kindred

dinner church - sundays @ 5:30pm

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.        

A New City

Rev 21:1-6 and 22:1-5
21Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And 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.’ 6Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
22Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.

No one knows what day it is. There are no words that can capture all we have experienced.

Some have lost everything...some are still suffering the stress of deciding if and when to evacuate and what their home will be like upon their return, the weight of uncertainty...some are struggling with a sense of survivor’s guilt...some now see God face to face...some feel trapped with a desire to help but a limited capacity to do so, all of us are overwhelmed with a soul that aches for the fear and loss that has happened to a people and a place we love.

We are at once heart broken and heart full. We have witnessed our city turned to an island, isolating and broken. We have also seen it turned into a life-giving community, overflowing with generosity and kindness. So much so that even while we wrestle with understanding and harbor bitterness for the hurt we’ve seen, we also can’t help but feel a sense of the sacred stirring in the midst of storms, a  divine light that shines in the darkness. Last night, driving home after watching hundred of kids make craft kits for displaced kids...I drove by a handwritten sign that said “free lemonade at Donovan park” and the love expressed in this act was simply too much for me. It’s just a cup of sugar water, but it means so much more to a people so so thirsty for goodness. The growing snowball of small kind acts I have witnessed finally exposed my raw and tender heart and brought me to tears. God’s beauty just keeps showing up.

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We are only just beginning to see a city reborn. We gain a glimpse of the holiest of cities, a city full of God’s presence and promise - God’s city, our city.  God is dwelling here, among the mortals. God is with us as we wipe away each other’s tears, until none are left.

In this city, that which was at odds is united as one.  Heaven and earth are made new together. The lush and wild garden of Eden is one with the stark and clustered urban streets. Neighborhoods separated by demographics and economics, come together for help and healing.  Strangers are no longer unremarkable passersby, but are revealed to be heartfelt neighbors - connected to us in ways we must have forgotten.

In the midst of turmoil we cling to joy. Not as folly, not as a silver lining, but as defiant hope, as an inevitable wholeness.

After our city, our beloved gulf coast has been turned upside down, we hear of this sure and stunning city of life and light. This new city, this new Jerusalem is a city of rest.  In this city there is no need for worry, no cause for fear.  Such an existence seems too wonderful for me. The thought of it moves me to tears. And yet, I can not escape the visions of grace extended from God and from neighbor. Here, the knots in our stomachs can find release and our weary bodies and souls can settle down for a much-needed moment of rest.  And as we drift into sacred stillness, God remains at work to make us new.  And it is not only us, but all of creation.  We are not only made new but a part of the spawning of newness. This new creation not only grows, but its trees bears fruit. It produces life-giving life. The ultimate revelation of God’s will in the world, is not of fire and brimstone...but of unending blessing. So at least, for this moment, let us take rest in the shade of blessing.

Tonight, let us boldly declare blessing; let us find our rest in our being named blessed.

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A LITURGY in a TIME OF STORM - AN INVITATION to DIGITAL WORSHIP

We want to encourage everyone in the Houston area to follow the advisory of city leaders to shelter in place during Hurricane Harvey and the storms that continue.  Therefore, we will not gather for DINNER CHURCH this Sunday, but we can still worship wherever we are. 

We will keep streets clear for emergency responders and continue to keep an eye on our neighbors so that we are ready to help those in need. God is with us where we are and we can still set aside time to experience God's Word and join our hearts in prayer.

Below is a liturgy for worship you can use with family, friends, and neighbors near you.  You can worship together at any time, or join us in Facebook Live broadcast at 6PM Sunday evening, August 27th.

 

A LITURGY in a TIME OF STORMS

GATHER

If you have a candle, bring it front of you and light it to set apart this time and space for worship.

You are the light of the world, a city on a hill, a candle in the dark. We gather as we are and where we are to worship you, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. +

 LITANY

O Lord, when the waters rage and foam, Still the storms and grant us your peace.

When the gift of creation becomes burden, Still the storms and grant us your peace.

When our fears threaten to overtake us, Still the storms and grant us your peace.

Speak your word to the wind and to the sea, Fill us with faith.

Show us your care in the service of others, Fill us with compassion.

Make the joy of your peace overflow in our lives, Fill us with hope.

 

PSALM 46

Read the Psalm aloud, even if you’re by yourself.  If you’re with a group, choose a leader to read the odd verses, and the rest of the group can respond with the even verses.

God’s Defense of His City and People

To the leader. Of the Korahites. According to Alamoth. A Song.
1 God is our refuge and strength,
   a very present help in trouble. 
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
   though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 
3 though its waters roar and foam,
   though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
          Selah 
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
   the holy habitation of the Most High. 
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
   God will help it when the morning dawns. 
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
   he utters his voice, the earth melts. 
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
   the God of Jacob is our refuge.
          Selah 
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
   see what desolations he has brought on the earth. 
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
   he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
   he burns the shields with fire. 
10 ‘Be still, and know that I am God!
   I am exalted among the nations,
   I am exalted in the earth.’ 
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
   the God of Jacob is our refuge.
          Selah

 

GOSPEL

Have one person read the text aloud.

Mark 4:35-41 - Jesus Stills a Storm

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

SILENCE

In this moment, we leave space for God’s spirit to speak and move in us.

PRAYER

Together, we pray for our world, the church, and all those in need…

Gracious God, you are our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey reveal your presence to those across Texas and along the coast so that all may know your healing, hope, and love. As one community on earth bound together by your grace, inspire us to pray, serve, and help all those who suffer. Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

God of earth and air, water and fire, height and depth, we pray for those who work in danger, who rush in to bring hope and help and comfort when others flee to safety, whose mission is to seek and save, serve and protect, and whose presence embodies the protection of the Good Shepherd. Give them caution and concern for one another, so that in safety they may do what must be done, under your watchful eye. Support them in their courage and dedication that they may continue to save lives, Ease pain, and mend the torn fabric of lives and social order. Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

God with us, make us ready to put our prayer into action and to embody your care to one another.  In days, weeks, and months to come, awaken us to the needs of our neighbor near and far and unite us to be a sign of your hope.  Give us eyes to see and ears to hear how we will be a sign of Your healing. Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

God of all creation, when our news feed seems to only speak of our own immediate worry, we remember those in need of prayer beyond us – the sick, the lonely, the heartbroken, the hungry, and those living in fear.  We pray especially for those whose names we speak aloud or hold in our hearts now….

Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

We entrust all these prayers to you, those spoken aloud and held in the silence of our hearts.  We trust in your promise to hear us, to intercede for us even when we don’t know what to say, and to abide with us no matter what.  We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our salvation and hope. Amen.

BLESSING + SENDING

O Lord, now let your servants depart in peace,
according to your gracious word.
Our eyes have seen the glory of salvation
prepared for all the people of the world.
Now may the Lord bless you and keep you
and make his face to shine upon you;
and may God lift his countenance upon you
and give you blessed peace for now and evermore. Amen. +

If you lit a candle, blow it out.  If you are gathered with others, share a sign of peace between each other. 

Liturgy adapted from the © Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Permission is granted to reproduce this material for local, non-sale use only

Name the Evil, Proclaim the Victory of Love

Rev 6:1-8 and 7:9-17
6Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’ 2I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer. 3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, ‘Come!’ 4And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword. 5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, 6and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!’ 7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, ‘Come!’ 8I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.
The Multitude from Every Nation
9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying,‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’  11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, 12singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’ 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ 14I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

I bet John the Revelator was sure he was living at the cusp of these visions.  I bet he could picture this all playing out during his lifetime.  I’m sure many generations before ours have felt certain that the days of utter destruction were upon them. Even now, I can easily assign caricatures to each of the apocalyptic riders, I can picture them among us, I can see their effects throughout the world. Somehow, the end has been nigh for millennia.

I don’t mean to belittle the realities of these experiences. I don’t mean to suggest that we stick our heads in the sand until things magically get better.  I don’t mean to ignore climate change or hunger, or violence or hate, or the needs of the world which we can absolutely do something about.  I do mean to insist that “the end times” are not the end.

The very first seal that begins the work of salvation, the rider on a white horse with a crown upon their head, is Christ…whose victory is sure. Christ is the first and the last. And just to be clear, this whiteness (which only describes the horse and not the actual rider, btw) is a metaphorical whiteness and not a literal whiteness. The world is not saved because of whiteness but because of christ.

And yet, even once Christ has come into the world, set loose among us, all is not instantly made well. The red horse and rider remove peace and bring bloodshed, the black horse and its riders mark famine and economic injustice, and finally the pale green horse and its riders bring sickness and death.  At first glance, the suffering seems complete but it is not so. There is vast devastation among nature, and yet hearers are cautioned, “Do not damage the olive oil and the wine!’”  Hurt and death seem pervasive, but the text says they are limited to only a fourth of the earth.  Like color, the numbers are not literal. We don’t have to cross our fingers to hope we are lucky enough to be among the ¾ outside of death’s authority.  The point is that, even though the circumstances seem dire, they are not all there is. They do get to lay claim to creation. At the end of the day, the forces of destruction do not get to sing a song of victory.

Still, that doesn’t make suffering any less real.  We’re not facing supernatural firestorms, but threats that still loom over our world - violence, famine and hunger, economic insecurity, death. It’s easy to see why some would claim that the end is near if these are the markers…

These were bitter realities for first century Christians and are realities for us now. These threats persist as sea levels and nuclear tensions rise.  Cancer and AIDS claim too many.  Legislators and leaders fight to legitimize the dehumanization of trans people. Pay-day lenders gouge the most economically vulnerable. This world’s tyrants rage in crowds of screaming white supremacy with torches in Virginia. Evil still walks among us.

These visions strip away our illusions of security.  They reveal our true vulnerability, the uncertainties that we can not protect ourselves from, no matter how we try.  It seems overwhelming and heartbreaking. We wait for the final shoe to drop…but something else happens first.  Before the final seal is opened…”I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’  And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing….”

The threats persists, at least as long as this current age endures….but not forever, not without challenge, not without end. They do not overpower the promise, they do not get the final word.  These are the death throes of the old creation giving way to the new. Let us not give them more authority than they deserve.

As I wrestled with this text, after this gut-wrenching weekend...an old old hymn came to mind.  Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress":

“The old satanic foe

has sworn to work us woe!

With craft and dreadful might,

he arms himself to fight.  

On earth he has no equal.”

Being redeemed by the blood of the Lamb does not make the threats go away, but it gives people the promise of life that allows them to stand in the face of the threats, confident that God's purposes are ultimately for life.

Human faithfulness looks like refusing to accept the powers of death as our fate. Faithfulness looks like defiant hope.  Faithfulness looks like resistance.  It looks like continuing in worship and prayer even when you are surrounded by torches and voices screaming into the night. But we can not sustain such strength on our own.  Ultimately, it is God’s faithfulness to the promise, to us, to the triumph of life, love, and hope, over death, hate, and fear...that brings the madness to an end and ushers in a new beginning, a new song.

Again, I turn to that old hymn:

No strength of ours can match his might

We would be lost, rejected.

But now a champion comes to fight,

Whom God himself elected.

You ask who may this be?

The Lord of hosts is he!

Christ Jesus, mighty Lord,

God’s only Son, adored.

He holds the field victorious.

 

Though hordes of devils fill the land

all threat'ning to devour us,

we tremble not, unmoved we stand;

they cannot over-pow'r us.

Let this world's tyrant rage;

in battle we'll engage!

His might is doomed to fail;

God's judgment must prevail!

One little word subdues him.

 

God's Word forever shall abide,

no thanks to foes, who fear it;

for God himself fight by our side

with weapons of the Spirit.  

Were they to take our house,

goods, honor, child, or spouse,

though life be wrenched away,

they cannot win the day.

The kingdom's ours forever!

Saved by a Sheep

Rev 5:1-13 The Scroll and the Lamb
5 Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; 2and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ 3And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. 4And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’
6 Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. 8When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9They sing a new song:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; 10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.’
11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12singing with full voice,
‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!’
13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!’

We started to wonder about this last week, what does the splendour and the communal, creative dynamic of the throne room say about the one who is at the center of it? The thrones on thrones, glory like precious gems, winged creatures, rolls of thunder, golden crowns, and angelic choirs….The splendor of this awesome throne, the momentum of grandeur leads me waiting for the reveal of the great and powerful God sitting on that central throne, a God that will assuredly be similarly bedazzled and opulent, instantly seen as powerful. I'm expecting the great and powerful Oz. Especially in this vision of the hereafter, of God’s grand hope for creation...this is where I'd expect God would let loose and really pull out all the stops to be her glorious fantastic self.

There's a scroll that needs opening, needs someone to read it, to speak it into being, but nothing in all of creation has been found worthy of the task.

John hears that a lion will be the one. The king of the jungle, this intimidating animal at the top of the food chain…

The lion of the tribe Judah, the fierce champion of God’s people…

And so he turns to look and sees...a little lamb looking as if it had been slaughtered and yet is alive. Before him, among the opulent, there is no visible evidence of the mighty lion but simply a bloodied animal of sacrifice.

Art by Jim LePage jimlepage.com

Art by Jim LePage jimlepage.com

This maimed and yet marvelous creature brings us back to the cross and beyond it. In christ’s crucifixion our bloodlust culminates in finally destroying our own creator. And yet, God would rather die than watch us continue to destroy our very selves. And so, the lamb of sacrifice is transformed from lowly livestock to the source of all life from everlasting to everlasting. Here ends the endless cycle of death and dying for a new order of life and living. The death of Christ is the way that the power of God is unleashed. It is the power of self-sacrifice that builds God's kingdom by redeeming people of every tribe and nation.

This vision of Revelation shows God’s reign as complete. The number 7, which goes back to act of creation, denotes completeness, fullness. This lamb with 7 eyes and 7 horns is the fulfillment of God's promises.

Nothing else could be worthy or capable of handling the Holy scroll which John finds sealed. The scroll is understood to hold God's living Word of salvation. As many people as have claimed to be the keeper’s of God’s judgement or taken it upon themselves to implement their own understanding of making the world “right” before God, here we see that such claims and abuses run contrary to Revelation. The voices screaming that God hates you, God condemns you, God has forgotten you...are liars. Those shadow puppets that are trying really hard to get you to believe that they are lions, are probably not of the lamb.

The scroll, salvation, is in God's hands and only God's hands. It is sealed.  How the world will be reconciled is unknowable, but also unalterable. Nothing can change God's steady march toward redeeming all of creation, each of us. Not. One. Thing.

This stirs up a new song, ushers in a new era. In God's kingdom there is power in the powerless. It is not bestowed upon them from on high, but emerges from the belittled, the looked down upon, the overlooked.

If we are looking for God, looking for the one who can liberate us, restore us to life, teach us a new song of hope and love...then it seems our efforts would be best spent by paying attention to the powerless…

Those without healthcare, the migrant, those in jail or trapped in a cycle of the corporate prison pipeline, those with addictions, those whose skin color (we are told) makes their humanity and their capacity inherently suspect, those who live with mental illness, the ones our systems told us not to pay attention to, to forget, the ones that are sacrificed on our altars of the American dream, of self-advancement…

God dwells within on each of us, occupies every place, but when it comes to revealing the means of salvation, the manner in which all of creation is restored to God's grand vision for our world, to bringing about that promised reality...the circumstances surrounding those moments most often include that which is deemed weak, unproductive, or inessential to humanity’s thrones.

Take a moment to reflect on your day, your week. Put both feet on the ground, take several slow breaths, close your eyes. Ask God to reveal where you have experienced revelations of God right in front of you, moments when God comes right out in the open, where you have been among the powerless and potentially have missed the divine in your midst.

Significance in the Strange

Revelation 4:1-11
After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
‘Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
   who was and is and is to come.’ 
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, 
‘You are worthy, our Lord and God,
   to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
   and by your will they existed and were created.’

This mysterious book of Revelation begins simply enough: typical introductions and greetings and an intimate address to each of the churches – revealing that they are known and nurtured by the Creator.  But now, things are starting to get weird. Strange creatures and fantastical scenes…in some ways meet our expectations of Revelation. But this scene of heaven, of God’s eternal reign over earth and all things, departs from other pop presentations that envision angels playing harps on clouds and ancestors from across the globe and throughout history gathered together and just milling around. It at once seems both more authentic and more surreal than such portrayals.  Still, the scene feels at least a little bizarre, even disturbing, but I’m used to that…

Kindred is different and often is initially perceived as at least a little bizarre.  When I tell people about who we are and how we are it sounds strange. Questions arise as to why we do thing the way we do.  Why gather around tables rather than sit in pews? That’s seems weird.  Why is communion dispersed with sharing bread at the beginning of worship and sharing the cup of wine at the end?  But then I have the opportunity to speak to the significance of the strange. We gather around tables so that we can look each other in the eye and share our stories with each other.  We share a meal, because we see throughout scripture that the shared meals are holy.  We bless our cup at the end of our meal following Jesus’ example; “after supper, he took the cup, blessed it, and gave it for all to drink…”

Think of how strange communion anywhere must seem to someone who has no reference point for it.  I mean, who drinks wine at 10am on a Sunday morning?  And you’re telling me this is some guys blood, and we’re just all gonna drink it? And everyone’s just supposed to be cool with that?  We know that things are not always what they seem at a superficial glance. It seems weird at times, but we’re kinda used to that…

After all, we have seen such visions before.  We, the people of God, have seen such pictures reaching back to our prophets, reaching back in our history as far as creation. With this wider lens, remembering all of our story, of God’s story…we can unravel the layers of meaning tucked away into these images.

These words of John are indeed images, pictures…word pictures that pick up and play on understandings of old.  We have similar word pictures throughout our culture.  For instance, elephants and donkeys represent more than pack animals.  We might call an arrogant or vain person a peacock. Eagles on a flag are more than a celebration of local wildlife. We have assigned them a meaning of freedom.

When you see the image of a lion….what do you think of?

These associations are at play here in Revelation. The throne room is described in terms of precious gems – jasper, carnelian, a rainbow like emerald…

Where have we seen these images before?

Exodus speaks of God’s glory as a sapphire…

From the prophet Ezekiel, we read in the first chapter “And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne (sound familiar yet?), in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. Upwards from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all round; and downwards from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendour all round. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendour all round. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord (1:24-26).”

Revelation is continuing the story that goes at least as far back as Ezekiel.

Thrones upon thrones, bedazzled by jewels are one of the ways we know we’re talking about God’s reign. Flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder…

Where have we seen these images before?

They accompany the presence of God with the Israelites wandering through the wilderness and beyond, following a pillar of cloud of smoke, fire, thunder, and lightning.

So what does this setting tell us about the one who sits at the center of it?  What does this environment make us feel? To me, it certainly casts a feeling of splendor, majesty, and power.

And around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.  I was ok with the bedazzled throne room, but these animals kinda freak me out.

Where have we seen them before?

These creatures take us back to the garden of Eden, the dawn of creation where God creates every living thing – the birds of the air (perhaps like an eagle?), the animals of the earth both wild and domestic (perhaps like a lion and an ox), and humankind among them. All of God’s creatures, all of creation are represented together in this circle of divine grandeur.  Not one is excluded or subjugated, not one is elevated or privileged above others, and not one is told to find their own way to the circle by pulling up their spiritual bootstraps. At the throne of God, all is rightly ordered, put in proper alignment, and centered on God.  Their six wings are the same as we find with the Angels in Isaiah: "with two wings they covered theirs eyes, with two they covered there feet, and with two they flew." Being covered in eyes points to unending wake, the ultimate in being “woke,” the ability to be constantly aware of God’s glory and to truly pray and praise without ceasing. In this new creation, God’s creatures are all united and join the angels in their endless praise, singing “holy, holy, holy.”

Where do all these strange and fantastic symbols leave us? What do they reveal? From Genesis to the new genesis, it all points to this promised reality.  The world is still tumultuous, to be sure, but there is nothing that can compare to God’s splendor, authority, and promise.  Here we have a new vision, a new creation – one where God is centered and all creation is gathered in her presence and united in her praise. We see a book of Revelation and a God that is more about creation than destruction. Here the word of God is treasured not weaponized.  When we turn God’s word into a weapon, when we clobber “others” with it (even when we’ve convinced ourselves we’re doing it “with love”), we make it about us, not God. But, here, in this vision…God is at the center. 

 

Revelation is Good News, is Gospel, life-giving resurrection truth when it invites us together.

We live into this promise when we are focused on God and guided by God instead of the righteous gates we assume God wants us to guard, when we realize we have no need of our crowns and are freed to work together for justice and the dignity, the sacredness of all creation, all of God’s creatures, when we find ourselves stirred into exultant song.

And so we cling to this promise and we desperately await the day when it is revealed among us in its fullness. And until that day, we lean into this vision by working toward a creation marked with equality, centered on God, and joined together in joy. Revelation no longer seems so scary or strange, but wonderful. Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come. Amen.

The Book of REVEAL-ation: Mythbusters Edition

Revelation 1:9-20
A Vision of Christ
9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet11saying, ‘Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last,18and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. 

I wonder what comes to your mind when we speak of Revelation…

I wonder what scenes you envision….

I wonder what feelings emerge….

Art by Jim Lepage - http://jimlepage.com/blog/word-revelation

Art by Jim Lepage - http://jimlepage.com/blog/word-revelation

For many of us these responses may be shaped more by pop culture than scripture itself.  Mostly I think of an epic movie genre – The Day after Tomorrow, Apocalypse Now, and Armageddon.  From the small screen I can think of basically any Doctor Who episode.  And the biblical text does have fantastical elements like dragons and kings and battles for power…but the backdrop is a different kind of drama. 

The original Greek word for Apocalypse actually means “disclosure,” or an “unveiling.”  The apostle Paul wrote in a letter to the Corinthians about the lifting of the veil, of God making the unseen, seen.  Apocalypse actually translates as Revelation.  And here, from the beginning of the Revelation of Christ to John, we see a book that isn’t actually so much about destruction as it is about creation.

This isn’t a nameless store of fire and brimstone; it is particularly given to John. It’s not some untethered epic floating around in the ether, it is within a particular place and time and people. John tells us, as he writing down his vision, he is writing with a particular audience in mind.  “I, John, your brother who shares with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance…” John isn’t shouting these words from a street corner for any random passersby; his writing is for fellow followers of Christ, those who are already familiar with God’s story and wrestling with how to live it out into a new age.  This community knows John and knows the scriptures, and so they would have already been acquainted with this rhythm and style, this apocalyptic genre of storytelling from prophets like Daniel, which is echoed over and over.  

It is on this foundation of relationship, of being known to one another, of community in Christ, a shared home in the Gospel and in God…that this mountain of mysteries unfolds.  And there will be many symbols and images that build on that shared story - a story of fledgling faith in the shadow of domineering empire, a story that began in the garden and looks toward a new garden.  This Revelation will sometimes surpass what we can comprehend, goes beyond what centuries of scholars and historians can even interpret, and its narrative will become larger than life, and yet it does not separate from the specific communities that this Revelation is for.

And so, the visions begin.  And they do not begin with an over the top fight sequence, but a vision and a message for the 7 specific churches of the area. This message is not only from John, but from God who is being revealed through John. Each of the 7 churches gets a personal address and here we read the first one. 

Revelation 2:1-7
The Message to Ephesus
2‘To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:
2 ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 4But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God. 

It sounds like the newlywed glow has worn off in Ephesus. The bride of Christ, the church, has been in the thick of it while trying to remain faithful…and while they have held to their principles, it has exhausted their love.  One traditional liturgy that surrounds communion reminds us that “it is our duty AND our joy to give thanks and praise to God.”  The have forgotten their joy, their delight in the promises of God.   Being a small church, a limited people, in a big city filled with other, much louder, more polished, much better equipped entities with way better Instagram stories than our own…vying for people’s attention, allegiance, and adoration…might possibly have left this fledging community feeling unknown, unseen, and starting to grow a bit weary.  Perhaps you are also beginning to grow weary…of applying for assistance, of treatments that heal but don’t cure, of calling your state legislators, of hearing endless cries of pain and hurt, or click bait articles that heighten everything into end all/be all scenarios but leave us burnt out….

Perhaps this is why the messenger repeatedly says “I know, I know, I know.” “I know your works, your toil, and your patient endurance.” I see you.  Your faithfulness to God and to one another has not gone unnoticed.  But….you have abandoned the love you had at first.  Without love, the church is a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.  Like a marriage that has disintegrated into divide and conquer or that has been reduced to going through the motions…however well intended…there must be a return to love or it all rings hollow. 

The invitation is to remember….to return to the love that grounded our beginnings…before it was all about appearances and the institution and the getting things checker off our lists…

Remember….those early days of excitement and wonder, of respect and mutuality, of dreams and possibilities….

Remember the love you had at first….

Repent, Turn your face again to that way of being…

React, by doing the works you did at first…

Because this, this anchor of love…is what it means to be the church.  Without it, the church, the people of God… have lost their way and no longer has a place on the lampstand.  This is what it means to be the church, the community of Christ, the family of God…to be rooted in divine love.

But it’s not all a love fest.  “Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”  Now, I don’t know what the Nicolaitans did to get on everyone’s ish list…but whatever it was, God says that we must distinguish between what is holy and what is evil, what is to be hated and what is of love, what leads to death and what brings about life.  For the church to be the church, it must be rooted in love, but also stand against what is evil….hunger, racism, lies, transphobia, sexism and the systems that support them. We don’t hate the Nicolaitans, but the works of them that go against God.  Now….this is way easier said than done…cuz another way of saying that is hate the sin, not the sinner….which feels awful when someone else has labeled me as the sinner and is a mindset that is almost always abused. And honestly, I’m pretty terrible at it.

Yet in those moments of anger or apathy, I feel the Spirit tug me toward this new reality with the sometimes gentle, sometimes not…reminder that I have abandoned the love I had at first - the love which is marked by the promise of life as opposed to that evil which pursues death.

And that, THAT is what this book of Revelation is all about…a new Genesis, a new creation, a new life, a new beginning which surpasses our wildest imaginations. This is what God promises, that the old things will pass away, and that all will be made new, all will return to the love they had at first, in the beginning. Amen.

How long, O Lord?

Psalm 13

To the leader. A Psalm of David.
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
   How long will you hide your face from me? 
2 How long must I bear pain* in my soul,
   and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
   Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, 
4 and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’;
   my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. 
5 But I trusted in your steadfast love;
   my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 
6 I will sing to the Lord,
   because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Have you ever had one of those no good, very bad days….that turns into a no good very bad week, that turns into a no good, very bad year? Sometimes that dark cloud seems to hover over us for a lifetime, generations even.

How long, o lord?  I have heard the cry so often that I fear I am becoming numb to it. It speaks to a number of experiences.  How long, o Lord…will this heat endure? How long, o Lord…before I find a decent job?  How long, o Lord…does potty training last?  How long, o Lord…will we have to read headlines of another shooting? How long, o Lord…will we have to march in the streets before we are heard? How long, o Lord…will my family reject me for who I am? How long, o Lord…does this heartache last? How long, o Lord…before we find a treatment that works? A cure? How long, o Lord…will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

This psalmist gives voice to the wrenching of our souls…when justice seems to pass you by, when everyone around you seems to be showered in blessings but you are still waiting, when you are giving it everything you’ve got, but still can’t seem to get over the hurdle, when you’re living pay check to paycheck and then you or someone you love gets sick, when the bottom drops out….

We’ve talked about how raw an honest the Psalms are, and that holds true in the good times and the bad. What do we gain by attempting to hide our hurt? Here the heart is laid bare.  Before God, there’s no need to pretend.

How liberating it is to hear such honesty within the witness of the bible. How affirming it is to see that we can give voice to our anger, our hurt, our loneliness within the tradition of our faith. And we can do so without tidying it up first and without the shadow of shame.   The Psalmist puts it all out there, shakes their fist at the sky, and gives God the full force of what is felt. And you know what? God can handle it. God is big enough for everything we've got -- our pain, our anger, our questions, our doubts. God is present not apart from but in the midst of our suffering, God suffers alongside us in the muck and the darkness.

This week I noticed something about this text that had escaped me before.  It’s a small detail, but I think it makes a big difference.  While there are several “I” statements…”how long must I bear pain in my soul? And have sorrow in MY heart all day long?...the whole of this lament is not expressed in isolation. 

Our pain can become toxic when it turns us in on ourselves, when our eyes are stuck in the spiral of self.  I usually need at least a little time to wallow in “woe is me” but if I get stuck there…. It is harder and harder to break free.

We face true enemies of justice, of human dignity, of love. We also face the enemy that lives inside us – self-doubt, internalized homophobia, sexism, racism, classism. The best healing balm, which the Psalmist declares, is to bring our brokenness out from the shadows and into the light, to bring that which would fester in hidden corners into full view.

The psalmist shows us a lament which is certainly felt in the inmost being of one’s soul, but is also unafraid to extend out beyond oneself, to share that lament publicly, even if only in the presence of our creator, to cry out to God.  The subject of the sentence is not only me and my experience, but you and yours.  How long will YOU hide your face from me? And yet I trust in YOUR steadfast love.

We are not alone in our cries, in our desperation, in our desolation.  That matters. Knowing this can help us, but it is still not what ultimately saves us.  The psalmist is not timid in asking for what is needed.  Consider me! Answer me! Give me light! They demand to be heard, they demand a response, they demand action.  They expect it. 

And it begins to come into view… that this moment of complete sorrow is also a moment of complete faith.  A moment of horror is also a moment for resistance, for defiant pride. 

Marsha P. Johnson and other activists after the police raid on Stonewall

Marsha P. Johnson and other activists after the police raid on Stonewall

Because what saves us is the foundation on which these hopes rest, the promise that makes us bold enough to speak our messy truth, the resurrection that cultivates life in the midst of death. “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” We cling to God’s steadfast love – that which endures through anything the world can dish out. God’s faithfulness persists even through the pit.  The Psalm gives voice to a world that is not as it should be and yet also proclaims that there is love more powerful than our pain. We are reminded of what has been and what will be – bounty, bountiful goodness and grace. The Psalmist says that even if it’s a sour note, I’m gonna sing because there IS peace beyond our fear and hope beyond our sorrow.  I have seen good things come out of this relationship, this God before, and I’m going to lean into that faith, even if ever so slightly, even if no by my own strength, but by its own gravitational pull even in the midst of woe.

So, last week we wrote our own version of a Psalm of joy and thanksgiving, this week I invite you to write a verse that gives voice to lament and hope.  Your lament can be personal, it can be communal or societal. I invite you to allow yourself to be honest and raw. And then I invite you to ask God to show you, to give light to your eyes, to reveal where you might also see hope. So we’re writing two verses, as we create a communal psalm of lament and hope.

A Communal Psalm of Praise

we responded to Psalm 100 by each writing our own verse.  together, we created this:

Father and Mother,

                I stretch my hand to thee.

God is Joy.

                Joy is God.

¡Praise and worship to you, Lord!

                ¡You love your children and provide endless light and blessings!

By the river of Buffaloes, there we sat down, and we wept when we remembered Zion.

                We wept tears of joy, singing song of praise for the mayor of Zion.

Bless the Lord, oh my soul!

                God is worthy because God is God!

She smiles for me, smiling at my growth and confusion and failures.

                She nudges me to seek her lover further and to help others to recognize her too.

Love unite us with the strength that God gives us and all together enjoy life.

                Together we will find the glory glory glory, o God.

Praise to the Lord for her community of love,

                For even in the depths of depression, I am loved.

The Lord is good.

                He loves me.

J is for Jesus

O is for others

Y is for you

Pointing the fingers at

You, and

You, and

You, and

You, and

At self.

A grateful psalm on thy on chest.

God has changed everything in my life. God has changed who I am, how I think, how I act, how I feel.

                 I am happier than I have ever been.

God never turned God’s back on me, no matter what I did or said or thought.

                God’s love and patience are greater than we could ask, hope, or imagine.

Blessed are you for Your love and understanding of all your people

                Blessed is the knowledge of Your love and the ways it is shared.

God is vastly worthy of our worship!

                We celebrate because she has given us community in our brothers and sisters.

A Song. A Prayer. A Promise.

Psalm 100
1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. 
2   Worship the Lord with gladness;
   come into her presence with singing. 
3 Know that the Lord is God.
   It is she that made us, and we are hers;*
   we are her people, and the sheep of her pasture. 
4 Enter her gates with thanksgiving,
   and her courts with praise.
   Give thanks to her, bless her name. 
5 For the Lord is good;
   her steadfast love endures for ever,
   and her faithfulness to all generations.

Welcome to a summer in the Psalms. From praise, to lament, and back again. Verses variating on a theme interspersed with refrains, with riffs. It’s a song book, an anthology of love ballads, pop anthems, funeral dirges, and redemption songs. It’s the song of God’s people as we grapple with faith and fear, heartbreak and hope, love and loss. From Psalm 1 to Psalm 150, the authors of the Psalms don’t hide their hearts, but offer the full range of lived experience. It’s a raw and primal expression that speaks to our best and our worst.   And in that way the Psalms follow a rhythm of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.  Like our lives which take shape and form around central things…until something, someone, some experience disrupts us….until we come to a new way of being that isn’t merely a return to what was.

Psalm 100 is a Psalm of thanksgiving, a Psalm of praise.  From the beginning, notice how gratitude and celebration live side by side.  It begins with joy – that word which eludes easy definition but deserves more than the tidy translation of mere happiness, as if it is on par with that which comes to us by way of a relaxing vacation or really good queso. This “joy” confounds even the wisdom of the wise and yet beckons us closer.

1600 years ago, St. Augustine once reflected on this Psalm, saying, “Of what use is it to be jubilant and obey this Psalm, when it saith, “Jubilate unto the Lord, all ye lands,” and not to understand what jubilance is, so that our voice only may be jubilant, our heart not so? For the understanding is the utterance of the heart.

This jubilation is a joy which bursts forth from the page, a joy that consumes not only the feeling in our hearts, but the sound that demands to be heard. It is a joy that must be experienced, that must expand beyond the bounds of good and orderly melody into boisterous noisemaking.  The gladness in our gut leaps off of our tongue in notes that cannot sit still, in ways that can only be sung. And yes, this unruly exuberance, this messy and chaotic clanging….is worship. This is an invitation to direct our hearts toward God, to come together in adoration, to marvel and wonder at all that we have seen, to come into the presence of the divine. 

This invitation, which is as near as our nose, also reaches as far as the horizon. “Make a joyful noise to the lord, ALL the earth. “  The Psalm speaks of a joy which is not just for some, but for everyone.  It brings us to envision a world where every. single. voice. Has reason for equal rejoicing. It is a day when joy is known not only in pockets of populations, but in full. This joy transcends the notion of either/or, of zero-sum praise which demands that in order for things to be better for me, they must be a worse for you.  It dispels the notion that there isn’t enough to go around or that there is no way for everyone to be happy at once. This is a scene where women can celebrate the triumph of a female-directed, woman-centered superhero movie like Wonder Woman, without the bitter stain of knowing it washes over women of color. This is a way of the world where we wouldn’t have to lament for the lost life of Philando Castile and his family left to grieve without justice.  This is a vision of creation without any more death or mourning or crying or pain for the 9 black children of God who gathered for a bible study in Charleston until they were gunned down by a white boy (who grew up in the ELCA...our denomination) who needed to destroy their humanity. The Psalm voices the possibility that this Juneteenth weekend, which celebrates the emancipation of black slaves, is one where maybe we can lament these things together for the tragedy that they are without feeling backed into opposite corners.

Can you imagine the sound of all the earth united in joyful praise? Not because we just learned to get along or get over it, but that we are actually reconciled and made whole in the way that God declares? This is a joy with the power to reach all the earth.  This is a joy that streams sunshine through the tears. So is this Psalm a song? Or is it also a prayer? A prophesy? A promise?

The first stanza is praise, the second stanza is why.  Who inspires this exuberant display of delight? What could fill our hearts to this point of bursting and abundance?  Why does it keep showing up again and again, giving us a glimpse, a taste that leaves us ravenous for the full feast?

“KNOW that the Lord is GOD.    It is GOD that made us, and we are GOD’S;
   we are GOD’S people, and the sheep of GOD’S pasture. “

Because of God, we belong. We belong to the author of love. We belong to a family of people.  We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder. We belong to the sound of the words we've both fallen under. Whatever we deny or embrace for worse or for better. We belong. You didn't know Pat Benatar was a Psalmist, did you?

In the bible, the word “to know” is this intimate kind of truth. It is the same word that speaks to the knowledge of good and evil as it is to lay our body next to another as two become one, cradled in the arms of our beloved – naked and unashamed. The Psalmist speaks to joy and gladness that isn’t just superficial but sinks through to our bones.  It is both light in its transcendence and weighty with its depth. This is a kind of knowing that is to know by experience, to know in our hearts and in our souls, to know that we belong – to God and each other.  It is to know that God, who holds us close… is the God of all the earth, is ALSO the creator of galaxies of stars and a single blade of grass. This same God made us, our inmost being, knit us together in our Mother’s womb, and claims us as God’s own.  This God nurtures us and cares for us, as a shepherd cares for their sheep, as if God’s livelihood depended on our well-being. 

That’s what lies behind all this joy and gladness.  This is the kind of belonging that roots us and moves us into becoming.  This is a relationship that inspires not vain empty praise, but true worship…from every edge of creation. God is not demanding that we smile because we would look prettier, but inviting us to discover all the reasons we have to smile – past, present, and future.   It’s the difference between a begrudging but polite ”thank you” vs. exuberant backflips, something out of a viral video with kids at Christmas losing the mind over the perfect gift. And so we move back and forth between getting lost in our thanks and praise, basking in our blessing, and recognizing its source.

Continue the conversation:. 

What has happened in your life that has helped you to KNOW God, and not just know something ABOUT God?

When was a time that Psalm 100 “fit” with your life?

Activity:

Write two stanzas of your own Psalm of thanksgiving.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate or rhyme, you don’t have to put your name on it.  Write one stanza of praise, worship, or joy. Write a second stanza that speaks to why God is worthy of your gratitude.  Even if you find it difficult to speak to these things with integrity of heart today, I invite you to just put pen to paper and see what happens.

We like to move it, move it

Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I wonder how you have experienced God.  In what small moments and grand waves have you encountered the divine in your life?

I know I have come close to God in the wind the scatters seeds of vibrant wildflowers across the plain or a breeze that offers refreshing relief on a hot summer day. I have experienced God that fills the lungs of my screaming 6 pound daughter at the beginning of life and received the last breath of my grandfather to graciously greet him at the end.  This is a God that speaks and whose word is powerful enough to create out of nothing, to conjure up the towering redwoods and the soft petals of a bloom that pushes its way through the cracks of an urban sidewalk. Perhaps you have experienced God in the phone call of a friend who just wanted to say “hey”, but their timing was somehow just what you needed. Perhaps you have experienced God in the voice of bystanders who stand up to bullies with their off-color jokes, their rants, or their chokeholds and say, “that is not how you treat a child of God.”  

It is God who inspires the voice of prophets and caring friends, who is present in our inmost being and the heart of those who forgive us our shortcomings.  This is a God that stirs us up and gives us courage beyond our own hope.

The Trinity by Kelly Latimore - https://pixels.com/featured/the-trinity-kelly-latimore.html

The Trinity by Kelly Latimore - https://pixels.com/featured/the-trinity-kelly-latimore.html

The Gospel writer is reflecting on this question of how we have experienced God.   We can’t fully wrap our minds around all that God is, but we know that we experience God as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit…as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  Throughout the arc of time and place, we experience one God in three. Words fall short of capturing the profound truth in this vast mystery.  We come up with metaphors to try and expand on and quantify its meaning, but they can’t measure up.  Our analogies are anemic.  Maybe you have heard some of these.:  The trinity is like water which can take on three forms: gas, liquid , and solid…but that doesn’t quite fit. The trinity is like a star where you have the object, it’s light, and the radiant heat…but that doesn’t really work either. The best I could ever come up with is that the trinity is like a 3-in-1 shampoo, conditioner, and body wash.  I mean, technically, it is all three at once but it’s not actually good at any of those three functions. All of these analogies miss the mark.  These are all feeble attempts to contain multitudes.  But aren’t you glad that God is bigger than a single metaphor about an apple?

The questions we get to wrestle with alongside the disciples today are big ones.  Who is God? And what does that mean for us? What does that mean for us as people created in God’s image?

 The nature of God who is three in one is not an object we can nail down, but an event that continues to unfold.  While the doctrine of the trinity is static, the nature of the trinity is dynamic. The nature of the trinity is community, communion, relationship. The nature of God is relational, is moving, is love. The nature of God is this flowing, in and out and in between. What the great commission points to is God as an event - an ongoing event; a happening - a happening right now.  Some thinkers have invited us to imagine the trinity, to imagine the nature of God as a dance.

The Trinity by Eugene Salandra

The Trinity by Eugene Salandra

What an intriguing way to respond to the question of who is God?  God is a bachata, a waltz, a haka. God is responsive, moving with the fullness of life and the intimacy of shared love….in community.

Somehow all of God is distinct, yet fully one.  Each dances in their own way, and yet it is one dance.  They are distinct and they do not lose their uniqueness and yet they are completely a part of each other.

This gives us a glimpse into the God who is bigger than we can hope.  This gives us an image who God is by how God is. This is the image we were created in.  This is the way of being that grounds our commission, our life together as children of God and as God’s church.  This is what we are called to baptize others into.  Because we find our rest and our roots in the God who rules over all of creation, therefore we baptize in the name of this expansive three in one.  We baptize in God’s name.  We baptize in the name of the trinity, not in our name.  We point to hope in the relationship of God, not just in our limitations. In baptism we are invited into the dance, the mystery, into the abundant wonder and joy. 

We are not baptized in the name of John, not in the name of one congregation or a particular denomination, not even only in the name of Jesus, but in the name of the fullness of God who is life-giving life in community. When we baptize, we baptize in the name of a dynamic dancing God.

We are baptized into the dance. It’s like we are compelled to join in that song that our body can’t resist moving and shaking to. You know the one. For my daughter it’s “oh don’t you dare look back, just you’re your eyes on me, I said you’re holding back, she said…..shut up and dance with me!  Can’t stop the feeling so just dance dance dance. The rhythm is gonna get ya. Let the rhythm take you over, bailamos.  It’s like that scene in Sister Act where the soulful songs of old are given new life and the sound is pouring out of the church, beckoning passersby to take a peek and see and discover…this is a song that reaches me, moves me, gives me life.

It’s the dance of the dawn of creation, a dance of defiant wonder, a dance that announces freedom to the captives, that comforts those who mourn, a dance that binds up the brokenhearted.  It’s a dance that moves with authority, a powerful pirouette that proclaims promise, new life. Baptism, then, is not a benign rite of passage but a “welcome to the dance party.”

It’s also true that dances can also be sorrowful and there’s room for that.  Life within the triune God does not mean that we live without pain or hurt. But there is healing in the promise that there is also something more and that we do not experience this alone, nor do we wait without hope.

This glimpse of God reveals her nature as inherently both communal and loving. One God in three persons whose shared, mutual, and sacrificial love spills out through the world and all its inhabitants. And I think that, ultimately, we are called to be church in a similar way.  Loving, respecting, and caring for each other in a way that spills out through our neighborhoods and communities in tangible, empowering, and compelling ways.

The disciples follow Jesus’ direction to Galilee. They came, they saw, they had various reactions and feelings about the whole thing.  The disciples are imperfect and unsure people, and yet they are also made in the image of God.  They have their flaws and yet God uses them to bring forth God’s promises among us.  They are just a handful of 11 people, but they will make disciples of all nations.  Jesus declares that this is who they are, they are rooted in the authority of the creator of the cosmos.  They are baptized and it compels them to invite others into that same baptism. They have new life which is marked by the triune God whose nature is community, relationship, love.  Their own being is a reflection of this dynamic God. They get to share the good news of that gift with the whole world. They get to say to others that this is who you are too. Come and see what God commands – a way of being in which we love our neighbors and where God is cherished above all else. Come and dance with us! How can we keep from singing?

At the heart of every authentic and nurturing relationship, is a promise.  A promise that is an echo of Jesus’ promise, “I am with you, I am for you, let’s see what we can do together.” God, the three in one, is creation and is the end of the age, the alpha and the omega, and everywhere in between. Everywhere you go, God is there with you.  That's the promise. Promises create relationships and possibilities.

So what if we really believed that we bear God’s image?  What if we really believed God is with us?  How would we be? What would you dream, dare, and do if you believed that Jesus is with you, no matter what?

Among KINDRED, it’s one of the reasons we gather for worship the way we do.  If our God is one of mutual relationship and community, how do we reflect that in the way we gather and interact?  For us, it means worship happens in circles rather than rows. The triune God is what happens around the tables of DINNER CHURCH as we share our lives and our being with one another, as we are revealed to be people who are distinct and diverse, as we wrestle with how to be one community without demanding assimilation or conformity. The nature and the promise of the triune God shapes the way we engage each other when we realize that God is already a part of the being of everyone we encounter.

Our call is to live under the banner of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer. We are promised that God is with us. So what if it’s really true? What would you dare to dream? What would our ministry look like, our lives look like, our way of being look like, our congregations look like? 

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Words fall short of capturing its truth. Our analogies are anemic. This is why we need the arts in the church.  Last night, together, we put paint to canvas to create something as one. What if you gave yourself 15 minutes to create? To color, sing, dance, conduct a poem, or craft. Do not worry about it taking any particular form, but allow it to be what it will be.

Where We're At

Acts 17:22-31
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, "To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For "In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, "For we too are his offspring.' 29 Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."

You're giving a dinner party and you've invited a couple close friends to join you in your home. One of your friends mentions that they have a coworker that's new to town. They don't really know anybody yet and so they ask if it's alright to invite this person to your dinner. "Of course!" You say. You're more than happy to to open your home to others.

You spend a few weeks preparing, planning the menu that feels special, but isn't overly complicated. You gradually pick up all the thing you need that will let your guests know that they are welcome. The day is finally here and you start cooking early so that you'll be able to greet everyone at the door. Your friends begin to arrive and you swing your arms wide to invite them in. Finally, this new acquaintance shows up, introduces themselves, and you start to give them a little tour of your place.

Here's the photo wall with all our family pictures. Your guest smiles and nods. Oh! They reach out their hands and begin to straighten out one frame that was a little slanted. ok... you move on into the backyard where your proudly have a few flowers in pots that you just put out for this special occasion. Oh! Your guests informs you that this plant actually needs to be in a place with full sun and then proceeds to pick up the pot from your back porch and move it out into the yard where there isn't so much shade. At this point, you're ready to wrap this tour up and just get the carefully prepared food out on the table with your friends. As you come back through the hall, they see the cross on your wall, cock their head to the side and raise their eyebrows to say, “you know that's just all made up, right?”

Imagine if that's what Paul had done in Athens. “Let me help you by telling you all the ways you're wrong. I mean, I'm gonna do it with a smile on my face and only “out of love” but that isn't gonna help you feel any less small.” To be sure, there are times when we must be clear and quick in asserting that something is immediately wrong, but before we open our mouth we should double check that it is the holy spirit and not our own ego doing the speaking. Don't be that guy. No one wants to be that guy. Instead, let us be quick to listen and slow to speak.

Paul takes time to look around, pay attention to the neighborhood, catch the rhythm of life, learn what seems to be important, what are the values these Athenians hold dear. And then, there there might be an opportunity for connection. Paul doesn't begin by condemning or correcting, but by being an silent observer, listening, taking it all in. Then, when he sees that they have something in common, that they have a shared recognition that there is something MORE to the world, something bigger and beyond themselves, he engages this shared experience by telling his truth. Paul is coming along side their experience, honoring it, and offering a perspective that starts from a shared place. Then he builds on it.

As Lutherans, we celebrate that the gospel comes to us in our own language. Martin Luther fought for the idea that people shouldn't have to learn Latin in order to hear the good news, but the bible should be available in German, in the dialect of the local people, within reach of the average person. This is not only our Lutheran heritage, but our larger Christian story. Earlier in the book of Acts, as the church is born in the fiery excitement of Pentecost, each person gathered is able to hear the apostles speaking in their own language. At the closing worship of Synod Assembly yesterday, Bishop Mike read from Acts 2:8-11 "8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’"  The gospel meets us where we're at. Not only in our spoken language, but in our cultural language. Paul speaks to what the Athenians are familiar with - the language of the unknown, of mystery, of poetry.

I wonder: why do you believe in God? Or why do you believe what you do about God? Perhaps because you just grew up going to church and it was never really a question for you. Perhaps your story is different than that. I'm willing to bet that each of you in this room is here because somewhere along the way, someone pointed to a moment in your life and said. There, that's God. Because you have experienced that moment when God emerges from among the unknown into something we know. Perhaps there has been a time when you've been racked with guilt, but you find the weight slipping off you shoulders into new found freedom...there, that's God. When bitterness toward that family member that betrayed you melts into forgiveness and freedom that you thought would never come...there, that's God. When you're cutting up fruit at the kitchen table and there's this array of color and sweetness, ah...that reminds me of the fruit of the spirit. I'm willing to bet that you have sensed your own story, your own everyday life pointing to something beyond itself. This community is one that will come alongside you to wade into the unknown seeking understanding, and perhaps to help make sense for yourself out of those divine moments.

As KINDRED, we have taken up the common cultural language of the table. The table is a language shared by those who are familiar with church and those are not, by those who crave collard greens and those are more comfortable with a stir fry, by those drive a luxury car and those who ride the bus. Around the table we are equal guests. The table gives us a shared space to say, I see how extremely devout you are to good food, how you delight in getting together around the table....let me tell you about a God who has set the finest banquet, who gathers with friends around a table that extends across all boundaries. Paul points to how our story is a part of God's story.

Not long ago I met someone out in the neighborhood and we were just chatting it up, making small talk and inevitable the question came up - what do you do? This is a precarious question for preacher because this could go in 1000 different directions. Especially as a women who is a Pastor, I get a lot of “oh, I've never met one of those” as if I were a leprechaun.

But this time I just said, “Well, I'm the Pastor of a Lutheran church.” “what's that?” I struggled with how to even begin to respond. Where do you start to tell your story alongside someone who doesn't share your language? You have to find something that you do share in common.

So, among KINDRED, the sermon is not a one-way monologue, but an invitation into further reflection and conversation. You are invited to reflect on these three things:

What is a perspective that you find difficult to understand?

What is one thing you share with people who hold that perspective?

If you found yourself in a conversation where you mentioned that you follow Christ and someone asked, who's that? How might you respond? Think about it this way: What's one thing you know about God's love?

It's ok if that love excites you so much that you can't shut up about it. It's also ok to say I don't know, or I'm not really sure yet, but I'm intrigued enough to try and find out. Or maybe your response is I don't really know and I don't want to know, but for some reason I keep finding myself in this room on Sunday evening. It's ok if your story is different than someone else's. I see how devout you are in wrestling with these questions of faith. The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, is not contained within one culture or language, does not reside in a single box outside of your reach. She is not far from each one of us. For "In God we live and move and have our being.” Even when we do not know it, can not see it, can not comprehend the mystery we find ourselves in....God remains as close as our very breath and dwells in your very heart. May we have the patience to listen for God's voice in our own story and in the stories of others and may we have the vision to point to God's presence among us and beyond us.

There is nothing new under the sun, but....

Acts 15:1-18
1 Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. 3 So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, "It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses." 6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8 And God, who knows the human heart, testified tso them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10 Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." 12 The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, "My brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15 This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 16 "After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, 17 so that all other peoples may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18 known from long ago.'

Imagine a world, long ago and far away, in which people are divided along ideological lines and each is sure that they hold the truest of truths, where there is no small dissension and debate among them. I know, it’s a stretch. There’s something at least a little disheartening in knowing that, ugh…people have always been plagued by our propensity for division. Yet, there is also something hopeful in knowing that our own experience of conflict is not entirely unique.  We are not alone in our struggle to navigate life together.  This is not a new phenomenon. Certainly the chasm between people can be exacerbated by events and extremes, but at its root it is a common part of being human together. The people of God and communities of faith are not immune.

What this text offers us is not a surefire way to quickly and easily dissolve disagreements or how to “win every argument for Jesus.” But it does give us a glimpse at how God can and does work in and through such complex conversations for the sake of the Gospel. For me, it’s helpful to focus in on a few things that help us sort through the forest and the trees.  We have to take into account 1)the heart of the disagreement, 2)the manner in which we seek resolution, and 3) the implications of our spiritual inheritance.

The heart of the disagreement.  Paul, Barnabas, Simeon Peter and others are not arguing about what color to paint the sanctuary trim. Nor do they highlight any time spent on deciding what constitutes appropriate acolyte attire.  What is brought forward is presented as a question of ritual, but really it’s about something else. These teachers say that Gentile members of the church must be circumcised (and presumably also observe the rest of the Law) in order to be saved. The question facing the church is if the saving work of Christ is effective for those who are not Jews and who will never become Jews in the same way that everyone else at that meeting table understood themselves to be Jews? Is the cross enough to cover those who do not keep the laws of Moses as it has been understood for generations? What the church invests its time and energy into discussing is that which reflects our understanding of God and grace and shapes how we will relate to one another and the world. The matter is one that goes beyond surface-level sanctimony and explores the expanse of God’s very promises. The heart of the disagreement is God’s promise and the church’s capacity to reflect those promises in its life together.

The manner in which we seek resolution. What we see exhibited in this text is a larger conversation that is communal, scriptural, and experiential. Paul and Barnabas make the trip to have this talk face to face. They don’t hole up in their little corner of the world to make a decision with their own divine wisdom. They head out to gather with others and to wrestle together with these complex questions. They came together for true dialogue, a back and forth discussion.

Paul didn’t take to Twitter blasting those sad certain individuals in Judea. Rather the response was more like: “This seems really important to you, and it’s important to me to. Can I come over so we can talk more about this?” The topic is approached not with the goal of winning, but of understanding the other, of sharing where and how they are experiencing the movement of the Holy Spirit.

They are open to the ongoing movement of the Spirit. The experience of others is not just dismissed because it doesn’t align with their worldview or their current understanding of God’s promises. It is not belittled because it comes from a source other than the bible. They listen to each other. Verse 12 says, “The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.”  God is doing something here, it is worth taking notice.  God is still on the move, why else would we be called followers of Christ unless there was going to be motion involved. We were created in the image of one who is still living and breathing and speaking and creating.

This sparks their memory of scripture, the sacred stories that anchor us. Oh yes, says James…now I remember. “James replied, "My brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15 This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 16 "After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, 17 so that all other peoples may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18 known from long ago.'

The people of God talk about the stuff that really matters. They don’t pontificate in isolation, but come together so that they keep each other accountable to the truth that is bigger than any one expression of the church. They recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in ongoing experience. They anchor themselves in the sacred words which have been passed down in order to reveal the arch of God’s promise throughout time and place.

The result is our great spiritual inheritance. Together with the Holy Spirit, they create something more than either would be alone. The apostles in Jerusalem didn’t respond by saying “can’t we all just get along and continue on pretending that everything’s fine or at least fine enough, and these kinds of differences don’t really matter.” They didn’t respond by saying, “well…you go your way and we’ll go ours but in our hearts we really know who’s right and we’ll always think a little less of you.” They don’t give up because the decision is too daunting. In the end, Gentiles like you and me are welcomed into the fold. Through no small debate or dissension they proclaim that if the cross is true for any of us, then it must be true for all of us. It’s not that we are being gracious in opening the church to second-class worshipers, but we are recipients of God’s grace to include any of us at all. You are a beneficiary of God’s grace.

The argument is not that God is doing a new thing but rather that God is doing what God has always done: showing mercy, and creating a people for God’s self where no people existed before. This is not about god doing something new, but what god has always been.

Kindred is a community for those have been told “you’re out,” or you can only be “in” if you tick all our boxes or get with our program. Even if they never heard those words explicitly, it came through loud and clear when they got that look from the person in their pew, which was probably intended innocently enough but essential says “who is that? And what on earth are they doing here?” It was spoken in between the lines from the council that suggested the church just wasn’t ready for someone like them in leadership. It is subtle and pervasive in the ways we claim that we love our neighbor, we just don’t really like when they’re loud, or messy, or flamboyant in displaying that which is not the norm for us.

In its intention to be faithful, the church had inadvertently put on blinders that restricted their view to just one way of being church, or at least a best way of being church. It took a faithful voice from the fringe challenging that view in ways that were likely uncomfortable, in ways that probably sounded heretical. Pews and committees aren’t the only way of being church, dinner church isn’t the only way of being church. But I don’t think that means we just agree to disagree and then go our separate ways ignoring each other. Once we’ve heard that God loves and includes those people too….it can’t be unheard. These kinds of experiences reveal the Gospel to us, they reveal that God is doing so much more…that the promise is so much bigger…

We Gentiles who, by the grace of God, are grafted to the tree of Christ, can rejoice with a profound sense of gratitude today for the advocacy and education efforts of allies like Paul and Barnabas and Simon Peter and James. Without them, our people might never have come to know the joy of all believers. And then, with gratitude as our starting place, we might look around and have some discussion – maybe even some dissension and debate! – about who in our neighborhood, community, nation, and world needs us to be their advocate and ally today.

The Good News in Intersections

Acts 8:26-39

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" 31 He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth." 34 The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" 37 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Previously, on the last episode of Following Jesus in the First Century…

Jesus Christ, recently risen from the grave, appears to the disciples and shares a bold vision in which he tells them “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  The disciples try to live up to this vision, but are basically stumbling through. Still, the good news of God is spreading and the church is growing, and so they lift up more leaders.

Stephen was one of those and he went about his call of helping, healing, and preaching passionately in Jerusalem which got him killed. Phillip was another of these and he continued to teach and heal beyond Jerusalem and into Samaria.  Now, at the edge of what Philip knew of the earth, God is still on the move.  The angel of the Lord says “get up and go.” Get up and go….not necessarily to any particular place, but just start walking in the general direction of nowhere and see what happens.

“oh, sure” says Phillip.  "Heading out into the middle of nowhere in the middle of the day, a time when you can expect any road to be deserted because most people have retreated inside and away from the heat…sounds like a great evangelism strategy and an excellent use of time." This plan is sure to make a fool of Phillip….if he were actually the one in charge. Nevertheless, Phillip listens to this voice calling him into the unknown.  Nevertheless, he got up and went.

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, who held an important office for a foreign Queen and who was a faithful worshiper of God. Several things about this eunuch are worth noting. In this ancient world, paper was ridiculously expensive and literacy was not common, so most Jews wouldn’t have had a scroll of the prophets around for their personal use.  That tells us that this is a person of financial means and the office they hold is one of political power. That kind of power could be a substantial threat in the court, especially if that person was also male. 

The imperial system had a way of dealing with that. They would employ eunuchs in roles that were vulnerable to grasps for power.  A eunuch is someone whose genitalia does not match the societal expectations or is altered in some way, either because they born that way or they were subjected to violence by the empire. Deuteronomy outlines how eunuchs are excluded from the temple and thus a full life within their faith community. But then in Isaiah, the prophet proclaims that God will bless eunuchs and foreigners and even give them the house of God.

Now, this particular eunuch is from Ethiopia. This tells us a bit about where the eunuch is from (essentially the ends of the earth), but could also refer to the eunuch’s race.  This is a person of color. So there is a lot going on here. One particular scholar reflected that, “in relation to standard categories of race, class, and gender (the Ethiopian eunuch) uncovers a fascinating, multifaceted character who defies easy classification.”

We have Phillip – the food distributor turned healer and wandering preacher, and the Ethiopian eunuch – a well-read person of complexity and intersectionality. Two people who are distinctly “other.” The Holy Spirit brings these two together.

Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" 31 He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

The exchange goes both ways, with each one inviting the other into deeper conversation. There’s a posture of openness. Phillip is willing to ask a question that doesn’t have a pre-formed answer, one that could open a can of worms. The eunuch is willing to be vulnerable and honest by naming what they don’t really understand. Can you imagine what might be possible, if before asserting their certainty or their opinion, people were willing to say, “Actually, I don’t know much about that.” If people were willing to ask for help in understanding?

In their questions and their discussion, we are reminded that this wondrous library we call the Bible doesn’t just function as a straightforward encyclopedia, but invites us into an elaborate mystery. As we read and engage scripture, we can not do so faithfully without being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit puts the prophets and the gospel alongside each other and opens our eyes to the possibilities, to the promise they point to, to a God of expansive love.

The Spirit puts two very different people, not one over the other, but alongside each other.  Not one, but both are changed for the sake God’s widening grace. Both are edified and the church becomes more aligned with the Good News of the risen Christ with its radical inclusion. Philip opens up the scriptures and the eunuch opens up their significance for life. Philip points to Jesus Christ in the text and the eunuch points to Jesus Christ in the water.

In verse 36, the eunuch says “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Depending on what translation you’re reading, there is no verse 37.  The original scrolls say nothing of the eunuch first saying a particular prayer or making any certain confession. Phillip does not enroll the eunuch in a 6-weeks preparatory class. Those things have value, but they are not what ultimately saves us. Here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?  The Ethiopian has lived life at an arm’s length due to a litany of things that society has said prevent them from being fully apart.  

I wonder, how many people silently carry the suspicion that they are outside of God’s love for a variety of reasons? Philip doesn’t stop to first quantify and categorize those reasons. The Holy Spirit is on the move in them and they come alongside each other to share the story of Christ so that they see each other as more fully a part of it.

What is to prevent me from being baptized? What is to prevent God from claiming me as God’s own beloved and redeemed child? The Eunuch speaks with the voice of the Spirit rather than the “good order” of the world.  If we looked around to our human systems, we could come up with a few reasons. With God, there are no qualifiers, no contingencies. In the kingdom of God, nothing is to prevent anyone from the fullness of God’s love for them.

The gospel is for people who have been excluded. It is for those who have been excluded:

  • in society, but also and especially by the church
  • for foreigners who are valued for the exoticism, but ultimately seen as lesser than
  • for people who have been excluded because of their bodies
  • for people who don’t fit cleanly in a single category
  • it is for you who are trans people of color
  • it is for you

Historically, we (the church) have not said this clearly enough. Last year in this country, the Human Rights Campaign counted the killing of 22 trans people, trans children of God. This year, there are already 9 trans women who have died as a result of fatal violence, with 5 of them being women of color.  For this, we lament and we repent. But what if we also listened to the Holy Spirit calling us alongside each other to understand for the sake of the Gospel? This past week I got a phone call from one of my pastor colleagues in town inviting us to listen.  This upcoming Saturday at 1PM, Resurrection MCC is hosting an event called “Lift Every Voice.”  It’s an event that will focus on lifting the voices of the Black Trans community and will include a panel discussion, along with music and spoken word. Perhaps the angel of the Lord is whispering in your ear “go over to this chariot and join it.”

Perhaps the idea of such honest, open, and transformative conversation sounds impossible, or at least unlikely, or exhausting, or intimidating. Perhaps the prospect of seeing yourself as fully a part of a beloved community, cherished by God goes against 1000 other voices that you’re hearing. But before Philip ever started down that wilderness road and before the eunuch got in that chariot, the Spirit of God was already there, already at work.

This is not a road you walk alone. This is not a road that belongs to one political party, or a singular worldview. This is a road that brings together a world of “others.” This Gospel road is paved with the promise and presence of God for all people. And all along the way we encounter that mysterious and true voice that interrupts our well-ordered lives for something more. The resurrection brings to life that which didn’t dare dream. God is continually redeeming us each day as we find ourselves alongside an unexpected neighbor who helps us to see Gods persistent love for us. God is at work in rich conversation and discovery that remove the scales of obstacles from our eyes until we too can wonder aloud, what is to prevent me from being baptized? What could possibly keep me from the love of our creator? Silence.

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That silence holds more than our hearts could speak. But the silence doesn’t last forever.  As we receive God’s abundant blessing, we go on our way rejoicing. We are set free. Joy abounds. This is the new dawn and the new day of Easter.  This is the day that the Lord is still making, let us rejoice and be glad in it. Amen.

The Church is a Holy Hot Mess

When we were first dreaming of a community called KINDRED, we gathered around the table and opened up our bibles to the first chapters of the Book of Acts.  These are the chapters in which the church is born.  This is when the disciples receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and begin to preach with power and work wonders of healing and transformation. This is where we would find guidance for how we should be. This is where I expected to be refreshed in the discovery of the church in its earliest and purest form, before time and humanity soiled it and made everything a mess….

…but then we actually began to read the book of Acts and I discovered something else.  The church has always been messy.  The apostles were doing incredible things in the name of the Risen Christ.  Good things. They were bringing good news to the hopeless and healing to the hurt….but they were also a hot mess.  Their community was growing and multiplying in significant ways, ways that obviously had established leaders concerned about how to control zealous preachers like Stephen. Yet, they still messed up along the way. The Hellenists and the Hebrews were on the same team, part of the same Jewish family, but since those driving the movement forward at its center were Hebrews…the Hellenists became marginalized even among the larger community they helped build.  Their needy went overlooked, but they would not remain silent. They cried out for justice.  They insisted that the church remain true to its claim of good news for the poor and it’s commitment that there would be no needy among them. Now, when our integrity is challenged like that?  I can picture some bruised egos and a defensive response….but Holy Spirit is at work here and something else happens.

The disciples’ eyes are opened and, just as they eventually recognized the risen Christ beside them on the road, they recognize the system is unjust and respond to the cries of those who had been treated as second-class followers. They reflect on how best to respond and discover that this is an initiative best led by leaders already in their midst.  The names Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus are Hellenist names. The disciples empower local leaders to lift up the Gospel among their own people. In this moment, some are called to help others recognize their capacity for leadership and to empower them to be who God has called them to be.  Some are called to embrace their God-given gifts and to engage them for the sake of their community. Their people need them to.  Not the disciples of Jerusalem, but Stephen is best equipped to respond to Stephen’s community. Philip is best equipped to respond to Philip’s community. Prochorus is best equipped to respond to Prochorus’ community. These leaders are lifted up to do the work of the Gospel and filled with the Holy Spirit, they get it done. They aren’t rogue actors, they didn’t elect themselves, but are lifted up by their peers and others as ones who are trusted and blessed to be a blessing. Others have said to them “I see in you gifts for service, a passion for these people, and a capacity to care.” Stephen shows us that he doesn’t have to be a pastor to minister. The community recognized the gifts of these seven, commissioned them to lead, and then got the hell out of the way.

This isn’t because the disciples are exceptional leaders themselves or because they have astute community organizing savvy. They have never read “the 7 habits of highly effective people.” For all their gifts and all the wisdom of the early church, it is still inevitably flawed and messy. And I’m gonna say something you probably wouldn’t expect a pastor to say, but I’m going to say it anyway. What I see revealed in the text is this:  The church will not save you.  The church will NOT save you, Jesus does. You are known and loved by people and by your creator, but it is because of God that we are entirely set free from sin, shame, despair, and darkness. Your identity is not rooted in a church, it is rooted in Christ.

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However!  In this season of Easter, as we wrestle with the resurrection, we are acutely aware of God’s being very much alive. And the early church reveals that the church is rightly understood to be the incredibly diverse body of Christ, still living and breathing and moving in the world. God uses the church to transform us into the shape of Christ…Into a community that sees those unseen, that hears the cries of our neighbors say “our widows are starving,” that speaks bold truth into the void of silence and slander, a community that defies the engines of fear in the name of divine hope, and that uses its final breath to utter faith and forgiveness.

I lean exclusively on the cross of Christ to save me, to redeem, restore, and reconcile me and all of creation before our Creator. But I also believe that the body of Christ is not among the dead, but the living. I believe that the church is full of the Spirit and of wisdom. I believe that you are full of the Spirit and of wisdom. Community is crucial in times like these, so if there’s a part of you that longs for a sacred community that is messy and flawed but serves something much bigger than itself…welcome among KINDRED.  Pray and listen to how God has called you to help others recognize their capacity for leadership and to empower them to be who God has called them to be.  Pray and listen to how God has called your to embrace your God-given gifts and to engage them for the sake of their community. We need you to. We need what God has given you is we, together, are to take the shape of Christ in the world. And don’t stay quiet about it.  Let me know, let others know about the things you see that might otherwise go unseen. What you hear that needs to be amplified. The Hellenists declare to us, “speak up! God cares.” May we be attune to God’s voice and God’s movement here.  Amen.

Roads, Tables, and Strangers - Jesus' Top Hangouts

Luke 24:13-35
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" 19 He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him." 25 Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The other day I was pulling up to my house and I walked around to our front gate.  I stopped and looked around at the houses up and down our block…many have jasmine vines bursting with blooms and sweet fragrance, some have charming lawn ornaments. But overall, not much seems to differentiate this day from any other in our long Southern spring. Nothing noticeable seems to reflect the things that have taken place in these days. As I walk along, I don’t notice anything on the surface that would tell me anything has changed. One house has Easter eggs tied to ribbons hanging from the tree in their front yard, but the celebration of the Resurrection is so different from Christmas in that there are no streets lined with lights, fewer explicit signs of the season.

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Yet, Easter is indeed a season. Something is moving just below the surface that continues to draw us in. Somehow, even though our feet are tired…our alleluias are not quickly extinguished, but linger over 50 days of celebration. The mystery of Easter is so great, it can not be contained into a single day, but extends into an ongoing experience of delight, surprise, joy, and wonder.  Easter is not a moment in history, but an ongoing occurring and an emerging reality. Easter is an ongoing experience of the resurrection. Easter is not just an event, but an encounter. And that is much harder to pin down and identify. That is something that unfolds in ways we may not have expected. Easter is something that comes to us where we are and something that engages each of us differently.

For the first people to the tomb, Mary, and the other women who saw it empty…they were given a divine messenger to help interpret what they saw and responded by running to others to tell the story. On the same day, a couple of them were in the midst of travel when Jesus comes near and strikes up a conversation. There are questions and skepticism, fear and hope. In the midst of each, Easter is revealed in ways that are personal and unexpected. God is recognized where we thought God was absent.

This idea of the “hidden God” is not unique to the gospel of Luke. In the Gospel of John, Mary comes to the garden of Jesus’ tomb, but mistakes the risen Christ for a gardener. It is when God says her name, “Mary” that she recognizes what is happening.  There is plenty in our lives and in the news that cause us to wonder where God is in the midst of it all. It brings us to reflect on Gods promises and when it feels like God is excruciating silent, wonder if those promises are really true. Easter reveals it’s not that God is not present, but that we do not recognize God in our midst. 

We miss seeing what is right in front of us for a variety of reasons. .  We don’t know the reason the disciples were kept from recognizing Jesus, but I can imagine a few of my own.  Perhaps they were not expecting Jesus in this way, or they were focused on the destination, or the next task on the journey.  Perhaps they are distraught with emotion, crestfallen, hopeless, and scarred by the trauma of too many broken promises. Even when we know God is there, we know in our heads to expect God in the unexpected…our hearts are hardened and we miss it.

But on this long and winding road, Jesus keeps showing up. God meets us in the street, in the territory between certainties, in the process, in the journey which is just as important as the destination.  But not in a bumper sticker, stop and “smell the roses” kind of way.  God gently comes alongside us and patiently watches our eyes grow wider until at last we see the glory that shines even in the mundane. In the idle chit chat with strangers…in a Sunday night dinner.  Can you imagine waiting in line with a friend at the store, when the nosy eavesdropping guy looking over your shoulder asks “watcha talking about?” and then somehow the conversations pushes through all the awkwardness, difficulty, and differences…and the evening ends with the recognition that you have been engaging with God?

While the identity of Jesus is still veiled, the disciples extend an invitation to this stranger to join them. They extend basic hospitality that would have been the common practice for Jewish households to welcome the sojourner, the traveler. They didn’t know company was coming, they wouldn’t have had a chance to tidy up or put something especially impressive on the menu. They invite this stranger, who is already transforming into something a little more familiar, to simply share in what they are already doing.  They demonstrate discipleship as a way of being that wrestles with the significance of scripture in light of current events, that tells the sacred story as they walk along, that exhibits itself in public life and everyday social interactions.  This discipleship, this way of being, tells of the Goods News by inviting others into an experience of hospitality and community. We see the Gospel as something that is at work out on the road as well as in the intimacy of a home and a table. Jesus is revealed in the sharing of a meal, but also in the conversation, in the teaching and learning and discovery.

Somehow, gathered around a table, over a spread of simple bread and the expression of gratitude….God is revealed in the face of someone they thought was a stranger. The table is given significance not because it’s an especially magical place, but because of what happens between people who are gathered together. Throughout Jesus’ life and now in the Resurrection, God shares a table with unexpecting and anxious disciples, but also with tax collectors, with those considered to be in collusion with the oppressive empire, with those who had terrible reputations and no social standing, with those who were powerful influencers, and those who weren’t particularly noteworthy at all. In Luke, eating is a radical act because it breaks down cultural boundaries. Among KINDRED, we are witness to the power of an ordinary table to bring together diverse people that point one another toward God’s expansive promise and presence. Not only in the sanctuary but around our tables at home, in the makeshift tables of a park bench, or the office breakroom. Christ is at the table wherever we share it. In the breaking of bread, blessing it, and sharing it among each other, we experience God’s ongoing Easter in our midst. In this glorious mystery, we are transformed, our eyes are opened, and we recognize the face of Jesus in the person we thought was a stranger.

I wonder….how does recognizing Jesus in the face across from you, shape your view of them and how you engage them?  How does recognizing Jesus in that same face shape your view of God?

There's something in the Water

Matthew 28:16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

For those of you who have been baptized, I wonder when you were baptized, if you remember the exact date? Where did it happen? Who was there?  I wonder if you remember these things for yourself or if you had to be told about them.  For those of you who have not been baptized, I wonder about your story too. Perhaps you are new to the church.  Perhaps you never really saw a reason for it or weren’t sure why it was necessary.  Perhaps you are curious about the mysteries it entails.

In the Lutheran church, we recognize two sacraments – Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Sacrament means literally to make or mark as holy or sacred. We set these particular gifts apart for 3 reasons: They are commanded by God, they reveal a divine promise, and they involve an earthly/tangible element.  So for baptism, we just heard where Jesus commands his followers to baptize all the world.  The promise baptism holds is new and everlasting life. And it conveys this promise with simple cool clear water.  These gifts highlight that there can be no such thing as abstract spirituality that does not also meet our physical life. Someone once said that “Christianity is a most material religion: you cannot even get it started without a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and a river.”

We can begin to wrap our minds around parts of it, but baptism is a thing full of mystery. Let us turn to Martin Luther’s reflections on its significance.

What then is Baptism?
Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word.
Which is that word of God?
Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Matthew: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 28:19)

Baptism is the coming together of water and word.  The Word is a living word, one that isn’t only spoken or read, but as it is spoken is a creative force that moves us and shapes our being. The Water is the same as we get from our river, our bayous, our lakes… People often asked me if the water in our baptismal font (which is almost always open) is holy water.  The water is holy but it is also ok to touch. It’s okay to splash a little. That’s why it’s there. That’s why it’s open.  You can dip a finger into the water and make the sign of the cross on your forehead to remember the cross you receive at baptism.

Water is refreshing, but also powerful beyond measure. Baptism isn’t only the peaceful trickle of water over our heads.  It’s not gentle, it is a drowning.  In fact, an ancient baptismal font intentionally looked essentially the same as a stone coffin, filled with water. All that separates us from God…our old selves, our brokenness, the world’s brokenness…is drowned away. The waters of baptism are moving living waters and moving water has the power to cut through solid stone. The stone of our darkened hearts, the stone of apathy and indifference, the stone of oppression and injustice. Baptism refreshes but it also stirs up and agitates, troubles, resists, mobilizes.

What benefits does Baptism give?
It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
Which are these words and promises of God?
Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Mark: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)

The promise of Baptism is new and everlasting life. Not only in some heaven hereafter, but here and now, in this place and time.  God promises us a new way of being.  In the liturgy of baptism, we the people, respond with our own promises.  We promise to renounce the devil and all the forces of evil, all the forces that go against God and God’s promises – not only for ourselves but for all people. We promise to renounce, to resist that powers of this world that rebel against God. And to renounce the ways of sin that draw us from God.  And following Christ’s command we promise to learn, to grow, to listen, and to teach.

How can water do such great things?
Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.” (Titus 3:5–8)

It’s not water from some mystic fountain of youth, it is common water made holy by God’s work through it. Baptism is less about what we’re doing and entirely about what God is doing. This is why the Lutheran church is a-ok with baptizing babies who can not yet speak or comprehend, because none of us can truly comprehend the mystery of baptism.  Baptism is not about our goodness, our right believing, our readiness…it is about what God does, what God is doing in us.

What does such baptizing with water indicate?
It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Where is this written?
St. Paul writes in Romans chapter six: “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom. 6:4)

Baptism is not a moment, it’s a movement. It can not be compartmentalized or framed and hung on a wall and then forgotten.  It is a continual way of being, it is a daily walk, a daily dying and rising anew, being created with renewed capacity each morning. Not just so that we would be some better version of ourselves, but so that we are renewed in Christ, that we are given God’s own Spirit which is always about the work of ongoing creation in us, in the whole world.

In baptism we are made one with the whole body of Christ, connected to every other beautiful child of God, made one family, we are inescapably bound to one another.   That means in our baptism we are made one with refugees, with those being told to wait, with black lives and the white supremacists, with the drag queen, and those who foster fear of trans people even in the name of God, with those in prison, with the hungry and the addicted.  In baptism, we are tied to one another not with chains but with hope. Lilla Watson, an indigenous woman of Australia said “of upi have come here to help me, you’re wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is tied bound up with mine, let us work together.”  In our baptism we are set free together, only by the mysterious but somehow tangible promise of water and word that stirs up the Spirit.

So I want to invite you, if you haven’t been baptized before and you’re feeling a tug in your heart, a curiosity…let’s talk.  Shoot me an e-mail or give me a call.  If you have already been baptized and want to re-affirm those promises of baptism made long ago…to claim your faith anew…now is the time.  We will celebrate baptism as we celebrate the resurrection on Easter. Whether or not you understand this mystery (as if any of us could), I want to make one thing clear: these promises are for you. God’s love is for you.  God’s love is here at the beginning and at the end. In the font, in the bread, and cup, and beyond it too.  God is with you always, even to the end of the age.  Amen.

Belief, Mystery, and the Holy Spirit

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. 

As we continue our exploration of the traditions of the church through Martin Luther’s Catechism, today we take a closer look at the Apostles’ Creed. Creed.  We greet this word with arms wide open, seeking to understand the meaning behind it claims.  The word “creed” comes from the latin “credo” which means, I believe. Each stanza begins with this phrase, I believe and the follows a Trinitarian form, addressing God the three in one.

As part of our heritage as the church, we need a frame of history to help inform the tradition of creeds.  The creed does not explicitly come from the bible as a whole, but was created and utilized by the church to speak to the essential faith found in the bible. The Apostles ’ Creed is one of three Creeds that hold authority in the Lutheran church.  The Nicene and Athanasian Creeds came along a couple hundred years after the Apostles creed in order to respond to differing claims about Christ and Christ’s church. We are not quite sure where the Apostle’s Creed originated from, but it is held that it summarizes the earliest teachings of the early church.  It was originally even simpler in form than the version commonly used now and that which we confess in worship here. 

Each of the creeds seeks to articulate what is true, what is common among us as Christians in a world that seems so scattered.  We, the church, continue to wrestle with how hold fast to what is essential in a pluralistic society of diverse beliefs while acknowledging that there is still room for discovery. The creed reflects an understanding that from the early church to now - there would not be uniformity, but a sense of unity, a commitment that there is something substantial that we can proclaim together. Here we have a clear and simple, concise articulation of the teaching of the church.

These teachings ground us and shape our identity.  That why the creed is a part of our baptism liturgy, where our identity as child of God is proclaimed and embraced.  It’s not a magical set of secret words, you can find them for yourself in our hymnals.  Toward the front, on page 229, you will find the celebration of baptism which includes a series of questions for those about to be baptized, their family, and the whole assembly gathered there.  The response to those questions are the three articles of the Apostles’ Creed.  This helps us understand the intended use for the creed not as a mere litmus test for membership, but as we understand baptism to be a way of life rooted in the gospel of Christ, so the creed points us to the nature of God’s being so that our being is attuned to its creator.

So as we noted before, the Apostle’s creed essentially consists of three parts, what are called the three articles, each addressing a particular person of the trinity. Father, son, holy spirit. or…as they function in the world, could also be rightfully known as Creator, redeemer, sustainer.

excerpt from Martin Luther's Small Catechism:

The First Article: On Creation

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

What is this? or What does this mean?

I believe that God has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. And all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all! For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.

 

The Second Article: On Redemption

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead [or, "he descended into hell," another translation of this text in widespread use]. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

What is this? or What does this mean?

I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father in eternity, and also a true human being, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord. He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death. He has done all this in order that I may belong to him, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally. This is most certainly true.

 

The Third Article: On Being Made Holy

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

What is this? or What does this mean? I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins—mine and those of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.


The word "catholic" in the last article of the creed is lower case for a reason.  It doesn't refer to the Holy Roman Catholic Church (even though Martin Luther was actually Catholic), but it in this use it means "universal."  There is one church, one body of Christ, no matter how many times we try and divide ourselves.

The creed can easily devolve into a sanctimonious gate that separates a righteous “us” from a heathen “them.”  We have an ultimate truth and we’ve got in on lock, so get on board or get out of our way…or… unless you believe like I believe…you can’t sit with us.  While there is value to , such perspective has turn the creed from a confession that proclaims I believe in God and instead reflects a heart that really asserts “I believe in me.”but the apostle Paul reminds us that belief is, in fact, not about us, but about God.

1 Cor 12:3 –“Therefore I inform you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

As Martin Luther reminds us…none of us believes on our own.  We do not come to belief because of some earned righteousness, we attended the right Sunday school classes, our soul is “above average,” we prayed earnestly enough, we have life a morally superior life, or a life of favor in God’s eyes.  Only by the faithfulness of God in the Holy Spirit, can our tongues proclaim such grand mysteries.  Only by God’s grace, can our heart be wooed to trust a promise too wonderful to fully comprehend.

If belief is reduced to a sort of intellectual assent to doctrinal principles, than it has become about us and is no longer about God. Belief is not about doctrine and intellect, but trust and faith. It is not so much about the head, but more about the heart. The two are not inherently opposite or mutually exclusive. But in our post-modern society that places scientific certainty above all else, we need the reminder that certainty is not what the creed is about. In Mark 9, The father of a possessed son whom Jesus has just healed cries out “I believe, help my unbelief” Perhaps then, belief is not an all or nothing proposition. You might whole-heartedly agree with every statement of the creed, you might have lingering questions about the factuality of some of its claims, but it is ultimately God who saves, not our words nor our silence. It is God who is faithful and gives us the courage to voice to the mysteries of our faith.  It is God who guards and guides us toward the biblical hope these words point to, a hope that goes beyond what we can fathom, a hope that does not disappoint us. Amen.

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