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!