Thursday, August 9, 2018

Knit in Perfect Love

"Knit in Perfect Love"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

August 5, 2018

Exodus 34:27-35; Ephesians 4:1-16

I’ve just come down from the mountain. Unlike Moses, I wasn’t up there for 40 days and forty nights, but over the course of the next two years I will have been. This past week I spent five days and five nights in community with fifty-seven leaders of the community, both lay and clergy, at a Franciscan retreat center on a high ridge overlooking Sycamore Creek in the San Ramon Valley of California. It was a rarified week, with a monastic rhythm of worship, prayer, study, and silence. I also took a lot of walks…, and a lot of naps. It was the first of eight weeks of the fortieth cohort of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I’ll be going back up that mountain once a quarter for the next two years, meeting with the same cohort, joining in the same rhythm. The rules I have come back with are not the kind of rules that Moses purportedly brought down from the mountaintop – dictated to him by the author of creation. Instead, they are more like the rules of life that Benedict and Francis and Ignatius created for their communities. They are rules that guide the follower of Jesus into closer communion with the Divine and the children of the Divine. Also, unlike Moses upon his return, I doubt that my face is shining, glowing, radiant – having been exposed to the un-seeable brilliance of the Gory of God. But from the perspective of my inner spirit – my whole self – I am still seeing the world around me as if it is illumined by a holy inner light.
I’ve been framing this summer series of sermons focused on Ephesians under the rubric of “What Is the Church?” What is it that we are called to be and do as followers of Jesus Christ in this time and place, wearing the label United Methodist? Addressing the early church, before there was institutional and doctrinal rigidity in the movement – indeed while it was still more of a movement than a bygone moment – again and again, chapter after chapter, Ephesians stresses the importance of being “one.” To our ears it is easy to hear that as a demand for uniformity. But here in the fourth chapter of Ephesians is the course correction.
Embroidered Children
“…to some, the gift they were given is that they should be apostles; to some, prophets; to some, evangelists; to some, pastors and teachers. These gifts were given to equip fully the holy ones for the work of service, and to build up the body of Christ – until we all attain unity in our faith and in our knowledge of the Only Begotten of God, until we become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
In our faith – πστεως (pisteos)of the Only Begotten and our knowledge πγνωσις (epignosis)of the Only Begotten. πστεως is trust. πγνωσις is recognition from first hand, intimate knowledge. Ephesians tells us that more trust and more intimate knowledge of Christ is the very point of our differences. The translation “equip” puts an important nuance beyond reach. καταρτισμν (katartismon) is the word used when bones are knit back together – it means to align well, to reconcile, to be fit for its purpose – or even, to recall our Wesleyan heritage – to be perfected.
One of the pitfalls of our expectation that unity means conformity is that the church – especially the protestant stream of Christianity – has struggled since its inception to remain “one.” That’s not altogether a bad thing, as each branch and twig of Christianity has preserved some aspect – some nuance –of the diversity of understandings according to cultural context or historic watershed moment. The United Methodist Church, as a denomination, is teetering on the knife edge of division over our inability to be “one” in our zeal for opposing commitments in doctrine and practice. In February 2019, the global denomination will decide its future regarding sexuality, marriage, and ordination – as well as the underlying understandings of biblical interpretation – that will reverberate for the next forty years. In fact, this congregation is a case study for the struggle to be “one” though not the same. During acrimonious division over doctrine and practice regarding the private life of the pastor, members from across the spectrum of perspective and interpretation left this congregation – a de facto schism. In response, the statement was adopted that is printed in the bulletin today, beginning with a quotation from the very same chapter in Ephesians we are exploring today. You might call these the “Eight Commandments” of Vashon United Methodist Church. It is not the whole law, but it is foundational for our rule of life. Let’s read it together.
Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love: Healthy Practices for Vashon United Methodist Church in Times of Disagreement
“Making every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3) as members of the Vashon United Methodist Church family, we seek to use the following guidelines when we find ourselves in conflict with one another. We acknowledge together that conflict is a normal part of our life in the church and that God is present with us as we work and grow together. As individuals and as a congregation, we commit ourselves to using healthy practices for dealing with conflict when it arises.
We will seek to solve problems in a constructive and loving manner.
We will avoid behind the back criticism.
We will avoid blaming and name calling.
We will attempt to communicate directly and in private with the party with whom we have a disagreement.
We will listen carefully to the other, seeking to understand as much as we seek to be understood.
We will keep an open mind, and refrain from being judgmental.
We will attempt to respond in non-defensive ways to those who disagree with us.
We will bring our concerns to the appropriate committee or person who can address them.
I bring this up now, not because I see division looming on our congregational horizon. We don’t have to wait for divisive disagreement to engage in the spiritual practice outlined in this statement. In fact, it might be understood as a rule of life for our congregation in all times – a covenant that makes us one in focus and purpose, regardless of our doctrines or practices. But, whether we are aware of it or not, the underlying ethos of a congregation can be hidden and yet perceived by a casual visitor. When a visitor shows up, their senses are tuned to pick up the ethos of the body. Subconsciously they are asking, “Will I fit in here?” The person whose unconscious desire is to be knit together intimately with God and the other will either sense the knit together unity of the body, or they will sense the underlying fissures the unhealed skeletons in the closet. Likewise, the person who is seeking to wreak havoc – perhaps unknowingly, will stay away from the well-knit body, but seek to enter the body that is only nominally held together in order to tear it apart at the seams.
Ephesians also attests that faith, knowledge, and unity come as the preemptive action of the Divine. All we can do in our little ship is to set the sails. It is God who sends the πνεματος the wind/breath/spirit that propels us. I’m not a sailor, but from what I understand, when sailing, each member of the crew has a task. If all crew members are trying to complete the same task, the boat will capsize or stall. I also understand that sailing requires resistance. The sail resists the wind, but is attached to the boat, thus driving it forward. Sometimes progress is only possible when the rudder works against the sails to tack against the wind. Opposing views are not inherently problematic. They are sometimes the only way we can proceed.
One of the lessons I re-learned on the mountaintop last week is that the spiritual life is not separate from the daily routine. Spiritual formation does not occur primarily in some rarified esoteric realm – but in the daily clatter and mess of our lives. We may, like Jesus or the desert mothers and fathers or the likes of Julian of Norwich, draw apart for a moment or a lifetime. Julian, who was an anchoress, lived in a cell attached to the chancel of the cathedral in Norwich. She did not leave for forty years. It was Julian who gave us the wisdom, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” But these contemplative followers of Jesus did not draw apart because the life of the spirit is separate in some way from the life of the body – whether that body be the single organism or the organic whole – what we call the body of Christ.
Everyone is spiritual. Everything is spiritual. The spiritual life is the life of the whole.
Some of you may be concerned that on my periodic return from the mountaintop over the next two years that I will attempt to impose upon you strange new practices or some arbitrary uniformity of practice. The good news is that spiritual life is whole life. Spiritual formation happens while preparing a meal, cutting the grass, planting bulbs, serving a community meal, welcoming the stranger, yielding in traffic, praying the hours, walking the dog, sailing, swimming, singing, and sighing. Spiritual formation is what happens when we take the bits and pieces of our lives and knit them together into a whole fabric of love that draws us closer to one another and closer to God. Because I already do the things I have listed, the commitment I have made to my covenant group on the mountaintop is a form of the Ignatian Examen in which at the end of each day I will draw apart, center myself, and list what I am grateful for in that day. I will pay attention to the consolations – the events and relationships in which I have drawn closer to God – and the desolations – the events and relationships in which I have drawn away from God and the other. Then I will ask myself, where has Holy Being entered my day.
Beloved, we are knit together in a fabric of love, richer and more perfect in diversity. In the infinite mystery of God’s love, we are called to grow more diverse and more perfect. On our last night on the mountain top, Thursday evening, we reflected on the week in small covenant groups of eight. We shared with each other each of our highlights for the week and committed to hold one another accountable to personal practices of spiritual discipline in our first year of the Academy. I shared that I had deliberately set my expectations low, so that I could focus on the in between time – the valley time so to speak – the time that I am blessed to spend with you here. I’m certainly no Moses, and I feel that the real test of spiritual growth and maturity will be in the valley time. It’s when the rubber hits the road. It’s when the tough stuff happens that we really grow. You here are my true cohort. You are the ones with whom I live and grow and have my being. As I said before l left, it’s my hope and prayer that the concentrated experience I have on the mountaintop will translocate to include you in this place – that it will enrich us together and knit us more perfectly in love.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

One, though Not the Same

"One, though Not the Same"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

July 22, 2018

Genesis 11:1-9; Ephesians 2:11-22

Being “one” is central to our faith. We assert the oneness of God. The primacy of this assertion connects us to our sibling religions – Judaism and Islam. We often summarize the idea of being “one” in the word “unity” – and we mean well by that. Unity is one of the ways in which we are made in the image and likeness of God. God is One. Humanity is one – though we find all kinds of reasons to resist our inherent unity. And, as noted in the story of Babel, monolithic uniformity is idolatrous and dangerous – something that YHWH intervenes to dismantle and prevent. Unity can easily become a false god – and be used to justify the tyranny of the majority. Unity appeals for calm in times of confrontation, struggle, and dissent. Unity, when construed as sameness, is boring, inequitable, and oppressive.
Global Citizen
Norman Rockwell
Just as humanity is one – we are also inherently diverse.
Creation is resplendent in diversity. 
Our senses are tuned to perceive the world based on difference. Eyesight, for instance, is better at detecting borders and contrasts than it is at perceiving unbroken fields. Continuous “white” noise drops out of our consciousness, masking auditory interruptions. It is the same with touch, smell, taste, temperature, and the somatic senses of our internal organs. We only notice the changes. Our bodies are instruments finely tuned to discern and appreciate difference. We are created to delight in our differences.

I’ve always been drawn to persons who seem to be different from me. In my first full time job as an architect I worked alongside Manohar Mutreja, Edurina Alvarez, Dominique Tomasov, and Latif Ahmadjar – a Hindu, a Filipina, a French Russian by way of Argentina, and an Afghan Muslim – all immigrants. Later, I worked for an elite firm which employed only Ivy League graduates of European descent and was famous for its completely white buildings. The former firm was considered merely competent. The latter enjoyed critical acclaim. In hindsight, even though I was very good at the uniformity – the “whiteness” of high modern architecture – it was diversity among my coworkers that brought me joy.
Pursuit of sameness – what is mistakenly called unity – is often the motivation or justification for hostility to the point of violence. Sameness is the spirit of racism and misogyny and xenophobia. Sameness makes an object of the other – a vehicle for achievement, an obstacle to success, or simply irrelevant. What at first may merely seem as disregard evolves into dehumanization and justifies destruction. Uniformity demands purity, and we know that it is short distance from purity to violence. Appeals for unity and calm can disguise subtle forms of hostility. If the perceived threat to our unity is high enough, we become caught up in redemptive violence – the idea that we can overcome evil through violence, and that the sacrifice of a victim can somehow appease the gods and “fix” whatever is wrong with the world.
Ephesians tells a different truth about how to overcome evil. It evokes a vision of unity in response to the hostility that prevails. God the perfect Mother loves each of her children the best – none of us stand on the higher ground when it comes to our relationship with God or each other. Remember again the anxiety of Ephesians’ original audience. Their lives were strained due to their defiance of the sovereignty of Caesar and their embrace of the values and practices of Jesus – forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice. These values stand in stark contrast to the values of the empire – accusation, control, hierarchy, and privilege – all enforced through violence.
Violence in the form of the Coliseum spectacles was used in the first century to sedate or incite the masses as needed. Violence was embraced by the empire and therefore legitimized. The experience of witnessing a violent act can falsely and temporarily create a sense of solidarity and mutuality. The same dynamic is at work in lynching and other forms of mob brutality. But external pressures often expose and exacerbate internal fractures. Anxiety will flow to the weakest point and manifest itself in animosity, anger, and allegiance to one side or another in any difference of practice or opinion.
The hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles was fundamentally the hostility between the insiders and the outsiders. In some ways the Gentiles were the insiders, more a part of the dominant culture than the Jews. But from the perspective of Ephesians, it is the Jews who have been on the inside of the relationship with God through the covenant – signified and enforced through the ritual of circumcision, a small “violence” signifying the commitment of the whole person to the community of God. The Gentiles were on the outside; from the perspective Jewish followers of Jesus, they were completely atheos, without God, and thus less than human. Today, it is very easy for us to recoil at points of view opposed to our own – to consider the persons that hold them to be atheos – without God – and therefore as mere objects – obstacles to our happiness or converts to be won over or inconveniences to be avoided.
The word “shalom” is translated as “peace.” It could be defined as health and wholeness – the unity of the body – individual and collective. When we allow our differences, great or small, to disrupt the shalom of our community, we cannot build the temple in which God dwells. First century Christians were divided along lines of culture and practice. Our divisions in the twenty-first century resonate with theirs. The mutual human condition shared between first century and twenty-first century Christians is that we are both estranged from God. Estrangement from God stems directly from estrangement from each other. When differences of culture or practice delve chasms between us, we undermine both the nature of the church and the efficacy of its mission. The hostility embedded in the human condition plays itself out in innumerable ways. The predominant culture in the first century and the predominant culture today share many aspects – but today what weighs most heavily on my heart is our addiction to violence. Our games are violent, our entertainment is violent, and we are too quick as a nation to resort to violence to maintain the values of empire – accusation, control, hierarchy, and privilege.
According to Ephesians, undermining hostility is one of the main reasons for the cross. In life and in death Jesus modeled the humility that cuts through and sets aside the pride of individualism and the basis of hierarchical divisions between the children of God. Through the shalom of Christ, God has created a new thing – “a new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” In this new peace, it is more important to be together freely, honestly, and uncoerced than to agree or conform to one another. The peace of Jesus Christ is not a sleepy, easy daydream. Nor is it an enforced conformance to specific practices or observances – such as the Covenant maintained by submission through circumcision and exclusion – through ritual purity – or such as the Pax Romana – maintained by coercion through the sword, and intimidation through the cross.
God’s peace is not defined merely by the absence of violence or hostility. Peace is not neat and tidy. Peace is messy. Peace is not easy or cheap – it’s costlier than war. Peace is not comfortable – it’s challenging; both globally and personally. It is initiated through Jesus’ exposition of the hypocrisy of peace achieved through violence. Ephesians declares peace on new terms, the peace forged not by the "lords" of Empire in its manifold forms, but by the Lord of love. The cross undermines the wall dividing insider and outsider – dividing person and object – dividing same and different.
Unity – that is being one, though not the same – is good for us. Unity challenges, strengthens, and enriches us. But the point is not to be one merely for our own benefit. Once again, that plays into an ethos of privilege and its enforcement by any means necessary. The point is that the real image and likeness of God in humanity is kaleidoscopic. I am maybe a little too proud of my fondness for racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. But there is a form of diversity with which I am not so comfortable – political diversity. My discomfort with politics that oppose my sense of love and justice in the world helps me to understand better the discomfort of others who disagree with me about issues of race and culture and how best to include them in the household of God.
When confronted with division and hostility, what can we do aside from dig in, surrender, or escape? This fall we will begin to explore this question together. With the leadership of Eric Walker, we will hold three panel discussions, on the first Thursday of October, November, and December. We will explore ways to understand our differences and nurture civil discourse about the common good. We plan to include engaging speakers as well as relevant and usable training to engage each other as persons rather than as opponents or opportunities. We plan to consider how the hostile polarization in our culture impacts the common good and how to face the challenges it creates. And we hope to learn actions to stay together – to seek unity in our diversity. Alongside this series of panel discussions, we will engage in a seven-session curriculum developed by Terri Stewart to help predominantly white congregations understand and grapple with racism and white privilege. Our hope is that both opportunities will draw together a diverse community, both from within and from beyond our congregation. Both will include opportunities for learning new strategies for listening, engaging, and humanizing the other – so that we can truly be one, though not the same.
The church is the daring practice of an alternative politics – a different kind of power, the self-outpoured, boundary-crossing power of Christ's Presence. We trust this power, letting it undermine every separation wall, until we are "built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God." In the new humanity that is created through Christ, there are no more favored and dismissed, no more included and shut out, no more redeemed and abandoned. In the new humanity, we are one child and we are all together God’s favorite. Each story is different, and we are all part of one story. Our backgrounds are diverse. We are the diverse construction materials that Christ has gathered in to build a dwelling place of God, where God reigns, where we embrace the way of Jesus, where it is not our preference or comfort that guide our commitments and choices, but what is pleasing to God.
Thanks be to God, who makes us one, though not the same.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Household of God

"The Household of God"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

July 15, 2018

Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 3:20-35

In our upper elementary years, just about the time our circle of our awareness begins to expand beyond the household of our birth, we take a first step in expanding our understanding of what “family” means. My brother and I benefitted early from our parents’ deliberate efforts to introduce a broader awareness of the world and culture with subscriptions to Ebony magazine and National Geographic on the coffee table in our living room depicting without judgment families that looked and functioned differently than ours. During those years we lived next door to the Bechtold family. The Bechtold household was both alluring and mystifying. They were Catholic…, and had seven children spanning 14 years, five girls and two boys. My brother and I fit neatly into gaps in their birth order. Theirs was the only house on the block that had no fence, front or back. Their doors were never locked, front or back. And from the beginning, we were free to come and go in their household. At the time, it seemed they could not be more different from our family. They were loud and chaotic. We were quiet and reserved. Multiple conversations competed at their dinner table. At our home, we waited our turn to speak. They made their own bread, and, in the summer, they bottled their own root beer. Aromas of yeast wafted. If we were hungry and it was dinner time, they set places for us. Our concept of “family” expanded exponentially.

Churches teach family as well. Children who grow up in churches understand that there is a form of family that includes multiple generations, that is marked by affection and generosity – and if they are lucky, it includes a diversity of origin, opinion, and orientation alongside a shared world view in which God is good and so are we. Sadly, our churches rarely teach by example about the diversity of forms of family that are blessed by God. All too often, a very narrow view of family is taught, to the degree that many Christians confuse our faith with a system of indoctrination into a form of family that reinforces inequity and exclusion. Churches teach – sometimes intentionally – that we need not be related by descent from common ancestors to be family. But churches also teach – sometimes intentionally – that we pretty much need to look alike and even share a narrow range of political viewpoints to earn God’s grace. Recent studies have indicated that we are more likely to choose our faith communities according to our preconceived political opinions than we choose our political convictions because of our faith commitments.
Regardless of our politics, most people seem to agree that family is important. Or at least we give it lip service. But in the second or third breath we may reach an impasse over just what family means, and who is included in ours. The family, we can agree, is the basic unit of any culture. We can even agree that family might legitimately mean something a little different from one culture to another, or from one time to another. We can agree that “family” is normative, but we don’t seem to be able to agree what “normal” is. Narrow understanding of legitimate “family” exacerbates the dysfunctional distribution of anxiety, compounding other challenges such as misogyny, addiction, and the rapid transfer of assets into fewer and fewer families. In turn these challenges contribute to the disintegration and dysfunction of families. It’s a vicious cycle.
Ephesians explores the blessings and anxieties surrounding “family.” The early Christians of western Asia Minor – the likely recipients of this letter – were anxious. Their gatherings were the marriage of the Jews of the diaspora – scattered around the Mediterranean since the exile in Babylon – and of newcomers – non-Jews who had come to accept the good news of God in Jesus Christ. Hebrew and Gentile norms of family life were quite different in the first century. If that wasn’t enough cause for anxiety, this new and growing family of the Jesus movement found itself under the scrutiny of the Roman Empire. They were skittish about upsetting the delicate balance of state and religion.
Families were divided and broken over their allegiance. You can imagine parents distraught over their children’s decision to claim allegiance to Jesus as the eternal Son of God rather than to Caesar as the eternal son of the gods. You can imagine the child whose family had claimed Jesus as Lord, confused by losing a playmate whose family had concerns about the upstart Jesus movement. Even more painfully, commitment to the values and practices of Jesus – radical forgiveness, radical generosity, radical hospitality, radical inclusion, and radical justice – might interfere with making a living and threaten a family’s future. The very real consequences of taking a countercultural stand could very well lead one to feel fated, abandoned, ashamed, a failure.
The letter called “Ephesians” is good news for us, and we may find ourselves to be in similar situations to the original audience – with a radically alternative trust in God whose unconditional love and expectation of justice is suspect, or even rejected, in a sometimes-hostile world. Today’s reading from Ephesians is, in its original form, one long 162-word sentence. This long sentence greets the audience and defines it. These are words of assurance, and thus we know that the intended recipients were a people needing encouragement – it was a “stay in the game, don’t quit now, you have what it takes kind of pep talk. According to this passage, God has an intention for humanity. God has created all-that-is with the intention that all creation will be united with the Source of Being. God has provided all-that-is to facilitate our love for God and one another and has given us the means to glorify God. God takes all the initiative here. It is God who chooses us, before the beginning of creation, to be adopted heirs. And God takes pleasure in having chosen us – chosen “us” to be family.
House Dreaming
Jan Richardson
It’s important to understand what is meant when we say “us” or “we.” Our word
“economy” comes from the Greek word οκεος, meaning “household.” The “economy” is the way a household works – it’s the rule of the household. The work of the Gospel – the good news of God’s unconditional love and expectation of justice that we have come to know in Jesus Christ – is to expand our understanding of the “us” and the “we” of the household of God. In Ephesians we learn that humanity has been made heir to God’s grace through Jesus Christ. The “us” and the “we” are all-inclusive in the household of God. Author Alice Walker expresses this expansive inclusion in the household of God – as well as the violence of the idea that God’s household is limited in any way. “It is fatal to love a God who does not love you. A god specifically created to comfort, lead, advise, strengthen, and enlarge the tribal borders of someone else. We are born knowing how to worship, just as we are born knowing how to laugh.”[i]

The rule of the household of God is love. All else is commentary. The Bechtold household significantly shaped my understanding and expectation of the ethic of the household of God.
No fences.
Open doors.
Messy, chaotic love.
Fresh bread in abundance.
Always another place at the table.
A God who loves everyone best.
The ethic – the living out – of the household of God is inherently political. Richard Rohr reminds us that “… Jesus clearly modeled engagement with both faith and the public forum. There is no such thing as being non-political. Everything we say or do either affirms or critiques the status quo. To say nothing is to say something. If we think we can say our private prayers and still genuflect before the self-perpetuating, unjust systems of this world, our conversion will not go very deep or aid in the unfolding of history. For Jesus, prayer seems to be a matter of waiting in love, returning to love, trusting that love is the unceasing stream of reality.”[ii]
I don’t always live up to that ideal, and I can’t do it alone. I need you to do it.
Beloved, let us assume for a moment that this is true and relevant to our human condition. God loves us collectively with an irreversible, universal, merciful love. The “us” is inclusive and generous. The inclusive and generous “we” has been given all that is needed to fulfill God’s intention that we are drawn together – that every tear in the very fabric of creation is sown back together with the thread of love. What are we to do? Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Love the intimate and infinite Source of Being with our entire being, and our neighbor as our self. Who is our neighbor? Everyone who lives in the household of God. Who live in the household of God? The widow, the orphan, and the alien, immigrant stranger are the first citizens in the household of God. The racist and the misogynist and the capitalist live there too. We are called to an impossible task – at least impossible on our own. We are called to love the difficult stranger as well as the familiar pest. This challenging example and ethic of love plays out in innumerable ways in our mundane relationships as well as our life-changing crossroads. Whatever our level of engagement, Ephesians conveys this message to us today: “Stay in the game. Don’t quit now. We have what it takes. We are not just any family – we are the household of God.”

[i] Alice Walker, Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism (New York: Random House, 1997), 25.
[ii] Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation” Center for Action and Contemplation, Summary Week 28, 7/13/2018, Politics.