Lent 2 | New perceptions in familiar places: Darkness

 

Texts: John 3:1-10, Genesis 12:1-4

 

One of the advantages of having a sanctuary with very little natural light is that we can make it unnaturally dark in broad daylight.  It can actually get quite a bit darker than this, but we decided to make it a little more user friendly for kids who like to draw or anyone who needs to move around.

It’s dark, (ish), because we are dealing with a text containing a conversation that happened in darkness.  In John chapter three, we are introduced to Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, who came to Jesus by night to ask him questions.  That “by night” part is fairly easy to miss and might not seem all that important.  But John’s is a highly symbolic gospel, and giving these kinds of details is one of the ways he shapes the meaning of these stories.  You may call to mind certain conversations you’ve had in the late evening and night hours, and how the tone and the content differed from daytime conversation.

Knowing that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and that he comes to Jesus “by night” means he already has two strikes against him.  Even though Pharisees shared much in common with the Jesus movement, they are one of Jesus’ chief opponents in the gospels.  Nicodemus is one of them, even a leader.  And in the realm of spiritual symbolism, “night” and darkness aren’t exactly known for their positive connotations.  Psalm 27 declares, “The Lord is my light, and salvation, whom shall I fear?”

If Nicodemus doesn’t have anything to hide, why not speak with Jesus in the light of day?  Who should he fear?  The fact that Nicodemus doesn’t seem to quite get anything Jesus is saying seems to further his identity as a not-quite disciple.

When I got together with the group of people presenting the scriptures during Lent to discuss the passages, Berit J. brought up something related to Nicodemus that I hadn’t been aware of.  During the 16th century, when the Reformers were making their critiques of the Catholic church, there were people who sympathized with the Protestant churches but chose to remain in the Roman Catholic church.  They were called Nicodemites.  A full conversion could have included moving away from a territory, separating from family, even risking one’s life.  So they stayed within the mother church, some of them trying to make small reforms from within.  John Calvin especially had it out for the Nicodemites and wrote and spoke against those who would privately believe one thing but not stand up for it publicly.

Since we are inheritors of the Radical Reformation, those who openly critiqued the Catholic church and the Reformers, we might also be inclined to set ourselves against those Nicodemites, and maybe Nicodemus himself.

But I’d like to invite us to take a sympathetic look at Nicodemus as one who journeyed into the darkness with Jesus and eventually journeyed through the darkness with Jesus.

John’s gospel is the only place Nicodemus shows up in the Bible, and we meet him on three different occasions.

We don’t know what motivated him to initiate this first contact with Jesus at night, but it’s fairly safe to say that if he had the intention of picking a verbal fight and trying to win an argument, he would have brought a few of his friends with him, as so often happened with the Pharisees.  The fact that he came alone speaks to other motivations.  That, and the cover of darkness, also highlight that he most likely didn’t want anyone else to know what he was doing, perhaps especially those friends of his.  Nicodemus was being a Nicodemite.

He is a trained, educated religious leader, but he is also a seeker.  He refers to Jesus as Teacher.  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  After these words of greeting, Nicodemus has nothing but questions.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born again?”  “How can these things be?”

Jesus is not exactly helping him out with concrete language.  “You must be born from above, born again.”  “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”  “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

It is dark, and Jesus is offering no easy way into the light.  No set, defined, clear path to follow toward this Kingdom of God Jesus has been speaking of.  In fact, being born of Spirit, Jesus says, makes life all the more unpredictable.  If you yield to the Spirit it is like yielding to the wind.  You don’t know where you’ll be going next, or what will blow your way.  Almost as if you’re walking blind, in the darkness.

For this well-trained leader, these are new thoughts.

The words from Jesus hang in the night air, “Born anew,” “Spirit,” “Wind,”along with that final question from Nicodemus:  “How can these things be?”

The conversation is soon over, and the gospel shifts focus, and we don’t meet up again with Nicodemus until four chapters later, in 7:45-52, when this Galilean named Jesus is causing some trouble in Jerusalem because of his teachings.  John tells it this way:  “The guards returned to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked, ‘Why didn’t you arrest him?’  The guards answered, ‘No one has ever spoken the way he does.’   The Pharisees replied, ‘Have you too been deceived?  Have any of the leaders believed in him? Has any Pharisee?  No, only this crowd, which doesn’t know the Law. And they are under God’s curse!’  Nicodemus, who was one of them and had come to Jesus earlier, said, ‘Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?’   They answered him, ‘You are not from Galilee too, are you?’”

In other words, “You’re not sticking up for this guy, are you Nicodemus?”  Another question, unresolved.

If you’ve been reading denominational news you know that these are difficult times for Mennonite Church USA.  The credentialing of an openly lesbian pastor in Colorado has resurfaced some of the divisions within the church.  Several of us who are a part of this congregation who are ordained signed a letter to denominational leadership a couple months back asking that there be space in the church for those of us who are ready to bless and be blessed by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons who wish to marry and minister in the church.   There were over 150 signers and, of course, it would always be nice if there were more, but living with Nicodemus this week has given me more understanding for those who may sympathize with this perspective but who may not be as free to speak as publicly as others of us on this matter – the Nicodemites in the era of the LGBT debates.  The Nicodemus of the first encounter with Jesus is confronted with new ideas of what it means to be a spiritual person.  The Nicodemus of the second mention in John stays within the framework of his group, but appeals to its best self – even the law of the Pharisees doesn’t judge someone before hearing from her and learning about her, right?  It’s not an easy statement to make surrounded by a seemingly unanimous group against him, but Nicodemus speaks up.  In that moment, he yields, if even just a little, to the wind, and the Spirit speaks a word through him.  Where could the wind be blowing next?  We’re all on a journey in the dark.

The Genesis passage for today testifies that it is never too late to start a journey, whatever that journey may be.  Abram is 75 years old, making Sarai 66, and I’m not saying that’s really old, I’m just saying it’s not exactly young.  They hear a word from God, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”  We can read this as either a journey on foot or a journey of the soul, or both.  Though you are no longer young, leave the familiar, even though you have no idea where you are going, though you will be walking in the dark, go, and you will be a blessing.

They head out, destination unknown, and this act of obedience, this trek, is the hinge of history that leads to the creation of the Jewish people.

This week I saw a Facebook post from an acquaintance, more like a mini essay, that was not meant to have anything to do with these lectionary passages, but connects, and I want to share it.  It is from Richard Kauffman, who has spent much of his professional life in church publishing, so he has a knack for good writing.  He has given me permission to share it, and this is what he wrote:

“Years ago when we lived in Scottdale, PA we had a rather large yard. The kids in the neighborhood would convene in our yard with our kids and play whatever sport was in season. In the summer they wore base paths in the lawn from playing baseball. I said then, ‘We’re growing children now. We’ll grow grass later.’

“Many years have passed since then. Indeed, we’ve had lots of opportunities to grow grass…Now we live in a condo community and other people take care of the lawn.  I neither have to grow nor cut grass.

“So what are we growing now?  I guess you could say we’re growing old.  Don’t you like the figure (of speech)?  – Growing old.  Not winding down or going over the hill.  Growth signifies something natural, something that must be nurtured and attended to.  We have to work at it.  In my old age I hope to keep growing.  That’s both a challenging and a pleasant thought, wouldn’t you say?”  (Richard A. Kauffman, 3/11/14 FB status post)

Another question.

In research this week, it appears that even though John Calvin abhorred the Nicodemites, he didn’t like the term, because Calvin had a rather high view of Nicodemus.  Calvin once wrote: “Here then is the true way of Nicodemising. It is to grow stronger with time, advancing daily to the glory of God.” (Come Out From Among Them: Anti-Nicodemite Writings of John Calvin p. 119).

The gospel of John does not cover a long enough span of time for Nicodemus to grow old, but it does allow us to meet Nicodemus for a third and final time.  Jesus has just been crucified under the command of Pilate and is now dead on that Roman instrument of capital punishment and torture, the cross.  Toward the end of chapter 19, John writes:: “After this Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate if he could take away the body of Jesus.  Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one because he feared the Jewish authorities. Pilate gave him permission, so he came and took the body away.  Nicodemus, the one who at first had come to Jesus at night, was there too. He brought a mixture of myrrh and aloe.  Following Jewish burial customs, they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it, with the spices, in linen cloths.  There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.  Because it was the Jewish Preparation Day and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus in it.”

What began as an invitation into the symbolic world of rebirth and wind and Spirit, what continued as being the only voice in a hostile group to speak up for a hated man, continues again a little further down the road.  All of those official disciples – Peter, Andrew, James, and the crew – have fled and are nowhere to be found, for fear that they will meet the same fate as their master.  And so Nicodemus takes one more step forward in the darkness, and joins one who himself had been a secret disciple, to perform this risky but necessary and holy act of caring for a bruised and tormented body.  He and Joseph of Arimathea would have grasped and carried this body, held it, felt its dead weight, laid it down on level place, and begun the work of touching the spices to the arms, to the legs, to the face.  Gently but firmly wrapping the linens, according to the burial customs of their people.  Jesus’ people.  How long did it take?  Who was watching?  Were they looking over their back the whole time or had they stopped caring what others thought?  They laid him in his tomb and left the scene.  Did they feel love, relief, or a heavier kind of darkness than they’d ever known?

I won’t give the spoiler here at the end, we’ll save that for Easter, but after they leave the very next verse says this, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdelene came to the tomb…”

While it was still dark…

 

 

Advertisements

Lent 1 | New perceptions in familiar place: Wilderness

Texts: Genesis 2:7-9; 15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

The wilderness is a real place in the physical landscape, and a reality of the soul.

If you’ve ever visited a place considered wilderness, you most likely have some distinct memory of that place:  The towering trees of an old growth forest; the long expanses of sands in a desert; the almost unfathomable layers of geological history in the faces of rock formations.  The wilderness has a way of confronting the human ego and putting our small lives in perspective.  The wilderness is so different than our human shaped environment.  The wilderness is wild.  The wilderness can be dangerous.

If you have ever been in a wilderness of the soul, it too has no doubt left its mark.  A wilderness time of life can be highly disorienting.  One can feel overwhelmed by the immensity of what one does not comprehend and cannot control.  One might not feel safe or secure and certainly not savvy for finding the way through.  This kind of wilderness may be a place you have been before.  You may be in the wilderness right now.

Experiences of wilderness are woven throughout scripture, and Lent is intentionally structured to be a wilderness – like the 40 years of the Israelites and the 40 days of Jesus after his baptism.  The season of Lent spans from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, 40 days, not including Sundays, which are meant to be observed as little Easters, signs of resurrection, within the context of wilderness.

Lent is a built in feature of our liturgical calendar such that every year, if you are so inclined to keep hanging around the church, you will be invited back into the wilderness.  You will be reminded and invited to again visit this geography of the soul.  And, if you have already been dwelling in the wilderness and need no reminder of its existence, you will be reminded that you are not alone, you are accompanied by a community, and the church universal, practicing wilderness living.  As with Jesus at the end of his wilderness time, there are angels, seen and unseen, caring for us.

If I were to personally choose the kind of wilderness I’d like to hang out in, I think I’d choose something close to the wilderness of Genesis 2.  It’s kind of a wilderness.  Genesis prefers to call it a garden, planted by the very hand of God.  But for the human being placed there, it’s a place of wildness, and it’s up to the humans to navigate their way through it, and to begin to cultivate it and, in the process, to cultivate themselves.

In this primordial garden/wilderness, there are many trees, but two are in a species of their own:  the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Any tree is fair game for food, except for one.  The tree of knowledge is explicitly off limits.

We might as well say here that when we are in the early chapters of Genesis we are in the world of Hebrew myth.  “Myth” is a word that has not fared well in the last several hundred years.  In our rational/scientific mentality, it has come to be synonymous with “not true.”  To say, “That’s a myth,” is to say, “that’s something many people believe to be true but is actually verifiably false.”  Myths are meant to be busted.

If this is one of the definitions “myth” needs to have in our time, then so be it – as long as we can also retain the more ancient notion of myth.  When we are dealing with biblical myth and myths of other cultures, the appropriate question to ask is not “Did it really happen?” at some specific place at a particular point in time.  What makes a myth true and powerful is not whether or not it describes a one time event, but whether or not it illuminates a particular aspect of reality that is true throughout time.

There’s an Iroquois story about how death came to be:  The Great Spirit spoke to the first people and gave them a choice – they could either have immortality, or they could have children.  All of the people huddled together and unanimously decided that they would rather have children.  And so it have been.  (Told HERE, scroll down, in the 6th video)

Did it really happen?  But is it true?

It gets at the heart of an ongoing reality we continue to experience.

These two trees of Genesis are one of the ways our Scriptures set up the human condition.  I have a dream still in its beginning stages of designing an overnight retreat in the forests of Southern Ohio and using the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil as a framework for pondering our place in the biosphere.  It would have something to do with the Tree of Life having received a new lease on life outside the realm of myth when Charles Darwin found it to be a perfect metaphor for his theory of the origin of the species by means of natural selection.  The reimagined Tree of Life is composed of all life forms that have ever existed, branching off in different families and species, some with dead ends and some still thriving.  How healthy is the Tree of Life and how are we learning to honor it, and enjoy it?  It seems like the kind of conversation that should happen in a forest.

After Genesis, the Tree of Life disappears from the biblical narrative until the very, very end, the last chapter of the book of Revelation, when it shows up again in the redeemed earth, the New Jerusalem, with the river of life flowing through it.  Revelation says, “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” (Revelation 22:2).  Healed by the tree of life.

 

Our relationship to the Tree of life is complicated by our having eaten from that other tree –  the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.  The presence of this tree in the Garden of Eden provokes a couple questions worth asking.  First of all, what’s so bad about having knowledge of good and evil?  This sounds like an important kind of knowledge to have, perhaps a knowledge that marks the transition from animal to human consciousness.

One of the possible interpretations of this phrase is that it presents a pair of opposites in order to mean that if you know those, you also know everything in between.  To have knowledge of the good and the evil is to know everything.  This would be the reverse of the expression of not knowing your right hand from you left hand.  If you don’t know your right from your left, you don’t know anything.  If you know the good and the evil, you know everything.

In Genesis God doesn’t want humans to eat this fruit.  If you do, God says, “the day that you eat of it, you will die.”  Ah, not true, says the clever serpent.  You won’t die, your eyes will be open.  You’ll be like a god, knowing good from evil.  Knowing, everything?  It looks really good, it tastes really good, and the woman and the man eat it, and, their eyes are opened.  They don’t die that day.  So who told the truth, God, or the serpent?  Maybe both, in some way.  The humans get their desired knowledge, but become alienated from the wilderness garden, from themselves, from God, a certain kind of death to be sure.

Another question worth asking of this story is Why would God create this tree that we’re not allowed to eat from, placing it in the center of the garden?  It sounds kind of like baking a really tasty dessert, putting it in the middle of the table, and telling your kids not to eat it.  I’m pretty sure this would not work at all.  It didn’t work for God either.

It’s strange, but is it true? Do we find ourselves in a world in which we actually have options of doing things that might be harmful to ourselves and others?  Just because we can eat the fruit, should we?  Just because we have enough knowledge to do something, should we do it?  Just because we can build the bomb, Just because we can fly the drone, Just because we can frack the gas, Should we?  Or, much more ambiguously, Just because we can alter and patent the gene, just because we can create artificial intelligence, make and buy lots of stuff, Should we?  I don’t know.  Probably Yes in some cases, no in other cases.  Congratulations to us.  We have great knowledge, and with it, great power.  We are Homo sapiens sapiens.  Clever, clever humans.

But in the wilderness, we confront our vulnerability.  We cannot help but be humbled.  We cannot help but pay attention to these larger forces around us.  In the wilderness we receive the invitation to tune our souls with the larger mind, metanoia.  Repentence.

The wilderness is a real place in the physical landscape.  It is also a reality of the soul.

It is this physical and soul journey into the wilderness that Jesus makes after his baptism but before the beginning of his ministry.  It is the Spirit who drives him there, Matthew says, and it is the devil who becomes his conversation partner during those hungry and lonely days.

Just because you can, should you?

Turn stones into bread.  Think of all the hungry people you could feed.

Believe you’re immortal and untouchable to suffering and throw yourself off a great height.  Surely God won’t let you get hurt.

You see this world?  It could all be yours.

John’s gospel does not include the story of the temptations in the wilderness after Jesus’ baptism, but it does include this story.  In his version of the feeding of the five thousand, after the hungry crowds eat their fill from the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, after the disciples gather up the twelve baskets, bread for everyone with plenty left over, it says this: “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is come into the world.’  When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”

What does it mean that we call Messiah, Lord, and Savior, a figure who refused to live out those titles as they have always been imagined and hoped for by us?  Who refused the devil’s, and the people’s enticing offers, and instead presented us with a whole different model of what it means to be human.

What does it mean that what Jesus wanted us to remember about him was not that he turned stones into bread, or even fed a large hungry crowd with a few initial scraps of food?  But what he wanted us to remember about him in relation to bread, was what he offered his disciples during the final meal together.  This bread is my body, this wine is my blood.  Whenever you gather at table, remember me.  Rather than turn stones into bread, Jesus invested his spiritual energies into turning himself into bread.   Rather than simply hand out bread to people, a pretty heroic solution, he taught people to share their bread among themselves, which can get you in trouble.

We have the knowledge and the technologies to make bread for lots of people.  It’s a good thing, because there’re a lot of people who need bread.  Seven billion and counting, I believe.  But the harder task, and one of the major tasks of Lent, is to ourselves become bread.  To do the kind of soul work such that our lives themselves become a source of life in this world.  We are very clever, and there is no going back to life before we partook from the tree of knowledge, but that tree of life is still there, offering healing to the nations.

In the wilderness we are stripped of all our false pretensions, and we listen to the Spirit.  Our lives are available to become truly human, like Christ, and what that will look like in our time is still on its way into being.  And, by the grace of God, it is coming into being through you.  Through us.

Blessed are the Decentered – Lent 2 – 2/24/13 – Gen. 15, Luke 13:31-35

Blessed are the decentered

Hanging on the bulletin board on the door to my office is an Opus cartoon from several years ago.  Maybe some of you have seen it.  It is set outside, on a patch of grass, with Opus and his young friends Oliver, Michael and Milo sitting under a night sky.  After Opus looks at the reader and says, “I love these summer evening reality checks from Oliver,” it’s Oliver, the intellectual of the bunch, who does most of the talking.  Sitting by his telescope, Oliver says, “Hold out a speck of sand at arm’s length…”  As the picture moves in tighter and tighter on the grain of sand he is holding up, and the piece of the night sky and outer space that lays beyond it Oliver says, “That’s  the portion of the night sky at which they pointed the Hubble telescope for a week.  It was there – deep within the dot of dark nothingness ten billion light years distant – that they found the unexpected:  Galaxies!  Thousands!  Thousands!  …with billions of stars…and trillions of new worlds.  And beyond these…more!”

Opus, Hubble deep space

And then, back to Oliver and company under the vast, luminous canopy, he continues, “All in the space of a single grain of sand, on the vast beach of the cosmos.”  Then with Oliver, facing his friends, “which nicely frames the question humanity has been asking for millennia.”  To which Michael replies, “What question?”

Oliver, looking back up with his hands open, “What’s the center of it all?”

To this question Michael and Milo, looking back at Oliver, have the same thought bubble, “Me.”

And Opus’ thought bubble, smiling as he reclines on the ground and looking up at the sky, “Me, baby.”

Blessed are the decentered.

“After these things the word of the Holy One came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.  But Abram said, ‘O Lord, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus.’  And Abram said, “you have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’  But the word of the Holy One came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’  God brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’  Then God said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’  And Abram believed the Holy One; and the Holy One reckoned it to him as righteousness.

In this Genesis 15 passage, we read of an impossible promise given to a rightfully suspicious recipient.  After the promise is given and doubt is expressed, a guided walk outside under the night sky becomes an occasion of belief for Abram; or, another way of translating that same word, an occasion of trust.  “And Abram trusted in the Lord.”

What he is believing and trusting, is that he, an elderly man, and his wife, an elderly woman will have a child together, an issue from their own bodies.  It’s probably impossible for us to imagine just how central having an heir was.  This isn’t just about passing on the flocks and herds, but is connected even to one’s life going on beyond one’s death, rather than being the end of the line.  A son means that their lineage will not end, they will live on in the life of their child, who will inherit the good things they have been given in their lifetime.  Not only will this come to pass, but they will be the ancestors of a great nation, who will number as many as the stars in the sky.

We’re not told why Abram believed, and just what it was about this night of stargazing that caused him to trust God.  So, whenever there is this kind of gap of explanation, we have some freedom of imagination in interpretation, even if it is a modern reading of an ancient story.

Cosmologists like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have helped popularize the discovery that stars are the engines of the creation of the elements that make up the universe.  Originally composed almost entirely of hydrogen, the most basic element, the core of each star is a furnace of transformation, as each star fuses together hydrogen to form helium, and then proceeds to produce the higher elements through fusion and supernovae explosion.  The atoms of our bodies, these cosmosogists tell us, with scientific rigor and poetic eloquence, are the issue of stars, formed in and given by stars through their living and dying, made available to us for our being.  In other words, the stars are our ancestors, and their lineage continues through us, their children.  This has come to pass through no doing of our own.  It is a gift, a sign, from impossibly far away worlds.

Last week, before giving their first fruits, the Israelites recited, “A wandering Arimean was my ancestor.”  This week, a fiery ball of hydrogen was my ancestor.

Abram looks up into the night sky and relaxes into the realization that he is not the center of it all.  He gazes, still childless, at his ancestors, and trusts, somehow, that he himself will be an ancestor, through the marvelous, impossible, grace of God.

Blessed are the decentered.

Sing The Story 31 “Jesus be the Center”  vv. 1,2

Blessed are the decentered.

This past week I leafed through a book called Mighty Giants: An American Chestnut AnthologyIt tells the story of the massive, beautiful, and remarkably useful American Chestnut tree; from its prominence in the eastern US, through its devastation at the beginning of the 20th century by an Asian blight that wiped out an estimated 4 billion chestnut trees – pretty much all of them – to its potential resurrection through generations of careful crossbreeding with resistant strands of chestnut.

The American Chestnut has been called “the perfect tree” because of its combination of traits.  It was massive, up to 100 feet tall.  It was beautiful, turning the Appalachian mountains snow white in the spring with its flowers.  Its fruit was prolific, sweet, and nutritious, for wildlife and for humans who wanted to roast them over an open fire.  It was shade tolerant and fast growing.  Its wood was strong, but not as heavy as oak.  Straight grained to make it easy to split.  And it was highly rot resistant.  It was the wealth and key livelihood of Appalachia.  And it’s gone from the landscape because of a little bark fungus from another place, and it’s very sad.

But this is an ongoing story, and it’s not just the story of a tree.  It’s a story of people who love the tree and generations of these people who have been working from the time of the blight to restore this American wonder.  It’s about seeds, and it’s about saving and planting seeds and crossbreeding with Asian chestnut trees which are much smaller, but blight resistant.  Currently I believe they have worked up to trees that are 15/16’s American chestnut, with the 1/16th Asian variety hopefully able to hold off the blight.  In 2005 President George W. Bush planted one of those hybrid chestnut trees on the lawn of the White House.  Go George!

Chestnut trees grow fast, but this is the work of generations, with the original generation knowing they would never see the hoped for outcome of their work.  Human years are to trees sort of like dog years are to humans.

The center of hope lies not in any single human lifetime.

Blessed are the decentered.

The Hebrew word for offspring used by Abram and God- “what will you give me, for you have given me no offspring,” and “Count the stars, if you are able to count them.  So shall your offspring be.” – this word is the word for seed.  Count the stars, so shall your seed be.  It’s a wonderful biblical word, and was one of the choice metaphors Jesus used over and over again to illuminate that ever-present and luminous reality he called “the kingdom of God.”  It’s like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, which grows up for birds to perch in its branches.  It’s like seed that a sewer went out and flung onto a field, landing on different types of soil.  It’s like seed planted in a field which also contained weeds, and the farmer decided to have them grow up together until harvest time.

Abram believed the promise, but he and Sara did not live long enough to see its fulfillment.  They lived long enough to have their son, Isaac, but they didn’t live long enough to see anything resembling a great nation as plentiful as the stars.  There’s a wisdom and a humility in this.  There’s a rearranging of life priorities that comes with this.  There’s a decentering of ourselves and a recentering on the ongoing story of God that happens when we take proper inventory of the span of a life, and the nature of a seed.

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
( quoted by Martin E. Marty, University of Chicago Chronicle, Feb. 20, 1997).

Hope, faith, love, forgiveness.

Blessed are the decentered.

Sing The Story 31 “Jesus be the Center”  vv. 1,3

Being decentered does not just involve an intellectual re-arranging of our map of time and the universe.  We sing “Jesus, be the Center” as a way of proclaiming a whole way of being in the world as central to who we are.  Or, at least, who we seek to become.  For us Jesus is that perfect icon of the Christ reality, the cosmic Christ of the letter to the Colossians who is the first principle of creation, knocking us off center and introducing us to the surprising and liberating center of Being Itself, around which we all revolve.

Today’s passage from Luke messes with our map of the world right off the bat as it is some Pharisees, the supposed archrivals of Jesus, who come to him with a warning.  “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”  Might this small contingent of Pharisees be seeking to protect Jesus from harm?   We are told nothing about their motives, and are confronted with the possibility that supposed enemies can become allies.

Blessed are the decentered.

Jesus is aggressive, and even sarcastic.  “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day, I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”  There’s the sarcasm.  The holy center of the world for his people, Jerusalem, is the place where it’s most dangerous to actually speak the truth, as prophets are known to do.

Jesus has called one of the central political leaders of his time a fox, and now the aggression softens to lament and compassion.  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”  Herod the fox and Jesus the hen.  And, despite the warnings, the hen is walking right into the foxhouse.

God has said to Abram, “Do not be afraid, for I am your shield.”  The shield, as it turns out, is not some kind of thick steel armor which is guaranteed to protect from all injury and harm.  The divine shield, of which Jesus saw himself as an agent, is more like the full and feathery embrace of a mother hen’s wing over her chicks.  Protective, to be sure, but vulnerable.  Defined more by love than by brute strength.  It gives itself away, like a star, like a seed.  It is generative and powerful.  It can do impossible things.  Anything’s possible, if you give it enough time.  How long will it take for the hen to tame the fox?

We who are propelled through the vastness of space under the protective shield of our planet’s precious atmosphere, and the Christ-mother-hen-wing, are free to be decentered.

Blessed are the decentered.

Losing Life to Save It – 3/4/12 – Genesis 17, Mark 8:27-38

Throughout Lent I’m meeting with a small group from the congregation each Sunday morning to discuss the lectionary readings for the following week and then allowing sermons to reflect the conversation that happens during that time.  If you would like to be a part of one of these groups just let me know.  We took a break this morning because next week we’ll have Trevor Bechtel as a guest speaker.  He’s a theology professor at Bluffton University, a couple hours up the road on I-75.  Last week the group was Carol Lehman, Connie Briggs, Greg Koop, Rod Stucky, and Judy Vander Henst, and so this flows out of that conversation around the Genesis and Mark passages.

I want to start with a comment that came out toward the end of our hour together.  It was made after reading over the part in Mark when Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

The comment that was made was: Why would anyone want to do this?!

This is a really backwards kind of sales pitch that Jesus is giving here for any would-be followers.  When’s the last time you encountered this kind of promo message from someone trying to get you to sign on to their brand or their program?  Deny yourself.  Become like one who carries their own cross beam on the way to their execution.  If you try and save your life, your life will account for nothing.  If you want to save your life, give it away.  This is going to cost you everything.

The comment drew some laughs in the group, but there was agreement that this is heavy stuff.  It’s a hard teaching.  The word “burdensome” was even mentioned.

Our Lenten theme is “where do I sign?” as if we might be eager and anxious to sign on to what’s being offered us.

One of the observations of the group was that the two main texts, Genesis and Mark, seem to be flipped in their emphasis.  We anticipate that the Old Testament reading will be the more complicated, the harder to make sense of, the more difficult portrayal of god – law and judgment and all that.  But in this case it is the gospel that is giving the hard words:  Jesus rebuking Peter, this path of costly discipleship that includes suffering.  The Genesis passage of God’s words to Abraham is full of compassion, full of grace, and good news.

We began in Genesis and before getting to the good news, had to confront a few of those harder to make sense parts of the story.  The first comment of our time together dealt with that very first line.  “When Abram was ninety-nine years old…”  It’s a story about having a child, about biological reproduction, and we are told that the soon-to-be expectant father is a 99 year old.  The mother, Sarah, we later learn, is 90.  And so there was some wondering about that.  Perhaps these numbers are just ways of saying that they were very old for being of child-bearing age, sort of like our expression of something being a million miles away being a way of saying that something is very far away.  99 and 90 years old.  Is the point that we are supposed to believe that they are an exact particular age, or are we supposed to see that this aging couple is bordering on the edge of losing the ability to do something that they long for?  To have a child together.  The window of opportunity has been closing before their eyes, but now, in breaks a word of hope.

Since this was the very first comment, and since it dealt with the very first phrase of the first passage that we looked at, it makes me wonder how much of an obstacle these kinds of situations can be for us in our reading of the Bible.  How much of a hang up is a 90 year old expectant mother to our modern consciousness and how does that influence the way we hear the rest of the story?  Do we stop taking the story seriously, or is there a way to keep listening while taking a more poetic/mythic approach to what we’re reading, even though the cultural context feels, at times, a million miles away?

Earlier, Noah is given a covenant on behalf of all living creatures.  God will not destroy the earth with a flood, and Noah and his wife and their children are to be fruitful and multiply.  But now the scope of the story narrows down to one couple for whom being fruitful and multiplying has been a biological impossibility.  This is the chosen couple.  An impossible promise in an impossible situation leads to new identities; changes Abram into Abraham, the father of many nations.  Sarai becomes Sarah.  And Isaac is born.  And from there, the story of the people of Israel, unfolds.  An impossible story all the way through.  Where youngest brothers get the inheritance, slaves become free, and the words of prophets are held in higher regard than the decrees of kings.

We recognize this as good news, a beautiful story full of hope, a story we continue to live out, but 4000 years later, we also recognize that chosenness, and the notion of being a chosen people, has a shaky track record.  It’s one thing when it is claimed by the marginal – sojourners like Abraham and Sara, Hebrew slaves, and Jewish exiles and early Christians living in the empire, on the fringes.  It’s another thing when the notion of choseness gets in the hands of those with power.

I think of that 19th century painting called “The spirit of the Frontier” that pictures so blatantly the notion of Manifest Destiny in our country.  In the center of the painting is the goddess-like figure of Columbia, a looming presence, representing the growth of this new nation.  She is marching West, holding a book in one hand – literacy, and with the other hand stringing up a telegraph wire – communications technology.  At her feet, moving in the same direction, are the white settlers in their caravans and close behind her is a train.  Beside her are farmers who have begun chopping down trees, building houses and working the soil.  To the east and all around her it is light, and she marches into the darkness of the West.  Fleeing into the shadows of the dark are the Native Americans and the bison.  The spirit of the frontier.  Manifest Destiny.

It is an entire worldview encapsulated in one picture, one with a tremendous influence in our own history, connected with this notion of choseness.  And it has been devastating for those not considered a part this chosen narrative.

And so our group wondered about Ishmael.  Abraham’s son through Hagar, already a teenages at the time of this impossible promise, who is not a part of this covenantal line.  It is worth noting that after Abraham asks that Ishmael would find favor in God’s sight, God says, in Genesis 17:20, “As for Ishmael, I have heeded you. I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation.”  It is Muslims who trace their ancestry back through Ishmael.

One wonders if all peoples can claim the identity of chosenness in some way, each chosen to fulfill a unique part of this grand story of the human race.  Chosen, not to conquer with force, but to be a blessing, those initial words given to Abraham back in Genesis 12 – “I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing.”  The purpose of being chosen is to be a blessing.

Given Jesus’ words to the crowd – that if you want to follow him you must surrender your life, one wonders just how eager one might want to be about claiming chosenness.

One of dynamics of having these Bible studies is that things can take an unexpected turn and we can end up focusing on things that I wouldn’t catch if I were just looking at the texts on my own.  A subject appears to be primary which wasn’t within view before.  That happened with this group.  As we got into the Mark passage an observation was made that seemed to strike a chord with the group.  The end of this Mark passage includes some quite fearful words.  The bearing of the cross and losing your soul are part of this, but the other part is “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man, the Human One, will also be ashamed.”  Being ashamed, and being shamed.  I didn’t check to confirm this with everyone present, but it was clear that this was the most emotionally charged part of the readings for several in the circle.

There’s something about that idea of being ashamed of Jesus and his words that we can all relate to in some ways.  Of not speaking up when we should.  Of failing to be a light, or just choosing not to identity Christian in a certain social setting.  Part of what the group mentioned was a value of not wanting to offend anyone or be respectful of other traditions.  But we still think we might be culpable in being ashamed when we shouldn’t be, and the thought of Jesus in turn being ashamed of us was hard to bear.

So I’m going to out Greg Koop, with his permission, because he told a little personal story to illustrate this, which I think is just perfect.  One of things these verses called to mind for him had to do with a green T-shirt that he purchased at a Salvation Army store in Harlingen, Texas.  We’re not quite sure why he was in Harlingen, Texas, maybe for a youth retreat, or something like that, but he needed, or wanted, a green T-shirt at the time and found one at this Salvation Army.  On the front it said, “The great ‘dillo awakening” which he thought was kind of funny and quirky, and on the back it had three very large crosses, which, when you think about it, is kind of a quirky thing to have on the back of a shirt with that kind of front.  And it fit, and it served its purpose at the time, but then he commented that whenever he would be reaching for a T-shirt in his closet and see that one, he would hesitate to put it on.

So, while it’s kind of fun to wear something that implies that you’re a part of some kind of armadillo enlightenment, it’s a little more tricky when you keep in mind the back of the T-shirt and you think Hmmm.  Do I really want to be associated with that?  Not quite sure of what that means to people who might see it and what they’ll identify you with.  So what all is behind this hesitation?

Now, for those of you who didn’t know, Greg’s  PhD work includes looking at why people make the kinds of decisions they do, so he can probably answer this question better than most of us.  We didn’t get a chance to go real far into this as a group, but I’m going to suggest another dynamic that might be behind this.  Something that actually shows up a little earlier in the Mark passage.

Jesus has asked his disciples who the people say that he is.  They have answered that some say John the Baptist, other Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets.  Jesus asks them who they say he is.  And Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.”  Bold, unashamed Peter, voices Jesus’ identity, and gets the answer right.  And then, quite surprisingly, rather than encouraging Peter to get the word out about him being the Messiah, Jesus’ response is that he “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”  And then, now that this Messiah, Christ, identity has been named, the very next thing we read is, “Then Jesus began to teach them that the Human One, must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…and be killed, and after three days rise again.”  Jesus foregoes the title of Messiah – a title in Mark’s time that would have certain kinds of connotations, cultural baggage we might say, and Jesus renames himself the Human One, and describes just what the faithful Human Being is going to experience.  What’s happening here, and what Peter has such trouble accepting, is a redefinition of our understanding of Messiah, of who Christ is, and what it means to be Human.

Had Peter and the disciples just gone around blurting out that Jesus is the Messiah, it most likely would have reinforced people’s preconceived notions of what a Messiah was to be.  But they are to be silent, forget about having the right title, and allow the Human One to redefine the path of faithfulness, which includes suffering love, denying oneself, finding one’s life by giving it away.

So, I’m also wondering if one of our reasons for being ashamed, for being silent and not claiming this Christian identity in certain circumstances, is that we are painfully aware of the cultural baggage that such a name carries in society, and we do not want to be associated.  We are aware of the track record of chosenness, and how it has not meant a call to be blessing to all peoples.  We are aware of the ways that God and country have been conflated together into civil religion.  We are aware of how the name of Jesus can get used like a brand name, which involves very little sacrifice or transformation on our parts, and we don’t wish to wear that logo on our T-shirt.  We’re weary.

Maybe that’s letting ourselves off too easy in justifying why we feel ashamed at times.  But there is a very hard part remaining.

It seems that part of the calling for us who bear the name of Christ – Christians – meaning ‘little Christs’ – is one of redefinition, that very same movement that Jesus is initiating with his disciples.  Of claiming the words of the Human One as true, and walking in the disciple way, which is not the path of triumphalism, but the path of self-giving love.

This is not an easy path because it involves redefinition within our very souls of what is valuable, of what is worth living for, of what is worth spending our energy for.  If you try and protect your soul, you can lose it.  If you give your soul over to the Human One, who teaches us how to be human beings, you will gain a new life.

We’re challenged by these words.  It seems a bit counter-intuitive that anyone would want to follow such a strange and difficult path and claim such an identity.  Christ calls us to walk the difficult path, companions with the lowly, the suffering, the marginal, those in the shadows.  And we are not ashamed.  Abram and Sarai accept their call, have their names changed, and give birth to an impossible, grace-filled human story.  We accept our new names, little Christs, and pray that we too give birth to an impossible, grace-filled human story.

A Covenant of Peace – 2/26/12 – Genesis 9, 1 Peter 3

A week ago, during the Sunday school hour, a small group of us sat together, right here in the sanctuary, and studied the scriptures for today.  1 Peter 3 and Genesis 9.  This was the trial run of what will be the norm during the season of Lent – a different group of six people each Sunday morning will be gathering around the lectionary passages for the following week – discussing, probing, poking, wondering out loud about these strange and wonderful words that make up the Bible.  I will use the sermons during Lent to share some of our collective wonderings that come out of this time, and try and draw in a few other sources as well.  Along with being great fun in and of itself, this feels like an Anabaptisty kind of thing to do, as we believe that two of the key sources for Wisdom are community and scripture.  Mix both of those together with a little Holy Spirit, and you never quite know what you’re going to get.  Whether there’s any Wisdom in these sermons during Lent will be up for you to decide.  But I’d say that we got off to a great start in that time last week, and another group met this morning to have conversation around the passages for next week.

This is an open invitation, by the way, so if you’re intrigued with this and would like to participate, just let me know and I’d love to have you involved.  It is an intuitive/personal reading of the text rather than a knowledge/scholarly reading that we are after in that time, so no previous study required.  I would like to keep it at five-six people a week, and different people each week, but there are still several weeks to go, so be in touch.

I would like to give the names of the people involved in the conversation, and after that point to just speak of things generated as things that “we” said, rather than trying to quote anybody or remember who had what idea or thought first.  It gets a bit mixed during group conversation, which, I believe, is the point.

So, this sermon emerges out of Bible study that I shared with Joe Luken, Jill Jantzen, Daniel Hershberger, John Bromels, and Cara Hummel.

We began with the Genesis 9 passage, Noah and the rainbow, and spent a fair amount of time just saying what we notice in this passage and what it made us wonder about.

We notice that this passage is about God making a covenant with humanity.  And not only with humanity, but with pretty much all the animals and the earth itself.  It is referred to as a covenant, that is the language that is used throughout, and we wondered how this is different than a promise.  If there is a difference.  It seems like there’s no backing out of a promise, but if one party breaks their side of a covenant, does that end the agreement?  There was mention of being skeptical of promises.

It feels like Noah and the humans get off easy in this covenant.  God is giving up any rights to destroying the earth.  In exchange, the humans get to eat anything they want – no more restrictions on just plants, like in the Garden of Eden, and no tree of forbidden fruit.  Too late on that one.  The humans are told to be fruitful and multiply.  So, on top of eating anything we want, we are commanded to have sex.  One of the few commandments humanity has actually carried out.  The only thing we’re not allowed to eat is flesh with blood still in it.  Not a problem.  And no murder.  These are the very basic grounds of this new covenant that God proposes.  We felt like the humans got a pretty good deal.

We also wondered about these very human attributes that are given to God in these and other scriptures.  The reason God sets the bow in the sky as the sign of the covenant is so that God will remember the covenant with the earth.  What does it mean for God to remember?  Do it mean that God could forget?  Thus the colorful sticky note in the sky about that agreement not to flood the earth ever again.  Before the flood God is sorry to have made humans because they are so violent.  God regrets having created them.  Whoops.  After the flood God seems to be sorry again, this time for having sent the flood.  8:21 – “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind; nor will I destroy every living creature as I have done.”  In 1 Peter it talks about God “waiting patiently as in the days of Noah.”  A God who remembers, who regrets, who waits patiently.  We thought that this appears to be a God who is learning, right along with the rest of universe, how to do this whole creation, community, love thing.  Like a parent whose child teaches them how to be a good parent and learn from their mistakes, God seems to be learning from us, the children of creation.  We weren’t sure how we felt about this.  It seems to take some of the divinity out of the Divine.  It is reassuring that God is always learning in the direction of love and mercy, and peace.

A bit of extra commentary on that bow in the clouds:

We are so accustomed to thinking of this in terms of a rainbow, that it’s easy to miss this as referring to a bow.  A weapon.  An instrument of war and conquest and subduing one’s enemies.  I did the word search throughout the Hebrew scriptures and the word here in Genesis is indeed the bow of war.  The word occurs 77 times – there’s lots of war in the Bible.  If you ever want to get little snapshots of the different times of conflict in the Old Testament, just do this word search and follow the bows and arrows all the way through from Genesis to the end.  It’s a good time, let me tell you.

In the ancient world there are various depictions of different deities wielding their bow with arrows as a sign of strength.  Ishtar of the Babylonians is shown standing on the back of a lion wielding her bow and arrows.    Ashur of the Assyrians draws a bow.  The Greeks pictured Apollo, among his other attributes, as having a war bow.  And, of course, if the gods have bows, it’s not long before the humans get bows.  There are numerous depictions in Egyptian art of the gods handing to the Pharaoh the weapons of war by which he conquered, the bow and arrow being the primary weapon.  The subtext of these images is Don’t mess.  I’ve got a bow and I’m not afraid to use it.

So, a bow was kind of the hip thing to have if your were an ancient deity of the Near East/Mediterranean region.  And, Elohim, the God of Noah, has his bow as well.  And it is a him at this point.  Only Elohim does a very interesting thing with his bow.  He says, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every creature that is with you, for all future generations.  I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”  After the rebellion of the humans in turning to violence against each other, after the divine retaliation of unleashing the destruction of the flood waters on the earth, God is unilaterally disarming, hanging up the bow, for now and for all future generations.  The movement of God toward creation is no longer one of violence, but of covenant making peace.  As pastor Rob Bell has said, the gods are not angry.  As a reminder for all of us, including God, who no doubt needs that reminder when we’re at our worst, there is that bow in the clouds, unstrung, pointed away from humanity, with no arrows in sight.  And very colorful, which is a nice touch.

So here’s a question:  Is this enough?  This covenant, with this sign?  Can we rest assured that all is well in the world and that we are destined to journey safely through the millennia?

There was a weariness in our group.

The older among us remember the days of Cold War nuclear stand off.  And nuclear weapons have not gone away.  The younger among us are especially mindful of climate change, the global population explosion, peak oil, extinctions of species, and the heavy footprint our species is putting on this planet.  We are pretty sure we will live to see very difficult times, and that, for a significant percentage of the planet, difficult times have fully arrived in all their fury.   We wondered if we broke our end of the covenant, if God still has to uphold God’s end.

Elie Wiesel has made a similar kind of comment.  This Jewish man who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and wrote Night, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, reading the account in Genesis once felt assured by God’s words.  Then noticed that God had only agreed not to destroy the earth with water.  There are other methods available.  He’s got a point.  It’s a pretty big loophole in the covenant.  (Referenced in The Dogmatic Imagination, A. James Reimer, p.5)

We also realize that even if God doesn’t destroy the earth, it doesn’t mean we can’t do it ourselves.

We’re weary.  We love the covenant, and the sign, but, in our darker moments, the radical freedom that we have been given scares us.  Maybe it’s time we make a covenant of our own with creation.  That we will find our rightful place in the web of life and work for the healing of our home planet.  What kind of sign would be a reminder for us?  Sometimes I feel like I’d like to hang my car up in the clouds, as a reminder to creation and myself of a covenant of peace.  Keep all that carbon rich oil in the ground where the good Lord put it over those however many millions of years.

The 1 Peter passage has some interesting connections to Genesis 9.  Rather than being a situation of humanity suffering at the hands of God with the flood, it is now the Christ who has suffered at the hands of humanity, “in order to bring us to God,” 1 Peter says.  We wondered how that works.  How is it that the suffering and death of Christ bring us to God?  We have an awareness of there being different theologies about how this works, but it’s hard to grasp intuitively.

Those among us with roots in the Catholic church recalled how central the suffering of Christ was in their lives and in the church.  That ever present crucifix.  Jesus suffered for you.  For you.  It is quite a thought to have in your head throughout the day.

Water shows up again in this passage, and mention of Noah and the ark.  Only this time we are challenged to make the connection between that flood water and baptism.  The waters of destruction can also be the waters of life.  The waters which symbolize the death of the old way and the birth of the new way, the new humanity.  Baptism.  How’s that for a sign?  A sign of remembrance.  Hang that up in the clouds of your consciousness.  Remember your baptism, the sign you have been given that you now live at peace with God and with your neighbor and with all of creation.

An intriguing part of this passage is this whole idea of Christ “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.”  It’s a remarkable picture that is in many ways foreign to our Protestant minds.  The notion of Christ visiting those spirits in prison came to be called in church tradition “the harrowing of hell.”  The apostles creed, an early formulation of Christian doctrine still recited in many church traditions states that Christ “descended into hell.”  In Eastern Orthodox theology, the primary picture of the resurrection is not the empty tomb, but a picture of Christ having descended into hell, standing victorious over the gates of death, pulling up Adam and Eve, those representations of fallen humanity.  That’s the resurrection.  There’s a sense in which the work of Christ spans and redeems all of cosmic history and that nothing, nothing, is outside the scope of redemption.  We still have radical freedom, but we are being pursued.  We have different thoughts on how literal or figurative an understanding to have of hell, but the picture remains true.  If we descend down into the depths of hell, whatever that hell is, Christ is there.  You cannot go where God is not.  There is no realm or state of being outside the reach of grace.  It’s hard to think of a more hopeful teaching.

It’s Lent, and we’re in repentance mode.  Repentance, metanoia, means, literally, to change your mind.  To change your thinking.  And God’s knows we need it.  We are inheritors of a long tradition of being of the wrong mind.  In the long scope of history it’s beginning to become clear that our species has a tendency to project our own thoughts and aspirations onto God.  We have wanted to seek power and conquer, and so we have imagined a God who does the same.  We carry a bow into battle, and so must God.  We seek to destroy our enemies, wipe them off the face of the earth, and so must God.

The biblical story invites us into the lifelong journey of undoing these projections.  Genesis makes important steps.  God hangs up the bow and calls it quits on the narrative of destruction and redemptive violence.  Humanity is invited into a peaceful relationship with God and one another and the earth.

Lent is an invitation to allow for the undoing of these projections.  To strip away our own sinfulness and violence that we hang in the sky and call God.

But the biblical story goes even further.  Beyond simply undoing all our projections of ourselves onto God, we are invited to receive God’s projections of Godself onto us.  Jesus is on the forefront of God’s projection of godself onto humanity.  A humanity made whole through the power of redemptive love.  God projecting godself onto us such that even in the darkest caverns of hell we are being pulled up toward the light.  Whether we think we are in heaven or in hell, we are being pursued with this kind of love, that would remake us in its own image, for the good of all creation.  God would even make us to be a sign, our lives, a sign, of remembrance of the way of peace.

Hospitality – 1/15/12 – World Fellowship Sunday – Genesis 18:1-8

Call to mind, if you would, a time when you have experienced extravagant hospitality.

Rod and Mary have already shared about their time in China being characterized by the generous, warm hospitality of their hosts.

A time when I experienced extravagant hospitality came in the Fall of 2000 during my semester of studying in the Middle East.  We had been in Cairo, Egypt for most of the time, but spent the last three weeks traveling through the region.  One of the members of our class had a relative who had married a Syrian, and so she had extended family in Syria.  She had worked it out with the program director that we would visit the family and eat a meal with them.

We took a bus out to their very rural home.  We spent time walking around the area, trying to pet the goats and chickens wondering around, playing with the young children, trying out all the Arabic we had been able to learn over the last three months, thoroughly pleased with ourselves that we were able to impress these children with a few intelligible sentences of their language.

When it was supper time we were invited into the small home, where, in the center, on the floor of the main room, was spread an amazing feast of hummus, pita, chicken, and all the best of Middle Eastern food.  We sat around the food in a large circle, the family formally welcomed us, and we feasted in the tent of these strangers.  There was not a supermarket within driving distance and it was pretty clear that the chicken we were eating meant there were a few less chickens roaming around with the goats.  For us it was one in a series of amazing Middle Eastern meals we experienced on the trip, but our director informed us that this was probably one of, if not the biggest feast that this family would eat all year, and that was this part of a genuine culture of hospitality that has existed for centuries in the area.  When guests come, that’s when you slaughter the animals, that’s when you spread a full table, or floor in this case, and give your best, whatever that may be.  Extravagant hospitality.

Another, very different experience, came while at Gethsemani Abbey this past summer.  Being a place of prayer and silence, there were no verbal exchanges that one might associate with hosts being welcoming and hospitable.  But, with every part of the experience, there was an abiding sense of great hospitality to us, the guests.  Simple, private rooms contained everything we needed for a comfortable, pleasant stay.  Meals were served at regular times, just walk through, get what you want, take a seat, eat, and return the trays.  All seven times of daily prayer were open to us, with prayer books provided.  Around the grounds there were chairs placed under trees, along walking paths; spaces prepared to sit, to walk, to pray, to breathe in peace.  And there was no charge.  Just a jar with a sign that said donations of whatever amount were appreciated.  It was the gift of silence.  The gift of space.  The gift of time set to the rhythm of prayer.  Extravagant hospitality.

If we were to collect the stories of similar experiences of hospitality that are represented among us I’m confident it would be a rich collection indeed.

On January 21, 1525, in Zurich, Switzerland, a dozen or so people gathered in the home of Felix Manz for Bible Study, as they had come to do regularly.  On this night they especially felt God’s presence with them and one of those present, George Blaurock, asked another, Conrad Grebel, to baptize him.  Baptism was an act reserved for infants by a priest.  Blaurock was not an infant and Grebel was not a priest, but Blaurock was baptized, and in turn baptized all the others present, who committed themselves to being true disciples of Christ.

This is the birth story, the creation story, of the Anabaptist movement – the re-baptizers.  Since that time it has spread around the world.  There are currently over 1.6 million persons affiliated with Anabaptist congregations world wide, members of Mennonite World Conference;  the continent with the largest representation being Africa.  North America is second.  The continent with the smallest representation being Europe, the birthplace.  Just a few months ago, Mennonite World Conference received its 100th member, the Mennonite Church of Chile, which has 14 congregations and 1,200 members.

Every year, Anabaptist congregations are invited to celebrate World Fellowship Sunday close to the date of our beginnings, sometime around January 21.  We are a part of a world wide fellowship of disciples of Jesus who share a common story and a common emphasis on seeking to live as disciples of Jesus.

The suggested theme for this year, which should be rather obvious by now, is hospitality.

Genesis 18 is a story of extravagant hospitality that Abraham extends to three visitors, who turn out to be the very presence of God.  It begins: “Yahweh appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.  He looked up and saw three men standing near him.”

From the start, the narrator tells us something that Abraham will only discover in time – that this visitation is from none other than Yahweh.  It’s odd that we are told this, and then told that Abraham saw three men.  Why are they called men?  Why are there three?  Later, two of them are referred to as angels.  Is one of them supposed to be Yahweh, or are they all equally divine?  It was, perhaps, irresistible, for Christians to see in this an Old Testament Trinity, but that’s not what’s in view here in its original telling.

The passage reminds me of Jacob’s wrestling partner in Genesis 32.  First we’re told that Jacob wrestles with a man, then this man says, “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob proclaims, “I have seen God face-to-face.”  The following day when Jacob is reconciled to his estranged brother, Esau, he tells him, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”  Is Jacob’ wrestling partner a human or God?  Who’s visiting Abraham?  Yahweh, angel, human?  Does it matter?  On the road to Emmaus the stranger is recognized as Christ only after his fellow travelers invite him in for a meal, an act of hospitality.  Who’s that knocking at your door?  It’s God, of course.

The text in Genesis 18 is sure to show the zeal with which Abraham greets his visitors and goes about extending hospitality.  When he sees them, he runs to greet them.  After convincing them not to pass through but to stay and be refreshed, he hastens to find his wife Sarah who hastens to make cakes from the best flour on hand.  Abraham then runs to get a young servant to slaughter a young, tender, choice calf.  This is the heat of the day, remember, and everyone is running and hastening.  This is a mad frenzy of hospitality in full motion.  The servant hastens to prepare the calf, Abraham gathers all these things together, and brings them to the three visitors who have washed their dirty travel-weary feet and have been relaxing under the shade of a tree this whole time.

A few years ago Diana Butler Bass wrote a book called Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith.  Her original project was to research why large US evangelical churches are thriving and mainline Protestant congregations are dying, herself having been formed in two mainline Protestant traditions, United Methodist and Episcopal.  But as she got into her research she kept coming across all of these mainline Protestant congregations, many of them well over 100 years old, that were thriving.  So she decided to visit a number of these congregations around the country and discover what it was that kept them so vital and alive.  She came up with ten different areas, ten practices, that these congregations are doing, in varying degrees, and the book, Christianity for the Rest of Us  goes through these ten practices and stories from the congregations she visited.  The very first practice that she talks about, and one that she names as always being at the heart of vital Christian spirituality, is the practice of hospitality.  Here is a quote from the book in which she references some of the writings of Henri Nouwen, who wrote about hospitality in the 70’s:

“With the old patterns of village broken down, the Christian practice of hospitality has reemerged as foundational to the spiritual life.  Contemporary Americans are nomads, what Catholic writer Henri Nouwen once called ‘a world of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture, and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God.’  In such a ‘world of strangers,’ where fear, anger, and hostility build walls between people and chip away at the communal soulfulness, Nouwen proposed that ‘if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality.’  For Nouwen, hospitality is the ‘creation of a free space’ where strangers become friends.  ‘Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place’” (Christianity for the Rest of Us, p. 79).

I love that final quote.  Hospitality is not to change people, but creates space where change can take place.

Hospitality is at the top of the list of vital Christian practices.  The other nine, in case you’re curious, are discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection, and beauty.  It’s quite a list.

Genesis 18 is part of a literary unit that extends through Genesis 19.  After Abraham extends hospitality to these visitors they repay him and Sarah with a great gift.  Within the next year, the elderly couple will give birth to a son, Sarah’s firstborn.  The elderly Sarah overhears this outrageous promise and laughs out loud, more an incredulous smirk than a laugh of joyful faith.  The vistor hears the laughter and says, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”  The child is born within the year and bears the irony of this encounter his whole life.  He is named, “laughter,” which in Hebrew, is Isaac.  Genesis 19 continues the theme of divine visitation and hospitality, only this time things work out in an almost completely opposite manner.

Two of the men, now called angels, leave the refreshing tents of Abraham and Sarah and walk into the city of Sodom and are met by Abraham’s nephew Lot, who lives there.  Lot insists that they stay with him for the night, extending hospitality.  The rest of the city, famously, is the epitome of unhospitality.  They bang on Lot’s door and demand that he send his guests out so they can abuse and rape them.  Lot refuses and the visitors are protected.  The visitors also leave a ‘gift’ for these un-hosts.  The next thing we know, Sodom, along with its sister city Gomorrah, is being destroyed, Lot and his family the only ones who are spared.

So here’s what we have:   Abraham and Sarah extend hospitality and it leads to the gift of life, to a miracle of a new generation that receives the covenant of God.  Sodom extends rabid un-hospitality and it leads to death, the entire city destroyed, never to be inhabited again.  The sin of Sodom has very little to do with homosexuality and very much to do with a lack of hospitality to strangers.  The juxtaposition in Genesis of these two very different situations that these divine visitors encounter is quite intentional.  The contrast could not be starker.  God is wandering through the land, through the streets, like a nomad.  Hospitality leads to the unexpected laughter of new life.  The absence of hospitality leads to disintegration and destruction.

Putting this in the light of World Fellowship Sunday, a global context, for us as Anabaptist Christians, we can think of hospitality as one of the most powerful, least complicated, acts of peacemaking that we can possibly participate in.  Welcome the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant.  It’s an act of acknowledging God’s presence in the other, however different they are from us.  When we have received hospitality from another, when we are the foreigner and wonderer, we know that we have been given a gift that we can never pay back.  We can only pay it forward.  When we extend hospitality to another, we extend it not only to the other, but to God’s own self, who always inhabits the life of the other.  And it grows and multiplies, like life itself.

We’re a little ways into the new year now,  but it’s not too late to make a new year’s resolution.  How about if our congregation resolves to be a place of extravagant hospitality.  That welcomes all those who come to us, because they are the very presence of God.  Fortunately, we’re going to have a lot of practice very soon, with Mennonite Arts Weekend right around the corner.  That will be a fantastic, and pretty fun, way to get practicing.  May laughter and joy abound.

Faith, Fusion, and the Future – 10/16/11 – Genesis 15:1-8, Luke 12:13-21

In Genesis 15 we meet up with an aging man riddled with anxiety about what kind of legacy he is, or is not, leaving in the world.  Abram has been the recipient of a divine promise, an impossible promise – that he, an old man, and his wife, an old woman, will be the father and mother of a great nation, a great people who will be a blessing to all creation.  But they have no children, and they’re getting along in years.  The Lord says to Abram, “Do not be afraid.”  Abram says to the Lord, “O Lord, what will you give me, for I continue childless.”  Abram is wrestling with the limits of his faith, the limits of his body, the reality of his own mortality.

This is not unlike a conversation I had this summer toward the end of the Sabbatical.  I was the speaker at a weekend retreat for St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship, on the theme of healthy sexuality, drawing from the resources and talks that were developed here for last year’s Sextember series.  After talking about the importance of overcoming the dualism of body and spirit and seeing ourselves as a unified whole, celebrating who we are as spirited bodies, sexual beings, I was approached by one of the older members of the congregation.  He told me that he had been doing a lot of thinking recently about his relationship with his body.  His aging body.  A spirited body, yes, but a body he was well aware was not going to last forever.

This is not unlike what a friend from seminary is experiencing these days.  Heidi-Siemens Rhodes is one of the pastors of Assembly Mennonite Church is Goshen, Indiana and was recently diagnosed with uncurable cancer which has metastasized in several parts of her body.  She is 37 years old.  She and her husband have three young sons.  This is what she wrote on a Caring Bridge journal entry several weeks ago, which she titled, “Waking up Angry.”  Just for clarification, the boys that she names are two of her sons.  And she writes a line in German which I am sure to butcher.  She writes:

“This morning I woke up at 5:24 a.m. (thank you Jesus–needed to take a steroid pill between 5 and 6) after a good night of deep rest (again, gratitude). Last night I was much more restless.  After a teeny pill, a small slice of cold pizza to settle it in my stomach, and some water, I climbed back up to bed. My mistake came in peeking in on Adam and Theo, sleeping so peacefully. I hit the bed with my heart heavy and gut roiling–what of this is fair?  Das Leben ist so kurz, und wir sind so lange Tot.  Life is so short and we’re dead for so long…  The tears roll this morning, fast and hot. This is where I need to be right now. No, my friends, I am not resigned.  But as they say in one of the silly, over-the-top peasant scenes in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, our laughter therapy last night, “I’m not dead [yet].”  (from Sept 25th entry at http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/heidisiemensrhodes/journal )

Jesus once told a parable which has come to take on the title, “The Rich Fool” (Luke 12:13-21).  The parable is about a landowner who had abundant crops.  He decided to take down his current barns and build bigger ones in order to be able to store all of his crops and goods.  But, unbeknownst to him, his life would end that very night.  The man is called a fool.  Wendell Berry has made the observation that this man’s problem is that “he is prepared for a future in which he will be prosperous, not for one in which he will be dead” (“Two Economies” essay in What Matters? p. 120).  And for those of you who are counting, Yes, that is three services in a row in which Wendell Berry has been quoted.  We’ll try and give him a rest next week.

Putting our energy into preparing for a future in which we will be dead might not come off as all that hopeful of an enterprise.  For good reason, death is not something we care to think about all that much.  It doesn’t have a place in our culture’s narrative of being always on the up-and-up.  We keep our focus on youthful looks and we prize youthful energy.  Death certainly isn’t sexy.  But most of all, perhaps, we just don’t know what to do with it, except avoid it at all costs.

These past three weeks you’ve given me the chance to give reflections from Sabbatical learnings – from experiences and thoughts, from having my hands in the dirt and having my nose in books.  It’s hard to avoid death on a farm.  With plants and animals dying into each other on a daily basis.  With topsoil being the arena of constant death and resurrection.  Tomatoes sprouting, growing, and dying within tomato cages made by my Grandpa Lehman, who is dead, yet alive in God and in our hearts in ways I don’t pretend to understand.

A significant part of my readings from the summer was attempting to get a bigger picture of this grand cosmic narrative in which we find ourselves.  One of the discoveries, which relates to the Abraham text and to the ever present reality of our mortality, has to do with stars.  So I’d like to offer somewhat of a thought experiment of how we might begin to think more fully about living alongside our own death as a friend, as a teacher, even as a significant part of our gift to the world, one of God’s ways of being glorified through our being.

When aging and fearful Abram encounters God, voicing his anxiety about having no future through physical offspring, God takes Abram stargazing, telling him his offspring will be as numerous as the stars.  Abram looks up at the stars, tries to count them, no doubt loses track of the enormity of what he is seeing, and, as the text says, a statement that becomes a cornerstone of New Testament teaching about the centrality of faith, “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Stars, for the most part, are nothing but big clumps of hydrogen.  This is the most simple of elements, with one electron and proton, produced, scientists believe, very early on in the original flaring forth of the universe, when energy cooled into matter, at the beginning of time.  As the universe continued to expand and cool, the scattered hydrogen atoms began to congregate together, drawn to each other by the force of gravity.  Stars are various congregations of hydrogen atoms, which makes each star something of a church, a gathered body, giving glory to God.  As hydrogen atoms are drawn to the gravitational center of a star, they get closer together and heat up.  When they get hot enough, something new happens.  Fusion.  The congregation of atoms becomes a place where new elemental forces are created.  Hydogen atoms fuse together to create Helium, which has two electons and protons, and, in the process light energy is given off.  This is what our sun is doing as we speak, what it has been doing for the last 4.5 billion years, and what it will continue to do for the next several billion years.  Our star does not, cannot, hoard its wealth.  The hydrogen is giving itself away, and in its dying it provides energy which is the life of our planet.  When all of the hydrogen is used up, if a star is big enough, the helium will then begin to fuse together to form higher elements – including carbon and oxygen, some of the building blocks of life.  It will create the elements all the way up to Iron and nickel, all the way up to 26 and 28 electrons and protons together in one atom.  But these elements don’t fuse, won’t play along in that chain reaction game, have their own creative plans in mind.  As iron and nickel build up in the core of a large star, the center gets heavier and heavier, and hotter and hotter as lower elements keep fusing together.  Eventually, it crosses a tipping point of weight and heat and the star collapses in on itself, then explodes in its final gift to the universe.  The death of a large star is a supernova, which, in its great heat, creates the higher elements that can’t be created within the regular progression of fusion.  And, in its glorious death throes, it scatters these gifts to the universe which become available for other creations.  The entire periodic table has a story, has a birth place.  All of the higher elements are created in each Community Church of Hydrogen Fellowship, gifted to the world.  The number of these fellowships, stars, is billions upon billions more than would have been visible for Abram to count with his eye.

These are the elements that make up our earth, make up our atmosphere, make up our very bodies, the food that we put in our bodies, the clothes and jewelry we put on our bodies.  What this means is that the atoms of our body were once stars.  You and I are made out of the stuff of stars.  The gold or silver in the ring on your finger was forged in the supernova of a distant star.  This is not spiritual mysticism.  This is hard science, as best science is able to discern the story so far, (which, interestingly enough, the more you get into it, the more it starts sounding like spiritual mysticism).  Apparently there’s a joke among cosmologists that optimists believe we are made of star dust, and pessimists believe we are made of the nuclear waste of stars.  Same way of saying the same thing.  Either way, the atoms of our bodies, these aging, fragile bodies, are a gift from the stars, made possible by their giving themselves away.

So, in the Abram story, we have the remarkable situation of a man longing for descendants to come from his body, looking at the heavenly bodies whose very descendant he is.  God takes him outside to show him his ancestors, and promises him that he himself will someday be an ancestor, whom others will look upon, like we are doing today.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggmann, when he speaks to liberal audiences, has said on a number of occasions, tongue in cheek, that the promises in the Bible are so wonderful that it’s too bad we don’t really believe them anymore.  Liberal people who accept the findings of science have a difficult time reconciling these truths with biblical text, those texts that tell of God making promises to people, and, us, being no exception.

I wonder if revisiting the idea of God’s promises through the story of the stars, might offer us a fresh way of accepting the promises of God for our future and in relation to living with our personal death as an ever present reality.  Might we see inside the life of a star a promise, a seed of possibility for offspring and descendants beyond number?  From the star’s perspective, it would be hard to believe what could come out its life and death, burning hot and flaring out, unable to see the results of its own life.  But here we are, a fulfillment of that promise, the offspring of the stars.  And what leads us to believe that our offspring, our legacy, our enduring gift to the universe, will be any more predictable than this?  We don’t know the purpose or effects of our own life and death, don’t know what all will come out it, but can there not also be within us, just as within Abram, a divine promise, that the fragments of our lives that go out from us will be gathered together into a new creation?  This happens through our physical bodies and offspring, but what also of the stuff of our souls?  Might our faith be that presence within us of a burning core, allowing ourselves to burn hot enough for God to make within us new creations that then become available as gifts to the world.  This is, after all, how the New Testament interprets the real gift of Abraham to the world, the way that we become his descendants.  Not because of a direct blood line through his body, but by faith, that transformative process that happens within.

In order for fusion to happen, a star must cross a threshold of generating enough heat to kickstart the process.  We in this congregation draw closer to one another and burn hot enough to start such a process in our midst when we are rushing together toward the gravitional center of love, of the Christ.   As we do this we become a creative expression of the very energy of God, and our gifts are generously scattered about for the good of the world.  If we do not do this, we will just coolly co-existence without a whole lot of sparks.

And might we not imagine the life and death of Jesus as being something of a spiritual supernova?  Through the way of love that he lived, and through the cross, there is also a resurrection, an explosion of spiritual energy not previously seen in creation, now making available in the cosmos these dynamic and weighty elements of love and forgiveness and abundant life previously uncreated?

At this point, one of my best answers to the gentleman from St. Louis is to suggest that growing old carries with it an invitation to walk down a mystical path.  To begin to see one’s body as being more than just the collection of atoms that happen to currently constitute one’s body, and happen to be more and more a source of increasing aches and pains and failures.  To begin to recognize one’s body as being a much larger part of communion with creation.  In a literal physical way our bodies come to us from the earth, from the air, from the animals and plants, and from the stars.  Over the course of one’s life, as more and more atoms cycle through our bodies and are replaced with other atoms, more and more of what has been our body is out there around us, and so old age can lend itself to accepting our bodies as more than just the current arrangement of matter that we are.  Our bodies can be found as a part of other bodies, near and far.

And for my friend Heidi, I’m still working on a best answer.  Part of it is to mourn with her and her family and to try to join her in gratitude for each day.  And to watch and listen as her faith becomes a furnace within her generating elements of love, hope, patience, and joy, and flinging them out into the world for everyone to take into their own lives.  And to pray that she can live as full and long a life as she is able.  And to trust that the deep mystery which is her being, her soul, is held lovingly within the eternal promises of God, something that no cancer has any power over.