation to fall in love with the mystery of God.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Lectio Divina in the World

May 21, 2017
Acts 17:22-31

Paul, the main character in our reading from Acts today, is often not my favorite.  I have trouble getting past his judgy moralizing and his ridiculous run-on sentences.  And yet, as someone engaged in this profession, I have to admit that Paul was a bold preacher.  He knew how to argue, and he turned heads.  When he entered a new city, he’d make his way to the synagogue, set up camp, and immediately begin to hold forth on the scriptures with anyone who happened to be there.  Now, sometimes - and to be honest, I am glad that I have never had this happen to me -  sometimes his preaching was so fiery, so uncompromising, so bold, that he offended people to the point of mob rampage.  And in such instances, it was helpful for him to be ready to escape quickly.  That is where we find him in our reading today.  Paul had to rush quickly away from Thessalonica, where he’d been preaching until the crowd started to look a little too menacing.  And so he came to Athens as a place to hide out for a while and wait for his companions to join him.
Now, Paul’s first impression of the place wasn’t great.  Athens was full of idols.  There were revered statues to the gods of wisdom and beauty, the gods of war and fire.  This provoked Paul and sent him marching indignant and self-righteous to the synagogue and the marketplace to argue and preach at the Athenians.  They weren’t interested, unsurprisingly.  Judgy people yelling at you usually aren’t very effective.  And maybe Paul realized that if he didn’t change his arguments, maybe lower his voice a bit, become a little less judgmental, his message would go nowhere.  And so, for a time, he stopped talking and started looking around.  He started paying attention, looking at and listening to the place and the people.
And kudos to Paul for that.  Because it can be hard for us to let go of our first impressions, to admit that maybe people are more complicated and well-intentioned than we give them credit for.  To admit that there is more nuance to a situation than we might first realize.  It can be hard to take a deep breath and allow ourselves to be surprised.
But Paul managed it, if only briefly.  And when he paused and looked around him, what he saw looked less like mindless, heretical idol-worship, and more like a kind of heart-felt searching by the Athenians.  He saw that along with the monuments dedicated to the gods of wisdom and beauty and war and fire there was also an altar dedicated to an unknown god.  It was a hint of the longing of the people of Athens, a whisper of their search for deeper meaning.  An indication that the sophisticated, educated people of that great city might still be open to something more.  If Paul hadn’t stopped to look and to listen, he probably wouldn’t have noticed.
And then Paul wouldn’t have been able to share this beautiful invitation for the people of Athens, an invitation to search along with him for the God “who made the world and everything in it” and who “gives to all mortals life and breath” and “who is not far from each one of us.  For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”
Paul preaches, as he has realized in his time of looking and noticing, that God is there to be found in our human experience.  Our context matters.
He might not have put it this way, but it looks like Paul was doing lectio divina in the world.
Lectio divina, which means “divine reading,” is a kind of prayer, usually with scripture.  This kind of prayer assumes that God speaks through scripture to each of us in different and ever-changing ways.  In lectio, you slowly read a passage and see what jumps out — what shimmers or grabs or intrigues you.  Then you sit with that word or phrase for a while.  What do you hear God saying to you through that little piece that captured your attention?
Less well-known than lectio divina with scripture is the idea of using lectio as prayer out in the world.  Since, as Paul preaches to the Athenians, God is the maker of all things and is in all things, we can find God by looking closely at God’s creation.  So just as we can read scripture and sit with a word or phrase that calls to us and listen for God in that piece, we can also live in the world and look for something that calls to us - maybe something in nature, maybe a detail from our own experience - and anticipate that God has something to say to us in that moment as well when we stop and pay attention.
For sermon illustration purposes, I made lectio in the world my prayer method this week, and here’s what happened.
Day 1:  One of the pre-bed semi-routines with my son has become listening to a short meditation together.  So I was lying next to him listening to a meditation on the app Calm.  
The particular meditation led us through lots of silence and concentration on our breath.  The woman leading it instructed us (in her very zen-like voice) to concentrate on our breath.  To notice our breathing in and breathing out and maybe even hear our voice in our head as we did it, saying: “Breathe in.  Breathe out.”  Then there was more silence.  As I was breathing in and out, I tacked on my own little Christian add-on, asking the Holy Spirit to come and be with us.  And just then, I heard a door open and the hall lights went on and there was the pitter patter of little feet, and the sweet voice of my youngest daughter Maya (who had been tucked into bed a while ago) telling my husband that she desperately needed her toenails cut.  At first I was annoyed by the noise and the light and the absurd interruption coming in the midst of this very quiet and prayerful time, but then it made me giggle a little.  Because it felt like a gentle reminder from God not to take myself (or God) so seriously but to remember that the Holy Spirit is with us in all of the ordinary moments just as surely as She is with us in the intentionally holy ones.  
Day 2:  I was taking a walk on the trail along the parkway and listening to a podcast.  It was a brisk exercise walk until a breath in brought the sweet small of honeysuckle.  
I stopped in my tracks, enchanted back to the vague memories of happy freedom and endless time to explore from summer adventures of my childhood.  I spent the rest of my walk sniffing the air with deep breaths wondering what it is that brings me such tangible peace and joy right now.
Day 3:  Another walk, but this one through the backwoods of Fort Hunt Park.  I was crossing a patch of grass to reach one of the dirt trails and it was nothing but beautiful glossy buttercups.  
I felt terrible trodding on their lovely golden faces and so I found myself gently tiptoeing, trying to avoid smashing them as much as possible.  And I began to wonder why I was feeling guilty about walking on the buttercups, when I don’t feel that way about grass or any other natural ground cover or even the bugs scuttling around that are equally part of God’s creation.  Did I respect those buttercups more just because they were beautiful?  Which started me wondering whether I do that with people too, appreciating and treating with more respect the people that are more beautiful, or more powerful, or more wealthy, or more healthy.
Day 4:  I went out to get the mail and noticed my next door neighbor had just finished mowing his lawn.  There isn’t anything physical that separates our front lawns but now there was a line demarcating our two spaces, his grass now shorter and more manicured than ours, making clear whose was whose. 
It suddenly struck me as odd how we claim our pieces of God’s creation, putting up fences, visible and invisible, to separate and protect us and our stuff.
Day 5:  I was reading an article in my Christian Century magazine about a monastery that has been seeing a surge in visitors lately.  The friar was explaining that the visitors’ time in the monastery wasn’t “about escaping ordinary life” but “about coming back to ordinary life and realizing God was in this place, too, and I just didn’t see it before.”  And I spent some time thinking about some of the places in my ordinary life where I’d been feeling like I needed some escape and wondering how I could begin to feel a new sense of God’s presence in them.
Day 6:  My daughters had a piano recital yesterday.  
They’d worked hard learning songs and were a little jittery to play in front of the gathered families of the other 17 piano students.  As other children were playing I smiled and held my breath a little, inwardly cheering for them to do well and feel good about their performance, and clapping with gusto after each relieved kiddo stepped away from the piano and back to their seat.  And then, in the midst of my oldest daughter’s turn near the end of the recital, I looked around and saw those same feelings reflected on the faces of each person in that room — they were all smiling at my child, all wishing the best for her, all hoping for her playing to be as good as possible.  And I thought, “Why can’t we always be like this for each other?”

I think that what Paul discovered and what he wanted to invite the Athenians into was a different way of seeing and being in the world.  God was in that place, even though the Athenians couldn’t name God.  And God is in this place, and every place in which we find ourselves, ours for the noticing.  Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Easter Rudely Interrupted

May 14, 2017
Acts 7:55-60

Pretty great Easter reading from Acts this morning, right?  Nothing like a stoning to start off the morning!
What happened?  Just last week, everything was going swimmingly for the early church.  It was experiencing explosive growth, people were praying and eating together, sharing everything in common.  And now this!  The bow breaks, the cradle falls, and the persecution of the early church begins in God-awful earnestness.
What happened to “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”  What happened to the joyful celebration?  What happened to Jesus defeating death, the light vanquishing the darkness, and all that?
The shock of finding this reading from Acts in our lectionary this 5th Sunday of Easter reminded me of something that happened a couple months ago at our 8:30 service.  At that service, we have lots of young kids, so we gather everyone together around the altar for the entire Eucharistic prayer and stay up there to pass out musical instruments and sing a final song together.  We started doing that so the kids could be more involved in the service, to see up close the bread and the wine.  They watch as we remember the Last Supper and how Jesus took the bread, and gave thanks for it, and blessed and broke it.  We make the sign of the cross over the bread and wine, say the Lord’s prayer together, and then hold up the bread to break it.
One Sunday during Lent after we’d said the Lord’s Prayer together, I held up the bread and prepared to break it.  And one of the kids shouted out, “No, don’t break it!”  And everyone laughed, because that’s what we do when kids say strange things, but to my ears there was real anguish in her voice.  And her trying to stop the breaking of the bread made perfect sense.  That breaking represents Jesus’ broken body on the cross.  It foreshadows our own brokenness, something we know all too well and wish we didn’t.  And if we’re honest, we’d rather skip over that part.  Jump over Good Friday - all of the too-frequent Good Fridays - and go straight to Easter.  Avoid the pain and the hurting and go straight to the healing.  
But maybe we can’t.  
Jesus certainly couldn’t.  His freely giving himself to all of us, his speaking uncomfortable truths, his loving all people as much as God loves us, was a scandal and an offense to many.  His interceding for the lost and lonely and hurting, his deep empathy for all of humanity, his determination not to avoid the pain and heartbreak and consequences of human life led surely to his death.  That’s the part of Jesus’ story that we’d rather avoid.  And we’d rather avoid those dark, hurting, painful places in our own stories too.
But maybe we can’t.
I wish that part could be explained away, but unfortunately I don’t think it can be.  It doesn’t make sense.  And yet there’s something that has been helping me to think about it differently lately.  I recently heard an interview with Franciscan priest and prolific writer Richard Rohr, where he talked about the progression of the spiritual life as falling into three boxes: Order, Disorder, and Reorder.
Order is where most of us begin.  Order is all about law, tradition, structure, certainty, clarity, and authority.  Order helps us to feel safe, helps us to feel like things make sense.  Order “doesn’t really know the full picture, but it thinks it does.”  Rohr explains that this Order box is a necessary first “containment.”  It isn’t a bad thing in itself.  But this structure is dangerous if we stay there too long. It becomes too small and self-serving.  And it can be a place where we get stuck, until something happens that forces us into the box of Disorder.
Disorder comes when Order starts to fall apart, usually because of the happenstances of our lives.  Maybe an unwanted transition or some crisis or suffering, maybe the loss of a loved one.  Suddenly we find ourselves in darkness.  What we thought we knew and understood to be true is challenged; the things that we relied on fall away.  Our world gets shaken.  Suddenly we are thrust into doubt and confusion; we are forced to face our shadows.  And in the midst of that, as chaotic and uncomfortable as it feels, comes an opportunity.  As we are confronted by beliefs that don’t hold up, by ways of living that now feel hollow, by self-definition that is no longer meaningful, we begin to question.  We start to push back on the expectations that ordered our lives, to dismantle old beliefs, and to make new meaning even in the middle of that darkness. 
And so, through this painful growth, comes the opportunity to enter into Reorder.  In this box, we look at our former reality with a whole new perspective, we become more open to what is and to what might be.  We begin to realize our powerlessness over much of life and start to hold things more loosely.  Reorder doesn’t deny suffering or pain but sees them for what they are – a necessary part of the human experience that often can teach us things we cannot learn any other way.  Reorder is a place where, as Rohr puts it, “darkness and light coexist, paradox is okay… Here death is a part of life, failure is a part of victory, and imperfection is included in perfection. Opposites collide and unite; everything belongs.”  As we reorder, we become more comfortable with mystery, with unknowing, with surprise.
After hearing Rohr talk about these three boxes, I’ve been finding them everywhere.  Not just with Jesus and the early church, not just in the spiritual life, but everywhere.  
I just finished reading Brave New World where the powers ruling society go to outrageous lengths to create a world without any conflict, and quickly dispose of people that threaten Order, so determined are they to stay in that box.  
And I have a friend who just discovered that her kid has been struggling with dyslexia and suddenly her child’s past hurts and frustrations make perfect sense and she is able to begin helping her child into Reorder, as she adapts to seeing and learning differently.  
And I think back to the talk in here a few weeks ago about the spirituality of recovery and I realize that the 12 steps are a way to help someone find their way through Disorder into Reorder.
And I know from my experience and from some of yours, that after we lose someone we love, sometimes the grief surrounds us in a fog for years before we can begin to imagine a new way of living without that person, a new way to reorder our lives.
As painful as it is, as much as we wish it weren’t necessary, sometimes we just have to wade into the muddy waters of Disorder, or even, finding ourselves in the roiling waters, to take a deep breath and try to swim.  Just like in a literal way our community can’t share the bread unless it is first broken, maybe we also can’t get to new life without death, or healing without pain, or grace without struggle.
So maybe the Church was wise to throw this awful story about Stephen’s stoning into the midst of our Easter celebration.  It forces us to pause, shocked and surprised, in our celebration of Jesus’ victory over death.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.  Not to give us a shortcut past darkness and pain and disorder, but instead to go before us, leading us through it and lighting our way.  Amen.