Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 8, 2014: Day of Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2:1-21  +  Ps. 104:24-34,35b  +  1 Cor. 12:3b-13  +  John 20:19-23

No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3b-13).

I’ll admit that when I was young, this verse was confounding.  I wondered if it could be true, in a literal way. I wondered if there was magic in the words “Jesus is Lord” that summoned the Holy Spirit, or if maybe it was the other way around; that by hearing or reading those words, I was inviting the Holy Spirit inside me, where it would work to bring me to say the words as well, “Jesus is Lord.”

With time I’ve come to a different understanding, though not completely different. I now hear these words, “Jesus is Lord,” as an early creed, a Christian reimagining of the tradition handed down to us through the words of the Torah, the prayers recited in the morning and evening by our Jewish brothers and sisters, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deut. 6:4).

But it’s not a creed in the way that we sometimes experience the creeds in worship, like a fragment of memory preserved in amber and recited as a testament to the past.  To say “Jesus is Lord” is a creed in the way that creeds may first have been used, as a public declaration of independence from all the forces of this world that work so hard to enslave us. The forces of greed, of violence, of envy, of terror. The forces that masquerade as the basis for our life together, the marketplace and the military, a strong economy and the power to keep it that way. To say “Jesus is Lord” is an act of bravery and imagination, because it implies that there is another way to live than the way we are living now, another world than the one we know, and it commits the speaker to the work of bringing that world into existence.

You know what I am talking about, because you are dreamers.

In his speech to those gathered in Jerusalem from every nation of the known world, Peter foretold the moment we now inhabit. He said,

“In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

(Acts 2:17-18)

What have you been dreaming about lately?  Do you know?  Do you remember your dreams?  What is your soul trying to say to you about the deepest yearnings of your heart?

Dreams are powerful things, in part, because they create a space where the mind can conjure up impossible solutions to impassable problems.  I remember that as a boy I had a recurring nightmare that I was being chased by a mob of children down the street on which I lived.  Each time I had the dream I would run as fast as I could until the children would finally grab hold of me, pull me to the ground, and begin to beat me.

a71013ea374c84f9efb44b25ee607130_largeOne night, as I was fleeing, it occurred to me that I might escape them by climbing a tree. So I leapt up and grabbed the lowest branch, pulling myself up and resting as the children gathered around the base of the tree yelling at me.  Soon they began throwing sticks and rocks at me, so I jumped from one tree to the next, evading their attacks, until I came to the end of the street and there were no trees left. Then the children began to climb the tree so that they could drag me down again.

It went on like that for another year or so, the nightmare visiting me every so often as I slept, always ending with me in that last tree at the end of the street, until one night when it occurred to me that I didn’t need another tree to escape, because I could fly. As the children began swarming at the base of the tree, reaching for its lowest limbs, I climbed up to the highest branch and looked up into the sky. I remember there was a bird coasting on the wind, barely working at all to stay aloft, and I decided to fly. I didn’t even have to leap, I just spread out my arms and rode the wind away from that tree on that street with those children. I never had that nightmare again.

Dreams make the impossible possible, they give us a chance to practice imagining a world different than the one in which we spend our waking hours.  For a little boy, the daily anxiety of navigating rooms filled with children who could be carelessly cruel seemed inescapable. In my dreams however I discovered that I could rise above my fears and found the freedom to explore the wider world.

Do you remember any of your childhood dreams?  What were they trying to tell you?  What new possibilities, what new worlds, did you create with your prophetic imagination?

lead_brueggemannI’m borrowing that phrase, “prophetic imagination,” from Walter Brueggemann, a biblical scholar who was interviewed by Krista Tippett a few years ago for her radio program “On Being.”  In that interview he said,

“I think at the broadest level, it is hard to talk about the fact — I think it’s a fact — that our society has chosen a path of death in which we have reduced everything to a commodity. We believe that there are technical solutions to everything, so it doesn’t matter whether you talk about over-reliance on technology, the mad pursuit of commodity goods, our passion for violence now expressed as our war policies. All of those are interrelated to each other and none of us, very few of us, really want to have that exposed as an inadequate and dehumanizing way to live. I think, if one is grounded in the truth of the gospel as a Christian that’s what we have to talk about.”

What Brueggemann is describing is our calling as Christians to imagine a world other than the one in which we live.  He describes the commodification of creation as the primary obstacle to envisioning a new world, and I agree.  We see this most easily in the advertising that surrounds us, a kind of waking dream in which impossible ideas get expressed as though they were reality — cosmetics equal beauty, cars equal power, cereal equals health, cell phones equal friendship, new homes equal family. The waking world in which we live and move and have our being has adopted the symbolism of our dreams, offering us a kind of pseudo-escape from the very real problems that pursue us. Except that, when we spread our wings and try to fly away from the anxieties of our lives in our new car, or our new home, or our new vacation, or our new phone, we find that we have really only leapt from one tree to the next, and our problems are still waiting for us.

What Peter preached to the people of Jerusalem, what Paul confessed to the people of Corinth, was not just another illusion, another substitute for the deepest longings of their hearts. What they offered was a new vision for the world, a living dream that was breaking into reality, that was calling people to renounce their old allegiances to empire and exploitation, to fear and accommodation.  The alternative they proposed was like a word spoken in a dream at the beginning of time, planted deep in the mind of every dreamer.  The word was light in dark places. The word was truth in a culture of lies. The word was power to the powerless.  The word was hope for the despairing.  The word was food for the hungry.  The word was love for the lonely. The word was life, rising up from every grave and waking every dreamer from the long night. The word was loose, and could not be contained, could not be silenced, could not be bought.

The word has a name, it is Jesus, and he is LORD.

When we say that, it is like the moment that sometimes happens while you are dreaming when you realize that you are in a dream, and it dawns on you that you might shape the dream rather than just observe it. Lucid dreaming, it’s called. When we say, “Jesus is LORD,” we are making the choice to not simply observe the world around us, but to change the world around us. We are committing ourselves to God’s dream for the world, and we are working to birth it into reality.

Sisters and brothers, these are the last days, and God’s Spirit has been poured out on us. We are God’s dreamers, God’s visionaries, God’s prophets. We rise from our beds like Christ rose from the tomb, undefeated by the powers and principalities of this world. We rise from our beds like Christ rose from the earth, glorifying the God of creation for whom nothing is impossible. We rise from our beds with stories to tell about the dreams and visions God has placed within us all, dreams that point the way to God’s preferred future.

Tell me, you prophets and seers, about your dreams. Tell one another. Can you see the new world coming? Come, let’s build it.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 24, 2013: Reign of Christ

Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6  +  Psalm 46  +  Colossians 1:11-20  +  Luke 23:33-43

Tara arriving in the United States.

Tara arriving in the United States.

My sister was six years old when my family adopted her from Thailand. For six years she’d eaten Thai food, watched Thai television, played with Thai children, and — most importantly — spoken Thai. Imagine yourself at age six: how much you’d already grown, and learned, about who you were and what could be expected from the world around you. Now imagine all of that changing essentially overnight.

My folks and I flew to Bangkok, Thailand and spent about a week getting to know Tara before bringing her home with us. First, a visit to the adoption agency where we spent a few hours together. Then, a sight-seeing day-trip, supervised by her social worker. Finally, an overnight at the guest house where we were staying. Then she was on a plane with us, heading to the United States, where everything was different. The food, the weather, the big house with a private bedroom she didn’t have to share with anyone else, and Jesus.

Tara learned her English in bits and pieces. Names of foods and people and places came first. Simple verbs in the present tense. Our early conversations were very basic, no abstract concepts. “I want pancakes,” or “We go church.” So, when Tara burst forth with her first theological question, it was memorable.

We were sitting around the dinner table preparing to eat with the same prayer I’d been saying every night since I could remember: “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blest. Amen.” Suddenly, Tara asked, “Where Jesus? We eat, we say Jesus. We sleep, we say Jesus. I no see Jesus. Where he? He hiding?”

When the apostle Paul writes, “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son…” (Col. 1:13) it reminds me of my sister’s experience of coming to the United States — not  in the sense that Thailand was somehow a place of darkness, or the United States an outpost of the reign of Christ. Just that, I have a memory of how hard that transfer was for Tara, every day being surrounded by sights and signs and symbols for things she’d always known and done, but being forced to see them and speak about them in a new way. Even her name was new in this new place.

The same is true for we who bear the name of Christ. We live and move and have our being in a world filled with foods, and rituals and relationships, but we are asked, over and over, to see them and speak about them in a new way. The man who shuffles slowly down the sidewalk, talking to himself, we call brother. The woman whose work is paid under the table, and not well enough to support her family, we call sister. The child whose swagger and swearing is intended to push us away we invite in, and call friend. The water that welcomes us into this house changes our names. The food we eat at this table goes by the name Jesus.

“Where Jesus? We eat, we say Jesus. We sleep, we say Jesus. I no see Jesus. Where he? He hiding?”

Paul goes on to say, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:15-17)

There’s something ironic to me about the fact that it is Paul, and not Peter or one of the other apostles who had accompanied Jesus during his earthly ministry, who says, “he is the image of the invisible God.” Paul, who had never laid eyes on Jesus, who was blinded as he traveled the road to Damascus, who heard the voice of Jesus asking him, “why do you persecute me?” This Paul is the one who says, “he is the image of the invisible God.”

Paul knew in his own flesh what it meant to be rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the reign of God. He, who had been a violent opponent of the Jesus movement, who was present at the stoning of the apostle Stephen and approved of his murder, who entered home after home of the church in Jerusalem, and threw its men and women into prison, he was the one God chose to carry the message of reconciliation out from Jerusalem to the far corners of the known world. Someone who had never laid eyes on Jesus.

The reign of God is not like anything we have been taught to expect in this world. The gospel of Luke, which we have been reading throughout this past year, and which we will soon set down as we prepare to begin a new year in the life of the church next week as Advent leads us into the gospel of Matthew, has presented us with parable after parable about the foreignness of God’s reign of forgiveness.  The reign of God is like a father who forgives his son for wasting the family fortune, and welcomes him home with open arms. The reign of God is like a shepherd who foolishly leaves ninety-nine sheep alone to go after the one who is lost. The reign of God is like a wealthy man who throws a party, and invites the poor, the blind and the weak to enter his house. Images of the reign of God.

Jesus’ own life has read like one of his parables. After being baptized at the Jordan, and being named God’s Son, the Beloved, Jesus wanders in the wilderness where he is tempted, three times, to use that mantle, that power to distance himself from God’s people. Those three temptations are mirrored again at the end, in the final passage we will hear from Luke’s gospel this year.  Now Jesus is on the cross, and three times he is mocked by those who are killing him, “save yourself!”

They have fundamentally misunderstood him, Jesus, the one whose name means “God saves.” Because he did not come to save himself. He came to save a world full of common criminals. As common as you and me. Even on the cross, in the hour of his death, Jesus looks with mercy on a man who confesses that he is getting exactly what he deserves for his crimes, and says, “today you will be with me in paradise.”

But this is the kind of God we have come to know in Jesus. The kind of God who looks at a criminal with compassion, sealing his record so that his sins might be forgiven and he might enter with joy into the paradise of communion with God.

Maybe Paul, who never saw Jesus, but laid eyes on so many who followed him, heard that story, the one about Jesus forgiving the criminal on the cross. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but somehow he went from being the kind of man who persecuted Christians to the kind of man who voluntarily stayed in his prison cell to spare the life of his jailor and to witness to the power of God to heal and transform every place on earth, even the ones we imagine to be God-forsaken — like our prisons, and their execution chambers.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is one to people he also had never seen, only heard of through the testimony of the rest of the church as it spread across the Mediterranean. He writes to them to encourage them in their faith, to exhort them to exercise judgment in separating the ways of the world from the ways of Christ Jesus, and to call them to love.  The verses we’ve heard this morning sound an awful lot like a creed, in that they are a series of propositions about who Christ is — the head of the body, the church; the beginning, the firstborn from the dead in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through whom God is reconciling all things, making peace through the cross (Col. 1:18-19).

Language is learned through repetition. We didn’t have a way to answer Tara’s questions, “where Jesus? He hiding?” given the vocabulary she had at the time. All we could do was to keep bringing her to church. Here she began to pick up fragments of songs, phrases that she could remember: “worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God” and “Lord God, lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world. Have mercy on us.”

Soon she began to understand who Jesus was, where he was, even though she hadn’t seen him. Like Paul hadn’t seen him. Because she saw the cross, and later she spent some time on it, like you and I have. And, oh, what mercy God has shown to each of us in those moments when we have found ourselves in the worst of our suffering — even suffering we can admit, like the criminal who hung next to Jesus, is sometimes the just punishment for our misdeeds. Because God did not send Jesus to save himself, but to save us. To rescue us from solitude and restore us to community. To reconcile us to God and to one another. To bring vision to our downcast eyes by lifting them to the glories of a paradise where all are welcome, regardless of their past or their present. To follow us and to find us and to finally bring us home.

This is Jesus, who is not hiding, but is with us. Now and forever. Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 26, 2013: The Holy Trinity

Texts:  Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31  +  Psalm 8  +  Romans 5:1-5  +  John 16:12-15

The "Shield of the Trinity" or "Scutum Fidei" diagram of traditional Western Christian symbolism.

The “Shield of the Trinity” or “Scutum Fidei” diagram of traditional Western Christian symbolism.

Preaching on the Sunday the church commemorates as the festival of the Holy Trinity is full of traps for the preacher, or so I am told.  “Don’t preach doctrine,” I’m advised.  No one wants to hear a sermon on doctrine, especially the doctrine of the Trinity.  It’s a mystery.”  And, the best advice of all: “No flowcharts.”  So, it is with some trepidation that I have ascended into the pulpit this morning to preach, and worse, to preach about the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Holy Trinity is, indeed, a mystery.  But it’s not a mystery the way the pyramids are a mystery, or the way the huge statues on Easter Island are a mystery.  We use the word “mystery” to describe those immense, incredible works of humanity precisely as an invitation for someone to solve the mystery.  Calling something a mystery almost immediately draws us into the role of detective.  Like the old story of the sword in the stone, we approach a mystery wondering if we will be the one to finally release it from its trap.

Or, the other option I suppose, we allow the word “mystery” to scare us away.  “The Holy Trinity?  Don’t bother giving it a second thought, it’s a mystery…”  But that’s not the kind of mystery it is either.  In fact, in the realm of Christianity to say something is a mystery is to say that we are called to spend our lives asking questions of it, probing it for wisdom, being shaped by its knots — but not to solve it.

So, with some humility, let’s spend just a short bit of time on this festival of the Holy Trinity considering its mystery.

To begin, as Christians we are the inheritors of a beautiful and ancient tradition of thinking and speaking about God that comes to us from our Jewish sisters and brothers.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God.  The Lord is One. (Deut. 6:4)

Shema Yisrael at the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem

Shema Yisrael at the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem

This is the shema, which we read in the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy, the 4th verse, a statement of faith that, for Jews, is about as close to a creed as they get.  It is the basis for what we have come to call monotheism, the belief that there is only one God.  That God is not one among many.

This inheritance is the entry into the mystery.  Not a clue.  Not a piece of evidence.  But a doorway.  We belong to a community with a long and beautiful tradition that has known in its blood that there is only one God.  So whatever the Trinity is, it is not three Gods, but one.

But we who are Christians are also a family marked by a very special relationship to God through the revelation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth: a living human being who was born, who lived as a teacher of the love of God, who spoke the truth to those in power, who was crucified for confronting the authorities of his day, who was raised from the dead (another mystery of the faith), and who assured us that God would send an Advocate to guide us in truth and continue to instruct us in the paths and promises of God.

Jesus spoke during his lifetime about his relationship to God as being like that of a son to a father, but he muddied the waters a bit there. He said cryptic things that we’ve been reading for the last few weeks.  Things like, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father;” (John 14:9) or “I am in the Father and the Father is in me;” (John 14:10) or, this week, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine” (John 16:14)

Jesus is the second person, the second stopping point, in contemplating the mystery of the Holy Trinity.  Jesus exists as both God and human, giving humanity new access to divinity — and the other way around.  And all this talk about glorification, well… it’s a mystery!  But, as is so often the case with scripture and the words of Jesus, it appears to have something to do with teaching us to see the world as God sees it, not as we do.

When I hear the word “glorify” I tend to think of lifting someone or something up with praise and adoration.  If I’m glorifying you, then I’m assuming the position of a lowly one so as to draw attention to you, the elevated one.  But in Jesus, God is glorified, God is lifted up.  And, Jesus says, God will glorify him, God will lift him up.

Glorification, in the realm of God, becomes something altogether different — not the elevation of one over another by acts of praise; but, instead, the mutual sharing of life together, the revelation that our life is shared in and with each other by acts of love and self-giving.  Part of the mystery of God in Christ Jesus is the radical reorienting of reality that brings God down to earth, that lifts humanity up to heaven, that gives us a shared body to which we all belong.

The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity whom we celebrated last Sunday at the festival of Pentecost, is that Advocate, the presence of God with us that was promised by Christ.  The Holy Spirit is the point in the mystery of the Trinity that breaks open the relationship of God to Jesus and makes that relationship available to each and every one of us.

Here the mystery gets even thicker.  Consider this, that for the first three centuries of the Christian church there was widespread disagreement about the nature of this Holy Spirit.  Was it God?  Was it of the same substance as God?  Was it equal with the Father and the Son?  Those questions weren’t decided formally until the Council of Nicea (from which we get the Nicene Creed) in the year 325.  And, of course, as it is with most decisions in church, the fact that the council voted on it didn’t settle the issue for everyone involved.  People continued to struggle to understand the meaning of the Holy Spirit.

This is a wonderful illustration of the words of Jesus from today’s gospel.  There he says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:12).  Remember, Jesus is speaking these words at the Last Supper.  They haven’t yet seen him crucified, or raised from the dead, or appearing among them in the locked room.  They aren’t ready yet to understand, much less trust in the mystery of the Holy Spirit.  But centuries later the church was able to look back at all that had happened, all that had been said and taught, as well as their own experience of how God was alive with them, through each other, in the Church and they were able to say something new about God’s unity in community.

Living here on the other side of the resurrection, having experienced the power of God through the church, the child of the Holy Spirit, we are in a position to trust in the mystery of the Holy Trinity — not to understand it, not to solve it, but to trust in it.

The Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev, using the theme of the "Hospitality of Abraham." The three angels symbolize the Trinity, which is rarely depicted directly in Orthodox art.

The Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev, using the theme of the “Hospitality of Abraham.” The three angels symbolize the Trinity, which is rarely depicted directly in Orthodox art.

If we go back to the ancient Hebrew assertion that the Lord is God, the Lord is One, and we pair that with the word from the book of Genesis that gives us these words from God, “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” (Gen. 1:26) then we arrive at one of the many teaching moments of the mystery of the Trinity.  We trust, as a matter of faith, that our God is one.  That’s what we’ve been taught since we were children.  We don’t have three gods, we have God: the three-in one and one-in-three.  And we’ve been taught that we are created in the image of God.  But what does that mean?  Am I three-in-one?  Are you one-in-three?

The power of a mystery of faith doesn’t come from how we untie its knots, but how it unties ours.  Here the mystery of the Holy Trinity addresses one of our most basic errors: that we think we exist alone, in solitary.  That we can be human all on our own, without relationship to anyone else.  That’s certainly how we structure our society.  We create the expectation that each person be able to care for themselves in a very narrow way, economically, and we penalize and humiliate you if that is not possible.  But we don’t do such a good job of noticing all the ways we are interdependent upon one another for things that can’t be measured with dollars: safety, belonging, friendship, wisdom, respect and love.  These things, just as necessary for life, can only come from community.  We cannot live, we cannot be human, alone.  We can only do it together.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu talks about this concept using and word found in the Zulu or Xhosa languages, ubuntu, which means (roughly translated), “people are people through other people.”  We aren’t fully human alone, we are only fully human together.  And the mystery of the Holy Trinity is ready to teach us this: that we are created in the image of a God whose own life takes place in community.  We are made in community just as God exists in community; and we belong to the one body of Christ, just as God is one.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God.  The Lord is One.

The essence of a mystery, the way we use the word in church, is not to unravel it but to dwell within it.  To let it unravel you, and then bind you back up.  This is just one more way, I suppose, that we are created in God’s image: that we, too, are mysteries.  Each of us many in one, and one among many.  We do not need to be solved, only loved, and that is the gift that the Holy Trinity wants to offer us: the open door to life lived in the communion of God who creates, redeems and sustains us; God who surrounds, accompanies and empowers us; God around us, toward us, through us; God our parent, our sibling, our family.  God in all, for all, forever.

Amen.

 

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