Sacred Soil

Staring Down Cougars
February 22, 2015, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Mark 1: 9-15

One of my favorite places to go hiking is a trail along the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. It’s called Eagle Creek. It’s one of these trails that leads deep into the small gorges on the south side of the river, walking along and through deep trenches filled with rushing water. The walls of these gorges covered in every shade of green. There were places along the trail where the waterfalls continually misted the narrow path – creating a fine layer of mud. In those particular places, I appreciated the modern convenience of rope riveted into the side of the canyon.

The place was wild—in many senses of the word. The water uncontained, the trails often merely suggestions, the vistas bound by nothing but the faint hint of mountains to the north, and Mount Hood to the south.

This is the sort of wilderness I prefer. The kind where I can feel at one with nature, but not threatened by it. There’s a bit of risk. I don’t want to fall into the cold water—but a steady hand on the rope will mitigate that problem. The thing that’s not there: any significant population of cougar. Squirrels, deer, birds. Yes. But you have to hike a pretty far distance to enter into mountain lion territory. I was never in that kind of shape.

I prefer my wilderness contained like this. I just can’t get over the fear of having another creature hunt me. Not into it.

Jesus, however, was apparently fine with that. In Mark’s version of the time in the wilderness, he was with the wild beasts. Tempted by Satan. Just after he had been baptized, the passage tells us that the Spirit drove him out, and he hung out in the wilderness for 40 days.

That’s a long time to hang out with wild animals. A very long time.

During the season of Lent, we set aside 40 days as a time to grow closer in our relationship with God. It is a time to remind ourselves how much we depend on God. It is a quieter time that opens us up to know God better, to trust God more. To live into our call as disciples of Christ.

But the thing is, that for many of us, that kind of quiet, that kind of reflection, feels dangerous. Vulnerable. Uncontained. There are too many wild animals lurking. For some this kind of space feels like an invitation to stare down a cougar, or to shake hands with a grizzly bear.

So we put parameters on it. Narrow it in. Make sure we don’t go too deep, so as to avoid getting to that country where the animals roam.

It looks different for each of us though.

  • There are some of us like to get a little wild—throw off the boundaries of expectations. Indeed, the wild places may feel more familiar, more like home. It is the boundaries of rules and obligations that feel terrifying and stifling—these things feel like the true wilderness.
  • For others of us, predictability is so important. Knowing what’s next, having the plan. Wilderness is that place where the unexpected happens—where the path bends and curves and there is not even the illusion of control.

But, regardless of our relationship to wild spaces, I believe it is so often the wild beasts within ourselves and each other that we tend to avoid. The places of sadness. Hopelessness. Grief. Impossibility.  The places where we cannot understand the other—where empathy is absent. The places where we do not understand ourselves.

I think these are often our wild beasts. And these are the beasts we get to spend these next 40 days getting to know. This is our time when the spirit drives us to go and stare down that which terrifies us most.

Maybe that wild animal is your relationship with one you love dearly—that nevertheless drives you nuts. Or perhaps it is an addiction that has been controlling you. Maybe it is the realization that life hasn’t gone as you’d planned. Or, it perhaps worry about health, livelihood.

This is our time to enter deep into that wild—and get to know those beasts. And maybe, just maybe, befriend them.

These 40 days are an invitation to do that—not so as to beat yourself up. Nor is a time to kill those beasts. We enter into this time, because following the example of Jesus, we know that this time apart is a time of preparation. It is a time of deepening relationship with God, re-acknowledging our utter dependence on God for everything. Absolutely everything.

In our Old Testament text today, we were reminded of another 40 days—40 days of water covering the face of the earth. And in the face of that time of wild water, God promises not to destroy. God creates this promise with the creatures God loves, and declares that we will have to work out our differences in a different way. No longer by drowning, now by relationship. A relationship that God so desperately longs for with each one of us.

And the reminder of this promise—a simple rainbow. Light breaking apart across the water, filtering into the beautiful colors of creation. They are ordered, not wild, curving across the earth. Reaching beyond our capacity to see.

This is God’s immeasurable-transforming love, reaching out to us in the wilderness of each of our lives.

Now just one last word about this wilderness—Remember, the Spirit did not send Jesus there to stay. No. Rather the Spirit sent Jesus there to prepare him. To prepare him to go out and tell the good news. To let people know that the kingdom of God has come near, as near as the rainbow touching the earth.

And this is our call too. We gather in these 40 days not to stare at our navels and feel guilty about ourselves. No. We gather in these 40 days to prepare—to prepare to go out in the world to share the love of God. To share the promise. To seek God in every place, within these walls and beyond them.


Lost & Found
September 15, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

lostLuke 15:1-10

In our liturgy most Sundays, we begin with confession and forgiveness. According to the scholars, this is an optional part of the service. Not required. To which, I say, whatever. Sure, it’s not required, because God’s forgiveness is not up to us, because there is nothing we can do to earn the love of God. But we need it nonetheless. And some days, we just need it.

We have all failed. Miserably. We have screwed things up. We have hurt each other, we have not done what we said we’d do. We have treated our bodies horribly. We have told lies, and worse. We do that individually and as a group. And so we stand up in front of each other–boldly and honestly declaring–we screwed up. And worse. We declare: we have been so lost. So lost.

In response–I get to say these awesome words. Extraordinary words, really. I get to declare to you the entire forgiveness of your sin. I get to remind you of God’s promises–how God promises to never, ever, ever, let you go. I get to tell you, God says: Come home. Come home.

The parables today are just such stories. The story of a shepherd who loses a sheep, and a woman who loses a coin. Upon finding these things, these otherwise ordinary things, they both celebrate with unbridled passion. With great joy and thanksgiving, for the one who was lost has now been found. And now, everything is different. The one that was lost has come home.

When we do confession & forgiveness–that’s what I get to declare to you–God’s overwhelming joy at welcoming you home. I’m telling ya, my job is pretty great.

But for us, well, often times, forgiveness is just too hard. We don’t want to search. It is too hard to seek. Sometimes it is so much easier to cut each other off, saying, “you are lost to me.” And sometimes, there’s good reason in this. Really good reason–especially the cases of violence and psychological harm. In those moments sometimes the best we can do is to recognize that we are human–and sometimes only God can do the work of forgiveness. And we can only move on to releasing the hold that harm has had on us…

There is this interesting thing then, about the lost sheep and the lost coin. I don’t think there was anything particularly special about either this sheep or this coin. They were one of a hundred, one of ten. Average. Normal. Nothing noteworthy. But then this one was lost, this one was gone as if it were dead. And the loss was awful, and mournful, and there was great grief. This one, this average one, became important beyond expectation, beyond reason. And upon finding it, celebration broke out, with wild abandon. The one lost, has been found. And this is how God feels upon welcoming each one of us home. And it is amazing.

And so, being God’s children, we try to do the same. As best we can. Grateful, though that we are not God.

Here’s the thing: this kind of grace is hard. Really, really hard. We who dare to live in human community–we will upset each other. And that’s putting it lightly. We will say the wrong thing, be insensitive, careless, unclean. We will be unkind, and sometimes even mean. And worse. There’s no end to the depth of human depravity. Even as we wish better of ourselves. We all get lost. We all screw up. Because we’re all sinners.

But, when we can find the grace to stick with each other, to keep searching for each other, keep seeking each other out, then, that’s when the amazing thing happens. That’s when the world is changed. That’s when we get, perhaps, a little glimpse of the resurrection. The moment when that thing that was dead to us suddenly and unexpectedly has new life.

The thing about this though is that it sounds simple. But it’s not. It is impossibly hard. As I prepared this sermon, I kept searching and searching for a story to illustrate this. And I have these stories, really several, but they’re all the kinds of stories that aren’t well suited for telling here. They’re the stories of late night discussions with my spouse, those moments when, by some miracle, we stick with each other in our disagreements even when that gets really hard. They’re stories of wonder and amazement at the relationship I can have with my mother 20 years after I left home. They’re the stories that are hard and personal and intimate, the stories of being sought, of seeking out the ones I love, and being sought by those who love me, even when that seems impossibly hard. They are stories of rejoicing, of coming home.

But, the thing is, as I thought through all these moments in my own life, there were far more stories of those moments when something was lost, and the search turned up empty. Or how often I failed even to start looking. They are stories of someone seeking me, and I refuse to be found. Too often an argument, or a disagreement meant the end. That everything is lost.

I’m sure you have these stories too. The moments when you decided it was best not to search, those times when you searched in vain. Those moments when you tried not to be found. And hopefully, a few moments when the search brought joy and celebration. The one who was lost came home. When you came home.

But, thinking through these stories, and how rare it is that I am able, that we are able, to welcome the lost one home. How rare it is that I have the strength to keep seeking. How rare it is to allow myself to be sought. It is even more amazing to me that our God keeps searching. Keeps seeking. That our God never gives up on us. Our God is longing to utter the words to us: come home. Come home.

But that’s just what our God does. Which leads to another awesome part of my job– I get to welcome you, fellow sinners, to gather with me at this table. Each one of you welcome, welcome to come home. Because God has searched and searched for you, and is overjoyed to welcome you home to share in this feast, given for you, to celebrate the one who was lost, who has now been found. And God has said to you: come home.


Friend, Come up Here.
September 1, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

This past Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. It’s is an extraordinary day in our history, a day that reverberates through us even now, more than a generation later.

When we tell this story, we tell of a peaceful gathering of people, people of color who longed for dignity and freedom. Though, back then, this is not what some expected. Yet despite expectations, folks describe the day as a festival, joyful, and celebratory, as people from all across the nation gathered to dream. It is a story of people coming together to claim their place at the table. At God’s table. To at long last, claim their place of honor. It is no wonder they celebrated.

It is an incredible story of our nation’s history. A moment when those who had been humbled were exalted. A moment when those who had been made the lowest, gathered with joy and thanksgiving, taking a seat of honor at the wedding banquet.

It is a day when they celebrated God’s invitation: Friend. Come up here.

There is delight, and comfort, and wholeness in these words. Friend, come up here.

I don’t know if you’ve experienced this. Actually, I know that at least a few of you have. For those of you who have, it is your own story, decidedly different from the story of the African American struggle for civil rights. But, I know, that for some of you, there was a moment when, at long last, you finally heard the words: friend, come up here. For others of you, these are words that ache in your heart—desperately longing to be heard. And the waiting has been too long.

Perhaps it is the honoring of family, the honoring of your vocation, the honoring of your body. Far too many of us know, at least on some level, what it is to long for the words: Friend, come up here.

For me, one of those moments was an August afternoon in Minneapolis, at the 2009 churchwide assembly. This is a regular gathering to make decisions for the ELCA. (The churchwide assembly is the highest legislative body of this church.) This was the same assembly that, among other things, made it possible for folks like me to be ordained. Maddie was with me, sleeping quietly against my chest, as the vote count appeared on the screen. The room was silent. No one dared to breathe. And then to my right and to my left, I saw silent and joyful tears streaming down the faces of friends and colleagues, those who had, for too long, been denied a place at the table—now at long last hearing the words, “Friend, come up here.”

I still get chills thinking about it. That was the moment, the vote, which made it possible for me to stand up here. The moment that made it so I could say to you, from this place, “Friend, come up here.”

But I am reminded that a simple invitation to the table does not suddenly change everything. Today, the voting rights act sits decimated, waiting for an act of congress to once again protect the civil rights of our African American brothers and sisters. Families are not reunited by naïve hope. LGBTQ folks can still be fired in many states, just because of who they are. And churches like Unity are all too rare. It seems that we are constantly dividing ourselves from one another, setting ourselves apart, seeking distinction and honor. Fighting each other for it. And sometimes it gets bloody.

A great woman once taught me that when ever we gather, we should look around, and we should ask ourselves, “Who is not here?” Who is not at this table with us? And then we should ask ourselves why? As we look today, surely we can include those on vacation—many blessings to them. Of all of God’s enormous diversity, we’ve only got a small slice here. Take a moment, would you? Look around the room. Who is not here? Remember these people. Hold them in your heart. And when we pray later this morning, please, lift them up.

The table, this table, has too many empty places around it. And we are incomplete until all of creation has heard the words, “Friend, come up here.”

I rejoice that we have these amazing moments where this call is heard loudly and clearly. Where we have reached to the neighborhood and proclaimed, come. Everyone.

You said, “Friend, Come up here,” when you welcomed our PADS guests, feeding them with the finest food, and the warmest hospitality you know (BTW, Donna would like you to put your names on the sign up sheet downstairs if you can do this again).

You said “Friend, Come up here,” when, in the 1970’s you welcomed an integrated group of youth to the basement, to provide a safe place to be—even as neighbors threatened terrible things.

You said, “Friend, Come up here,” when you called me, someone who, prior to 2009, was unwelcome at this side of the table.

I am humbled, and grateful, for all the ways you have extended this invitation with grace and joy. But, as I said earlier, there are those who still long to hear this invitation, those who long to hear of God’s welcome throughout our society. And I believe we are called to carry this invitation to the world.

Here’s the thing: in that moment when the waters of baptism washed over your head, God said to you, “My beloved, Come up here.” You were invited to the table, to the feast of the universe, this banquet we all share together. You were invited to the banquet of God’s overwhelming love for all of creation.

And so, we have this story to tell. A story of God’s invitation to all people. The story of God’s invitation to the Pharisees, to the disciples, to you, and to me. This story of welcome and wholeness.

So let us go from this place, and share the good news: Friend. Come up here.

Our lives at the gates
June 9, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

1 Kings 17:17–24
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11–24
Luke 7:11–17

This widow, the widow of Nain, was stuck in an impossible place as she watched her only son carried out on a bier that day. A bier is much like a stretcher, an open span of canvas wrapped around poles. Her son’s body would have been wrapped in cloth, his form exposed in this funeral procession. This woman, this widow, watched her child, her livelihood, carried bodily out of her life. Through the gates of the town. Her grief must have consumed her, knowing that her son’s life was cut short, and knowing that it meant the same fate for her. In the ancient world a woman with no son and no husband had to rely on charity to get by—and much like today charity was no way to thrive. At that gate, her former life was gone, all she could see going forward was death.

And so often we find ourselves at a similar gate. Now the stakes may not be so clear for us. We may not be able to point at the stretcher and say, this is my child whom I raised. Though, some of us could. Our passage at this gate may not put us at risk for losing our very livelihood—though it might. For some it’s just a medical bill, or foreclosure notice away. But, most of us do know what it is like to see our lives changing, our dreams dying—never to be the same again—and wanting to hold on to familiarity, to the real joy of that former life, to grab onto the bier and say: No. You do not get to take it all away.

And sometimes, we grab onto that bier without even knowing we’ve done it. Death is insidious and sneaks in, setting up camp. Like the creeping business of our daily survival: we get so consumed with meetings, commuting, getting our kids to school, the incidentals of life. The job we wanted doesn’t come through, the surgery didn’t go as planned. And then there is the challenge of money. The bills, the mortgage, the credit cards, fines, fees, all contend with our need just to make ends meet. The cycle is endless, the pace is impossible. And before we know it, we are at the gate of the town watching the life we hoped for, where everything is whole, being carried out on bier—its form exposed. Lifeless. And our response is to grab on tightly, hold on for dear life—but it’s already gone.

It is precisely at this moment that Jesus sees the widow. And Jesus has a special way of seeing. Somehow he is able to know that this woman is mother, this woman is widow, this woman has lost everything. As this bier is carried out of the town, she has been declared by society to be nothing. But, he sees the whole of her. Knows she is something, and he is moved. Moved to compassion. There is no test of faith here, no argument about merit or just desserts. Jesus sees her in the midst of swarming crowds and says to her: Do not weep.

Jesus sees us too. He sees us mother, father, brother, sister, man, woman, child. Beloved child. He sees each of us in our entirety too—with the same compassion. With clear vision, Jesus looks through all the crowding around us and sees us whole. For who we really are. The good, the bad.

It is this Jesus who reaches out to touch that bier, that death. Stunning everyone. Freezing the entire scene. He grabs on, taking the rotting corpse of this Widow’s life into his hand. And his grip, unlike ours, transforms death. He says to the young man: Rise. And he does. He sits up in that stretcher and begins to speak. And Jesus gives him back to his mother.

Now this is not merely return as if the procession suddenly dropped everything and reversed back into the town. This woman, her son and the crowds cannot simply turn around and re-enter the gate of the city and resume as if nothing had changed. And neither can we. In our baptism, each of us has also been touched by Jesus and commanded to rise. In those waters, we are at once the widow and the dead man, so burdened by the brokenness of this world that it is as if we are dead. But then, through the power of God’s overwhelming love, we rise from those waters raised to new life. New life. Not the old one. New.

But what does this new life look like? It’s a personal question—a question we answer with our own lives. For our widow, and the crowds, well they respond with what the text calls fear. But Biblical fear is a bit of a different thing– certainly it evokes a sense of terror in the face of something so much more powerful than us. But it also takes on qualities of awe and amazement: reverence caught them all. For the second time in our text, the whole scene stops, everyone completely stunned. First when Jesus touches death, and then when life is returned to the widow. Of course they’re afraid—but their response is to worship God. And this is not unusual in the Bible, particularly in Luke. In those moments of profound awe, the response is to glorify God.

We know this fear—Jesus’ touch doesn’t make sense. It breaks every rule that the power death declares. As we know it, death is final. That’s it. Both physical and metaphorical. The body is done. Nothing will save it. And, when death is found in the functionality of our daily survival, and we are caught short, giving into busyness, having no way to make ends meet. Death tells us that there is nothing that can save us. We are doomed to failure, and we are defined by it. Death would say to us, you are your failure. But Jesus comes, touches our death and claims us alive and whole, a child of God. We have a new identity—it is death transformed into life. We are right to be afraid when God can come so near to us, see us so clearly. We are right to fear the God who touches death, even dies, turning death itself into life. Life abundant. We are right to be caught in reverence, and awe.

But fear and awe do not simply return us through the gates giddy with the prospect that all our losses have been restored. It’s not that easy. The loss is still very real. And to deny our losses would be foolish. There are widows among us, there are parents who have lost their children, there are people who have lost their livelihood and who know a world that cannot see them in the midst of their pain. Nothing will ever be the same. But we know, we have this promise which is most certainly true, the finality of death was swallowed up by Jesus’ touch; the funeral procession stopped. Death no longer has the final say.

And so it is for us. As we cling to that which kills us—as we watch our lives being carried out on a bier—God comes to us, sees us, grabs hold of us and says again: rise. Be lifted up—know the reality of death and know that God is more powerful. Know that life will never be the same.

And from this touch, this moment of life, we are filled with awe, and are compelled to praise God. Indeed, to live our lives as praise to God.


Rearranging Furniture
June 2, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Pentecost 2c

1 Kings 8:22–23, 41–43
Psalm 96:1–9
Galatians 1:1–12
Luke 7:1–10

When I was in college I went with a group friends to a “Hunger Awareness Meal” up in Seattle. Perhaps you’ve been to such a meal—they’ve been a thing for a while. It’s a way to experience the impact of global food insecurity and inequality, with the hope that such an experience will inspire action.

When we entered the banquet hall we were each handed a green ticket, the color of which indicated the sort of meal we were to receive. And so, dutifully, we wandered around till we found the green table with our food for the evening.

First, we passed by a stunning buffet, roped off in the corner. The table was filled with shrimp and cheese, sparkling wine, adorned with exquisite candles. Just a few people lingered around the table, looking oddly and awkwardly at the display. No one seemed to be eating. But the tablecloth was blue, so we moved on.

Next we came to a table filled with McDonald’s hamburgers… there were more people here, though they too awkwardly looked at their food, not eating. Here, we were grateful to walked on as we noticed the yellow tablecloth. (We, being college students from Evergreen, weren’t not so fond of the McDonald’s).

Finally, we came to the green table. It was the smallest table, adorned with an enormous bowl of rice. Really, it was the largest bowl of rice I’d ever seen. Next too it stood a tower of paper plates. No utensils. There, a woman stood behind the table and politely deposited a scoop of rice on a plate. We took our little plates, and went to sit with a larger crowd of people. We all looked curiously at our forlorn little lumps of rice.

Later we learned that of the 300 people there that night, 45 had received the blue tickets, the invitation to the fabulous feast. 75 dined on the hamburgers, and the rest, 180 of us, received the scoop of rice.

Turns out this is a reasonably accurate representation of what happens throughout the world. Some of you know this personally. I remember the days in my childhood, when we depended on food donations from the church. It’s not a foreign concept. It’s not out there, not some one else. But it is amazing seeing this played out in a single room. In a room where we could not ignore each other—where the hunger of the other became personal.

And so it was interesting to us that there were several folks who had received blue and yellow tickets, who clearly felt guilty. Ashamed. Unworthy. And so they found these lovely and sneaky ways to deposit left-over food in the green area, offering it up to those who had not gotten much of a meal.

But no one took the leftovers. I heard one woman beg, “please take this, I do not need it,” her face sick with guilt. But, the other woman replied, “Oh, no thank you. I’ll be fine.” Each felt unworthy to take what had been offered…

And from our calculations, it seemed nearly every plate offered in donation sat as people awkwardly walked by, determined not to even see the offerings. Determined not to take and eat. Everyone felt unworthy to eat the really good food, no matter their ticket.

Later, over a nice meal at the local brew pub, (we were college students after all), my friends and I wondered over this odd dynamic. We wondered, why did the folks with blue and yellow tickets feel so unworthy? Why wouldn’t the folks with green tickets (including us), eat this food? And we wondered, what would it have taken for everyone to have had a good meal?

Then Kate said, “We should have removed the ropes and rearranged the tables.”

We replied curiously and indignant, “what?!” And she repeated, “Take away the ropes, rearrange the tables. Move all the food around. Make it equal. There was surely enough food there for all of us to have a lovely meal. All we needed to do was rearrange the tables.”

We laughed nervously, knowing she was right, but also wondering at the huge chaos this would have caused. What would people have thought? Would they try to stop us? Would they have kicked us out?

I sorta wish Kate had spoken up earlier. It would have been interesting to find out.

This story came to mind as I read our gospel lesson today. In this story we’ve got a very rich Centurion. He’s got slaves, and soldiers who report to him. He was born with a blue ticket. He always gets what he wants, and he knows it. He is perhaps even used to it. (It’s also important to know that as a loyalist to Rome, merely uttering his title would have tightened the shoulders of the first hearers of this Word.) He’s a representative of the occupying force the oppressor. The foreigner. The outsider.

But he is also one who loves the Jewish people. One who cares deeply, even though a foreigner, even though part of that 15% with the blue tickets, he is known for sending his gifts, his food to the Jewish folks, even building a synagogue. Despite all the stereotypes, he is a good guy. And in particular, he loves this slave. This one who is so desperately ill.

And so he asks. He asks for healing for this one. This one who would have merely eaten rice, this one who is counted amongst the lowliest. The centurion asks that the very son of God come to this one, and heal him. Recognizing his power, recognizing his love, he asks. And then most beautifully, withdraws his request that Jesus come, recognizing that his power should win him no special privilege. He realizes that his power does not make him worthy.

But you and I both know he’s right—that nothing will ever make him worthy, or make us worthy. Nothing. None of us worthy for the blue, the yellow, or the green tickets. Nothing.

And Jesus, being Jesus, responds with love and in awe. Indeed, he takes a cue from Kate and he rearranges the tables. He goes and removes the ropes that have kept folks from seeing the faith of the centurion. He goes and removes the ropes that declare the slave beyond love. He goes and he removes the illness, that made this man an outcast. And in so doing Jesus completely rearranged the furniture. Rearranged the spread before them.

Even though it ends up getting him into a lot of trouble, this is just what our God does. Over and over again. Our God is always rearranging the tables. Removing the ropes that divide us, inviting us all to eat. Inviting us all to the love of God. Centurion, slave, Roman, Judean, blue ticket, yellow, green. All of us. And it’s not because we deserve it. None of us, no matter how much power we have, none of us will ever earn that love. We cannot be worthy enough.

It’s amazing. Humbling. And, I believe it is an invitation—indeed a calling. A calling to go out into the world, beyond these walls and ask, where are the ropes dividing us? How can I rearrange the tables so that all may be welcome? How may I welcome the foreigner who has come longing to hear of God’s love?

But first, we must practice. First we share a meal that really is for all. A meal where no one is roped off into a separate section, where no one is better than another. A meal where none are worthy, yet all are welcome. This meal, at this table, at Christ’s table. Indeed the table stands out in the middle so that we may all come near. Each one of us loved. Each one of us holy. With a little bread, and a little wine, at this meal all who are hungry are fed. Filled to overflowing with the love of God.

Fed. Transformed. Sent to go and rearrange the furniture.


Yeah for Dogma!
May 26, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday

Proverbs 8:1–4, 22–31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1–5
John 16:12–15

There are so many things in this world that I just don’t understand. Though, with a four-year-old in the house, “why” is a common refrain, lilting through our daily conversations. And I, being the person I am, try diligently to explain. What is dirt made of? Where does rain come from? Why does a caterpillar change to a butterfly? Where did our flamingos go?

And I am a curious person, I delight in these questions. I delight in helping her figure out the answers on her own. The joy of discovering compost, the butterfly room at the nature museum, visiting the flamingos at their new home…

But, I surely hope that she doesn’t ask me to explain the trinity anytime soon.

I’d try. I’d do my best. But, wow. This is a complicated teaching of the church, a complicated bit of dogma. (By the way, I find it somewhat delightful and odd that this is the only holiday of the church year where we celebrate a dogma.) But, you see the thing with the Trinity is that any simplistic definition is immediately rendered heresy. Wrong. False. And depending on the crowd you’re with, that can get pretty dicey.

Indeed… how many of you remember the Athanasian Creed? Hopefully you read it at confirmation? Perhaps at another time? We don’t tend to read it in church these days, because it is very long. And tremendously confusing. Here’s a little taste:

We worship one God in trinity
     and the Trinity in unity,
     neither confusing the persons
     nor dividing the divine being.
For the Father is one person,
     the Son is another,
     and the Spirit is still another.
But the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
     is one, equal in glory,
     coeternal in majesty.
What the Father is,
     the Son is,
     and so is the Holy Spirit.

This is one of our historical creeds, one of the documents we affirm in this church. It came into use in the 6th century, and is a reflection of our beliefs about the trinity. It is a document that seeks precision, exploring how we understand God with great faithfulness and care. But, nonetheless, I believe it is safe to say that most of us don’t really understand it. What does it mean to be “coeternal in majesty” or to “confuse the person” or “divide the divine being?”

I do actually admire those who have taken the effort to dig into this creed, and to do their best to fully understand it, to honor this faithful work, to seek the wisdom within, and to share it with us. As indeed, this, and all our creeds, are one of the ways we get to be in conversation with our ancestors. And that’s cool on it’s own. Sorta makes me want to say, “yeah for dogma!”

But, the thing is, our ancestors couldn’t capture all of God in these words. Even as we explore God as trinity—as we search for language that’ll capture what we hope to mean… we will always find that this language eludes us. That our words for God are always inadequate. Always just beyond our reach. Because, this is the very nature of our God—always larger than our imagination. Always, just beyond.

It’s humbling and beautiful. That for all our yearning to understand, all our whys, all our declarations of discovery, that God is always beyond, urging us to explore even further. Urging us to discover anew, again.

But, we often forget this—moving either into the arrogance of presuming we actually do know, and understand, or into the apathy, that blandly declares, “why does it matter?”

The church has been plagued by both. For centuries, church institutions have counted themselves as the arbiters of truth, the place to come to “get it right.” Judging disdainfully those who might stray from the doctrine; in centuries past, we would have excommunicated someone. Placed them in exile for a failure to believe correctly.

And today, noting our hypocrisy. Noting that we don’t get it, and never really did get it (despite our declarations to the contrary)… well today, we are so tempted to throw up our hands and say, “why bother?, why play with these unpleasant people?”

In our passage from John, we are reminded that there is a third way. Between the margins of arrogance and apathy, there is an invitation to dance. Between the borders of self-righteousness and giving up, God has entered in with the Spirit of truth, of divine truth. It is a truth older than time. It is a truth that is the very wisdom of God.

But, rather than something to be pinned down, (as if words might contain God’s truth), this truth is a dance partner, extending her hand, inviting you to join in the dance. To join in the discovery. To live this question, bumping between knowing and unknowing, allowing ourselves to be clumsy, and explore this God who will always be beyond our comprehending. Beyond our capacity to know and understand.

There is this lovely thing about truth. The truth is personal. What I know to be true is an intimate thing, bound up in the stories of my own life, my own experience, my own reality. I know that one and one = two, because of my experiences counting my fingers as a child. I know the truth of honor and duty, because of my grandfather who served in WWII. I know the truth of good food, because my mother cooked everything from scratch. And I know the truth of love in those moments when Jeanie, our daughter, and I embrace in what we call a Maddie sandwich.

I think that for most of us, what is true is a reflection of our hearts, and not a reflection of dogma. We don’t believe because someone told us to. The search for what is true and declarations about the truth are claims on our inmost being. On what makes us human.

But, the beauty of this is that our God, this utterly confusing and confounding Trinity, came into our lives not to tell us to believe something. Not to make a bunch of rules about our lives. But, to transform our hearts. To enter into relationship with us. To join us in this human life. To enter into our own reality—our own truth. To dance with us, and pull us beyond what we thought was possible.

And I believe that it is in this dance that God becomes true, that the trinity becomes true. It is not because I’ve laid out all the math, all the precise proofs and equations, but because this God has entered into our most personal life. Poured into our very hearts. Extended a hand as a dancing partner.

So, it is on this day, that we celebrate a dogma. Not because we understand, and not because we have to. We do this, as a celebration of our God who enters into our reality, into our truth, and invites us to dance between the margins of knowing and unknowing. Invites us to discover God at work, far beyond our expectations.

So let us dance. Amen.

Living Questions
April 7, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Easter 2

Acts 5:27–32
Psalm 118:14–29
Revelation 1:4–8
John 20:19–31

I’d like to begin with one of my favorite pieces by Rilke

…I would like to beg you dear [one], as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

It’s these words that convict me that Thomas gets a bad rap. “Doubting Thomas”, as we know him. The one who has the misfortune of missing Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples—and yet he desperately longs to see that this one is real. He longs to touch his savior. And for this, we single him out, labeling him a doubter. And we never really say that nicely.

But I propose to you, that Thomas was, rather, asking a question. He was wrestling with the stories presented to him, and he didn’t understand. He had watched Jesus die. And so, it does not seem wrong to me that he should then also want to see this man alive, breathing, to see the wounds. To touch them. He was asking the question: is this real? How can this be?

And the question gets him in trouble.

I’m not so sure that he gets in trouble with Jesus. The thing about the Greek text, is that it doesn’t have punctuation. All the question marks, periods, exclamation marks, all these are inferred through the text. And the thing is, you can translate Jesus’ question, just as well, into a statement. The text may just as well say,
Have you believed because you have seen me? Or
You have believed, because you have seen me.

From the rest of the context– I don’t get the sense that Jesus, the one who seeks Thomas out, who welcomes the touch, I don’t get the sense that he is too worried about this one who questions. He knows that touching is important—and that we’ll not always be able to do so.

But, for centuries after, Thomas’ question gets him in trouble. His desire to see, to touch, speaks dangerously of doubt. And for those who benefit from the current state of affairs, those who have the authority to say what is and what is not, well, this is nervous making. We shall not encourage folks to question the status quo, the givens of the faith. Questions only lead to trouble. Do not worry yourselves about seeing, only believe.

I know that for some of you, this is personal. It’s happened to a lot of you in this room. The story goes something like this: My Sunday School teacher always told me I asked too many questions. I got in trouble, and sent into the hall. Or, we just knew we weren’t supposed to ask questions, we were just to take it all in and absorb what we were told.

I like to imagine those hallways, full of kids who dared to ask too many questions.
Oh the trouble they made…

The thing is this “Doubting Thomas” story can be dangerous for us, privileging silence.
Is it truly more honorable, more faithful, to just suck it up and pretend we all get it?

Because I think the truth is, we’ve got lots of questions. This story of the risen Christ, it’s odd. It is unbelievable. It is the kind of thing that, perhaps, seeing makes more believable. Maybe not. But this story of resurrection and new life, asks more questions than it answers. What was the tomb like? What did the disciples talk about in those early days? How is it that they were not also killed? How does a man enter a locked room?

You likely have more. I hope you do. Because, I am convicted, that rather than leading us away from faith, these questions actually have the power and the capacity to increase our faith, to make us yet more faithful.

Because it is in questions that we discover our world. It is in questions that we discover God at work in surprising ways. It is in questions that we re-examine the narratives we’ve been handed, and seek out a more honest truth.

This past Friday night, we welcomed 14 guests into our building, offering a safe place to sleep, and a few good meals. We offered this, because someone dared to ask, why do the homeless have no place to rest their heads?

We send missionaries around the world, so that we might learn from emerging Christian communities how the Spirit is alive throughout the world—all because someone dared to ask, how might we accompany others as they seek to live faithfully?

We are a Reconciling in Christ congregation, boldly declaring that everyone is welcome here, be they gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender—all because someone dared to ask, How can we share God’s love with those whom the church has historically excluded?

These questions and more have fueled our faith. They have brought us into closer community with those nearby, and with those far away. These questions have upset the status quo—they upset the standard narrative.

Far from being a dangerous puncture wound, allowing faith to limply deflate. These questions allow us to discover God at work amongst us now. They allow us to seek justice, to seek the true authority about forgiveness and newness of life.

And yet, fearful authority seeks to narrow the possibility by narrowing the questions. Fearful authority, knows that questions have this way of breaking the bonds of expectations, and leading us into new places.

But this is precisely what our God is always doing. Breaking into new places, showing up behind locked doors, inviting us to touch the wounds, to answer the questions with our hands. Inviting us to ask them again and again.

And I wonder, as we live these questions, perhaps we may just discover that we have seen, that we have seen this resurrected Christ, here in our midst. We who know that death is not the worst that can happen to us. We who know the joy as:

Christ appeared Friday night, as the doors opened to our guests.
Christ appeared as the children gathered at Children’s time.
Christ appeared at the British home, as folks prayed together
Christ appeared yesterday evening, as Jeanie was, at long last, ordained as a pastor.

We are blessed, because we have been living these questions. When we asked, Christ, where are you? Are you real?, the response was given, through the people around us. And our eyes have been opened, our fingers have touched the wounds.

And so Christ appears to us again, here, in the bread and the wine we will take at this very table. Christ appears to us, wounded, and yet whole.

And we cannot help but respond, My Lord, and my God. As we continue, living into God’s answers.