Monday, May 23, 2016

Imagining the Holy One

John 16:12-15
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

How do you imagine God?  What do you think about when you think about God?  Is there a primary visual image or word image?  Is God alone?  Who do you address when you pray?  God or Jesus, or a combination of both?  The Christian Church, like its forebear Judaism, recognizes that we can only imagine what God is like, or who God is, because we are too small to know the Holy One.  We are finite creatures.  We cannot know the infinite Creator.  John Wesley wrote, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the triune God.”  Even “triune God” is a construct that tries to speak about the Mystery that is beyond us and still intimate.  Our faith traditions imagine God in fluid images and today we celebrate the relationality of God by imagining that God is in God’s very Self a relationship.

Dennis Linn, along with his wife Sheila and brother Matthew, write that “we become like the God we adore.”  In their book, Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, the Linns posit that our understanding of God’s character shapes our own character.  If we believe that God is the essence of love, we will seek to be more compassionate.  If we believe that God is judgmental and harsh, we will judge others and treat them harshly.  I highly recommend the Linns’ book if you haven’t read it.  Sometimes our image of God comes from the Church, sometimes from the way we were parented, and sometimes it is shaped by our own experience.  

So let’s look at some images of God on this day that the Church identifies as Trinity Sunday.  The very idea behind the Trinity is that God is not alone.  In the second creation story in the book of Genesis (Genesis 2) we read that, “The Lord God saw that it was not good for man to be alone,” and created woman.  In telling their stories of God, it seemed to the Hebrew people that it was also not good for God to be alone.  In the first creation story (Genesis 1) we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. . . . So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’”  Later the writer of Proverbs describes Wisdom as a being that existed with God before all of creation.  Wisdom tells us that she was God’s partner in creation.  Either created by or born of God (you can read both in this passage), Wisdom labored with God in the creation of the world.  She is sometimes called Sophia, or Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), in Orthodox and Roman Christianity.  Wisdom is one expression of the essence of God that we call the Holy Spirit.

What does the writer of Proverbs tell us about Wisdom?  That she cries out at the gates of the city, and in the streets and marketplace, calling all to acquire prudence and intelligence.  She sings a song of the beauty and goodness of creation:
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
   when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
   before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
   or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
   when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
   when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
   so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
    then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
   rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race.

Wisdom rejoices in the beauty and wonder of all that God has made and delights in humanity.  Wisdom delights in humanity!  In the gospel reading from John, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the Advocate.  Ad advocate is one who pleads the case of another, or supports and promotes the interest of another.  In other words, the Holy Spirit delights in us and roots for us.  The Holy Spirit pleads for us, supports and promotes what is in our best interest.  It doesn’t make sense that the nature of God is divided concerning any part of creation, including humanity.  So if God delights in us and pleads for us, who is it that is against us?   Here it would be really easy to imagine an evil being, and that’s exactly what some theologians have done using Jesus’ description of the Holy Spirit as The Advocate.  The court room is set up with humanity on trial before God the supreme judge and Satan as the prosecuting attorney.        

Let me offer another scenario.  Let’s return to Wisdom, who delights in humanity, and calls humans to act intelligently and prudently.  Humans are created with free will.  We make choices every day that have lasting effects on our lives and the lives of others.  Our physical, mental, and emotional health depend on the choices we make.  Three of the students in my class this year are doing internships in agencies that minister to people who are suffering from the effects of alcohol and drug abuse, violence, PTSD, and mental illness.  When one student writes about encounters with these people, she tries to imagine them as God sees them.  These people may or may not have had the advantage of a loving home with caring parents, but the One who created them loved them as children and loves them still, even as they are doing damage to their lives.  Each of my students advocate for the health and well-being of the people with whom they work.  In the same way, I imagine the Holy Spirit trying to support and protect us from ourselves, calling us to choose life.  I believe that the Holy Spirit, the One who advocates for us, gives us openings and nudges toward life.  We may have made such horribly poor decisions that our next options are not very good, but we always have a choice between better and worse.  Every time we make the better choice, we move back toward wholeness and the possibility of new life.  The Holy Spirit never stops pleading with us to make the better choice.  The apostle Paul wrote that the Spirit prays for us when we cannot pray in sighs too deep for words.  The Spirit always calls us toward healing even when we cannot hear or choose not to listen.

The word juxtaposition is used frequently in theological conversations.  It is the idea of holding two ideas side by side to understand each idea better.  My students constantly hold the trauma and heartbreak of self-destructive behaviors next their belief in the worthiness and belovedness of each human soul.   What holds the two ideas together is that image of God as being intimately relational.  Imagining the very core of God’s being to be relational suggests that our well-being is tied to one another.  When we understand ourselves as God’s children, we begin to see every other person as God’s beloved child, which makes us brothers and sisters.  We are related and that makes us responsible for one another.  
There are some theologians who imagine the Trinity as only the beginning, or the heart of, of an ever-increasing family that encompasses us all.  I like that image, but I’m not sure what to call it—oh, wait!  Maybe that’s the Kindom of God—that’s Kingdom without the “g.”  It speaks about the relationality within God and humanity.   Imagine!  


Monday, May 16, 2016

Fruit Growers

Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17
Romans 8:14-17

Can I just tell you how envious I am of the sermon title at the Presbyterian Church this week?  “Watch Out!  There’s Fire on Your Head!”  I had a lot of trouble coming up with a title this week.  I have to pick a title long before there is a sermon to go with it.  There is only the text and the hymns and the prayers.  The sermon develops over the week.  I knew that I wanted to concentrate on Jesus’ audacious claim that his followers would do the same things that he did (he called them “works”), and even greater “works.”  I want the sermon title to be inviting or enticing to passersby.  If they are a little curious, they might think about coming in.  But who would be enticed by a title like “More Work” or “Even Greater Work?”  I like that “Fire on Your Head” title.  
Fire on your head is the beginning of the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit.  It’s the excitement phase when we hear God’s call in a special way, or when we have our first experience of God’s presence, or we have an “aha” moment of spiritual clarity.  I don’t want to try to define it too specifically because it’s such an ephemeral thing.  For instance, candidates for ministry are required to share their call story many times throughout the ordination process.  The stories are wildly different and some are so mundane as to make you think, “Seriously?  That’s a call story?!”  But you see in the sparkle in their eyes, and the glow on their face and you know that there is something more that cannot be described.  It’s like a perfectly ordinary bush is burning, on fire, blazing and they see it.
That first experience is so ephemeral, so unique, that it’s even possible to miss it.  I was pastor for a senior high camp many years ago at Ocean Park.  Traditionally, there is a camp fire on the last night of camp in which teens are invited to express how their faith has grown during the week of camp.  Camp is designed to be an immersive experience so emotions run high at that last camp fire.  At that camp at Ocean Park, many of the teens brought tokens of their experience to place on the large wooden cross they had fashioned as their gift to the camp.  There were many tears and hugs.  But one young man sat at the back of the camp circle alone because he was bereft that he didn’t feel anything.  He demanded, “Why don’t I feel anything special?  I want to feel it like they all do!”  It turns out he was a preacher’s kid.  He was immersed in the faith all day every day.  Sitting on that bench at the back of the camp fire, we talked about some of these kids jumping into the waters of faith for the first time, feeling the water surround them, splashing, diving, feeling the water.  He was like a fish.  The water was his home.  It was all he knew.  He would have to jump out of the water to feel something special—which may be why preacher’s kids often jump out of the water for a time.  
You may be a person that knows exactly what it feels like to have fire on your head.  Or you may be a person who has was brought up in the waters of faith and your experience of the Holy Spirit is no more exciting that your mother calling you to come in for dinner.  What matters is what we do with it.  That’s what my very boring sermon title is about—what Jesus calls “works” and the apostle Paul calls “fruit.”  John Wesley, the father of the Methodist movement, taught that we can recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit by the fruit that a person bears.  The apostle Paul lists some of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Jesus said that even if we didn’t see God’s presence in him, we should be able to recognize God’s presence in the works that Jesus did.  That’s how people recognize an apple tree.  It has apples growing on it.  People should be able to recognize God’s presence in us by our actions.
So here we are, a church with a newly minted welcoming statement.  That’s fruit!  The Beachcomber was kind enough to write an article about us in their most recent issue after we sent them a press release.  It wasn’t completely accurate, but it was one way of telling our neighbors that they are welcome here.  And then last Sunday we were given our first challenge to walk our talk when Angela worshiped with us.  Our welcoming statement says that we welcome people with all faith histories and Angela comes from a tradition that worships and reads the Bible in much different ways.  Actually, Angela represents several of the descriptors in our welcoming statement and she used the time in which we share the prayers of the people to read scripture to us that enforced a number of cultural norms for Jewish communities worshiping in the first century and that is used to prevent women from preaching or ordination.  Angela heard on the street that she would be welcome here.  So how do we make Angela feel welcome, even when she disagrees with much of what makes us who we are?  How do we extend God’s grace to Angela and receive her gifts should she come back?  It won’t be easy, but that is our task.  We have to find a way.  Remember that our God makes a way where there is no way and creates rivers in the desert.  That’s what grows the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Those things wouldn’t even be necessary if we were all cut from the same cloth.  But we’re not.  We are part of the big, diverse, contentious, glorious body of Christ and we belong to each other because we belong to God.
When I bought my first house, I found grape vine starts on sale and planted grapes.  I tended them so carefully and was disappointed the next spring when there were no grapes.  That’s when a neighbor explained that grape vines don’t produce real fruit for five years.  Five years?!  Who has that kind of patience?  Patience is a fruit of the Spirit—it takes time to grow.  My next door neighbor had a good size peach tree that had a branch that hung over the fence between our houses.  We enjoyed the peaches hanging in our yard the first year.  That fall, our neighbor, who apparently resented our taking his peaches, trimmed that branch back so far that it had no chance of growing on our side of the fence.  He trimmed that branch so far back that it killed the tree.  I didn’t know that was possible.  But a lack of generosity apparently kills real fruit.

There was an Italian prune tree in the back yard of our first parsonage.  I have never seen a plum tree that was taller than a two story home, but this one was.  It took up the whole of the back yard and it produced enough plums for all of our neighbors, all of our church members, everything we could make with plums, all the birds and the ground was still covered with fallen plums.  It was the most prolific tree I have ever seen.  It was full of humming birds.  Its shade made our yard cool all summer.  My dream is that this church will be like that plum tree.  May our love be patient, may we be generous and kind, and may our self-control be expressed in gentleness and peace and joy so that we may bear fruit in abundance.  May God’s Holy Spirit dance among us with power and grace.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Jesus’ Prayer for You and Me

1 Samuel 12:19-24
John 17:20-26

I can remember the first time I read the part of Jesus’ prayer that we just heard from John’s gospel.  I suddenly realized in a very personal way that Jesus’ was praying for me!  When he knew he was walking into a trap and that his life hung in the balance, he prayed for me!  And for you too.  I heard deep in my soul the words, “on behalf of those who will believe in me through [the disciples’] word,” and knew that meant me, two thousand years beyond that night.  This is what Jesus wanted for me, to live in Jesus, just like Jesus lived in the heart of God, and that I might have Jesus’ glory!  Glory!  And that God would love me as much as God loved Jesus!  Jesus prayed all of this for me!  And you too.
It took years, and I mean years, before I really realized deep in my heart that Jesus was praying this for you too.  Well, of course Jesus would pray all these things for you, here in this room, people I cherish.  It took years to realize that Jesus was praying for what we would call in the south “all y’all.”  Jesus was praying for everyone who would come to know God through the witness of Jesus’ disciples.  I heard all the love and glory words for myself—and you.  And eventually I heard the love and glory words for all y’all.  What I didn’t hear, and what’s still hard for me to live into, is the part about us being one, belonging to each other because we belong to God.  I belong to you and you belong to me.  I embrace that in this room.  I’m not so good at embracing my brothers and sisters in Christ who think differently from me; who interpret the Bible differently, who worship differently, who pray differently.  
In fact, two days from now our United Methodist denomination is going to gather, as it does every four years, for General Conference in Portland, Oregon to do the work of guiding, structuring, and governing our denomination in a democratic process based on the American congress, and you know how well that’s going.  Ours is a denomination that struggles to maintain unity.  We have existed about as long as the United States and we have split into hundreds of denominations over a number of issues, among them the term of bishops, purchasing private pews, slavery, and the tension between personal holiness and social holiness.  We have argued about the ordination of women and inclusion of gender minorities.  That’s within our denomination.
I cannot tell you how hard it is to work between denominations.  Our Island Thanksgiving celebration is structured to avoid any elements of worship so that worshiping communities can be together without offending one another.  It’s the Christian communities that argue about the worship elements, not our Jewish or Buddhist brothers and sisters.  I took a class in seminary about preparing for worship.  The class was discussing communion.  I mentioned that United Methodists have an open table where all are welcome.  The Catholic woman who had been sitting next to me all quarter said, “I could never take communion with you.  You don’t understand that the bread is the actual body of Christ.”  I was more than a little taken aback.  I spent the rest of the day sorting out why the open table is so important to me as a United Methodist.  It was a great theological lesson for me.  The next week, when I took my seat in class, my Catholic neighbor put her hand on my arm and said, “I am so sorry.  I have been sick all week because of what I said to you.  I would be honored to eat at Christ’s table with you.”  We both learned a lot about being the body of Christ.

It’s a lovely coincidence that this reading falls on Mother’s Day, a day the church calls the Festival of the Christian Home.  Being a mother, or a father, teaches us how different children who share the same DNA can be.  We love each child for exactly who they are and we want them to love each other as much as we love them.  But that is not always how it turns out.  I think it must break God’s heart the way it does a human parent’s when siblings don’t get along.  
Our siblings are the only ones who share our history and who love and honor our parents, even though our experiences of those same parents may be completely different.  

Our unity is a gift from God.  Our unity is Jesus’ prayer for you and me.  We’re the ones who squabble, disagree, need to be right, belittle, take our ball and go to our room, call names, even pack our bag and move out.  I got caught doing that very thing this week when I didn’t attend the national day of prayer event because I have not liked the way my brothers and sisters prayed the last time I went, or the way I was treated as female clergy at the breakfast.  I got my nose bent out of shape and I took my ball and stayed in my room.  Why do I expect everybody else to change?  Or to believe the same way I do?  Or to have the same experience of God that I do?  Or to pray the way that is most satisfying to me?  Jesus prayed that we would be one, maybe not united in thought, but certainly united in love.  And if I want to live in God’s heart, maybe I’d better get used to sharing that space with people who are different in so many ways from me.  The reason I pray for other churches every week is to remind us that we are one, that we have been given to one another by God’s grace and we belong to each other.  So how do I live into that unity with an openness and graciousness that allows for difference and diversity?  How do we encourage that in one another?  May God grant us the courage to love beyond our differences and celebrate our diversity.  

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Gift of Peace

Joel 2:21-27
John 14:23-29

This discourse is addressed to the collective “you,” not the individual “you.”  It is addressed to the community.  Jesus loves the community that has formed around him and he expects God to honor their requests just as God has honored his requests.  If the disciples love Jesus, they will do what he asks.  That is the sign of a loving relationship—that we honor one another’s requests.  The way of Jesus is love—love for God and love for one another.  The way of Jesus is building authentic community.
By the time that John’s gospel was written, the people who followed Jesus no longer were welcome in synagogues.  The Church was homeless.  There is an implication that the home that Jesus builds for the disciples is their gathering.  Where two or three are gathered, Jesus is there.  Along with the huge loss of a place in which to worship, and a people with whom to worship, the followers of Jesus lost access to the Torah, and the rest of their scriptures.  The Holy Spirit was being sent to be their teacher and guide, to place God’s Word within the gathering.  And this word was to bring them peace.
But this peace was not the kind of peace that the world in which Jesus and his disciples experience, the Pax Romana, which was a very effective maker of peace—if you were Roman.  It was a peace purchased with the might of an exceptional military that dominated the western world by making other nations servant states and ruthlessly crushing resistance.  It was peace at the end of a sword.  Roman emperors claimed to be demigods, the representatives of the pantheon of Roman gods.  Jesus countered every claim of the Roman Empire with the sovereignty of God.  God also offers peace, but it will not be a peace that is purchased with violence or coercion.  It is a peace that is only possible through love.  That peace is learned and practiced in community.  
Is it possible for us to be a laboratory for peace?  The Church is given to the world as a demonstration of the viability of the peaceable Kingdom, the Kingdom of God.  Believe it or not, love and peace are gifts from God, freely given.  Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, writes that the Holy Spirit grows love and peace within us, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  Our obedience in following the way of Jesus grows love and peace within us, along with patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and joy!
We say in our new welcoming statement that we are a community that follows Jesus.  So what can we do to be obedient to Jesus as a community that follows him?  
  • Listen for and to the Holy Spirit
  • Commit to love one another and respect one another
  • Gather to worship—the building is not the church, the assembly is the church
  • Lay down our need to be right or to prevail in order to serve one another
  • Practice living without anxiety or fear
  • Be honest about who we are and what we need

A. J. Muste, a Dutch-born American clergyman and political activist who lived at the turn of the last century, wrote that, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.”  I believe all of this and I believe it is really important for us as a church to learn the way of peace together as a witness to the world.
And I learned something about personal peace from one of my students, Melinda Giese.  Melinda is serving her first internship as a minister in an urban church that has a ministry to the homeless population in Tacoma.  Melinda’s most recent paper examined a conversation she had with C, a heroin addict who sometimes sleeps in the doorway of the church.  C was going to enter treatment the next day in this conversation, not for the first time.  In the conversation, C mentioned that she had gone to church earlier in the week.  Melinda gave me permission to share part of that conversation and her own reflection with you.
C said, “I wasn’t planning on going but then I found myself outside that church around the corner from here and I heard the preaching outside, so I went in.  It felt good.  I know God always wants me to come back and that he sees me and everything I do.  You can fool other people but you can’t fool God.  And I know he keeps after me even though he sees my sins.  I know I should go back to the Lord.  
Melinda replied, “You might find some peace there too.”     
And C responded, “Oh no, I already have that.  Every night when I go to sleep, I know I’m saved. I couldn’t stand it otherwise.”
Melinda wrote her honest reaction, “I feel irritated by C and C’s theology.  At the rate she is going, she is going to die on our porch of an overdose, enjoying the peace of being saved.  What is the good of that?”  Then Melinda spent a good part of her reflection paper wondering about a faith that gives C peace, but doesn’t help in any other part of her life.  And Melinda admitted to her irritation at having to clean up spilled liquids and trash at the door of the church before worship on Sundays that C and her friends leave behind.  
This is what Melinda wrote that changed how I look at the gift of peace:
When C said, “Oh no, I already have [peace].  Every night when I go to sleep, I know I’m saved,” my internal voice said, “But we’re most likely going to find your dead body on the porch some day!  How can Jesus not offer you more than this??!”  Her model is not mine and in the moment, I reacted because I thought her model must be wrong.  
But the thing she said she had in her life was peace, which also happens to be a fruit of the spirit.   “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:11-23).  In progressive Methodist churches, having a particular faith experience of salvation is not emphasized.  Some people in our churches have had dramatic experiences with Jesus like Paul on the road to Damascus and others have had unfolding experiences with Jesus like the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Both experiences are completely valid journeys of faith.  As an overall guiding principle, we tend to look for the fruits of the Spirit in our lives.  For me, this principle also extends to those who have no affinity for Jesus whatsoever.  If the fruits exist, then the Spirit is present.  In C’s case, based on her faith story, she has received the fruit of peace.
My theological reflection friend pointed out, “Melinda, you go to bed worried sometimes. How well does your theology stand up to going to sleep on a piece of cardboard on Tacoma Avenue?  Your theology doesn’t always allow you to go to bed at peace in your own home in the suburbs, let alone on the streets in Tacoma.”  Point well taken.  After many hours of reflection, I believe my theology was inadequate to this situation.  From everything I have observed so far, it is quite possible that C does not have the inner or outer resources to seek treatment or transformation.  If she were able to access these resources, I would honestly see that as a miracle.  In the place she is, the best thing Jesus may have to offer her is the peace of knowing she is still accepted and loved and has a place in heaven, even in her addiction and all the issues that are connected to that.  And that is a gift of grace and I can see it as such.  In fact, her gift of peace is a gift that I do not have in nearly as much abundance as she does.  In a do-over of my comment about “Maybe God also wants you to be well,” I would say instead, “I am glad that God has given you the gift of peace.  That is a wonderful gift to have.”  
There is a weakness in my theology of transformation which is that Jesus transforms, but you also have to cooperate with the grace that leads you into transformation.  It’s hard emotional and spiritual work to move past our selfishness, blindness, fears and shame.  As we change on the inside, we also make changes in our lives that are not easy either.  I think that the desire and the strength to do this work is also grace but the amount of work that we do may blind us to the grace that is present.  
When we have witnessed transformation in our lives, there is a tendency to think, well, this was possible in my life, what is wrong with you that you can’t DO this?  This may creep into 12 step programs as well.  Look, if YOU would just WORK the steps, your life would be transformed!  And now, I can judge you if you can’t manage this.  The antidote to this judging is to hold onto the idea that the love and grace of God unfolds uniquely in all our lives.  The grace that brings transformation is not the template for what “should” happen in anyone else’s life, it is simply one example of grace.  While it is hugely powerful and changes lives for the better, it is still just one way.  When I pray for C, I ask that God give her as much healing as is possible for her and remember that God works however God works.
May God grant each of us individually and as a community the grace to follow Jesus with as much love and peace toward one another as we can hold right now trusting that we will grow in our capacity for compassion.  May it be so!