kindred

dinner church - sundays @ 5:30pm

PRACTICES: Prayer

This week's Sacred Story comes from Psalm 141:1-2, Romans 8:22-27, and Matthew 6:5-15

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." - Romans 8:26-27

I wonder…What has your experience of prayer been? How has it been a part of
your life? How have you seen it as a part of other’s lives? What have you been
taught about prayer? What do you think about prayer? How do you feel about
prayer? What do you wish prayer could be for you?

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Has it been, for you, something that restores your soul? a source of comfort
when you didn’t know what else to do? Has it been a frustratingly silent and
feelingless practice? Is it something you had to memorize growing up, something
that was done before dinner at grandma’s house? Maybe it’s something you do
“just in case” there really is a God out there. Maybe there is a particular prayer
that functions more as a secret access code that once prayed gets you “in”?

We all come to the practice of prayer with our own baggage, both positive and
negative. Even if it seems as though it has never been a real part of our lives, we
get at least a taste of it second hand whether it’s the debate over the practice is
or isn’t a part of public schools or how it’s featured in films, praying to dear tiny
infant Jesus. We each have varying understanding, expectations, and practices
of prayer. And it appears that throughout the bible, there is room for a varied
expression of this holy practice.

It’s one of those things we can probably never fully understand. Some say prayer
is….relationship, conversation, or simply awareness – being attentive, being
open and attuned to God’s presence, voice, and movement. Mother Theresa was
once asked about her prayer life. The interviewer asked, “When you pray, what
do you say to God?” Mother Teresa replied, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.” Then the
interviewer asked, “Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?”
Mother Teresa replied, “He also doesn’t talk. He also simply listens.”

Sometimes, we have particular things on our mind and in our hearts that we need
to say, questions we have to ask. Sometimes prayer feels like it exists during a
set time, other times it seems to go on and on without ceasing, taking place with
our every breath in, and every breath out. Sometimes, we lean on the expression
of others across time. There is prayer that comes with particular words, handed
down to us through tradition, including these teachings from Christ. Even those
who have been following him for a while now have to ask, want to know more
about the ways of prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray boldly – praising God for
their glory and not hesitating to ask for what is essential to body and soul. Jesus
also teaches us to pray humbly, simply. God shows us that prayer doesn’t have
to be fancy, it’s not a performance. The bold and simple words of what we now
call “The Lord’s Prayer” are often learned by heart, repeated over and over
throughout our lifetimes so much so that it is remembered not only by our minds
but in our very bodies. It becomes muscle memory in such a profound way that
even those who have lost the ability to remember much else, can still recall and
invoke this sacred prayer. Even as this particular form of prayer holds a special
place for us, it is not the only way.

I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s beautiful poem, “Thirst”:

“Praying
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
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Jesus would go on to pray in other ways throughout his life, praying in the
solitude of gardens and mountainsides, even praying in the midst of death on the
cross – “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” The only thing Jesus
has to say about there being a right way or a wrong way to prayer is in our
intentions. Are we looking to God? Or looking for attention, trying to perform? Is
our true desire to seek our own glory? Or that all might know the fullness of
God’s love? Do we expect to remain passive in prayer, or does it open us up to
God’s will, open us to being shaped into an active participant in God’s kingdom
come?

Mother Theresa reflected on how her practice of prayer had changed over time.
She said, “I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but
now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I'm supposed to do, what I can
do. I used to pray for answers, but now I'm praying for strength. I used to believe
that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we
change things.”

Sometimes words are a helpful tool to enter into prayer, into this relationship-
building conversation. Sometimes, words fall short or escape us. Sometimes we
find ourselves simply be-ing - hoping, waiting, crying, smiling. As Paul writes to
the Romans, this too is holy. These are the moments when we rely on the
promise that the Spirit of God is always beside us and within us. She joins us in
our wordless utterance. And as a pair of friend who have known each other their

whole lives, we can simply sit at the side of God, God sitting close to us, and just
be together even in silence.

While the bible shows us practices of prayer that boldly ask for our needs and the
needs of the world, these stories seem to point to an understanding of prayer that
is more than a divine suggestion box. Perhaps prayer isn’t about changing God,
or getting god to act a certain way or do what we want. Perhaps, rather, prayer
changes us - our hearts. It reminds us that we are not alone in our joys or our
cares. Prayer is not magic. God is not a genie. And yet there is something
mystical, something unexplainable about it. Studies in hospitals show that
patients heal faster when they know they’re being prayed for, and yet there are
also times when that healing doesn’t mean a cure, but perhaps peace.

So if prayer is about relationship and it isn’t a performance, it can reflect our
honest selves – it can be joyful, but it can also be sorrowful. You are absolutely
allowed to be angry with God, frustrated with the world, even yell and scream at
God in prayer. I promise it’s a lot better than bottling it up or blowing up and
taking it out on the people around you. God can handle it. When we are joined by
others, when we ask people how we can be praying with them….I have found
that prayer is also a practice in which we are most honest with each other, about
what’s really going on in our lives, what really matters to us.
Prayer is something you can practice at meal time, bedtime, sitting in traffic,
waiting in line at the store – basically all the times we are likely to turn to our
phones and start scrolling. Prayer can simply look like sitting on a park bench
watching the sun go down and somehow being drawn into something bigger,
something holy. Prayer is a practice as accessible as our very breath. Yet, it still
takes intention; we still have to make a point to make it a part of our lives of faith.
But God still loves us and welcomes us the same no matter how often or how
infrequently we come to this awareness.

Prayer holds a promise that is much greater than helping our team win or finding
a great parking spot. These sacred stories point to a bigger promise through
prayer. Prayer is about being heard, being known and advocated for, being
humble, being bold, BE-ing. It is a practice that proclaims the assurance that God
hears us, knows us in the depths of our being. That God cares. As in the
incarnation, Jesus, God becoming human, God joins in the midst of our world
and shares our being, our joys and our struggles. Prayer helps to proclaim this
promise to us even we’re not sure that anyone’s listening or that anyone is there.
The practice of being open and attentive to God, even when we don’t expect
anything to come of it, has a way of settling hope into our souls. In prayer, we
draw near to God and perhaps are surprised to find that God has always been
near to us. Amen.

As you explore this practice, here are a few tools you may find helpful:

“The Jesus Prayer” - Lord Jesus Christ, son of God. Have mercy on me, a sinner.
You can repeat these phrases over and over like a meditation.  Try saying the first sentence with your breathe in, and the second sentence as you breathe out.

A Pattern for Prayer - ACTS – Adoration/Praise, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication/Ask. Begin your prayer with a word of praise for who God is, then a confession of they ways in which you and the world have fallen short, followed by thanking God for your blessings, and then finally asking God for the needs of yourself and others.

Common Prayer App or Website - Pray the “office of hours” with specific patterns of prayer for morning, midday, evening, and night.  CommonPrayer.net or search “Book of Common Prayer” in iTunes or Google Play

Common Table Prayer - Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Let this food to us be blest.  A prayer to use before meal time.

Body Prayer - Practice Yoga with mindfulness, practice prayerful doodling or art, go for a Walking Prayer, or sit silently in meditational prayer for 10-15 minutes.

PRACTICES: Reading the Bible

This week's sacred story comes from Deut 11:13-21 and

John 20:30-31
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. 

Christians are sometimes referred to as people of the book, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that we are people of story.  This summer we’ve been reflecting on the ways these divine stories shape us. First, that they are experienced – that we remember the oral origination of the scriptures and that before they were written down, they were lived and told in ways that more closely resemble telling family stories around the campfire (see what biblical storytelling can look like here). These stories are then sent, shared, they take on a second life in writers like Paul who build on  and connect them to new eras, new people and places. Now, we explore how they are practiced, how they come to life in us, how they are embodied in our ways of being. As it is important to discover and reflect on our family stories for what they have to reveal about where we come from and thus who we are, so it is essential that we engage scripture to…as the gospel of John puts it…shape what it is that we believe and explore how it is that we have life.

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So today I want us to think about the practice of reading the bible – how we might do this and why we would do this.  But first, we need to talk about what it is – what it is, what it isn’t, and what it’s about. Where does the bible come from and what is its purpose? This compilation of pages, these blots of ink – how did they come to be?  At some point the stories being told aloud and learned by heart became stories written down. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John circulated within their general regions, but it wasn’t until Centuries after Jesus lived, that these Gospels, and the Hebrew Torah, and other holy writings were then vetted and voted on by a room full of (pretty much white and cis-male) church leaders to decide what would be included in the Holy Bible and what would not.

So what you end up with is it a book that isn’t really a book, it’s a library. There are different genres like history and poetry and fable, and you don’t ready history books the same as you read poetry. You expect different things from them and their intention is different. It is a collection of stories, stories that are partly the story of God, but honestly more the story of people’s interaction and understanding and misunderstanding of god throughout time. Because the Bible is pieced together, there are parts of the Bible that contradict other parts, and we have to be honest about that and wrestle with that. So the bible is not an encyclopedia or an owner’s manual, it is an anthology of literature assembled across generations.

Now, if you’ve ever played a game of telephone, you know that it is virtually impossible for anything to go through that many human hands and processes to come out on the other end completely unchanged.  As Lutherans, we embrace the raw imperfection that is humanity. And thus, we also acknowledge that while we believe the bible is indeed the Word of God, it isn’t the straight dictation of God. As if God dropped a chunk of papyrus from the sky or possessed the minds and hands ancient scribes and controlled their every movement.

This is not to say that we don’t take God or God’s word seriously. It is about trying to direct our hearts to their proper point of worship.  We respect, but don’t worship Moses. We respect the Mother Mary, but do not worship her. We respect the bible, but we do not worship it as an idol of perfection in the same way that God the creator is perfect. The bible is a gift, but it’s still not God.

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The bible is the Word of God and it points to a kind of living word – the word made flesh, a word that comes alive and moves and speaks. It is a word not entirely contained by letters and sentences. It is a word that has a life of its own, a word that creates life - That speaks into being – that says “let there be light” and there was light. So the bible is the Word of God, but it is not the only thing that God ever said and it does not mean that God is done talking or creating.

One final word on what the bible is not.  If the bible is a gift, the bible is not a weapon. These words are written so that we may come to know God better, so that we may believe God’s promises as they are kept across time and place.  They were not written so that they could become the possession of a few in order to shame and hurt the rest. Any time we interpret these texts to think less of rather than love another, that is more about us than it is about the Word of God.

Ok, so what are we to do with this sacred library then? How are we called to engage these words?  The texts we’ve highlighted today show God imploring us to keep them close, to make them a regular part of our rhythm of life, to study them together, and to teach them to the next generation.  These are our stories, the story of our people, we should make every effort to know them. The more of it we know, the more connections we can make across its pages, the richer the stories become, the promises of God are even more pronounced. It is only within the past 500 years that we are lucky enough have these stories available to us in languages we can understand. We are lucky to live in a time and place, when the cost and availability of bibles make these words relatively easy to obtain.  Even a generation or two ago, it would be rare to have more than a single bible to share as a household.

All this is to say that if we are to be followers of Christ, we should be reading the sacred texts that point us toward God. Reading the bible regularly, whether daily or some other rotation, grounds us in this story that is so much bigger than us.  It creates for us a foundation a faith as it helps to reveal our true foundation in God. As we’re reading and as we seek to understand what we are reading, we have to keep a few things in mind. Every one of the books in this library has a context – it comes from a particular place and time and its author has a particular message they hope to communicate.  Imagine you’re watching a sitcom from 30 years ago. it will probably reference news headlines from that era, but looking back on it now you’d have to work to research the details of that news story to really “get it” and even then it’s never quite the same as having lived in the time of that story or watching the scene when it first aired. And as you watch it, you know that its intention is to present you with a mixture of truth and absurdity that make you laugh. But all that also depends on your own sense of humor and your own perspective. Likewise, we can not help but have some of our own biases in the mix when we read the Bible, even with our best efforts to remain impartial and informed. But we come back to the texts, again and again, to discover more and more

We grow in Christian maturity when we read these words often, but also when we read them with others.  Reading the bible in community helps us to see things we might otherwise have missed. Even when we think we fully understand a piece of scripture, we always have more to learn through what God is saying to us in the wisdom and perspective of others. When we read the bible on our own throughout the week, we have thoughts and questions we can reflect on when we come together in weekly worship.

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As we read the holy scriptures in this way, we practice a spirit of openness to how God is speaking the word still. We read with expectation, keeping a look out for what God is speaking into being now.  This is what the Word does. It creates, it becomes embodied, it activates us, it stirs us up. God, through the Word, does not leave us the same as before. When we read the bible we can ask ourselves, what is God saying to me here?  These stories aren't just folklore to be passed down they actively affect us. They shape us and our world. They give us and all of creation a holy hope in what was, what is, and what will be.

This is all well and good to talk about but when beginning a new practice, I need real tools to support me.  So I want to share with you a few things that you might find helpful to really make this a part of your rhythm of life.  How about this, make it a commint for at least week, and then you can extend your goals from there. Start with something achievable.

So here are some tools.  First, there's lots of digital tools to guide a regular reading of the bible.  There's an app called "Our Bible" which offers an LGBTQ affirming bible and progressive devotionals, you can sign up for email meditations from Father Richard Rohr on the website for the Center for Action and Contemplation. For analog tools you can hold and touch, you can print out and use this "read the bible in a year" plan if you want to really expand what your read as there are so parts of the Bible that don't normally get included in devotionals.

My invitation and challenge to you this week is to pick one of these to engage, commit to it for at least this week, and see what God does with that. As it is written in Colossians, let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the father through him.  Amen.

Tear Down That Wall

Our sacred story this week comes from Paul's letter to the Ephesians, speaking of God's promise to make a divided world into one people.  Read the full story here.

Do you remember your first day at a new school? You’re given a slip of paper with a room number to report to, but you have no idea where that is or how to get there, you’re not even sure who to ask for help without embarrassing yourself. You arrive at your desk and everyone starts pulling their supplies out of their backpacks, but you don’t have the same standardized name brand, wide ruled, 56 page composition book that everyone else seems to have.

Do you remember your first day at a new job? Your new boss guides you through the hallway giving you so many instructions you know you’ll forget, introducing you to people you’ve already forgotten the name of, putting you in charge of tasks that you kind of understand. At the same time, you want to do everything well and make a good impression, but maybe not too well or too good, so that you have room to improve instead of dissapoint. You head to the break room for lunch and you’ve packed your own because you weren’t sure what would be available, but everyone here apparently goes out for lunch and left before you had a chance to be invited.

Do you remember your first day in a new city? The streets all had names but they didn’t mean anything to you. As you rode through town, taking the place in through your window, everything was just a blur of stores and trees, and houses that looked a little different from where you came from.

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…..

Over time, the sights and sounds didn’t seem so strange. You came to know your neighbors, you made friends. People helped you find your way. You got the hang of things and you didn’t have to work so hard to just exist. You grew more and more comfortable and eventually you wonder how anyone could see this world as strange or scary.

I wonder, when did the newness of these people, places, and experiences wear off?  When did they begin to feel familiar? When did we start to glance over parts of them because we assumed we’d already seen that part before? When did we start to forget that all of it was once new? That we were once the awkward newbie trying to figure it all out while still looking cool as a cucumber? When did we start to forget that at one time the things we take for granted now were once terrifying? Exciting? Foreign?

We can get caught up in the alleluias and the joy of God, that we forget they once seemed impossible to us. Perhaps they feel impossible to you still. We get so wrapped up in it that we forget the joy and love of God is not ours alone, but shared - that we came to this place alongside others.

The early church, the first followers of Christ, had to wrestle with how they were a part of the good news they were hearing and how others were a part of it with them.  They had to think about what that meant when people understood and experienced the promises of God differently than they did. How could they be one body when they didn’t even truly understand how the these other people lived?  How could they even talk together, let alone be joined together as one new people? They had to confront how that good news could still be true for them, when it was also true for people that weren’t just strangers to them but people they looked down on and disliked, people they saw as barbaric. Not only that, but this good news of God’s love was true even for those who looked down on them and hurt them.  

When we are subject to the sin of forgetfulness, when we forget our deep sacred connection to others, the gap we have created between ourselves turns to hostility, resentment, judgement.  When we forget our connection, we are pushed away from each other, we are far away, and it becomes all too easy to fill in the space between us with assumptions. When you look at something from a distance it’s not quite clear and you take a guess at what it might be.  When we look at people from a distance, we start guessing that someone on the streets is probably an addict, that someone with a nice car only ever thinks of themselves, that someone with dark skin is dangerous, that someone with a handicap isn’t worth the trouble, that people who don’t share our political and ideological beliefs are dumb or downright . Ultimately the distance between us comes down to fear, fear of the unknown, fear that they could hurt us, or tarnish us, or slow us down . But we are not given a spirit of fear, but of power and love.

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Laying down our indifference about one another and our vitriol toward another is hard.  We like the feeling of superiority, we like the sense of protection and power it gives us even if it’s a ruse. We wear it like armor and we fear that what is left, if it were to be taken away, would be disastrous.  But what this text tell us is, that is not so. What is given in place of our vitriol and division is far better; it is peace, unity, harmony. It’s not the difference between us, but the distance between us that keeps us divided.

We forget that …. We need to be reminded.

I wonder if you remember your first time in church. Maybe it wasn’t physically at a church building, maybe you’re picturing a gathering at someone’s home or a bible study in a coffee shop, but your first time to be around these people called Christians.  They say strange words like “amen.” The have strange traditions like eating the body and blood of a person who lived 2000 years ago!?! They actually think that God can bring together a world as deeply divided as this one!?! Over time, these traditions and teachings were given meaning, and the people you met maybe from within the church, maybe people you met who had nothing to do with church - still  taught you about God’s love by their own generosity and warmth and imperfection.

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We come through the church building doors as individuals, maybe even at strangers, but in that space and time we are made one.  As the grains of wheat, once scattered on a hill, were gathered into one to become our bread, so may all God’s people, from all the ends of earth, be gathered into one in Christ.  We stumble through the awkward together,we risk relationship, until my worries become your worries and your joy becomes my joy- even when we’re unsure of what to say, even when we feel self-conscious about being accepted, even when we’re mad at each other, even when came in feeling hostile. And in the process of becoming one, our relationships find reconciliation and our hearts find peace and together we have hope. Together we become the dwelling place of God.  We experience God’s presence and promises in and through each other. Look at the person to your right, to your left, look at someone across the room who’s name maybe you can’t quite remember, think about someone you saw today at the store, who you passed by in traffic, who you passed by on the bench in the park, these are the many faces of the one Christ that you too are a part of.

And this holds true beyond this moment and time.  We come together to worship to be reminded as the Ephesians needed to be reminded...of who we are...together.  And who we are does not change when we leave these doors. On Tuesday, when that when someone posts something derogatory or unkind about another person, those are still people who are a part of you, a part of God.  When you find yourself in moments of woe at how deeply divided the world around you seems to be, may you be reminded that you are a part of God who knits together the far off and the nearby, into a beautiful patchwork of blessing.  May you know that the Spirit of Christ dwells within you...together. And may that inspire you to live boldly and graciously for each other. Amen.

Families are...

The Sacred Story this week comes from Paul's letter to the people living in the big metropolis of Ephesus - read the full story here.

Families are…

Families are a lot of things.  Families are where we find love, full of surprises, messy, lumpy. Families are a refuge, a choice, a soft place to land. Families are authentic, real, difficult, given and chosen. Families are complicated. Even the definition of family is hard to pin down exactly.  Are families defined by blood and genetics? Are they defined by proximity as in…people who live together? Are they defined by the nature of the relationship?

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And so, of course, there as many kinds of families as there are definitions.  There are elite families that belong to social clubs so prestigious and exclusive, that you can’t even buy your way in.  It may seem easy to rag on them from the outside, but they can be communities of generosity and support too. And there are families that scrape by an existence or whose names will never be on a fancy plaque. There are families that either rally together beautifully in tough times or splinter under the stress, or do a little of both.

Families in the bible are no exemption to this complicated dynamic. It seems like every story is one of siblings who betray each other, parents who manipulate their kids, and marriages that struggle. And among them are also stores of families that forgive and reconcile, families that heal, families that empower, and families that bless.

The namesake verse of this community, Kindred, comes from the divine reminder of the Psalms, “how good and pleasant it is when kindred, when family, dwell together in unity.”  The holy hope is that families are ideally communities of comfort, in which we are loved unconditionally and encouraged. That this might be for us a web of people that we are tied to even when we don’t get along, one we can keep coming back to, and thus a relationship that helps us to grow.

The reality is that, for better or worse, our families have a lot to do with who we are.  They provide an inheritance for us that may or may not include grandma’s jewelry box, but we definitely will always have a part of her spicy spirit. They give us our medical history and our habits – from our faithful work ethic, how comfortable we are or are not in talking about our feelings, our sense of humor, the way we talk and the phrases and words we use, to hereditary disease, addictions, and  cycles of abuse. They shape us, even when we’re not immediately around each other.

We may become separated from each other for a variety of reasons. Families sometimes get broken.  We experience death, rejection, and harm at the hands of those who are supposed to provide love and protection for us. Even divorce that is ultimately a choice for long-term health, can cause confusion and hurt.  And sometimes, we have to know that it’s ok to distance ourselves from relatives and friends who only cause us pain. Earthly families are sometimes strained.

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Paul is writing to a people who were deeply aware of these familial complexities. The family was the heart of life in the ancient world, a central part of culture and personal well-being. Families were the safety net for the elderly, the widowed, children and the sick.  You relied on your family to take care of you because no one else in society would. And so, several generations would live together under one roof the same way many people still live in other cultures.

Some of the people who heard the story of Jesus, were filled with passion and their whole household was baptized together.  Others who chose to proclaim that Christ is Lord, were rejected by their families who just wished they would worship Caesar like “normal” people. Some deeply loved and cared for their families, but had to leave them and emigrate in order to find work in the big cities like Ephesus. Family is complicated.

It is then vastly more profound to hear a Gospel that is told in terms of familial relationship. The family of God is one of radical inclusion and deeply nurturing relationship. It is a family where the broken parts are made whole, and the old wounds find healing. It is a family rooted in love and forgiveness and redemption. And you are a part of it.

And this is not by accident.  It’s not as if we stumbled into a good party and any second now someone will come up to us and say, “how did you get in here?” No, Paul says that we are chosen by God, adopted into this sacred household. God chose us – not after God saw that we were “good enough,” but before the foundation of the world.

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Whether our families are made up of the people who share our genetics, or the children entrusted to us by others, or friends who become family or all of the above, whether they are large or small, near or far, functional or dysfunctional; we will always belong to a family that is holy and good, that is everything we dared hope a family could be and more. We are beloved, and forgiven - free of sin, and blessed to the same degree as God’s own child, Jesus Christ.

And what we inherit from this family is not just history or habits, not only a religious tradition and rituals or good values to live by. This inheritance isn’t stuff, but identity and relationship. It is the honor of being publically and universally claimed as a part of God’s lavish life-giving household. The thing passed down to us, to become our own to cherish, is the promised Holy Spirit with all its power and mystery. What a gift! What a wonder!

Blessed be the God and Parent of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the ideal parent to us and even to our children. Bless be Christ, our ideal sibling and friend, who has blessed with every spiritual blessing. Amen.

Politics, Sex, Money, & Religion

Our Sacred Story this week comes from 1 Cor 6:12-20 Read the full story here.

 https://www.amazon.com/Barefoot-Book-Children-Tessa-Strickland/dp/1782852964/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1531163795&sr=8-1&keywords=the+barefoot+book+of+children

https://www.amazon.com/Barefoot-Book-Children-Tessa-Strickland/dp/1782852964/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1531163795&sr=8-1&keywords=the+barefoot+book+of+children

There’s this list of topics “they say” you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company: politics, sex, money, and religion. The Apostle Paul clearly does not care about that list. Y’all are going to think I’m crazy when I tell you that I actually hand-picked this text as the one I would preach on and that we would engage together. Talking about bodies and sexuality and religion….all together!?!  It’s a conversational hornet’s nest, better avoided that aggravated, right? These verses in particular have been used to deepen the rift between the carnal and the sacred, to cast sexuality as a shameful part of humanity rather than a divine one, to place rigid rules on “right” sexuality.

And I can see where some of that comes from...Paul is addressing the elite men here, the ones that could actually afford the “luxury” of participation in these practices. In the world of ancient Roman prostitution, temple servants were by far the most expensive. Unfortunately, he’s not particularly concerned with the well-being of women. But he’ll use any tool necessary including the shame of being “dominated” by women to get the men in line. He needs them to get with the program and do it quickly, because he thinks Christ is coming back around the corner any second now. He didn’t expect the world to last much longer. So he definitely would not have considered the impact of these words to people intercepting this letter 2000 years later. So this text is a jumble of all the things and it’s caused many church leaders to either condemn or ignore sexuality, but also the human body and its desires en total. And it spills over into our culture too.  I was helping with my daughter's kindergarten class during their weekly garden time and I overheard one of the young students saying, “shhhhh….that’s a bad word, you can’t say that, sex is a bad word.”  How early we are taught that even good things are to be treated as naughty.

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But it is precisely this history of silence and downright abuse between the church and our bodies that causes me to engage these texts.  Because Paul is right at least in this, that this stuff is important, so it’s important that we talk about it. But this story isn’t just about fornication.

I’m pretty sure that word is only used in church settings, so it’s easy to get fixated on. And so we easily miss the forest for the trees. We get caught up in the onslaught of rules and stipulations, that we miss the seismic shift in how we are to understand our bodies and our relationships in light of Christ.

So what does the forest really look like? Why does this stuff matter in the church? Why is this important to Paul? To him, the good news of Jesus Christ as Lord of all meant that following this Christ would mean living as an alternative to all the other systems that try to make ultimate claims on our lives and how we live them. He understood Christianity to be a way of life that stood in contrast to a culture of commodity and a cult of power.  He was surrounded by a society in which people and things were reduced to objects, objects that are then glorified as if they are God. It’s a tale as old as time - it’s idolatry.

But why is this so pressing for the Corinthians? Why here? Why now? Well at the edge of the city, there’s this big hill, a steep bluff that towers over the town.  At the very top is the Temple of Aphrodite,the Goddess of love and passion. This place was renowned across the empire and known to employ somewhere around 1000 temple prostitutes.  It was a commonplace practice for well-off men to participate in things that weren’t just physical in nature but were considered sacred ritual.

Immediately following a couple chapters discussing relationships and bodies, we come to chapter 8 of this letter where we hear Paul explain that Christians should be thoughtful about eating food that was sacrificed in these same temples to these same Gods. Because the danger is that some will struggle to differentiate the object from its ritualized meaning. Food offerings at pagan temples were understood to be received at the table of the God’s and then returned to humanity. Thus by consuming such food, the traditions teaches that one is communing with and in communion with other Gods. And so this earthly thing becomes sacramental - an intimate connection to and participation with the divine in body and soul.  Similarly, in the temple, sexual acts were a means to a transactional faith, objectified to gain divine kudos. The human body is reduced to a mechanical manipulation, rather than a gift received.

The problem Paul sees with this is that our body, with all its desires, all of its capacity for connection and pleasure, is not just a thing that exists apart from our souls or our identity in Christ.  The Good News of new life in Christ isn’t just for some hidden part of ourselves, but for our whole self - including every wrinkle, every belly roll, every freckle, every goosebump, every embrace, every butterfly in our chest, every ecstatic release, every element that reveals God’s presence and promises in us and in our world. So, oddly enough, what might sound like a condemnation of sexuality to our 21st century ears, actually elevates and acknowledges our bodies, sex, and sexuality as something that is sacred, even sacramental.

 original art by Shannon Schaefer

original art by Shannon Schaefer

Paul still isn’t saying that “anything goes”. And yet... the who, where, when, and how we love isn’t as central as the nature of our relationships with our bodies and the bodies of others that matters.  Paul’s ultimate concern is the direction of our hearts in regards to the most intimate parts of our life; that we hear God’s voice declaring us good and holy above any other. He wants us to see our bodies as the place in which God dwells, not only in the things we consider our best features, and not just some of the time, but in every cell and sensation.

If we proclaim that God, the divine, became human, fully and completely, in every sense of the word, then we also proclaim that incarnation matters. This matter is different because it exposes the lie that our external body is something we might be able to “disconnect” from our whole being from, it cuts through the lines we try to draw between our bodies and our souls.”

So why choose the risk of putting my foot in my mouth by picking a complicated text? Why highlight the matters of faith that sometimes make us blush? Why here, why now? It’s because we live in the shadow of a temple of “swimsuit-ready” bodies that implies some bodies are not fit to be seen. Because that is true for men and for women, and for all bodies.  Because more and more of us are awakened to the stories of the #metoo movement where the stark dissonance between the body being declared holy and being violently objectified is made all too apparent. Because we we too often find ourselves worshiping at the altars of filters, snapchats and apps that both remove us from our bodies and yet exhibit them.

And so, we too, need to hear the message that God’s love for us does not exist for us only in some other plane of existence, but in our bones and in our breath. We need to be reminded that our bodies are a reflection of the divine and thus are worthy of delight. That it does not belong to nor is it defined by those have or would use our bodies as an object.  That this is true even when we miss yoga practice, even when our legs are unshaved or unwashed, even when our bodies carry disease, even when our bodies ultimately fail us. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, to whom you belong? For there is no limit or boundary to God’s love for you, therefore give thanks and glory to God for the skin you are in, with the body that the creator of the cosmos has created for you. Amen. +

On Belonging

Our Sacred Story this week comes from 1 Cor 1:10-17. Read the full story here.

I can picture this scene as one that’s familiar to any movie about a high schooler that’s new to town, and is assigned a “tour guide” to help them find their way through the social spheres of their new home.  As they say in Mean Girls, “You’ve got your freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, jv jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, varsity jocks, desperate wannabes, burnouts, the greatest people you will ever meet, and the worst. Beware of the plastics.” In this ancient Roman city of Corinth, Chloe, one of the women who are leading the early church, shares a similar account. The church there has divided itself up like the rest of society – not just into clubs and cliques, but into a hierarchy of who’s who.

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These early Christians didn’t come up with this idea on their own; it is how their world was ordered.  Ancient Rome is organized as a system of patronage – in which everyone has someone who is above them, someone they “belong “ to, and your worth is determined by how powerful that person is.  The game is to become powerful by association. So if you were to walk through an ancient Roman high school cafeteria, from the top of the heap to the bottom you’d have – Caesar (who is a God in this culture), the Imperial family, senators, equestrians (which are basically knights), aristocrats, merchants/soldiers/artisans,  manual laborers, freed slaves, slaves.

The people of God took the system of power and privilege they knew in the world and perpetuated it in the church.  Their sense of self was defined by who they were connected to, whose table they sat at, and where they stood in relation to others in this social pyramid. I don’t feel like I can cast judgment on them or blame them; it’s what we as humans are prone to do.

I wonder how we might draw our own hierarchy pyramid in the USA today? Who would be at the top? Who fits in where? Maybe it would go: The president, Celebrities, those with titles or positions (such as chairman of the board, doctor), then maybe business owners and property owners/people with retirement plans, children, the old/the sick/the differently abled (those who aren’t able to produce like we think they should), and then those without property or ID (who are far more likely to be people of color), prisoners. Who would be at the bottom? In what ways do we buy into it? How does that affect your soul? In what ways do we do the same thing in our communities of faith?

I think breaking out of that system may have been particularly difficult for Corinthians.  You see, Corinth was the largest city in its region, and the 5th largest in the empire. It was a port city, a vibrant metropolis, a whole community that is driven by keeping or improving its place in the empire.  Perhaps ancient Corinth is a place not so different than Houston. And as a major city, they are steeped in the rhetoric and privileges of it all. And so it’s probably harder for them to shake loose of that worldview, to shake loose the ways of social pyramids and even spiritual one-upmanship.  It’s probably why Paul and the Corinthians write sooooo many letters back and forth. There was at least one letter before “first Corinthians”, and several more after. Because this isn’t a one-and-done discussion. Living into who God has called them to be is not an overnight thing.

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We often forget who we truly are beyond the hype or the stigma placed on us by anything other than God. We forget that we are baptized, claimed by God, not into a country club of friends, but into the body of Christ. Remembering that we belong only to God and nothing else, in the face of constant stimulation that makes other claims about how we achieve belonging, is a lifelong endeavor. Paul’s work is to remind the Corinthians that they are more than their status, and the way their status is used to create divisions. Our work as church, is to do the same.

It’s not that God doesn’t see us as unique and different, or wants us to erase those differences. But who God created us to be, where we happen to be born, and the social world we find ourselves shouldn’t be weaponized against each other to create a hierarchy of love or divine favor.  God has something different in mind for how we relate to one another and to the world. The good news of the Gospel is that no one has an “in” with God over and above anyone else or is any closer or any farther from God than anyone else. No one denomination is more beloved by God than others.

Your worth doesn’t come from who you know. You do not belong to the system, to society’s expectations for you, you are not even owned by the expectations you place upon yourself. You belong to God.

You do not belong to God because of your status, or your citizenship or immigration status, or what you or don’t achieve, or how many followers, likes, or views you get on social media, or how well your family does or doesn't function.  You belong to God because that is who you are, who you were born to be.

Paul’s message, his hope, is that Christians would embody an alternative way of life, to practice it and bring it into being through the church.  That the Gospel would not only be told with our words, but with the way we organize and live together. In the way we not only talk about, but mobilize and advocate for justice that reflects God’s hope for a new world order. That we would communicate with our whole selves that there’s another way, that there is a bigger truth than the half-truths of the empire. 

Obviously, this idea, this promise isn’t one we can just switch a flip in our minds and believe, it takes time and experience; it takes the Holy Spirit working on us, in us.  But one we have a taste of it, a glimpse, we want to be a part of the day when this promise is known in full. Once we hear what is possible….it changes everything. It fills our hearts with a longing to build systems that reflect the promises we proclaim. A system where God is not only at the top – but in the middle, at the bottom, pervasive throughout every stitch of society. A system where….actually….that social pyramid with a top and bottom are flattened and extended into a wide divine embrace. A system without patriarchy or supremacy or nationalism. A system that doesn’t feel like a system, but a holy kingdom, a kindom. For God has sent you to proclaim, and to BE, good news for each other, for the city where you live, and for the whole world.  Amen.

Seen. Known. Loved.

The sacred story this week comes from John 4:1-30 - Read the full story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well here

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This is perhaps one of the most well-known stories of the bible and yet also one of the most misunderstood.  The irony is that one of the things that keep us from understanding it, is a belief that we already know it so well. We piece together bits from here and there to make a full picture of these people and places, but inevitably there are still gaps.  Our brain will automatically do its best fill in the gaps, but we may not end up with a true picture and we hardly ever go back later to revisit these ideas.

We do this often with people when we first meet them.  We make idle chit chat to discover a few key details about them and then we kind of assume the rest, label them as this or that, and put them in a tidy box stored away in our minds.  Democrat, republican, religious, non-religious, immigrant, racist, alcoholic, comedian, intellectual….We create stories that we think fits their whole being into a few lines - Oh, that person is the yoga-pants wearing diva who posts a lot of selfies, which we either view positively or negatively. Oh, that guy is a real estate agent who cares mostly about money and his fancy dog. That woman is of Samaria, and Jews have a stereotype of Samaritan women as sexually immoral.

Ultimately, our knowledge, even as we learn more and more about people and places, is limited.

Preachers and teachers will often highlight that in the eyes of a Jew, this Samaritan Woman is a racial and ethnic outcast, but they are really more like estranged family. Samaritans and Jews are both descendants of the tribes of Israel, they come from the same family, the same tradition -  but one settled in the north, the other in the south, and then centuries of history were geographically separated and would become ideologically separated, left to scapegoat one another and argue as to who is the most “true” or “right.”

These divisions among people festered until winning the argument became more important than the humanity of a neighbor. Sound familiar?  Or maybe you’re not on facebook?

I wonder….were they more motivated by passionate belief or by the fear that if they speak or act against the ”norm” or the company line, then they might find themselves cast out and alienated too?

We are prone to see people as one-dimensional caricatures and develop a story of character flaws that justify our fear and ostracism. When Jesus reveals the knowledge that this woman has had multiple husbands, the story in our heads that say Samaritans are the bad ones, the “others” comes to life and suggests that this woman must be sexually immoral, and therefore Jesus is gracious to overlook her depravity and still welcome her.

BUT, in a historical world where women would not have been free to divorce their husbands and an adulterer probably would have been stoned long before husband #5...the more likely scenario is that this woman was abandoned by her husbands...possibly because of infertility. The stigma leaves her outside the regular rhythms of mainstream society, where the women would go together to get water in the cool of the morning hours, leaving her to come alone in the heat of midday.  She is reduced by society to this caricature of a person who is not welcome.

This separation is created not by the soul, but by culture - by the world we create.

But...liberation is coming.  A fuller story is being unearthed as Jesus and the woman go back and forth, seeking to understand the other. Libration arrives as the woman comes out to share how this Jesus truly knows her - not as a one-dimensional character, but everything she has ever done, all that she has ever been, with all her flaws and triumphs.  It comes when she realizes that she is known, fully and completely by God, and that God loves her and invites her to drink of the well of life exactly as she is.

I’ve seen the power in this proclamation just this past weekend.  As my bishop and I and several other colleagues went to the Houston Pride Festival grounds to offer a blessing for anyone who wanted.  We stood there, somewhat awkwardly in our black clerical shirts, hoping someone would talk to us. Some people stood at a distance, looking at us suspiciously.  What kind of blessing were we offering exactly?  One person asked and I said we were simply there to remind people that they are beautiful and beloved by God. Some people declined a blessing but rushed up to hug us just for being there. Others excitedly took pictures with us. But when someone expressed a desire for blessing we looked into their eyes and said something like this:

“The church has often rejected, shamed, vilified, and demonized the LGBTQI community and its allies, and has actively worked to deny you God’s all encompassing love.  As a representative of the church, I apologize for the pain and harm that have been caused by the church, its people, or any of its expressions. And I lament that with you.

Beautiful child of God, created in God’s image, always remember that you are loved, affirmed, and celebrated by God for the amazing fabulous person you are!  I’m so glad you’re here. Have a fantastic Pride!”

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This expression of being known and loved by God (and the church) made people’s chins quiver with emotion and brought tears to the eyes of those being blessed and those offering the blessing.  It was powerful.

God transcends the walls we build between each other, transcends even the walls we build between ourselves and the world. God sees behind the masks we wear as a means to survive and get by.

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This way of life, of being misunderstood, mislabeled, misgendered, misrepresented, of rejection and fighting, of trying to carry the weight of the world with a brave face...is spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and physically...exhausting.  It leaves us thirsty, hungry. Jesus releases us from our hiding places and quenches the longing of our soul. Since this is Pride weekend, I can’t help but notice the connection between Pride and this sacred liberation. Pride is a time when children of God who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex are especially free to be out in the open, unhidden, seen and known, and loved, and celebrated for who they are. It is like a holy day of jubilee for the LGBTQI community.

This is not the story of a sordid outsider being graciously tolerated.  It is not a story of Jesus stooping low to welcome someone who is somehow more unworthy than others. It is a story of the good news of being seen, of not having to hide, of being known, invited to participate with God, being divinely loved, and then sent to share your sacred story.

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Jesus shuts down the binary that leaves us chasing our tails about who’s in or out. While there is an inevitable limit to what we can know and understand of ourselves, each other, and the world... there is no limit to God’s knowledge of us. And with that knowledge, God still loves us, cherishes us, nourishes us, and invites us in. Amen.

Finding the Sacred in the Shuffle

This week's sacred story comes from Acts 17:16-31 - Read the full text here.

So +KINDRED shares our building with a number of different organizations and groups.  It’s the heart of how we live out our life as a collaborative community. Only one of these groups is another community of faith (Canvas) and the rest are things like the farmers market Central City Co-op, occupational therapy practices, Botts LGBT archive, support groups, Montrose Grace Place which is the homeless youth program, Zumba classes, all kinds of things.  

Now, some of the people who run those organizations are Christian, some are Jewish, some are Pagan, some maybe used to be Christian but wouldn’t call themselves that now, and some people want nothing to do with any like that at all.

One day, as I was running around the building setting up for Holy Week, someone saw me as asked what I was doing.  Oh, me?  Oh, I’m just getting things ready for Holy Week.

            “What’s that?” they asked.

I had to stop and think for a second. Often we who have some experience in the church and the traditions of Christianity use language that we assume everyone knows.  I’m sure this probably sounds like babbling to many and I do it too.  So I had to think, how do I answer this question without using a bunch of assumptions or code words that would still mean nothing to this person?  I can’t just respond with “well, it’s the week that begins with Palm Sunday, and then goes to Maundy Thursday and so on….”

And it obviously wouldn’t be helpful for me to get all judgey and say “bless you heart.”

Rather, I have the opportunity to see this question as a remarkable and genuine gift of curiosity and discovery that we get to share together.

When Paul is hanging around Athens, heis brought to the Areopagus, what is also called Mars Hill…(Mars being the Roman God of War). And it is called Mars Hill because this was the place where they said that the God Mars stood trial in front of the other Gods.  And so this was now the place where people gathered to hear cases and settle disputes. 

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Today, this hill is still a sort of gathering place where people climb up to enjoy their picnics and just hang out. It actually reminds me a bit of the hill at Miller Outdoor Theater here in Houston.

And here the people try to connect what Paul is saying with what they already know and understand, but they also notice that there’s something different or novel about what he’s saying.  And so they ask, with genuine curiosity, “‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”

And what does Paul do?  He meets them where they’re at – spiritually AND physically.  He’s out and about talking with people in the synagogues, in the marketplaces, with the philosophers, and in the place of Roman Pagan court.  He’s in grocery store aisles, the local coffee shop and watering holes, the drag bar and the stadium seats of the local ball game. And when they ask questions, he doesn’t condemn them for asking and not already seeing the world as he does.  He takes in their questions, their cynicism, and even their zeal. Paul recognizes that judgment is not his to dole out. He is not insulting or demeaning, not even silently judging someone else’s life or values. He speaks to them not using the church-y language of tradition, but in words they already understand.  He acknowledges and lifts up the good things that are already there: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”

Meeting people where they’re at isn’t a way to manipulate people, to woo them in with kindness and then “catching” them or getting them to come to worship with us.  We are called to meet people where they are because God is there. That’s the story Christians have to tell.

And so Paul points to a depth of meaning that already exists.  He makes a connection between what they already know and celebrate and experience, and their Creator who is reflected in those things.  He says, “that breath in your chest, that fills your lungs with oxygen and animates your bones…that’s God; this yearning within you for something beyond the easy answers…that’s God.”  He’s not pointing to some object or building, some other place or people and saying “God is that way, over there, why don’t you come over.” And this was RADICAL in a culture where people would go to extremes to travel and chase the best new thing that would bring them wholeness. Rather, he’s pointing to how God and God’s promises and blessing are revealed and experienced where we stand right this second. And this isn’t just something “non-believers” need help with; we all need help with this. We need reminders to see the divine in the daily, resurrection within our routine, the sacred in the shuffle.

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That’s the unique story that Christians have a distinct story to tell. Paul still differentiates how the significance of this story is distinct from other ad campaigns and shallow promises.  But it is still a story that can make a connection of meaning across traditions.  It recognizes that our stories and our lives are more alike than they are different.  It gives us the eyes to see that, oh, the pillars of your Muslim faith are the oneness of God, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage? Then we can certainly have a conversation there.  Oh, you’ve seen the church be hypocritical and exclusionary but you volunteer every month to help our city and its people?  We can talk about what gives us courage and hope.

We hear the call to repentance which is translated from the Greek word, metanoia which literally means….think bigger.

As Christians, we care about the freedom and safety of others to worship and connect with God or not, even across religions, even without any affiliation at all, even to doubt and question the very existence of God because we have the promise that pieces of God’s persistent love are evident in ways and experiences that might not be our own, and in ways that are beyond our knowing.  I am reminded of Jacob, dreaming in the desert with a rock for a pillow, who wakes up after an experience of the closeness of God and says, “surely God was in this place and I didn’t even know it.”  May we have eyes to see and ears to hear, to be reminded and to remind each other, of God’s presence and promise among us. May you, in this moment, with whatever is going on in you life, be intimately aware that God is with you and God is for you. Amen.

CHALLENGE PRACTICES: Visit the places of other faiths and different traditions LIKE The Islamic Dawah Center downtown - https://islamicdawahcenter.org/ OR The Bahai Center - http://www.bahaihouston.com/home.html

Outlaw Faith

Our Sacred Story this week comes from Acts 16:16-34.  Read the full text here.

Y’all are going to get real tired of hearing about my trip to Turkey and Greece, but there were too many revelations for me not to share. Early on in the trip, we came to the Greek city of Philippi where this story happened. We’re walking around ancient temples, overlooking a large forum, headed down to a section of the imperial Roman road, when we come to a little stone alcove.  Tucked into the side of the hill there were these fragments of red primitive bricks cobbled together into arches and walls. The entrance is blocked by a gate but there’s a little sign there that labels this cave-like crevice as the prison cell where Paul and Silas were kept.  I go crazy snapping away with my camera when over my shoulder I hear the tour guide announce that this isn’t actually a jail.  It’s just an old Roman bath…but now I have awesome pictures of an old Roman bath.

Even though the structure may not be genuine, the significance of the site is no less. Everywhere we went, it was made more and more apparent that what Paul and the apostles were saying and doing…wasn’t happening in a vacuum. Their words and actions don’t take place in an abstract fantasy world, or a kind of biblical movie set. Paul was rubbing elbows with actual local business owners in the public market and speaking to the crowds on the steps of city hall. The message they carried about the Gospel, the Good News that God has saved the whole world, flies directly in the face of the empire which proclaims that Augustus Caesar (and the socio-political-economic system that he has created) has saved the whole world.  And this concept of Caesar wasn’t just in people’s heads; it wasn’t just a sort of general understanding. 

Savior of the World was the title of Caesar, and is inscribed in stone.  One inscription reads that “Providence … has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order.” This is the leader of the free world. This is the world Christ is born into.  This is the imperial power that Paul is up against. This is why followers of the Way, what we would eventually call Christians, keep ending up in jail.

True Christianity will always be criminalized by empire because it asserts that there is a higher authority than those holding office and even those people and things that are worshiped as practical saviors. This kind of Christianity is not just the “I attend worship and you can find a bible among my possessions” Christianity.  It is living faith, a resurrection life that causes us to join Jesus in the work of “setting the prisoners free.” People need freedom from all kinds of things: addiction, greed, shame, perfection, even incarceration.

Just as Paul’s story does not exist in the abstract, it doesn’t land on our ears in the abstract. When you and I hear the word prison, we hear it in a country that has the second highest incarceration rate in the world – higher than Cuba, China, and Russia. And we hear it in a country that can not talk about imprisonment without considering the role of race, where ”in 2016, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population.” Are black people really more likely to be criminals? No!

What this biblical text shows us is that the thing that’s REALLY supposed to be dangerous is Christianity.  Christians are dangerous; they are a threat… to the status quo. Not just by insisting that we have more prayer in public schools or that radio dj’s say merry Christmas rather than happy holidays, but because Christians are the rabble rousers who insist that people be treated with the God-given dignity that society and systems deny them.  They disrupt unjust supply chains that keep CEO’s in excess while their employees are paid less than a livable wages and survive on food stamps.   Jesus talked back to religious and political authorities and it got him executed by the state. Only one of the apostles (the early church leaders) dies of old age, the rest are martyred.  This is not a call to anarchy, but as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote to fellow clergy who were white….from behind Birmingham bars…” One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

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Paul and Silas are just a couple of the faithful folks practicing civil disobedience across the eons.  We see it again and again, from black students walking into a white’s only Woolworth lunch counter, to today’s students walking out on the epidemic of gun violence.  The people of God have practiced civil disobedience for millennia. Remember the Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh and saved the Jewish infants rather than kill them, babies like Moses? Y’ALL, we who live in the tradition of Martin Luther are PROTESTANTS, protest is literally our name.

The message Christians carry is a danger to the idolatry that props up ultimate hope and salvation in anything other God, our creator. 

What if Christians were seen as suspect and policed harshly?  What if someone saw two people with crosses on their neck, sitting a little too long at a table in starbucks? They’re probably here to mess up our business like that other one...Paul. What if someone saw you praying and it made them scared and so you get shot?...if this was the situation in our country, we would think it impossible to deny the bias and systematic oppression against a particular population.

This is why we care about who goes to jail and not forgetting them when they’re there.  Because they are children of God, and we know that we deserve a place right next to them. But the promise of liberation is not just for noble freedom fighters.  It is also for thieves like the ones Jesus found himself hanging beside on the cross.  It is for those imprisoned mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. The gospel means that liberation is also for the jailers, those complicit in injustice.  It is liberation for the jailers AND all their people – their families, their culture, their society. The gospel shifts our sense of security and hope, our faith and belief from governments and systems, a hamster wheel of consumption that will imprison and enslave us all…to God and God’s kingdom which will not disappoint. Cleanses and heals us in the waters of baptism. And Invites us to a feast of rejoicing together.  Amen.

Holy Food for Holy People

Our Sacred Story this week comes from Acts 10:9-16

9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.13Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 14But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ 15The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

So I have this really bad habit I need to confess. Every time some stranger tells me that the bible says you shouldn’t have tattoos, I all too quickly clap back with a smart remark about how the Torah also prohibits poly-cotton blend clothing and bacon…so there!

It’s all the mental energy a comment about my body from a stranger warrants, but it’s also an unfair trivialization of the important thing that God is doing in giving the people of Israel a distinct way of being. That’s what the “food laws” of the Torah, the law, the rule of life…given by God to the Hebrews is about. For the Jewish people there are two kinds of food…clean and unclean. Unclean food wasn’t just stuff that was taboo or unliked, but was understood to actually cause separation between God and God’s people. In this same tradition there are also two kinds of people, Jews…and everybody else, aka the Gentiles.  Jewish identity, even in the early church because “Christian” identity was just being born, Jewish identity and even our identity today is shaped by an understanding of what we are and what we are not.  There are several theories as to why God gave the people these food laws – sanitation, distinction from other tribes, their symbolical meanings…

But we can’t conclusively say why.  What we do know is that food is important. The kinds of food we eat, the way its prepared, means something.

So it’s not just about Peter not being able to eat duck or bacon…food is always about more than food.  Where it comes from matters.  Our food tells a bigger story.

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For instance, in my family and many other Texas families…we are anchored by barbecue - brisket, in particular.  And while you will now pay a hefty price or wait in hours-long lines for a pound of the good stuff, this meat has a much humbler origin.  Meat is always one of the more expensive items in the food pyramid and is still a luxury for many.  But among the cheapest cuts of meat is this tough section from the cow’s chest…part of which is what we call a brisket.  So, as a cheap cut of beef….it’s what simple immigrant farmers like my ancestors from 100 plus years ago could afford.  And the only way to make that tough meat taste decent is to render it down, low and slow with smoke over a matter of hours on end.  Our food is about more than food, it tells a bigger story. And we could tell a similar story about how ham hocks, fatback and cooked collard greens became staples of cuisine to black Americans.  A couple years ago the University of Kentucky even launched a course called Taco Literacy which explores how the history of food is intertwined with politics, migration, socioeconomics and justice.  Our food is never just food. We begin to see that this story is much bigger.

So let’s take a wide angle view.  We have to go back to the beginning, to Genesis. The first chapter depicts 7 days of God establishing the conditions for life to thrive.  After each day, God looks upon creation…all of it…and calls it good.  Even humanity is given the Hebrew name Adamah which is a word that means ground, earth, soil…but also closely tied for the word, “to make.” The word takes on the meaning of one made from earth.  It as if the ancient storytellers were keenly aware of our innate connection to the ground and its cultivation. Ultimately, God entrusts all these things to humanity to tend to and care for. God points to how this will provide food for humanity and food for our food. We were designed to be deeply connected to the earth, it’s care, where our food comes from.  After a full 7 days, creation is established as a bountiful garden.

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Now let’s zoom back in to Peter and the Acts of the Apostles. Peter has this vision about food, but there’s something else going on. To understand where this vision is going, we have to look at what just happened. In the 8 verses prior, a generous and faithful person named Cornelius (not a Jew), ALSO sees a vision…telling him to find this guy Peter and so he sends out some scouts to do that. Peter’s vision comes directly AFTER Cornelius’, so we could start to assume that these visions will probably collide sometime soon.

And they do.  The verses just after Peter’s vision tell us that as he is wondering about what THAT was all about (the bible says he was brooding about it), the Spirit causes Peter to notice the scouts sent by Cornelius and brings them together.  Peter returns with them to Cornlius’ house, where Cornelius has gathered all his family and friends…all not Jewish, not part of what Peter understood as his tribe, his people.  Then we read this:

27And as he (Peter) talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28and he said to them, ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 

The food stuff still matters, they will still have to share a meal that crosses cultural and religious boundaries…but it’s also about more than food, it’s about people. The separations that were helpful and meaningful at one time now cause harm to what God is doing in the world.  Our relationship to food, to stuff, to creation, affects our relationship with people. But this isn’t a story about being polite, about hospitality and being a generous guest willing to try new foods. This is a story about honoring God and God’s creation of another. Paying attention to the things on our plate and where it comes from isn’t about what we “should” do because it’s “right,” it’s about what and whom God cares about, and what and whom we are invited to care about too. 

On my trip these past weeks in Turkey and Greece, we visited some of the oldest Christian buildings, and curiously some of them are shaped as octagon, and 8-sided figure.  Why did they do this? Besides making it impossible to arrange furniture? Just as 7 represents the number of creation, of completion and wholeness...now 8 represents the resurrection world that is newly dawning. The new creation with a Jesus as the firstborn, the new adamah, the one formed from a new kind of earth, a new reality which is promised, a new beginning that we are given.  This new creation restores the realization that humanity,YOU!, along with the rest of the animals and growing things, are deeply connected in one large ecosystem. That what affects one part, affects the whole. 

Christ is risen! Alleluia! A new day is here! Alleluia! It is for you and for me! Alleluia! It is for all of creation! Alleluia! Living in light of this resurrection, living as Easter people then gives us new eyes for connection. I’ve read some who say that the next world war….will be not be fought petroleum, but over water.  They say that the effects of global warming and it’s implication for access to water and thus agriculture and our very existence…will lead us to violence if left unchecked.  Our attention to creation is not only a religious issue, but a justice issue. Where our food comes from matters because creation matters.  Our care of creation matters because humanity is innately connected to the earth and to each other.  Humanity matters because God has declared all of it, YOU, good and holy, clean…again and again. Amen.

Challenge practices:

a) Visit a local urban farm/garden like Urban Harvest or Plant it Forward.

b) Learn about Texas’s water plan - http://www.twdb.texas.gov/waterplanning/swp/2017/

c) do your grocery shopping at Central City Co-op on Wednesday to enjoy the bounty of local farmers.

Christ is risen; Christ is in us

Our Sacred Story this week comes from John 20:1-18.  Read the full text here.

This morning, the friends and followers Jesus woke up with the same burdens they went to bed with the night before. The dewy morning air was thick with tension as they went on living in a world of broken hearts, fragile bodies, political turmoil, and the ongoing threat of danger and disaster.  Yet, somewhere in the depths of her soul, there still stirred a story of hope that lingered from long ago.

Mary is going about her day, trying to carry on in the midst of all these things, when she encounters the empty tomb…linens lying thrown to the side.  She is struck with the panic of coming home to the doors unlocked and your belongings scattered everywhere. It looks like someone has broken in; the grave of God has been robbed. She fears the worst.  She fears what experience has taught her is most likely…that people are cruel and the powerful worst of all.

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She turns to her community for help and support. Two of the men come running toward the crisis, take it in for a moment, and then head home even before fully understanding what they’ve seen and heard. The men who were so quick to rush in, who raced to get their first…have already left the scene. But Mary remains…shaking, sobbing, searching.

She turns her gaze and the angels of God appear, as they often do in moments of great fear. She turns again to find she is no longer alone. She may still be afraid, but she is also persistent in pursuit of the way, the truth, and the life.

She misidentifies the person in front of her, but then her own identity is spoken allowed. Jesus speaks her name and she feels fully known, fully loved, overflowing with relief and joy.  God comes to her in the midst of her morning routine. God comes looking like a stranger, a gardener, as someone fresh of yard crew tuck, a laborer, a janitor, a table busser, as someone who makes the world go round but often goes unnoticed. God is alive and revealed in relationship.  God shows up in the face of someone standing right in front of us, across from us.

Easter shows us the incredible unbound extravagance of what God can do – defying violence and death with peace and a new creation, turning tears of sorrow to tears to joy, expressing a depth of relationship in a world of isolation.

Easter shows us the incredible unbound extravagance of what God can do, but it’s not only about what God does… it’s about what that does in us.

This experience of divine love and resurrection causes her to respond. This Woman, Mary, is the first to preach the Good News of the Gospel, to share the story of life’s victory over death, to announce what she has seen God do.  “If the women were all the time silent, then we would have no knowledge of the resurrection of Christ.”  Without women like Maria, the resurrection would remain an idle tale of the past.

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I asked Maria if I could share her story with you, and most of what I’m about to tell you are her own words.

Maria is a queer woman who works for one of our local shelters.

“In the Disaster/Emergency Management world, they get together a lot for training, and last week they met to practice and discuss hurricane readiness and response.
While thinking of ways for leadership to be more engaged, a woman stood up to offer a suggestion, something like
"Well, if he could do X, Y, Z... he could also..." 
Once people realized that the organization’s leadership is currently entirely made up of women, folks began to talk over her and say "OR she." The woman with the mic got flustered and said, "Well, if California passes that law, I may as well be saying IT!"
People in the room laughed loudly-- some uncomfortably, others genuinely-- and others appeared frozen in shock.
The facilitator moved on quickly to the next comments, but before the next section was over, Maria looked around the room full of faith based, government, volunteer, and nonprofit leaders, people with whom she may be working with through the current crisis as well as the next-- people she’s  going to need on her side as she continues in her line of work.
She readied herself because the decision had already been made; it was made for her because of who she is and because of her acknowledgement of her privilege. 
Maria raised her hand.
She was shaking so hard with nervousness.
She said: "I don't want to move on to the next section without first addressing one of the previous comments. I think it's important to acknowledge that many people we serve have a variety of gender identities, and all of them still make them people. So, if we can move forward without references like 'it' I would appreciate it."
A bit caught off guard and trying to keep the meeting moving, the facilitator said, "Well, I don't want to get into politics and all the words we use; we'll just use he or she to keep it simple."
Maria quickly interjected, "This isn't about politics; this is simply about treating the people we serve with dignity and respect."
 
"<pause> Ok. Thanks."
The facilitator moved on to the next slide while (Maria’s) heart was beating out of her chest.
She couldn't bring herself to look at the other people seated near her, but just when she thought it couldn't get any more painful or lonely-- people started to clap!
At the next break, people came up to her--
"I really appreciate what you said."
"How can I volunteer for your organization? I'd heard good things about your org, but now this confirms even more that I need to sign up." 
"Good on you. That took guts."
"All of us in the back were cringing when she said that, then we all kind of exhaled when you spoke up." 
"Yeah, that was really cool; you did it so tactfully, too."
…When Maria walked up to the woman who originally said the comment, they exchanged a warm handshake.
"Hi.” Maria said, “I just wanted you to know that I didn't say what I said to embarrass or shame you, so I'm sorry if that happened." 
"You certainly put me in my place!" The woman responded.
"Well, I just (had to say something)." 
 
In the meantime, the woman had genuinely reflected on how her words were received and had googled the law to clarify. She said that she then recognized something she hadn’t before - that the law was about acknowledging a third gender and when she said 'it' she meant to say 'they'!
Maria responded, "That makes a lot more sense; thank you for explaining that. I had a feeling you didn't mean to make a comment like that; sorry this was so public." 
 
"No,” (she said), “I learned something today. No hard feelings."

There is much to this story that remains unknown or unclear– people’s true motivations or intentions, the potential fallout in relationship or reputation by speaking up and learning publicly…

But Maria had a story that she could not keep silent. These women shared an experience of discovery, even in the midst of hurt, confusion, and difference. The impact of her story not only affected the people in the room that day who experienced this exchange first hand, but since she has shared this story of vulnerability, humanity, hope, and courage on social media…the story now has the capacity to shape how I personally will engage in consequential conversations with others in the future.  Her words help me to envision how I might engage with others who have hurt me and whom I have hurt. Her shared story helps me find my own voice.

Her witness helps me see the risen and living God in the everyday moments of my day and the people  of my city. When I wake up still in the shadows of Friday, I turn and Easter Sunday stories like this one arrive to announce the power of love over despair. When grief and white noise leave me in tears – feeling lost and alone, God shows up, calls me by name, puts a story of surprising joy on my tongue, and compels me to speak even in the midst of fear.  When I find myself silenced by the resignation that nothing and no one will ever change, that the world is doomed…Christ defies the darkness with a new dawn, a new creation, a world redeemed.

Christ is Risen, Christ is Risen in us. Go and tell what you have seen, share the “upworthy” stories that don’t just lift our spirits but inspire others to speak and act. Alleluia. Amen.

Scorpions, Shadows, and Jesus

This week's Sacred Story if from John 19:1-16 where Jesus is mocked and beaten while crowds cry out for crucifixion.  Read the full text here.

I have spent the past week out in the country at our family farm, helping with various work projects as we get ready for a big celebration with my brother’s wedding out there this summer.  So one of the things I needed to do was clean up some brush and old stockpiles of tin.  This heap of metal has been sitting there, unmoved, for quite a while.  There are leaves, dirt, and debris covering parts of it. Some of it is rusty and broken in places, but it’s absolutely savable.  I just needed to move it to a better place. So I would lift up each sheet to move it and as I lifted it up, light came pouring into the dark underside of each piece.  Lots of creepy crawly things went scampering off to find another dark crevice to hide in.  Among the bugs, I came across a lot of scorpions, more and more with each layer I exposed. And when they couldn’t immediately find a place to hide from this exposure, they went into attack mode.  Tails stuff and curled, ready to strike while doing everything they could to get away from the perceived threat.

The flight or fight response is the same thing we’re being trained to do if or when a shooter comes into places of perceived safety – our children’s schools and churches….

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The officials tell us the priority is first to run/get away, otherwise hide, and if you can’t do that…the only thing you're left with is to fight.  Run, hide, fight. Run, hide, fight.  Where does it end?

….

As the long dark dreary winter turns to spring and sunshine, it is not an instant transformation.  Jesus’ ministry of love and welcome, humility and justice shines a light into our darkness.  But sometimes all we can focus on is where darkness is exposed in us and we would do anything to get away and find another dark crevice to hide in.  And if we can’t do that….we start fighting.  The drive to fight is so instinctual that we no longer differentiate friend from foe, true threat from our fearful imaginations.

 photo by Hailey Kean

photo by Hailey Kean

This dark underside, this raw and exposed humanity, the primal violence in us that we would rather not face…is the poison that Jesus draws out of us, and what God draws into Godself. Through arrest, “trial,” torture, and public execution, Jesus experiences and takes the worst of us into his own body, his own soul – our violence, our hatred, our lies, our pride, our apathy, our shame.  Not just in long ago history, but continually. Jesus takes in the sin of the world every time texts and anecdotes like this are used to dehumanize Jewish people as if we don’t all cry out for Christ’s crucifixion.  Jesus takes in the original sin of our country when justice is warped to convict the innocent and disproportionately incarcerate black bodies.  Jesus takes in our continued addiction to power, violence, and the illusion that the deep brokenness belongs to someone else and couldn’t possibly be us.  All of this, from the dawn of time to this very second is visible in our beaten and bloodied God.

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Jesus takes our pain and brokenness into God’s own being.  And that isn’t because you should feel real real bad like God is wagging the divine finger at you. It’s not because someone HAD to pay for it, someone HAD to be held accountable as if God’s bloodthirst must be satisfied somehow.  Rather, in this act Jesus reveals that this system of tit for tat accounting of hurt ends here.

In this, Jesus reveals that we are not saved by our commitment to God, but God’s commitment to us. God doesn’t cherry pick the best and shiniest parts about us and claim just THOSE fragments of people to redeem, but proclaims salvation to our whole selves and to the whole world.  Now, THAT actually sounds like Good News. 

Jesus reveals that the only thing more powerful than our propensity for destruction is God’s persistent love that follows us even to the grave and back again. It is a love powerful enough to tell a dead man to come out of darkness and be freed.  It is a love secure enough to bend down before others in service. It is a love gracious enough to overcome betrayal.  It is a love faithful enough that it redefines our experience of truth. It is a love that isn’t afraid to stare into the mangled shadows of our souls and yet still sees a creation that is beautifully and wonderfully made. It is this divine love that will save us, change us, and make us whole. Amen.

If you had been here

This week's text is John 11:1-44 - The Confession of Martha and the Raising of Lazarus.  Read the full text here.

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A week ago, when I saw that this was the text slated for today I thought… that’s a pretty feel-good story to kick off this season of Lent, this time that’s supposed to be one of wrestling with our wilderness and woundedness. A week ago, all I could see was the seemingly miraculous outcome – life restored and they all lived happily ever after. That wasn’t really how the story goes anyway. But today, after the massacre in Parkland, Florida...I experience this story differently.  Today I am keenly aware of the long wait, the gut-wrenching questions, and the shared tears.  How did we get here? How long will this heartbreak continue?

Just yesterday we were sitting with Lazarus at the breakfast table, laughing about childhood memories, then all of the sudden…gone. Even Jesus was sure that this sickness was no big deal, it was manageable, everything would be fine, but then it wasn’t. Now, there must be a change of plans.  We’re not where we thought we’d be, life is not going the way we envisioned, and we’re turning around.

Even then, we try and soften the blow. Jesus told the disciples that Lazarus was just sleeping and they’re going to wake him up.  But inevitably, the hard reality must be spoken.  Death has come for that which we cherish. Thomas articulates what many of us might feel in that moment, where we resign ourselves to death too.

By the time Jesus approaches, scripture tells us that Lazarus has been dead 4 days.  Jewish tradition held that the soul left the body after 3 days, so basically we’re being told that Lazarus isn’t just mostly dead, but is all dead. We are meant to understand that there is no coming back from this. Martha comes out to meet her friend and her teacher and in a complicated mixture of faith and heartbreak, she cries out, “if you had been here….if you had been here…if only…” We too are prone to wonder, where is God in our time of pain and suffering? Like Mary and Martha, sometimes I wonder.

Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." 24 Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." She is working on the assumption that God’s promises are for the hereafter, but Jesus proclaims that these promises are also for the here and now.

25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" 27 She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." This is the point for the Gospel writer, John.  That through Jesus we are given BELIEF, hope, and understanding. 

Belief and understanding for this context doesn’t mean intellectual concrete knowledge, but knowing in the biblical sense….being connected in relationship, being fully seen and known, intimately loved….in our moments of joy and in hurt.

The gospel of John includes 7 signs that Jesus performs that bring about belief.  The first sign, we remember from the beginning of the year, was as the Wedding in Cana and the transformation of ordinary water to the very best wine.  The signs begin in a time of joy and celebration.  Here, the 7th and final sign, 7 being a holy number of completion as at creation, this culminating sign comes in a time of sorrow.  In both plenty and in want, Jesus is present and active. 

Jesus calls for Mary and she comes forward with the same sentiment…”Jesus, ...if you had been here...”  Jesus doesn’t offer her platitudes, niceties, hallmark hope, nor hopeless apathy while he remains safely at a distance.  Rather, God is greatly disturbed and deeply moved.  The original language is even stronger, essentially that God in Jesus is torn in two, ripped apart from the inside.  Even though Jesus IS the promise, God weeps as God does and will continue to experience death and pain with us.

John doesn’t make it exactly clear where the full responsibility of this tragedy lies. One way of reading the text might sound like Jesus allowed this awful thing to happen in order to teach the people some sort of twisted lesson, but that doesn’t align with how the Gospek speaks to God’s character. What John DOES imply is that things are not yet right in the world.  Death and destruction persist, but Jesus will work tirelessly to bring about life and life everlasting even in the midst of the valley of shadows.

Something significant happens even before we come to the tomb.

A couple of my seminary professors pointed out that, the promise doesn’t come at the end of the story, after the seemingly happy ending.  The promise of life and resurrection come in the middle of the story, while Lazarus is still dead in the tomb. That’s when we hear the promise too, in the middle of our stories, in the middle of our grief, in the middle of pain. And that is precisely when the promise can give us hope to keep going.  Healing is not only for Lazarus, but for Mary and Martha, for their community around them.

And then the loud defiant, insistent voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

Grace upon grace looks like God coming to the threshold when you are deader than dead, the shepherd who knows you and loves you, calling you by our name, and you are then able to walk out of that tomb unbound to rest in the bosom of Jesus. 

Resurrection doesn’t stop with bringing life from death, but continuing to unbind us from the remnants of death’s grasp.  We have much to unbind - our internalized self-disgust, our addiction to violence and harm as expressions of power – with our weapons and our words, our narrowed vision that puts winning arguments ahead of making a difference. We have much to unbind.

Jesus drops everything, comes through dangerous territory to be with us in the struggle, hears our hurt, shares our tears,  call us out of death BY OUR NAME, and then invites the community to be the ones who take part in the unbinding. What’s next for Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Jesus? No easy road to be sure. But one that is powerfully changed because of the promise that persists day and night. Amen.

Out of the Shadows

Our text this week: John 3:1-21 - Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Read the full text here.

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In my experience, strangers send you Private Messages for one of two reasons – to connect on a deeper level, or to insult you. People have sent me messages because they want to know what’s the right language to use around a particular matter of gender or sexuality and they don’t want to inadvertently make a fool of themselves or cause someone harm.  People have sent me messages telling me I should be ashamed of myself, my family should be ashamed of me, my church should be ashamed of me, my dog should be ashamed of me, and that I am spouting ungodly craziness. 

Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night, under the veil of shadows.  He essentially shoots Jesus a PM – a tool used by those who seek privacy for the sake of honesty and understanding, as well as by those who seek privacy to hide shameful behavior that mocks and disparages.  The nighttime setting is a tool used by the Gospel write, John, thought his writings to symbolize misunderstanding.  

It seems, at first, as though Nick and Jesus agree.  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” To which, Jesus replies, “yup! And since we surely speak the same language…you’ll get that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” “Ok, Jesus, you lost me.”

Nicodemus can’t compute Jesus’s words within his existing worldview.  I’m not sure if Nicodemus is just being sassy or is genuinely confounded when he asks about how someone can literally physically exit from a womb a second time. Nicodemus WANTS to take Jesus seriously, but his attempts to take the Word literally keep getting in the way. We can be so focused on getting God “right” that we miss God right in front of us.  Or we want God and God’s Word to us to be crystal clear and certain so that we miss the wonder and mystery that make the Word worth hearing.

So Jesus tries to explain it a couple different ways, but none of them seem to satisfy Nick’s desire to pin the message down with tangible certainty.  God speaks of water, spirit, wind - things that resist capture and containment….elements which can be known in some ways and yet so much of them remains unknowable.  Ironically, Nicodemus resembles a fetus in utero – He has senses - Hearing, seeing, feeling, tasting? But everything is a bit garbled. We know that growing babies can hear us in the womb, but it isn’t until after they are born that they can connect the soothing familiar sound to the face and name, the concept of parent, nurturer. It’s the same way with the little mermaid discovering the dinglehopper.  Sure, a fork could be a hairbrush in an underwater world where saltwater is somehow also a detangler.  When all we have to go by is our own limited experience with our own assumptions, the voice of God which goes beyond those limits can feel confounding. Nicodemus can see Jesus doing wonders and speaking hope, but can’t connect the dots, doesn’t know what it means because it doesn’t fit cleanly into defined categories.

Jesus invites Nicodemus into a new way of seeing the world, a new way of being. Even if we can’t wrap our minds around it fully, it surrounds us still.  Like the wind, which can’t be seen or grasped, but still affects us, still moves us. Jesus reveals that the Word, the Word made flesh, is so much more than face value. Jesus reminds us that we can not make faith and belief a matter of the head only, while neglecting our soul.  We are both – born from above and below.

At some point while reflecting on this text it occurred to me that the folks who might best understand this idea of a second birth are those who have had the experience of coming out or of transitioning. They know profoundly what it is to move from mere existence to identity and personhood.  In this way, the LGBTQI community reveals God to me in ways I wouldn’t otherwise understand.

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When we focus too much on people’s anatomy being right or wrong or their fitting cleanly into the defined categories we hold as standard, we are blinded to the divine love echoed in the careful creation of our bodies and in the intimacy between beloved partners.

Jesus didn’t come to mock Nicodemus or condemn him, but liberate him from confinement, there’s a place for him at the table too.  There’s even a place for me, who gets so stuck on getting it right, or wanting so badly for God’s vision to just be a little bit clearer, a little bit more certain. For, in this way,  God loved the world – in flesh and in spirit, in relationship, through the wrestling and confusion… in order to bring about light, illumination, epiphanies, revelation, life and life that begets life.

So I don’t fully know what’s going on with Nicodemus at the end of this scene, but I do know this is not the last we see of him. While here we see him questioning Christ, later in the Gospels we also see him defending Christ and the Gospel.  He’s even there at the end, working alongside Joseph of Arimethea to lay Christ’s body to rest.  Through Christ, people can and do learn to see what was hidden. We are given a new birth with new eyes to see and ears to hear of God’s goodness all around us.  God makes a way out of no way, and loves us even when we just don’t get it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Uncontainable God

Read the Text Here - 1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13 - Solomon Builds the Temple
 

We just celebrated my daughter’s 6th birthday. We…ok, I…envisioned this beautiful birthday party in the park.  I intentionally wanted to keep things simple and unfussy but still special.  Preparations definitely started out that way, but then I remembered that given the opportunity I will fuss and fluff as much as there is time. So I scoured pinterest for activities and décor ideas. As the day grew closer, we worried about the weather and ran all around to gather the little things I decided were necessary. 

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Somehow our simple celebration required my husband and I going on covert ops to haul off tree trunks from our neighbor’s trash pile and chainsaw them down into perfectly charming cake stands.  On the big day I got her flowers and a big balloon, because I do want her to know that this day is special and I want her to feel honored and cherished. And I think she did experience that through all the fanfare and fun. But our love for her is reflected best…not by lavish gifts or on a single special occasion, but in the daily minutia of living in love. She experiences my love even more profoundly when I put down my phone, look her in the eye, and listen to the drama of her day as we build legos together. Our relationship is honored and nourished when she gets to tell me about her friends, the people that she loves, and we all get to spend quality time together.

King Solomon builds this grand temple which God is indeed worthy of, but misses the mark because he does so at the expense of real people and real relationship. In between these chapters we know the Solomon uses oppressive labor practices that are eerily similar to the Israelites bondage in Egypt.  The stunning temple is built on the backs of the underpaid working poor, and the priests and elders get all the glory in the end. Solomon stops really listening to God.

We hear Solomon proclaim, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. 13 I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.” It’s as if Solomon thinks he has outdone God by finding a way to contain the uncontainable, for with Solomon all things are possible. His motives are warped into an aim of making God proud, and he at least subconsciously holds the expectation that building a glorious temple would give him a bit of an edge in the market on God. But the Lord’s presence amidst the dark clouds re-asserts divine freedom, especially against the temptation to idolatry, which is another word for the human attempt to limit divine freedom and manage divine access.  God’s glory disrupts all activity in the temple because God cannot be housed by it, cannot truly live in it, nor be contained by it, let alone forever.  God extends beyond these walls to inhabit the amorphous and unstructured, uncontainable cloud.

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It’s a lesson that apparently we never quite learn. When the Lord our God gave our spiritual ancestors, the Roman Catholic Church, rest on every side we set our sights on rebuilding St.Peter’s Basilica in Rome into the stunning structure it is today. I have walked the sacred halls of that place for myself and was indeed more inspired than I ever thought I would be.

But the oppressive cost of grandeur was again born by the most vulnerable. The temple would be financed, at least in part, by the sale of forgiveness which most affected the poor.  Construction began in 1506, and by 1517…tensions bubbled over. 500 years ago Martin Luther took a hammer and nail to the pretty temple doors in Wittenburg and posted his 95 Theses – 95 statements of faith, a list of 95 ways in which the church had deviated from its call to be a carrier of the Gospel and must now return to its true self, to re-focus the church on God.  In these statements, Luther reminds us of the limitations of people and priests to proffer salvation and lifts up the limitless grace of God.

Essentially Luther claims that no one can buy or sell forgiveness, no gold can achieve salvation, no grandeur can fully capture God, no one has a corner on the God market, not even Lutherans. And thus, no human being can be denied direct access to the divine. This is true especially, ESPECIALLY as the means of grace are exploited and abused at the victimization of the most vulnerable, the poor.  People were buying the thin illusion of salvation before they could care for their basic needs or the basic needs of others.  At its heart, the Reformation speaks against a containable and compartmentalized God and thus a compartmentalized faith. 

God is boundless and so is our way of being in God.  God’s loves for us extends to our whole selves and so we are wrapped up in a love, a faith that isn’t only on paper, not just in our heads, or only when we step inside a church building…it is how we live and move and have our being. 

From the splendor of Solomon in the Old Testament, to the temple veil being torn in two at Jesus’ crucifixion, to the affluence of the European Renaissance, and into our own time… God invites us to imagine that the temple is not the building, but Christ. Place matters, but it is not our center.  God is our center. The kingdom of God is not brick, but embodied. We can be a part of building a house for the Lord our God, but it is built not of stone, but of people. God dwells not only among pillars or tablets, but in us and around us.  Many church buildings look like fortresses, but the true stronghold resides not within walls, but in God. Our relationship with God in honored and nurtured by grace, not grandeur. God’s love is experienced not just on special occasions but in the day to day realities of life.

It’s easy for me to shake a stick at the other, the historical “them” apart from me.  But I hear the words again and I wonder…how often do I buy things for a thin and shallow semblance of goodness, while neglecting the care of relationships, of financial and physical health, of others in need, of my soul?....

The Reformation isn’t only a moment in history, but an ongoing movement that continues to shape us.  We are a resurrection people. Our identity is rooted in allowing the old things to pass away and in being made new every single day. It’s who we are.  It’s how we are. Because of God. Because of Christ.  Luther felt compelled to speak up when it seemed as though the people of God placed all their eternal hopes on the Pope and on paper rather than the Gospel. For Luther, the way to re-center the church on Christ was to value scripture over tradition, faith over works, and grace over merit. We still miss the mark.  We forget our true foundation. What do we need to do to re-align ourselves again with Jesus? As individuals and as a church. It won’t ultimately save us, and it won’t give us the corner on the God-market, but  perhaps it will reveal the ways in which the limitless love and pervasive presence of God dwells among us.

So I wonder….

What would it look like to build a temple, a church, a people, a way of being for our God that honors and nurtures our relationship with the divine and with the world? What is most important? What would you nail to the church door?

How has the church failed to be the body of Christ? How would you express the Gospel, the good news of Christ in your own words?  How would you finish the sentence, “God is _______.”

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Mighty Lord,

The splendor of Solomon’s temple cannot compare to the majesty of your heart. Show your heart in this place, that we might worship you with joy and gratitude. Amen.

 

expected justice, but saw bloodshed

Matthew 21:33-46
33 "Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, "They will respect my son.' 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, "This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.' 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" 41 They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time." 42 Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls." 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

In Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” the author goes to speak with farmers large and small around the country.  What does America’s food production look like these days?  What did it used to look like?  What could it look like? I’ll never forget one interview with Joel Salatin.  He’s a farmer with a variety of creatures (pigs, cows, chicken, and sheep) that produce meat, eggs, milk, and wool. He’s got the traditional American farmer look – the worn sloppy straw hat, suspenders, and dirty jeans. But he doesn’t consider himself an animal farmer.  No, he says, “I’m actually a grass farmer.” That’s the source, that’s what this is all really about.

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It got me thinking about God and God’s creation.  We have all these beautiful agricultural parables and metaphors… We talk about God as the master of the vineyard and tend to picture the fruit, the grapes and the vines.  But what does it mean that God tends not only the plants, the people, but the dirt from which it grows? The gritty muddy messy stuff that gets under our fingernails? How do we imagine God as the good soil that, uncorrupted, will nurture life for not just a season but for generations?

All that we have, as deeply attached to it as we may be, is not our own but belongs to God – it’s a gracious gift. The farther removed we are from that initial gift, the more we forget.  We forget that all humanity is created and endowed together, that we are deeply connected even when separated by oceans of water or economics.  That’s why we travel to and from our companions across the world, why we meet up in Peru to share our lives and our faith together and to be REMINDED.

Over time, we inevitably forget the generosity that birthed us and we drift away from that Spirit and from each other. We forget our connected-ness, our eternal-ness and we turn to isolation and immediacy.  Our vision grows narrow and all we see is the here and now of ourselves. A vineyard is still an apt metaphor as we see the implications of ego in our ecology.  We see the land, the dirt to be only as valuable as the dollars it makes for us in a season, and so we pay no mind to its needs across generations and strip it of enduring nutrients until it is good for nothing.

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We drift toward the self, believing more and more strongly that we have earn it all on our own, that we deserve it as if there is someone else who does not. We become accustomed to privilege. We resort to violence to maintain it, not only that but our vision becomes warped enough to believe that our violence toward others is justified. What would have happened if the tenants had access to military style automatic weapons?

Jesus’s parable isn’t entirely original. God reminds the hearers of words they’ve given before. Jesus picks up where the prophet Isaiah left off and turns the story ever so slightly on its side.

Isaiah 5:1-7
5Let me sing for my beloved
   my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
   on a very fertile hill. 
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
   and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
   and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
   but it yielded wild grapes. 

3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
   and people of Judah,
judge between me
   and my vineyard. 
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
   that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
   why did it yield wild grapes? 

5 And now I will tell you
   what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
   and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
   and it shall be trampled down. 
6 I will make it a waste;
   it shall not be pruned or hoed,
   and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
   that they rain no rain upon it. 

7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
   is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
   are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
   but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
   but heard a cry!

It’s a love song, but love sometimes means heartbreak. What happens when the vineyard is broken? When its life and its world are not what was hoped for? When Evil takes it over? When Sin is seen and experienced in real flesh and blood bodies?

After all that we’ve seen and experienced, I think I can’t handle one thing more.  And then…another trauma, another headline. It makes me want to take a match to the vineyard and just burn the whole thing down, walk away and never look back.  ….And that’s one of the many reasons I’m not God. God continues where I can not. If I saw ( and many around us have seen) everything I’ve invested in and worked so hard to cultivate…disrespected and ruined…it would wreck me.  Even though I am safe today, I am still wrecked by the struggle that surrounds me.  Whether we are directly or indirectly affected by tragedy, it takes a very real toll on us. My body is physical exhausted, my soul is weary from compassion fatigue. I just want to lie on the couch and shut my eyes…or throw something…or both, or nothing…

God continues where I can not. God looks at the once lush vineyard which has been reduced to nothing but a vast expanse of dry dust…and does not hesitate to return to the work of creation. When I would give up, God musters the strength to start anew, to stare death in the face and demand life.  We forget. We forget our connected-ness - our shared humanity, the interwoven nature of our lives in creation. We forget ourselves. We forget the expansive generosity that birthed us all. We forget. But God remembers and we are reminded. The Gospel reminds us – not of a world that could be, but the world that will be, the reality that is already among us, shining light into dark places.  

At times we shut our eyes to the light, we either can’t see it or we don’t want to. We reject it. But the dawn of a new creation comes anyway. It is not only probable, it is inevitable.  

The same prophet Isaiah reminds us of the Word of hope:

“Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
   to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
   and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 
4 He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more. 
5 O house of Jacob,
   come, let us walk
   in the light of the Lord!” (Isa 2:3-5)

Jesus speaks of a vineyard so fruitful and so generous that no one will ever be thirsty again.

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The witness of Peter proclaims a temple made not of stone but of living things, constructed not of something other, but of us.

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like living stones, let yourselves be built*into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter2:4-5)

Revelation promises and reveals a world where there is no more hurt, only hope…

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home* of God is among mortals.
He will dwell* with them;
they will be his peoples,*
and God himself will be with them;* 
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ (Rev 21:3-5)

We gather together, in these holy places as a holy people to be reminded again and again of the wideness and wildness of God’s mercy - to see it in each other’s faces, to hear it in the Word, to experience it in the meal, to practice it in our embodied response. May these gifts grant us healing, wholeness, and courage. Amen.

...in which God says some messed up stuff

Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14
21:1 The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 

22:1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 2 He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." He said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" 8 Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together. 9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 12 He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place "The Lord will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided."

Can we talk about what just happened? Because that was messed up. Even if it seems like things turned out “all right” in the end…I can’t un-see this disturbing image of violence and trauma. I want to hurry past it.  I’m not sure I have the capacity to wrestle with such an obscene experience.  I need to either run from it and focus on some sun-shiny highlights, or rationalize it somehow to minimize its ugliness.

 art by He Qi

art by He Qi

What kind of God forces a man to choose between faith and basic ethics?  What kind of man is blindly willing to shed blood in the name of God? And under what circumstances could any of that be called good or blessed? Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be a part of anything that had to do with such characters. And yet, to ignore it or too easily dismiss this story that sits amidst our sacred scripture seems cowardly at best, and ultimately unsatisfying. Stories like this are one of the reasons people take issue with the church and religion and choose to separate themselves from it.  Not just because the story is gruesome, but because we, the church, tend to avoid addressing that truth. We dance around it, excuse it, or tidy up the difficulty.

What would happen, if instead, we faced the struggle directly and engaged it deeply? I still don’t want to, afraid of what I might find there….but I need to.  Who is this guy that leads his child up the mountain? What is behind and around this critical moment?

The name Abraham is familiar to many, even those who are not religious.  But at the beginning, God’s call to Abraham seemingly comes out of nowhere. Abram is just a wandering Aramean to whom God essentially says, “follow me into the unknown.” Today’s passage would lead us to believe that Abram immediately does so without question, but actually he often asks question of God along this journey. He asks if there is a way that Sodom and Gomorrah could be redeemed or spared from destruction. No, he doesn’t just ASK, he PLEADS on behalf of these cities and their people. He and Sarah have their names changed when God establishes an everlasting covenant with their family. They receive the promise that their descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky, as many as the grains of sand in the desert. The promise extends not only to the number of people, but to their character.  Through this family, God promises, that all nations on earth will be blessed through them.  

Abraham literally means “father of many.” Indeed, Abraham and Sarah become the parents of a multitude of generations, but also of various faith traditions. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity – the Abrahamic faiths all trace their roots to this man. But this future was not always certain or clear to Abraham and Sarah.  They were old and they struggled with infertility. In fact, they laughed at God for the seemingly silly notion that this promise could ever be made reality. They questioned and devised their own way. Abraham and their slave, Hagar, conceived the first-born son Ishmael who would become a patriarch in the Muslim tradition of faith. Years later, when Isaac did eventually come into being, Abraham again pleaded to God on behalf of the older son, Ishmael – begging for him not to be cast aside and forgotten. God honors this request just as God has done before for Abraham. God provides Ishmael a future of blessing as well.

In the desert nations where this great family is from and has lived their whole lives, the people do not know Abraham’s God.  They know many gods by many names but they do not know Yahweh. For generations they worshiped these other gods through the stories and tradition handed down to them. To earn the favor and blessing of your god, you must make burnt offerings. The understanding of God was one that needs sacrifice, even the sacrifice of children. It worked as a divine system of tit for tat – you give something, you get something. It is within this backdrop that Abraham’s worldview has been shaped. This culture surely shapes how he understands this Yahweh and the ways in which one interacts with the divine.

Even so, this story of the binding of Isaac still feels cruel, dark, disturbing, possibly even evil – especially to our modern ears.  It seems Abraham has two choices and both are wrong – to murder or to disobey. For today, let us pay close attention to these feelings. Why do we still get this sinking feeling in our stomachs? Why does it feel wrong?  Why does it make our skin crawl? This text is often lifted up as a story of Abraham’s extreme faithfulness, that he is sooooooo obedient…but what if he had it wrong?

The Midrash is a faithful Jewish tradition where rabbis explore the story between the lines, looking to what isn’t explicitly said, and imagining the world between the Word.  They ask questions of the text to discover a wider and deeper range of possible meaning.  Here’s the question I want us to wrestle with today: “is this voice, the one commanding Abraham to bind Isaac, is this truly the voice of God?”

We read, “1 After these things God tested Abraham.” Neither God nor Abraham say that this episode is a test, only the narrator. To test….an interesting word.  One I hear often in time of unknowable challenge, and certainly one I’ve heard a lot after Hurricane Harvey, that “God is testing you.” A test conjures up images of grade school in which you can either pass or fail. It can evoke the feeling of being tricked – where your innate responses and assumption are used against you in pursuit of a nearly impossible solution. But “to test” can also mean “to know,” to uncover the truth. When you test a ship’s seaworthiness the goal is not to sink the ship or even cause it undue distress, but to know its boundaries and capabilities, to identify small leaks and areas that might be tweaked before going farther into the ocean. To know a thing is to build trust in it, to strengthen the relationship between objects previously less familiar. Perhaps this is an experience that serves to strengthen Abraham’s trust in God’s promises.  But perhaps, it provides Abraham a means to know God’s voice from the many.

The practice of discernment is a holy work in which we look to ourselves, of God within us, and to our communities, of God around us. In this way we form the body of Christ together in order to know and follow God’s will for us and the world. I personally engage in this practice with a spiritual director. I was spending time with her recently when I reflected that I’m most productive when I’m busy. I do well with a full slate and it forces me to focus. All she had to say to me was, “is that really true?” I had convinced myself it was but as soon as she created the space to reflect differently, I knew it was false. I’m not most productive when I’m busy, I’m most productive when I’m focused.  What are other, healthier ways I can achieve focus?

This piece of discernment is missing from the story.  We do not hear of any personal or communal reflection on Abraham’s part. This man, who has not been shy of asking big questions in the past, falls silent now. What terror can emerge from the lack of discernment?

So what if Abraham got it wrong? What if he was misguided by the echo chamber of his own experience? What if the voice calling him to violence is false? It’s possible. Look at what the voice says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." But Isaac isn’t Abraham’s only son, it’s not true.  Since Adam and Eve, the voice of the evil one corrupts the truth, crafting subtle variations that are close enough to be convincing but that miss the heart of God’s Word.

Words are important. There are subtle differences in the Hebrew text. In this passage, every time the word God is used it comes from the Hebrew word Elohim, which is used to describe a more generic sense of god.  It’s God with a lowercase “g,” the general word for deity. It’s the same word that any of the desert peoples would have used for a number of gods. 

Isaac speaks up and begins to ask questions, “where is the lamb?” It’s a tragically heartbreaking thing to hear. But perhaps the asking of a simple question is enough to create space for other voices to be heard.

It isn’t until the angel arrives that we hear the command to stop and not to harm Isaac, that we see the word LORD in all caps. In this moment, the intimate known name of God, Yahweh, considered too holy to be spoken is translated as LORD in full capital.  It is THIS voice that is differentiated from the others that speaks on behalf of mercy and life. Were the voices before this moment only shadows of what Abraham thought God wanted? After all, it would have fit within what his culture had demonstrated as the desire of God and how to be in relationship with the divine. Even as the text continues with the reader’s relief, the word for god dips back into Elohim as we hear the bizarre affirmation of the act, saying “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

Ultimately, the truth at the end remains…that the LORD provides.  Still, the experience of confusion causes trauma. Abraham and Isaac are never seen to speak to each other again in the scriptures. Sarah’s death follows not long after. Let us reflect on what happens when we don’t test the voices we perceive as God within community.

And yet, within this tiny sliver of Yahweh that is lifted up in this story, we see a God that is not like other Gods.  This is a God who does not function in a tit for tat system or require our own sacrifice in order to earn grace and favor. We see echoes of the cross. The Gospel of John invites us to “behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Like Isaac, Christ will carry the very wood that will claim his life. God takes the altars of sacrifice that we would create for ourselves and takes them upon God’s own shoulders. God provides the liberating sacrifice that is more than we could offer or accomplish.  God’s faithfulness to the promise of blessing is tested and truth remains unchanged – that God’s ultimate purpose is life. It’s a truth we need to be reminded of day after day, week after week so that we might live in the light of these promises. It’s a truth that may be more profound now that we have wrestled with it. It’s the truth that flows from this sacred table – that God’s love knows no bounds. Amen.        

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