kindred

dinner church - sundays @ 5:30pm

Finding the Sacred in the Shuffle

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

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

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

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

            “What’s that?” they asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outlaw Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Food for Holy People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge practices:

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

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

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

Christ is risen; Christ is in us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scorpions, Shadows, and Jesus

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

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

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

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

….

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

 photo by Hailey Kean

photo by Hailey Kean

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

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

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

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

If you had been here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something significant happens even before we come to the tomb.

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the Shadows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Uncontainable God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I wonder….

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

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

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Mighty Lord,

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

 

expected justice, but saw bloodshed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...in which God says some messed up stuff

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

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

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

 art by He Qi

art by He Qi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 -&nbsp;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.

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