Tuesday, May 29, 2018

God Above, Among and Beyond

Matthew 28:19-20

2 Corinthians 13:11-14

               There was a three generation household in which James, Sr., was living with his son, James, Jr. and young grandson, James III.  One day the phone rang and the caller asked to speak to Jim.  The response was, “Do you want Jim the father, Jim the son, or Jim the holy terror?”

               Today is Trinity Sunday.  It is a day when our service and our sermons are supposed to focus on the concept of the trinity.  Supposedly the trinity is one of the most important theological concepts for our faith, but it is also one that most people find challenging to understand.  So much of our faith we grasp and internalize because it meets with our experience of God.  So much of our faith is tied in with stories, both from the Bible and from our own lives, stories that say in ways that theological statements or ideas about our faith often cannot, what it is we believe, what it means to be children of God, who we are as a community of faith, and who we are as Christian believers.  But the trinity often seems to me to be an intellectual concept which is up there somewhere; high above our experience of God, outside the realm of stories, or even of intuition.  The trinity is proclaimed to be a great mystery of our faith.  But in the theological headiness of the concept it can lose what is most important about our faith, which is that the meaning of our faith comes when we experience it and live it out.  Discussion and debate, while interesting, ultimately do not make us the people of God, something that should claim every bit of our lives and everything that we do with those lives.

               As I have studied the trinity, hoping to find something that would make it a more accessible concept, I found myself more and more convinced of this division between those ideas that we intuitively understand and which help us to live our lives more fully as Children of God, and those ideas which belong in theological and biblical studies, but which do not seem to communicate the Good News to us, which do not help us as a people to truly give up all we have in pursuit of that one pearl of priceless value that is God in our lives.  Additionally, the first thing that every theological book, article and commentary I read had to say about the trinity was that this is not a concept found in the Bible.  The two passages that we read today are the sole basis for the theology of the trinity: two tiny verses that use a “trinitarian formula” but which don’t explain it as a trinity, never mention the idea of three persons in one God-head, never define those relationships between the “persons” of the trinity, or even define them as unique persons.  The idea of trinity, or three persons in one God-head first seemed to have arisen at the council of Nicea in 325 AD.  It simply did not exist before then.  And it is one of the great concepts that separates us from Jewish brothers and sisters who argue that they in fact REALLY have one God whereas Christians have a 3 God in one God-head thingy.  The first division or complete split in the Christian church was in fact a division over the nature of the trinity.  And the discussions, arguments, divisions over this concept which began at that time have never ceased.  Indeed, while most the books and commentaries I have read on the trinity were written by renowned Presbyterian theologians, no two of them agreed about the trinity meant or how it was to be understood.  For example, one commentary said that the trinity is like water in its three forms of ice, liquid and steam: all made of the same substance but in very different forms.  Another commentary completely disagreed with this declaring that this understanding of the trinity is a kind of modalism: that instead each person of the trinity is water in all of its forms.  According to this theologian, if we stick with the analogy of water, one person of the trinity is the plasma within our bodies, where as another is sea water: apparently both have just about the same make up chemically, but they simply exist in different places.  One theologian reported that the different persons of the trinity involve different jobs: there is the creator, the redeemer and the sustainer.  Another said that this was inaccurate because each person of the trinity was fully creator, redeemer and sustainer all by themselves.  One theologian said the mystery of the trinity was that there were three persons within the one God.  Another disagreed saying the mystery of the trinity is that there is one Godhead that encompasses three distinct persons.  Almost all of the theologians used scientific analogies are a way of describing their understanding the trinity.  The simplest example was that of the three forms of water I described earlier.  The most complex involved quarks, the smallest known particles of matter, and the interdependence of quarks who cannot exist, apparently, as single beings, but must exist in community with one another.  And again, it was interesting intellectual fodder for budding brain cells.  But when it came down to how this concept would help us to live our lives as Christians, how these ideas would bring us comfort when we are afflicted, or how these concepts would challenge us when we are falling short in our ability to forgive or to heal or to love God, self and each other, theologians had very little to say.  The books and discussions on the Trinity were strangely and starkly mute on what this had to do with our lives as people of faith.

               Many years ago, I was sitting in on a 6th grade Sunday school class in which the kids were all invited to make collages of their images of God.  As I watched the kids work, I noticed that each child had a very different collage in front of them.  David’s collage was made up of magazine pictures of angels: statues of angels, pictures of angels, in child and adult form, covered David’s picture.  Carlie sat next to David and her picture was made up entirely of nature scenes.  She had drawn rainbows and sunsets, beautiful flowers and strong animals like lions.  She had cut out a picture of the beach and had glued a feather onto the top of her collage.  George for his part had put pictures of people and names of people all over his collage.  Some of the pictures had no names, some of the names had no pictures, but his collage was people of all different kinds.  Megan for her part had the simplest collage.  Her picture was hard to figure out at first, but when I asked her she said that it was a voice; a voice inside, which she didn’t know how to draw except through wispy lines, like whispering.  My question to Megan, while simply inquiry began an argument among the children.  Carlie looked at Megan’s picture and frowned.  “You don’t really think God is a voice inside of you, do you?  God is much bigger than that!  God couldn’t fit inside of you!  Look at the wonderful things God has created!” And with that she showed Megan her own picture of the nature scenes of sunsets and beaches and great majestic beasts.  David jumped in at that point and said, “You haven’t created a picture of God, just a picture of what God made a long time ago.  If you want to see God now, you have to look at the angels.  The guardian angels all around us who look out for us and care for us.” To which George replied, “I don’t believe in angels.  I think God acts through people around us.  There aren’t really angels, you know.”  I was about to step in and encourage the kids to think about all of these images as important, when David said, very quietly, under his breath, “I have a guardian angel.”  The other kids all looked up from their work and David continued, “Not that I’ve seen him.  He always stays hidden, but I know he’s there.  Last week, for example, I was running home from school and was about to cross a street without looking when I heard someone call my name.  I stopped and turned around and just as I did, a car went careening into the intersection without stopping.  There was no-one behind me.  I know it was my guardian angel protecting me form that car.  Lots of stuff has happened like that.  I know I have a guardian angel and that is God in my life.”

               George jumped in, “A couple weeks ago my mom got fired from her job.  My dad’s been out of work for a while and has stayed home to take care of us.  So when my mom lost her job it was really scary.  But one of the women in church heard about it and she offered my mom a temporary job at her work; the job lasted just long enough for my mom to find a permanent position.  I know God was working through that lady in our church.”

               Megan added, “My little brother has some problems.  He’s kind of slow and a lot of the kids at school pick on him and give him a hard time.  One time a bunch of kids had surrounded him and were yelling names and closing in on him.  I thought they were going to beat him up and I was all ready to jump in there and defend him.  I’m sure we both would have ended up hurt if I had.  But just as I was about to jump in, I heard a voice inside of me say, “Why don’t you invite all the kids over to your house and they can see what Kevin can do at home and how important he is around the house.’ So I did. And they all came over and my mom ended up telling them a lot about Kevin’s situation.  Now they take care of Kevin and make sure other kids don’t pick on him.  I know I didn’t come up with that idea on my own.  God told me what to do.  And I did it.”

               Carlie had been quiet during all of this.  And there was a moment after the other kids finished that I wasn’t sure if she would speak up.  Carlie lived in a foster home.  She had been moved around a lot, and didn’t have a regular family taking care of her.  She never talked about this with the other kids, so I wasn’t sure she would say anything that day.  But she surprised me.  “I don’t have any parents,” she said, “but I do know God loves and cares for me.  Every time I see a sunset or get to go to the beach, I know that God made all of this and God made me and that everything is going to be okay.”

The kids continued to share and talk.  But it was no longer an argument over who God was or how God acted.  Instead, they were learning that people experienced God in different ways.  Perhaps more importantly, they were learning to be open themselves so that they might also experience God in different ways.

For myself, this is where the concept of the trinity finally meets experience.  I believe the theological concept of the trinity began as a way for people to try to explain a complex experience of God.  And that experience is that God is not just a distant creator, though God is creator and has done that.  God is not JUST present to us in the person of Jesus, though God was present to us in Christ and still comes and lives and walks among us.  God is not JUST present in the stillness of our solitude, in our prayers, in our community, in our reading of scriptures, though God is very active and present there as well.  God is all these things: God is above us, God walks among us, and God is within us.  The good news of the trinity is the good news that we celebrate every Sunday.  That God in all of God’s actions and forms, in all of God’s persons loves us beyond life itself and is present with us in that love to the end of the ages.

I also believe that part of the reason trinity continues to be so controversial is because it, too, is a human construct that cannot and does not completely capture God.  God goes beyond all of our human descriptions.  And our experience of God also goes beyond human explanation.  For me, trinity is a powerful way of describing the powerful, amazing, love-filled experience of God who made us, walks among us, and is within us; all at the same time, always caring for us, upholding us, and challenging us to be more loving.  Trinity does not need to stay a difficult theological concept.  It can become again what I believe it was meant to be; a way of understanding an experience that can’t be described adequately by words.  A metaphor for an experience of our God as real and tangible to us in many ways, in many forms, in many situations.

If we see the trinity as a metaphor for our experience of God, the image of trinity opens up to us many different layers and gives many more insights into God and our relationship to God as well.  The trinity becomes more complex than just the understanding of God above, among and within.  It also reflects other truths about God, one of which I find especially wondrous, but perhaps even harder to put into worlds.  What makes us persons is that we are relational.  If we were not in relationships to other people, we would not be persons, but simply beings acting out of animal instincts.  So, too, while God is one, God is also relational with God-self.  That relationship is what makes God persons, what makes God desire to be relational with us as well, and what allows God to be communion in being within God-self.  God, like us, is community which holds diversity within itself.  That, to me, is the greatest wonder and greatest mystery of the trinity.  Like the Bible which is one book and yet a book of distinct and different books which relate and inform one another, like a church which is one in its mission statement and yet holds within it a community of persons, God is community within God’s one-ness.  I think that this mystery too is one which must be understood and worked out through one’s own experience of God. 

Two people went up in a hot air balloon.  The balloon went way off course and the couple ended up totally lost, having no idea where they were until finally the balloon came down in the middle of an open field.  One of the people in the balloon called out to a man who was standing watching the balloon, “Say, can you tell us where we are?”

“Sure,” the man answered, “You are in a hot air balloon.”

The woman who had asked the question turned to her companion and said, “that man must be a preacher.  What he said is completely true and has absolutely no relevance to our situation.”

I hope that the concept of trinity does not stay for us an intellectual and irrelevant mystery that is above comprehension.  Rather, I hope for all of us today that the beauty of Trinity, of one God in community with God-self, will inspire you with its beauty to ponder ever more deeply, and to live ever more faithfully in the presence of our incredible loving God who is above, among and within.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Broken Systems

      I woke up upset this morning.  Okay, admittedly there actually was a good reason for this.  I was awakened at 5:30 this morning by a woman insisting that I needed to file a whole mess of papers so that I could continue to get the $1.33 per month in child support for my eldest daughter for the next 3 weeks (so really $1 total) since, although she has turned 18, she still has three weeks from her birthday yet to graduate from high school.  When I told her it would cost me more to file the papers than the $1 I'd be receiving on Jasmyn's behalf, she laid this bizarre and weird guilt trip on me about how it wasn't the money that mattered, but the support they got from their father, and that I should care more about the kids than about money.  Um...
     I just published my Pentecost sermon which was about striving to understand those we really don't understand.  I believe that my best sermons are the ones I write to myself as I struggle with the reality of deeply held beliefs that are difficult to live up to.  This, while very short (since we had a play that filled most of the sermon time), was one of those sermons.  I believe we are called to look deeper at each person we encounter, to get to see beyond what people say and do to the reasons why they say and do those things... I believe, in other words, that we are to strive to mirror the loving Divine who knows us more fully than we know ourselves and loves us not only into being but through all of our mistakes, our pains, our struggles because of that deep understanding of who we ultimately are, what we have experienced, and what we are striving to become.
    So, as is often the case for me, when I am struggling with something, I am given quick and direct opportunities to practice what I preach.  In this case, I've been given the opportunity to try to see beneath, beyond and through what this woman was saying and attempt to decipher why she was so quick to judge and so pushy about me filing these papers so Jasmyn could receive this extra $1 in child support. In reflecting on our conversation, I think she was simply trying to get the paper work her job requires her to obtain.  She is probably used to working with people who don't pay their required support, who don't fulfill their obligations, and as a result, she has probably learned to use guilt as an affective weapon in order to be able to do the job she is paid to do.  She doesn't know me, she doesn't know our situation, she doesn't know the big picture here.  She undoubtedly was not paying attention to the fact that a phone call made from Ohio to California meant that when she went to call me at 8:30am her time, she was in fact calling me at 5:30am PDT time.  She simply had a job to do and she was trying to do it to the best of her ability.  That is probably why the guilt trip is working a bit on me as well.  While I cannot justify all the time and effort it would take to file the papers she requires in order to receive that extra total $1 in child support, I know that it would be helpful to her in her job to have that neatly tied up by having the proper papers that track my daughter's graduation from high school.  So I debate... do I do this for this woman?  Or do I let it go knowing that I will in fact just be one of the many who don't do the final paper work for various reasons, including a lack of time or the resources necessary, or (as in my case) no real incentive to fax the appropriate papers.
        More than this, then, I felt called to look more deeply at my own upset this morning because I felt it was an extreme reaction in response to a woman just doing her job.  What about this really pushed my buttons?  Why did this simple request set me so far off this morning?  There are layers and layers here... frustration, anger and despair built up over the last few weeks that has a long list attached to it: divisions, hate and anger of others, the increasing violence, the fear for my children in just going to school now, the nastiness of comments on social media (not aimed at me, but affecting me none the less), the outrageous behavior of human beings who, I used to believe were moving towards more compassion, but who instead, with the anonymity of social media and the current political atmosphere seem actually much more attuned to judgment, hate, violence, an inability to empathize and a desire to harm those who are different from "us".  All of that gets in, turns, twists, hurts and, in the face of a sense of helplessness to heal it or to bring insight and compassion to this broken world, expresses itself in extreme emotional reactions.  But more than that, this specific situation raised in me all the upset, once again, at a justice system that has taken so much from my family and myself.  The fact that I have collected $4 a month for my kids, while paying out about $150 a month for the last 6 years, and almost $100K in legal fees before that is overwhelmingly difficult for me to swallow right now as I look at the cost of education for my three kids over the next 9 years and the fear of the huge debts we will incur to get them through school.  The reality of being a 50 year old adult who has had to, once again, rely on family for financial help, is shaming and humiliating.  The struggle of being a single working mother in a career that was never meant to pay well but which requires more than full time attention is still overwhelming at times, even now when I have a very helpful fiancĂ©.  And the pain I deal with in my kids, still, that will never go away, that will be their defining story of humiliation, of isolation, and of loss still breaks my heart on a daily basis.
        The point I am making with this?  My own story is only one, a small one actually, a small example that is just a tiny part of why I do not believe in retributive justice.  Retributive justice does not work, as we know by the huge recidivism rate in the United States.  Retributive justice is an acting out of anger, a desire to hurt those who have hurt us. It does absolutely nothing to bring healing to the victims, but instead usually revictimizes them through the court systems.  It also does nothing to change the perpetrators so they might choose something different in the future.  The system creates more victims: families and communities of both the victims and the perpetrators are deeply harmed by the retributive system itself.  Additionally, conservative estimates say that one out of every ten incarcerated persons are completely innocent, (which, since, as of the Dec 31, 2016 justice statistics said there were 6,613,500 people under the corrections institutions in the US means we are looking at over 600,000 innocent people unfairly incarcerated).  But while they may have been innocent before going to prison, their chances of remaining so after being released are slim.  What prison teaches is how to survive by crime, how to seek revenge through more outrageous behavior, how to respond to a violent world with more violence. And since it is extremely difficult for a person with a criminal record to be employed, options become limited for self-support after incarceration.  Add to this that much of our "justice" is bought. The lawyers we interacted with were unanimously quick to tell us that justice was a theological concept, and that what we have in our country is simply, no more and no less, than a business.  Therefore the poor and those with less resources cannot buy their way to "justice" (even those who are guilty are often guilty of a much lesser crime that what they receive punishment for, and mitigating circumstances are seldom considered) and those with resources can get away with anything if they pay the right people enough.
         This does not mean that I believe there should be no consequences.  Of course there should.  But a restorative model works for consequences that genuinely bring healing to victims, understanding across the board, and "punishment" that heals and restores both individuals and communities.  This is a quick summary of a very complex system, but I believe in it very strongly.  Having lived through and experienced the retributive justice system up close and personally I feel this more strongly than ever.  Our retributive justice system is a racist, classist, revenge-punishment business that harms more people, percentage wise, in the United States than in any other developed country.  It is barbaric, and when I think about it the rage within me is strong.  The phone call this morning was just the end of a long list of reminders of a broken and destructive system.
      I will write more about restorative justice in the future.  But for now, let me just say that as I navigate the emotional storm that I'm experiencing this morning, I know the only solution to these feelings is to fight for change.  I hope to do more work towards restorative justice.  If you are interested in joining me on this path, let me know.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Seven Gifts of the Spirit

Ezekiel 37:1-6

Revelation 5

            The play that our members performed this morning focused on seven gifts of the spirit.  While the play emphasizes that these are really Christ's gifts, I think they are also our gifts, though, as was pointed out, they look different than we might expect.   Riches, for example, as a gift from the Spirit, doesn’t look like material wealth, it looks like a wealth of spirit and a wealth of community, a wealth of faith, a wealth of trust, love, grace. 

            So while I do not believe that we should have faith based on what we hope we can gain from our faith, what we hope God will give us because we believe (that may be common theology, but it is bad theology by the way, to believe because that’s the way to manipulate God into giving you things…), I do think that Pentecost is a time to celebrate the gifts that God does give, not only to us as individuals, but to each community, to the Church as a whole, to the people. 

            We can celebrate that community is itself a gift, as are faith, the ability to love and grow, the ability to forgive, the ability to trust and to love.  These, too, are gifts of the Spirit.  We can celebrate friendships, connections, the ability to be grateful, appreciation, vision and understanding are also gifts of the Spirit.  We can celebrate that compassion, grace, insight, understanding, discernment and wisdom are also gifts of the Spirit.

            Today as we celebrate the birthday of the church, the gifts of the church, the gifts of the Spirit, we also recognize that one of the deep gifts we are given is our diversity.  On Pentecost, all voices were heard – but more, all voices, with their different languages, different cultures, different view points – all were understood.  One of the things I love about this is that people did not become something else.  They weren’t all speaking the same language, they were just understood speaking in their different languages.  We, as Pentecost people are invited to do the same – to hear and to understand one another, despite our differences.  That includes people of different ages, of different languages, cultures, different orientations and genders, and view points – we are invited to listen to their words and their ideas, and to take them seriously. 

Are there people that you have trouble understanding here?  If so, Pentecost is a great time to recommit to listening, hearing and loving one another. 

I think about one of the learning and listening experiences of our last church that actually had to do with Jasmyn joining the church.  When new people join the church, the session is required to “examine” them to make sure they are “fit for membership.”  Usually this just means that we ask them why they want to join and then bless that joining.  I think there is an assumption, probably based on our own experiences and our own ways of being in the world, that says that when someone joins the church, they don’t want to be pushed too hard, confronted, challenged or to feel threatened by our questions.  Jasmyn told me though, when she joined the church both here and first in Ohio, that she really wanted to be taken seriously enough that the interview, the examination for membership was real – not token.  Convincing the session, though, to listen and to understand that request took some work.  They had to hear in a different way in order to trust what she was saying and ask questions that had some depth in them.

I also think of a story I heard recently from a pastor who noticed one Sunday a couple women who had been fighting for years in the church huddled together in a corner, hugging and crying.  One had just lost her spouse, the other had lost a spouse years earlier.  They connected over something they both now shared that allowed them to hear and support each other despite their differences.
I served as organist/music director for a small church while attending seminary.  After I left, I received a call from the new music director who felt that the pastor's wife hated her.  Shortly following that phone call, I received a call from the pastor's wife saying she did not know what to do because everything she did was interpreted by the new music director as a slight.  While both had good intentions, while both wanted the relationship to work, both were struggling because they had trouble seeing, hearing and understanding each other.  With help from me and others, though, they were able to work through some of it to understand that they just communicated and expressed themselves differently.
           On Pentecost, we celebrate our diversity within the church.  We honor that by celebrating the gifts the Spirit gives us.  And we honor it by striving with those gifts of compassion and grace and forgiveness to really hear and understand one another.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

some thoughts on different prejudices

        I've found myself thinking often about prejudice lately as I've been reading terrible newspaper articles about the different prejudices that are raising their heads more and more often, it seems, in horrific and violent ways.  I think we probably all have certain prejudices, certain biases, some ways in which we are blind or unaware of things that hurt other groups of people, some stereotypes that affect the way we treat others, understand others or imagine others to be.  Even people who work really hard to confront prejudices still have to begin that fight within themselves: looking at our own behaviors that still cause people of color, women, LGBTQ+ folk or others to be treated unfairly, to be pushed down economically or in terms of access to resources, to be treated as inferior or "less than" in one way or another. Some of the standard prejudices that are more often named in my own personal circles include racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, Islamophobia, prejudice against people of differing abilities... but lately I have been intrigued by the reality that even people who make their livelihoods fighting certain prejudices still often carry and enact other prejudices, usually ones they can't see, own or name.  I know far too many people, for example, who are actively fighting racism, who are completely unaware of their own sexism and the behaviors they exhibit that harm people who are not cis-male.  Others actively fighting sexism are prejudiced against LGBTQ+ folk.  Some of this I struggle to understand.  I have been contacted repeatedly recently by someone who has been harmed by and struggles to fight the prejudice against people with differing abilities and illnesses.  At the same time, she is one of the most condemning and hateful people I know towards LGBTQ+ folk.  Her words are venomous and her actions spiteful.  And I am absolutely convinced that she does more harm towards these folk than she does good for the people with disabilities whom she is trying to help.  It is even harder for me to understand when people are hating in the name of God.  I've come to believe that we actually worship different gods.  My God is accepting, loving, wants wholeness and justice and healing for all people, for all creation.  The god some of these other people worship seems to be focused on judgment, condemnation and cruelty.  I don't know that god, thankfully, and have only encountered him (yes, necessarily male, in this culture at least) through the eyes of those who worship him.  Their worship of that angry, hateful entity scares me and I believe is the cause of much harm in our world.
      I've also found myself becoming, once again, more aware of other, more subtle prejudices: ones that are not yet in the focus of our society, ones that are much more "acceptable" but every bit as harmful and may be a big part of the cause of at least some of the violence we've been seeing recently.  It has been acceptable for quite some time now, for example, to express prejudice towards people who aren't as talented or gifted at social skills.  There is a strong prejudice towards introverted people as well, a strong bias for those who are more charismatic and outgoing in our culture. I've found myself reflecting on this as I remembered a conversation in which an extremely socially gifted person wanted to start a support group but informed me that he did not want to invite "W" because... well, "W" just wouldn't fit in.  Right.  "W" has Asperger's.  So, no, he would not fit in with this socially charismatic, popular, charming group of people.  But he does need the support such a group would offer.  He does need that friendship.  He does need that care.  The other folk in this group?  Well, again, they are all charming, popular, charismatic folk.  They don't actually NEED this support group, unlike the person being excluded.  The person organizing the group prides himself on his awareness, on his care for the underdog, on his ability to empower the marginalized.  But he fails to see this particular marginalized group, or to feel they are worthy of his support and care.
      I am not immune to this either and I know this.  I work hard to see, accept, love every person and to try to understand the ways in which I contribute to their well being or their marginalization.  But I'm not always going to see it, it will always be something I work on, and sometimes, probably even often, I will get it wrong.  Still, I try.  I think learning our own prejudices and working to fight them is something God would call us to do.  The call to love our neighbors as ourselves is a call to see them, understand them, empower them as we would want done for ourselves.  My challenge, then, for all of us is to always look deeper at who we love, who we reject, and for what reasons.  My challenge then is always to strive for more compassion, greater grace, and deeper commitment to empowering and uplifting one another.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Love and Outreach

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
John 17:6-19

               Today I want to spend some time talking about that scary E word – evangelism.  This is not a comfortable topic for most of us.  We don’t tend to talk a whole lot about evangelism in mainstream churches.  We don’t talk about it because we live in a culture that values independence in every way, independence in thinking, independence in acting, independence even in faith.  The “spiritual but not religious” idea is one of faith being a very personal experience, one that doesn’t work in a group, within a community.  But scripture gives us a very different model for what it is to be the people of God.  If we are the stones that God uses to build God’s house, or even if we are the stones helping God to build God’s house, we cannot do it alone.  The corner stone, or Christ, is the necessary foundation.  It is the beginning, it is the base.  But it is not the whole of the house.  Jesus is who he is in relationship to us.  As much as we need Christ for our wholeness, for our grounding, for our center, Jesus also needs us and calls us to be the rest of the house.  That is an awesome idea, isn’t it?  The idea that God needs us.  But it is true.  Our confessions tell us that God created us to glorify God.  God calls us into relationship with God for our own sakes, yes, but also because God is a God of community.  That is why we are here in church today.  We, in this church, recognize that no matter what our culture tells us about standing independent of others, the reality is that we are a communal creation.  We are called into relationships with God and with each other.  To go back to the house metaphor, Jesus cannot be the cornerstone without a building to support.  And we cannot be the house of God, we cannot even be a stone in the house of God, alone.  Without others, we are not a house strong and full.   We need others in God’s house, in faith, to stand strong and tall, to help us to continue to keep our focus on our cornerstone. 
We need community and we need each other to build God’s house.  And while Clayton Valley is an incredible community of people, we are charged to bring in more bricks into the house of God, to expand the community of folk who seek God, who see God, who engage God in this place.  In other words, we are charged with evangelism, with sharing the Good News.  The Great Commission tells us that we are to make Disciples of all the Nations – that we are to include all people in the invitation to follow in the Way of love, giving the Good News that God is a God of love, for all creation, a God who invites us to be connected and who made us ONE, a community united in love.  Today is Mother’s day, and as we know, we’ve learned that it takes a village to raise a child.  In the same way, we care for each other as a village, as a community.
Again, I recognize that this is not comfortable.  But we are called to invite people to join in the celebration of community that we live here.  However, there are many ways to do this.  We do this by acting in a Spirit of love so that people want to know us and want to know what inspires us to act in the way we do.  We do this by reaching out in care to the people we meet and by example.  But we also are called to do this by inviting people into our Spiritual lives and our spiritual understanding by inviting them to church.  We need to continue to build God’s house through inviting new people to come in our doors, into our spiritual house.  I know this is not easy.  But this call is not just for those we invite to come.  This is also for our own health and the health of our community.  We are healthier when we are challenged by others to continue to grow and expand in our thinking.  We are healthier when we meet new people and learn how to be the body of Christ with them.  Our house is stronger with more bricks.  Studies show that building a church is done most successfully through the members of the church inviting their friends and acquaintances.  So what prevents this from happening?  What stops us from inviting people to church?
One reason people don’t invite others to church is that we aren’t excited about church.  We don’t want it to change, but at the same time, we don’t find it interesting enough to invite others to come.  If that is the case, I think we really need to reevaluate why it isn’t exciting for us.  And then rethink whether or not we want it to change.  The truth is, if a person is excited about something, they tend to share it.  Many of you have shared with me about books or TV programs or movies you thought I might enjoy.  You’ve shared with me about plays and programs that are exciting for you.  If you are excited about a program that is going on at church, you will share it with their friends and if their friends come and enjoy it, they will share it too.  If you like our senior program, or our Tai Chi class share it.  If you enjoy our quilting group, share that.  If you enjoy the men’s group, or women’s group, invite others to come.  If you enjoy our concerts or our Faith and Film nights…  If the service work you do: the lunch programs or Winter Nights or Convoy of Hope are meaningful to you, share them.  If you are fed by worship, share it with others.  If you appreciate what we do with the children through Godly Play… The other part of this is that if you are not excited about any of the programs going on here, including worship, then this is something we should discuss.  Because I am always open to trying exciting new things: things that you WOULD enjoy sharing.  I am open to even starting a different kind of worship service in addition to this one: maybe a Saturday evening service that has communion every week, if it is something you would be excited about enough to invite your friends.  I encourage you to begin a program here that will excite you, or to join the worship committee to make worship something that you truly enjoy.  Remember that you, the people, are the ministers of this church, and so you, the people have the responsibility for making it the church you want it to be.  If your faith is meaningful to you, wouldn’t you want to share it?  Does it feel too personal to share?  Again, that is not what Jesus encourages.  Jesus encourages a faith that is communal as well as personal.
Another reason people don’t invite others to come to church is that they feel uncomfortable about that “e” word.  We have experienced evangelism that is aggressive and manipulative and we don’t want to be part of that.  I understand that.  I can share with you story after story of uncomfortable situations I’ve found myself in where the other person has been trying to evangelize me.  The fact that I’m a pastor usually only makes this worse because our most vocal evangelists usually have a problem with women pastors.  These strangers take up our time, they beat us over the head with a God who would destroy us if we don’t follow the path these evangelists have laid out for us.  They invade our personal lives and spaces without invitation. Many of the most prominent preachers also lie about so many things: they tell you that if you just give money, God will bless you ten-fold.  They tell you that if you just do what they say, that your life will be easy.  They tell you about a God who wants your money, and then they are caught, again and again, in scandal, in corruption, in hypocrisy. I understand why we want nothing to do with this.  But there are other ways to invite people and other reasons to invite people.  As I mentioned before, if you were excited about a movie you saw, you wouldn’t hesitate to encourage others to see it, too.  If you were excited about a class you took, you wouldn’t hesitate to encourage others to attend it, too.  Our mega-churches grow because people have that same excitement about their church that others might have about classes or movies.  And again, if you aren’t excited about church in this place, then we need to change it and do something different.  Also, we do not have to threaten people to invite them.  I don't believe God needs us all to believe the same thing.  Not by any means.  But inviting people to share in what makes us happy is just plain kind, it is polite, it is generous.
This also means that we have a responsibility for making friends outside of the church. Approaching strangers and trying to invite them usually doesn’t work.  But connecting with others, making friends outside these walls and then inviting them to join us in an activity… these are things we can do. Connecting with people outside of these walls in order for this place to stay healthy and in order to continue to build the house of God is a part of our calling as people of faith.  Faith and our churches mean something.  I want you to start thinking about the ways this place has made a difference in your life and I am asking you to volunteer to share those stories.  We do so much good in this community… we feed people, we participate in things like Winter Nights and Convoy of Hope, we offer space for recovery groups and 12 step programs, we offer community programs and education.  We raise money for Monument Crisis Center, for Contra Costa Interfaith Housing.  Why would we want to keep this quiet?  Clayton Valley is a warm, caring place that does a great deal of good for the size that we are.  We remind all who come that God loves them just as they are. 
The Church, big C, has some special challenges at this time in history in terms of outreach.  We know that church decline is a real issue.  When we look at the numbers of church’s closing every day, at the increasing numbers of “nones” and “dones”, we know we are in a crisis time.  Every day I read new articles written by pastor colleagues who are either coming up with analyzes and “solutions” (none of which have worked) for the dying of mainline Christianity, or are writing about why this is actually a good thing – that the people in our churches are there not because it is just a cultural thing to do but really because of their faith, for example.  But they all point to the same thing.  We cannot expect that people will just wander in off the street to find us.  We can’t expect that anymore.  We can’t count on visitors to just show up anymore.  But it still remains important that we build and create and invite a community into this place.
A member of a certain church, who previously had been attending services regularly, stopped going.  After a few weeks, the pastor decided to visit him.  It was a chilly evening. The pastor found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire. Guessing the reason for his pastor's visit, the man welcomed him, led him to a comfortable chair near the fireplace and waited. The pastor made himself at home but said nothing.  In the grave silence, he contemplated the dance of the flames around the burning logs.  After some minutes, the pastor took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone then he sat back in his chair, still silent. The host watched all this in quiet contemplation.  As the one lone ember's flame flickered and diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more.  Soon it was cold and dead. Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting.  The pastor glanced at his watch and realized it was time to leave.  He slowly stood up, picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire.  Immediately it began to glow, once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it. As the pastor reached the door to leave, his host said, 'Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fire-y sermon.  I will be back in church next Sunday'.
Just as the man without a church is an ember without a fire, our fire is hotter and fuller when we invite new members in.  Clayton Valley is a healthy, vibrant community.  I have heard it said that , “Clayton Valley is the best well-kept secret in the area.”  In many ways we are becoming more visible for taking stands on important issues, for the flag, for our PFLAG group, for our commitment to interfaith work, hunger work, presence in the community.  But we have a long way to go.  Let’s see if we can stop it from remaining a secret.  We are charged with spreading the Good News.  Clayton Valley is part of that Good News.  We are strong stones in God’s house.  That is a Good News I am proud to share.  And I hope you are as well.  Amen.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

To Lay Down Your Life

Acts 4:5-12
John 10:11-18

       In the passage from John today we heard that Jesus is the shepherd who will bring all the sheep into his fold, even those who are not part of the recognized flock.  He also said that he has come to this place by being willing to lay down his life for his flock.  It is from that place of being willing to die, according to this passage in John, that he gained God’s choosing, God’s love, God’s mark.  Or, as John puts it, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”
       This is part of the hardest thing we are asked to do - to no longer fear death. Attached to that is what I believe is even harder. The hardest thing we are asked to do is to be willing to overcome any fear we do have, and if necessary to be willing to give up our lives for others - for our family, for our friends, yes - but more than that, for our enemies.  I’m not saying that we are to seek out death, or that being a martyr is the goal.  What I am saying is that we are to act with all faith, and without fear even to the point of being willing to die for others, even for, maybe especially for, our enemies: for their lives, for their well-being, for their wholeness.
        I want you to take a moment and think about someone that has hurt you.  Someone that offends you.  Maybe it is a person you know very well.  Maybe it is someone you don’t really know at all: a person from a particular group of people that offends you - a person with a different religion or a person with a different lifestyle choice, a person with a different political bent or someone with a different attitude about anything that really, really matters to you. I want you to picture a situation in which you are with this person that you don’t like, perhaps don’t respect, don’t value. And I’d like you to imagine that a bad guy has come into the room and has announced that one of you is going to die that day. 
            I know this sounds ridiculous. But the fact is that this isn’t so far off from what Jesus was faced with. The people around Jesus were, both literally and metaphorically, dying. Their lives were lives of deep struggle. And there was a great schism: some were caught up in a legalism, they were enslaved by their understandings of their scriptures that made their lives rigid – ordered, structured, but life-less. Others were condemned for being unable to live up to those rules, being unable to bring the needed offerings, to be fully without illness or disability, or to live by a set of strict regulations that were difficult for the poorer people.  All were caught up in a cycle of sin, or I would say of oppression, which meant that they were either the oppressors - the pharisees, the legalists who were making life unbearable for the rest, or the oppressed - all those considered “unclean” which included anyone who was injured, anyone who had a disability or infirmity, Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, women, children, and those too poor to pay the legal sacrifices that were required. 
       Some played both roles in different ways. And in those roles of oppressor or oppressed, the people around Jesus were not living. Jesus saw this, and was willing to die in his efforts to bring a different message, to bring life to all involved: confronting the legalism, lifting up the oppressed and hurting. Only this witness, this stand so strong it would die, as well as a resurrection promised and brought forth that showed they could choose a different way because even death was not something to fear: only this would prove that those paying attention did not have to follow these life-less rules, that they could live without fearing death because it too would be overcome. But the irony of it all: these very people, these people whom Jesus was trying to save were the very same people who wanted Jesus to die. These same people he wanted to help, to free, were the very people yelling for his death. In this way they were Jesus’ enemies, the enemies Jesus chose to love and to care for even to death, these were the people he was trying to reach.  And he was willing to lose his life in the attempt. 
         Would you be willing to step forward and sacrifice yourself for an enemy like that?  What if the “bad guy” in my scenario was saying that he would either kill you or kill himself.  Would you choose to die, taking the chance, the risk, that the very enemy who held your life in his hands might then choose life?
        It would be hard to choose to do this.  Common responses might include, “They don’t deserve to live, while I die.”  Or “I would be leaving behind people who need me” or just very simply “I don’t want to die.” But the reality is that everyone of these responses is a sentence about fear. Saying that another doesn’t deserve to live while you die is an expression of fear that death is not as good as life, that death is a bad and scary thing. Saying that the people you would leave behind need you is an expression of fear that new life does not await those we leave behind.  And of course “I don’t want to die” is all about fear.  As a country, as a community, as a bunch of interwoven cultures, we seem to be ruled in great part by fear.  We fear to speak the truth, afraid someone will be angry, afraid someone will reject us.  We fear to do the right thing, afraid we will get hurt, afraid we will suffer or that our loved ones will.  We vote out of fear - fear about the economy, fear about people from other countries, fear that our view of the way the world should be will be changed or challenged. We go to war over fear: fear that we will be attacked or hurt, or again that our expectations of how our life should be will be challenged. Most of our news stories: people being killed because people fear them for their color, their orientation, their religion – these all start with fear. People grabbing what money they can and refusing to share with others: this is fear that there will not be “enough” for me and mine.  We fail to really live because of our fear: we fail to grasp life and take risks and meet challenges, because of our fear.  We fail to be the church: a people living in the good news, serving in the good news, because of our fear.
        The first month I was here at this church, I shared with you this story.  I share it again because I think it is so important. My first call out of seminary was to a church in AZ that was just beginning to fully explore the area of service to others. One of the ways they served the community was that they allowed an Alateen meeting, a meeting for youth who have been seriously affected by the alcoholism of other people, to take place at the church.  One night a 14 year old girl was dropped off at the church for the Alateen meeting, only to discover that she was a day early for the meeting. I found her standing in the door of the church looking lost, looking confused, looking scared. I asked her if I could help her and she said she needed a ride home. This girl lived with her single mother on the other side of Phoenix, a good 45 minute drive away, and her mother had dropped her at the church on her way to work.  The girl had expected to get a ride home with another friend who attended the meeting, but since she had come on the wrong day she now had no way to get home. I was scheduled to lead a meeting that evening, so I went into a small dinner group of church members who were just finishing their meal and asked them if one of them might be able to give the girl a ride home. Can you guess what they said?
       The response was unanimous: “That girl could be a car-thief. That girl could be a con-artist.” “That girl could be carrying a gun or a knife and just waiting for a chance to stab somebody.”
I was floored.  They hadn’t even seen this 14 year old girl, but if they had, I knew it would not have helped her because as she had piercings and tattoos and she would have, for them, only confirmed their stereotypes and reinforced their fears. I gently suggested that this might be an opportunity to help this girl have a new understanding of what it might mean to be part of a Christian community. But was greeted with the response, “God didn’t call us to be stupid.”
       No, God doesn’t call us to be stupid. But God does call us to put love above our fears.  While we are also invited to use our brains and all of our skills to find ways that we might love ourselves and our neighbors fully, God also calls us to refuse to allow fear to make our decisions for us. When there is a choice between acting out of love and acting out of fear we are always, always to choose love. In those moments, God calls us to take risks knowing, absolutely, that they are risks, and believing that those risks - the risks we take to care for our friend, for our neighbor, for our enemies, are none the less the only things in our life worth doing well.
        Jesus came to free us from our enslavement to fear, to free us to really, really be able to choose life. But that remains the challenge. To believe to the point of being free from our fear, and free therefore to choose faith, to choose life.
      That is exactly the story that we heard in the first passage that was read for today. Peter and John had moved out of and beyond fear. They stood before their enemies: the people who had imprisoned them and who now held their lives in their hands. But they were so freed by their witness of resurrection that they could speak the truth to these powerful enemies: to speak truth that might help these imprisoning people to learn and live and grow, even while it put their own lives at risk. Peter and John had experienced a risen Christ and they knew from that experience that death is nothing to be feared. Death will be overcome: it had been overcome. And because of that, they were freed, completely freed, to speak their truth, to love their enemies, to give and give all of who they were and to fear nothing. They were able even to choose to die for their enemies, to follow in Jesus’ footsteps completely because they were unafraid. As it happened, they were not killed after speaking the truth. But they could have been. Still, they still chose to live, fully and unafraid, risking speaking the truth.
I’m not saying that this kind of belief is easy. I also recognize, again, as our scriptures tell us, that faith itself is a gift. But I think that’s the gift we need to pray for most fervently.  Because without that faith, we live in fear. And if we live in fear, we fail to really live at all.