Joy Sunday? In a Pandemic?

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I have a confession to make. I lit the joy candle on my Advent wreath a day early. I couldn’t wait because I’d been thinking and thinking and thinking about joy – and coming up empty. Which is a problem because we’re fast approaching the season of Christmas joy, preparing for the birth of Jesus, who would later tell his disciples – and through them us:
These things I’ve said to you: that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.

Honestly, though, I’m feeling more like the John the Baptist of Matthew and Luke’s gospels, when he sends his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or do we to look for another?” That’s quite a change, isn’t it, from our reading from John’s gospel today, where the Baptist is full of confidence, preaching with power about the one who is to come. But years later, he sits alone in a dark and dank cell, questioning his earlier confidence and perhaps his very mission and identity, as he sends word to ask Jesus this poignant, even heartbreaking question: are you really the one or should we look somewhere else?

The movement between these two portrayals of John is from a sure, and certain confidence to a questioning doubt; from fiery conviction to uncertainty and despair. Anticipation to disappointment. Hope to desperation. We’ve all been there, right? Charging ahead with dreams and plans, moving forward with optimism about the future, only to be stopped in our tracks: maybe by illness or injury, loss of employment, the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, or any of a thousand other things that cause us suddenly to stumble and lose our equilibrium. And when our heartache, uncertainty, disappointment, and desperation isn’t only about ourselves, but our entire nation – as it is now in the midst of the pandemic – the anguish is overwhelming. As it was for John, I imagine.

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As it was for the exiles in Babylon, too – the ones Isaiah and Jeremiah wrote to hundreds of years before John. Today’s reading from Isaiah is a breath of good news, of hope – kind of like the news of the imminent rollout of a vaccine against COVID-19. It’s not here just yet, but it’s coming. But this is Chapter 61! There was a whole lot of angst that came before, as they wondered how they could have gotten into such a bad state, humiliated, taken away from their homeland and all they held near and dear. I doubt the words from Psalm 137 could express their heartache any more poignantly:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

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Of course that kind of despair isn’t unique to ancient Israelis. Exile is defined as banishment, being forced to live away from one’s native country or home. It’s a condition in which many people find themselves today: refugees and displaced people from Syria, South Sudan,  Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and Myanmar, among others; the hundreds of migrant children separated from their parents at our southern border; political exiles such as the Dalai Lama.

But we don’t have to go far to find others in exile. And we don’t have to limit the definition to being displaced from your native land. The holidays can be an especially difficult time for many LGBTQ people who have been banished from their families. Now, in the pandemic, there are those who are living at home, but with limited or no access to community support and, in some cases, quarantining with unsupportive family members.

We know also for the past four years, there are many people who are estranged from family and/or community. And now, in the pandemic, our whole country has been thrown into exile. A virus has forced us to go about our lives in very different ways. We might very well sing, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered the way life used to be.” Is this our home now? We don’t recognize it anymore. How can we sing God’s song in this foreign land? 

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Oh, wait a minute; this is Joy Sunday. I really haven’t forgotten. So there I was last night with my Advent wreath candles burning down: candles for hope, for peace, and for joy. And I realized that this has been one of the most spiritually challenging Advents that I’ve ever experienced. With everything that has happened just in 2020, I don’t know how it’s been for you, but I’ve had to go a lot deeper into these words, into the season. Spiritual platitudes won’t do – not for me, and I’m certainly not going to spout them to you.

But just as hope is not the same as optimism and peace is more than absence of conflict, joy is more than fleeting happiness. Remember the old camp song: I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy. Down in my heart? It’s not just a dumb old camp song. Sometimes those old chestnuts get at a profound truth. Down in the heart is where we find the hope, peace and joy that passes all understanding.

Now getting down there might not be so simple. We let our hearts get pretty well defended, especially – let’s just admit it – against God. Because if we really allowed ourselves to feel the presence of Divine Spirit within us, well, it could shake our world even more. We might be inspired to do something that would totally mess upour vision of the way life is supposed to be. And I’m not going to tell you that couldn’t happen. But I am going to tell you that by opening our hearts to Divine Spirit, we also open ourselves to deep joy.

That must have been what Isaiah experienced. What else could have caused him to proclaim to the people who dwelled in deep darkness, the exiles in Babylon: 
Adonai has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor; to heal broken hearts; to proclaim release to those held captive and liberation to those in prison; to comfort all who mourn, to provide for those who grieve in Zion – to give them a wreath of flowers instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of tears, a cloak of praise instead of despair.

And again: 
Let the desert and the wilderness exult! Let them rejoice and bloom like the crocus!
Let it blossom profusely, Let it rejoice and sing for joy!
Those whom God ransomed will return.
They will enter Zion with shouting for joy, with everlasting joy on their faces.
Joy and gladness will go with them; sorrow and lament will flee away.

Maybe some of those who heard Isaiah’s words thought he’d gone off the deep end. There was no rational reason to think that any such thing would happen. But there it was – a song of joy in the midst of sorrow, gladness in the midst of grief.

And that’s what we’re called to do in Advent. Advent reminds us that, against all evidence to the contrary, another world is possible. We can return from exile. New life can emerge from the ruins. In the patient partnership between divine and human, God keeps on creating and calls us to be creative as well. We owe it to ourselves and the world to find this place of joy down in our hearts.

But what is this joy?

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The Dalai Lama has said that “the purpose of our lives is to seek happiness,” which he sometimes calls Joy. Thich Nhat Hahn, another Buddhist teacher, occasionally tries to make a distinction by saying “if you are very thirsty and you see a glass of water, you will experience joy. But after drinking the water you will experience happiness.” 

Psychiatrist Georges Valliant, author of Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith, has a chapter on joy.  He starts out by clarifying that happiness is “secular,” “cognitive” and “tame,” while joy is “spiritual,” “a primary emotion,” and “connection to the universe…Joy is laughing from the gut.” 

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That reminded me of my friend Dolores White who practices and leads laughing yoga. I did find a good YouTube video. It’s not the same as in person, but it will have to do while we’re still social distancing. And then, of course, there are the “disco goats.”

Will laughing take away the troubles of the world? No. But it will act as a tonic for your soul. 

Another thing Vaillant said is: “It is so much easier to sing about joy than to talk about it.”

A friend recently sent me a quiz to determine if you’re more right brain or left-brain. She had scored 50/50: evenly divided between analytic, rational, objective left-brain and the creative, imaginative right brain. My results, however, came out 70/30 on the analytic, rational, objective side. My comment was, “Sigh! I’ve really been trying to engage that creative side more.” My friend wrote back, “I think your analytical side is very creative.” My left-brain response was, “I’ll have to think about that.”

Now I realize that my answer should have been “I’ll have to sing about that.”  

What happens when we sing is that we go down into our hearts where we can find that deep joy. Of course, it’s better when we can sing together. That’s another of our sorrows in not gathering in person. I hear that the technology is being developed so we will be able to sing together on Zoom. And that will be a joyful thing. In the meantime, we make do with singing along with Michael in our own spaces. and there’s no reason we can’t sing out loudly and joyfully. 

One of the things from the laughing yoga video is an exercise at the very beginning. Everyone stands up and brushes off each shoulder. That’s to get rid of all the judges telling you that you look silly or can’t sing well or whatever your inner critic loves to get on you about. Now that they’re gone, you’re free to sing – as a perfectly good spiritual practice. Maybe even dance. Sufi teacher Pir Vilayet Khan asked “Why aren’t you dancing with joy at this very moment? It’s the only relevant spiritual question.”

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OK. I know. Not all of us are singers or dancers. But the message of both quotes is to do something to engage that creative right brain: sing, dance, make art, read a poem, write a song, listen to music, create a new recipe, play silly games that make absolutely no sense. Laugh. I wish we had Dolores here with us right now to do laughing yoga. That would be the perfect thing to do on Joy Sunday.

Again, will this take away the troubles of the world? No. But it will create joy deep down in your heart where the Holy Presence resides in you. 

And finally, if you just can’t get in the Christmas spirit this year, don’t sweat it. Christ being born is not dependent on our being in the right mood. Some people have very good reasons to not be joyful right now. 

NEW-Blue-Christmas

A relatively new tradition called Blue Christmas is held at many churches, often around the solstice, the so-called “longest night.” It’s usually offered for folks who have lost a loved one at this time of year. But it has also become an alternative for those who have suffered a loss of any kind, for those who suffer from depression especially over the holidays, for those estranged from their families, for anyone who can’t get into the holly-jolly-ness of the season – a place to not have to pretend and perhaps even feel the kind of deep peace and joy that is the true gift of the Christ child. If you are one experiencing something other than joy or peace during this season, I’ve included a prayer below that might be meaningful for you. Or if you know someone who struggles with the season, it might be the best gift you can give them, to let them know you understand. 

We are all in an exile of sorts this year. We may grieve different things, but without a doubt we’ve never experienced a Christmas like this before. The good news of Jesus Christ is liberation from exile – of any kind. We can hold onto that promise even as we sit weeping by the rivers of Babylon. Maybe we can even sing through the tears. Maybe even laugh. Not as denial or irreverence, but as a way to find joy deep down in your heart where the Holy Presence resides in you. And from that holy heart of it, the world – your world – will change. 

Amen

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BLUE CHRISTMAS PRAYER 

Around us, O God, the singing can be heard: ‘Joy to the world…let heaven and nature sing.’ This season is to be one of hope to ease our minds, when peace soothes our hearts, when love warms our souls, and when joy comes each morning.

But there are many who do not feel this joy. Some might try, others have given up trying. ‘Where is this joy for us?’ they ask. The world has found joy but some feel as if it has passed them by. Our minds are not at ease…we feel too much doubt. Our hearts are not at peace…there is too much to do. Our souls are not warmed…the chill of death is too troubling. Where, O God, can joy be found? We ask this as we come before you in prayer, opening ourselves to the possibility that hope, peace, joy, and love might still come to us.

We pray for the lonely, that they might find comfort in another’s touch.
We pray for the downtrodden, that they might find relief from their burdens.
We pray for those wrestling with depression, that a light of calm might bring them peace.
We pray for those dealing with stress, that they might find the courage to let go.
We pray for the grief-stricken, that they might experience the newness of life that you bring.

May joy come to the world, O God, and may we grasp some of that. We do not pray for joy that is temporary or fleeting, but a joy that runs deep and sustains us even in moments of despair. We seek this joy in a season that can be less than joyful. O God, hear our prayer.

We wait for Emanuel, God With Us, to come into our hearts once again. May we experience your love in new ways as we in turn love each other. We pray this in the name of the One who is to come. Amen. 

written by coffeepastor, and posted on Philosophy Over Coffee 

*FIRST READING ISAIAH 61:1-4, 8-11

“The Spirit of Adonai Elohim* is upon me, for Adonai has anointed me and has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor;
to heal broken hearts;
to proclaim release to those held captive;
and liberation to those in prison;
to announce a year of favor from Adonai
and the day of God’s vindication to comfort all who mourn
to provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to give them a wreath of flowers instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of tears, a cloak of praise instead of despair.
They will be known as trees of integrity, planted by Adonai to display God’s glory.
They will restore the ancient ruins, and rebuild sites long devastated;
they will repair the ruined cities, neglected for generations

For I, Adonai, love justice; I hate robbery and sin. So I will faithfully compensate you, and I will make an everlasting covenant with you. Your descendants will be renowned among the nations; and your offspring among the people; all who see you will acknowledge that you are a people Adonai has blessed.

I will joyfully exult in Adonai, who is the joy of my soul, who has clothed me with a robe of deliverance and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, the way a bridegroom puts on a turban and a bride bedecks herself with jewels.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and a garden brings its seeds to blossom, so Adonai Elohim makes justice sprout, and praise spring up before all nations.

THE HOLY GOSPEL John 1:6-8, 19-28

Then came one named John, sent as an envoy from God, who came as a witness to testify about the Light, so that through his testimony everyone might believe. John himself wasn’t the Light; he only came to testify about the Light—the true Light that illumines all humankind.

Now the Temple authorities sent emissaries from Jerusalem—priests and Levites—to talk to John. “Who are you?”

“I am not the Messiah.”

“Who are you then? Elijah?”

“No, I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

“No.”

“Then who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I am as Isaiah prophesied ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Make straight our God’s road!’”

“If you’re not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet, then why are you baptizing people?”

“I baptize with water because among you stands someone whom you don’t recognize—the One who is to come after me—the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy even to untie.”

This occurred in Bethany, across the Jordan River, where John was baptizing.

Live Abundantly – Even When Your Tank Is on Empty

008-gnpi-053-feeding-5000Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost

How do you explain the Feeding of the 5000? This story is so familiar, maybe your ears just tuned it out. But what really happened? How did Jesus turn five loaves of bread and two fish into lunch for thousands of hungry people?

Only two choices?

We might think we have two choices here. Either we accept that this is a factual account of a miraculous multiplication of food. These are the folks with the bumper stickers that say: “The Bible said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

Or we look for a rational explanation. Many have tried over the centuries to give rational explanations for miracles.

Here’s one version from the World War II era:

A teenager was riding in a crowded compartment with five strangers. His mother had given him a sandwich wrapped in a handkerchief for his lunch because rationing made food for travelers hard to come by. Noon came and he was hungry, but he didn’t want to eat his lunch in front of the others. He decided to wait until they got out their lunches, but no one moved.  An hour passed and then another. Finally, he decided he had no choice. He needed to eat, and so did the others. He reached in his pocket and took out the handkerchief. He spread it on his lap and carefully broke his sandwich into six pieces while the other passengers watched. He said a brief blessing and gave each one a part of his sandwich. Then everyone else reached into their pockets and bags and took out the food they had brought – and not wanted to eat in front of others who might not have anything. The food was broken and shared around the compartment with a sense of feasting. Stories and laughter were shared along with the food.

And then there’s Woodstock.

I remember hearing a similar version in a sermon back in the 70s. The people out in the desert with Jesus simply shared what they had with one another.  And at the time, that made sense to me. Woodstock had just happened. Food vendors had quickly been Unknownoverwhelmed by the thousands who had descended on Max Yasgur’s farm. But a group from CA, led by Wavy Gravy  (yes, the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor was named for him) stepped into the breach. On Sunday morning, Wavy Gravy stood on the stage and famously announced, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000.” One common thread in stories told about that time is that everyone remembers two things: the food ran out fast and everyone shared what they had.

These are both lovely stories, which could have happened. The problem, though, with this explanation is that there’s nothing in the Bible story to suggest that is what Jesus or Matthew had in mind.

Remember that in this series of teachings from Jesus, we’re always looking for how he’s continually trying to convey what it means to live in the realm of God – or the realm of heaven, as Matthew calls it. We’ve been reading parables over several weeks – stories told by Jesus to get us to think differently about everything.

Is this a parable ABOUT Jesus?

You might have noticed that there are different kinds of parables. For example, there are riddle parables. These were used to confound outsiders or opponents, so they couldn’t understand what was being said. Only insiders, like the disciples, were able to get the message, usually with some further instruction from Jesus.

Then there are example parables. These are moral or ethical stories that deliberately point beyond themselves to wider implications. Think of the Parable of the Poor Man’s Lamb, which Nathan told to King David to get him to realize that the rich man who took the one lamb (Bathsheba) from the poor man (Uriah) was David himself.

Others are challenge parables, like The Good Samaritan, are meant to make us think and discuss, and decide how they apply to present times. This was a common teaching style in Jesus’ time. Many of his stories are challenge parables.

So we’ve been reading different kinds of parables by Jesus. But there’s another type that we don’t hear about so often – that is parables about Jesus. This feeding of the multitude is a good way to illustrate this. All four gospel writers tell a version of the story. Mark has two versions with different details. John is the only one that has a boy with bread and fish. By looking at these accounts side-by-side, we realize – not that they were confused about what had really happened – but that they each had a point that they wanted to convey about what Jesus was doing.

So, debating whether this was a miracle or an example of human sharing is not the  point. The story assumes that there is a sign for us here in the feeding of the people. As a parable, then, the question is: what is Jesus teaching us about the realm of God?

And because parables can shift meanings depending on times and circumstances, the question gets even more specific:
what is Jesus teaching us about the realm of God – today?

We can’t forget that in Matthew, this story occurs just after Jesus learns of the death of his cousin John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod. His sign is accomplished in the midst of political turmoil, grief, and fear, not to mention the ever-present reality of poverty and illness among his people. We can’t see the crowd as a bunch of party-goers out for a good time. They were looking for a sign – that somehow, in the midst of all this bad news, there might be a word of hope.

And Jesus gives it: in the realm of God, something can come out of nothing. Even we, who enjoy a standard of living that might cause us to think this doesn’t apply to us, surely know those times when we feel we’ve got nothing: nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing to give. We’re like the disciples who, when Jesus says “Feed these people,” throw up our hands and say, “Sorry Jesus, we’ve got nothing. Oh yeah, a couple loaves of bread and a little bit of fish. But really, what good can that do? The need is too great.”

shutterstock_58909408When you’re running on empty
Think about those times when you feel like your tank is on empty, there’s nothing left. But life doesn’t stop: phone calls, texts, emails keep flooding in, work, school, and family demands intersect and collide. The news of the world is draining. And, oh, yeah, we’re in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Who wouldn’t feel depleted?

And then you come to church and hear the pastor asking for even more! Sheesh! The potential for burn-out is a real concern. But here’s the good news of our life in the kingdom of God: the success of your discipleship, as a follower of Jesus doesn’t depend on how much you have or what you can give, but rather on how much God gives by multiplying what you have – no matter how small or tired or frayed it might be.

Jesus said, “Feed them.” They respond, “We have nothing—only five loaves and two fish.”
Jesus says, “Bring your nothing to me.” He blesses the fish and bread and proceeds to distribute the food and the bellies of each one of them was filled.

And there were leftovers!

This story reminds us that in times when we feel depleted, all Jesus is asking us to do is to give our nothing – and then to stand back and watch Jesus teach us how God’s economic system is not like our own. In the realm of God, an economy is grown by God’s abundance.

Tikkun Olam
As I write this, I am aware of how naïve this sounds, especially to anyone experiencing unemployment, the very real possibility of eviction from their home, and any number of troubles so many are facing today. But this message from Jesus begins with the command to feed the people. This isn’t a promise of a free ride because God’s going to come and fix everything.

No, we don’t get a free pass. We, as I’ve learned from my Jewish friends, are to be practitioners of ‘tikkun olam,’ Hebrew for ‘world repair,’ signifying social action and the pursuit of social justice. We have to be concerned about unemployment, home evictions, and all the social ills of our day.

But when we look around and see the immensity of what needs repairing, it’s tempting to back away and say, “there’s nothing I can do” or for a church to think, “there’s nothing we can do.”

Especially now. A global pandemic ratchets up our garden-variety fears and anxieties so high that we don’t know what to address first. Our health and safety, the health and safety of others, our shaky economy, the sustainability of our education system, the future of our democracy, our family and friend connections frayed by either physical distancing or by too much togetherness in quarantine – to name just a few. It is a scary time.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

And then there’s the church. Every time I come to the church and see the sign that says the building is closed, I kind of feel like I’m going into a building that’s been condemned. That is not what it says, but it’s a scary time for the church, too.

Rev. Erin Wathen writes in If We Weren’t Afraid: What Is The Post-Pandemic Church Going To Be?: 

“Once, there was a little church in a big desert. And it was dying. Money was tight; fewer and fewer people were coming to worship; there was no youth group, and nothing for children past the nursery. Their mortgage kept them from being a generous mission church. They knew things had to change. But like most churches that find themselves in such a spiral, they were uncertain about what to change.

“The reason I tell this story is because it has such a miraculous twist – because that church learned to live again. They tripled in size. They paid off the mortgage. They grew and found resources for outreach. They changed their ministry model and evolved from maintenance to mission. And it was something to behold. In this age of mainline decline, such transformation rarely occurs. Past a certain point of financial struggle, conflict, and general lethargy, there is often nothing a church can do to change its story. But this little church in the desert found its breath, its heart, its spirit again. And I was there to witness it. Because I was their pastor.

“And here’s why else I tell it again– because I can pinpoint the precise moment when everything changed. And it wasn’t a big influx of cash, or an innovative new program, or a viral YouTube video that flipped the switch. It was a single question, posed at precisely the right moment. Knowing things needed to change, a group of leaders from the church started a discernment process with other congregations in our area facing the same challenges. At the first gathering of the group, the facilitator asked us to discuss the following question: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?

“We looked at each other– and all the lights came on. This was new. We’d spent many a late night church meeting talking about how to reach out to the neighbors; how to generate more income; how to tweak our worship service and make it more engaging or modern… and on and on. We’d asked endless questions amongst ourselves about what we were doing, and how we were doing it, and whether we could change. But nobody had ever asked us– what would you do if you weren’t afraid? For the next several years, that question drove everything. And it changed everything.”

I share her story because I think it’s a fine example of a congregation going into the discernment process with nothing. And God took their nothing and multiplied it – just like God does, according to Jesus. Whatever growth they experienced wasn’t because they were smarter or worked harder or had more faith – it was because they trusted that in in their vulnerability, in their hunger, in their need – God would feed them. And they, in turn, could then even better than before, participate in ‘tikkun olam.’

Scarcity ORAbundance

Really, it all comes down to deciding whether to live in a state of abundance or of scarcity. If we believe that an economy in the realm of God is grown by God’s abundance, then an attitude of scarcity doesn’t track. Although it’s understandable. There’s a myriad of messages telling us that we don’t have enough, that we’re not enough. But that’s not the message of the gospel, so we have to choose which one to believe.

There’s plenty to be afraid about as well. But there’s no harm in asking: what would we do if we weren’t afraid? (caveat: not about not wearing a mask or believing And then standing back to see where God’s Spirit might lead us. If Jesus is right, we’ll have enough to fulfill our needs – and we’ll have leftovers!

That’s the miracle.

Amen

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Matthew 14:13-21

When Jesus heard about the beheading (of John the Baptist), he left Nazareth by boat and went to a deserted place to be alone. The crowds heard of this and followed him from their towns on foot. As Jesus disembarked and saw the vast throng, his heart was moved with pity, and he healed their sick.

As evening drew on, the disciples approached Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late. Dismiss the crowds so they can go to the villages and buy some food for themselves.”

Jesus said to them: “There is no need for them to disperse. Give them something to eat yourselves.”

They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves and a couple of fish.”

Jesus said, “Bring them here.”

Then he ordered the crowds to sit on the grass. Taking the five loaves and two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, blessed the food, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, who in turn gave it to the people. All those present ate their fill. The fragments remaining, when gathered up, filled twelve baskets. About five thousand families were fed.

 

 

 

 

 

Those Violent Verses in Psalm 139

Sermon for Pentecost 7             July 19, 2020

images-1I was all primed to talk about the three parables in our gospel reading today. But for some reason, the psalm kept calling to me. That’s not too surprising; it is one of my favorite psalms. Still, every time I started to think about the parables, I got stuck. Or rather, my head was engaged, but my heart wasn’t in it. Psalm 139 beckoned. Don’t get me wrong; the parables are super important for understanding what Jesus was trying to convey to us about living in the realm of God and how we, as the church, convey that to our community and world. But that sermon will have to wait for another day. Today, I’m drawn to this heart-felt expression by the psalmist; and I’m thinking maybe some of you might be, too.

Generally speaking, the Psalms address two important aspects of human life:

  • our deep reluctance to let go of a world that no longer exists, and
  • our resilient capacity to embrace a new world coming into being.

In his book Praying the Psalms, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that as human beings we regularly find ourselves in one of these three places:

  • a place of orientation, where everything makes sense in our lives
  • a place of disorientation, where we feel like we’ve sunk into the proverbial pit
  • a place of new orientation, where we realize that God has lifted us out of the pit, we’re in a new place and we’re full of gratitude about our lives and about God.

Obviously, we prefer to be in a place of orientation. But if we didn’t know it before, we certainly do now: human experience includes times of dislocation and disorientation. And one of the functions of the Psalms is to “tell it like it is,” so we can embrace these situations as the reality in which we live. This applies to both individuals and communities. There’s no denial or self-deception in the Psalms – especially as they express things like the feeling of being down in “the pit,” hatred of enemies, questioning God, its poignant yearning for older, better times.

But they perform another function as well. The language of the psalms does more than just help us recognize and embrace our real situations. In dramatic ways, they can alsoScream!_corkscrew evoke new realities that didn’t exist before and help us form or re-form (re-orient) life in new ways. Brueggemann’s point was that there are psalms that address each of these states of being.  But I wondered: what happens when orientation, disorientation, and reorientation are all happening at once? I mean, isn’t this the rollercoaster ride we’ve all been on this year?

We’re trying to adjust to a “new normal,” but we don’t even know what that is or if it’s going to change again tomorrow. We long for days past when words like pandemic and social distancing were foreign to our ears and masks were only about Halloween. One theme I hear consistently from people is that of experiencing anxiety, depression, or fatigue one day, and acceptance and resilience the next. Some have added stressors of financial insecurity, worries about jobs and schools – but despite our different circumstances, the fact is that our common plight is disorientation.

So, for some reason, in the midst of the roller coaster ride, this psalm spoke to me. Although I have to tell you that the lectionary didn’t include the entire psalm. It omitted verses 13-22 – which is fairly common. Ending with “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” emphasizes the sense of wonder and happiness at being so completely known by God.

I love this part. It’s such an antidote to all the negative messages we get from others or from ourselves. To be so fully known, so fully understood is a gift so many long for and never receive. Just the other night, I was watching a Netflix series about a couple who had lost a child. And like so many in that terrible situation, found themselves at odds with one another. At one point, the husband says that he understands his wife and she exclaims that he has never known her at all.

I don’t think that’s an uncommon scenario. We’re each human, dealing with each of our family histories, life experiences, and other contributors to our psyches. Under stress, our differences are exacerbated. How wonderful, then, to learn that there is One who really does get us – each of us, in all our weirdness and wonderfulness, sinfulness and saintliness. It’s a message I believe cannot be understated. It’s the picture of the ultimate experience of orientation – being grounded, feeling safe and secure.

But wait, there’s more!
imagesBut there is more to the psalm. We begin to get some hints of disorientation in the question the psalmist asks of God: “where can I go to get away from your spirit; where can I flee from your presence? You surround me—front and back. You put your hand on me.” This sounds a bit ominous, as if perhaps he’s feeling a bit too known by God, perhaps there are things he doesn’t want God to know, wants to keep hidden and secret. If we look inside our own hearts, might we not find those kinds of things, too? Maybe we don’t even want to admit them to ourselves, certainly not to our friends or family members. Depending on what it is, if it’s based on guilt or shame, maybe we don’t always want to be fully known to God. The realization that there’s nowhere to hide could feel quite threatening.

And then there are “those verses”
Now we come to the part of this psalm that is almost never included in a church reading and you can understand why:

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If only, God, you would kill the wicked! If only murderers would get away from me – the people who talk about you, but only for wicked schemes; the people who are your enemies, who use your name as if it were of no significance.

Don’t I hate everyone who hates you? Don’t I despise those who attack you? Yes, I hate them – through and through! They’ve become my enemies too.

Talk about disorientation! This is not how we would ever teach anyone to talk to God. Yet here it is, right there in the Bible. And it’s not the only place either. This kind of psalm is called an imprecatory psalm, an imprecation being a curse that invokes misfortune upon someone. Imprecatory psalms are ones that call down judgment, anger, calamity, and destruction on God’s enemies.

There are imprecatory words throughout the Bible, not just in the psalms. So as much as we’d like to dismiss them, there they are. So, how are we going to fit them into our understanding of God and humanity’s relationship with God?

They do sound awful read in church. Asking God to act in vengeance doesn’t fit with our idea of a Sunday morning worship experience. We want church to be uplifting, full of praise – and the good kind of prayers.

But then again, what about those times when the ways of the world intrude upon our church, like a persistent, unwelcome visitor – ringing the doorbell over and over, knocking urgently on the door, peeking in through the windows – demanding to get in? And what if that world is screaming in dissonance with the world that our churches are trying to create?

What if a church member has been attacked, fallen victim to a scam, been abused by a nursing home caregiver, been cheated out of their pension, lost a child to a drunk driver, been betrayed by a trusted friend? What if someone in our church is a victim of a hate crimes? How do we respond to the intrusion of an unjust world into our community?

There’s a story of a Carmelite convent in Dachau, Germany, which is an important stop for pilgrims traveling the paths of the Nazi annihilation of the Jews. In 1965, the nuns were given permission to stop praying the daily prayers of the church in Latin. But after a trial period of reading the Psalms in German, they were tempted to return to Latin. The switch, which had been made for the sake of the tourists, brought serious problems because of the  imprecatory psalms, and the cursing passages in a number of other psalms. The use of the Latin had at least covered up the difficulties of the psalms as prayer.

While I can certainly understand their dilemma, there’s another point of view that says we should find a way to make peace with these psalms. After all, what they reveal is as much a part of our human makeup as are compassion and other characteristics we’re much more comfortable claiming.

What if we have been subjected to atrocities that simply do not allow praise and worship? What then? What did and do the victims of the Holocaust and their descendants feel? What did and do the victims of slavery in America and their descendants feel? What about parents and children in Darfur and Syria and other areas of unrest in our world? How do the victims of violent crimes, hate crimes, and fraud feel? And what about children who are victims of sexual and other types of abuse? The imprecatory psalms remind us of the basic human desire for revenge when we or those we love have been wronged. Such words in the biblical text indicate to us that God does not ask us to suppress those emotions but rather to speak about them in plain and heartfelt terms. In speaking out, we give voice to the pain, the feelings of helplessness, and the burning anger.

I realized that these verses were actually what drew me to Psalm 139 this time. Well, that was a little disconcerting, so I dug a little deeper into the nature of  imprecatory psalms. And I found there are three characteristics that helped make some sense of them.

For one, the whole book of Psalms is filled with references to “the enemy” and “the oppressor.” That was because the life of the people of Israel was an ongoing battle against enemies. The people who prayed the psalms felt surrounded, threatened, and engaged in battle by a gigantic army of oppressors. Most of these psalms are communal – expressing the voice of the gathered community of faith – not expressing the voice of one individual.

Secondly, the cries for vengeance in the psalms are not about conflicts that could be resolved by generosity on the part of the ones praying. Those who pray these psalms are shouting out their suffering because of the overwhelming injustices and abject indifferences of their foes, their enemies.

Thirdly, the psalmists cry out to God in the midst of an unjust world. They call on God to mete out punishment, to “make things right” in the face of seemingly hopeless wrong. They are not cries from communities and individuals for permission to carry out their own retributive acts for the wrongs done to them.

Fix this, God, now!
These psalms were not written out of vindictiveness or a need for personal vengeance. Instead, they are prayers that keep God’s justice, sovereignty, and protection in mind. They’re a complaint that makes the loud insistence to God that:

shutterstock_1494985877* things are not right in the present arrangement.

* they need not stay this way and can be changed.

* the psalmist will not accept this way; the present      arrangement is intolerable.

* it’s God’s obligation to change things.

Well, I can relate to that. Things are not right in our present arrangement. People are getting sick and too many are dying. Black and brown communities are taking a harder hit and social safety nets are being torn to shreds. Basic issues of public health and safety have been turned into partisan wedge issues and causes of violence. Willful ignorance in some parts of the country is endangering those in other areas.

So, yes, I appreciate the permission by the psalmists to express my fear, anxiety, and anger – our extreme disorientation. Even the rants that I direct some days at TV news programs – expressions that I’m not proud of and wouldn’t want anyone to hear (I feel God’s hand on my back!) are OK. I am known in all of my human emotional self – and still loved.

And no, I do not recommend a steady diet of imprecatory prayer. What I do pray is that we accept ourselves and one another in the midst of our disorientation – where we feel like we’ve sunk into the proverbial pit – and that we will have the courage, creativity, and resilience to embrace the new thing that will be born,  a place of new orientation, where we realize that God has lifted us out of the pit and we’re in a new place and we’re full of gratitude about our lives.  Gratitude for God’s extravagant love for each and every person, gratitude for being so fully known, so fully loved, and so fully forgiven, gratitude for the vision of a new day when all will fly on the wings of dawn, with God’s hand to guide us; with God’s strong hand to hold us tight!

Amen

 

PSALM 139 (Common English Bible)

O God, you have examined me. You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue that you
don’t already know completely.

You surround me—front and back. You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
it’s so high above me that I can’t reach it.

Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!

If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest
only on the far side of the ocean—
even there your hand would guide me;
even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
the light will become night around me,”
even then the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
Nighttime would shine bright as day,
because darkness is the same as light to you!

You are the one who created my innermost parts;
you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
Your works are wonderful – I know that very well.
My bones weren’t hidden from you
when I was being put together in a secret place,
when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance,
and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me,
before any one of them had yet happened
God, your plans are incomprehensible to me!
Their total number is countless!
If I tried to count them—they outnumber grains of sand!
If I came to the very end—I’d still be with you.

If only, God, you would kill the wicked!
If only murderers would get away from me—
the people who talk about you, but only for wicked schemes;
the people who are your enemies,
who use your name as if it were of no significance.[
Don’t I hate everyone who hates you?
Don’t I despise those who attack you?
Yes, I hate them—through and through!
They’ve become my enemies too. 

Examine me, God! Look at my heart!
Put me to the test! Know my anxious thoughts!
Look to see if there is any idolatrous way in me,
then lead me on the eternal path!

 

 

 

A Purple Zone Pastor Sings the Blues in the Green Season of Discipleship

6m8RPKDAThe Yoke of Discipleship
Well, I’m glad to be back in church, at least to lead worship on Zoom from here. One reason I’m happy is that I can wear a stole again. One of the first things I did after you voted to call me as your pastor was haul my box of clergy stoles over here – where, of course, they’ve been languishing for the past three months. Not that I have to have a stole around my shoulders to perform my pastoral duties.

There’s no magic in the strip of cloth pastors receive in ordination. But it imagesis a reminder of the vows I took at ordination, the stole symbolizing the yoke (like you put on a team of animals) that Jesus talked about when he said, 
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

‘Tis the Season – to Be Green
So the stole is a symbol of discipleship. But it doesn’t make me more special than anyone else. In fact, I know a congregation where all the members wear stoles as a sign of each one’s calling as disciples of Jesus. And you know what; I like that idea, especially today as we enter into the very long green season of the Church year. If we were all here in the sanctuary, we would have changed the colors on the altar and lectern to green. The ink on our bulletin inserts would be green. The folder I use for my bulletin and other papers would be green. If we all had stoles, I’d be looking out into a sea of green. But we’re still on Zoom, so this stole is it – on this day when we begin a long stretch of time that focuses on what it means to be a disciple.

Matthew’s gospel names the first twelve to be called. I just read their names. But now, over 2000 years later, we can add each of our names to the list. You (fill in the blank with your name) are a disciple of Jesus, called into ministry with an explicit task. Jesus made it very simple: “Go and tell everyone: the reign of heaven is here.”

Now that might sound easy; it’s only six words. But I’m guessing we’d all feel pretty uncomfortable going up to people and saying, “Hey, guess what; the reign of heaven is here!” Even if you’d use the more traditional ‘kingdom of heaven’ or an even more contemporary version like the ‘commonwealth of heaven’ (my favorite is the Beloved Community), my guess is it wouldn’t make it any easier. Nor should it. I don’t think Jesus ever meant the task of discipleship to be reduced to the recitation of six words. As St. Francis said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” In other words, discipleship is about both walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

Preach the Gospel at All Times,
and When Necessary, Use Words

During this long green season we’ll be hearing teachings from Jesus and pondering how they might apply to us in a very different world than that of the original twelve. Some of these teachings will be very challenging. Easy answers won’t always immediately be in evidence. They are meant to be wrestled with and allowed to seep into our consciousness and into engrained ways of thinking or believing and bringing about some kind of transformation – a shifting in awareness, or thinking, or behavior, or all of the above.

As we enter into the green season, the time of growth in discipleship, we do so at an incredibly challenging time. As if living in a country severely divided by political and cultural identities wasn’t enough, a global pandemic has forced us to rethink how to do work, school, church, and everything else. And if months of that wasn’t enough, we’ve been thrust into a debate on race and the role of police in our communities. On this day when we remember the Emanuel Nine, murdered by an avowed white supremacist, we’re faced with an ever-growing list of people of color killed while in police custody. And if that’s not even enough, just two weeks into Pride Month and on the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it would eliminate health care protections for people who are transgender.

Now, if you’re getting either excited or worried that this is going to be a political sermon, it is not – at least not in the sense of taking a position on one side or another. But it is about wrestling with how to be a disciple of Jesus during trying times. You may recall that I’ve been part of an initiative called Hearts Across the Divide: Restoring Civil Discourse in the Bay Area. We’ve had to postpone our first event and have been lying low during the pandemic, that is until the protests after the death of George Floyd. Our planning team decided to have a Zoom meeting to check in on how we’re doing.

pq-in-high-dudgeon-2The Meltdown
OK, I’m just going to admit it; I had a bit of a meltdown. I reacted to a video clip and a couple of podcasts that one of our members of a different political persuasion than mine had sent to us all. The best way I can describe my reaction is a state of high dudgeon. I looked it up to be sure. Yep, that was it: feeling and usually showing that one is angry or offended. I emailed Judy, my Hearts co-founder a few days later to say I was struggling and we agreed to talk the next day.

In the meantime, I’m reading opinions, articles, blogs, Facebook posts from people on my side of the political spectrum. And I’m getting upset with them! Frankly, I felt like my head was spinning from the rhetoric coming at me from both sides. I could understand why for some people just opting out of the public arena is the only option for staying sane. But then I remembered that discipleship doesn’t offer any outs for proclaiming the Beloved Community – even when it’s hard.

intersectionality

As Judy and I talked on Friday, there was a growing awareness of how language was pushing the divide even further apart. This is the good thing about reading and listening to opinions from the other side. You discover how we define words in completely different ways. I’ll give you an example. When I was working on critiquing the draft of the ELCA social statement on women and justice, our group (and evidently others) recommended that the statement should define and promote the concept of intersectionality, which refers to the ways in which race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics ‘intersect’ with one another and overlap.

For example, I have a friend who was struggling with the concept of white privilege. She is white; she’s also a lesbian. Her argument was that she’d been oppressed, too, for being both female and gay. And she was right. The fact is that we can be privileged in one aspect of our identities and not in another. There is no hierarchy of oppression. Intersectionality can help us avoid that kind of trap.

Imagine my surprise when I read that this is a huge hot button word for conservatives. It’s seen as a new hierarchical system that places non-white, non-heterosexual people at the top, and as a form of feminism that puts a label on you, tells you how oppressed you are, tells you what you’re allowed to say, what you’re allowed to think.

Even more confusing was learning that what’s upsetting them isn’t the theory itself. They  largely agree that it accurately describes the way people from different backgrounds encounter the world. But they object to its implications, uses, and, most importantly, its consequences: the upending of racial and cultural hierarchies to create a new one. There’s a perfect example of how two groups of people will hear the same word, even agreeing with some aspects of it, and remain in their divided camps.

Talking Heads2

When Talking to ________, Don’t Say _____________.
So I went back into my ‘civil discourse’ file to find two publications from the news outlet All Sides:

When Talking to Liberals, Conservatives May Want to Avoid These Terms
When Talking to Conservatives, Liberals, May Want to Avoid These Terms

In each one, they list a word or phrase, then how the other side will hear it, and then other options for what to say. For example:

What is said: “White Privilege”
What is heard: insensitivity to issues white people face
Suggestion: also acknowledge struggling white communities (e.g., opioid crisis, lack of manufacturing jobs and opportunity)

What is said: “All Lives Matter”
What is heard: ignoring of problems people of color face
Suggestion: focus on the basic values of caring for shared basic values of caring for children, communities, and country, without use of any slogans

This has been an education for me. I would not have known that words like communities of color, diversity, environmental justice, being woke, multiculturalism, safe spaces, trigger warnings can be heard in ways that I don’t intend and only stop the conversation and thwart any relationship-building across the divide. On the other hand, I can readily agree that I would have trouble with words like Culture War, War on Christmas, Second Amendment, States’ rights, Climate hoax, deep state.

What Do You Mean When You Say Racism?
One word that Judy and I personally learned has different meanings is racism. We went around and around on this with one of our conservative colleagues for quite a while until we realized we weren’t talking about the same thing. One side sees racism as a systemic reality in which we’re all complicit, while for the other side, it’s a matter of an individual’s behavior. The point of all this is to ask ourselves, if we’re serious about creating the Beloved Community, if we’re serious about All Are Welcome, then how can we avoid stepping on verbal landmines and instead use words that better reach out to those with different political views?

But wait, there’s more! There is also the challenge of maintaining civility with those of the same political views as mine. In some ways, this is harder. For example, the word civility itself has come under attack because it’s defined as ‘being nice.’ I’ve been told that civility is the tool of the oppressor; civility is white supremacy in sheep’s clothing. Yes, it can be, if it means telling the oppressed to ‘be nice.’ But that’s not what we’re talking about. Even the Golden Rule is under attack as a tool of the oppressor. And it’s not cool to be in the ‘purple zone’ (some of you know I’m a fan of Leah Schade’s book, Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide).

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So I find myself in the unenviable position of being at odds with people I don’t agree with politically and with people I do agree with politically. For a while I thought about moving to an ashram on a mountaintop somewhere to spend my days in prayer and meditation. But both Moses and Jesus had to come down from the mountain and get back to the business at hand. For me, that’s the call of discipleship to bring the Beloved Community as near as possible, to the best of my ability. And I tell you all of this, not as a way to continue last week’s meltdown or to air out my dirty laundry or as a plea for sympathy. I tell you because when I read the gospel, the call of the original twelve, I can only fulfill my call in the midst of my daily reality. Same for you.

I was listening to a recording from a Sufi meditation workshop. The teacher spent quite a bit of time at the beginning of the session talking about current events and what our response could be as mystics in the world. One thing he said really landed. He said that justice alone will not create peace in the world. There must also be transformation within us. That’s exactly what Jesus is calling us into. Even with these hard teachings.

Some of them will be very challenging to us. But they are meant to be wrestled with and allowed to seep into our consciousness and into our engrained ways of thinking, being,  or believing – as they bring about some kind of transformation within us, a shifting in awareness, or thinking, or behavior, or all of the above. As we find peace within ourselves, we naturally will bring the Beloved Community near to all we meet – even those with whom we disagree.

So put on your seat belts. It could be a bumpy summer. But remember, the color is green – for growth. And we will grow together in discipleship and faithful service to the world.

Amen!

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MATTHEW 9:35‑10:8
Jesus continued touring all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, telling the Good News of God’s reign and curing all kinds of diseases and sicknesses. At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus said to the disciples, ”The harvest is bountiful but the laborers are few. Beg the overseer of the harvest to send laborers out to bring in the crops.”

Jesus summoned the Twelve, and gave them authority to expel unclean spirits and heal sickness and diseases of all kinds. These are the names of the twelve apostles: the first were Simon, nicknamed Peter – that is, ‘Rock’ – and his brother Andrew; then James, ben-Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas; Matthew, the tax collector; James, ben-Alphaeus; Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot; and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. Jesus sent them out after giving them the following instructions: “Don’t visit Gentile regions, and don’t enter a Samaritan town. Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The reign of heaven has drawn near.’ 
“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure leprosy, expel demons. You received freely – now freely give.”

 

 

A Pandemic Pentecost

shutterstock_1715579038Pentecost Sunday 

On Tuesday September 11, 2001, I was on vacation at the New Jersey shore. With my friend Sissy from New York City, I watched the towers fall and then watched as fighter planes and helicopters flew up the coast. On Friday the 14th, we watched Billy Graham preach at the memorial service at the National Cathedral. In between, I was on the phone to my administrative assistant and organist back in Buffalo, because I knew the service we’d planned for Sunday the 16th just wouldn’t be adequate.

And then there was the sermon. I used to have the habit of squeezing out every possible second of shore time, so I wouldn’t leave until Saturday afternoon. I used to joke about the PA Turnpike sermon I’d write in my head on the 8-hour drive back to Buffalo. But 9/11 upset my usual way of planning worship, thinking about scripture readings, and sermon themes. And frankly my own emotions and my own attempts to process what had happened were churning in my head and heart. After driving several hours, I came to the beginning of an outline. I recognized that there were at least three parts to what I believed needed to be said. The first was our need to mourn. I don’t even remember what the order of service ended up being, but I imagine it would have included a psalm of lament.

I also believed there had to be a component of self-reflection and repentance – in no way NathanandDavid excusing the actions of terrorists, but trying to understand how policies and actions by our own country could have negatively affected others. It’s a risky thing to do when emotions are running so high. Patriotism can be defined by a “my country right or wrong” stance. But I knew that as people of faith, we had to go beyond pure emotion into courageous soul-searching.  Again, I don’t remember what I did. But thinking about it now, I might have taken the story of the prophet Nathan who confronted King David about his misdeeds with Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah and called him to repentance.

I’m a little fuzzy on the third theme, but I believe it was about our response and our actions going forward. Anti-Muslim attacks had already begun. Racist slurs were being bandied about unchallenged. The question arose: how would we, the Church, be a witness to Love in the midst of a national crisis? I know that we attended the open house held by our neighborhood mosque.

And, of course, it was not long after that the congregation and I began our odyssey into interfaith dialogue, which ended up leading me to the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. And now to here, the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Burlingame, where we find ourselves in another national crisis (actually multiple crises) and questions of how the Church can be a faithful witness in the midst of it all.

. . . this week has felt like the week after 9/11

UnknownI’ll be honest, for me this week has felt like the week after 9/11. I’ve run the gamut of discouraged, disheartened, resolved, shocked, resigned, angry, afraid, overwhelmed – as I’m sure as many of you have, too. We’ve been experiencing one crisis piled on top of another. We continue to try to negotiate terms with a deadly coronavirus; there are now over 105,000 deaths in the US alone; mask-wearing has become a politicized hot potato. Leaders struggle to deal with both life-threatening health issues and economy-tanking unemployment. Then another Black man dies in police custody, and cities are burning. We knew the pandemic disproportionately affected people of color, and now the ugly scab of racism has been violently ripped off to further expose what has been called “America’s original sin.”

Protests, riots, looting have broken out in cities across the country. Evidence of white outside agitators is making a bad situation worse. And let’s not even mention climate change. The biggest threat we’ve ever faced as a species has been put on the back burner, so to speak.

And it’s Pentecost. It’s one of my favorite holy days because it’s supposed to be very upbeat, giddy almost, celebrating diversity, envisioning the future. symbolized by tongues of fire coming down on the disciples, as the Holy Spirit empowered them for ministry. Someone described the Acts Pentecost story as the one for extroverts, while the one from John’s gospel, with gentle breath rather than wind and tongues of fire and multiple languages, is Pentecost for introverts.

But this Pentecost day, it’s impossible to hear a story about breath without hearing a man begging for his life: “I can’t breathe.” Or to read of tongues of flame and all the fire language in the liturgy without seeing a police station burned to the ground. Today, these symbols of Divine presence and power collide with horrifying human sin. And what are we to do with that?

I didn’t have a long drive on the PA Turnpike to work it all out, but sheltering in place has brought me to the same conclusions. As people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we are called to lament, repent, and act. But this time around I turned to a tradition I first learned through priest, theologian, writer Matthew Fox. Maybe it will help you, too.

Via Positiva
This spiritual process consists of four paths. The first is called the Via Positiva – the experience of awe, wonder and delight. It might sound strange that I begin here given the dire circumstances we’re in. But Pentecost is the ultimate Via Positiva experience. Listen to Fox’s description: “The experience of divinity is light. Awe is what triggers our intuition and wakes us up; it ignites and surprises us—like falling in love with another person or with music, science, flowers, poetry, and the earth.”

The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives should be such an awesome, illuminating encounter that we are set on fire with love – for God, for ourselves, for others, and for the world. So even in the midst of tragedy, we can’t neglect to celebrate this amazing Spirit. We need a little awe and wonder right now.

Via Negativa
The second path of our spiritual process is the Via Negativa, the path of darkness, emptiness, silence, and suffering. Via Negativa recognizes that grief is a trigger for waking us up to truths within ourselves. When we don’t deny ourselves the opportunity to feel, and express, and lament our griefs, we can recognize how powerful they are – and also how connected we are to one another, to the earth, to God. It can be painful, yes, but it can also be powerfully cathartic. In a worship service created by Matthew Fox, the Via Negativa is experienced by literally weeping and wailing, expressing through the body the suffering of the world. And not for just a few seconds, either. You do it long enough to get over your self-consciousness and allow yourself to go deep and wrestle with those truths you’re willing to find. This can be where repentance begins.

I was recently very moved by a book called White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism because it helped me see some of the ways that my defensiveness as a person who considers herself ‘woke’ has prevented me from doing the work I needed – and continue to need – to do. The Via Negativa took me into lamentation for my part in a system of oppression that is baked into the DNA of our nation. And even the Church.

Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US was writtenby Lenny Duncan, an ELCA pastor. It’s a really good book. One of the things I like about it is that he calls it a love letter. He’s critical of the church, yet he’s in love with the church. He calls us out, but he also calls us in – into a bold new vision for the ELCA and the broader Christian community. He urges us to follow on the path of Jesus to turn the values of the world upside down and inside out. But it takes willingness on our part to do the work.

In an article today, Michelle Obama lamented, “I’m exhausted by a heartbreak that never seems to stop . . . But if we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it. It’s up to all of us — Black, white, everyone — no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out . . .  it starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own and ends with justice, compassion, and empathy that manifests in our lives and on our streets.” 

Via Creativa
Through lamentation and soul-searching, we are able to move on into the Via Creativa, the most elemental, innermost and deeply spiritual aspect of our beings. This is where we begin to imagine a better way.  

Fox says, “Imagination brings about not just intimacy but a big intimacy, a sense of union with the cosmos, a sense of belonging and being at home, of our knowing we have not only a right to be here but a task to do as well while we are here.” Through our creativity – whether that is nurturing children, making art, gardening, writing, teaching, building houses – we connect to the Divine in us and bring the Divine back to the community.  

Our imagination, our ability to tap into our creative spirit, is what moves us to the second part of repentance. We don’t just feel sorry for our actions; we turn and go a different way, the way back to God. And that leads us to the fourth path where we bring all of our grief, love, and creativity.  

Via Transformativa
Via Transformativa provides a way for our creativity to  move into areas of compassion and justice. Creativity by itself isn’t enough. Obviously, we humans can take our creativity to negative places. Creativity can make bombs, for example. So creativity needs direction. That’s where our spiritual teachings come in: to channel our imagination into ways of compassion, healing, justice, and gratitude. That’s the purpose of being Church, to move into these ways together – honestly wrestling and confessing, grieving and letting go, visioning together how to channel our corporate creativity for the sake of the world.

So how does all this relate to the chaos that is all around us on this Pentecost Day?

  1. It gives us permission to celebrate – even with symbols of breath and fire. I call on each of you to take in as much awe and wonder as you possibly can. Stare into your child’s beautiful face. Marvel at a cat’s paw or the perfect symmetry of a flower. Or how about this – look at your own face with delight. Ignore the imperfections; we all have them. See the unique masterpiece that is you. Say “Wow!” out loud.

  2. It gives us permission to grieve. We have so much to lament; it can indeed feel over-whelming. One place we can go is the Psalms. Like Psalm 44:Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O God? Awake, do not cast us off forever!
    Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
     
    For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.
     
    Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

    And don’t be afraid to express all your feelings in your prayers. Surely God’s heard it all, and knows how you’re feeling anyway. Allow yourself to be immersed in the Via Negativa. Cry and scream for George Floyd, for all the others on a list far too long, for our ‘original sin,’ and for everything else that weighs heavily upon us in this time of crisis. People in biblical times would cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes. We’re too civilized for something like that – or so we think. Maybe a good collective, national cry or scream is what we all need about now.

  3. Here’s where it gets pretty radical. I choose  to believe that by following this path, we’re opening up some space for a new thing to be born. I’m going to trust in the creative power of God to bring it into being. And I’m going to trust that we can do the same thing as a congregation – even in lockdown. Our collective imagination, fueled by the Holy Spirit, knows no limits.

    We might adopt this “Prayer of Good Courage” as our mantra:

    O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Christ our Savior.
  4. The Via Transformativa is the promise of Easter and the reality of Pentecost. It is real. It is ours. It is what will channel us into those paths as yet untrodden, into ways of mission and ministry that will contribute to the healing of the world. This is no pie-in-the-sky naiveté. God has done it before and will do it again and again, despite how the powers of this world conspire against us. I’m under no illusion that things will suddenly get better. As they say, it’s a marathon not a sprint. But that’s no reason to give up.
    images
    Even though I am – and maybe you are, too – still in Via 
    Negativa, I can see the mountaintop. So let’s take our red balloons, flowers, shoes, shirts, whatever we’ve got and march on, defiant in the face of adversity, confident that God – Creator, Christ, and Spirit – goes with us.

Amen!

 

ACTS 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they all met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them.

Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans! How does it happen that each of us hears these words in our native tongue? We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome – all Jews or converts to Judaism – Cretans and Arabs, too; we hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!”

All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” But others said mockingly, “They’ve drunk too much new wine.”

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd: “People of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem! Listen to what I have to say! These people are not drunk as you think—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! No, it is what the prophet Joel spoke of:

‘In the days to come – it is our God who speaks – I will pour out my spirit on all humankind. Your daughters and sons will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. Even on the most insignificant of my people, both women and men, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. And I will display wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire and billowing smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon will become blood before the coming of the great and sublime day of our God. And all who call upon the name of our God will be saved.’”

JOHN 20:19-22
In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Temple authorities. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Having said this, he showed them the marks of crucifixion. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus, who said to them again, “Peace be with you. As Abba God sent me, so I am sending you.” After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

 

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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