Schrödinger’s God (sermon 5/31/15 – Trinity Sunday)

heresykitten

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. – John 3:1-17

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Well this is kind of a double-whammy for preaching in the church calendar. Last week, we had to try to understand what exactly was going on at Pentecost, and now, just one week later, it’s Trinity Sunday and I guess we’re supposed to clear up the mystery of the Trinity. The idea of the Trinity, that in some indescribably way, God is simultaneously one, and three – the exclusive one, indivisible, eternal “Being,” or Essence, of God; while simultaneously the three distinct “Persons”, or Identities, or whatever. We heard this particular gospel text today because it’s one of the few places we find where these three aspects of the Trinity are referred to so closely together. The problem, of course, with this indescribable mystery is that it can’t be left indescribable. In order to explain what it is you’re trying to say about God, and in order to teach people in the faith what it means, you have to try to describe it. You have to find some kind of parallel or illustration to explain it. You’ve probably heard some of these illustrations: The Trinity is like water, which is one thing that can exist in three different states of solid, liquid, and gas. Or another one is that God is like a single actor who plays three different parts in a play, who steps onto stage in one of three different costumes and one of three different masks, at different times in the production. Or, God is like salad dressing: take some oil, some vinegar, and some water; shake them all up together, and you’ve got a single tasty thing.

You could go on listing illustrations like this all day long that people have used to try to explain the Trinity, but every single one of them ends up misrepresenting some theological concept that the doctrine of the Trinity is trying to affirm, or deny, about God’s nature. Every one of them will either overemphasize the “Threeness” of God over the “Oneness,” or vice versa; or it will violate some other theological concept about God. The early church fathers looked at what the scriptures said about God’s oneness, and what they perceived about Jesus. They saw Jesus praying to a God he called Father, and yet when asked about seeing and knowing this Father, Jesus told people if they’ve seen him, they’ve seen the Father. They looked at what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit, and they came up with this doctrine of the Trinity to explain it. In doing so, they created a doctrine where you have to believe two things that contradict each other both exist simultaneously. You have to believe that X, and the opposite of X, are simultaneously true. If you saw this week’s Westminstergram, you saw that it included a funny picture about the preacher’s dilemma every Trinity Sunday. It’s impossible to try to explain the Trinity without falling into one misrepresentation, one heresy, or another. So as the picture suggested, maybe the best thing a preacher could do is to not even try – to just throw up their hands, keep their mouths shut, and just distract the congregation by showing pictures of cats doing cute things.

If pushed to explain the Trinity, most Christians would describe an arrangement where God the Father is the President and CEO of Eternity Incorporated, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are God’s two Executive Vice Presidents. But that’s heresy according to orthodox belief, which says they’re all equal. In theological terms, most professing Christians are actually functional Unitarians. And we might as well be honest with ourselves and admit that a lot of Christians, whether they admit it or not, have chucked the whole idea of the Trinity, saying it’s just an outmoded way that ancient people tried to explain God that wasn’t even very adequate from the start; that if a concept is so impossible to really explain, then that’s a pretty big clue that the theory is wrong and that you need to go back to the theological drawing board. There are many modern Christians, and many people who have rejected the Christian faith specifically because of the doctrine of the Trinity, who say that God gave us brains and intellect for a reason, and that God-given reason points pretty strongly to the conclusion that the whole idea of the Trinity is nonsense. Two things that are by definition opposites can’t simultaneously be true. Something just can’t simultaneously be two opposite things, the way the Trinity requires.

And yet… that same God-given intellect has given us the science of quantum physics – the study of matter and energy at their smallest, even subatomic level that began in the early 20th century which has shown that at this smallest scale, objects don’t function according to the same set of rules of classical physics. One of the things that quantum physics pointed to was that, in fact, some completely contradictory things were able to be simultaneously true. Quantum physics suggested that matter could somehow move from point A to point B without ever having moved through the space between them. It also predicted that subatomic particles could actually, literally, be in two places at the same time. Understanding the world through the lens of quantum physics, everything seems less real and solid, and things become a series of probabilities, something that goes against the way we’d always thought reality works. When all this was first proposed back in the early 20th century, the noted physicist Erwin Schrödinger thought at least part of the idea was ridiculous, and he formulated a thought experiment to illustrate his objection. Now bear with me, this is going to get a bit tricky…Take a hypothetical cat and place it in a hypothetical sealed box, he said, along with a vial of poison gas, a Geiger counter, and a single atom of a radioactive material that had a half-life of one hour – in other words, in one hour the subatomic particles of the atom would be expected to decay under the laws of conventional physics. When the atom decayed, the Geiger counter would register it, and it would trigger a hammer mechanism that would break the vial of poison and kill the cat. But according to quantum physics – and I’m skipping over a whole lot of detail here – because it’s impossible to say how the subatomic particle will react – whether it will or will not decay at the one-hour mark. This is what the quantum physicists call subatomic indeterminancy. That would mean that at the one hour point, the atom would have to be said to both have decayed and not decayed. And if you extended that same logic to the larger things, Schrödinger argued, it would be just as logical to say that you couldn’t know if the vial had been broken or not, so it existed in a state of simultaneously being broken and unbroken, and ultimately, that while it was still sealed up in the box, unobserved, the cat was simultaneously dead and alive.

It was a ridiculous idea, to be sure. And yet, since Schrödinger’s day, scientists have proven that at least at the atomic and subatomic levels, matter and energy really do behave that way – things that are opposites actually can be simultaneously true; something can move from point A to point B without actually transporting through the space between; something actually can be in more than one place, I more than one way of existing, at the same time.

And if the laws governing existence at the smallest levels can be different from the way we exist in our visible world, why couldn’t the way God exists violate the laws that apply on our own level? Why couldn’t the God who created a cosmos where quantum physics in in force in the micro level exist under similar parameters in the macro level of divine being? Maybe in the doctrine of the Trinity, the ancient church fathers accidentally got closer to the truth of God’s existence than they could have ever known.

Whatever your own understanding about the Trinity might be, personally, I think it comes down to this: If you can conceive and believe in a God who is the ground and source of all creation, who has acted to be in loving relationship and reconciliation with that creation; and who continues to penetrate into and dwell within, and guide, and inspire, and comfort the beings in that creation; and that this God has eternally, constantly been doing all those things simultaneously; then I think you believe the theological underpinning that the early church was trying to convey in the doctrine of the Trinity.

In the end, that’s the best explanation I can offer. That’s the best I can do. If that isn’t good enough, and I have to resort to distracting you all with pictures of a cat, I guess it will have to be Schrödinger’s – now, all I have to do is figure out whether the darned thing is dead or alive.

Thanks be to God.

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Pentecost (sermon May 24, 2015)

Pentecost - Lubbenau

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?… In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  – Acts 2:1-8, 11b-18

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Well, last Sunday we had little green cards, and this Sunday we have big red… well, big red everything, because it’s Pentecost Sunday. We know what Pentecost is all about for us Christians; what’s going on in that passage from Acts that I told to the kids; right? The story takes place after Jesus has ascended, and now his followers are gathered in Jerusalem to observe the Jewish festival of Pentecost, that was always fifty days after Passover. It was both a thanksgiving for the grain harvest, as well as a celebration of the covenant that God made with Moses at Mount Sinai. And while they’re gathered together, they’ve finished their morning devotions, maybe they’re sitting around having some breakfast, scanning the paper, checking Facebook while they have a cup of coffee, this amazing thing happens. This incredible, indescribable thing that Luke and his sources can only describe as something like a roaring wind. Today, any time the roaring wind of a tornado rolls through somewhere and tears everything to bits, the news crews show up in the aftermath and it seems like every time, there’s always somebody who tells them “It sounded just like a freight train!” But since they didn’t have freight trains in first-century Jerusalem, Luke was stuck for a simile and just had to settle for “it was like the rush of a violent wind,” and let it go at that.

And then, according to the story, things get really weird.

Something like tongues of fire hover over all their heads, and they ran out of the house and into the street and started speaking in different languages that the religious pilgrims visiting from many different countries were able to understand as they stood there watching the scene unfold.

Thinking about this story, it’s pretty easy to see why Pentecost is sometimes called the “birthday of the church.” A bunch of people were sitting around minding their own business, when all of a sudden God lights a fire under them – well, technically, over them – to get them out of the house and out into the street, and to start sharing God’s good news with others in a way that they can understand it, and all the while them not really understanding exactly how it was all happening. I mean, think about it – other than a potluck and a committee meeting or two, that’s a pretty good description of what the church is all about, or at least what it should be all about.

The Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of God, comes to dwell within them and empowers them, energizes them in ways they’d never imagined possible. And this story continues within us, too. That same Spirit is active in our lives, and in the current church, too. Most of the time, when we think about the Holy Spirit, we tend to think about the Spirit as being a Comforter for us, and that’s certainly true. But this story is about another aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s the “get off your hands, get out of your comfort zone, and follow me into something new” aspect of the Holy Spirit that we get in this story. That always-stirring-the-pot work of the Spirit that’s always been behind the changes and advances of the church throughout its history. I think it’s safe to say that when a church congregation dies, more often than not it was because it wanted to stick with familiarity more than it was willing to hear and accept where God’s Spirit was calling them into new things. It wasn’t because people weren’t interested in God, faith spirituality Studies show over and over again that people’s desire for spirituality, and longing for an authentic connection with God and a community of faith, really has remained constant even if they aren’t interested in the same, traditional way the church is offering it. That’s exactly what the latest Pew Research poll shows – that the percentage of the U.S. population identifying as Christian has dropped by eight percent in the past seven years, while their longing for that kind of spiritual connection has actually stayed about the same.

I believe that, as many people have suggested, we’re in the midst of a period of church history that only comes around every 500 years or so, a period where the Holy Spirit is calling us, the church, to rethink almost everything in order to reconnect with people – to share the good news of God’s love and to be a real, well-rounded, connected community of faith in new ways that make sense to people today – people whose way of understanding God, humanity, and the universe is as different from the way we understood them in the 1960s as the way we understood them in the 60s was different from the days when Luke wrote the Book of Acts. Is it possible that that the findings of this latest Pew study are a sign that the Holy Spirit is telling us to get out of our house, and learn a new language, as it were, just as those disciples did? Is it possible that, if all this red fabric is supposed to symbolize fire, the most appropriate place to put it would be on our pew cushions?

I think one of the ways that the Holy Spirit can be seen teaching the church new languages today is in the PCUSA’s “1001 New Worshiping Communities” initiative, which has started more than 250 non-traditional worshiping communities in just the past couple of years – more worshiping communities, I might add, than the total number of congregations that have left the denomination in the same timeframe. These new communities are exhibiting ways of being church that many of us might hardly even recognize as “church,” but they’re proclaiming the gospel in new ways – in new languages – and they’re being heard by more and more people, and they’re growing.

As just one example of their reimagining what church could be like, a number of them meet weekly, but their gatherings would only look anything like what we’d think of as a standard Sunday worship service maybe once a month. The rest of the times, they’ll get together – sometimes, all together, other times in smaller subgroups – and they’ll have a short devotional and prayer, and then they’ll participate in some mission work – volunteering at a food pantry, or a homeless shelter, or visiting people in nursing homes, even people they don’t even know. Or they’ll have a common meal, or a picnic, or a bowling trip or a softball game; whatever. These communities have learned two things: first, that while people crave this kind of spiritual connection and sense of authentic community, contemporary schedules are just ridiculously tight, and not out of not caring about spiritual matters, but out of financial and family necessity. Whether anyone likes it or not, most people don’t have the amount of time available each week to devote to a community of faith in the traditional ways that its activities have been programmed and scheduled. It isn’t that people don’t want to participate; the way things exist, they just can’t. Second, these new worshiping communities have realized that done properly, all of these kinds of gatherings are actually valid and meaningful forms of worship just as much as a traditional Sunday service – and in some cases, maybe more so. They’ve realized that there is really no division or distinction between worship, mission, fellowship. It’s all worship; it’s all mission; it’s all fellowship.

That’s just one new language the Holy Spirit is teaching the church. It’s obviously a very different one from the one we’ve traditionally been speaking. But whatever the specifics, I promise you that in this time of major transition in the history of the church, God is trying to push us out into the street and to teach us a new language too, just like those disciples in Jerusalem. Yes, that can be scary. But they were scared, too, and the Spirit still guided them and empowered them and equipped them for the task God was calling them to. And God has promised to do the exact same for us.

So this week, I guess I invite you to think and pray about what new language God might be calling you to learn. Think about that on a congregational level, yes, but also on a personal level, too. Is God trying to lead you into some new way of living out and sharing your faith with others? If so, what might it be? If you can discern what it is, grab onto it and don’t let go. Learning that new language, and being willing to follow God where the Spirit is leading you, drawing you, will be an amazing thing – even if all the while, it will be something scary, and loud, and earth-shaking and unsettling, and you don’t really know where it’s going – just like a freight train.

Thanks be to God.

Picture This (sermon 5/17/15)

here is the world - buechner

[Jesus prayed,] “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”  – John 17:6-19

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A couple of weeks ago, Lydia _______ mentioned to me that she’d be interested in creating some custom artwork for our bulletin covers, and we’ve been trying to find the right time to make that happen. We thought that maybe this would be the first week we’d try it, but while I was out in Denver, I got an email from her telling me that she was having some difficulty coming up with something for this week’s gospel Lectionary text. There just didn’t seem to be much of anything in it to offer much inspiration for artwork. It was all just verbalization; it didn’t really evoke much definite imagery that you could sink your teeth into. It was just a really tough passage to get any creative traction with or to come up with some kind of a picture to convey its meaning.

Lydia was right. This is a difficult text to get some creative traction with, for either a graphic artist or for a preacher. From the graphic side, that fact was easy to see when, after I assured Lydia that we could start another week, I did some quick googling for stock artwork related to this passage and there were far fewer for it than there typically are for Lectionary passages in most other weeks. And from the preaching side, it’s difficult because it’s just a relatively small snippet of a much longer passage, and the whole thing, including this snip, is full of a lot of circular-sounding language that’s hard to follow: you to me and me to them and them to you; yours and mine and mine and yours; and now it’s theirs and on and on. It can be hard to get underneath all the words and really get at their meaning.

This is part of what’s known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse,” the thoughts and the prayer that he offers on the night of his arrest. We heard some of this same discourse last week. His prayer here is long – very long. It prompted one person to joke that you never want to ask Jesus to say grace before Thanksgiving dinner if you ever expect to eat. As you read through this whole discourse, what you find here is that this doesn’t seem very likely to be the actual language, the wording, vocabulary, or thought patterns of a first-century Jewish builder, even a relatively well-educated one. Almost every phrase in the whole discourse addresses really complex theological themes. It isn’t being disrespectful to either Jesus or the authority of the scriptures to recognize that it’s most likely that these words attributed to Jesus are based on his teachings, but they’re put together here by the writer of this gospel in order to emphasize a number of theological issues that he wanted to stress to his original readers; and by extension, to us.

Because this prayer has such a difficult language, and because it’s designed to address so many things, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it, so I want to think about just two things that it addresses. The first is that as Jesus is praying to God on this night, what does he pray for? Not that things would be easy for his followers; he knows that they won’t. This world is full of motivations and influences and traditions and interests that are completely at odds with God’s ways. Fear and self-centeredness, and all of the sins that are just variations of those things, create people, and a world, that are going to be dead-set against the ways of the kingdom of God – against the all-encompassing, sacrificial love for one another that we see modeled in Jesus and that Jesus tells us to model, too.

So instead of praying that this wouldn’t be the case, that everything would be easy, Jesus simply prays that God would be with them and would support them and lift them up in the midst of all they were going to have to endure. And he prays that they would always maintain unity with one another, having fellowship with one another through the common bond of their one faith. In fact, maybe that’s one of the most significant ways that God will provide the support that Jesus asked God to provide to the disciples. And he didn’t just pray for this kind of unity for it for them; he prayed it for us, too.

Just focus on that thought for a moment: Jesus prayed, and is continuing to this day to pray, for us. He is praying for your needs, for our needs, including our need to be held together in this bond of unity in our common faith and our fellowship together as the church, whether you think about the entire church universal or just our church – our congregation – held together in the bond of love, in all of our similarities and differences; all of us committing to uplift and support one another in that unity. Jesus is praying for these things, for each of us, right now. That’s really an amazing thought.

In light of that thought, I want to ask you: what would you want Jesus to pray for for you this week? When you come up with an answer to that, I want you to take the piece of note card that the ushers handed you when you came in, and I’d ask you to write down what it would be. It doesn’t have to be a long, complicated thing, you could just write down a single word or two, just something that you’d be able to look at and remember the whole thing that you’d want Jesus to pray for on your behalf. …

Now, if you’ve done that, I’m going to ask you to do something else. If you aren’t comfortable doing this, that’s OK, don’t worry, you don’t have to do what I’m going to ask. But as a sign of the unity, the idea that we’re all here to be part of the support system that Jesus asked God to provide us with, I’d ask you to share with a person sitting next to you, or near you, whatever your single word is. The person you give it to might not even be able to understand the whole aspect of the prayer that your word or two represents, but that’s OK, too. And later in the service, when we offer the prayers of the people, I’d ask that during the moment of silence, if someone shared their word with you, that you’d pray for whatever that word was, for the person who offered it to you. I know that might be a little discomforting, and as I said, there’s no penalty if you don’t; many of our prayers stay on our hearts – but I’d invite you to try it. Consider stepping into that little area of discomfort and share your single-word prayer request with someone. Just take a moment to do that. …

Now I’ll ask you one final thing. Take your card, with your one- or two-words written on it, and carry them with you throughout the week. Put it in your wallet, your purse, stick it in your pocket. And every so often, take it out this week and think about the good news, the amazing news, that Christ is praying on your behalf for that very thing for you.

So to close, just remember this; that embedded in this passage, in all the complicated and sometimes confusing language in this prayer of Jesus, is the simple but incredible underlying point that all those years ago, at this most crucial moment in his earthly ministry, surrounded by his disciples, men, women, and probably a few fidgeting children, and the remnants of their meal, the leftover lamb and the breadcrumbs and half-emptied cups of wine, and the lengthening shadows have now turned to dusk and the aroma of the burning lamp oil is starting to get thick and sweet in the air, and the noises from the street below are starting to taper off but can still be heard through the windows, and the cool of the evening is starting to set in, and Jesus’ heart is breaking knowing that he’ll never do this again and he’s saying goodbye to his friends and he’s in agony over what he knew what was about to happen, and in his agony he starts to pray – and in this moment, in all of its sights and sounds and smells and emotions, he was praying for you, and for me. Now that’s a picture to imagine.

Thanks be to God.

I Chose You (sermon 5/10/15)

chosen-1

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. – John 15:9-17

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There was a very popular tradition in the 1800s that was a way to say goodbye to someone. Not just a “see you later” kind of goodbye, but a real goodbye – a “this is probably the last time we’ll ever see each other” kind of goodbye. The tradition took place in many groups – extended families, church congregations, whatever – that the women of the group would get together and make a Friendship Quilt, where each of them would make a portion of the quilt, and they’d all sign it and give it to the person who was leaving. It was a way for that person to remember those they’d left behind, and to stay, in a very real way, in their loving embrace whenever they’d wrap up in the quilt. It was a beautiful tradition, an excellent way to “say goodbye well,” as we might say today. It’s the same sort of thing that Erika Castro was talking about last Sunday – that on the last day of the service teams’ weeklong stay at Montaña de Luz, the kids would all sign their T shirts, or draw little pictures, or maybe put their handprint on the shirt with paint. It’s a way of allowing a little bit of them, and their love, to go with them when they left.

The portion of John’s gospel that’s been part of the Lectionary texts for the past few weeks has been telling the story of Jesus’ saying the same kind of goodbye to his followers. During his time with them, there have been good times and bad. When you read through some of the stories, especially in Mark’s gospel, you can sense the frustration in Jesus’ dealing with them at times. You can almost feel him sinking into a deep facepalm over their cluelessness. But on the night of this story, that’s all behind them. This is the night of the Last Supper, the night Jesus is going to be arrested, and he’s in the middle of a long farewell to them all. He’s trying to say goodbye well. He’s trying to give them some final words to help explain what this has all been about, and how to go forward from here.

As part of this, he tells them that in fact, they hadn’t chosen to follow him, but he chose them – that since before the beginning of time, God had chosen them.

This idea of having been chosen by God, instead of us having chosen to follow God, has always been a very big theological thing to us Presbyterians. It’s why you’ll never see a so-called “altar call,” asking people to “make a decision for Christ,” in a Presbyterian church. It’s why sometimes, making fun of our generally reserved nature, people will jokingly call us “The Frozen Chosen.” Thinking about this idea of having been chosen by God led John Calvin to refocus on the long-standing Christian doctrine of predestination, an idea that went at least back to Saint Augustine in the early 400s. And taking that idea to its logical conclusion led Calvin to a thought that even he himself admitted seemed repugnant: that if we say that people have been chosen by God before the beginning of time – that they had been “predestined” to be God’s people, long before they’d even been born – then it seemed to logically follow that there were also people who God *didn’t* choose; people who had been predestined to be condemned, without their having any recourse or anything to say about the matter.

It’s a pretty unsettling thought all the way around. On the one hand, how do you really know whether you’re among the chosen or the condemned? If you’re one of the condemned and there’s nothing you can do about it, that hardly seems fair, or any way that a loving, merciful, just God would act. And even if you are one of the chosen, it’s still a pretty grim thought – your whole life is apparently predetermined, all the ups and downs scripted out without any input from you, and no matter what you may try to do about them.

Are we just a bunch of involuntary players on a stage, performing in a play written and directed by God? Are we all just marionettes, with God pulling all the strings?

Well… what if Calvin and Augustine and all the other adherents of predestination got it wrong? What if Jesus meant something very different when he talked about having chosen people? What if he meant that God hadn’t chosen only the specific people sitting around him that night, but rather, that God had chosen human beings, period? What if the whole outrageous act of choosing to create human beings was God’s act of choosing us? When God created us and called us Tov Meod – “Very Good” – was that our having been chosen? What if Jesus was explaining to them that God’s choosing to enter into this world by being present in him, a human being, that this was evidence of God’s showing solidarity with us, of God’s having chosen the human race? There’s a funny T shirt that says in bold print, “JESUS LOVES YOU” – and then in small print, it says “But then again, he loves everybody.” What if that T shirt was more profound than it intended? How might it change the way we understand God and ourselves, and what it means to be a follower of Christ, if all of our T shirts said “I’M ONE OF GOD’S CHOSEN” – “But then again, he chose everybody”?

In this gospel story, Jesus explains to the disciples what it means to be chosen – and what they’ve been chosen for, and those are important questions that a lot of people don’t think to ask; they just gloss over those points when they think about this whole chosen business. As he talks with his followers, Jesus explains what all this convoluted talk about vines and branches was all about: we’ve been chosen to be the agents, the conduits of God’s love in the world. We’ve been chosen to show what God’s love, and what God’s dwelling within us, looks like in concrete reality, in daily living. We’ve been chosen to show that both right belief and right practice of the faith are important, but when it comes right down to it, right practice – that is, extending love to the world, wrapping others in love – always trumps the details of right belief.

We’re given the strength and the boldness to live this way – to live as God’s chosen – by keeping ourselves connected to Christ, the vine, the very presence and definition of the divine in flesh and blood, the source of all life and love.

Those Friendship Quilts I was talking about earlier were made by the people who were staying put, and were given to the people who were leaving. In this story, it was the other way around. It was Jesus who was leaving, and when he does, he’ll give them two gifts. The first one is in this text. He tells his followers he won’t call them his servants any more, but now, they’re his friends. That’s a powerful thing. Most of us can remember some greatly respected mentor, maybe a teacher or a professor; and after we’ve graduated, these people we respect so much go from being, say, Mr. Burns, or Professor Langknecht, to just Stan, and Hank. There’s a very real difference in the interpersonal dynamic when that shift happens, and it happens with the disciples right here. The other thing Jesus is going to do is to leave those followers – his friends – with the gift of a Friendship Quilt of sorts of his own – the gift of God’s Spirit. He leaves it for them, and for us, too. Sometimes, often in the most intense moments of our lives, we’ll experience that Spirit. Maybe it will come directly, in the form of some special unexpected answer, in some intense personal and private moment of prayer. Maybe it will come more indirectly, in the form of a card or a letter; a kind word, or smile. Or a casserole after the funeral. Or maybe just a hug. However it comes, friends, recognize that it’s all the same thing. It’s Jesus’ Friendship Quilt, the very Spirit of God, encircling and wrapping around us, warming us, and always reminding us that we’re loved – that we’re chosen.

Thanks be to God.

Rabbit Season – The Final Chapter

Rabbit Season – The Final Chapter

04 May 2015

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. – Acts 8:26-40

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Oh for Pete’s sake, another week about rabbits? Well, I promise, this is the last week; next week it will be on to something different.

So as we start out this week, and just as they did in that children’s sermon in Toronto that I mentioned two weeks ago, let’s rewind, and remember where we are in this story. The rabbits in the novel Watership Down learned they couldn’t get along only as individuals; they had to learn to be a real community, working together and valuing all the members of the community in order for it to survive. And a big part of their being a community was the telling and retelling of their common stories; the morality-shaping stories of their hero-rabbit, “The Prince with a Thousand Enemies”, stories that explained how they should act and what made them a distinct community. Through those stories, they learned that they couldn’t keep silent and unengaged when someone was suffering or in trouble, or they became complicit in the wrong that was being done. They learned that doing this was a matter of justice, and extending hospitality to others, and that they were to do this even when it caused them personal risk. And that’s where we pick up our story today.

After wandering and roaming around, the rabbits finally found a suitable place to settle down and make a new home. When they did, they ended up encountering a wounded bird. At first, the rabbits didn’t want to welcome this outsider non-rabbit, but Hazel, the rabbits’ leader, said that based on all they’d learned along the way, the moral teachings in their communal stories had to be extended to more than just themselves – they applied to everyone. So the rabbits extended their welcome and hospitality to the wounded bird, and they worked together to nurse him back to health. They built a nest, and they even got over their own personal revulsion of the bird’s insect diet and they gathered up all the insects they could and fed the bird. The bird recovered and became as much a member of the warren as any of the rabbits, even providing aerial reconnaissance when the rabbits are attacked by the members of a neighboring rabbit warren. The rabbits had learned that their moral teachings, the wisdom of the hero-rabbit, was for all creatures, not just the rabbits like themselves.

This is a perfect parallel for the lesson the church had to learn, beginning in its very earliest days after the resurrection. Just like the rabbits, Jesus’ followers had to learn, step by step, that the good news of God’s grace, and love, and welcome was meant for all people, not just some specially chosen small group. Jesus himself taught them this in the incredibly diverse makeup of the apostles, the ones he chose to be part of his innermost circle. He picked both well-to-do and average working stiffs; members of the religious and political establishment and Simon the Zealot, who was what we’d call a terrorist today; people who were soft-spoken and people so loud and argumentative Jesus called them the “Sons of Thunder.” Cynics and doubters. There was a real broadness in Jesus’ inclusiveness and welcome – or what we’d often just call hospitality. And after the resurrection, it became clear that God wanted this inclusiveness and hospitality to extend even wider. In fact, this becomes a major theme of the Book of Acts; it shows up over and over and over again. We see it at Pentecost, when the welcome is extended to all the receptive Jews visiting Jerusalem at Pentecost. Then it’s extended even to the Jews who were among the Christians’ worst enemies, including Paul. Then it goes on to include Gentiles, who the scriptures said were unclean and had no place in God’s kingdom according to the scriptures. This 180-degree shift in understanding of God’s will is seen in all of Paul’s missionary work among the Gentiles, and Peter’s encounters with Gentiles in this book, also. And we see it in today’s Lectionary text from Acts, this extremely important story of God calling the apostle Philip to meet the Ethiopian eunuch, and to teach him, and to extend hospitality to him, to welcome him into the faith by baptizing him. Philip certainly knew, and so did the original readers of the Book of Acts, that eunuchs were specifically prohibited in the scriptures as being unworthy of being part of the people of God. There wasn’t anything he could do to repent and stop having been born an Ethiopian, a Gentile. There wasn’t anything he could do to stop being a eunuch. And yet, Philip accepts God’s new word, contrary to all he’d been taught previously, and he extends hospitality – God’s grace, and welcome, and acceptance to this eunuch.

This same desire of God’s continues in the church to this very day. Just like the rabbits of Watership Down, and just like Philip and the other apostles who sometimes struggled with the idea of stretching who could be considered part of God’s kingdom, we’ve had to learn this same truth – the truth of God’s calling of an ever-expanding circle of people into the fullness of the kingdom, too. Sometimes, we’ve learned this truth grudgingly and imperfectly, but time and again we’ve come to understand and accept this ever-increasing circle. This is the definition of hospitality in the kingdom of God. This is what God is trying to teach us, to accept those outside our own particular group, even when we might originally be viscerally opposed to them, just like the rabbits did with their insect-eating bird friend. This is the lesson that God has continually unfolding for us to live into as the church; in our past, our present, and into our future. This is the hospitality God has called us to adhere to, in recognition for the infinite grace and hospitality God has extended toward us.

In the final chapter of Watership Down, we read that the rabbits’ new warren succeeded and thrived, and it did so because they learned these important lessons we’ve talked about. But our own final chapter, as God’s people, hasn’t been written yet. God is continuing to call us to expand the circle that defines our community, and continues to call us to stand up and work for the good and safety and justice of all those within it. Will our story end up being a success or a failure? We’re the ones writing this chapter, so the answer to that question is up to us – but whatever the ending, it’s going to depend on whether we learned our lessons as well as the rabbits did.

Thanks be to God.

Rabbit Season – Part 2

Rabbit Season part 2

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” – John 10:11-18

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If you were here last week, you probably remember that part of the sermon talked about the rabbits in the novel Watership Down. I figured that we’re still in the church season of Eastertide, and we all think about the Easter Bunny and rabbits at Easter time, so that made some kid of sense. Well, it’s still Easteride, so I have some cover for still talking about those same rabbits and their adventures this Sunday, too.

Last week, I said that when the rabbits left the security of their old warren and set out on their own, they survived for two reasons. I talked about the first of those reasons last week – that they realized they couldn’t get by on their own as individuals, that they had to work together as a group, a community that recognized and valued the contributions of every member of the community; and that they developed that sense of community largely through maintaining and retelling their common stories that shaped their moral and ethical lives together. This week, we’ll look at the second reason that was the key to their success.

At one point in their wanderings, the rabbits are welcomed into another warren as guests. In some ways, the warren seemed like a paradise. It was near a farmhouse, and the people who lived there spread lots of food out for them; they didn’t have to work hard to find enough to eat. Life was easy, because the people had chased away and fenced out all the natural predators the rabbits would have had otherwise. But there was something that just wasn’t quite right about these rabbits. Without the need to work for their food, the rabbits had gotten fat and lazy, and even a bit self-absorbed. And they’d stopped telling all the great communal stories of the hero-rabbit, “The Prince with a Thousand Enemies,” because they didn’t really seem to have any to worry about. And because of that, these rabbits also had very little sense of community or connectedness. And for some reason, they never answered any question that began with the word, “Where”.

The band of roving rabbits learned why that was the case one day when one of them got caught in a snare set out by the people in the farmhouse, and when they ran to get the other rabbits to help get him free, they all just stayed quiet and turned away, ignoring their cries for help. It turned out that this happened every so often; the people would catch and eat one of the rabbits – not often enough to make the rabbits move away from their comfortable living, but enough to make them stop asking the painful question of where someone was when they went missing. That’s why they’d stopped telling the morality-building community stories of the hero-rabbit. It would only have reminded them of the moral compromise they were making for their own personal comfort. And forming close community bonds would only have made it more difficult to look the other way and let go of someone when they got caught in one of the snares. That was why these rabbits had been to welcoming to the visitors – they were just seen as snare-fodder; with them around the odds that one of their own getting caught was reduced.

It isn’t hard to see the potential parallels between this story and where we find our own society. Almost every day, we all participate in some way in preserving or enhancing our own personal comfort and well-being at the expense of other, more or less invisible people who we have little or no personal connection to. It shows up in all kinds of small ways. We buy shoes made by slave labor in some foreign country, in order for them to cost as little as possible. Or we eat food or drink coffee that came cheap to us because the corporate buyers have so much market clout that the producers can barely survive on the prices they can get for their goods. We look the other way when other countries treat their own people with all kinds of injustice, because we don’t want to rock the boat, or maybe more accurately, we don’t want to rock the oil tanker, and potentially disrupt the free flow of oil to prop up the standard of living we’ve become accustomed to. We pick up our value meal at the drive-thru, knowing full well that the person behind the window is working 55 or 60 hours per week, with no benefits, and still can’t get through the month without SNAP and the food pantry. We know all this, but too often we turn away and try to ignore it, refusing to confront the reality, because it means cheaper consumer prices for us and higher corporate profits for the companies our retirement funds are invested in.

It’s a rotten part of our common life; one that hurts to shine the light on too brightly or too often, but it is a very real moral dilemma for us as Christians; as followers of Jesus. The reality of the brokenness of our world is that we can never totally avoid our complicity in things like that, which unjustly harm others. But we do have a moral obligation to do whatever we can to minimize the situation. What can we do? For each of us, it might be something different. Do we boycott companies that operate in unjust, exploitative ways? Do we shift our investments to more socially responsible funds or companies? Do we only buy Fair Exchange coffee for our fellowship time, or refuse to shop at the big box store that rolls back its workers’ wages while raking in excessive, record-breaking profits?

We’re all knee-deep in this situation – this sin – and there’s just no getting completely out of it. None of us is going to do some big thing to solve the whole problem. But all of us can do some little things in the way we live, in the decisions we make, to at least minimize the problem. We can all focus on ways that we can structure our own lives in ways that don’t exploit those nameless, faceless others that are caught in the snares of our world. We can, and we have to, find ways to help get as many of them out of those snares as we can. Because even if we don’t know their names, or they’re faces, they’re all just as much God’s own as we are. God has said that we’re all part of the same rabbit warren.

Our own hero-rabbit – our own “Prince with a Thousand Enemies” gave us the model for how we need to think ethically of others. Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, who loves and tends and cares for his own flock even to the point of laying down his life to protect and shelter them – us. This same Good Shepherd says that we’re all to be part of one flock, or maybe we could say one warren, and he gave us the command to go onward, in his name, doing the same for others – extending that same loving care to those we meet, and even to those we may never meet, in the way we live and in the way our lives affect theirs. This is really a matter of justice, the kind of justice that God calls us to as part of the kingdom of God. And it’s a matter of hospitality, too – not the shallow, self-serving hospitality of the host rabbits in the story, but the radical, extensive, costly kind of hospitality that our Good Shepherd extends to us – leading us to green pastures and still waters – and that he’s told us to extend to others.

Thanks be to God.