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Hopefulness in Creating Justice

It tells “the importance of hopefulness in creating justice” and the redemptive power of brokenness. As Attorney Stevenson says, “I do what I do because I’m broken, too. My years of struggling against inequality, abuse of power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. You can’t effectively fight … injustice and not be broken by it.”

I wrote this book review three and a half years ago.  The recent opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL, brought it to mind.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2014).

Attorney Stevenson has made a career of representing men, women and children on death row or imprisoned without parole.  None of these people could afford counsel, which is primarily how they got into that horrible situation.  Many of them, like Walter McMillan, were innocent beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Walter’s story, a major focus of the book, began with a simple indiscretion: a black man cheated on his wife with a white waitress in town.  That waitress got involved with another man – a deranged, white drug-dealer – and the two of them decided to frame Walter for a murder that had just taken place.  As the tale unfolds, we learn Walter was at home surrounded by family, friends and community members at the moment of the murder, and you wonder how anyone could have thought this man guilty.  Without any real leads in the case and because of rising community pressure to charge someone with the crime, a racially biased justice system put an innocent man on trial with negligent defense and then sentenced him to fry in the electric chair.

Just Mercy is more than the story of Walter McMillan.  It’s the story of our country’s fear-filled response to those who are the least, the last, and the lost.  It tells “the importance of hopefulness in creating justice” and the redemptive power of brokenness.  As Attorney Stevenson says, “I do what I do because I’m broken, too.  My years of struggling against inequality, abuse of power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself.  You can’t effectively fight … injustice and not be broken by it.”

This is not an overtly religious book, but Stevenson’s early immersion in the black church shines through on every page.  In fact, he presents something like the gospel of Jesus Christ when he says, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” and “There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”  Quoting the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus, Stevenson names what all Christians ought to be about: “I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.”

I highly recommend this book for those who want to grow in their faith.

“Mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given.”  Amen.

 

No Easy Answers

There are no easy answers. Just don’t shut down the questions… or the questioner. And don’t give up in despair. Stay open to the possibility that God is not done with us yet.

“There are no easy answers for the people of Tangier Island, Virginia,” Nathan Kirkpatrick says.

The 740-acre island, located in the Chesapeake Bay, is home to [some 700] people, but because of sea rise and erosion it gives up 16 feet of its coastline each year. At this rate, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the island will be under water in 50 years and uninhabitable in 20 to 30. Some are predicting that the people of Tangier will be the first “climate-change refugees” in the United States.

To preserve the island, the Army Corps has proposed $30 million worth of interventions, including breakwaters, new sand barriers and imported vegetation to slow the sea’s seemingly sure advance. The president has told the mayor not to worry about the island’s future. Yet whether the government will choose to fund these life-extending — if not life-saving — measures for tiny Tangier remains to be determined.

There are no easy answers for the people of Tangier Island as they watch the sea rise: Stay. Leave. Hope. Trust. Worry. Wait.[1]

For the people of God in Ezekiel’s day, there were no easy answers either.  Torn from their homes and forcibly relocated to Babylon, their devotion to the Law of God stood out from the pagan culture around them like an island rising from a hostile sea.  How long could they hold onto their mission of showing what it means to live in community with a holy God?  At what point would their numbers grow too small to sustain a viable community of faith?  Would the plan that God began with Abraham die with their generation?  Had God abandoned them and moved on to some Plan B?  All these questions crowded that community’s mind when the word of God came to Ezekiel.

A vision, that’s what we’re dealing with in this morning’s scripture: a vision that transcends everyday sight.  If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we are always but a breath away from eternity.  Sometimes we come to a place where that wall between time and eternity grows exceedingly thin, becoming almost transparent.  It is in such moments we catch a glimpse of our truest selves, a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us, and maybe a glimpse of what we can become by the grace of God.  This is what happened to the prophet Ezekiel as we read in chapter 37.

The Lord’s power overcame me, and while I was in the Lord’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones.

Have you ever seen a boneyard?  We lived in Tucson only two years and I was too young to remember much, but Momma always marveled at the boneyard there at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.  The high-altitude desert around Tucson makes it an ideal place to moth-ball aircraft that are no longer in service.  If you look up Davis-Monthan on-line, you can see amazing pictures of thousands of aircraft from all branches of the military laid out in rows on the hard-packed, alkaline soil.  Everyone calls it “the boneyard.”

The boneyard Ezekiel saw was a cursed place, the site of a great battle where whole armies of men lay as they had fallen, unburied and unmourned.  Those bodies, scavenged by crow and vulture, beetle and ant, were now nothing but bleached bone, silent testimony to violent death.  And in that vision of desiccated death, the word of God comes to the prophet:  “Son of Adam, can these bones live again?”  Can the arrow of time reverse itself?  Can any spark of life stir within the long dead cinders before you?  Can the hopes and dreams and passions of life ever animate these dead remnants again?

You would think that’s a no-brainer of a question.  Talk about an easy answer!  You can imagine Ezekiel thinking, “God, is this a trick question?”  But it wasn’t, and in the light of what they were facing, Ezekiel knew he was looking at the future of his faith community in those bones.  Will we die off?  Will the last one out turn out the light and close the door?

In 1994, shortly after he had stepped down as president of the Alban Institute, [Loren] Mead penned a letter to the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church about what he understood as his unfinished work. He had two [main] concerns.

The first was what he called “the absolute dead end … looming ahead of the church financially.” He was concerned that at every level of the [church], the … economic models were inherently unsustainable long term. It was only a matter of time before the deficiencies of those models would prove catastrophic.  Pledge and plate giving from a smaller number of giving units simply cannot keep up with the increasing financial costs of ministry today.

The second piece of unfinished business Mead named was “the plight of the small congregation, laboring under a … model of ministry that defines them as failures year after year.”

This … model of ministry [recognizes success] with certain predictable markers — a full-time clergyperson (if not an abundance of staff), a significant physical plant, a [full array] of programs catering to every age group, an annual stewardship campaign that results in a balanced but ever-growing budget and numerical growth in attendance. For many congregations, success according to this vision of ministry is [increasingly] out of reach.[2]

The question comes, “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, can these bones live again?”  And how we answer that question makes all the difference in what happens next.  Ezekiel’s answer – “O Lord God, thou knowest” – refused to shut down the question.  Ezekiel didn’t say, “God, stop showing me these bones!  We’re not dead yet.  We’re not even close to it!  So, shoo, buzzard God with your buzzing questions.  Leave us alone.  We’re just fine!”

Ezekiel’s answer also refused to close off possibilities.  The prophet refused to close off possibilities that alone are open to the One who in the beginning shaped human form from humus and blew life’s breath-wind up its nose.  “O Lord God, thou knowest,” he said.  He did not – in a voice like Pooh’s friend Eeyore – say, “God, you’re right.  We are just a bunch of old bones that don’t even have the grace to dry up and blow away.  We’re just the dry creek bed where evangelical fervor once flowed.  Of course we can’t live again.  Not everyone can and some of us don’t.”  Ezekiel didn’t say that.  He said, “O Lord God, thou knowest.”

Are we willing to say that today?  There are no easy answers.  Can Zion survive a sea change in society that sees fewer and fewer young families settling into church? “O Lord God, thou knowest.”   Can American democracy survive the assault on its institutions from powers foreign and domestic?  “O Lord God, thou knowest.”   Can human society survive its own rapacious instincts to reproduce willy-nilly and gobble up everything in sight?  “O Lord God, thou knowest.”

There are no easy answers.  Just don’t shut down the questions… or the questioner.  And don’t give up in despair.  Stay open to the possibility that God is not done with us yet.  Remain open to the One who is the resurrection and the life.

The word of the Lord for our lives today…

Thanks be to God.

[1] Nathan Kirkpatrick, “Tangier Island, the church and living on the edge of hope,” June 26, 2018, https://www.faithandleadership.com/nathan-kirkpatrick-tangier-island-church-and-living-edge

[2] ibid.

What Would You Do… for Community?

When she opened her eyes, what did they show? Were they were full of regret? Or did they simply reflect a deep peace in the knowledge that nothing could ever take that Presence from her now?

I love it when a Bible character takes me somewhere I never imagined she would, as in this sermon based on Acts 9:36-42 (Common English Bible).

Tucked away between two conversion accounts that show the gospel going global in the book of Acts, we find a simple story about the power of one person’s care for her community.  In the city of Joppa there lived a widow whose name in both Hebrew and Greek meant Gazelle.  We’ll call her Dorcas.  The Scripture says her life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need.

We know many people who act like Dorcas.  I don’t need to name any names for you to know who goes and gets a second cup of coffee when he sees a homeless person in Union on a cold day or who gathers food for the foodbank or who serves clients there regularly.  You may not know who works behind the scenes to see that our Good Samaritan funds are distributed or who does repairs to widows’ homes or who delivers Meals on Wheels, but they are present among us, as well.  These people don’t toot their own horns, so you may never learn who it is that reads to children at the County Health Department while their parents are being served or who mentors at-risk students through the Y or who helps tutor GED students at ECC.  And yet they are among us this morning.

We know many people who act like Dorcas.  They are the glue of the community.  Their acts of quiet caring make the difference between someone able to stay in their own home and going into assisted living.  Their care makes all the difference for at-risk children and youth in our community.  Like Dorcas, these men and women are powerful witnesses to the extravagant care of God who sees every sparrow that falls.  Dorcas is a model for all of us in our Christian caring.

And when Dorcas died, the community wasn’t ready to give her up.  Not that they had any choice in the matter: death comes to us all.  We all have to say goodbye at some time.  And yet… the community wasn’t ready to give her up.  Now don’t misunderstand: the disciples at Joppa didn’t send word to the Apostle Peter because they thought he would raise her from the dead.  No, they sent word to Peter because they simply wanted someone to witness the power of this one person’s care for her community.  They wanted the wider church to acknowledge their pain at her passing.  They wanted someone who would bring a palpable presence of God into their grief.  They didn’t need Peter to fix anything because they knew there was nothing for him to fix: death happens, even to saints.

But when Peter arrived and was taken to the upstairs room, all the widows stood beside him, crying as they showed the tunics and other clothing Dorcas made when she was alive.  In that moment Peter realized that God had yet more caring for Dorcas to offer her community.  But what could that caring be?  After all, if God simply needed more tunics sewn for more widows, why did Dorcas die in the first place?  And were there not others who could take over her ministry to the poor?  What was it that Peter realized Dorcas needed to do for her community that meant she had to die first?

Imagine the scene with me: Peter sent everyone out of the room, then knelt and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up.  That’s pretty powerful, but isn’t there something missing from this text? Isn’t there some detail that didn’t get recorded?

Think about it:  where has Dorcas been?  We believe that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,[1] so where has Dorcas been?  She’s been present with the Lord.  Have you ever wondered why scripture says Jesus had to shout really loud to get Lazarus to come out of the tomb?[2]  I think it’s because Lazarus didn’t want to leave the bosom of Abraham, as he would’ve called it!  And now here is Peter, asking Dorcas to leave the comforts of heaven for the sake of her community.

Calling her by her Hebrew name, Peter said, “Tabitha, get up!”  When she opened her eyes – and here’s the detail I think is missing – what did they show?  Were they were full of regret?  Did they shine with glory such that Peter winced and almost apologized?  Or did they simply reflect a deep peace in the knowledge that nothing could ever take that Presence from her now?

This is what Peter realized Dorcas needed to do for her community that meant she had to die first: she needed to show them that care comes not at our convenience.  She became the living witness among them that sometimes care for the community of Christ calls us to set aside our own spiritual fulfillment for the sake of others.  Sometimes care calls us to consider the other’s need – in how we worship, in how we fellowship, even in how we do outreach – before our own.  Before she died, Dorcas served the church on her own terms.  When she returned, she served it on God’s terms.

The word of the Lord for our lives today.

Thanks be to God.

[1] II Corinthians 5:8

[2] John 11:43

You Never Know Whose Life You Touch

I was the wife abandoned by her husband… I took Shalom in learning to be a cancer gardener & thru it all things turned out OK.

On June 10th I preached a sermon on what it means to say God has a plan for our lives.  (See blog post, Sermon for a Congregation at a Crossroad.)  In that sermon I said,

This is shalom-peace: the joy you take in your children when your husband has abandoned you; the self-worth you feel in being competent at your job when office politics has sidelined your career; the pleasure you take in gardening when cancer is eating you up inside.  God’s ultimate intent for our lives is this shalom-peace, not disaster, not judgment, not calamity.

This week I received a card from someone who was sitting in the congregation that morning.  This is what she wrote.

Dear Rev. Bone and Billie,

We are so sorry you will be leaving.  Thank you for all the kind notes & words of encouragement.  Have grown spiritually with your guidance and sermons, like the one last week.

I was the wife abandoned by her husband and took Shalom in her child.  I was also side-lined at a job due to office politics & found Shalom in competency – had to retire 6 years ago early & go on disability.  I took Shalom in learning to be a cancer gardener & thru it all things turned out OK.  It will turn out well for you also.

Fondest regards…

You and I never know whose life we touch.  Let us be faithful in season and out of season.

Blessings!

Invest in Hope

Jeremiah’s purchase of the family farm is what we call in scripture a prophetic act: a sort of live-action parable.

In the year 588 BCE, the prophet Jeremiah was in prison for preaching a political message: “The king can’t save you.  Only God can.”  Full stop.  Fast forward to 2016.  “I’m the only one who can save you.”  Who said that?  You know who said that and now you also know why Jeremiah was in prison.  “Lock. Him. Up!”

Like the true church of Jesus Christ that refuses to get into bed with any politician or any political party, like the true evangelical church who says,

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scriptures, is the only Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death,[1]

the prophet proclaimed hope in God alone, and the king said, “Lock. Him. Up!”  So they did.

In the year 588 BCE the city of Jerusalem was under siege… again.  Just ten brief years before, Nebuchadnezzar, that bad boy of Babylon, had punished the nation for interfering in his feud with Egypt, by dragging off in chains the king’s predecessor, the king’s mother, and the best and brightest as hostages for this king’s good behavior.  But this king didn’t know how to behave for the good of the country, so here they were again.  The armies of the Chaldeans were occupying the land.  And as they camped outside the walls of Jerusalem, Jeremiah could be heard within those same walls preaching, “Thus saith the LORD:

I’m handing this city over to the king of Babylon, and he will occupy it; and Judah’s King Zedekiah will be captured and handed over to the king of Babylon; he will speak to the king of Babylon personally and see him with his very own eyes. And Zedekiah will be carried off to Babylon to live out his days until I punish him, declares the Lord. If you make war against the Babylonians, you will fail.’

“Treason,” shrieked the king from his palace, never mind that it was a true prophet speaking the true word of God.  “Lock. Him. Up!”

Now in this setting, where most of the tiny kingdom was an active war zone, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah again.  This time it was a personal word to the prophet about a cousin who would soon be coming to see him in prison and about the purpose of the cousin’s visit.  But there is no such thing as a purely personal word from the Lord when you are a prophet responsible for proclaiming both judgment and redemption to the people of God.  “Jeremiah, you may be in a world of hurt.  Jeremiah, you may think this looks like the end of the line for you and your people, but listen.  Your cousin is coming to offer you first refusal on the family farm in Anathoth.  Don’t laugh in his face.  Don’t congratulate him on his good sense in selling the place.  I want you to buy it instead.”  And Jeremiah said, “What?!  Look God, I know we’re supposed to keep the family farm in the family, but in case you hadn’t noticed, Grandpa’s place is right smack in the middle of a war zone right now.”  And God said, “Buy it, Jeremiah.”

A few days later, sure enough, here comes cousin Hanamel to the prison to offer Jeremiah the right of first refusal and, to Hanamel’s amazement and relief, Jeremiah takes him up on it.  They agree on the price, seventeen shekels of silver.  Then the prophet calls in the other prisoners to witness the deal, takes off his money belt, weighs out the proper amount, and has everyone sign the paperwork.  Then he instructs his faithful scribe, Baruch, who’s on the other side of the bars, to publish the deed in the city square and to put a copy in a safety deposit box because “Thus saith the LORD:

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land.

Jeremiah’s purchase of the family farm is what we call in scripture a prophetic act: a sort of live-action parable.  As a prophetic act, it really wasn’t that bad.  At least he didn’t have to walk naked and barefoot for three years like Isaiah did![2]  All Jeremiah had to do was make an investment, an investment in hope.

What does it mean for us today to invest in hope?  Several weeks ago, two members of this church purchased the Heidmann property on the north side of the block and deeded it to the congregation.  That was a prophetic act.  It may look like things are dire to you.  It may look like Zion is at the end of the line.  But they chose to invest in the long-term health and vitality of this congregation’s witness and ministry.  They didn’t rescue you.  They didn’t do something that would relieve you of responsibility for keeping the ministry of this church going.  Instead they put their money where their hope is, in the future of this hundred-year-young congregation.

What about the rest of us?  How do we invest in hope?  What is our prophetic act?

  1. The first thing is to increase your giving.
  • Now you absolutely know that my instruction to you in this regard is not to get a raise, right? Alright, then.  This is a prophetic act by which you obey the Word of the LORD to invest in hope.
  • And you say, “I’m already giving all that I can.” And my question to you is, “How do you know?”  Have you tried?  Maybe that’s just a story you’re telling yourself and you’re denying yourself a blessing.
  • I do not say, “Increase your giving,” to fund programs or to send kids to camp, though those are both worthwhile things. Why do we give?  So our possession won’t possess us.  And to develop in us the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5-8).
  1. The second thing is to invite a young person into your life.
  • You know investing is a commitment you make for the long haul, right? People who try to time the market often lose their shirts.  Ask the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffet, and he’ll tell you that an investment is something you make for the long haul.
  • Inviting a young person into your life is certainly an investment in the long haul. Becoming a surrogate parent or grandparent is no less hard or heart-breaking than bearing your own children or your children’s children, but it is a significant investment in the long-term well-being of the place where you live.  It is an investment in hope.
  1. The third and final thing is to include the new in all you do.
  • Invite the new to your pastor search; invite the new into your church.
  • Invite the new to become a friend because you will invite the new at the end.

[1] The Barmen Declaration, 8.11

[2] Isaiah 20:3

Sermon for a Congregation at a Crossroad

The Bible’s plain statement that God has plans for our life and for the life of our church means that we have a very active role to play in determining that future and the shape of that hope.

Jeremiah 29:11

“I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans for peace and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

What does it mean for us to say God has a plan for our lives?

Many years ago, there was a young man named C.L. who every Sunday walked his little sister to the Methodist Sunday School where their mother sent them.  Along the way they would take a short-cut through the Baptist Church parking lot.  One Sunday C.L. had the idea that, as one church was just as good as another and as he really didn’t want to walk all the way to the Methodist Church that morning, they’d go into the Baptist Church.  That decision changed his sister’s life.  Janice was a neglected child who had a difficult upbringing, but she became a faithful churchgoer and one day, when she was in High School, her Baptist Youth group made a visit to see a young man in the hospital.  He and his family were Baptists, had just come to town, and here he was sick with pneumonia.  That young man’s name was Henry and three years later he married Janice and became a wonderful provider to her and their three children, the youngest of which was me.

What does it mean to say God had a plan for my mother’s life?  It certainly doesn’t mean that, ham-handed, God placed an idea in a young boy’s mind.  God does not play so fast and loose with our freedom.

So what does it mean that God has a plan?  Look at the scripture again.  What does it say?  “I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the LORD.  It says “plans,” not plan.  Do you remember how the old GPS, years ago, would complain if you didn’t follow its directions?  The words, “recalculating route,” would come out of your Blackberry or Tomahawk in a very disappointed voice.  It was like you had just ignored your maiden aunt for the umpteenth time and she let you know – more in sorrow than anger – that she would have to fix things again.

God is like that old GPS, only without the nagging.  God doesn’t have just one plan for our lives.  God leaves us free to make all kinds of choices without ever losing sight of our ultimate destination and how to get us there.  God is like GPS: no matter which way we turn, God knows the way to bring us home.  That’s what it means to say God has plans for us.

What else does scripture say?  “Plans for peace and not for disaster…”  The idea that God has plans points to God’s ultimate intent for our life, and that intent is shalom-peace.  This is not peace as the absence of struggle.  Shalom-peace is the promise of wholeness through whatever struggle we may be facing right now.  This is shalom-peace: the joy you take in your children when your husband has abandoned you; the self-worth you feel in being competent at your job when office politics has sidelined your career; the pleasure you take in gardening when cancer is eating you up inside.  God’s ultimate intent for our lives is this shalom-peace, not disaster, not judgment, not calamity.

“It is indeed a challenge to abandon the long-held belief that God yearns to blame and punish us, [to] ask us to measure up or [to] express disappointment and disapproval at every turn.  It is part of our hardwiring.  But we can feel, nonetheless, God nudging us … toward something more oceanic and spacious.  We feel God’s desire for fullness to dwell in us.”[1]

God hangs in there with us, even when we mess up.  We spaz out, we act out, we drop out… and God does not then say to us in a fit of pique, “Fine.  You do that.  Let me know how that works out for you.”  No, God continues to work with us and for us, even when we act and react out of fear.  God continues to care for us and calls us to our better selves in whatever sticky situation we create.  This is what it means to say that God has plans for peace and not for disaster: God hangs in there with us and for us.

Finally, scripture says, “[plans] to give you a future and a hope.”  The Bible’s plain statement that God has plans for our life and for the life of our church means that we have a very active role to play in determining that future and the shape of that hope.  We are not marionettes on a string; we are not actors restricted to a director’s interpretation of a script.  If anything, we are an improv troupe that involves a whole dinner theater in the play we are creating together.  And to do this, to create this life together, we must look clear-eyed at the present, relinquish any last hope that the past will return, and set our hearts fully on the future God envisions within us.

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens” atop the mess you have made.  Do not expect anyone to rescue you.  Make long-term commitments“Get married and have children” – because you’re going to be in this situation of discomfort and distress until the day you come to terms with your newly constrained circumstances.  Promote the welfare – the shalom-peace – of your new neighbors, the new people you find yourselves among.  In fact, “pray to the LORD for their shalom” because your future depends on how well they do.  The fact that God has plans means we have a lot of work to do on ourselves so that we may have a part in those plans, particularly as we seek the welfare of the city.  To seek the welfare, the shalom-peace, of the city means to work for the good of those who do not look like us, act like us, cherish what we cherish, and who will not be the least bit grateful to us.  Christ in the gospels says, “All who would save [cling to] their life will lose it, but all who lose [give away] their lives for my sake will save them.”[2]

This is the future and hope God wants to give us.

The word of the Lord for our lives today…

Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 13.

[2] cf. Luke 9:24 and Matthew 16:25

A Practical Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Trinity-Good-News says that divine life has taken our death, our brokenness, our guilt into itself and poured its life, its wholeness, its joy into us.

A reading from the Epistles

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit[b] of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.  (Romans 1:1-4, NRSV)

This week you received a letter from the Church Council announcing a congregational meeting on June 10th.  The business before this body that day is to give our pastor 60 day notice of release from his terms of call.  You also received the Spirit of Zion newsletter in which I assure you that I’m alright.  I want you to hear that again: I am alright.  You are alright.  We will both be alright by the grace of God.

Today is Trinity Sunday and you wonder: what can the doctrine of the Trinity have to say to me, to us, in this situation.  Let’s consider that now.

One of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century wrote:  “The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with … consequences for Christian life.”[1]  And we think, “Really?!  The doctrine of the Trinity gives us practical guidance for our Christian life?”  That’s like hearing that the laws of quantum mechanics will help me choose what to have for lunch today.  I’m not sure I buy that.

The problem is… we’ve always been handed the truth of Trinity in its short-hand form, that dry, academic, abstract terminology about three distinct persons in one essential unity.  That’s like taking a fresh, lovely onion straight out of the garden and squeezing every bit of juice and life out of it before we hand it to someone who’s hungry.  That’s not going to help them one bit.  So let me offer you the doctrine of the Trinity as an onion of truth about the really real that can nourish and flavor our life as Christians and as a church.

The first thing I want you to hear is this: the doctrine of the Trinity belongs to us.  It is our specifically Christian way of talking about the mystery at the heart of existence.  Trinity is how we, the community committed to the teaching and example of Jesus, come to terms with what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  Trinity means God for us.  Hear that loud and clear.

This means Trinity is essential to our good news.  That’s the second thing I want you to hear: Trinity begins and ends with the good news.  The Apostle Paul began his letter to the Romans with these words: the good news that God promised ahead of time through the prophets in the holy writings concerns the Son of God.  This Son of God is:

  • the descendent of King David in terms of flesh-and-blood;
  • the one the Spirit of holiness powerfully defined Son of God by raising him from the dead;
  • our Lord Jesus Christ

It’s no accident that in stating the gospel Paul refers to the God of the Old Testament prophets, to Jesus as the very special agent of God, and to the Holy Spirit’s involvement in the resurrection.  The gospel is the Trinity and Trinity is the gospel.  We hyphenate, we don’t separate the two: Trinity-Good-News.

Trinity-Good-News says that divine life has taken our death, our brokenness, our guilt into itself and poured its life, its wholeness, its joy into us.  What great good news!!  God has come into our story to lift us into God’s story.  God has entered our messy existence to bring us completely into the divine life.  As we say in our UCC Statement of Belief: In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth… [God has] come to us and shared our common lot.  Everything it means to be human – being born, having a family, making a friend, losing a friend, growing and learning, getting hurt, feeling lonely, even dying – God has taken all that up into the divine life through the experience of Jesus Christ.

That is our good news, and it wouldn’t be possible without Trinity.  The good news says God – the God who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, the God whose Spirit brooded over primordial chaos at creation – that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to the divine self.  When Christ was on the cross, God was on the cross.  When Christ died, God experienced death.  When the Spirit of holiness raised Christ from the dead, God experienced our ultimate human destiny.

How could Jesus be completely human and completely God?  I don’t know!  The early church spent 400 years trying, and ultimately failing, to figure that out.  It is a mystery and not one that we’ll ever solve.  We can never solve the mystery that God was in Christ nor that God is in us: we can only experience it through the commitment we make to follow Jesus as boss of our lives.  Trinity means God brings us into the divine life.  Hear that loud and clear.

This leads me to the third and final thing I want you to hear: Our life, as God’s life, is at root communal.  We sing, “We are one in the bond of love,” but do we believe it?  The Spirit of Jesus we receive at baptism makes us one with God.  The same Spirit of Christ makes us one with all human life through the church.  Now, most people’s view of their relationship to the church goes something like this: Christ is the head and all of us are hairs sticking out of it.  They have no commitment to anyone in this or in any congregation because they believe, “My only commitment is to Christ.  I’m not part of a body.  I’m just attached to the head.”

Trinity-Good-News says otherwise.  Do they not realize that the Spirit of Christ is not divided?  Do they not realize that the Spirit of Christ within another person joins them with that other person as one?  The divine life consists of distinct persons in essential unity, and if we share that divine life, we too consist of all who have the Spirit of Christ within them.  Like Trinity, the church’s distinct persons are in reality one.  Pogo ‘Possum said it best: “We have met the enemy, and they are us!”

Zion Church, hear me loud and clear: in the situation we are in it is too easy to divide up into enemies: congregation against council; old-hands against Johnny-come-latelies; progressives against conservatives.  It is too easy to snip and snipe against one another.  But listen: the persons we hurt that way are us.  The person we hurt that way is God.  Open your hearts to one another, whether you like what has happened or not.  And do not imagine that going elsewhere will make your life any better or easier.  You are joined to these persons as one in the life of God. That’s Trinity-Good-News.  That’s the word of the Lord for our lives today…

Thanks be to God.

[1] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life (NY: HarperCollins, 1991), 1.

The Road Takes Back What It Gives and Yet…

pexels-photo-533416.jpegRight after the service on the second Sunday in April, Billie and I went in search of spring.  We drove through Illinois and Kentucky into Tennessee, watching dogwoods and redbuds bloom before our eyes.  Somehow we leap-frogged the Bradford pears: their earnest, white petals gave way to chartreuse before we even knew they were there.  When we got south of Knoxville where my dad lives, even the oaks were fully clothed and azaleas assailed us on every side with their wanton hues and their pastels.  This great rush forward took our breath away – our tired, stale, winter-held breath – and replaced it with something more like the sighs of resurrection.  What a grace.

What a cheat!  We knew we would repeat the journey in reverse once we turned around to come home, but that just allowed us to enjoy the extended season more.  Yes, we pretended to mess with time, but its pace never really changed, rushed or slowed.  The road takes back what it gives, and yet… not all of what it gives.  The dogwood leaves do shrink and disappear, but they leave in their place pale blossoms.  The road we took away from winter brought us back again, but now spring is here, too. 

That’s the way it is with life.  Sometimes we do things to get away from a situation only to find ourselves back in the same place, facing the same problems with the same people.  And yet… if we move toward life-giving as we go, we will always bring some new life back with us.  When Mary Magdalene walked away from the tomb on Good Friday, she walked toward life-giving.  For her that meant lighting Sabbath candles and joining in God’s rest and re-creation.  She knew that after Sabbath there would be the work of anointing a body, honoring a corpse to honor a life that had been taken.  Sure enough, the road that gave her a moment’s respite took her back and left her again at the tomb, but now the stone was rolled away.  She had moved toward life-giving and when she came back she found what she thought to be dead very much alive.

Christ is risen.  Alleluia!  Christ is risen indeed!

Help with the Wait

A Sermon for Advent 3 based on Matthew 11:1-6

I saw a headline the other day saying it wouldn’t be the holidays without an article telling us how to keep off those extra pounds.  Then I stepped on the scales this morning and, well, let’s just say I didn’t read the rest of the article.  We all need a little help with the weight.  We also need help with a different kind of wait.

All John could see were prison walls.  After all the crowds, after all the notoriety, after all the excitement of seeing the Spirit descend on his cousin in the form of a dove and hearing from heaven a voice declaring, “This is my Beloved Son,” it all came down to this: prison walls and despair.  Where was the kingdom of God he’d heralded?  Where was the LORD God of Elijah who could send down fire and withhold rain, who overthrew wicked rulers and established justice for the poor?  John longed for the judge of heaven and earth to bring justice against the rich and powerful, against those who believed they could just use people with impunity, just use them up like tissues and then throw them away when they were done.  John had a heartbeat for justice: that’s what landed him in prison in the first place.  He’d spoken truth to power.  He’d dared say to Herod the Great’s son, “It is not right for you to steal your brother’s wife!”  And he’d landed in prison because of it.

On top of everything else, what John heard of Cousin Jesus threatened to crush his spirit.  John had expected Jesus to clean house.  “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” he’d proclaimed.  “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat … but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  John had expected Jesus to set up a reign of justice and peace in the land.  Instead, he heard that Jesus was eating and drinking with the worst of society and spending all his time training just twelve people.  He heard the same thing we do from verse 1: now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.  “Words, words, words,” John thought.  “Where are the actions?!” So he sent friends to ask the burning question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

We really hate to wait.  We look for the shortest check-out line at the grocery store and, if we’re really in a hurry, we use self-checkout.  We look at the line of cars in the drive-thru before deciding it would be faster to go inside and order.  When stuck in traffic, we look to see which lane is moving faster than ours and then do crazy things to get in that lane.  Of course it slows down as soon as we get there.  We hate to wait!

But even more, we hate to find out that our wait was a waste of time.  Has that ever happened to you?  Ben used to tell me what it was like to work as tech support for Apple products.  One of the hardest things to deal with, because he totally understood where they were coming from, were the people who waited 20 or more minutes just to speak with a live person and then had to hear they’d gotten the wrong department.  Often they would be angry and take their frustration and anxiety out on him.

As John waited, he grew angry and anxious by turns, just like we do, and he wondered if he might be waiting for the wrong person.  Sometimes we feel that way about God.  “I keep coming to church and nothing changes.  I keep praying and nothing changes.  I keep watching for the light to dawn in my spouse’s, my boss’s, my friend’s heart and nothing happens.  Bupkis: nil, nada, zilch.  Is God even there?!”

Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, reminds us that “waiting makes us anxious, and anxiety makes us come up with plans of our own for salvation that are typically not so great.  Most decisions made out of fear only make things worse.”  He also says, “waiting reveals … that we are creatures and not Creators.  If we were gods, we would never have to wait for anyone to make our dreams to come true.  But life is created by God.  When we lose the humility of this truth we inflict the most harm on those around us.”[1]  We lash out at our loved ones or, worse, we give up on God and give in to a sick, helpless despair.

That’s where John was when he sent his friends to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  And what was Jesus’ answer?  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Okay, let’s switch holidays for a moment.  Instead of A Charlie Brown Christmas, let’s go to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  Do you remember Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally?  She was so in love with Linus that she let him convince her to wait in a pumpkin patch while all the other kids went trick-or-treating.  And as the two of them wait for the Great Pumpkin to rise from the most sincere pumpkin patch, she alternates between asking him if this great, wonderful, gift-giving pumpkin is really going to show up and threatening him if it doesn’t.  All he could do was say, “Just wait.  You’ll see.”  Compare that to the word Jesus sent to John who also suspected he was missing out on something really good by waiting for the wrong thing.  “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Here’s the thing: whenever you wait for something real and true, there will be help with the waiting.  There will be help with the wait.  There will be a foretaste of the feast to come.  Your life will bear the fruit of your waiting.  A transformation into wholeness will begin to appear in your life and your situation.  Yes, God asks us to wait, but God does not ask us to wait unassisted.  The waiting itself opens our eyes and ears to see the reality of what we are waiting for.  You may feel stuck in a relationship right now, but as you wait faithfully you begin to see a change in your own attitude that heralds a change in the relationship itself.  You may feel stuck in a dead-end job, but as your waiting creates trust, new possibilities begin to blossom.  God does not ask us to wait without giving us a taste of what we’re waiting for.

Amazing things really are happening around us if we just have the ears to hear and the eyes to see.  But like John, sometimes we need someone else to point it out to us.  Krista Tippett hosts a radio show on NPR called On Being.  She was recently interviewed about the response to her book, Becoming Wise.  She said,

Even in early 2016, people were so weary – sore inside.  In the 24/7 news environment, people are bombarded with the same story of what is catastrophic and corrupt and failing 25 times before lunch.  They start to internalize that not as news but as the norm.  An effect I see on people in conversations that came up around the book is, there are actually so many beautiful, generative things happening in the world.[2]

Beautiful, transformative, life-giving things are happening – even in a 24/7 news environment that focuses on “what is catastrophic and corrupt and failing.”  But if we only focus on those horrible things, how will we ever know?  If all we ever look at are the walls, how will we ever see the open door?

The word of the Lord for our lives today.

Thanks be to God.

[1] M. Craig Barnes, “What Waiting Reveals” in Christian Century November 9, 2016, 35.

[2] Interviewed by Elizabeth Dias in Time December 12, 2016, 72.

Peace on Earth? Repent!

Sermon on Advent 2A; Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

Our two scripture readings this morning seem to have nothing in common.  First, there’s the very Christmasy vision of peace on earth from the prophet Isaiah.  It starts with the promise of a descendent of King David, the model king who was a person after God’s own heart, coming to judge the earth and bring in the peaceable kingdom where…

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the [baby goat]… and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:6)

Then you get John the Baptist, that wild-haired prophet, shouting, “Repent! Change your heart, but even more change your life!”  Then when the good church people started coming to get in on the latest spiritual fad of dunking…

he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.  (Matthew 3:7-10, The Message)

These are two jarringly different images.  Why did we read both of them together?  Because you cannot hope for peace on earth without first experiencing a radical change in your own life.  You don’t get the Christmas magic without first being transformed by the Christ.

So let’s get down to brass tacks.  If we really want peace on earth, then we need to repent of our own polarizing thoughts and words.  The worst thing about this last election is the way church people spewed poison in public and took partisan positions that encouraged the most hateful elements of society to raise their ugly heads.  Do you really want Americans to come together?  Then swear off “hate” radio and the pandering entertainment that passes itself off as news.  Just… stop listening to it.  Just… stop watching it.  Do we really want peace on earth?  Then we will embrace the Kingdom values of Jesus and resist every political, economic, and racial expression of hate and divisiveness.  Peace on earth will only begin to be possible when we, the church of Jesus Christ, take seriously the gospel demand to repent.

And how do we do that?  How do we repent?  Our conversionist brothers and sisters will tell you that all you need to do to repent is get down on your knees and tell God how sorry you are for your sins.  It’s a one-time deal and then you’re washed clean as snow and everything is hunky-dory.  Listen to me: that view of repentance has only half the truth and none of the power.  The truth of the gospel and the promise of God’s power to change lives is that repentance must happen daily as we intentionally engage in practices of transformation.

What are those?  Worship is one.  You, right now, are engaged in a practice of transformation and you didn’t even know it!  The spiritual-but-not-religious crowd who sees no need to gather for public worship has no idea of the power it has to reorient our lives to the really real.  For example, when we come to church for worship during Advent, we wash all the commercialization of Christmas right out of our hearts and minds as we listen to the Good News and respond to it with heartfelt surrender to God.

What are some other practices of transformation?  My favorite is centering prayer where, for twenty minutes a day, I die to self by releasing every thought as it arises and simply be before God.  A small group of us experienced the power of that practice of transformation this fall in the chapel on Sunday nights.  Another practice is silence.  I’m not talking about going away for a week of silent retreat, although I’d highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested.  Silence as a transformative practice can be as simple as the Loops of Love ladies consecrating the prayer shawls they knit with twenty minutes of intentional silence at the start of each Wednesday session.  It could be as simple as people coming to the chapel on Tuesday nights to sit in silent prayer for church and community.  Silence, like centering prayer, is a dying to self as we lay aside the language on which ego thrives.  These are practices of transformation which, when we commit to them, will change our lives.

But the most important practice of transformation we could do at Zion right now, in light of the recent campaign season that has torn our country apart, is to create a time and place for people of sincere difference to come together and simply listen to one another.  No judging; no debating: just listening and letting one another feel heard.  There is no other place in our society where that can happen today.  Now if you want to see the power of peace on earth, I dare you to give that practice of transformation a try.

Peace on earth?  Repent!

The word of the Lord for our lives today.

Thanks be to God.