Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Great Epiphany sermon

Monday, December 26, 2005

My sentiments exactly

This recent article by Newsweek's Anna Quindlen really sums up my thoughts on the whole idiot wind effort on the part of some Christians to boycott some stores for not using the words Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays. I guess we'll start yapping about any old thing that will take the focus off of Christians coming to terms with the confronting reality of a vibrant faith. Christian Peacemaker Team is still missing in Baghdad while giving themselves as a sacrifice to the ideal of non-violent resistance which was inspired by some of our faith's greats (including the original), and instead of rallying around what they have brought to the world stage, American Christians get caught up in a bunch of bull-shit. When will we wake up and take the mantle?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

"Birth of the Light" Christmas Sermon

Over the past weeks of the Advent season, we have looked into the faces of the cherished figures of the Nativity. During the first week, amidst the celebration of the Hanging of the Greens, the Angels were our focus. We asked ourselves what kind of signs we might be given by the angels we might knowingly or more likely unknowingly encounter in our own lives. The next week, we focused on the role that the shepherds and livestock played in our great story, and how they were open to God’s announcement of incarnation because of their willingness to “keep watch” and “listen.” Then we focused on Joseph, the silent guardian of God as a baby. We looked at his great witness to follow God’s promptings and the miracle of his belief and faith in the message brought to him by the angel. Last week we reflected on Mary’s Song of Magnification of the works of God. And today we turn our attention to the manger. That centerpiece to the nativity story—and what it holds: The center of the whole world.
John’s prologue is revered by many as the most beautiful words of the entire Bible. It tells the story of our Christ in a unique way in the Bible. Whereas Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ humble beginnings in the manger, and Mark’s hurried gospel doesn’t even reflect on the Christ’s origins, John’s Gospel tells that Christ as the Eternal Logos or Word was with God and Part of God before the Creation of the world.
It is from John that we learn that this man traveled around the lakes and mountains and cities of Palestine 2000 years ago was no ordinary man, but instead the “Word in Flesh.” It tells that how everything was created through the Word, and that therefore all creation was known by him and all creation has a connection to him. God creates by speaking, and the Word is the manifestation of that aspect of God.
We also learn that this creative Word is Light—as Isaiah says, the “people who have walked in the darkness have seen a great light” Isaiah goes on to talk about a child who will one day be born who will bear this light, and John identifies this light as the person whose birth we celebrate this day.
Last night as I read this scripture as our last lesson to the lessons and carols service, we enacted the scripture as it was read. We began in darkness, as we heard about the Word being in the beginning with God and nothing else. This was before the creation of anything, including light and darkness. And then I lit the Christ candle as we heard about the Word’s life being the light of all people. As the light went around the room and illuminated the faces of everyone present, I read the words that contain the whole Gospel in two sentences, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
I enacted this part of the service last night because I wanted us to hear it and understand it as being true and present in this moment with us. John doesn’t tell the story of something that happened a long time ago and is merely an occurence of the past—John writes about a light that shines in darkness. The darkness of time or place does not overcome the light that continues to shine.
This is the amazing thing about the Gospel. WE have walked in the darkness. We come from all walks of life. Some of us are old, some of us are young, some of us are hometown people, some of us are transplants from another place, some of us are rich, some of us are poor, some of us have loved, some of us have loved and lost. Here’s what we all have in common—we have all walked in the darkness. Though it would seem that some of us have sinned in greater frequency or greater magnitude than others, we have all been born with something missing in our lives, a “God shaped hole in our hearts” as some people call it. Isaiah and John calls it darkness.
But the good news is this, we have seen a great light, and furthermore, that Light comes to us to receive. Graciously, the Light has come toward us and continues to come toward us. As long as we reject the great filling light in our presence, we will continue to walk in darkness. As long as we refuse to forgive and love and share and make peace, that “God shaped hole” will continue to be a God shaped hole. Why? Because God loves us so much that God gave us freedom. The light is not invasive. It is persuasive, like a friend holding a candle toward you for you to light your candle on.
And if we do light our candle with the Light of God, IF we do allow our soul to be ignited with the awesome power of love and forgiveness and peace and sharing, our faces will become illuminated in the presence of the Living Christ. We will finally see ourselves and our neighbors as Children of God. This is the message that the Living Word would have us understand. After all of creation was spoken into being through the creative power of the Word and Breath in Genesis 1, there is a pronouncement that is as creative and life giving as our identity: God is happy with God’s creation and exclaims, “It is good!”
Yes, we are children of God from the very beginning, but we enslave ourselves to lesser parents. We walk in darkness and we look to other sources for parental comfort, don’t we? We make ourselves “Children of Exclusiveness” or “Children of Posessions” or “Children of Beauty” or “Children of Hollow Happiness.” Jesus says later in John’s gospel that “this is the judgment of the world, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” Why do we love the darkness rather than the light?
Because the light comes to earth in a feeding trough…The Light takes a cross on his back and asks us to as well. The Light asks us to change our direction in life. We fill the God shaped hole with other things, and we think we are full until the little cracks appear in our carefully tailored lives. God’s light continues to shine in our direction though, and it continues to come to us. All we have to do is dip our candle toward the one being offered to us. All we must do is dip our heads down and ask for forgiveness. All we must do is forgive others as God forgives us.
When we take on the light, our burdens are taken on by that little child laying in a manger. He is willing and able to carry our load. As things become lighter in our lives, we may even find ourselves sharing the light with others. We may turn to the person next to us and offer the Light of Christ to them.
In so doing, the brightness grows! God’s Kingdom is made manifest on earth, and more faces glow with the good news of the Word and Light. Just as we saw last night, the Light comes in the flesh because the Living Christ is alive in our flesh. The very enactment of the Christmas story in our midst is shown in Our faces glowing in the candlelight as we sing hymns declaring the wonder and mystery of God’s humble birth. The Light becomes brighter through our sharing, and more people in the shadows are able to see it. But for us to share the Light and be the Living Christ, we must walk toward the shadows. This is what Christ exhibited in a life in which he was reprimanded by the “holy men” for going into the houses of tax collectors and prostitutes.
This birth that we celebrate today is not just a birth in a stable 2000 years ago, it is a birth waiting to happen. Every moment holds the potential for this birth because this birth is the birth of the Light in the world of darkness. The darkness cannot overcome it, and as long as we hold the candle of our faith in front of us, guiding us, we cannot be overcome. Even in dying, the martyrs of our faith were able to shed light on the darkness. As we gather to share this sacred meal together, let us imagine ourselves receiving the light just as we did last night with candles. We take this meal for the same purpose—to bring more fuel for the fire, to help the light shine brighter through our participation in the Living Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Light of God wants to enlighten your life because God wants you to know who you really are—a shining faced Child of God! Amen.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Prayer Answered

Lately I have felt a little down, a little uninspired. It’s hard sometimes being the pastor of a church and coming up with some words of inspiration every Sunday. On Tuesday night, I had just wrestled with my son trying to get his diaper and PJs on, and I was sitting there holding him. I asked my Wesley, “You’re such an inspiration to me, but I need God to show me something that will inspire me to write a good sermon this week. I need God to give me a little something, letting me know that I am indeed called to be doing what I am doing.” Questions raised at charge conference about my salary have gotten me feeling defensive about my worth to this community. What is it that I do for them exactly? I don’t render any service but my presence in times of need. I don’t produce any product except for some words on Sunday, hopefully helping people deepen their relationship with God.
I took these questions with me outside to smoke my pipe in what had turned out to be a cold night. I lit my pipe and stood there focused on the shed in my back yard. As I was standing there, it suddenly grew brighter. The trees cast shadows on the grass. I looked up in the sky and saw a full moon. The low hanging clouds were moving rather quickly across the sky, and as they passed, the moon would peek out from behind them and illuminate my whole yard. The radiance of the moon lit up the contours of each cloud moving across the dark sky. I felt like I was on the bottom of the ocean looking up at silver gilded hulls of great ships, moving in from the north. From time to time, Mars or Jupiter would also peek through a small break in the clouds, framing the planet momentarily. It looked surreal, like a photo negative. As the moon drew my yard out of darkness and cast shadows of the fence and trees, the moment also drew my mind out of the darkness of self-doubt and worry. I went inside to get Lara, and she had just finished putting Wesley down for the night. I asked her to get a coat and come out with me. She was thrilled by the sight as well, and pointed out that the moon was so bright that as the clouds grew thinner at the edges, you could see the water vapors in little wispy rainbows. Rainbows at night! Symbols of God’s promise that aren’t restrained to the light of day. Even on a cold dark night, the moon reflects the piercing light of the sun to the extent that it can broken into colors by the prism of water vapor. What a miracle! I was overcome with joy, and took it as an answer to my prayer.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Oct 9 Sermon, Prop. 21?

Sometimes the Good News sounds fine and dandy until Jesus tweaks the story just a little bit. We have come to expect the Kingdom of God to include the last and the least. This is a familiar refrain in the stories of Jesus. It makes us feel really good about ourselves since we have claimed the invitation, and are on the inside. Today’s lesson follows the general rule to Kingdom parables. That is, until the end—when we perk our ears up and wonder if we had accidently fallen asleep and made up the ending. Luckily, I read this scripture earlier in the week before I had my oral surgery, and therefore did not attribute the odd behavior exhibited in this scripture to my pain medication.
The King sends out the messengers to tell of the wedding banquet for his son. If we interpret the story as Matthew’s followers probably did, we hear in the symbols the familiar setup. God is the King, and the Good News of Christ is the Banquet for his son. The messengers are the prophets who have been sent by God to his people—to spread the news of the coming of Christ. The people refuse, and so the King, feeling somewhat rebuffed, sends out the messengers again, in order that they have sufficient notice of the announcement. This time they kill the messenger/prophets, which is a common accusation of Jesus against the people of Israel, especially in Matthew. Think for instance of Matthew 23: 37, where upon arriving at Jerusalem for the first time in his ministry, Jesus utters the famous phrase, “"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Matthew was writing his gospel in the midst of the downfall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD, and he believed this was a punishment for the people of Jerusalem’s unbelief. This aspect of the story is different from the perhaps more familiar version of the story in Luke 14:15-24 where the King is simply rebuffed by the townspeople and therefore sends invitations to the people in the highways and the hedges.
Also unique to Matthew’s version of this parable is the King’s response to the wedding guest who is not properly dressed. This being so unique, it caught my eye and became the focus of my preparations for today’s sermon.
Why in the world would Jesus tell us that God cares about what clothes we show up to the banquet in? Doesn’t Jesus usually tell us that God accepts us no matter who we are or what kind of mess we usually show up to the banquet of his Grace in? Doesn’t this seem to chafe against our common understanding of the Gospel? What could this possibly symbolize, that could justify the King telling his servants to “bind this man hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth?” Matthew clearly thinks there is something more to the Christian life than just “showing up” to the invitation. Contrary to the Jesus of our popular conceptualization, Matthew tells of him reporting that “many are called, but few are chosen.”
So what do we do with this text? Do we move it over to the category of scriptures that may have had some use at some point, but clearly don’t belong in our repertoire of favorite scriptures for “making disciples.” After all, how many “Matthew 22:14” posters have you seen at football games. Perhaps this scripture just belongs with the Psalms about bashing babies’ heads against the rocks, or the Levitical laws about selling your son or daughter into slavery for misbehaving. Or perhaps we should try and parse out what it may be saying to us behind all the rough veneer.
Perhaps instead of always focusing on why we are accepted to the party, we should pay attention to what kind of attire we are wearing.
The Bible speaks quite frequently about clothing. In the Genesis story, we are told that God made “garments out of skin” for Adam and Eve after they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Joseph draws the jealous rage of his brothers for wearing the “many colored coat” that his father gave him. Jesus is said to have worn a seamless robe that the soldiers gambled for at the foot of his cross. A woman was also healed by touching his garment.
So what about these wedding robes that seem so important to the host of the banquet? In this story, the “wedding robe” is a symbol of something. Isaiah 61:10 tells us about “garments of salvation, and robes of righteousness.” In 1st Thessalonians, Paul tells us to put on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of hope and salvation. What is it that a wedding robe symbolizes anyway? This is a symbol that has been somewhat lost to us because we no longer observe the practice of wedding robes. A wedding robe was given by the host to all who attended the banquet in order to “level the playing field.” Weddings weren’t an opportunity for the wealthy guests to show off their wealth and the poor guests to feel bad about their shabby attire. The host of the wedding provided beautiful robes so that everyone in attendance would be focused on the joy of the festivities instead of who had what. Viewed through this lens, the person who took off his wedding robe is trying to draw attention to himself. He is accepting the generosity of the host, but he is trying to do so on his own terms.
I believe today’s epistle lesson fits quite nicely with today’s Gospel lesson. Paul repeats over and over again in his letter to Phillipi to “Rejoice in the Lord, Always.” As I’ve mentioned before, this is Paul’s happiest letter, and it is written from a prison cell. Paul has tapped into the well of Christ in a way that he is now overflowing with the peace and love. He declares that this joyful exuberance surpasses all understanding, yet it guards our hearts and minds.
At the beginning of today’s reading, he pleads with two women, Euodia and Syntyche, to put their disagreement behind them and “be of the same mind.” Perhaps Paul is familiar with the “wrong attire” and is assuring his fellow banquet guests of the proper attire. Perhaps we can also hear Paul beckoning us toward the life of the light today. Perhaps when we let grudges over hurt feelings or petty jealousies stand in the way of joyful fellowship, we are wearing the wrong attire for God’s banquet! Perhaps when we allow our disagreements about the particularities to blind us to the larger truth of God’s grace, we are wearing the wrong attire to God’s banquet! Perhaps when we infect our church family with spite against someone we have a personal disagreement with, we are wearing the wrong attire to God’s banquet!
Christian friends: showing up to the banquet with an invitation in hand is a wonderful first step to accepting God’s grace. We as Wesleyans however, believe that grace continues to grow and bloom and bear fruit in our lives through the miracle of “sanctifying grace.” This is the art of living lives of personal and social holiness to be a joyful witness to the world about God’s grace and salvation. It is basically “donning our wedding robes” for the entire banquet, not taking them off after we’ve made it through the door. The idea that “many are called, but few are chosen” is Jesus’ way of telling us that the work of salvation continues in our life even after we’ve accepted the invitation. In case you haven’t done so yet, I will once again remind you to take a copy of the Book of Discipline’s paragraphs on church membership.
Church membership means we are accountable to one another, and we have the privilege to be so. It is about choosing a life of reconciliation and love over gossip and grudge matches. Sisters and brothers, I will tell you as Paul told the church at Philippi, if there are two of you who are harboring feelings against each other, please put away your ill feelings for the sake of the Gospel! Paul tells us to “be of the same mind.” This mind is the mind of Christ, and Paul assures us that “we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.”
Did you know that in the early church, when converts to the faith were being baptized, they removed all their clothing and went down into the water, then after being baptized in the name of the Trinity, they walked up out of the baptismal chamber, stomped on their old clothing, and were given new bright white robes? The act symbolized shedding the constraints of this world and even participating in the death of Christ. The waters were entered naked to symbolize our rebirth into the Kingdom Life. The new white clothing clebrated the purity of Christ that Christians were then privileged to put on and wear with joy and righteousness. New Christians stomped on their old clothing as a symbol of rejecting the sin they had left behind on the other side of the baptismal waters.
We are invited to a great feast - a wedding feast. Let us not make light of the invitation and refuse to come. We are not required to provide our own gowns and tuxedos. It is not up to us to fashion our own garments. Instead, we are to look to God, who saw to the needs of Adam and Eve, who covered their shame and made them to shine like the sun. We have a tailor of awesome reputation, one who, quite literally, fashions the stars and clothes the lilies of the field. In giving us Christ Jesus, God fashions for us a garment of great praise, a robe of eternal worth. We ought not be so proud as to insist on clothing ourselves, but rather humble our hearts, put on love, and clothe ourselves with Christ!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

stained glass window at my church. I wish I had time to write a nice, venting blog. Posted by Picasa

Monday, October 03, 2005

Here's a photo I'm proud of. I like to think it illuminates well the interconnectedness of all things.  Posted by Picasa

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Oct 2 Sermon, World Communion Sunday

What are some of your first memories of communion? As early as I can remember, I always went to the altar after the service was over and did what I could to finish the bread and grape juice. I would tear off piece by piece and say, “this is the body, broken for me.” “This is the cup of salvation, shed for ME!” I suppose I was a little preacher in training. Sometimes my dad would tell me that I needed to hold off on the bread on particular Sundays so he could take what remained of the loaf to the shut ins. Knowing I’d get my fill, or perhaps just to whet my appetite for my post service feast, it always seemed that my dad would break me off a tiny little snippet of bread. Some of you have commented on the large pieces of bread that I typically break off for you during our communions here, and have politely requested smaller pieces so that you can actually chew them up and swallow it in a timely manner! Well, perhaps now you have a little insight why I blundered on the side of too much instead of too little. I never did stop going up to the altar after the service. In seminary, I was on the worship planning team who was in charge of setting up our Tuesday morning communion services on campus. After the services, I would go up to the altar and get the bread and share it with whatever other brave souls decided to give into the call of their taste buds. If I didn’t have to be at the back greeting you after the service, you can guarantee that I’d be up front here rejoicing in the scraps with our regular plate cleaners.

This past General Conference, the United Methodist Church adopted a survey and study on the theological importance of Communion in our church. In this study, titled “This Holy Mystery,” a survey found that we as United Methodists have a strong sense of the importance of Holy Communion in the life of individual Christians and of the church. Unfortunately, there is at least an equally strong sense of the absence of any meaningful understanding of Eucharistic theology and practice. United Methodists recognize that grace and spiritual power are available to them in the sacrament, but too often they do not feel enabled to receive these gifts and apply them in their lives.

With this in mind, I thought I’d share with you some of what communion means to me. I remember as a kid seeing my mother cry during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I was always perplexed about this reaction from my mother. I wasn’t quite sure what it was about eating some bread and drinking some grape juice that could stir my mother to tears. About 10 years down the road though, sitting with the woman who would one day be the mother of my child, I was given an experience of the Eucharist that would clue me in to my mother’s experience. Lara and I had volunteered to be camp counselors at a Jr. High summer camp in the Oklahoma conference, Camp Egan. One night at camp, we planned a communion service for the youth at the outdoor chapel. During the service, amidst the sounds of acustic guitars and illuminated by candlelight, I noticed that the elements looked radiantly perfect. In that tabernacle at Camp Egan, the communion elements stood out to me as a bridge between humanity and God. I had not yet studied the sacramental theology of Jeremy Taylor or the Wesley’s understanding of the Spirit’s involvement with Holy Communion. In fact, I had never put that much thought into the Eucharist. But that night the Light of God was shining forth from the simplicity of the common loaf and cup. I was sitting beside the person I would eventually marry. She was looking down at the floor. I said to her “Lara, look at perfection!” When she lifted her eyes, she saw what I saw, and began to cry. I looked around and noticed the trees and the sounds of night (the chapel was an open tabernacle) and felt the uncanny sense that we were surrounded by all who have participated in this celebration throughout the history of our faith.
A year later, I had an opportunity to take a retreat with Brother Aidan, an Eastern Orthodox hermit monk who painted icons and re-forested the barren hills on the border of England and Wales. When I recounted the experience to him, he exclaimed that I had been involved in the communion of saints. The chapel he built and painted on the grounds of the hermitage conveyed this same theological principle. When I joined him for early morning prayers and readings, I saw that surrounding us on the walls of the chapel were the icons of saints. As we celebrated God’s Word together amidst the regal smell of incense candles and the sound of the language many early Christians spoke, the communion of saints were also present in a tangible way. When I stood in that chapel, I was reminded of sitting in that camp tabernacle in Northeast Oklahoma.
Through my experience at the hermitage, I fell in love with a spiritual world that engaged all the senses. While we Protestants are historically insistent on conveying the “Word” of God with our mouths, Christians throughout history have acknowledged the presence of Christ through the visual communion of the icon, the regal smell of incense, the tender touch of the kiss of a fellow worshipper, or the taste of the Eucharist ingested among the communion of saints who are visually represented on the walls surrounding the celebrants. My experience of Protestantism was enriched by my experience with the Eastern Orthodox Church, which through its worship conveys the deep truth of God found in the Psalms, “O Taste and see that God is good!” (Psalm 34:8).

If you read the September newsletter, you already know a little of the history of what we call “World Communion Sunday.” World Communion Sunday was put into practice first by the Presbyterian church, and then during the 1940’s, it was adopted by hundreds of denominations as an effort to show solidarity and peace to a world that was becoming embroiled in a War that involved the majority of the nations in the world. One thing that strikes me about our particular denominational celebration of Communion is that we give special credence to the idea of a “worldwide communion” because any Christian in the world would be able to take communion at this altar. Our open communion is not even limited to those people who profess to be Christian, but instead we as a denomination extend the invitation to all who seek a closer relationship with Jesus Christ. We do require that participants in the Holy Communion make an earnest confession of their sins before partaking, but this is not a test—instead it is more akin to washing our hands before coming to the table. It is something we do for our own benefit, so that we may feast in fellowship without harboring grudges or guilt or greed. Instead, we come to the table, seeking Christ. If you want to drink of the water that will eternally quench your thirst, you are invited to the table.

In the letter to the Philippeans, we hear Paul’s emphasis on Christ being the central aspect of his own sense of self. Though he places a high value on his own heritage as a Jew, these aspects of his identity pale in comparison to what he has found in the personal relationship with Christ. In the act of communion, we express our belief in the nearness and tangible identity of Christ in our midst. Christ is as near to us and as part of us as this bread and juice that we ingest in the ritual of communion. As the blood of the man Jesus delivered his breath to all the cells of his physical body, in the practice of communion, we believe that his blood continues to bring his Holy Breath or Spirit to us—the cells of his spiritual body. The meal propels us into the present moment. Two thousand years ago is made right now by our remembrance of a simple meal with friends. This observance of sacrament does not promote hollow nostalgia for days when Christ was among us, instead it should tap the reservoir of Christ in the now, and enhance our vision of Christ leading us forward. As Paul says, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

As we come to the table today with the majority of our Christian brothers and sisters in this world, let us envision Christ in front of us, leading us toward a greater unity that celebrates our diversity. We may celebrate in different ways, but we enact the same meal. We are truly one loaf, and on this day, we all observe the breaking and sharing of that one loaf. I thank God that Jesus gave us a tradition that communicates so clearly, so tangibly to my soul. As we partake in this meal together today, let us give thanks and pray for the restored unity of the church as we struggle to really be the Body of Christ! Amen.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

This seems to be the website for the British Methodist Women's group. Has a lot of good resources. You can register for free to access everything. tulsa1
The Magnet

Sunday, September 18, 2005

It's not Fair, Sept. 18 Sermon

We live in a culture that has its roots firmly planted in fairness. You get out what you put in—You reap what you sew. Some attribute the economic success of the United States to the “Protestant Work Ethic.” The idea that we are masters of our own ship that was cultivated by the Puritans who arrived in the 17th century. The liberation of the Bible from the priest and into the hands and languages of the laypeople was a powerful force of the Reformation, and it led to strengthened sense of individuality and personal responsibility. Indeed, many scholars say the Enlightenment itself was planted in the enhanced philosophy of the individual, which was a byproduct of the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. A result of the enlightenment of the 17th and 18th century was the notion of “individual rights” which led to the democratic revolutions. Individual rights as you know sit on a see saw with individual responsibilities. The balance of the two is an agreed upon notion of fairness.
This scripture passage has chafed me since I was a kid. Perhaps it’s that it gnaws at my modern sensibilities of “fairness.” It’s the same thing with the prodigal son’s brother who sticks around and helps out on the farm, or the other sheep who stay in the fold while the shepherd goes off looking for the lost sheep. I don’t remember being an extremely cynical child, but for some reason I always sided with the person who was seemingly wronged in the parable. Those who showed up first and worked all day DESERVED a better pay than those who showed up and worked an hour in the coolness of the evening. Why would the shepherd leave unattended those 99 sheep who had enough sense NOT to go wandering off? The father who rushed out to welcome back his wayward son who showed him no respect and spent all his inheritance in a binge seemed to be revealing an embarrassing degree of FAVORITISM in my book—his other son stuck by him the entire time and he didn’t get a big party?!
Part of me still wonders what kind of time this hypothetical landowner had the next day when he went out into the town square early in the morning and tried to recruit some workers for his vineyard. He likely wouldn’t have any success rounding people up until 5pm if you ask me! Of course, Jesus mentions no “next day” in his parable.
No—Jesus boldly proclaims the beauty of a God who transcends or perhaps simply pre-dates our concept of fairness or “right and wrong.” The landowner who is recruiting help and paying what he wishes inhabits a story where there is no “next day.” Instead, the generosity that he offers, and in turn the unbelievable grace that his generosity points to in our God has no concern for the “next day” when he may or may not be able to get any help. The generosity and grace is ultimately tied to the present moment. It is found in every breath we take and has no concern for our past or our future. IT is given to us because it is a product of God’s eternal nature.
Jesus continuously reminds us that we are given grace not according to our faithfulness, but according to God’s ever abundant generosity. Though it may offend my sense of right and wrong, Jesus tells us that God’s generosity extends beyond the boundaries of fairness. Is this a welcome word? Is this Good News? It isn’t if we consider Fairness to be God’s chief virtue. Here’s a thought—perhaps our cultural picture of a God who judges us eternally based on the life we lived, or who rewards hard work and lasting faithfulness with all the bounty we can comprehend is simply a byproduct of our fairly young and fairly immature culture. The Gospel lesson tells us of a God who is radically UNFAIR—Our God might be accused of being na├»ve by our worldly standards. The indiscriminating outpouring of grace and love toward all who come with open hands is a beautiful picture—but we would probably call someone who enacted this kind of ethical standard in our day and age an idealist.
Perhaps my problem with this story and the others is my own haughty assumption that I can even identify with the early workers. My concentration on the “fairness” of the passage probably means that I, consciously or not, believe that I am an “early worker” when the reality is that I’m probably showing up at around 4:55 to the market square to look for work. While I may be more prone to grumbling about fairness, I should actually be rejoicing at the undeserved grace I’ve been given.
Perhaps the reality is that we’re all showing up late to put in an hour’s work. In the cultural context in which this Gospel lesson was written, Gentiles would probably have taken comfort to know that even those who had shown up late to the game were given the same reward as those who had been part of the project for so long. The God of Christianity was and is the God of the Hebrews. There was competition between Jewish adherents of Jesus and Gentile adherents of Jesus. In a way, this parable spoke to the early church in a way that still speaks to us today. Those Gentiles who were new to the faith, and thus “late comers” to the vineyard, were given the same reward as those who had practiced the faith of the fathers for their whole life. Matthew gives his auidience a fresh vision of the radical inclusiveness of this God we worship. We aren’t rewarded for how long we’ve believed: There are no company watches given in God’s Kingdom—we are rewarded by God’s grace. God’s grace can’t be quantified into a little grace for you and a much larger portion of grace for you. God’s grace is immeasurable and infinite in every circumstance it is given. We are all recipients of this grace—if we must think in terms of “equal measure” then the story tells us it is an equal measure. But the truth is that it is quantified and multiplied by what we do with it. Jesus also tells the story of the talents, where a landowner gives talents to each of his slaves, and they bring glory to their master based on what they DO with those talents. If we share the grace we are given with others, we multiply that grace in the world, and our master is glorified because of it.
We have such a bad habit of drawing lines around ourselves and between ourselves. There are those of us who are old Christians and new Christians, there are those of us who have “gotten what was coming to us” and there are those of us who are living “charmed lives.” There are insiders and outsiders, latecomers and early risers. Our cultural norms reinforce these lines of distinction and convince us to act in accordance with their rules and laws. But we have a God who refuses to pay attention to such things. God extends grace to every living soul on the face of the earth. There is no contract to sign, there are no hours to put in, there is nothing on this earth that can squeeze out more or less grace than what is being offered us when we draw our first breath. God loves us all to our cores at that moment. We are loved as much at our first moment, without doing a thing about it, as we are loved at our last moment, with a life of service to God behind us. God loves you and me as much as He loves his greatest servants, like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, or John Wesley. God loves you and me as much as he loves our greatest enemies, or those people we believe don’t deserve God’s grace. The story of the generous landowner tells us that God’s love is radically and eternally present and pouring over each of our lives. The story of the talents gives us a deeper perspective in that we realize that we must open our hands and receive God’s outpouring of love. We must be filled and in turn spill over with God’s redeeming love. If we are given God’s grace and talents and then bury them in our hearts for only our consolation and hope, then we are like the workers who bury their talents in the ground, waiting for the master’s return.
If we delight in the grace given us at the end of the day instead of grumbling about God’s generosity—if we take our “earnings” and share them with our neighbors, God’s grace will multiply in the world through us. We will become conduits of God’s grace! Thanks be to God! Amen

Monday, September 05, 2005

Refuge in Waldron

The little town where I am a minister in the hills of western Arkansas recently increased its population by 100 people.

Our town of 3500 people is roughly 75% white and 25% hispanic, but now we also have 100 African americans--all former residents of New Orleans who have come here via the Superdome and Fort Chaffee in Fort Smith. Fort Chaffee was supposed to receive 4000 people, but got 10,000 people, and our ministerial alliance teamed up with some town leaders and readied an old empty nursing home on Friday to receive as many as we could. It was inspiring to see the townspeople respond with such care. As I write this, my wife is down at the nursing home answering the phone--we recently listed the residents of our shelter and have gotten calls from loved ones looking to find them.

One heartbreaking story at our shelter is of an old woman with an eye patch who held her husband's hand as she sat on her roof and he drowned. She's old, and he had helped her up on the roof, but then couldn't get up himself and was lost to the sludgy water. It is not appropriate for the news outlets to be showing bodies floating face down in the waters. She is traumatized and wants to get back to New Orleans so she can be there when and if they find his body so she can bury it.

Lots of the evacuees aren't planning on returning. I was talking to a woman tonight who said she was going to see how they liked it here and perhaps just settle here.

We've organized meals with all the churches preparing and bringing to the shelter. There is a Tyson plant in town that has offered all the chicken we need, and right now my church freezers are full of fresh chicken from right here in town. Wal-Mart is offering $500. If you ask me, they should be giving a lot more than that considering they will probably make quite a bit of profit on all the people buying relief supplies to donate, and all the people who will have to restock their homes. Perhaps the oil companies could donate some gas to the state of Louisiana. (That'll be the day) We're paying $3.10 a gallon here in Waldron, and they don't even have any gas in Louisina. People have to bring enough gas to get down there and back when picking up refugees.
Just thought my readers would like to know. If you'd like to send help, we could use it. Email me if interested.

Hurricane Katrina Sermon

Like most of you, I’ve been consumed with the news coming out of New Orleans this week. A disaster area turned into the unthinkable when the levees broke around that city and engulfed 80% of the city in water, sludge, and chemicals. We’ve all heard the stories of disaster and despair, and today we come together to celebrate the Lord’s day.
When faced with natural disaster, there are numerous theological statements made by our response. Some believe disasters like this are the will of God, designed in the infinite cosmological omnipotent mind to somehow bring about good and faith. Some believe such an occurance has nothing to do with God, but only of human foolishness and neglect. My interpretation of this kind of occurrence is shaped by a theological perspective that strikes the chords of my heart as true: It is called “Process theology.” One of the major tenants of Process theology grows out of the Wesleyan insistence on the “free will of humankind. My interpretation of natural disasters is informed by the idea that God loves us so much that God is willing to abide by our free will to accept God or not. Much like a parent who comes to the realization that her teenager has come to a decision making age, God’s power is manifested in a persuasive pull rather than a coercive push.
The question of “why would God let this happen” does not concern me as much as the question of “would God let me let this happen without doing anything about it?” You see, the question of “why would God let this happen” is a product of our grappling with God’s relationship with a world that has the freedom of choice. If I believed in a God who acted coercively, then the question of why God could do something to stop the suffering and toil we witness in the gulf, in Iraq, or other parts of the world---why God could do something about it but chose not to would be what theologians call an “ontological problem” That is—a “problem with God.” You see, our usual notions of omnipotence or “all knowingness” and perfect love come into conflict when we suffer these moments of crisis and hopelessness.
The idea that “God’s got a plan,” rings hollow in my ears when I hear about newborn babies washed away in the filthy water, or about hordes of people driven to rampage when deprived of food and clean water for 4 or 5 days. It just doesn’t seem to satisfy my despair when I hear about 1000 people trampled and drowned when trying to flee from the rumor of a suicide bomber in Iraq. I can believe that God has a plan, but I don’t think I can believe God intended for those things to happen so that the plan could work itself out. Instead, I believe that God has a vision for the future. God has a great vision and plan, but it involves me taking the cues given me in subtle and sometimes magnanimous ways. God has a plan, but God doesn’t “push” it into existence by manipulating world events. Instead, God responds to the glory and despair that we face with a seed. This seed lures us toward the best possible outcome for our current situation. It is revitalized and renewed with every breath. We must be attentive to God’s whisperings in the silence.
Like Elijah, we must look beyond the storm and the fire, we must be patient to hear God’s voice in the ringing of our ears when the tumult is over. God is asking us to participate in the Creation of a new, better world. God asked Adam to name the animals that God had made. Likewise, God involves us in the creative act. Instead of getting bogged down in the interpretation of God’s supposed “action” in the form of an “act of God,” we are instead called to be a listening people—attuning our ears and eyes to the silent inspiration after the storm. It was not uncommon for God’s people to hear him in the fire or the wind or the thunder. Elijah knew a rich history of his people doing exactly that. Notice that each of the signs he observes in the cave are metahphors for God’s presence that were to be expected. It was as if Elijah was witnessing a highlight reel of God’s presence in the world. But, instead Elijah listens with some creativity. Instead of jumping to conclusions, Elijah listens in the silence. Elijah listens with ears attuned to the persuasive pull of silence. We are called to do the same.
During this week, many of us felt a call to action. We are in the process of responding to the needs of those who are entering our community in a desperate situation. God is calling us to harness the empathy we feel sitting in front of our televisions and direct it into an outpouring of love and compassion for those in our midst. In today’s scriptures, Paul proclaims our purpose as Christians is summed up in the simple commandment to “Love our neighbor as ourselves.” He tells us to “owe no debt but the debt to love one another.” He calls this a debt because God first loved us. Even in the midst of our self-obsessiveness, even in the midst of our self-loathing, God loves us to our cores. God knows the depths of our doubts and our fears and our stubbornness and our sinfulness and God loves us without reservations.
It is because of this love that we are compelled to broadcast that love in the world. We owe it to our brothers and sisters to love one another. We owe it to one another because we can love God back with the same disregard to reservation for sin and through our unqualified love for our neighbors. It doesn’t matter to us what kind of people they are simply because it doesn’t matter to God what kind of people we are before God loves us. God loves us in the midst of our sin and struggle.

Paul also tells us to “wake up” to the reality of God’s love in our midst. Paul tells us that our salvation is nearer at hand now than when we first became believers. That is, every moment contains the possiblilty for the renewal and zeal that we first felt when we figured out how to live like Christians. That moment is now, brother and sisters. We are being asked to love like it is a new and novel idea. We are being asked to create possibilities for God’s salvation alongside God. We are being asked to respond to the persuasive pull—we are not being pushed into a pit of predestination.
Last week, Moses heard the call of God from the burning bush to minister to God’s people for God. Moses was awakened to his identity as a liberator and leader of God’s people. He may not have thought he wanted the job, but God laid it at his feet. If we’d read the Romans passage, you would have heard Paul’s message to “outdo one another in showing honor….(read the rest)” Paul gives us a template here for being a church. We are asked to live out the Gospel with such vigor and commitment that we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
Well church, I don’t know that I even needed to prepare a sermon today: The message that we’ve been hearing from Paul lately rings with crystal clarity for me in our present situation. There are people right down the street who could use our shoulders to help carry their load. They may have arrived here with nothing, but they carry heavy burdens on their back. Let us not shrink from the opportunity to proclaim God’s good news through our actions. St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel wherever you go….if you have to, use words.” Let us remember that God’s compassion and grace can shine through us even if we can’t find any meaningful words to say to people experiencing grief like few of us have.
Let us not be “haughty and claim to be wiser than we are.” The images on our news have often shown people behaving in ways that seem disgusting and reprehensible to our comfortable morals. Before we jump to judgment of people based on the reporting of a news media whose common moral compass is “if it bleeds, it leads,” let us instead take a moment to consider the desperation of the people whose tragedy has become our conversation piece.
Imagine everything in your home of sentimental value….see in your mind those wedding albums, your child’s first pair of shoes or his or her baptismal gown. Imagine the family heir looms, the trophies that held memories of pride. Now imagine those things washed away in the muddy filthy water. Imagine your helplessness and despair. Now imagine that the meal you ate before coming to church this morning was unwittingly the last meal you would be able to have before this coming Friday. Imagine the sight of people dying because they could get their medications and having nowhere to put them but out on the sidewalk, only feet away from where you and your children sat, trying to pass away the time.
Perhaps we should have some humility about what depths we might sink to if we were placed in that kind of situation. I don’t know how I would react when faced with such a desperate situation. I would like to hope that I would remain sane and civilized, but if I really try to get inside their skin, I don’t know if I could. Let us face the work of Christ with the same spirit of our Master. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit gives us strength and courage to show the love of God to whomever crosses our path. As we come to the Lord’s table, let us come confessing our sins and looking for the quiet inspiration of God. In the simple elements of bread and wine, we celebrate God’s presence among us. In the simple provisions that we have accumulated for our neighbors, we embrace God’s presence and open the eyes of those in despair to its beauty.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Proper 17A--Who Does God Say We Are?

We had spent the whole day at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. Lara and I and some parents had taken a group Jr. and Sr. High youth as a reward trip for having the most consistent attendance at Sunday school. We had spent the day riding roller coasters…but the real roller coaster was waiting for us on the highways of Kansas. I was driving a van with a shell top (you know, the kind you see the big churches buy—the kind you don’t have to crouch in to get to the back seats.)
Unfortunately, I’d always noticed the shell on the van caught the wind like a sail, and it was unsettling to drive if there was any wind at all. Heading west on the interstate in Kansas, I began to notice the sky in front of us was dark, and the wind that I dreaded was picking up. 18 wheelers were careening in their lanes, trying to stay within their bounds, and many cars were beginning to pull over as sheets of rain began to pummel my windshield. I glanced from my white knuckles to the rearview, amazed to see my youth laughing and carrying on and flirting with each other, oblivious to the torments that I saw ahead of me. On the radio, I heard the distinctive beeps that proceeded a weather alert. It was a tornado warning—but I had no Kansas map, and the locations of touchdowns meant nothing to me.
In the middle of Kansas, there aren’t many places to seek shelter in a storm, but I found a gas station and pulled in to see if I could find a map. Sure enough, the tornados were directly west of us, headed our way. Now those of you who know tornados know they like to follow strait flat paths—like interstates. I remember the big plastic garbage cans at the gas station flying around the parking lot as I ran back to the van. I knew the ramshackle old gas station wouldn’t do anything to shelter us from the approaching storm, and the kid’s parents would already be waiting an hour or two past our estimated time of arrival because the hard rain had slowed our travel down significantly. The tornados were far enough away that I knew we’d be able to make it to our highway going south (and out of their path) before they made it to us.
My prayer was more a demand than a petition. “These are your children God, and I’m the only one you’ve got to get them home safely. Now I need you to show me that you’re with me!” I pulled out of the gas station, back onto the interstate and toward our southbound highway. Not 5 minutes after I’d said the prayer, a lightning bolt crahsed into a tree out in a pasture 100 yards outside my driver’s window. The tree exploded into flames, and my hair stood up on my arms.
A resounding “coooooool” was mixed with shrieks of fear from voiced by the teenagers in the seats behind me. It was like I had not been riding in the van all along, my mind had been racing with possibilities of all the things that could go wrong. After I witnessed my own “burning bush” though, I had a new sense of confidence in God’s presence. The rain didn’t let up, the wind still rocked the van, the wet road continued to slow us down, but now my grip on the wheel relaxed, the blood rushed back into my knuckles, and I was able to feel the road better because I had loosened up enough to actually feel it.
We made it home safely. The sign of God’s presence that I had prayed for was actually presented to me in an unmistakable way. Though God had been answering prayers in a more subtle way for me for my whole life, this particular instance gave me a renewed sense of purpose and promise as a steward of God’s church.
The theme of today’s scriptures seem to be “identity.” My encounter with the “burning bush” led me to a deeper sense of connection with the God, and through that sense of connection it led me to a more profound understanding of my own identity.
Jesus gives us a conundrum to cut our teeth on in which identity seems to be the focus. I imagine several of us have wrestled with the notion of “losing our life in order to save it.” From what I gather from the God of the Bible, God is interested in bolstering who we are and what we shall become. Our life is very important to God, and what we For many, this notion of self-denial is a struggle, and for many it is far too easy. Unfortunately, some people who have been victims of circumstances have heard this scripture and imagined God punishing them or trying them in order to test their faith. They hear the words “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will gain it,” and they imagine that their difficulties are ordained by God in order for them to give in.
What I perceive to be the common thread running through today’s texts is the act of claiming our identity despite the struggles in which that identity may involve us. The Divine Vision of the future calls us out of our status quo affirming existence and on the path for adventure and creativity. The little boy who was set in the basket and put out on the Nile embodies a sense of Divine adventure. When he grows into a man and tries to make excuses as to why he can’t live the life of liberation and leadership towards which God is calling him, he is assured, “I will be with you.” The boy who is put into a manger also embodies God’s creativity and lure toward genuine adventure. When he grows up and is tempted to diverge from his path that leads to certain death, he calls his disciples to “pick up their cross and follow him.” Paul leads the Christians in Rome to devote themselves to practices of non-violence in a culture that glorifies the sword. What a genuine openness to God’s creative impulse toward true adventure!
Moses is living a fairly settled life when he notices a curious burning bush and meets a God who calls him out of his pastoral existence and into the role of facilitating God’s liberation. It is not convenient for him to remember the God of his ancestors who reasserts his identity as a member of the slave class of his birth and the troubled situation that he had fled. Though Moses is safely hidden away, tending sheep for his father in law, God plants a vision of freedom in his heart—a freedom that means dangerous confrontation.
This passage is one of the best at illuminating humanity’s hesitancy to follow God’s inspiration. God tells Moses about God’s plan for the oppressed Hebrew people to have a land of their own: A land “flowing with milk and honey.” Moses asks God, “Who am I to go to the pharaoh and ask for the release of our people?” God’s response seems to be simple—you are the person I have asked. “Well in whose name shall I come?” Moses needs some firepower if he is going to face the Pharaoh. He needs this God’s name in order to harness the power of that name. God empowers him only with a cryptic non-answer: “I am who I am.” Go and tell them “I am” has sent you. YHWH. I’ve heard it’s the sound of a breath being taken. So that Moses doesn’t go into a struggle without some accountability, God tells Moses to remind the people that this God is the God of their ancestors.
Though “I am” has no reference to the past, this God affirms the part of our existence that is thoroughly rooted to the past. God doesn’t identify Himself as “I was,” “I am who I am” is a reference to God’s ultimate identity. “I am” is thoroughly present thoroughly alive and breathing. Indeed, the name itself is remniscent of something as present as the breath. The breath is our constant reminder that we are alive and connected with creation. We breathe in what others breathe out.
When Jesus is tested by the Pharisees as to who a woman who was married to seven different brothers in her lifetime is joined to after death, Jesus responds, “We worship a God of the living, not of the dead.” As God’s identity is thoroughly rooted to the present, so are our identities. Every moment is an opportunity for change and renewal. We are not stuck in the mud of our pasts. Our identity in the present moment is a being who is alive in the present moment. Our experiences shape us, but we have a freedom of will that ultimately points the direction of our future.
At the same time, YHWH identifies as “the God of our ancestors.” If we were to imagine our human family as a large tree, and our ancestors are the roots, then God would be the rich soil that gives the great human family solid foundations and nourishment. God is there as a part of our story, and this is as much a part of the living God as the great “I AM.” Though our identities are not stuck to our past, they are nurtured and shaped by our pasts. Some of us have experienced our personal history as a nurturing soil and some of us have only experienced desolate dust. The history that Moses celebrated was an enriching aspect of his life. Though there are negative and positive aspects of our history, God identifies himself as a part of our history, giving guidance to those in need, a vision of hope for those at the crossroads of despair.
Though Moses attempts to bring up reasons why he should continue living the stable, safe life that he has found, the God who dwells in the present moment and in the roots of Moses’ history encourages him to put aside his hesitancy and follow the pull toward liberation. When God gets a hold of our identity, we’re in for a wild ride!Matthew 16: 21-28
In the Gospel passage, Jesus also accepts his identity as one who must face extreme danger (even death on the cross) in order to proclaim God’s redemptive liberation. In this passage, Peter offers the excuse that haunts Jesus in the back of his mind. “God forbid it! This must not happen to you.” Jesus identifies this refusal to accept his mission in full as a stumbling block. He tells Peter, “Your mind is on human things, not on Divine things.” Our identity as beings shaped by the Divine Will for each moment of experience sometimes brings us to the brink of great powers of resistance.
Matthew tells of Satan tempting Jesus to ignore God’s inspiration and live a comfortable life. Here, Matthew tells of Peter’s refusal to accept the implications of Jesus’ radical message of liberation. Jesus apparently is reminded of his struggle in the desert. “Get behind me, Satan!” he says to Peter. “You are a stumbling block to me.” Poor Peter. One minute he is a foundational rock on which Jesus will build his church, the next moment he is an annoying rock in Jesus’ path.
Jesus tells his disciples in this passage that if they want to be like him, they will have to pick up their own crosses and follow him. I take this to mean, they will all have to face their own fears and doubts and excuses, and instead choose the life changing, life threatening inspiration of God.
Jesus wanted us to “lose our lives for his sake in order to save them.” Some have taken this as Matthew’s “tip of the hat” to the martyrs, but I believe it has meaning for us who aren’t being oppressed as well.
If we choose to live with an awareness of our true identity—that of an interconnected Creation of God, A true “Body of Christ,” then we will in a sense “lose our lives.” I believe Jesus uses the conundrum about “saving our life to lose it and losing our life to gain it,” in order to enhance the depth of our identity.
Christ sees the connections in the world. Whereas most philosophers of his day wanted to draw a line between pure and impure, Jesus taught that those lines didn’t exist. When the world was separated between men and women, Jesus associated openly with both, and spoke of “the two becoming one.”
Jesus intends for us to see beyond our self imposed “lines of demarcation” as see the whole. Jesus wanted us to see the forest and the trees. Though we typically think of our identity as an individual, Jesus asks us to be aware of our collective identity. The church, like Moses, and like Jesus, possesses an identity that puts us at odds with our surroundings. God asks us to identify with the poor, with the aliens, with the oppressed. Thinking of ourselves as “part” of these people’s problem as well as part of their solution is what it means to be the church. Thinking of ourselves as a part of them rather than apart from them is what it means to claim our Christian identity
God called me to perservere in the midst of great fear on the highways of Kansas. God’s presence was made manifest to me in a startling way. The experience was a formational part of my calling into “set apart ministry.” It has opened my eyes and mind to the fact that our prayers make a difference in the world. It was given me a vision of my identity as an interconnected part of God’s Body, God’s Creation.

Proper A16 Be Not Conformed

I was watching “Good Times” on television today. The episode showed James stumbling upon a large sum of cash that had been lost by the local convenience store. After he returned the cash, he was shown on the news as a “local hero,” but the family’s neighbors didn’t think so highly of his decision. (It turns out that the grocer who lost the money has a bad reputation around town.) Amidst the ridicule among the neighbors, James reveals that he has kept a portion of the sum of money that he found, and a disagreement erupts between James and Florida. James insists that they need the money more than the corrupt grocer anyway, and Florida argues that their family can’t afford to steal. The program ends with Florida’s beautiful summary of Paul’s text today. James tells her, “You know what Florida, It’s a cold world out there, and we can’t change it!” Florida responds, “Well maybe we can’t change it James, but we sure can keep it from changing us!”
The subject of Christ and culture has perplexed most of us who practice the faith over the past century. Theologians have written classics texts taught in most seminaries like, “Christ and Culture,” and most parishioners have also felt the struggle between what is demanded of us by our faith versus what is demanded of us by our culture. Perhaps it is familiar to us, sitting in the comparative lap of luxury, to understand the severity of the position of the church in Rome. Although the church was persecuted, many of the believers in Rome came from privilege. Paul, himself a Roman, knew the persuasive pull of “just fitting in.” Indeed, he was able to use his status as a Roman citizen on more than one occasion in order to get out of a jam. Yet, he was unmistakably opposed to the Christian church “conforming” to what it meant to be a Roman. It was indeed a cold world out there, and Paul knew his people could keep it from changing them. Instead, Christians astounded the culture in which they dwelt by their uncompromising warmth. One of the earliest known mentions by an “outsider” in historical record of the Christian movement was, “Look at those Christians, see how they love one another!” Early Christians in Rome were known to shun the gladiator games (even before they were being slaughtered at them). Also, when epidemics would hit the city, and most of the people who could leave and avoid the contagious illnesses, Christians were known to stay in the cities and care for the sick and dying. Their faith was counter-cultural in that they were consciously striving to imitate Christ—which meant they put themselves on the line to show Christ’s love to the world.
How do we witness to Christ’s love in this modern day Empire? How do we know what to avoid and what to utilize in order to magnify Christ’s presence in the world?
The renewing of our minds is a stance against the stale conformity to the hollowness of this culture. The impulse we feel perpetuated by “this world” may be to conform to the givens. However, God’s vision for the future is often not couched in our expectations, but in an original creativity. When I was an assistant chaplain at Occidental college in Los Angeles, I created a student discussion group called “Spirituality in the Age of Consumerism.” It seems that many young people in this day and age feel not only opportunity, but constraint by the enormity of the “information age.” Most of us have absorbed to a certain extent the mantra of this culture. Though it may feel like the ultimate freedom, we are becoming more and more indentured to the God of mammon—the God of wealth. Did you know that the average child is bombarded by ……………………..put stats in here about advertising………………The point of consumer culture is that we aren’t ________enough without any given product. It may be blatant, or it may be couched in a tremendous amount of glitter, but the point is usually the same: we are told an enormous amount of times that we need what “they” can give us in order to be happy, better, prettier, healthier, etc. etc. etc.
How do we break the mold? How do we “become transformed by the renewing of our minds?”
Most of us live our lives as if we are on a rote schedule. Opening ourselves to the magnitude of the present moment is difficult because of the sheer gravity of what each moment contains. If we are to be guided by the God’s persuasion though, we must develop a discipline of “renewing our minds” through the discipline of meditation and contemplation. This takes time, energy, and concentration. Though the “cold world out there” is more than willing to offer us a sedative to deaden God’sr pull toward genuine creativity, the legacy of Christ is to rise above these distractions in order to perceive and make real the kingdom of God.
The Gospel message today contained those penetrating words, “Who do you say that I am?” The question of Jesus’ identity is as up in the air in this day and age as it was when Christ asked the question to his original disciples.
The Gospel passage also considers the influence of the world around us on our relationship with God. Jesus first asks his disciples about what the world thinks about him. “Who do they say I am,” he asks. They reply with the rumors—some spectacular, but none quite spectacular enough. Then he turns to them and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” The question begs for internalization. Matthew undoubtedly points the question at the hearers of the Gospel. The message is clear—it’s not what the world thinks about this man, it is about our own confession. Our culture may pigeonhole Jesus in a particular political party. It may claim that he hates certain kinds of people because of who they may love. Whatever the world claims Jesus is, this passage asks us instead to go inside our hearts and see what the Christ is to our own experience.
Jesus praises Peter’s answer not because he got the right answer on a multiple choice pop quiz. He praises Peter because he gives answers Jesus with divine inspiration, not the conventional wisdom. Jesus says, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed these things to you, but my Father in Heaven.” This is when Simon bin Jonah earns the name “Rock.” The solid conviction to follow one’s own heart over the learned opinions of the world is a foundational prospect on which Jesus can build a movement. It is on this counter cultural, self-probing revelation that the movement of Christ begins in the world. It would continue through community of believers who refused to the death to buy into the corruption of the Empire simply to “fit in.” The same temptation exists in our current cultural context. We can join the crowds flocking to easy answers about Jesus. There are plenty of people who are willing to tell us who Jesus is. However, Matthew’s witness is that Jesus is asking us individually. When I consider this question, I am reminded of the Orthodox icon of Christ Pantokrator that has one eye softened, and one eyebrow cocked in interrogation.

It is as if one eye welcomes me with a warm embrace, and the other bores a hole through my soul like a laser. My answer to the question is received by a compassionate Christ, and at the same time judged by the lasting effects that my answer puts into motion. How I answer the question either adds to God’s Vision for the world, or it impedes its growth. “Who do you say I am?” he asks. Our life, God’s growth, the good of creation depends on our answer.
In the ritual of we are about to practice, Christ’s identity is proclaimed as present and presence. Through it, we mark and celebrate the one who has recently embarked on the journey of physical and spiritual life as a member of our family. WE believe that our family, our lives, are the answer to Christ’s question in this day and age. Who do you say that I am? We answer in the celebration of Baptism—we answer with a resounding “Us!” The presence of Christ in the world grows larger and stronger and more vibrant with each glowing life that we recognize as a member of the body of Christ.
The culture of conformity to consumption in which we live may try to convince us that we are nothing, that we are lacking, that we need only what it can give us. The culture of Christ—The culture of the church says that we don’t need to do or buy or pretend to be anything in order to belong. We are accepted as God’s children as easily as water trickles over our heads. In Baptism, we are washed of our plastic identities that this world attempts to convince us of and instead we “put on Christ.” We put on the presence of the real and living God who dwells and breathes among us.

Order of worship from "Movement of the Spirit"

Welcome to….
Movement of the Spirit

An Interactive Worship Experience

Aug. 21, 2005: Focus

Please find seat on the couch and read the introduction before beginning.

You’re probably wondering what to do.

How long has it been since you’ve had this feeling? Is it hesitancy? Is it excitement? Before you scan down this guide to try and figure out what it is that you’re “supposed to do,” simply taste this moment. You may want to find a place to simply sit with the feeling for some time. Remember when you’ve had it before. Interactive worship asks that we open ourselves to an experience. It asks us to participate—but it does not tell us exactly what we should be getting out of the experience. Take a moment now in silence or prayer or journaling to ask yourself, “Why am I here?” What does my intuition tell me about God’s Vision for me in this particular place and time? The theme of this first evening of interactive worship is FOCUS. God’s Vision for our lives is in crystal clear focus. Sometimes we have to take time to shift our own focus in order to see God’s Vision. As you sit in silence before moving to the stations, imagine yourself looking through a camera, turning the manual focus in the attempt to find a clear picture.

Station 1 A life out of focus

Paul writes to the Romans to live a “life according to the Spirit” rather than a “life according to the flesh.” Later, he tells them to “be not conformed to this world (or time), but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so you may discern what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
What in your life distracts you from living a “life of the Spirit?” When Paul writes for us to “be not conformed to this time,” what is it that immediately comes into your mind? On the back of an index card, write or make a symbol, or cut out from one of the magazines something you feel best represents that struggle. Light a small candle with the central candle, and hang the index card on the clothesline. When we share the weight of our struggles, we can all bear the load.

Station 2: The Sound of Silence

There are the usual places we think we know where to find the voice of God—It has always been this way. Read 1 Kings 19: 9-18. Elijah’s people had heard the voice of God in all the places that Elijah observed in the cave, but Elijah had patience to listen for the authentic word of God, even if it was not coming through the channels he was used to. We have a lot of noise in this day and age. Many of us feel uncomfortable in the complete silence. Yet God asks us to wait there for guidance. If we are able to quiet our minds, we may be able to discern the still, small voice that is there in every moment. This is the voice that gives us encouragement, guidance, affirmation. Sometimes we attempt to block it out with any number of things, and sometimes we simply pay attention to the “loudest” earthquakes, windstorms, and fires. Use the noise reducing headphones to cut out the noise, then trace the lines of the labyrinth with the stick or your finger, or simply reflect on the “thunder and fire and earthquake” in which you may have not been able to discern the Word of God.

Station 3: Eyes on the Prize

Read Matthew 14: 22-33. You probably notice that Peter is able to walk on water until he becomes distracted by the crashing waves and storm around him. When he does lose his focus, he begins to sink. When have you felt so in tune with Christ that you have felt like you were able to “walk on water?” It is easy to lose focus and start sinking, but Christ will be there to grab our outstretched hand if we only call on him.
In front of you is an icon. Icons are usually 2 dimensional because the painters want the 3rd dimension (the one that gives depth) to actually fall in front of the face pictured instead of behind the face pictured. The aim is that our engagement with the icon will actually complete the painting. Focus on the eyes of Christ in this icon before you. Picture your contemplation of the icon forming the depth dimension. When you’re ready, take a leaf (be careful, they’re sharp.) and set it afloat in the punch bowl as an act of “stepping out of the boat.”

Station 4: Focused with New Vision
(Located in sanctuary)

Read Mark 8: 22-26 at the altar. Even those healed by the hands of Jesus sometimes took some time to adjust the focus of their new vision. The spiritual world of the invisible is not some infinitely far off kingdom; instead it everywhere surrounds us as an ocean; and we are like creatures lost on the bottom of the ocean floor while everywhere is streaming upward the fullness of a grace steadily growing brighter. But from the habit of immature spiritual sight, we fail to see the light bearing kingdom; most often, we fail even to assume that it exists, and therefore we only sense unclearly in our hearts the spiritual currents of what is really happening around us. As you kneel here, take the binoculars and focus them in on the center of the cross. Sometimes it takes us some time to focus in on the message of the cross, but when we do, it becomes so clear to us.

Peace to you and good night.
Next week we’ll have a traditional Bible study in preparation for another interactive worship service that you can help create. Even if you consider yourself “not very creative,” please come anyway. Remember, you have just created your own worship experience with your open heart. See you next week at 7pm in the fellowship hall.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I used my icon to illuminate the story of Peter coming to Jesus on the water. Participants were asked to meditate on the eyes of Christ, then set a leaf in the water, symbolizing the "step out of the boat."  Posted by Picasa

here's the message on the center of the cross.  Posted by Picasa

Part of our first "experiential worship." This station had a Bible open to the Mark passage where Jesus heals a blind man who at first sees "trees walking around as people." The theme of the evening was "focus" and this was kind of the grand finale. It was dark, and participants had to use a flashlight and a pair of binoculars to focus on the center of the cross. the note on the cross is pictured. The worship guide said something like, "Sometime it is hard to focus on the message of the cross, but when we do it becomes so clear to us."  Posted by Picasa

My sister celebrating Arkansas life before she moved to NYC Posted by Picasa

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Proper A15, August 14 sermon, "What comes out of our mouths"

Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me.

I remember my mother drilling this into me as a kid. I’m sure you are unsurprised to learn that I was a dorky, nerdy little kid, and so that little mantra was an important part of helping me develop a good self esteem despite the fact that I’d heard a lot of taunts and jokes.

Despite my mother’s best intentions, I’m afraid the mantra is a bit off the mark. It’s a little bit of wishful thinking. Words can and do hurt us, sometimes more than broken bones. The words don’t have to be dirty words that we might hesitate to utter in this church building. Sometimes they are simple words that carry a large weight in meaning. “You can’t,” or “You should.” Sometimes even nice words can be hurtful if they are turned sideways with the intention of cutting.

Christ was sick of the religious know it alls claiming to know all about purity. God’s statutes carried down through the ages were designed to preserve a people, but Jesus saw them destroying community. The Pharisees observed the fact that Jesus and his disciples neglected to wash their hands before eating. They had probably noticed the repulsive filth that Jesus chose to fraternize with, and were especially concerned that those types were washed off of your hands before one put food and drink into the body, which was a temple of God.

Jesus knew that the Temple of God was soiled more by our intentions than by our observance of ritual and custom. What proceeds from the mouth comes from the heart, but what goes into the mouth merely passes through our body. The rituals we believe make us holy and acceptable in the eyes of God are merely transitory, but the words that we say are permanent impressions left on the world. Do we hear this message today?

Last week I spoke briefly about the miracle of speech and the tremendous power that we weald when we utilize our unique power of words. In our Romans text last week, Paul spoke of saying aloud the “welcoming word to God.” Today we learn that it is what comes out of our mouth that defiles us. Jesus doesn’t define these things that come out of our mouths “words,” he calls them evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. If “words” may never hurt me, then why does Jesus equate them with murder? Have you ever murdered someone with your mouth? I would suggest that many of us have at one time or another. We get so carried away with voicing our anger or our frustrations that we may indeed find ourselves alone. We’ve murdered our relationships and people have fallen away from us one by one. Have you ever committed adultery with your words? Many of us have spoken with lust and desire about a person other than our spouse, many of us in heated arguments have said things to our spouse that we may later regret. How does this amount to adultery? Jesus tells us that it does! You see, God’s temple within us is attempting to bubble up affirmation, hope, agape. When we force aside these things in favor of gossip or rumors or lies or hurtful words, we desecrate God’s temple within us. This is what Jesus means my defiling the heart. The heart is such a strange organ isn’t it. It wields such power to hurt or to heal. It seems as though it is connected directly to our throats. Sometimes I wish it’s products went through my brain first though!

Today I’m calling you to respond to this sermon in an interactive kind of way. On this altar is a trash can. Traditionally we’ve put on the altar those things which are most important to us—we celebrate the scripture and the Lord’s table on the altar. In the days of Jesus, a sacrifice was made on the altar in the Temple for the sins of Israel. Today I’d like us to offer a tangible form of repentance on this altar. Take some time while the following song is playing to remember an instance in your life when you have let your words defile the dwelling place of the Holy within you. Your heart has a long memory. Though we may convince our minds to forget our darkest moments, they make an imprint on our heart that can only be relieved by God’s forgiving grace. God’s forgiveness is so much more sweet when we reconcile or wrongs within the community. We have all said things that have hurt others, sometimes in spite, sometimes in ignorance, sometimes in frustration. Let your heart search itself for a time when it gave birth to words that defile. Write those words on the slips of paper that I have put in the pews, then bring it to the urn here on the altar. I will take these papers and burn them and add the ashes to the burned palms for our imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday next year. If the Holy Spirit leads you to do so, and if that person that you spoke hurtfully to is in this congregation of people, you might take this time to go to that person and open your heart to them and let them know that you are ashamed of what you said. Private confession with God allows for a certain degree of release, but I can tell you from experience that verbalized confession has the tendency to bring a great outpouring of release from the weight of the sin. As the song “Sanctuary” plays, you may join in singing if you wish. The words bring home the message of today’s scripture. We call on God’s grace to prepare us to be the Sanctuaries of God’s Spirit. The things that come out of our mouth that defile this sanctuary cannot be erased—but they can be forgiven. We cannot take back the words that we give life to, but we can add other words of repentance, hope, love, compassion, and joy. If we continue to ask for God’s preparation in our lives, God’s inspiration will guide us toward more filling and creative lives.

Proper A14, Aug 7 sermon--"Stepping out of the Boat"

IN the richly symbolic world of Matthew’s audience, most of the original hearers of the Gospel would understand there is more to this story than what is on the surface. We see the stormy sea in the scriptures several times. At the beginning of Genesis, the stormy sea is the uncreated world. God’s Breath sweeps across the watery chaos and creates order. Jonah is thrown out of the boat when the sea is turbulent as a sacrifice to an angry god. The image of a stormy sea means something to the mind of the ancient people. It is a mental cue as rich for Matthew’s original audience as the image of the world trade center is for us. When Christ calls Peter out onto the sea, the ancient people would be amazed that first of all Jesus is walking on the stormy sea, and secondly that Christ calls Peter out of the boat and into the chaos. This symbolism would certainly point to the Divinity of Jesus. Who else but God has power over the turbulent chaos?
The image of the boat has deeper meaning for the original Christians as well. The boat was a symbol for the church, for the community of believers. This boat was indeed navigating a stormy sea in Matthew’s community’s era. The Christians were beginning to be disenfranchised from the mother faith, Judaism. The Romans recognized and respected the authenticity of Judaism, but they did not allow for “unofficial religions.” Therefore, as the distance between “The Way” (What early Christians called their religon) and Judaism grew, the more danger the Christian communities were in by the empire. It didn’t help that the Christians worshipped a man who was crucified for insurrection as an incarnation of God.
The boat was a safe place. The storm outside was the embodiement of Chaos. Peter wanted Jesus to invite him out into the chaos when he saw what Jesus could do. This was ultimately meaningful for the early Christians. Peter was the “everyman” of the Gospels. He had ample weaknesses to match his greatness. He was the legendary pillar of the early church—yet he was also portrayed by the gospels as the one who often stuck his foot in his mouth. Now as then, many Christians could identify with the character of Peter, and this is the intention of the gospel writers.
Matthew is the only evangelist who writes about this encounter with Peter in this story. John and Mark also write about the disciples encountering Jesus walking on the water and calming the sea—but Matthew is the only Gospel writer who tells us this bit about Peter. What could he be saying through this unique account?
If we are willing, if we ask our Christ to call to us to step out of the boat—Christ will do it! The Christ walk is an adventurous path. Through stormy seas, in the face of multitudes, among the diseased and deranged—Christ is not just a soft lap or a cuddly embrace. Matthew wants his audience to know that Christ calls us to look through our fears and see the face of Christ pulling us forward. Though the obstacles may be insurmountable, and though we may be afraid—Christ is amidst the Chaos, and will challenge us to walk with him.
This summer I’ve been reading the Chronicles of Narnia. I saw a preview for a movie version of the book coming out this winter, and I wanted to make sure I was fresh on the story before I went to see it. Something stuck out to me in the children’s novel that really reminds me of today’s passage. As many of you know who’ve read the book, two brothers and two sisters, Peter, Edward, Susan, and Lucy, stumble upon the enchanting land of Narnia inside an old wardrobe. A wicked ice queen has anointed herself the ruler of Narnia, and has plunged the whole land into an eternal winter. Another main character of the book is Aslan the Lion—the mystical creature king and savior of Narnia, who according to the author, CS Lewis, is a Christ figure. As the four children are learning more about Narnia and the legend of Aslan from their friends Mr. And Mrs Beaver, one of the children asks the question. “This Aslan—is he quite safe?” Mrs. Beaver responds, “Aslan? He’s a lion—of course he’s not safe: but he’s good.”
Getting out of the boat may not be safe. In other words, getting out of the boat may mean leaving our feeling of security behind—but we are promised that Christ is with us even in our fears—if we concentrate on the presence and power of Christ, we have the potential to do things we may find utterly impossible.
Where do you see disciples walking on water today? Perhaps you may think of missionaries braving hostile environments or people to do the work of Christ. Perhaps you may think of relief workers rushing to the scenes that may not be secured. Perhaps you may think of military chaplains bringing the hope of Christ to our soldiers in the midst of death and destruction. Perhaps historical figures like Martin Luther King. We may think of ourselves as one of the other 11 in the boat watching Peter and Jesus taking a risk.
I want you to look in the mirror when you hear about Peter’s journey though. When have you ventured out with faith even in the midst of your fears? When have you called to Jesus—if it is you—command me to come to you? The storms raging around us aren’t always monumental earth shattering events. Sometimes it may be giving a ride to someone walking in the heat loaded down with groceries, when the Spirit moves your heart to do so. Perhaps it may be reaching out to someone who is different than we are, even though our social norms may frown upon socializing with “those types,” Perhaps it may just be getting out of bed in the morning in the midst of a bout with depression.
There’s another part to this story though. Peter doesn’t just jive right over to Jesus on top of the crashing waves. It gets to him! He loses his focus on the powerful pull of Christ, and instead starts sinking in the churning sea. Terrified, he cries, “Master, save me!” Master, save me! Those words—that familiar prayer in the midst of failure!
Here’s the beautiful thing about this man, the Christ. Jesus wasn’t some guru high on his own cosmic consciousness. He didn’t let Peter sink for attempting something so bold. He plunged his hands down immediately and lifted him up! I like Peterson’s version—“Jesus didn’t hesitate. He reached down and grabbed his hand and said, “Faint-heart, what got into you!” I think Peterson gets the tone of Jesus’ reprimand better than our usual translation, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Faint heart, what got into you? It’s not so chastising, it is more familiar and more characteristic of this teacher and friend we call a savior. Aslan is not safe, but he is good. The lion may be fierce and terrifying, but he has a soft spot in his heart for the four: Peter, Lucy, Edward, and Susan. When we falter amidst our storms, when we lose focus on the eyes of our master and begin to sink back into our individual chaos, we can always call on the name of our savior. Master, save me! Paul tells us to say aloud the welcoming words to God, Jesus is my master!
Speaking aloud our faith. Giving it full expression. Not only in the corner of our minds, but in the vibration of our throats. Calling on the sweet name of our master puts our prayer out in the open. We alter the world around us when we speak something aloud. I think this is why Jesus says, “IT is not what goes in your mouth but what comes out of it that defiles you.” The Holy Breath which gives us life is created afresh by the powerful minds that God bestowed on us. We are uniquely proficient among all of creation for forming the breath into a myriad of sounds. When we speak words of hatred and violence and ignorance, we give powerful creation to hatred, violence and ignorance. However, When we speak aloud our hope and faith and love, it changes the pattern of air in front of us. Voicing our innermost beliefs actually changes our environment—good or bad. What a gift it is to have the power of speech! If we are in need, then say it—don’t be ashamed to say it aloud. “Master, save me!” We are all in need, and by the grace of God, Christ is ready to pull us out of the chaos, ready to pull our feet out of the dark, churning sea of fear itself.
To prove it to us, Christ offers himself in a real and tangible way. Christ instituted the celebration of communion to let us always be aware that he is so close to us that we can taste it. We may have mouths full of the salt water of fear—we may have choked on our fear as we were sinking, but Christ is here to give us mouth to mouth resuscitation! In the eating of this meal together, Christ is really here among us, walking us back to the boat.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Process and Faith Lectionary Study

Here's something that I've been wrestling with lately. I was honored to be asked to do it, but honestly, it's eating me alive trying to keep up with it and sermon writing, and being sick, and everything else that invaded my life in the past week.
Process and Faith Lectionary Study

Monday, August 01, 2005

Praying With our Eyes Wide Open. Proper A12 Sermon July 24

Paul states in today’s passage that there’s nothing that separates us from the love of God. Nothing stands between us. God’s Love is consistently emenating toward us. This is why I accentuate the Holy Spirit as the “Breath of God” in my own thinking and prayer life, and why you’ve heard so much about it from me. For many of us, it is a re-orientation of thinking to perceive of God’s Spirit as something that is as tangible and present to us as the very air we breathe. But, our Scriptures point us in this direction, the Psalmist writes that “as God give us breath, we have life, and when God takes back that Breath, our life is taken back into God.” For me, envisioning my life as a “Breath of God” has been an enriching insight. There’s a Muslim saying that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. That is both a comforting thought and an uncomfortable thought. Perhaps the association with the “jugular vein” makes things a little uneasy. It makes me think that my life is entirely my own….well, perhaps that’s the point!
Paul begins today’s passage by saying that even though we don’t know how to pray, this Spirit, this Breath of Life, seemingly enters into our lungs and prays “with sighs too deep for words.” It doesn’t matter that we may get caught up in our own needs and wants and prejudices and errors in our prayer life. God knows what we need, and God’s Spirit interacts with us so deeply, so intensely, that our prayers are influenced by the inaudible “sighs of the Spirit” even if we aren’t aware.
Something I told the VBS this week stayed in my mind for a while, it jumped around in my heart a little, and from these stirrings, I reckon it must be something that I should share with us as a congregation as well.
I asked the kids if we were supposed to pray in a certain posture, and was met with a resounding “NO!” It is good that the children have a sense of what is important to God, and prayer posture certainly isn’t it. It may be important for us to have a certain way to pray so that we can prepare ourselves for being with God in a communicative way.
Some may pray with hands open in front, some may pray with elbows on knees hunched. When we are children, we are usually taught to pray with our hands folded and eyes closed. I explained to the children that we are probably taught this way so that we can shut off the racing of our minds and concentrate on what God has to say to us. There is certainly a use for this kind of prayer, and it has been the dominant form of prayer in our church. If not hands folded, then certainly eyes shut. We are so accustomed to this form of praryer, that usually we preface our prayers with “Will you bow with me in prayer?” It has become our custom to pray in this way.
Yet, if we think of things a little differently, if we allow our “custom” to be flexible in some way, it may give the Spirit enough room in our life of prayer to get in there and shake things up a bit. (That is after all what the Spirit likes to do). Perhaps we may even be able to attune our ears to the “sighs too deep for words”
I remember what a revelation it was to me when I was a teenager and heard or read somewhere that Native Americans pray with their eyes open instead of closed. Now, whatever source it was that I got this information was certainly generalizing—of course there are Native Americans who pray with their eyes closed. I’ve seen a lot of United Methodist Native Americans praying just like most United Methodists, in the familiar head down, shut eyes fashion. But, traditionally, so I’m told, in the native spirituality of the Native peoples, prayer is an eyes open type of experience because it is an acknowledgement of the Great Spirit’s presence in the things that surround us.
In many Indian cultures, God is experienced in the Rain, in the Mountains, in the Wind, in the Animals we come into contact with. It was probably this sense of the Sacred in the World around us that confused many of the Christian pioneers who came into contact with the Native Peoples and decided they needed to be missionized. I agree that we as a Christian church had something very special and enriching in the Gospel to share with the Native Americans, but at that time, the Spirituality that we Christians were wanting to give to the Native peoples was a very “closed eyes” kind of faith. Perhaps God’s intention was not only for us to share our love of the Gospel with the Native People, but perhaps it was also to let the Native people share their worldview with us as well!
When I started praying with my eyes open, I started looking at the world in a different way. Instead of being something to distract my mind from a good intellectual, strictly verbal relationship with God, I began to understand what the Psalmist meant by “O taste and see that God is good.” When I started to pray with my eyes open, I began to see God’s face in the faces around me, I began to feel God’s presence in the warm sunshine or the refreshing rain, I began to taste God’s complexity and bounty in a blueberry or an ear of corn. I began to hear God’s voice in Beethoven’s symphonies.
In short, when I prayed with my eyes open, I began to LIVE MY LIFE as a prayer. I began to see what Paul meant when he said, “38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing separates us from the Love of God. For me, this revelation came with a change in my prayer life. And for me, it was like finding a treasure in a field that I had previously experienced as empty. It was a surprising pearl to my life.
Living our life aware of God’s close proximity to us is a life in the Spirit, as we have been talking about over the past few weeks. It is a Kingdom life, a life that reveals God’s Kingdom to the world. Jesus said that God’s Kindom is here in our midst, and we have not opened our eyes to it. Opening my eyes in prayer was for me the precious glimpse into God’s kingdom.
When I mentioned this kind of prayer to the children in VBS, I looked over the congregation at these fresh faces, these innocent eyes, these children who seem to know more about God than anybody. As I prayed, open eyed, with them—my heart was filled, God’s Spirit in them was made visible for me, and I thanked God for the opportunity to be with them during this past week. In the clear, knowing eyes of children lies a life attuned to this prayerful life.
Children experience wonder in the world, and this wonder in the world is something that seemingly evades us in our adult years. We become used to it all. The magic of the world around us loses its luster for some reason. We become “grown up” and forget about the mystery and excellence of our surroundings.
I remember when I was a kid, I used to look at the roots of trees that crawled out over the ground, and I’d imagine the world it must be for all the bugs that lived in the tree’s shade. I remember looking at clouds for hours. For me, flying in airplanes was a late experience in life, so fortunately I haven’t lost the child like wonder when looking out the window at the earth from 30,000 feet. Seeing the rivers and patches of farms and mountains, and the billowy clouds--Remember when we used to see the whole world that way from 4 feet up in the air?
In the acknowledgement of the wonder and mystery of life itself, the Spirit sighs deeply in us. We return thanks to God in the acknowledgement of our place among this magical Creation of God. In the human family, the complexity of which baffles us with mystery and wonder as well. Meister Eckhart, a German mystic of the 14th century, said, “IF I spent enough time with a caterpillar, I’d never need to preach another sermon in my life.” When we are astounded, when we are baffled, when we are engaged by the world, by the face of God in the faces around us, that is when we can hear the “Sighs too deep for words.” That is when we can attune ourselves to God’s prayer for us!
I invite us today to be in an eyes open attitude of prayer while we celebrate the Baptism of Garrett Elisha. The ritual of Baptism is more than the words that I’m saying or that we’re saying together. The ritual involves the sound of the water being poured into the basin. It involves the touch of water to the head. It involves the laying on of hands, it involves the sight of the water dripping down the forehead. It is not an intellectual exercise, it is a stirring of the heart, it is the welcoming into a family! We have a hands on, living faith. It is rich in sounds, smells, sights, tastes. If we open our prayer life to this bold reality, I believe we will be touched by the Spirit in a special way! Thanks be to God!