Wednesday, July 13, 2016

3 Questions - #1: Who Are You? #2: What Are You Doing? #3: Where Are You Going?

Rev. Paul Mitchell
July 10, 2016

There are two different occasions that are considered by pastors to be the hardest on which to preach. One is the pastor’s first Sunday. The temptation is to try to get it all in at once – to demonstrate the prowess of the pastor and perhaps justify her or his presence. The other is on the Sunday after a significant traumatic event in the life of the congregation or the world. So here we are on my first Sunday with you following one of the most convulsively violent weeks I can remember. At our clergy transitions workshop last month, our bishop shared a story that he loves to tell.
“A monk was traveling back to his monastery. As he crossed an open field, he was suddenly confronted by a fierce Samurai warrior. With his hand menacingly poised above the hilt of his sword, the warrior blocks the monk’s path, and asks three questions in staccato fashion. “Who are you? What are you doing? Where are you going?” Somewhat stunned by this unexpected turn of events, the monk regains his composure and responds with a question of his own. “How much does your shogun pay you to stand guard here and ask these questions of travelers?” The samurai, slightly taken aback by the monk’s question, replies, “Two bags of rice each month.” The monk smiles and says to the samurai, “I will pay you three bags of rice each month, if you ask me these same three questions every day.”[i]
“Who are you? What are you doing? Where are you going?” These first three weeks with you I plan to address these questions one at a time – probably not definitively, once and for all, but by way of introduction. They are the questions of identity, mission, and vision. Every church, every follower of Jesus, indeed every person needs to wrestle with these questions – thus the high value that the monk places in them. I’m guessing we will come back to these questions again and again as we struggle with our relevance and vitality as individuals and as an organization.
I’m guessing that at least a few of you are here today largely because you want to ask me the question – in one way or another – “Who are you, Pastor Paul?” I could bore you or entertain you with a list of facts and accomplishments, shortcomings and failures, hopes and regrets. All of those things would tell you something about me. But they probably wouldn’t help you a whole lot to know who I am. I’m sure that those stories will tumble out as time goes on. Likewise, people have told me many things about you. To name them would be to invite you to nod in agreement and recognition, or to fold your arms in dissent and protest. Mostly, what I have been told about you is good – so don’t worry. And some of the things I have been told about you may not be flattering – but also don’t worry.
So I have a cloud of information about you that has been helpfully offered to me – some of it contradictory. I intend to keep that cloud off to the side as I seek to know who you are. A new pastor is an opportunity to start a new relationship, choosing to become more like who you are. One hopeful sign that I have been given is that you have been recovering in recent years from the traumatic discovery that you – as a congregation – were not who you thought you were. Part of that recovery process has been to admit to yourself that you do not need to become someone that you are not, but to become ever more of who you are. That’s a good path to be on, and I rejoice in joining you on that path.
Now, I am a planner. I need a plan. Once I have established a plan, I can usually be nimble and adaptive. Having a plan helps me to think through what’s important to me – which in turn helps me to respond to change – either to accept or to resist contingencies as they arise. So I have a plan for the first six months of worship. I’ll share more about that next week when I talk about the second question, “What are you doing?” But I had a plan for these first three weeks, and it’s uncanny how well it aligned with the Gospel texts from the revised common lectionary – which I will typically follow as Pastor Kathy did. It’s also uncanny how the lectionary always seems to hold some good news for today. Let me say that the phrase “good news” can be understood in many ways. For me, “good” does not always mean pleasant or comfortable. Instead, I take it to mean “fitting” or “appropriate” for the time and place in which we find ourselves.
My plan for today was to start off easily with pleasant and comfortable good news. However, as you get to know me, you will know that it’s hard for me not to name the elephant in the room once I have seen or smelled or bumped into it. It was not my plan to start off talking about racism, violence, and the devastation of our little blue marble in space. And yet, in order to keep the main thing the main thing, I must. After all, do we not follow the Inclusive Other – the Prince of Peace – the Risen Gardener? This past week has been a difficult week for us in many ways – following many difficult weeks. Black men have been killed by police officers. Police officers have been killed by snipers. It seems to come so fast that we cannot even breathe between incidents. I have been nauseated, sleepless, and distressed. If the “Good News” is not good news – then what is it?
So, today, we have heard the “good news” through the parable of the good neighbor – the fitting or appropriate neighbor. It is probably one of the most well-known parables, and we have heard it preached time and again. We love it, because none of us imagines our self passing by the wounded victim on the side of the road. I’m sure that every single one of you can tell me what it means. And yet, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of a few things.
For instance, when we think of the story, we often overlook that it is meant by Luke to be Jesus’ explanation of what is required to inherit eternal life. The lawyer’s succinct interpretation of the Law of the Covenant is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” It all boils down to that. Simple enough, right? Easy? No! Despite our profession as followers of Jesus, we cross over to the other side. With genuine warmth and understanding, I dare say that there are a number of residents on the island who have crossed over to the other side in order to avoid coming too close to those who are lying on the side of the road – perhaps even some of you. Don’t get me wrong. I too have crossed over roads or waters to avoid the unpleasant task of being a fitting or appropriate neighbor.
We think of the neighbor as being somehow someone who is like us – someone who we know, who shares our circumstances, who lives next door, who would do the same for us. And yet Jesus chooses to illustrate mercy through the foreigner who is understood by Judeans and Galileans as apostate, vile, and uncleanfundamentally different. And that mercy is embodied in someone who would most likely be rejected, if not spat upon, by the man whom he aids. The Greek word translated as “mercy” means “the emotion roused by undeserved affliction in others, and containing an element of fear as well as mercy.”[ii] The Hebrew word it translates “denotes an attitude arising out of mutual relationship, e.g., between relatives, hosts and guests … those in covenant relation. It is an act rather than a disposition, with trust as the basis….”[iii]
In other words, Jesus is saying that the “other” – the stranger who adheres to different ways – is a partner to be trusted, without expectation of reward, in establishing the Beloved Community. Neighbors are good who see each other and do not pass by on the other side. Do you hear that this means reciprocity? If means looking into the eyes of the other and seeing the reflection of yourself. It is the basis of identity – of knowing the answer to the question, “Who are you?”
Beloved – I hope you don’t mind if I call you that – here is the question, “Who are you as followers of Jesus?” – as seekers of the eternal life that I would call the Beloved Community? We have years to find out if the bishop and cabinet prove to be right in sending me here, and yet it is an urgent question. It will take a while for the question to become “Who are we?” and for the “we” of that question to expand to include neighbors whom we might fear. Furthermore, it is our urgent business to understand the role we each and together play in perpetuating the systems of oppression that lead to terrorism, violence, and the degradation of creation.
Beloved, we have work to do – together. It’s hard work, but it’s good work. It’s the work of conversion. It’s the work of reconciliation. It’s the work of compassion. It’s our work as followers of the one who worked and walked and wept with us. Let’s get started.

[i] James Havin and Madeline Mobrearty, Lifestyle Wellness Coaching, 76.
[ii] Geoffrey W. Bromley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testatment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 222.
[iii] Ibid.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Dancing with God

Guest Preacher: Theresa Henson, M.A.

One of my favorite themes of the New Testament is the theme of authority. The Old Testament is full of kings and queens and laws for the development of the the nation of Israel. But in the New Testament we have this new idea of authority that emerges with the person of Jesus and also with the growth of leadership in his disciples and apostles.

In Matthew (7:29) we get this amazing description of Jesus: “he taught with real authority — quite unlike their teachers of religious law.” What does that mean? It sounds so mysterious. This authority is not coming from any legal or societal means, but somewhere else. It’s something different.

As I have reflected upon this, I was led to the image of a mother who looks up and sees her child wandering into the road and there is a car coming. Suddenly, with a voice and volume that has never emerged from her, she bellows from her depths for that child to get out of the road. And then suddenly, with a speed and strength she has never experienced she rushes to snatch that child from danger. She acts instinctively, quickly.

Where did her authority come from? She didn’t go through some school program that gives you a certificate to yell at your kid in danger. No appointed official gave her permission, or commission to respond the way she does. She did not go through some certified physical training program to develop the strength and agility to move the way she does. Where does her authority come from?

Love. It comes from love. And this is also the difference for Jesus. He knows his tradition, he knows the scriptures, he knows his people. But ultimately his authority comes from love and he we see him advancing in his ministry to the people with the same passion of a mother who rushes to remove her child from danger. He is urgent and he is not wasting time.

I imagine that each of you has a story of exceeding your own capacities for someone you love. Perhaps there was a crisis, a situation of danger in which suddenly you just knew in your bones how to move and act. Or perhaps you have an experience of knowing something important that there was no way of you knowing on any practical level.

You see, this is the thing about love: at the very core of it, it engages all these other things: wisdom, strength, inspiration, perseverance — in ways that exceed our cognitive awareness. I think parents do this on a daily basis for their children. Exceeding what they had previously understood as limits of their energy, patience, sleep requirements…for their children. Artists, writers, choreographers create works of beauty from love — a love that perseveres, inspires, and guides toward the realization of some beautiful work that did not exist before.

The Apostle Paul, in what I believe to be his best inspired-by-love moment writes about love…”Love is patient, love is kind”, he says and goes on. He then concludes: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. Why is the greatest love? Because real love actually encompasses and expresses faith and hope and so much more. 

When we live and move from this love, we are dancing with God. We are creating a choreography that is so much greater than we would create on our own. We are led in ways that affirm life and express beauty for ourselves and others.

In today’s reading from Luke, we see what I like to call the pre-Pentecost. Jesus is sending his disciples out in ministry for the first time. He believes they are ready. 

Yet he sends them out with nothing, absolutely undefended. “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves,” he says. Why would Jesus do this to his beloved disciples? Is he putting them in danger? Because it is indeed dangerous out there. They could be killed by bandits or the Romans, conscripted to slavery. Travel is especially dangerous in this age. Yet he gives them no weapon to protect themselves. He even says take no wallet or shoes. Why is he doing this? Because Jesus knows that unless they go out with with nothing, no defenses as they understand in human terms, no constructs of the ego granting them authority to do so — they will never experience dancing with God.

“Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.” (Zechariah 4:6)

They will never open themselves up enough to know what God is doing through them. And then they will preclude themselves from ever truly witnessing firsthand the marvels of entering every moment in faith and then watching God work. They will preclude themselves of knowing the deep joy of this beautiful dance, this beautiful adventure with God.

Jesus only gives them a few simple guidelines. All you carry with you is a heart of peace and the intention to share peace with everyone you encounter. This peace cannot be lost to you. If someone doesn’t want your peace, it is no loss to you. God gave us free will and we respect people’s right to chose. You however, will receive what is offered to you. Share hospitality. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and receive graciously. You see, this is how God will meet your needs. Through your humility and receptivity and focus. Be only about God’s work: healing and affirming the kingdom of God, the realm of love. 

There is something about deep, real love that invokes wisdom, long-seeing vision, and unprecedented strength. And there is something about being loved that does the same. In the presence of someone truly loving us, we become more than we thought we were. In the context of being truly loved, we learn and grow up. We are each loved this way. So, no, Jesus is not sending his disciples out to danger, he is sending them out in love. He loves them and knows they walk surrounded with the love of God. And as they go out loving and being loved, they come into cadence with the universe. They are dancing with God.

You see, being on purpose, being in love, is it’s own kind of protection. It is a mystical truth that is lost on many. Doors open, the way is made clear, our timing becomes more elegant and appropriate. It is also real authentic, authority. The disciples come back changed people. They have exceeded their understanding of their own capacities. “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” They are amazed. 

But Jesus cautions them: don’t get hung up on the fact that “spirits submit to you.” Remember it’s not just about you. It’s about what you and God, what love, are doing together. What he is saying is: Don’t get off the dance floor! Focus on this beautiful dance that is happening. Stay out there and keep dancing with God. Because out there is where the fun is, the beauty, the transformation, the adventure, the delight and amazement.

Where are you being called in your life? Perhaps there are situations, conversations, where you are being called to drop your defenses and step forward with a heart of peace and trust that God is working? Say yes. How do we know God is great if we haven’t allowed absolute love to lead us across the dance floor? How do we know what we are ourselves are capable of if we don’t go on that adventure God has guided us to take through the dreams planted in our hearts? The German writer Goethe said: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” Goethe knew that our courage, our faith, invokes a response from the world around us, a synchronicity, a choreography of partnership.

Yes we are asked to believe but God also wants to show us what our faith can do. We can become practiced, experienced in faith. How will we know how good and wonderful people are if we don’t allow ourselves to receive their kindness and hospitality? If we stay in our own small, isolated, defended worlds? That even the people who may choose to decline us kindness are incidental in the larger reality of love.

We always have the same invitation. And the more we live into this dance, the more we grow in trust, in faith. We are not asked to believe alone. We can enter new, even challenging situations with nothing but peace in our hearts knowing God is with us and God will guide. As God places more responsibility in our hands, more authority, we remain in that deep, reflexive, deeply creative call of love that shows us what to do, how to lead, how to be agents of healing.

So, brothers and sisters: take the adventure with God! Lean into the mystery. Say yes to the invitation to dance. Drop your bags and walk freely out to the dance floor. I have no idea what it will look like, but I promise you it will be good.

Let us pray.

Dear God,
Thank you for the invitation to dance,
to be delighted and amazed,
and to be more beautiful expressions
of your power, healing, and goodness.
We say yes.
We say yes.