Tuesday, June 30, 2015

One Spirit Makes One People

Ephesians 4:1-16
John 17:20-26

Using the scriptures that we just heard, Brian McLaren talks about the diversity within God’s very self, God the Creator, God as revealed in the humanity of Jesus, and God in the experience of presence that we identify as the Holy Spirit.  Three ways of being, and still one God.  I’d rather talk about the diversity of all of creation and the unity within it.  That diversity speaks about God more profoundly than any constructs that we can devise to describe God.  There is more than a semantic difference when we say that there is one God as opposed to saying that God is one.  Declaring that there is only one God can be followed by other particularities.  God is our God, not yours; we are God’s people, you are not; we believe in the one true God, all other gods are idols.  There is only one God and that’s my God.
But let’s look at how the meaning changes when we say that God is one.  God made everything and is in everything.  God’s being is consistent and unified.  The image of God moves from particularity to expansive inclusiveness.  God’s creation reveals God’s nature.  All of creation springs from the heart of God and reflects a vast diversity that is interconnected.  Just think about your body.  We are made up of tissue and fluids, cells that are distinct and only serve one function and cells that are universal and can become what they need to be.  We have cells that allow us to see, and cells that mediate sound, cells that transmit pain, and cells that protect us from disease.  Together, they work in harmony to create one body.  
Think of the diversity in the produce aisle at the supermarket or the flower stall.  I just traveled from the Tri-Cities yesterday and marveled at the diversity of the terrain and climate.  Rolling hills, winding rivers, bleached sand, scrub brush, green fields, rocky outcroppings, mountain passes, towering evergreens, even some snow visible on the peaks of mountains when the temperature registering in my car was 104º.
Annual Conference was a great place to see the diversity within humanity.  We are short and tall, slim as a rail, and “big boned” (that’s what my mother always called people with my shape), with straight hair and curly hair, light skin and dark skin, blue eyes and brown.  Some of us are fit and healthy, some live with disabilities.  There were babies and great-grandparents.  We grew up speaking different languages.  We were urban dwellers and farmers, engineers and musicians.  And we were one body doing the business of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference.  Sometimes we voted with one voice and sometimes we had to stand to be counted.  Once there was a tie and the chair of the committee presenting the legislation noted, “As you can see from the committee’s vote, this is not an easy decision.”
On the Friday morning of Annual Conference the Supreme Court ruled on same sex marriage.  There was great rejoicing in the section I was sitting in.  I know at least one person asked our Bishop to make the announcement from the dais.  Instead, Bishop Hagiya took a moment of personal privilege to remind us that some of us were rejoicing and some of us were lamenting.  He called on us to live into each other’s reality as the apostle Paul calls us to weep with those who are weeping and rejoice with those who are rejoicing.  The Bishop encouraged us to rejoice from the bottoms of our hearts or lament from the bottom of our hearts, and to hold the other person’s joy or sorrow in our hearts—because we are one people.  We belong to the God who is one and all of our brothers and sisters are part of God and beloved of God.  No matter how our beliefs, cultures, or skin color differ, we are one because God is one.  God is not divided.  Listen to the words of Jesus, from The Message:
“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

There is something about us, though, that makes us afraid of people who are different from us.  It is easy to dehumanize people with different skin or customs or language or religion.  We saw that played out at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where it was only the color of people’s skin that made them a target of hatred.  But the families of the victims of such brutal hatred responded through God’s Spirit with words of forgiveness.  The world is stunned when someone demonstrates God’s unconditional love and forgiveness.  Instead of dividing over race, the people of Mother Emanuel demonstrated diversity in unity.  God’s Spirit makes us one people.  Not black and white, but one people.  Not rich and poor, but one people.  Not free and oppressed, but one people.  And because we are one people, we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.  One person’s oppression is our oppression.  One person’s poverty is our poverty.  We are diverse in our experience as humans, but we united in the breath of God, the Spirit of God, which gives us life.  And we must respond in love, with reverence for the image of God in each human being.  
Let me share two poems with you.  The first was written by St. Francis of Assisi.
I think God might be a little prejudiced.
For once He asked me to join Him on a walk
through the world,

and we gazed into every heart on this earth,
and I noticed he lingered a bit longer
before any face that was

and before any eyes that were

And sometimes when we passed
a soul in worship

God too would kneel

I have come to learn: God
adores His

The second comes from Hafiz, the most beloved Persian poet who lived in the 14th century.  It speaks of God as one, of our belonging to God in the wholeness of God, and our obligation to treat each person as sacred.  I have probably read this to you before.  Listen again.
I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men’s hands even at the height
of their arc of anger

because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound
and it is His—the Christ’s, our

I have come into this world to see this:  all creature hold hands as
we pass through this miraculous existence we share on the way
to even a greater being of soul,

a being of just ecstatic light, forever entwined and at play
with Him.

I have come into this world to hear this:

every song the earth has sung since it was conceived in
the Divine’s womb and began spinning from
His wish,

every song by wing and fin and hoof,
every song by hill and field and tree and woman and child,
every song of stream and rock,

every song of tool and lyre and flute,
every song of gold and emerald
and fire,

every song the heart should cry with magnificent dignity
to know itself as

for all other knowledge will leave us again in want and aching—
only imbibing the glorious Sun
will complete us.

I have come into the world to experience this:

men so true to love
they would rather die before speaking
an unkind

men so true their lives are His covenant—
the promise of

I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men’s hands
even at the height of
their arc of

because we have finally realized
there is just one flesh

we can wound.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Love Extravagantly

Acts 10:1-48
1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Love extravagantly.  When we heard that phrase in Bible study, this passage of the Bible that we know so well came alive.  These are words we know well.  This chapter of the Bible is prized for Paul’s detailed description of love.  We often hear it at weddings when two people stand before their friends with stars in their eyes, promising to love one another forever.  And it is more.  Paul instructs us in the way of love by showing us how we are loved by God.  We are loved extravagantly so that we may love extravagantly.  We love these words, but we have trouble living them with our family, much less the neighbors that we don’t know and who may be different from us.  Some of you have heard me tell about reading Henri Nouwen’s classic The Life of the Beloved in a small women’s Bible study.  Nouwen wrote that we all want to become more loving.  But one of the women in our group said, “I don’t!  I don’t want to be more loving.  I love enough people.”  She was just being honest.  Haven’t we all felt like we have given enough, given up enough, done enough, stretched to our very limit in a relationship?  Haven’t we compromised enough?  Enough isn’t extravagant.  Enough is what anyone would do.  Those of us who follow Christ are commanded to love extravagantly.
How does the Holy Spirit teach us to love as extravagantly as we have been loved?  God’s Spirit of love breaks down barriers between us by changing our minds and then our hearts.  Or sometimes, the other way around.  For Peter, the Spirit started with his mind.  Before Peter could witness to Cornelius, Peter had to be persuaded that Cornelius was eligible to be loved by God.  According to Jewish law, Gentiles were unclean.  Observant Jews did not visit in the homes of Gentiles or eat with Gentiles by Jewish law.  And so, in a vision, God prepared a table for Peter filled with all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds.  A voice told Peter to kill and eat.  But Peter remained faithful to the law, saying that he had never eaten anything profane or unclean.  The voice replied, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  That must have been confusing, because Peter knew the law and observed it faithfully.  The vision appeared three times, and each time Peter refused to break the law and each time the voice repeated, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  My guess is that it wasn’t until Peter met Cornelius that his vision began to make sense.  Maybe Cornelius was not unclean or profane, maybe the law was wrong, but while Peter was cautiously testing that possibility, the Holy Spirit fell with power upon Cornelius and his friends and family.  Peter was stunned, but when he saw the fruit of the Holy Spirit, he knew that he had to baptize Cornelius and his companions.  
Sometimes the Holy Spirit changes our hearts and our heads follow our hearts.  I had a perfectly good example and it simply disappeared from my memory.  No matter how hard I have tried, I can’t pull it back.  When that happens, I have learned to trust that someone else holds the right story.
2 stories were shared from the congregation.   One person told about hearing African American professionals at a conference share what they have to tell their children, especially their boys, about how to interact with police officers for their safety.  Hearing about those children’s instruction changed how she understood the reality of life for people of color, especially African Americans.
The other person shared how her daughter revealed to her that she was gay.  She had known and loved her daughter all her life and still loved her.  Her head just needed to catch up with her heart.

We have got to learn how to live love in such a way that the world will not only see, but be transformed.  Some people have asked why our church has entered a discernment process to determine whether we should become a reconciling congregation, welcoming all persons into the full life of the church.  One reason is the way those outside the church see us.  Only 25% of people in the Pacific Northwest claim an affiliation with any religion.  This is how the Barna study reports the percentages of people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity:
* antihomosexual 91%
* judgmental 87%
* hypocritical 85%
* old-fashioned 78%
* too political 75%
* out of touch with reality 72%
That doesn’t sound like Christians practice extravagant love, does it?  We know we’re pretty cool.  But the people outside don’t think of us that way.  They don’t know how cool we are.  I don’t think it’s too late to provide a compelling witness to God’s love by demonstrating it through our words and actions.  I believe that God will lead us to the desire of God’s heart for this day if we will listen closely to God and to one another as we search the scriptures, acknowledge the tradition, explore our experience for revelation, and apply our God-given ability to reason—with the expectation that, over time, we will see clearly.  
Jesus summed up the law and the prophets in two statements.  We are to love God with all our hearts, and minds, and strength.  And we are to love our neighbors as ourselves—again, with all our hearts and minds, and strength.  Brian McLaren has created a list from the New Testament scriptures of the concrete ways that we can demonstrate God’s extravagant love toward our neighbors.  I’ve included that list in your bulletin.  God’s Spirit of love is waiting to help us learn how to love extravagantly.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Spirit of Love

Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

In this season after Pentecost, we are exploring the work of the Holy Spirit using Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking.   In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tries to describe the way that God transforms our hearts as being born again.  That’s just confusing to Nicodemus who takes what Jesus says literally.  But that’s okay.  A lot of us think more concretely and literally.  Jesus explains his metaphor describing God’s Spirit as moving like the wind, playing with the word that could mean breath or wind or spirit.  Wind is easy to understand.  We can’t see it, but we can see and feel its effects.  Wind can literally move objects from one place to another.  In a similar way, God’s Spirit can move us to see or think or feel a new way.  And because it is God’s Spirit, it always moves us towards love, because God is love.
Most of us hold a lot of different images of God in our heads.  God as Creator, ancient and powerful.  God as judge, sometimes stern and sometimes arbitrary.  Some of our images come from the way we experienced our parents, because we name God as parent.  God is Almighty and Holy, with a hint of the parental, “Because this is my house, and I said so.”  But if we take the theological statement “God is Love” seriously, we may have to rework or images of God.  The image Jesus and Paul used was Abba which Eugene Peterson translates Papa in the message from Romans we heard this morning.
Most of you know that I teach a class in the School of Theology and Ministry for students who are integrating the theology they have learned in classes with the practice of ministry.  At the end of this year-long class, they write a paper about one thing they believe, their “This I Believe” statement.  I asked Trina Banks, one of my students this year, if I could share part of her “This I Believe” statement with you.  Trina interned as a chaplain in the Juvenile Detention Center this year.  This is her image of God:
God, the one and only who accompanies me at the King County Juvenile Detention Center, is an African American woman who is old as time, but gets around like an athletic 38 year-old.  She has a full head of beautiful gray and black dreadlocks that hang just right above her hips; and her skin is more decadently chocolate than any candy bar could ever be.  Most days, she can be found sitting on the front porch slicing okra for a dish that’s bound to be superbly delicious.  Though we all know she is older than dirt, she’s sits there like somebody’s baby girl, somebody’s sister,  somebody’s friend, somebody’s momma, somebody’s sexy lover, and somebody’s sweet old grandmamma.  Nobody has any idea all the skills she has and the things she knows. Your best bet is to always have her on your side; not that she chooses sides. She smells like flowers, trees, oceans, cakes and pies and all sorts of delightful and welcoming aromas.  Often she just sits on the porch peeling, slicing, dicing and waiting.  Each time someone passes by, she invites them to come and have a bite to eat.  She’s always so happy to see each and every one of them, like she made them herself.  Truth is she did.  She’s always counting on the fact they’ll come in and be fed so that they can go out stronger, wiser, and certain of her love and care.  If they come close enough to the porch, it’s hard for them to refuse the invitation. And when they’ve drift away, the rich aromas and flavors have a way of wafting into their dreams and stirring their longing for God’s good company.  God is our loving creator.  I believe that She is giving, forgiving, and sustaining.  She only wants the best from all us. She generously gives us the room to be ourselves and do our own thing with the gifts she has proudly planted within us.  She guides us with a gentle hand; other times she shakes us into recognizing our family members, including the earth and all of creation, all around us.  She has high hopes for us!  She’s counting on us to take care to help one another find our way back home to her front porch.    What we are required to do and be in this life is not all about work.  And sometimes, it is not all pretty, but she’s aims to keep all her kin close.  The Dread-locked woman wants us to find joy in her good company as well as delight in our own lives.
If you’ve read The Shack by Wm. Paul Young, this image may sound familiar.  But when the class asked, Trina had not heard of Young’s book.  This is Trina’s image.  Like many of us, Trina writes that she was first introduced to a “scary God who was always focused on our sin.”  The adults in her life were not trustworthy as she was growing up and the church was less than helpful.  But God’s Spirit was busy.  Listen to what she writes, “But God, the Dread-locked old woman, could only materialize in stages.  As I reflect, she has been very busy, for a very long time, uprooting everything that tries to separate me from her love.”  That is the Spirit of love, busy uprooting everything that tries to separate us from God’s love.
Trina goes on to describe the Spirit of love’s work in the detention center:
At the King County Juvenile Detention Center, the youth I served could not really see Mamma Dread-lock like I see her.  They tell far more painful stories of being physically abandoned, injured, or emotionally smothered by parents.  Others tell stories about parents who are unable to provide love, food, clothing, or shelter.  Even if the youth find a way to stay out of the juvenile detention system, the system is oftentimes the best parent they have ever had.  Mamma Dread-lock is a working frame of reference as I guide these youth in the construction of images of God that work best for them.  
I do the work because I am moved to sadness and sorrow.   Though I have never been a mother, I see these youth as babies.  Yes, some are accused of serious crimes, but that is no reason to withhold care from them.  Caring and guidance just might change future behaviors.  It’s an experiment I gladly do with God as the most plentiful ingredient in the solution.  I am willing to protect and defend their right to be loved and cared for.   It bothers me that it’s so hard for them to see their own potential.  They are usually far more concern, and ever so happy that someone actually sees them.  Most of them have been written off as hopeless by far too many people and too many systems.  I am compelled to serve them as chaplain because I can and I do make a difference.  This I believe!  At times, it is hard to accept that I cannot make meaning for them or force them to love, trust and worship God in an instant.  And there is no way I can talk to all of them.  One painful reality is that resilience may never be a factor in some of their lives.  But by God, I love them.  I believe when they don’t believe.  I get to listen so they can hear themselves think and feel.  I get to invite them to redirect there gaze towards windows or doorways of hope.  I get to cheer them on, even if I don’t ever get to see the results of our work together.  God will make possible concrete results in their lives in due time.  Why do I persist?  
Youth say things like:
Look at me. Does God love me?  Look at my life. Is God punishing me? Look at where I am.  Will God really forgive me?  And what difference will it make?
I get to respond with this scripture at the heart of every message and every word of comfort:
 For I have every confidence that nothing—not death, life, heavenly messengers, dark spirits, the present, the future, spiritual powers, height, depth, nor any created thing—can come between us and the love of God revealed in the Anointed, Jesus our Lord.
God’s Spirit has the power to transform us, moment by moment.  The apostle Paul writes in the second letter to the Corinthians, “We can be mirrors that brightly reflect the glory of the Lord. And as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him.”  I hear Trina being transformed by the Spirit of love into her image of God as she writes:
I also get the privilege of saying things like:
I am happy to see that you are okay.  You know, God will always hang right in there with you.  Come and talk to me.  I’m right here.  I’ll wait for you.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Walking in the Spirit

Colossians 3:12-17
John 15:1-8

If you’ve read Brian McLaren’s chapter in We Make the Road by Walking this week, you’ve already heard some of what I want to say this morning.  I like his analogies for tapping into the Spirit.  It’s not like the Spirit is here one minute and not the next.  It’s that we have to be aware and pay attention to the presence of God that surrounds us all the time.  McLaren says it’s like electricity that runs through our homes all the time, but we can’t use it until we plug something in.  We are surrounded by air, but we have to breathe it in for it to nourish our bodies.  There are always tunes being broadcast, but we have to turn on a radio and tune in to hear them.  I like that analogy best.  I love music and I love to sign along with the radio or a CD, especially in the car when I’m alone.  After I’ve heard a song a few times, I begin to know the words and I can really have a good time.  The songwriter’s words become my words.  
When I read scripture, and sing hymns, and pray, the Holy Spirit has a chance to write words and ideas in my brain and in my heart.  Those words and ideas become my own.  They begin to shape me.  God’s desires become my desires.  At least that’s the idea.  I’ll tell you, it really works with Taizé.  Every Tuesday evening we sing six songs from the Taizé community over and over again until I forget that I’m singing and it becomes prayer.  Those words float up into my mind unbidden during the week:
Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us,
Let not my doubt or my darkness speak to me.

Our darkness is never darkness in your sight.
The deepest night is clear as the daylight.  

Come and fill our hearts with your peace,
You alone, O Lord, are holy.
Come and fill our hearts with your peace.  Alleluia!

Without my having to think, God speaks a word of peace or hope in my heart.  That is such a gift!
Jesus uses a more organic image.  He says that we are like branches that grow out of a vine.  As long as we are connected, we flourish and produce good fruit.  But if we get cut off from the vine, what McLaren calls the “aliveness” of the vine can no longer feed us.  We can’t produce fruit if we are not connected to the vine.  I want that sense of aliveness flowing through me.  I want to bear good fruit.  I want my days to count.  So McLaren suggests an exercise every morning to keep us connected to the vine.  When we first wake up in the morning, “before your feet hit the floor, open your heart to the Spirit. Ask God to help you walk in the Spirit, step by step through the day.  Ask God to help you abide in the Vine so good fruit will naturally develop on your life.  Ask God to keep the fire burning within you.”  What a great prayer to start the day!
This is the disclaimer part of the sermon.  If this were a commercial for a medication, this would be where the stern-voiced announcer would tell you all the awful side effects.  I am no Polyanna and I resent theology that promises pie in the sky if you just hold your mouth right and pray without ceasing.  Life is complicated and uncertain.  Theology is only good if it works in the tough times as well as in the good times, if it’s true no matter what.  I know that there are times when everything goes wrong—sometimes by our own actions and sometimes through no fault of our own.  That’s when I count on the Holy Spirit to pray for me when I can’t pray—when I don’t have the words, or the energy, or even the desire to pray.  The Apostle Paul says the Spirit helps us in our weakness; when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words.  When I turn my back on myself and on God, the Holy Spirit continues to pray not only my heart’s desire but also God’s heart’s desire.
I can tell you from experience that I have felt a nudge from the Holy Spirit to do something good and I have delayed too long or ignored it all together.  And there have been times when the Spirit has nudged me to cease and desist—and I have delayed too long or ignored it all together.  But I believe that the Spirit continues to pray for me even when I’m not plugged in, even when I’ve turned off.  Because God made me and loves me.  God made you and loves you and God will not let us go.  The Holy Spirit helps us to keep going when we’re tired and weary, when we’ve failed and want to give up, when the road seems to be uphill both ways.  That’s when it’s especially important to walk together.  The Holy Spirit is that presence of God that continues to hover over and through us calling us back to our right selves and into God’s heart.  
But presence is a tricky thing.  It’s easier to feel God’s presence in and through our faith companions—when we are not alone.  There are times when I have a powerful sense of God’s presence when I’m alone.  But those are rare.  More often I feel alone when I’m alone.  But when I’m with you, I feel God’s presence.  We are the mediators of the Holy Spirit for each other when we are sharing love and support and encouragement.  We have the power to put the wind back in each other’s sails when we allow the Holy Spirit to blow through us.
Every day presents a new challenge.  We make the road forward by walking, by putting one foot in front of the other.  If we learn to listen for the leading of the Spirit, if we pay attention to where we see the fruit of the Spirit, we can make our way forward more confidently.  Sometimes the path forward seems clearer than others.  It helps to have developed a habit of listening and paying attention when a path forward is not so clear.  We’re listening now, in this church, for the Spirit’s leading in whether or not we should declare ourselves to be a reconciling congregation, meaning, in the United Methodist denomination, that we would welcome the gifts and ministry of all persons, including gender minorities, not just in the pew, but also in the pulpit.  We will consider how we can more fully welcome, learn from, and share God’s love with every person in our community.  If we walk together in the Spirit through this discernment process, whatever our decision at the end, we can feel confident in our decision.  If we walk together in the Spirit, we will have seen the signs of the Spirit’s leading in the fruit that is produced.  Along the way we will watch for the fruit of the Spirit that the Apostle Paul describes in the book of Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  I like how Eugene Peterson describes these same fruits in The Message:
But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

May it be so.