Why Trinity?

(sermon 6/16/19)

mellon memorial fountain

John 15:26 – 16:15

[Jesus said,] ”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

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Imagine being a congressman’s spokesperson, and on this particular day it’s your job to give the press a logical, rational, totally normal and explainable reason why the congressman had just been arrested by Capitol police drunk, naked, and dancing in a park fountain. If you can imagine that, you have some kind of an idea how pastors feel every year on this particular Sunday, Trinity Sunday, when we’re supposed to lift up and consider this most fundamental, absolute bedrock piece of orthodox Christian theology, and supposedly explain it and make it more understandable, make some sense out of it, without stepping into one heresy or another, which, honestly, is almost impossible.

As I said in the weekly email, the concept of the Trinity came out of the 4th century church trying to construct a rational, systematic way to harmonize what Jesus had taught about God, and himself, and the Holy Spirit, who he called the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, or the Comforter; along with what the earlier scriptures had said about the nature of God.

Now, the whole idea of constructing a rational and systematic way of understanding something as irrational and un-systematic as the nature of God is a pretty daunting challenge, to put it mildly, I suppose these early church fathers did about as good a job as they could, or as good as anyone could, which is to say not very.  And yes, they were all church “fathers,” they were all men; that very fact alone shaped the solution they came up with, in ways that are still troublesome to us today. I wonder what the past two thousand years of Christian theology would have looked like if their church councils would have been more diverse, more representative, an even proportion of men and women, and from across a broader geographical and cultural spectrum. I wonder what a group like that would have come up with to try to explain the nature of God.

In any case, what they did come up with was essentially a set of propositions – a set of theological assertions that a person had to profess they believed about the nature of God in order to be considered a good or “true” Christian. There are a couple problems with this. The first is that some of these propositions are functionally illogical, so that when someone questions them, the only acceptable answer becomes “Yes, it’s an illogical mystery, but you just have to believe it, and that’s just the way it is;” which is hardly an answer that would satisfy many people, whether you’re a full-grown adult or a thirteen-year old Confirmand. The biggest problem, though, is that most of the people trying to explain God as a Trinity tended to focus on trying to explain the composition, the essence, the makeup, if you will, of these three persons, or identities, or ways-of-being-God; and the details of how they’re in relationship with one another. But I believe that what’s most important about the nature of a trinitarian God isn’t those points, but the far more basic point that they’re in a relationship at all. That in and of itself is incredibly important, because it can tell us a lot about ourselves. Getting a handle on the reality that God is, at God’s very core, by definition, a relationship, can teach us something important about what it really means to have been created in the “imago Dei,” the image of God.

A couple of weeks ago, the sermon touched on this relationship – I’d mentioned “perichoresis;” the all-important, inseparable relational bond among those three persons, identities, ways-of-being-God that those early church fathers termed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’d mentioned that this relationship was one all-focused on acts of love, through continuous acts of creation, reconciliation, and sustaining; all of them doing all of those things simultaneously with and through the others. And so, if an intense bond of love and relationship is the very nature of God, then that is still very important to us today, because being created in the image of God means then that we are created with the primary purpose of being in a similar relationship with the people around us. Our whole reason for being becomes doing all that we can to be in relationship with, and to reconcile with, and to sustain, to seek justice and peace for, all people. It isn’t just something nice that we can add on to whatever else it is that we might think is our real spiritual life; it *is* our spiritual life. It’s our  purpose for being here; it’s our “Job One.”

The concept of the Trinity gives us the answer to the question of what our purpose is; in essence, what the meaning of human life is. And because we know that Christ has taken care of the “vertical” relationship between us and God through his life, death, and resurrection; because we know that there’s nothing that we can do to work to achieve that; because we know that that’s a gift given to us entirely by God, that it’s God’s choice to do so; we now have freedom, we have liberation – we’re now free to focus on this “horizontal” relationship among all of us here. That’s our purpose. That’s our reason for being. In all of its shapes, that’s our call.

I want to be clear – I enjoy all of those deeper discussions and debates about the Trinity, and the nature of the three persons, and all of that as much as the next pastor. But maybe just for today, I want to suggest setting those debates aside, because frankly, it’s impossible to ever rationally understand the full nature of God, so no one can ever know the full truth and reality of those discussions anyway. So today, maybe just focus on that way of thinking about the Trinity that focuses on the idea of God being within a relationship of love – that God, by definition, then, *is* a relationship, one that continuously creates, reconciles, and sustains, out of a deep love and desire for peace and justice for all in the relationship – and that means that we should be, too. Focusing on the Trinity like that can be a huge relief. It should make you happy. It night even make you joyful, maybe ecstatic even. But if it goes that far, just make sure you don’t end up singing and dancing in a park fountain somewhere – and if you do, at least keep your clothes on.

Thanks be to God.

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Being There

(sermon 4/14/19 – Palm Sunday)

palm-sunday

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.

As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

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So today is the day that Christians around the world remember the amazing event of Jesus’ ride out from Bethany on the Mount of Olives, surrounded by throngs of supporters shouting and singing and dancing, and laying cloaks and branches in the roadway like a red carpet for Jesus, and he and the mass of people entering in through the fortified walls of Jerusalem and into the very heart of the city, into the courts of the Temple in the days before the Passover. This march on Jerusalem is often called Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry,” and most of us have heard enough Palm Sunday sermons to know that there was definitely an aspect of joy and triumph to it. But most of us have also heard enough Palm Sunday sermons to know that this event was also very thoughtfully planned to mock and oppose the local powers of the Roman Empire. That every year during the days leading up to the Passover when the city ballooned to over a million people, the Roman governor and the army would stage a big ceremonial procession through the streets of the city, with fully armored war horses, and carriages, and masses of troops, and music and banners and carriages, all designed as a show of overwhelming power, and a reminder of who was in charge – and that it was OK for all of the little people to observe their quaint, backward religious observance, but if any of them got out of line they were going to get squashed by the superpower who was governing over them. And Jesus’ procession into the city was meant to be the counterimage of all that; Jesus proclaiming the coming of the reign of God; and God’s love and care for the people in the throng over the one on the throne; and that there’s really only one true superpower and it isn’t Caesar.

Given that, while there was real jubilation in this crowd marching in from Bethany, there was also no small amount of trepidation. Worry. Fear. Would they be arrested, mobbed, beaten, killed, for standing up and speaking truth to power? It was the same mixture of emotions felt by the Freedom Riders stepping off the bus to face Bull Connor in Birmingham. Or the mass of people crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the face of armed police, teargas, and attack dogs in Selma. Or the people who had the guts to come out of the closet and go out into the middle of Christopher Street in New York, risking police beatings and arrest to kick off the first Pride parade in 1970.  Or marching to protest the illegal and immoral treatment of refugees and immigrants, and being met by a mass of armed white nationalist radicals. The people in each of those examples, even if some of them wouldn’t have put it in these words, were putting themselves on the line to bring a bit more of God’s justice and peace and equity into our world.

Every year on this Sunday, we need to be reminded of just exactly what Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that day was all about; and that when we all boldly process into the sanctuary singing and waving our palms, we’re recognizing that the very beginnings of our faith are rooted in God’s calling us, and empowering us, to speak truth to power. An essential part of the faith that we proclaim is showing up. Standing up. Being there, in the name of Christ.

“Being there” can manifest itself in a number of ways, all of them just as important, and God might call us to one or more of them. Certainly, the most direct parallel to Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem is, as in the examples I offered, when some Christians feel called, as a matter of faith, to stand up for God’s justice “on earth as it is in heaven,” by literally marching, rallying, protesting, praying. But that certainly isn’t the only way of “being there.” Maybe your legs, your body, your schedule, won’t allow for “being there” for the reign of God in that way. That’s OK. Maybe your call to being there  is more like that of the people who volunteer with the group Grannies Respond here in Louisville. When immigration officials at the southern border allow refugees into the country, they just drop them off at the nearest bus station. A national network of groups, including Grannies Respond, will meet these refugees at the bus terminals and help them get the ticket they need, give them advice and directions, provide them with some food and drink and personal care items, maybe a blanket; but just as importantly, to offer them a smile, a warm welcome, and assurance that there are people who care about them. You’ve heard of the Underground Railroad; this network has become known as the Overground Railroad. It’s simple. It’s easy. Anyone *could* do it, but they *are* doing it. And it means everything to the people being helped. It’s taking a stand for God’s justice, and speaking truth to power. It’s showing up. It’s being there.

It’s also being there to be part of our fledgling ride share ministry – getting members to church for worship and other events, or to an appointment, or even to vote. It isn’t complicated or strenuous. All you need is a car, a driver’s license, and a little bit of free time. But it’s so important, and so appreciated.

Being there can be taking a meal to someone who’s mourning a loss, or who’s going through some other stressful time. And it’s being there to tutor or read to a child, or to manage a Little Free Library, or to write a greeting card to a shut-in, or to teach a class or mentor a Confirmand. In these ways and so many others, we’re called by God to be the People of Being There. Being there to proclaim and promote God’s love, and peace, and justice, and equity in this world, and doing it out of gratitude to God, who, through Christ – his life, his teachings, his death and resurrection – was being there, and continues to be there, for us.

The amazing thing about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is that even though it was meant to put the powers that be on notice that something bold and new was breaking into the world, compared to the massive show of force put on by the Romans that same week, they must have looked like a joke. It couldn’t compare. It couldn’t possibly send the message they wanted to. And yet, somehow, by God’s grace it did. It struck fear and worry into the hearts of the civil and religious leadership to see such a bold, in-your-face display of opposition to them – and they knew that for every person in that ragtag march, there were dozens who weren’t there but who felt the same way. In taking to the streets, and boldly proclaiming the reign of God, Jesus and his followers accomplished exactly what he’d set out to.

On that ride out from Bethany and toward Jerusalem as Jesus sat on that donkey, I wonder what he was thinking. Was he caught up in the joy of the moment? Was he feeling resignation and fear over what he knew was going to unfold that week? Could he see beyond that? Could he see all the divisions, the hostility, the hatred and meanness and violence that would be perpetrated in his name across the ages? If he could, I hope that he could also see all the times his followers would stand up, would be there, would speak truth to power, and love to hate. And if he could see that, I hope that he could also see each of us, in our own way, being a part of that.

Thanks be to God.

The Peaceful Heart

(sermon 12/10/17 – Advent 2B)

Fallingwater-resized

Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA, 1935 – Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

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One of the true masterpieces of modern architecture, not just in this country but in the world – and arguably the most recognized house in the history of modern architecture – is Fallingwater, the house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s for the Kaufman family, built over a waterfall in a beautiful wooded area in southwestern Pennsylvania. This house is the definitive illustration of what Wright called Organic Architecture – the idea that a building design should respect and spring from, and be uniquely tied to, its site. At Fallingwater, you can see this in a number of ways – as just a few examples, a large boulder on the site stayed in place and became an integral part of the main floor. Terraces cantilever out over much of the site, making its actual footprint on the land less imposing. Windows are set at a level that makes you feel as if you’re living in a tree house. Stone walls are laid up using native stone quarried onsite, and in a pattern reminiscent of the natural stone outcroppings that are found around the site. You can see one small symbolic way that Wright expressed this respect for nature, as an integral part of the design, near the entrance of the house. Wright designed a trellis, a series of concrete beams, that spans over the entry drive and ties the house together to an exposed ledge of stone that crops out of the hillside on the opposite side of the drive. But as it turned out, there was a tall, thin tree that was growing right in the path of one of the trellis beams. So instead of just cutting the tree down to make way for the beam, Wright had the beam built to bend and go around the tree, deviating from its straight path and giving the tree room to grow.

Fallingwater trellis with tree-resized

It makes for an interesting design detail, while making an important statement about  incorporating the natural elements of a site into the overall design of a building.

Of course, it only takes a moment or two to realize that trees don’t stop growing just because you’ve built something close to it. Over the next number of years, the tree eventually got too big for the bend in the trellis to accommodate it. It had to be cut down anyway, and another young, thin tree was put in its place to keep the design intent intact. In fact, I’d imagine that it’s been probably been replaced several times since the house was originally built, but I suppose the idea is the important thing here.

For whatever reason, the image of that tree, and how it caused the beam to bend off it’s intended path came to mind when I read today’s gospel lesson – Mark’s account of John the Baptist, calling on people to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord; to make the paths straight and clear for his arrival.

John was offering that message to people who were in many was a lot like us. Most of them had been raised to know about God’s goodness, and God’s love for them. Most of them knew about the prophets who called them to a certain way of treating one another with compassion and mercy, caring for the orphan and the widow, the outcast, the refugee and the resident alien – and that this was the purest and most pleasing way, in God’s estimation, to worship and show love and gratitude to God. They knew the Ten Commandments, and in their hearts, they knew the simple, profound truths found in what we now call the Beatitudes, long before Jesus was even born to teach them – they knew the Hebrew scriptures, so when they would eventually hear Jesus’ teaching years later, they’d know that there was very little if anything in his words that couldn’t already be found in those scriptures.  For the most part, they knew the way of the Lord, and for the most part, we do, too. The path that John was calling us to return to really isn’t too hard to see.

But if it isn’t hard to see, it can still be hard to follow. For the people who came out to hear John, and for us, the concrete experiences of life can sometimes collide with its abstractions. Boulders and trees, of one definition or another, can obstruct the way. Concerns about living life “in the real world” can cause us to make compromises, deviations, from the straight path. And then, as it always works, one deviation will lead to another that builds upon the first, and then another, and another, until eventually we’re so far in the weeds, removed from that straight path that we know in our hearts, that we can’t even see it any more.

And then there are other things that can cloud our vision of the straight path that John called people to, also. Just like those people who came out to the banks of the Jordan River, our minds can get overwhelmed, bogged down, preoccupied with what’s going on in the social, cultural, and political surroundings, the landscape of the times. In thinking, worrying, fearing those kinds of things, we aren’t necessarily led any further away from the right path that God desires for us; they just tend to cloud our eyes so that we can’t see the path through the fog of the 24-hour news cycle and all the worries and anxieties that it can bring.

John’s stark words, and yes, no doubt his slightly scary appearance, cut through the fog and the deviations in the lives of the people who came out to hear him, and across the years, his words can cut through all that for us, too.

I think that often, when we hear his words, what we hear is challenge. We hear yet another “to do” list, a bunch more things to worry about, that we’re somehow supposed to add to everything else we have to get done. We hear more things to take on. More work, and hopefully, all that additional work will make God pleased with us.

But I think that the reality of John’s message for us can be heard a little differently. Instead of it being a challenge to do *more* in order to please God, I think it’s more of an invitation to do *less,* to let go of all those fears and distractions and deviations, in order to see that God is already pleased with us. God already loves us, and to whatever extent that it’s necessary, God has already forgiven us for our shortcomings and failures and deviations from that path, because God knows, literally firsthand, how difficult it is, that it’s truly impossible, for us to completely stay on that path, living in this broken world.

Hearing John’s words as invitation instead of challenge can help to create a peaceful heart within us instead of just adding anxiety on top of anxiety. And after all, isn’t peace, and a peaceful heart, what God desires for us above everything else? Living a life of true shalom, true contentedness and peacefulness through our relationship of love and gratitude with God, and compassion and connection with one another? Isn’t peace what the angels proclaimed to the shepherds in the fields when Jesus was born? Isn’t peace what Jesus repeatedly wished for his disciples after his resurrection? Isn’t having a peaceful heart, and being at peace with God, the entire reason for God’s choosing to enter our world, to live, and laugh, and cry with us, to work, and play, and die with us, so that we can have the peace of heart and mind that comes from knowing that God is truly with us?

Observing Advent is, in a way, our creating a “safe space” where we can help one another live into John’s invitation, and to let go of those things that cause us to lose sight of God’s path, and, like the concrete trellis at Fallingwater, to bend, to turn back around, and to get back on that original path. In this season, we’re trying to hear God’s Spirit speaking to us, enabling us to rediscover our own peaceful heart and to rediscover God’s path of love, mercy, and compassion, the path of hope and peace. In part, we observe Advent to help us to no not miss seeing the forest for the trees.

Thanks be to God.

The Untitled Sermon

(sermon 10/8/17)

many candles

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”

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Matthew 26:47-52

While Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

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Sometimes, when you get your Sunday bulletin, you’ll see there isn’t any sermon title listed. That usually means that I just hadn’t come up with what I thought would be a good title by the time the bulletin printing deadline arrived. Today, though, the reason there isn’t a title is that sadly, I’ve preached so many variations of today’s sermon that I’ve just run out of different good titles to use.

It’s been about a week now since the mass shooting in Las Vegas. Since then, we’ve seen what’s now become the all-too-familiar pattern kick into gear like we’re all just following a script. First the shock as we hear the first news reports. Then comes the immediate question, was it Islamic Terrorism – as if the deaths caused by the much more deadly Angry White Man Terrorism is somehow more socially acceptable. Then comes the searching for the terrorist’s motives, and the armchair psychoanalyzing, and filling too many hours of news programming with too little actual information with interviews of the killers’ family and friends and neighbors and third grade teacher, who all say it was a shock, he was such a nice, quiet man who wouldn’t hurt a flea. And then come the demands for more gun control regulation, and then comes the obligatory press release from the NRA, pre-written, ready to go with just the location and death count a fill-in-the-blank. Then come the politicians, who trot out in front of the cameras to say that this is not the time to “politicize” the tragedy, and to piously offer their “thoughts and prayers,” whatever that means to a politician, to the families of the dead and maimed, while wads of gun-lobby money is practically falling out of their overstuffed pockets and onto the floor. And then, after maybe a week and a half, no more than two weeks, filled with live remote reporting and candlelight vigils, the reporters and cameras move on, distracted by the next shiny object in the news cycle, and things generally go back to what we consider normal, and nothing’s changed. Rewind the tape; have it cued up and ready to go in another few months.

So much of this happens because a lot of people have allowed themselves to be sucked into a ridiculous, absolutist reading of the Second Amendment right to own firearms that won’t allow for reasonable limitations. But we know that none of our Constitutional rights is absolute. We know that we have the right to free speech, but we can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We know that we have the right to peaceably assemble, but that the police can still tell us we can assemble on one side of the street but not the other. We know that we have freedom of religion, but we still can’t use our personal religious beliefs to deny other people their own Constitutional rights and equal protection under the law.

We’re so far past the time that we need tighter controls on possession of firearms in this country that I feel stupid even saying it. The rest of the world looks at us, and rightly so, as if we’re crazy, being willing to allow this kind of insane gun worship to continue, being willing to allow the death toll to keep rising and rising, being willing to live in a society where it’s harder to buy three boxes of Sudafed than three semiautomatic rifles. We constantly hear “Guns don’t kill people; *people* kill people!” without someone saying “Right! *People* kill people, so we need to keep guns out of the hands of *those* people!” Instead of that, in the upside-down world we live in today, we pass laws that actually make it easier – not harder, but *easier* – for the mentally disabled to buy guns.

We’re all good Americans; we all value and honor and respect our Constitutional rights. We’re good citizens of the United States. But as Christians, we’re citizens of the Kingdom of God first. We’re a people whose scriptures, whose sacred texts, are full of calls for peace, and injunctions against violence, as in the two texts we heard this morning, and there are countless others. The truth is that there is simply no scriptural justification whatsoever for our gun-saturated mentality, and we wonder what a Christian response should be to it all. Yes, we mourn when these tragic events happen. Yes, we organize candlelight vigils, and we offer our sincere, heartfelt thoughts and prayers. But we can’t just stop there, because when it comes to matters of faith and living as God’s people, we know, as we said just last week, that talk is cheap – and to be honest, prayers are cheap too, if that’s all we do when we can, and should, do more. We know that we’re called in this life to promote God’s way, and God’s way is most definitely not the way of violence – that as Jesus said, those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

We know as a key tenet of our faith that while laws will help, no law will ever solve all of this problem, which is deeply rooted in the human condition, and in our human brokenness. That brokenness leads us to hate one another. To envy what someone else has that we don’t. To want vengeance whenever we’re wronged. At the center of this brokenness is fear. Fear that someone will hurt us. Fear of uncertainty. Fear that others won’t respect our human dignity and worth. Fear for our security. Fear of death, and what awaits us beyond.

Friends, as followers of Christ, we’re called to not give into this fear, to not be part of this culture of violence and death. We’re called to opt out of all that because we worship a God who casts out all fear. We worship a God who offers us the peace that surpasses all understanding, the real, lasting peace that doesn’t come from the end of a gun. Our rock and our salvation is God, not a roomful of people with concealed-carry permits. Our security is Christ beside us, before us, and behind us; not body armor and an AR-15 with a bump stock.

It is absolutely, factually undeniable that our country’s unhealthy obsession with guns has been counterproductive – it hasn’t made us more secure, more safe, it’s made us less so. As Christians, God has called us to love one another, and to care for one another, and to do whatever we can to keep people from harm. In living out that call, all of us – from the most liberal Democrat to the most conservative Republican; from the avid hunter and sportsman and recreational target shooter – and I’m one of them myself; I’ve enjoyed recreational shooting at various times in my life – to the most anti-gun, never-touched-a-gun, never-want-to-touch-a-gun urban cliff-dweller – *all* of us – can agree that the supposed security that comes from the proliferation of guns has shown itself to be a lie. It’s a false security that produces only human carnage and destruction for many, and profit for a few. All of us can all agree that there are reasonable, common sense regulations that would respect our Second Amendment rights, while still preventing many of these senseless acts of evil. As a matter of faith, we all need to stand up against the current situation, against the big-money lobbyists and dealers of death, and simply say “Enough Is Enough!” – which, if I hadn’t already used it, would have been a good title for this sermon.

Thanks be to God.

“None Shall Pass”

(sermon 12/4/16 – Advent 2A)

black-knight

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Matthew 3:1-12 (NRSV)

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They all stood there on the platform, waiting for the next subway train to come along. It wasn’t as crowded now, on the weekend, as it would have been on a weekday, but that also meant the trains were scheduled a bit further apart. They had a little bit of a wait, standing there in the stale air filed with the sometimes-questionable aromas that seemed to be typical of all subway stations, but it wasn’t so bad – there was a pretty good guitar player playing a little further down on the platform, and more importantly, they were excited about where they were going on their little weekend day trip. Just then, the next train came along; whooshing a gust of air into their faces as it went by, then gradually coming to a stop. Soon enough the doors opened, and a handful of people got off, and then they hopped on and quickly got their seats, just in time to hear the familiar “Stand clear of the closing doors, please!” and with that, they were on their way.

The subway was just the first leg of their trip, getting them to the main train station. There, they hopped on a train that went far out of the downtown core. It poked  up out of the ground in the middle of working-class apartment blocks, graffiti-covered warehouses, sidewalk vendors selling bootleg everything, and mom-and-pop bodegas, and then it kept going – out beyond all the urban buildup, first out into the nicer, quieter, suburban neighborhoods, and then even further – out into the remote, undeveloped area, well past the immediate influence of the city itself. Even though it really wasn’t all that far a distance, and it was a relatively short train ride in real time, from their vantage point this was out in the middle of nowhere; they were out in the wilderness. And then they arrived. The train stopped and over the garbled, barely understandable PA system they heard, “This stop is the end of the line; all passengers must depart the train here.” And that was exactly their plan. From here, they’d go out a bit more; maybe on foot, or maybe a cab or Uber if they got lucky, but that didn’t seem likely given that the stop was such a tiny place it really could barely even be called a town. They were headed out to a spot along the shoreline of the river to see this man who had become famous practically overnight; this man who just went by the single name, John. YouTube videos of this crazy-looking man had gone viral; news crews had come out and reported on him. Everyone in the city was talking about him. Everyone was trying to get out here to catch him in person, to see what he was all about, with his outrageous look, his big, booming voice, the wild eyes, and his fire and brimstone preaching that the Kingdom of God was near – that God was just about to step into the world in a powerful way, and that they needed to turn their lives around, get right with God, to prepare themselves for that.  So they all came out to see him. Some people thought he was right on target; he was just what people needed to hear. Some people thought he was crazy. Other people thought he was just a huckster, a con man looking for some kind of payoff on the backside of all this theater. Some of them laughed at what they thought was just melodramatic shtick; yelling at people, insulting them, calling them children of snakes and other colorful things, and even getting people to wade out into the river, supposedly to cleanse themselves of their sins and be made whole and new – when the reality was that given the murkiness of the water along this particular stretch of the river, they probably came out dirtier than when they went in. Still, lots of people heard what he was preaching, and waded on out there. Whether they thought he was nuts, or a con man, or they took what he was saying to heart, the one sure thing was that they’d all remember him, and what he’d said, long after they got back on the train and made their way home in the city.

Well – maybe going out of the city and going out into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist wasn’t quite like that, but it was probably something very similar. And it’s true – John the Baptist was definitely a memorable person. He was part of the long line of biblical prophets who made their point, who drove home the message that God was telling them to convey, in ways that were often quite memorable, even shocking at times – some of the outrageous things they did to get people’s attention make even the most shocking of actions taken by today’s protestors look bush league by comparison. And every year during the season of Advent, we encounter John the Baptist again. Right in the middle of the anticipation and excitement leading up to Christmas, right in the middle of Advent talk of hope, and peace, and joy, and love… we come face to face with John. Weird John. Socially Unacceptable John. Scary John. As I said in the Thursday email, for people of my generation, he’s kind of the Advent equivalent of the Black Knight in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, sternly warning that “None shall pass!” to all the joy of Christmas, without first encountering him, and all the potential discomfort that he, and his message, bring to us.

John demands that before we can move past him, we first have to seriously examine our lives. We have to see where we’ve followed ways that aren’t God’s ways, and change that. We have to repent – to turn away from those ways, and get back on course, on God’s path. And honesty, no matter how weird John is, and how discomforting it is to do what he tells us, he’s right – we really do have to do it. Because just as you can’t get to the joy of Easter Sunday without the dread of Good Friday, neither can you get to the full joy of Christmas without the serious reflection, and self-awareness of just how much we need it to begin with.

I know that repentance isn’t a very popular idea. We tend to think of repentance in very negative terms – that we’re supposed to be sorry, very sorry, abject, groveling-in-the-dirt sorry. We can think we’re supposed to feel like garbage when we repent, and if we don’t, then we aren’t doing it right.

Well, we are supposed to be sorry for the ways that we’re not following God’s guidance in our lives; that will always be at last a part of repentance. But as I invite you to do that self-reflection, examining what you should repent of, I also invite you to do it in a more constructive manner than just that. Think of it in terms of just taking a serious look at your life and seeing how you can do better in the future, and move forward from where you are now. Thinking of repentance that way might still be a little discomforting, but maybe it isn’t quite so doom-and-gloom.

If you do examine your life, if you’re like me, you’ll probably find a number of ways that you need to repent, that you need to turn from. And it might even be a bit overwhelming, thinking about how you could possibly make so much change. So maybe during Advent, you could focus in on just one of those things – pick one thing that you want to ask for God’s help in turning around, and improving; making your life more consistent with God’s will. And since today, we lit the candle of peace, maybe that can be how you’ll pick that one thing: is there something in your life that you can change that would establish, or maintain, or improve, peace? That might be peace within your own soul; allowing yourself to forgive yourself for something in your past. Maybe it’s peace between you and a family member, or friend, or acquaintance; maybe finding a way to make peace and move forward in your relationship. Maybe it’s a larger kind of peace that you could work for; some kind of social justice in the world, because we all know that true justice is necessary for any real peace. Whatever it might be that you come up with, hold that thought, and that desire, close to your heart this Advent, and throughout the coming year. Pray for God’s help in making that turnaround, that change. And have the courage to make the change, in every way that you can. Think about this, and pray about it, and work on it. I suspect that if you do focus on how you can be God’s agent of increasing peace in the world – or just in *your* world – it will make this season all the more meaningful, all the more special, because we know that the coming into the world of Christ, the Prince of Peace, is what it’s all about – that’s what’s waiting at the end of the line.

Thanks  be to God.

If By Miracle… (sermon 7/26/15)

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.  – John 6:1-21

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This story of Jesus feeding the multitude is the only one of his miracle accounts that appear in all four of the gospels. Here, in John’s gospel, it’s one of the miraculous signs that John sets forth as proof of Jesus’ divine identity; that he really is the eternal God of the cosmos in the flesh. This story of Jesus apparently creating bottomless baskets of bread and fish is the same kind of out-of-nothing creation that John’s original audience knew was the kind of thing that only God could do.

But there are other meanings layered into this story, too. On one level, it’s a recasting of the Exodus story where through Moses, God provides food for the people by sending them manna that they find on the ground every morning, and all the extra was to be collected up in baskets so nothing went to waste, just like in this story, where Jesus is seen as a new, improved kind of Moses. And there’s the Passover connection that John points us toward when he comments that the Passover was near when this event happened. This meal, then, becomes seen as a kind of Passover meal. One part of the Passover observation is the meal being seen as a forerunner to the Great Feast that the Hebrew prophets said the coming of the Lord would be like; God hosting a great banquet on a hilltop that all people would flock to – and now, here’s Jesus doing exactly what those prophets had described. And of course, we can see symbolism paralleling our sacrament of the Lord’s Supper here, too.

But I think that most times when we hear this story, we don’t think about those levels of symbolism. Instead, we focus on this idea of the miracle. We ask if it could be actual fact. Could this have physically happened the way the story tells it? Some people say that this was just the code of a pre-scientific culture; stories like this were the way they ascribed divinity to someone; but now, we understand that the laws of physics govern the universe in a kind of closed loop that makes these kinds of stories impossible. Some people read this story and say that once the people were seated, after hearing Jesus’ teaching, they pulled out whatever food they’d all brought with them, and Jesus’ actions simply set off a big, first-century version of Stone Soup – everyone sharing what they had and there ultimately being more than enough for everyone.

On the other hand, other people say that God does indeed intervene in the world at times in ways like this. That the God who created laws of physics is beyond them and can break them if so inclined; or if not break them, bend them a bit, or apply them in ways that they are somewhat different from the way things usually occur. They would say that for a God who created the entire universe out of sheer will and a few words, this kind of miracle would be child’s play.

So a lot of attention gets focused on the question of whether or not a miracle actually occurred here. But to think about that question, you first have to ask just what a miracle actually is.

There’s a story about a politician in the South during the days of Prohibition, who was running for election. A large number of the voters in his district were hard-core Fundamentalists and members of the Temperance movement, and they asked him where he stood on the question of whiskey and other alcoholic beverages. Of course, he knew what they wanted to hear, but he also knew that the woods all around them were full of stills cranking out moonshine for an awful lot of customers, and which was keeping food on the table for a lot of people, and they were just as big a voting block. So when they asked what he thought about whiskey, he said, “Well… if by “whiskey” you mean that wicked drink that numbs the senses and causes family strife and personal ruin; that leads men and women alike to all sorts of immorality and vice… I’m against it. However… if by “whiskey” you mean that golden elixir that brings people of good will together; that warms their hearts and lubricates their souls to instill joy and merriment and brotherhood and sisterhood; and which creates a thriving market for so many of our good, decent, hard-working, church-going farmers… I’m for it.”

When it comes to miracles, maybe we have to think about definition of terms, too. Do we say we believe in miracles, if by “miracles” we mean a big, supernatural intrusion into the laws of nature? On the other hand, do we say we believe in miracles if by “miracles” we mean something extraordinary, uncommon, and of God, occurring all the time, all around us, in the most ordinary and common of things and experiences? Or, just as with the politician’s answer, can they both be true at the same time?

Let’s look at this gospel story again. Regardless of what you might believe about the physical, literal aspect of the idea of Jesus producing food from nothing, let’s go past that for a moment and think about what else was happening. Something like 10,000 people, once you included men, women, and children, came together – all with different backgrounds, different problems, different reasons to want to see Jesus, different experiences and beliefs. And as they gathered on that hillside, they listened to Jesus teach about the Kingdom of God, and a new commandment for them and the world – that they love one another just as he and God loved them. That this new commandment has the power to change the world, and was already changing the world, forever. They listened to him as his disciples spread out in their midst, making sure that everyone, young and old, were having their needs met. And all these very different people, with all their different prejudices and motivations, passed and shared the baskets. They set aside their differences. They enjoyed the breeze blowing in off the lake and the coolness of the grass, and they laughed at each other’s children playing together and doing all the things children do. They all sat close in to each other so they could as close to Jesus as possible, and their guards dropped, and they didn’t mind the stranger bumping up against them as they listened and laughed and ate and learned about love and lived it out; and there, in that place, on that day, in that briefest or moments, the Kingdom of God kissed the earth.

Regardless of anything else, that’s a miracle. A miracle that you, and I, and our very divided, very un-peaceful, un-reconciled world, can find hope in.

And the good news for us is that we can share in that same miracle. We can recreate and relive it, every Sunday, every day, because as much as this story symbolizes anything else, it also symbolizes the very church itself. And the same Jesus calls us together to share in the same Kingdom; to encounter one another, to set aside our differences, to receive and to give, to love and be loved. In short, to experience the miracle of the Kingdom of God; to see God in all the common things of life all around us – bread, juice, water, each other, ourselves. This is what the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was talking about when she wrote:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.
And only he who sees takes off his shoes –
The rest sit around and pick blackberries.

Because Christ dwells within us, and because we dwell within him, we all have the ability, when we want, to see past the berries and experience the miracle of God in our midst, and in each other. And for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God.

Peace Be with You (sermon 12/7/14, Advent 2B)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  – Mark 1:1-8

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In early 1863, a young man named Charles Longfellow joined the Union Army and went off to war. He did it against the wishes of his father, the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Later that year, shortly before Christmas, his father received word that he’d been severely wounded in battle. Overwhelmed by grief over this, as well as the death of his wife in a fire not long before, Longfellow sat down and wrote a poem that’s become fairly well known to us as the words to the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Not all of the words of the poem made it into the lyrics of the carol, though; the original version of the poem began like this:

 I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

We may or may not have experienced the same kind of losses that Longfellow did. But there are times when it’s easy to share those feelings that there really is no peace on earth, that the whole idea seems like a cruel joke, when we experience the sorrow and unrest in our own lives, and when we look around us. When fundamentalist terrorists of one religion bomb busses and behead people and call for the death of all who don’t adhere to their version of their religion. When fundamentalist terrorists of another religion bomb federal buildings and murder abortion doctors and call for the death of all gays and lesbians as a way to end AIDS. When police harass a man standing on the street minding his own business, surrounding him like a pack of coyotes attacking an animal, and then dropping him with an illegal chokehold, ignoring his cries that he can’t breathe, failing to administer CPR, and then every single participant in this crime against God’s humanity walking away without so much as a slap on the wrist. When a twelve-year old boy is playing with a toy gun in a park, and police show up and shoot him dead within two seconds of arriving on the scene. Two seconds. Based on all the turmoil in this world, it’s easy to understand the disillusionment, the anger, sorrow, and cynicism that pours out of Longfellow’s heart as he continues to write:

 And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

And yet, despite these things, this is the season that we set aside to recognize and honor the coming of Christ into our world, as a sign of God’s wishes for reconciliation with all people. As the sign of God proclaiming peace and good will to all of us, entering into our existence, knowing firsthand our hopes, our aspirations, our greatest joys and our deepest grief. And through that, showing us how we’re to love God, and how an important way of loving God is how we love others. I believe that’s the most significant aspect of why God chose to reconcile with us by becoming one of us, in the flesh – to truly be God with us, God among us, through Christ – to show us how we’re supposed to be the key agents of illustrating, and spreading, God’s peace on earth, and God’s good will to all people.

Today’s gospel reading is from Mark. It includes the title, the headline of the gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Did you notice that this gospel isn’t titled, “The beginning of the story of Jesus Christ;” or even more significantly, it isn’t called “The whole story,” or “The beginning, middle, and end of the story?” What we read in Mark’s gospel is just the beginning of what God considers the good news, the tidings of great joy, of reconciliation, of true peace on earth and good will to all, that we receive in Jesus Christ. In other words, it’s an ongoing, unfinished story. This passage talks a bit about John the Baptizer. John is the preparation for the good news. In Jesus’ birth, we have the initiation of that news. In his life and teachings, we have the clarification of the good news. In his death and resurrection, we have God’s validation of the good news. And through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, joining us with Christ, we – we – are the continuation of the good news that God has proclaimed to the world through Jesus, beginning with the birth that we’re awaiting this season.

So we light this second candle of Advent, the candle that signifies peace. We light it realizing that much of our world, around us and within us, is not right; is not at peace. But in our hearts, we’re grateful for what God has done in us, and for us, and we’re grateful that God has called us to work to extend that peace to others in the world, by working for justice, in every way we possibly can. We light this candle because through the birth of the little one in the manger, we know that God is in control, and will ultimately establish peace and good will for all. With that knowledge in our heart, even aware of what’s wrong in the world, even if we have some measure of sadness and disillusionment in our hearts, we can still share the feelings that Longfellow put to words as he finished his poem:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

 Thanks be to God.