How to Sustain Hope: Abide in the Vine

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter           May 17, 2020                John 15:1-8

 

128d1a6af912a7c30f71077a1e53e5ceThere’s an old hymn that goes:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

My clearest memory of this hymn is from when my high school choir sang at the memorial service for our principal, who had died just before graduationand it’s been a favorite ever since. It speaks to me of the human condition in times of trial and our need to call upon God – even though ‘abide’ is a rather old-fashioned word. It means to ‘stay,’ ‘remain,’ or ‘dwell.’ But we don’t often use it outside of church.

  • Motel signs don’t say, “Abide with us tonight.”
  • Baseball announcers don’t sum up an inning: “One hit, a walk and two abiding on base”
  • The billboard you see while sitting in traffic doesn’t say, “Abide here, and you’d be home by now.”

The Bible doesn’t help. Different versions the Greek ‘meno’ different ways. The New Revised Standard Version that we usually use sticks with ‘abide’ from the King James Bible. But The Jerusalem Bible and New International Version use ‘remain.’ The Inclusive Bible has ‘live in’ and ‘live on in.’ The Message has ‘live in me’ and ‘make your home in me.’ The Good News Bible has ‘remain united to me,’ while The Weymouth New Testament has ‘continue in me’ and The Aramaic Bible in Plain English has ‘stay with me.’

This might be pretty boring, unless you’re a Bible geek like me. But here’s the thing: this word ‘memo’ appears 36 times in the gospel and letters of John – and 11 times just in these 12 verses. So it’s intriguing to imagine what John was trying to get at by using this word. He uses it to express how he understands the deep relationship that exists between God and Jesus – and us.

Another “I Am” Saying

Here we have another one of the seven ‘I am’ statements in John’s gospel. Two weeks45327508_e13169fd14_b ago, it was “I Am the Good Shepherd,” in which a human image symbolized who Jesus is. This metaphor today – “I am the True Vine” isn’t a human image, but conveys an intimacy even closer than a shepherd on a hillside; this vine is one with its branches. We, the branches, abide in this. It’s a state of spiritual being which then informs us in how we operate in the world.

People back in John’s day would have been very familiar with shepherds and grapevines.
But despite being modern urban dwellers, we didn’t have any trouble relating to Jesus as a shepherd, so we can easily get the vine imagery, too. We know grapevines and many other kinds of vines as well.

For instance, the Passiflora (passion vine) has many entwined branches that wind around one another in intricate patterns of tight curls, so you really can’t tell where one branch starts or another one ends. This is not just intricate, it’s intimate; the vine shares with its branches the nutrients that sustain them, the life force of the whole plant.

It’s Counter-cultural!

Now, this might seem like a very pretty picture and a nice thing for Jesus to say. But do you realize how counter-cultural this is? The idea of interconnectivity, of interdependence flies in the face of the rugged individualism that we Americans celebrate. Like maybe no other place in the New Testament, it challenges our understanding of personal liberty and self-reliance. James Bryce, who was England’s ambassador to the United States in the early 20th century, noted that “individualism, the love of enterprise, and the pride in personal freedom, have been deemed by Americans not only as their choicest, but their peculiar and exclusive possessions.” We can see that playing out today, right?

22105813005_fa274eca98_bWe’re talking about images like a shepherd and a vine. What might be a symbol of American personal strength and rugged individualism? The cowboy? Han Solo? My first thought was of the old Die Hard movies where Bruce Willis, as John McClane, single-handedly outwits and outfights the bad guys.

Can you think of any other examples (in books, movies, history) of rugged individualism?

Not everything about individuality and self-reliance is negative or anti-Jesus, but the metaphor of the Vine is a cautionary for us as we live in the real world, not in a vineyard or a sheep pen in ancient Palestine. And it’s a reminder for us of where and how we find our spiritual nourishment. The little piece that I put at the top of the worship bulletin with the picture of a vine puts it succinctly:
Like a vine wrapped around a fence, the Divine thrives in our world.
Like each flourishing branch of the vine,
we, too, blossom in our connection to God and neighbor.

Or as John might have put it: by abiding in the Vine, we flourish and blossom in love and service. But again, this idea goes against our usual ideals. Can you imagine an action movie based on Jesus the vine?

Can you think of any examples of interdependence, people working together to solve a problem or just live together? Or from nature?

Some of you may be familiar with the Lutheran author Nadia Bolz-Weber. She usually Sunflowers_(44662222)gets in the news because somebody deemed something she wrote or said to be too controversial. But this little piece sounded innocuous. It’s calledI Want To Be a Sunflower for Jesus.” She says:

“I’m nothing if not independent. Reportedly my first sentence was “do it self!” Yes, I will do it myself, thank you. See, I want choices. And I want independence. But apparently I get neither. What I wishJesus said is: “I am whatever you want me to be. And you can be whatever you want to be: vine, pruner, branch, soil…knock yourself out.” What Jesus actually says is: “I am the vine. You are the branches” Dang. The casting has already been finalized.

“I guess that even if we don’t get to choose our role—God has determined that we are branches, Jesus is the vine and God is the vine grower; I wish that at least I could choose what kind of plant to be. Vines, and branches off of vines, are all tangled and messy and it’s just too hard to know what is what. If I’m going to bear fruit I want it attributed to me and my branch. If I’m too tangled up with other vines and branches I might not get credit.

“So Jesus…can I be something a little more distinct? Perhaps you are the soil and I am…the sunflower? Big, bright, audacious and distinctive? Nope. Vines and branches that bear fruit. That’s what we get. So not only are we dependent on Jesus, but our lives are uncomfortably tangled up together. The Christian life is a vine-y, branch-y, jumbled mess of us and Jesus and others. Christianity is a lousy religion for the “do it self!” set.”

Oh boy, can I relate! Have you ever had to do a team-building exercise? The one I remember most clearly was the one where you’re stranded at sea in a life boat with other people. You managed to save 15 items from the sinking ship and now you all have to agree on how to rank them in terms of which are most important for your survival.

Can you think of one that you’ve participated in? 

Those things are hard! I usually get frustrated because, as Nadia said, “our lives are uncomfortably tangled up together.” We have to collaborate with people we don’t agree with or sometimes even like. You have to be able to know when to compromise on a plan and when to stand your ground for your idea. It’s so much easier to either a) take over and tell everybody else what to do or b) abdicate responsibility and let somebody else make all the decisions. Either way is not what Jesus had in mind, knowing no doubt that it is a very messy process when we are tangled up together.

Again, not everything about individuality and self-reliance is negative. Consistent spiritual practice helps us discern when to go out in front to lead and when to lead in cooperation with others.

I was in a Zoom meeting last week with other pastors in our conference, including John Kuehner from Unity Lutheran in South San Francisco and Joshua Serrano from Holy Trinity San Carlos. Since we’ve all had to leave our church buildings, they’ve been leading virtual worship together, taking turns preaching. And they were very open about how well that’s working out and also how challenging it is because they have different styles and even some theological differences. According to Pastor Kuehner, it has been a lesson in humility, of letting go of ego and attachment to his way of doing things – a valuable exercise. I doubt there will ever be an action movie about these two pastors andtheir congregations, but I would say they are an example of tending to their place and abiding in the Vine in their little part of the Church.

I wish there would be a movie, though; at least a YouTube video. Or a Netflix series we could binge watch. Something that would go viral, catch a lot of attention from thousands and thousands of people who have maybe never heard this saying from Jesus or who’ve never thought about what it might mean for them. What difference would it make on our national scene if we started understanding ourselves as intricately connected to each and every other person? What if we woke up one morning and discovered that, instead of rugged independence, our American ethic was now resilient interdependence?

68edd638-d531-411a-b945-dae6d25fc6edThere is actually a movement calling for the celebration of “Interdependence Day.” It was begun on September 12, 2003 following that year’s observance of 9/11. The idea was to make “clear that both liberty and security require cooperation among peoples and nations.”

Other groups also celebrate Interdependence Day the Fourth of July. As one Sacramento group reported, “we joined communities across the United States in celebrating our nation’s birthday with an emphasis on bringing diverse communities together.” Neither of these initiatives get much press. But I give them credit for trying.

I see the role of the church the same way – to model what it looks like to abide in Christ and to operate in the world as branches on the Vine. In our political and cultural climate today, it’s hard to imagine living in that kind of world. We are more divided than ever. And now, as we are forced to shelter in place, we are even more separate from one another.

But I wonder. What if, in our daily lockdown routines, we become more intentionally aware of abiding in Christ? Maybe you already do this, perhaps called a different name. I’m thinking of Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God in every moment, whether doing a daily chore or saying bedtime prayers. He described his practice as “one single act that does not end.” Now that is abiding.

What practices do you have that you might describe as abiding in Christ?Screen Shot 2020-05-17 at 1.58.26 PM

As we become more aware of where our blind spots are (mine is driving in traffic), we can pay more attention to inviting Christ to abide with us there. I started to post pictures of traffic on Instagram, called Bay Area Traffic Meditations. It started out as sort of a joke. But to be honest, as I’m driving and keeping an eye out for a good picture that I can take (when traffic is stopped or when I’m a passenger) and a little meditation to go with it, it actually does help to bring a different spirit to me. I don’t know that I’d say I’m abiding there yet, but that’s one place that’s a challenge to me.

And these challenges we have are not just individual ones. As followers of Jesus – our Shepherd, our Vine, our Way – we are called to talk the talk and walk the walk (drive the drive). Together. And I wonder, in our interconnectivity as we abide in the power of the risen Christ, what change of heart might we bring to heal the divided places of our world?

Be not afraid. Possibilities abound!” was my Easter message and it’s no different on this sixth Sunday of Easter. How do we maintain Easter hope? How do we believe that new possibilities can come out of impossible situations? By abiding (or remaining, living in, staying with – whichever works best for you) in Christ, the Vine that feeds and nourishes us, that connects us to both God and one another, that enables us to sprout leaves and produce fruit for all to see.

What change would you love to see in the world?  Can you abide in presence and prayer – and real hope, Easter hope, that as part of the Vine, the great body of Christ, you just may help to bring about the change you wish to see?

What change would you love to see in the world? 

Amen

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JOHN 15: 1-12
Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Abba is the vine grower who cuts off every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, but prunes the fruitful ones to increase their yield. You have been pruned already thanks to the word I have spoken to you. Abide in me, as I abide in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.

I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them will bear abundant fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. Those who don’t abide in me are like withered, rejected branches, to be picked up and thrown on the fire and burned.

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Abba will be glorified if you bear much fruit and thus prove to be my disciples. As God has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. And you will abide in my love if you keep my commandments, just as I abide in God’s love and have kept God’s commandments. I tell you all this that my joy may be yours, and your joy may be complete.

This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.”

Spiritual Resilience in Quarantine

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter    John 14:1-14  

Let-Not-Your-Heart-8198B1Let not your hearts be troubled.

Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Well, I say, “Easier said than done, Jesus!” Don’t get me wrong; I’m not arguing with Jesus; I know he’s absolutely right in teaching us that we don’t have to be troubled, even in the direst circumstances. But I must confess that my heart is indeed very troubled. And just telling myself – or even Jesus telling me – “don’t feel bad; don’t worry,” just doesn’t cut it.

As we enter our ninth week of sheltering in place, with no end yet in sight, we have a multitude of issues confronting us. This epidemic is affecting all parts of our lives: how we do work, how we do school, how we shop, how we vacation (or not), how we do church. We worry about the unemployment rate and the precarious state of the economy. We often hear that we’ll never go back to the way things were, but we don’t know what that means.

Then there’s the threat of the virus itself. The number of those infected is staggering; the number of dead is heartbreaking. Predictions by the Center for Disease Control and other reputable experts are not encouraging. While no one knows when this will end, pandemics in the past have typically lasted between 12 and 36 months. One former epidemic intelligence service officer in the division of viral diseases at the CDC said, “My expectation is that COVID-19 will continue to be a threat for a good part of 2020, and that we’ll start to see the page turn in 2021.”

That should make us feel a little better, knowing that people who know what they’re doing are on the job and looking out for our welfare. Unfortunately, not everyone is looking after our welfare. The number of people refusing to comply with social distancing and other safety precautions is very disheartening, as is the politicization of it. Protesters, saying that having to wear a mask is a violation of their civil rights may have the right to protest. But they put the rest of us at risk by doing so. So do the ones claiming that the epidemic is a hoax. States and communities prematurely opening up will have an adverse effect on everyone else trying to stay safe.

7b4d5cdb-48c5-499c-9feb-57bff8752c95And if this all wasn’t bad enough, along comes the news about the shooting in Georgia of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, shot as he was jogging near his home. That was back in February. But it wasn’t until last week that the two men – seen on a video taken at the scene – were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault. So, yeah, my heart is troubled.

Of course, there are good things happening these days. We live in California, for heaven’s sake. The weather is beautiful. We’ve got family and friends and a church community. I picked up our new kitty, Miley,  from the SPCA yesterday and we’re enjoying watching her explore the apartment and assess us as her new staff. In so many ways, life is good. Still, there is a lot that can weigh heavily on our hearts. We feel grief for our old way of life, even as we hope for a better one to come. We feel anger at injustices, magnified now in this crisis. We feel anxious about what the future might bring. We don’t have to deny any of our emotions. Even when Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

But we’re not going to ignore Jesus either. Do you think he didn’t know what was going on in the hearts of the disciples as Good Friday loomed before them? His instruction to unburden their hearts wasn’t given in a vacuum. He knew his friends were hurting. This section of John’s gospel is from the four chapters in John called the Farewell Discourse given by Jesus the night before his crucifixion. The disciples were understandably devastated. In saying “Do not let your hearts be troubled” Jesus didn’t ignore their feelings, which is why we have to read the rest of the passage in order to find help for our times of grief, fear, and anxiety.   

You might be thinking, “Wait a minute. Good Friday was over a month ago. It’s Easter; why are we going back over the crucifixion?” That’s a good question. And there is a reason. During the seven weeks of Easter, the gospel readings for the first three weeks were resurrection appearance stories. But the readings for the four weeks after that are all about how to go about life with untroubled hearts, all about  Jesus teaching us about living in intimacy with God, how to be spiritually resilient in the face of difficulties.

3 Promises and a Problem

There’s an old model of preaching that says every good sermon should have 3 points and a poem. Diverting from that model just a bit, my sermon today could be called 3 promises and a problem (with thanks to Bruce Epperly’s blog, The Adventurous Lectionary).

7160652549_3b117436c0_cPromise #1 comes right away in verses 2-4, so often read at funerals and memorial services: “In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you?” Other translations say ‘many mansions’ or ‘many rooms.’ But mansions, rooms, dwelling places – it doesn’t matter; the place is not necessarily a ‘place’ at all; it means being in the intimate presence of God. The promise here is of a future life in God’s presence.

But the “dwelling place” is also wherever God is present: everywhere and in every challenging situation. God is just as real in the here and now world of pandemic as it will be when we die. So this vision of God’s presence encourages action, not passivity, in responding to the real problems of our real world. The promise is of an absolutely divine future – which then enables us to experience eternal life in the here and now. We can face anything because of our trust in God’s everlasting love.

Old_vine_cabernetPromise #2 is in verse 10: “Believe that I am in God and God is in me . . .” Jesus is speaking of the spiritual unity between himself and the Creator of the universe. Look at Jesus and you’ll see the heart of God dwelling in Jesus in his deepest self.

This statement has existential implications for us. It should remind us of the next chapter, where Jesus speaks of the divine connectivity of vines and branches. Because we’re intimately connected to the vine, we can receive and manifest divine love in and through our lives. Later, in chapter 17, he continues to talk about the interconnectedness of divine and human presence and activity and prayed: “that all may be one, as you are in me and I in you; I pray that they may be one in us . . . that they may be one, as we are one – I in them, you in me.” We are intimately related to God in Christ.

Which brings us to Promise #3 in verse 12: “You will do the works I do – and greater works besides.” Now this is puzzling; Jesus is pretty vague here. Does he mean we can heal the sick and raise the dead and defy the ordinary limits placed on human life? Does he mean that we can forget about physical distancing and open up our churches, confident that we and our neighbors will be immune from the virus? Now that would be great, wouldn’t it? But we know that would be irresponsible.

Jesus doesn’t specify what he means by “greater works.” But given the vision of the commonwealth of God presented by Jesus, we do know that we can do greater acts of hospitality, spiritual nurture, and healing. We do have power when we align ourselves with the way of Christ, maintaining our connection to the vine, and letting God’s vision guide us in every moment. The lack of specificity is actually helpful, because in not fully defining “greater works,” we’re free to push our limits both as individuals and as a congregation, even while we are sheltering in place.

I Am the WayIf ‘I am the Way’ is the answer, what is the question?

The problem comes verse 6: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” Those of you who will be reading my book will hear this story again because it was one of the defining moments in my decision to pursue a doctorate in how Christians relate to people of other faiths. I was at a funeral and I happened to sit next to my friend, Kitty. When the gospel was read, including this verse, it felt like a blow to my heart. Kitty is Jewish, and hearing the “good news” through her ears was disorienting, disturbing and unacceptable. This verse is one of the passages used to promote the exclusivism of Christianity, that there’s just one way to heaven – Jesus, that our religion is right and all the others are wrong.

But this is not what Jesus was talking about. Diana Eck, director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University has a good take on this. She asks,

“If ‘I am the Way’ is the answer, what exactly was the question? I once asked a class of 150 religion students to state it. Nobody remembered the question, but most everyone knew the answer. However ‘I am the Way’ is not the answer to any question one might wish to ask. It is the pastoral response to an anxious question.

“It was poor uncertain Thomas who asked the question that night, as John tells it, the last night Jesus spent with his disciples. After having washed their feet, he spoke to them in words of farewell: ‘I’m going where you cannot follow, not just now. I’m going to God’s house of many rooms to prepare a place for you, and you know the way where I am going’

“And what did Thomas ask him? Did he ask, ‘Lord, are Hindus to have a room in God’s heavenly household?’ Did he ask, ‘Will Buddhists make it across the sea of sorrow on the raft of the Dharma? When the prophet Mohammed comes 600 years from now, will he hear God’s word?’ No, on that night of uncomprehending uncertainty, he asked, ‘we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?’ And Jesus answered, ‘I’m the Way.’ It was a pastoral answer, not a polemical one. It was an expression of comfort, not condemnation.”

In light of the promises of the rest of the passage and of the entire Farewell Discourse, that makes so much more sense. When we interpret John 14:6 inclusively, then it becomes our fourth promise: God is with us on the way wherever we are – in our grief, anxiety and fear, as well as in our times of joy.

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How to Build Our Spiritual Resilience

As we seek to build our spiritual resilience in this trying time,
Jesus promises:

 

  • that because our eternal future is secure, we are free to live fully in God’s grace now, no matter what the circumstances;
  • that because we are intertwined like branches on a grapevine with God, we have access to spiritual resources that we cannot even imagine;
  • we can put these into service for the good of the world; 
  • following the Way of Jesus, we are assured of Holy Presence in whatever we do.

Still, to be honest, I need to practice living into this Way, especially when my heart is heavy. And for that good news, we can again hear Jesus, on Easter evening, coming into the locked room saying “Peace be with you.” And then breathing on the disciples, filling them with the Holy Spirit.

866110617_14d583e540_cBreathe!

We should be especially thankful for our breath in this pandemic time, as one of the symptoms of COVID-19 is shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Breath is crucial for our physical existence. It’s also the key to living into our relationship with the Holy One.

Breathing deeply, intentionally aware of each breath, is a sure way into the Way. For many, it’s helpful to have a mantra or a phrase to go along with your breath. It could be anything. One I particularly like is (on the exhale) ‘there is nothing’ and (on the in breath) ‘only you.’ Another one can be said on both inhale and exhale: ‘toward the One.’ Some people like the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

Or as St. Paul said in Galatians: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

I’ve even used some of my 5-word Easter messages as mantras:

Be not afraid (exhale). Possibilities abound (inhale).

Emmaus is nowhere (exhale). Emmaus is everywhere (inhale).

And this one I just discovered from Breath Prayers for Anxious Times:
True Vine and Gardener (inhale), I abide in You (exhale).

Another resource is How to Trade Stress for Peace through Breath Prayers: Stress Relief from an Ancient Spiritual Discipline

You can choose one (or more) that’s meaningful for you. I invite you to try it the next time you are in one of those heart-troubling times or when your anxiety is keeping you awake. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus has given us the roadmap for our spiritual resilience. No longer easier said than done, although it does take practice. Thankfully, our salvation isn’t dependent on practice makes perfect. But the practice is one sure way into the heart of God – and peace in our hearts as well.

Amen

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JOHN 14:1-14
Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith in me as well. In God’s house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how could I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you? I am indeed going to prepare a place for you, and then I will come back to take you with me, that where I am there you may be as well. You know the way that leads to where I am going.”

Thomas replied, “But we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?”

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Abba also. From now on, you do know and have seen God.”

Philip said, “Rabbi, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Jesus replied, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you don’t know me?

Whoever has seen me has seen God. How can you say, ‘Show us your Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in God and God is in me? The words I speak are not spoken of myself; it is God, living in me, who is accomplishing the works of God. Believe me that I am in God and God is in me, or else believe because of the works I do. The truth of the matter is, anyone who has faith in me will do the works I do – and greater works besides. Why? Because I go to God, and whatever you ask in my name I will do, so that God may be glorified in me. Anything you ask in my name I will do.

Santa Cruz

 

 

 

Santa Cruz

 

Sermon for Pentecost 2: The String on Which We Hang Our Beads

Pentecost 2       May 29, 2016

Back in the summer of 2001 – before 9/11, before I decided to leave Buffalo – I went on vacation for a week at the Omega Institute. Omega is an educational retreat center in the Hudson Valley, about 100 miles north of New York City (17 miles from Woodstock). Their catalogue describes them as being “at the forefront of human development, nurturing dialogues on the integration of modern medicine and natural healing; designing programs that connect science, spirituality, and creativity; and laying the groundwork for new traditions and lifestyles.” Or as one participant called it: “guru camp.”

The 5-day class that I signed up for was led by Niles Goldstein, a young rabbi who had founded The New Shul (synagogue) in NYC in 1999. As I look back on it, I see that New Shul is kind of a cross between First United and Middle Circle. Their website describes them as “a progressive, independent, creative community in Greenwich Village exploring meaningful ways to experience Jewish life and ritual in the 21st century.” Goldstein, who describes himself as a gonzo rabbi, incorporates teachings not only from all sects of Judaism, but also from other world religions. I didn’t know it then but I’d had my first taste of interspirituality.

I got my second taste that weekend in a 2-day workshop with Huston Smith, the great scholar, writer, and practitioner of world religions. Smith has not only studied and taught, but actually practiced Hindu Vedanta, Zen Buddhism, and Sufi Islam for more than ten years each—all the while remaining a member of the Methodist Church. At that time, I was deeply interested in knowing how that worked: how could I (could I?) remain a Christian while exploring and even accepting aspects of other religious traditions? At the workshop, after we’d been captivated by stories of Smith’s experiences, someone asked the question that was on my mind: “Why are you still a Christian?” His answer, which has stayed with me over the years and has informed my ministry as a preacher, teacher, and worship leader, was “Christianity is the string on which I hang my beads.”

I later learned that Smith is an adherent of perennial philosophy, which holds that while the outward features of the world’s religions are diverse and often contradictory, the in-ward features point to a single transcendent unity. It’s believed that perennial philosophy is very old, experienced in the very earliest faith expressions of humankind, as well as in the great religions of the world. But if in God the religions converge above, below they are different. While the religions may be the same in the spiritual sense, in practicality, unity among them is not possible or even to be desired. As Mahatma Gandhi said: Our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.”

Although references to perennial philosophy go back to the 15th century, it was popular-ized by writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley in his book The Perennial Philosophy, published in 1957. And it lives on today. Rabbi Rami Shapiro, one of our presenters at our InterSpiritual Wisdom conference, has written a book called Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent, in which he says, “There is only one reality (call it, among other names, God, Mother, Tao, Allah, Dharmakaya, Brahman, or Great Spirit) that is the source and substance of all creation.” But you might say that, for both Rabbi Niles and Rabbi Rami, Judaism is the string on which they hang their beads.

I’ve been thinking about all this as we approach our fourth Summer of Pluralism. As in perennial philosophy, interspirituality recognizes that there are many approaches to the spiritual journey. There is no advocacy for a rejection of the individual traditions or for the creation of a new superspirituality. So, for us, Christianity can still be our string.

But what kind of Christianity? We’ve undertaken an unusually difficult thing: putting our interfaith encounters right smack dab in the middle of our worship service, making it as welcoming and inclusive as possible to those of other or no faiths, while still remaining true to who we are as Christians. And this is not always easy.

Take, for instance, our Bible. There are some passages that are just plain offensive in an interfaith context. Such as the passage from Galatians, our second reading today: “I’m astonished that you have so soon turned away from the One who called you by the grace of Christ, and have turned to a different gospel. If anyone preaches a different gospel, one not in accord with the gospel we delivered to you, let them be cursed!”

This is one of the texts used to warn Christians who accept the validity of other religions. But what is this “different gospel” that was so offensive to Paul? Well, it turns out that it was all about the big intrafaith question of Paul’s day: did Gentile converts have to follow Jewish law, e.g. circumcision, adherence to the purity code, eating with Gentiles? There are several places where we find evidence of Paul butting heads with Peter and James and other leaders of the Jerusalem church over this issue and of Peter’s waffling on it. At one point, Peter’s mind had been changed by his vision in which a voice from heaven told him, “Don’t call anything unclean that God has made clean.” And later, visiting the home of Cornelius, he said, “Even though it’s against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, God has shown me that I shouldn’t call anyone impure or unclean.”

But then later, in Galatians we learn that Peter regressed. Paul says that “certain men came from James” – that is, leaders of the Jerusalem church, teaching that Gentile converts had to obey Jewish law. And Peter gave in to them and drew back away from the Gentiles.

Paul uses the harshest language in response: “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face.” He also used harsh language for anyone who would try to narrow the gospel down to a strictly Jewish sect. His gospel was about expanding the message to include Gentiles and all people.

Paul eventually won this argument and Christianity became a global religion. The “different” gospel that Paul anathematizes in Galatians is one that restricts, narrows, or limits the love of God to an exclusive few – in his time and place, those who wanted to force Gentiles to live like Jews.

So, by examining Paul’s words in their context we see that his anger was not directed at other religions – not even Judaism. What he didn’t want was the gospel being hindered by rules that determined who was in and who was out.

I had an experience just this morning of this freedom of this gospel. I’ve just begun attending meditation with a Sufi group. As you might remember, Sufism is the mystic branch of Islam. But it is Islam. They read from the Qur’an, pray in Arabic, and follow the basic tenets of Islam. Islam is the string on which they hang their beads. But when I asked if there were any practices or gatherings that would be inappropriate for me, as a non-Muslim, in which to participate, the answer was no. I was welcome to be part of everything. The purpose of the prayers, the meditations, the teachings was to be close to God. Simply that. If that not gospel, I don’t know what is.

So this is what we want to convey, not only in our Summer of Pluralism, but every time we meet – the transcendent unity of the hearts of all people who long to be near the heart of God. We do so as Christians, but as Christians who have learned from Paul, that the gospel cannot be restricted. Could it be that some of the beliefs and practices that have defined Christianity for so long may not be required for someone who is sincerely seeking closeness with God? Can a Christian community be open to such a wide-open inclusivity? What does our Christian string look like in the midst of this diversity and inclusivity?

That’s what we’ll be looking at this summer – how to be an interspiritual Christian church. How to speak of one reality, called, among other names, God, Mother, Tao, Allah, Brahman, Dharmakaya, Great Spirit – while at the same time praying, as Gandhi recommended, to be better Christians.

It’s going to be an adventure. But the gospel is the same. The love of God that exists in transcendent unity also exists within every person. The Divine Presence is as near to us as our breath. We can feel close to God because we already are. This is the gospel of Christ that we proclaim.

Amen

Galatians 1: 1-12
From Paul, appointed to be an apostle, not through human agency but through Jesus Christ, and through Abba God, who raised Christ from the dead—and from all the sisters and brothers who are here with us,

To the churches of Galatia:

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Savior Jesus Christ, whose self-sacrifice for our sins rescued us from this present wicked world, in accordance with the will of our God and creator, to whom be the glory forever and ever! I am astonished that you have so soon turned away from the One who called you by the grace of Christ, and have turned to a different gospel—one which is really not “good news” at all. Some who wish to alter the Good News of Christ must have confused you. For if we—or even angels from heaven—should preach to you a different gospel, one not in accord with the gospel we delivered to you, let us—or them—be cursed! We’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if any preach a gospel to you that is contrary to the one you received, let them be cursed!

Who am I trying to please now—people or God? Is it human approval I am seeking? If I still wanted that, I wouldn’t be what I am—a servant of Christ! I assure you, my sisters and brothers: the gospel I proclaim to you is no mere human invention. I didn’t receive it from any person, nor was I schooled in it. It came by revelation from Jesus Christ.

 

 

Beyond Creeds: The Circle Dance of Trinity

Trinity Sunday       May 22, 2016

invitationtodanceWhy in the world would a progressive Christian pastor in a progressive Christian congregation have anything at all to do with Trinity Sunday, the only day of the entire church year dedicated to a doctrine – and one that’s not even found in the Bible? In fact, the eminent 20th century theologian Karl Rahner claimed that if the Trinity were to quietly disappear from Christian theology, never to be mentioned again, most of Christendom would not even notice its absence.

We’ve progressed so far past the days when we would read the Athanasian Creed on this day. I’m going to pass out copies of it now – not to read (unless, as I said in Keeping in Touch, you want your head to explode) – but as a reminder of our history, of what was important to early Christians as they established the Church, and how they made sense of (or at least tried to make sense of) the relationship of Jesus to God and how the Holy Spirit fit into the picture. And the doctrine of God as three-in-one is how they explained it.

Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the 4th century, was the strongest defender of the doctrine of the Trinity. The creed attributed to him expands on the Nicene Creed, which had been developed (to put it in a positive way) as a statement that would unify the key beliefs of Christianity, and (to put it in a more critical light) to condemn as heretics all those who disagreed with it. You can see how seriously they took this by the last line of the Athanasian Creed: “One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” And just so you know, the rite of ordination in the Lutheran church still asks
candidates to promise to accept, teach, and confess the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds.

TrinityKnot-wiki.pngWe don’t use creeds in our worship here. Times have changed. Adherence to creeds and doctrine have become more of a source of division than of unity. Although ours is still a controversial position. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked why we don’t just become  Unitarians. That is, why don’t we abandon any pretense of believing in the Trinity? And my answer is that, even though I’ve moved beyond the historic creeds and doctrines and dogma, I have not abandoned the Trinity.

Let me tell you a story that was told to Cynthia Bourgeault, author of The Holy Trinity And The Law Of Three by her friend, the Abkhazian dervish elder Murat Yagan:

In the years following World War II, Murat had spent time in a remote corner of eastern Turkey, where he became friends with an elderly couple, with whom he frequently shared a meal. Life had been good to them, but their one sadness was that they missed their only son, who had left some years before to seek work in Istanbul. And although he’d become a successful businessman, they had infrequent contact with him and missed him greatly.

One day when Murat appeared on their doorstep, the old couple were bursting with pride to show him the new tea cupboard that their son had just sent them from Istanbul. It was indeed a handsome piece of furniture, and the woman had proudly arranged her best tea set on its upper shelf. Murat was polite but curious. Why would their son go to such expense to send them a tea cupboard? And why, for a piece of furniture whose ostensible purpose was storage, was there such a noticeable absence of drawers and cabinets?  “Are you sure it’s a tea cupboard?” Murat asked them. They were sure.

But the question continued to nag at Murat. Finally, just as he was taking his leave, he said, “Do you mind if I have a closer look at this tea cupboard?” With their permission, he turned it around and unscrewed a couple of packing boards. A set of cabinet doors swung open to reveal inside a fully operative ham radio set. That “tea cupboard,” of course, was intended to connect them to their son. But unaware of its real contents, they were simply using it to display their china.

Cynthia Bourgeault says: “To my mind, that is an apt analogy for how we Christians have been using the Holy Trinity. It’s our theological tea cupboard, upon which we display our finest doctrinal china, our prized assertion that Jesus, a human being, is fully divine. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just as it was not a bad thing for the woman to set forth her prettiest teacups on the new piece of furniture. But what if, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, inside it is concealed a powerful communications tool that could connect us to the rest of the worlds (visible and invisible), allow us to navigate our way through many of the doctrinal and ethical logjams of our time, and place the teachings of Jesus in a dynamic metaphysical framework that would truly unlock their power? It’s simply a matter of turning the tea cabinet around and learning how to look inside.

So, I believe we are finally beginning to look inside the tea cabinet, where we discover that there have been other ways of understanding Trinity all along. Like so many other Christian concepts and symbols there is something archetypal about it. As Carl Jung discovered: “Triads of gods appear very early, at the primitive level. Arrangement in triads is an archetype in the history of religion, which in all probability formed the basis of the Christian Trinity.”

So, while we’ve traditionally explained the development of the doctrine of the Trinity as the need to give divine status to Jesus and the Holy Spirit while remaining monotheistic, it’s likely that from a psychological perspective it’s the other way round. Our unconscious disposition was already trinitarian, which then required a theological explanation. Three is often considered to be the perfect number, the unifier of dualities. And it appears, not only in Christianity, but across cultures, religions, and time.

Franciscan writer Richard Rohr, author of The Naked Now: Learning To See As the Mystics See: “Trinitarian theology was almost made to order to humiliate the logical mind. If actually encountered and meditated on, God as trinity breaks down the binary system of the mind. For a Christian who lives in a trinitarian spirituality, it makes either-or thinking totally useless. Perhaps, in addition to everything else, the trinity is blessing, to make us patient before Mystery and to humble our dualistic minds.”

einEven in Judaism, there are those who see precursors in the mystical teachings of The Kabbalah, which says that the three original emanations from Ein Sof, the Kabbalistic concept of God as “The Endless One” or “All That Is,” are Nothingness, Wisdom and Understanding. These three emanations are the basis upon which all other existence upon the Tree of Life was formed and the essence of which followers were urged never to try to understand.

Scholar Elaine Pagels wrote in The Gnostic Gospels that early Christian concepts of the Trinity were molded from traditional Judaic terminology. Of course, Judaism – like Islam – rejects the Trinity based on their belief that giving Jesus divinity at all was blasphemous. Nonetheless, “three” is present in both and is perhaps a way through the interfaith roadblocks caused by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Trinities appear in eastern traditions as well. The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the “Three Bodies of Buddhahood” as three levels of existence: the ordinary body, which becomes the Emanation Body; speech, which is the Beatific Body; and the mind, which is the Truth Body. The three Buddha Bodies correlate with body, mind and spirit.

UnknownThere are also trinities in The Tao Te Ching in the “Three Jewels” or “Three Treasures,” which are the Buddha, the Dharma (teaching) and the Sangha (community). In The Bhagavad-Gita, there is the threefold nature of the Self, as told to Arjuna by the Hindu God Krishna: “Threefold is the faith of the embodied, which is inherent in their nature: Sattvic (pure), Rajasic (passionate) and Tamasic (darkness).”1396975590

The Jains recognize the trinity of samyag-darsana (correct insight), samyag-jnana (correct knowledge), and samyag-caritra (correct conduct).

And Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh had no difficulty seeing the correlation between Western and Eastern concepts of the Trinity. After a meeting with Christian clergy, he said, “all of us have the seed of the Holy Spirit in us, the capacity of healing, transforming, and loving. When we touch that seed, we are able to touch God the Father and God the Son.” He presents Trinity as a process of direct knowing of the Divine that transcends all religious labels and names.

So, if we go back before all the controversies of early Christianity, the hurling of anathemas at theologians who disagreed with the winning side at the Council of Nicea . . . and back before epic battles, such as whether to say “We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father” or “ We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son” – which was a huge deal back in the day and one of the reasons for the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church . . . and back before our modern attempts at explaining the Trinity with shamrocks, triangles, interlocking rings, and science project displays of water, ice, and gas . . .

we find that our ancient ancestors understood the triune nature of existence on the deepest level of the subconscious, which then translated into symbols and archetypes found in our origin stories, myths and fairy tales, like The Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears and children’s songs like Three Blind Mice. And in religious texts.

And as we move further into the age of inter-spirituality (which I talked about last week), as we become more adept at using our right brains to re-imagine – as best we are even capable of doing – what God is like, we will see Trinity (this number 3), not as a literal, limiting number, but as a process of union with the completeness and perfection of All That Is whether you call that: Father/Son/Holy Spirit, Creator/ Redeemer/ Sanctifier, Creato
r/Creating/Creation, or (as St. Augustine suggested) Lover/Beloved/Love Itself.

Unknown-1

I personally appreciate the imagery of Trinity as the Divine Dance. As Richard Rohr has described it: “Trinity is the very nature of God, and this God is a circle dance, a centrifugal force flowing outward, and then drawing all things into the dance centripetally. If this God names himself/herself in creation and in reality then there must be a ‘family resemblance’ between everything else and the nature ofthe heart of God.”

Process, dance, circle, heart of God. This is not the Trinity of doctrine and dogma and creeds – although some do find meaning there. I would not exclude anyone’s preferred access to Divinity. As long as we don’t mistake a ham radio set for a tea cupboard. May we remove the china cups and knickknacks from our spiritual shelves and discover the treasures that are inside. In the name of Lover, Beloved, and Love Itself.

Amen

 

Athanasian Creed

Whoever wants to be saved
should above all cling to the catholic faith.
Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable
will doubtless perish eternally.
Now this is the catholic faith:

We worship one God in trinity
and the Trinity in unity,
neither confusing the persons
nor dividing the divine being.

For the Father is one person,
the Son is another,
and the Spirit is still another.
But the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
is one, equal in glory,
coeternal in majesty.

What the Father is,
the Son is,
and so is the Holy Spirit.

Uncreated is the Father;
uncreated is the Son;
uncreated is the Spirit.
The Father is infinite;
the Son is infinite;
the Holy Spirit is infinite.
Eternal is the Father;
eternal is the Son;
eternal is the Spirit:
And yet there are not three eternal beings,
but one who is eternal;
as there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings,
but one who is uncreated and unlimited.
Almighty is the Father;
almighty is the Son;
almighty is the Spirit:
And yet there are not three almighty beings,
but one who is almighty.

Thus the Father is God;
the Son is God;
the Holy Spirit is God:
And yet there are not three gods,
but one God.
Thus the Father is Lord;
the Son is Lord;
the Holy Spirit is Lord:
And yet there are not three lords,
but one Lord.
As Christian truth compels us to acknowledge
each distinct person as God and Lord,
so catholic religion forbids us
to say that there are three gods or lords.

The Father was neither made
nor created nor begotten;
the Son was neither made nor created,
but was alone begotten of the Father;
the Spirit was neither made nor created,
but is proceeding from the Father and the Son.
Thus there is one Father, not three fathers;
one Son, not three sons;
one Holy Spirit, not three spirits.

And in this Trinity, no one is before or after,
greater or less than the other;
but all three persons are in themselves, coeternal and coequal;
and so we must worship the Trinity in unity
and the one God in three persons.

Whoever wants to be saved should think thus about the Trinity.

It is necessary for eternal salvation that one also faithfully believe
that our Lord Jesus became flesh.

For this is the true faith that we believe and confess:
That our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son,
is both God and man.
He is God, begotten before all worlds
from the being of the Father,
and he is man, born in the world
from the being of his mother—
existing fully as God,
and fully as man
with a rational soul and a human body;
equal to the Father in divinity,
subordinate to the Father in humanity.

Although he is God and man,
he is not divided,
but is one Christ.
He is united because God
has taken humanity into himself;
he does not transform deity into humanity.
He is completely one in the unity of his person,
without confusing his natures.
For as the rational soul and body are one person,
so the one Christ is God and man.

He suffered death for our salvation.
He descended into hell
and rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

At his coming all people shall rise bodily
to give an account of their own deeds.
Those who have done good will enter eternal life,
those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.

This is the catholic faith.
One cannot be saved
without believing this firmly and faithfully.

 

How Can We Be on Fire When We Feel Burned Out?

PENTECOST SUNDAY, 2016

UnknownHow can we be on fire when we feel burned out?

That might be the question that the Church is really asking on this Pentecost Sunday – maybe you’re asking it of yourself as well. This Holy Spirit that is supposed to enliven, encourage and embolden the followers of Jesus – where has she been hiding?

All the surveys done by reputable organizations like Gallup and the Pew Research Center have affirmed what we already know: the Christian Church is in decline in the US. Small congregations are like the Marshall Islands, a country located near the equator in the Pacific Ocean, which is already experiencing rising oceans levels due to global warming. Scientists says that if the atmosphere warm by 2 degrees by the end of the century as predicted, the Marshall Islands will be wiped off the map. Not burned out – flooded out.

Residents are forced to figure out what to do: seek shelter in buildings with more than one floor, move to another island not as completely low-lying, or simply leave (which some are already doing). Countries like the Marshall Islands are the “canary in the coal mine” of global warning. And in the same way, small congregations are on the front line of a massive societal shift in religiosity.

And we have to figure out what to do, too. From the grief of the woman I met last week whose church had just closed because they couldn’t afford to keep going anymore – to the administrative anxiety of pastors wondering how to fill leadership slots, while attending to the spiritual needs of congregational members. From the dilemma of seminaries, training students for full-time calls that may not be there – to the desire of the faithful to still contribute to the well being of the world through the Church.

We are, there is no doubt, in a time of ecclesiastical climate change. And it is very easy to feel burned out. But, you may be thinking, this is Pentecost; this is hardly the appropriate message for the day. We want to hear words that will rekindle our spirits, set us ablaze with hope, light a fire under us for action.

But I don’t have those words. Those of you who know that this is one of my favorite holy days, may find it strange that I actually always have trouble finding words on Pentecost. That’s because Pentecost is a truly right brain day. It’s about creativity, intuition, and imagination. If language is used, it’s the language of poetry; the tune of a song matters much more than the words. It’s our left brain that likes linear thinking and logic and words. It wants to explain Pentecost: what really happened on that day, how tongues of fire could have landed on the disciples’ heads, how people could have starting speaking in languages not their own. I saw a video once that tried to portray the scene as an actual historical event and frankly it just came across as very silly.

All this is not to say that I’ve just given up or that I have nothing to say today. I may not have definitive answers for the practical questions facing us as a church today other than we try one thing, see if it works; if not, we try another. But I truly do believe that we, as a world and as a religion, are entering into a new time and new way of being. Bear with me a bit as I go into a little linear history.

In our Muslim/Christian book discussion group, we’re reading The History of God by Karen Armstrong. We’ve just started, so we’re still way back in the dawn of civilization when ideas about god or gods were very different from what we think about today. We learned about the Axial Age, the period in history from about 800 BCE to 100 CE characterized by the emergence of new religions throughout the world from the eastern Mediterra-nean to China. This is when the great religions of the world came into being: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism, with Judaism providing the basis for the later emergence of Christianity and Islam. It’s when the Golden Rule, the idea of treating others as we want to be treated, that is expressed throughout religions, philosophy and ethical systems, emerged.

And now there are those who are declaring that we have now entered into a Second Axial Age (axial means pivotal, turning point). Lest you think this is just dry old history, you should know your worship planners are already there. Brother Wayne Teasdale wrote:
“We are at the threshold of a new age, a Second Axial Age, a decisive period that will be characterized by a deep sense of community among the religions – of interspiritual wisdom – and a profound commitment to environmental justice.” He also said, “inter-spirituality – the sharing of ultimate experiences across traditions – is the religion of the third millennium.”

This does not mean a blending of all the religions into one. There will be a Christianity and a Judaism, and so on. But because many of the answers given in the past do not address questions being asked today, it will involve a redefinition of religion. Just as Christianity moved from a Jewish way of thinking into one of Greek philosophy, we are now moving into a new way of reflecting on theological matters. Interspiritual pioneers, such as Teasdale, believe that interspirituality is the form that it will take.

Or, as Phyllis Tickle posits in her book, The Age of the Spirit (based on a 12th century monastic), we have had the Age of the Father, which was the Old Testament with its teachings, its ways of understanding God, and God’s ways of interacting with Creation. Then came the Age of the Son, marked by the birth of God in human form and the growth of the church. Emerging after that would be the Age of the Spirit, when humankind would relate primarily to the third member of the Trinity. This time would be marked by a decreased importance in church structures, sacraments, creeds, and clergy, when all people would begin to relate more directly “as friends” to the Divine.

We just might be there.

According to the quote from Matthew Skinner in Keeping in Touch, “Pentecost is an invitation to dream. When a community of faith quits dreaming dreams, it has little to offer either its members or the wider world. These dreams involve adopting a new perspective on what’s possible, rousing our creativity to free us from conventional expectations. They help us see that maybe what we thought was outlandish actually lies within reach.”

And as I wrote in Keeping in Touch, I don’t think the purpose of dreaming is daydreaming about how to get back to the “good old days,” or church as “we’ve always done it before.” Dreaming is being open to the creativity, wonder, and frankly the unknown possibilities of the chaotic, unbound, uncontrollable Holy Spirit that we celebrate at Pentecost. She’s the scary part of the Trinity because we can’t predict her.

I don’t know what the Church of the future will look like. Some are predicting that it will be more like the house churches of early Christianity. Who can say for sure? And how will we address our grief and ecclesiastical anxieties in the meantime? We’ll try one thing and if that doesn’t work, we’ll try another.

9cdd5e6a07051dc7bff89b38a65d0becThe bottom-line message of Pentecost is this: by trusting that the nature of the Holy One is Love, how can we not trust that this wild flame-throwing, hurricane whirling, multi-lingual Breath of God is on our side? Burned out as we may feel, frightened by the rising tides of change, what better to do than throw a party! Wear red. Make noise. Sing loudly. Dance, if you’re so inclined. Get into the Spirit. But most of all – dream, and dream big!

Happy Pentecost! Amen.