Celebrating the Church

body of Christ

 

 

A reflection on

1 Corinthians 12:12-13:3 fromThe Message (MSG)

12-13 You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.

14-18 I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.

19-24 But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”? As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way—the “lower” the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary. You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach. When it’s a part of your own body you are concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair?

25-26 The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.

27-31 You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything. You’re familiar with some of the parts that God has formed in his church, which is his “body”:

apostles
prophets
teachers
miracle workers
healers
helpers
organizers
those who pray in tongues.

But it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that Christ’s church is a complete Body and not a gigantic, unidimensional Part? It’s not all Apostle, not all Prophet, not all Miracle Worker, not all Healer, not all Prayer in Tongues, not all Interpreter of Tongues. And yet some of you keep competing for so-called “important” parts.

But now I want to lay out a far better way for you.

The Way of Love

13 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

3-7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

Love-Guided

rachelweeping

 

 

We enter the new year with unfinished business, with mourning and repentance. The new year is that liminal space where we are invited to consider all that we have been, all that we have done and left undone, and so we enter this year with a call for mourning and repentance.

 

The ground cries out with the blood of our brothers, our sisters, and will not be still. We wish to run, to turn away, to state loudly that we are not our brother’s keeper and that this has nothing to do with us…but deep within we know this is a lie. Rachel cries for her children and will not be comforted. We feel within us the need for tears, for repentance but it’s hard to maintain a level gaze when looking at this. It feels like it is just too much, and what can we do anyway? But the disquiet in our souls won’t let us rest easy.

 

We enter this year with more than 1000 documented deaths of young black men despite the fact that they make up only 2% of the population of the United States. Rachel weeps. We struggle to understand this, because how can this happen in our society, in this day and age? The people we know, our neighbors, our friends, they are good people, so where exactly, are all those people who are causing such harm, such distress, in our society? Have we not gotten past this? Somehow, there must be someone to blame because if there is, we can take care of them and then things will be all right again, and we so long for things to be all right.

 

We weep with Rachel, because weeping and mourning is not separate from love but is a deep reflection of love. It is to know love so well and let it affect us so deeply that we cannot pass by without being touched. It is to hold sacred the bonds of relationship, to hold sacred the deep connections that unite us.

 

This is one of the gifts of this church, that this church has stood with those who suffer, those who are oppressed and will not turn a blind eye.

 

We dare not pass by Rachel as she weeps as if her weeping was not, is not, our problem. To do so would be an affront to all that is sacred, all that is holy, for our God is a god of love. Our God is a god who weeps and if God weeps and mourns with those who suffer, who are we not to? So today we weep and we mourn with the parents of Tamar Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald and so many, many more. We weep with the parents of Syrian children drowned at sea. We weep with the parents of the 276 girls kidnapped in Nigeria who have been gone now for 629 days. We dare not pass by Rachel as she mourns but must weep with her even as we long for things to be all right.

 

Demagogues see our pain and are quick to tell us there is someone to blame. It’s them, it’s those, it’s the other, it’s not us. Riding on waves of fear and pain they rise in popularity and we have seen this before my friends, we have seen it before. Herod in his high places, surrounded by guards and walls and armaments was no less afraid. Living in fear, dwelling in fear, knowing who he was when he was afraid and believing the whole world was just as scared as he was, “What might they do”, he must have thought, “to get rid of that fear, to be safe like I am safe.” But he did not feel safe and the cost of his safety was more sacrifice, more death.

 

God has another path in mind for us. Listen to the words of scripture:

 

Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, [God] had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love.

 

 

To be made holy and whole by God’s love. But we cannot do this by turning away from Rachel as she weeps. We cannot do this while we dwell in fear. Fear that we are not good enough, that we have failed or are incapable of being the people God calls us to be. Fear that we are alone in our efforts.

 

“For I know the future I have in store for you”, says God, “plans to prosper you and not to abandon you.” We, unlike Herod, do not need walls and armaments, men with weapons, and the sacrifice of innocents to keep us safe. We are held in the loving arms of God and can, therefore, walk the path of Jesus.

 

Even as we enter a new year knowing that our society has declared that it’s OK to kill a child if you are really, truly scared, we are asked to live in another paradigm, living not the way of the world, but the way of Christ. We are called to live rooted and grounded in the love of Jesus Christ which emboldens us, which encourages us and insists we live from a place of love and not fear. Be made holy and whole, center yourself in God’s love for you. For God knows you so well, knows the secret places in your heart and soul, has knit you together in your mother’s womb from stardust and love. Long before the foundations of the earth were laid, God had us, had YOU, in mind, knew you, claimed you, called you into being.

 

What pleasure God took as he dwelt in loving reflection on you.

 

God’s love for you is written in the DNA of your soul. It is embedded in your very bones. Let that soak into your awareness, pray on that, meditate on that.

 

For the world calls to us from a place of fear. The world tells us we’d better figure out who’s to blame so we can take care of them once and for all, and then, and only then, we will be safe.” Kill them all,” Herod said. “Kill them all, then I will be safe.” And the world would have us join this hunt for the ones who threaten us. It would stir us up in fear and anger…but wait, but wait, God’s love for you is written in the DNA of your soul. It is embedded in your very bones. Rest in that for a moment. If God is for us, who should we fear?

 

The world offers us a frightening paradigm but it is in Christ that we discover who we really are and what we are living for. Not a life of fear, sheltering behind tall walls and arming ourselves with weapons, but a life abundantly free, gloriously free. What might you attempt if you were not afraid? Who might you be if you allowed yourself to live from this place of deep, eternal love and freedom? And who are we, if we decide to turn our back on this incredible freedom and love and instead reside in fear and anxiety, as if it all depended upon us, as if we were the only ones who could create safety, and success.

 

We stand on the cusp of a new year, a place where we are invited to look long and hard at who we have been, what we have accomplished, and who we might yet be. Fear lays out one path before us; a life of safety and security if we accept certain limitations. Stay behind your walls and gated communities, arm yourself against the other, and only hang out with those who look like you, who sound like you, who agree with you.

 

The God we meet in Jesus Christ lays out another path, a reckless, loving, abundant, life-giving path and asks only that we surrender our fear in deep faith that God holds us securely and safely and we do not need to be afraid. Fear is the great illusion that would hold us captive—do we dare to believe this? We do not need to figure out who’s to blame or to take control, and fix everything. We are asked only to love, to show forth the same grace and forgiveness that we have been given. To share the light of Christ with all who hunger for it. We are to become a city on a hill, one that shines forth with such light, such love and faith, that all who see it will be warmed, will be encouraged.

 

We are to be a people so loving, so committed to walking in the path that Jesus showed us that we withhold not even ourselves, especially not ourselves. We are to be a people who so shine with the light of Christ that all those who hunger for healing, hunger for love and belonging, who hunger for a place where they are accepted, wounds and all, will gather around us, knowing that Christ is here with us when we gather.

 

Love has created us like itself, tender and holy.

We have been created in relationship for relationship. That we are all one body is both beautiful and mysterious. How can we not weep with Rachel, she is part of us and we would not have it any other way. We will not leave her alone and isolated in her grief, but will hold her and her pain gently as a sacred act of love.

 

All the world tells us that it is a kill or be killed kind of world and that even the death of children is acceptable if the fear be great enough, but we are the beloved children of God and we must act differently. We must not buy into that paradigm. We follow another path, one that is not fear-driven, but love-guided; we are the ones who are held securely and safely in the arms of a loving God, one who will not falter nor fail, and while the world screams at us that we ought to be afraid, we do not tremble for knowing who it is that holds our hand as we go forth, we cannot be afraid.

 

 

Regarding Love

 

 

uncomfortable love

 

God comes into the world celebrated by an unwed mother and an old infertile woman, the least of these, at least at those times. Two individuals who would have been nearly invisible then and certainly the subject of gossip and shame. Today as we are asked to ponder love and what our scriptures tell us about love and loving we begin with two women who likely would have struggled with love, who had reason to feel unlovable, excluded, unworthy, ashamed.

 

In that time and culture a woman’s central role was to provide a trustworthy lineage, heirs who were their father’s sons, a legacy that could be trusted. Unwed mothers and infertile wives need not apply. Elizabeth would have known a lifetime of failure, Mary would have been subject to honor killing if her fiancee or family so chose. They were the most unworthy in the eyes of society. Yet both women found themselves regarded by God in an unexpected way, and this changed everything.

 

My soul magnifies the Lord, Mary sings, for he has looked upon the humble state of his slave, and now everyone, everyone, will call me blessed. Such is the power of being seen, truly seen, by love; to be regarded by God and seen as something you never thought possible. When you have been taught you are worthless and a failure but God says you are blessed; when you have been filled with shame and God says that God’s very self will come into the world-through you! Is it any wonder Mary sang? Is it any wonder that her song was filled with reversals, the weak made strong, the mighty brought low, the hungry fed while the rich leave empty handed. Her whole world had just been turned upside down.

 

The Stoic philosophy which was so popular when Jesus walked the earth, and still is in some places, insists that the body is the source of evil, that one needs to rise above it, to be objective and not swayed by physical or emotional involvement.

 

Then Jesus comes, an embodied God who delights in good wine, who shares fine food with good friends, who hangs out with prostitutes and con men, with traitors, God who simply melts with love unashamed. This was not a god who rose above messy emotional and physical entanglements but who was born of a woman, in a barn, and who died a brutal death on a cross. It was all very messy, very involved.

 

We too, are called to engage with the world, to be subjective and be in love, not to distance ourselves and objectify all that is, including ourselves but to be subjects in love, to be subject to love, to be involved in all the mess.

 

Even the early church struggled with this. Even the later church struggled with this. I think the church probably still does. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote a treatise on the advantages of virginity which insisted that even the best marriage, the most loving and well put together, was a distraction from God. All that raising of children, loving one’s spouse, the need to provide, if you could just let go of all of that, it would be easier to focus on God, he said. Forget watching your children grow or play. Forget the sweet touch of a loved one’s hand on your cheek, let it all go. One of the first on record to say it’s just better not to be involved. This doesn’t concern you. But it concerned Jesus, it concerns God, who did not, does not stay separate or distant from all this mess but gets right in there, in the midst of the mess.

 

Stoicism established a hierarchy which privileges the spiritual, the intellectual at the expense of the physical and emotional but this hierarchy isn’t Christian. Jesus shows us a very different way of being, one which is engaged, emotional, involved, invested not only in great abstract ideas, which are beautiful, but in actually making people well, in healing and attending to their broken bodies, broken relationships, and broken hearts.

 

He does not stay distant from them or us in the midst of pain and brokenness but joins us, weeping, hungering, even dying. He does not take a free pass straight to the, “I won’t care and it won’t hurt,” This is not the unchanging and unchangeable god but one who instead dives right into the messy, muck of a well loved, well lived life. It is messy, there is no withholding; there is only love, full, complete, subjective love. This is what it means to be regarded by God, to be gazed upon with fierce attention which sees you and loves you, exactly as you are. It means God is involved with you. Loves you. Not in some abstract indefinable way, but in a real, tangible, touchable way.

 

So is it any surprise that when God regarded Mary, as she felt it in every part of her being, something new was born, changing her life forever. Mary had been seen in the very depths of her being, in all of her low-class, socially unacceptable being and God looked at her and saw more. In that moment Mary discovered that she was named and claimed forever by God and she got brave. She got Brave! In that moment a revolutionary was born. Mary regarded by God, seen, examined, admired, appreciated, regarded, held. Seen in depth, in the depths, all of her humanity, her struggles and her brokenness, all of her beauty, strength and wisdom, all of it, seen, regarded, held in God’s gaze, and loved. It was personal just as it is for each one of us.

 

We need to add the spiritual discipline of attention to self-mastery. We want the mastery because we want control. It’s the way it’s always been, we like control. It makes us feel safe. But the discipline of attention, of being present to another with love and justice, this is out of our control. It changes us and it scares us. But it is by being at the disposal of another that we are drawn out of ourselves (ekstasis) and this drawing out is wild and uncontainable, it’s ecstatic and mystical. It’s plain old scary.

 

You might feel for the stoics, I know I do. After all, being in love and vulnerable is scary stuff. Love has a way of shattering all our preconceived ideas about who we are, what’s important, and what might be. It might feel better to put all that stuff away, not feel, not be vulnerable. To just know the rules and abide by them and one can be certain of success. Just give me a formula I can follow. Just don’t get caught up in the messiness of love. It ruins everything. It draws you into situations which you don’t want to be in. It breaks your heart and muddles your thinking. It’s a wonder that we can speak at all intelligently about something that blows our lives up as much as love does. It is easy to understand why so many want to avoid it, control it, contain it, keep it proper, but it just won’t be contained or explained. It won’t be proper.

 

Just as it was for Elizabeth. That surprising moment, when you’ve given up all hope that you might have some worth, some value, some meaningful contribution to give and someone sees you and calls you out. Yes you. Called out. You have something to give, to offer the world, a legacy that you might leave behind. Something good and unique, a gift that is uniquely you. That moment when you get the message that God isn’t done with you yet.

 

When Elizabeth saw her niece appear, pregnant and unwed, we might have expected Elizabeth to look at her and judge her, shame her, kick her to the curb, but this doesn’t happen, she steps outside of her culture and praises Mary. It’s startling really, that Elizabeth sees more in Mary, that she is able and willing to confirm for her the good thing that is happening. There is some part of us that needs this confirmation, that needs to be seen.

 

And then Mary bursts into song. This is the great reversal of fortune, not to be a disgraced and ostracized teenager or a shamed infertile woman, both to be forgotten and dismissed in the course of history but to be eulogized, memorialized, remembered forever as blessed, as the most fortunate of women. Our God is a god who reverses the fortunes of those who are lost, in pain, broken, who have failed and missed the mark, who are covered in shame and regret. Our God is a god who restores all of us to a wholeness that we could never know alone.

 

The incredible thing, the astonishing thing, is that we are called to participate in this great reversal, to see one another through the eyes of love, to regard one another as God does. We are invited into a spiritual practice of gracious, loving attention. To look with intention, seeking the child of God in every broken or hurting person, every self-righteous or proud person, in everyone.

 

We are called to see one another with the eyes of love and mercy. To look upon everyone we meet with kindness, to be attentive to them, to see them with a loving and just gaze that they might become who they really are, who they were created to be.

 

This is the gift of love, to see with eyes wide open, all the hurting and broken pieces of a person, of life, and to not withdraw one’s gaze until love has filled in every cracked, broken piece. Do not withhold yourself, do not look away. Look with the eyes of love and participate in the great reversal; join God in God’s work of restoration, actively participate in the mission of God. Risk being fully vulnerable and letting love change you, blow apart your self concept, change your world, to be a new creation and nothing will ever be the same again. Know that while loving others will change them forever, it will also change you.

 

We have never been called to a personal security at the cost of love but rather to be changed, transformed, made new through a self-giving love of others. This is the way that Jesus came that we might see, that we might follow on this way. It feels like losing, losing control, losing safety, security, losing certainty, but there is something beyond this, a reversal of fortunes, for those who seek to save their lives will lose them. Those who give, who love freely and fully and who allow this to change them, to change their lives, their selves, will be a new creation.

 

And then we too will join Mary singing:

I’m bursting with God-news;

I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, one really good look. God regarded me,

and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
His mercy flows in wave after wave over those who are in awe before him. All your breakers and tides have rolled over me.
He bared his arm and showed his strength, but his strength was not what we expected, all our preconceived ideas are blown apart, our lives are shattered and rearranged. We are held eternally in a loving gaze that knows justice and mercy, that restores us, that heals all wounds, that won’t let us fall. Just like He promised.

And then we will look with the eyes of love, and we won’t stop loving, not ever.

 

 

 

Peace Bearers

peaceful-dawn-bob-orsillo

Peaceful Dawn by Bob Orsillo

 

(Please excuse the brood of vipers comment! Just mentioning John the Baptist’s pastoral counseling methods!)

 

 

My friends, in the depths of my heart I am grateful for you. I am grateful for your powerful witness, your courage and tenderness in being willing to take on all the powers that would shatter our community into small self-interested, divisive groups. You have shown up at churches where the language and theology, the worship and songs are unfamiliar. You have engaged in relationships with people who are unlike you and been vulnerable enough to share your own stories and to really listen to theirs, to allow their story to impact you and change you. This is gospel work. This is the work of sharing the love of Christ with all people. We have been called to gospel work, to the work not of witnessing to some difficult intellectual idea about God but to the work of Be-ing grace and love to each other, to our neighbor, to our community.

 

We have such deep need for this kind of dialogue, more now than ever. On Thursday I followed along on Facebook as two of my friends, both PC(USA) pastors, initiated brave conversations about gun control. There was some heated discussion, but each time it threatened to get out of control these two amazing people would intervene, would ask that all voices be respected and that we all remain engaged in this dialogue. Boundaries were drawn to keep people safe by including them in healthy and appropriate ways, by not allowing shaming or attacking, by not excluding those we struggle with. The truth is we need each other. We are connected by ties that we cannot cut. We are a congregation of diverse points of view, conservative, liberal, cautious, radical. We have intentionally practiced staying in relationship across and through these differences. We have begun to learn and to appreciate that places of conflict, of diverse opinions and views, are also fruitful places, are creative places.

 

It isn’t easy. It’s countercultural. Our culture would tell us we must win, we must be right and we can get ardently caught up in being right! But this is the path we are called to, one of dialogue across differences, the path of reconciliation. In John’s gospel Jesus states, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

 

God’s peace, not the peace of power over another such as the Pax Romana, surely Jesus knew of this peace, the peace enforced by brutality and power over. (do not be afraid) But a different kind of peace, a different sort than we had ever experienced before. This weekend I was watching a Lifetime movie, a cute, not especially significant movie. But there was this one scene where a mother was trying to keep her son safe by keeping him away from the homeless man and her son says to her, “But Mama, the bible says we are supposed to help people.” And she responds, “Well yes honey, but the world was safer back then.” And I almost choked. The world that Jesus grew up in was brutal. The practice of being a reconciling peace-bearer in that world got him killed, hung on a cross, but Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook. Go on now, pick up your own cross and let’s get going. We have whole communities to witness to! We have a world to bring peace to, a world that cries out for this.

 

In a world where protest camps are bulldozed at 4 a.m. in the bitter cold, in a world where people live in fear of armed attackers, where people must run from their homes, their country, in a world where vitriolic political campaigns become unremarkable, we are called to be reconcilers, to be peace-bearers, to witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. We are called to reach out to those unlike ourselves and really, truly engage with them, to love them. The Jesus way was counter-cultural 2000 years ago and it still is, but it is our path, the one we are called to walk faithfully.

 

It’s easy to become and stay polarized. To hang out and listen to, only those people who agree with us, who remain inoffensive. The wonderful and surprising thing about my friends’ Facebook conversations was that everyone was able to participate, that various points of view were included. Too often we are tempted to demonize those we disagree with. We struggle to hear the cry for understanding, for empathy and compassion under the fear, the anger, the prejudice. We struggle to admit that we are just as flawed and our needs are much the same as those whom we disagree with. Our common humanity and need for God’s grace unites us.

 

It is as if we are all engaged in creating a magnificent picture, of our deepest, most beautiful understanding –but we are doing so with puzzle pieces and I have some of your puzzle pieces and you have some of mine and our finished project will be diminished and incomplete to the extent that we fail to come together, to share.

 

John the Baptist takes us to task and invites us to a new way of being. That we would remove all barriers within ourselves that we might receive the Word of God. Make straight our tendency to slip around inconvenient truths and difficult experiences. Raise up our courage that we might enter into relationship with vulnerability and tenderness. Break down our arrogance and resistance that we might allow ourselves to be impacted and changed. Open our hearts and our mouths that we might confess in true humility that we need God and we need one another.

 

In Luke salvation is not a personal salvation, a get out of hell card for one, but rather a salvation which involves the whole of community, the whole of the world. In Luke salvation is the coming of the Kingdom of God here and now, in the flesh. It is something you can see and touch. So what would that look like? This breaking in of the kingdom of God become present among us? Living in the ‘already but not yet’ already Christ as secured our salvation, yet we wait upon the fullness, the fulfillment of this salvation. Can we see glimpses of it becoming present around us? Some glimmer of hope?

 

This week the camp that had been set up around the 4th precinct in Minneapolis was bulldozed at 4 a.m. In response the protestors gathered at city hall at 4 p.m. the next day and a truth was told that we, or at least I, had not heard before. As the community mourned the loss of this encampment something startling was expressed, that this camp had become a place where angry young men and women, those who wanted to respond with violence came and were talked down, were helped to be a reconciling presence rather than a divisive or antagonistic presence. Wanting to riot they were through an incredible gracious dialogue, brought into the process of reconciliation, of restoration. This was a place of love and grace. This is closer to Luke’s image of salvation, a community given to wholeness, to reconciliation which does not reject the angry, embittered or struggling but helps them to transform, to become better, to become witnesses to peace and reconciliation themselves.

 

We too are such a community. A community which does not reject dialogue or engagement with those who believe differently than us, but one which believes we can be wholly who we are without denying the validity of others. This is who we are called to be, to speak across differences, to humbly learn from those we disagree with, to invite all people to experience the love of God and to do so without fear.

 

Listen to Paul’s words, “this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight ,” that by being and sharing the love we have found in Jesus Christ we might change the world, one person, one experience, one place at a time. Love as the very being of God, “has to wear a face,” and that face is “our neighborhood, our neighbors and our community, other creatures, the earth and all its inhabitants.” That face is us. Love as the very being of God becomes present in a unique and tangible way when we let God wear our face and work through us. (Wendell Berry)

 

For the powers in the world cry to us Peace, peace, when there is no peace. They promise us walls to keep us safe but as in Ezekiel when they promise us walls to keep us safe, we will find these walls to be plastered with faulty mortar that dissolves under pressure, and with Jeremiah we will say, “they have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying peace, peace, when there is no peace. They do not know how to blush”. But we are not of the world and where there is pain, loss, injury and anger, we will be there with compassion, with grace, with love.   Where hurt and misunderstanding confuse the issues we will take the time to listen, to learn, to understand.

 

A rabbi once asked his students, how can you tell when the dawn is breaking? His students, eager to please began positing solutions, “you can tell the dawn is breaking when there is enough light to see that the object on a distant hill is not a tree but a man.” No, no, the rabbi said. “You can tell the dawn is breaking when there is enough light to tell the difference between a sheep and a dog.” Another posited. No, no, the rabbi said. They continued this way for a moment, one suggestion after another always the rabbi said, no, no. They paused and into this silence the rabbi said, “The dawn will begin to break when you look into the eyes of the stranger, the foreigner, the other, and see there a sister, see there a brother. Then the dawn will have begun to break.”

 

By the tender mercy of our God the dawn shall break upon us.

 

Remember Who You Are

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Our text this week reminds us that we live in the time of promise, of already but not yet. Already our salvation has been effected! Christ has come and has effected our salvation! But we are still earthly creatures and we struggle with earthly problems. There will be portents of wars and fear and foreboding, people will faint from fear. Jesus knows us. Jesus knows that we turn to fear and abide in fear all too easily. Jesus knows that we fear loss and that change, any change, even positive change, brings with it loss. Jesus knows this. He speaks directly to our current experience just as he spoke directly to the experience of those who heard his voice.

 

The lectionary has placed this ominous text on the first Sunday of advent, advent which is a pregnant time, a time of waiting, of anticipation. It is a time when we are fully out of control, just as a pregnant teenager is fully out of control, events taking place within her body, changing her being, and completely beyond her control. So we too, inviting God into our lives, often find ourselves out of control. It’s not for the faint of heart. It is a time of waiting and anticipating that God will do great things within us and through us, things which we can neither see nor anticipate. This loss of control, this ambiguous beginning, can be frightening.

 

More than ever we enter Advent as a time of waiting in the dark, anticipating the coming, the birth of our Lord, but knowing that while we wait, we wait in the dark. Luke uses many references to that day, those days, and the days that are coming. It seems that he wants to remind us that ‘that day’, the one where we get the phone call we never expected to get, the one where the test results coming back are not what we wanted to hear, that day is coming. The lectionary this year, appears to direct us to that day when we will dwell in darkness and must discover how to be faithful even then.

 

“There have been many losses,” writes Janice Jean Springer, reflecting on the days following her diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Among these losses, she counts the erosion of her “self-image as a strong and vibrant woman … ” By contrast, the struggle to keep her balance, to not fall, seems unpleasantly familiar.

She has lost other things as well, but perhaps the most painful loss of all: “I’ve lost my illusions. I’ve lost the illusion that I am exempt from the losses and limits that besiege other people.”

She writes that each of us will be confronted by losses that make us wrestle with the question, “[How] can I be faithful in my new circumstances?”2

 

How then to be faithful? Even in the midst of darkness, while we wait and anticipate the coming of our lord. Faithful in the midst of a pregnant time, a waiting, anticipating time, in the midst of the already, but not yet.

 

This weekend we gathered with friends and family in a celebration of the abundance and good things that God has given us, not the least of which is each other. We gathered to intentionally celebrate all those things we tend to overlook on a day to day basis. That we have enough. That we are enough. That we are loved and cared for beyond our expectations. We gathered to celebrate that we have roofs over our heads and solid walls keeping out the cold and cutting wind. We gathered to celebrate that we have refrigerators full of good things and stoves on which to prepare celebratory feasts! We gathered around our televisions to watch football games and cheer on our teams. We gathered to watch the Macy’s Parade or the Westminster Dog show. Some of us binged on Netflix, some of us hiked in the beautiful outdoors. We shared greetings with friends from all over the world via social media, and some of us curled up by the fire with a good book. But whatever we did, we were intentionally grateful for all that we had been given, all that we have been and are blessed with. We celebrated the eucharist, which literally translated means to give thanks, to celebrate, to be grateful, and while we might not have thought of linking our breaking bread together around the table to e eucharistic, in many ways it was exactly that.

 

When Jesus gathered his friends and they broke bread together he told them, ‘remember.” He knew how easy it is to get distracted and lose our perspective. Fear saturates the air we breathe. Fear is an expert at making us forget who we are and whose we are. Fear has a way of taking over, of driving our behavior and limiting our choices. So Jesus asked us to remember and this weekend we did. We remembered our blessings, the gifts we have received, the gifts that others are for us, and the gift we are to others. The command, Do Not Be Afraid, appears in the bible more than any other, 365 times to be exact. Gandhi is quoted as saying, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear.” Do not be afraid, God tells us. If perfect love casts out hate, perhaps perfect faith casts out fear.

 

We are asked to step forward in faith and trust that we will be cared for. Crisis becomes not a reality but a lack of faith. We are tempted always to manage by crisis, to move from one dramatic event to the other, these crisis feeling so real, so pervasive that they can dominate our thinking and we become reactive. We are tempted to manage, to control, to manipulate so that things will turn out as we desire, and when they don’t we are tempted to assign blame. We are asked to step forward in faith, trusting that God is in control and that everything, all manner of things will be OK. We are reminded that everything does NOT depend upon us, and we need not anxiously attempt to manage, control, and produce. We can rest in deep gratitude knowing that God is with us, God is in control, and lucky for us, everything does not depend upon us. And in remembering this we give thanks, eucharisto, in remembering this we move out of fear and anxiety and into a deeper faith practice, a more faithful way of BEing in the world. We were not created to BE fear but to BE love.

Fear has a way of making us forget who we are, and whose we are. So on this first day of advent we are asked to remember:

 

Remember—you were created by love, to be love. Love has created you in its own image. You came from love, you were created by love, and your purpose on earth is to be love. Feel the fear and love anyway!

 

Remember—there is a goodness stronger than evil, a light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it! We are called to be that light which steps out into the shadows, not the comforting soft shadows of rest but the places where pain and hurt and loss seem so very strong and incontrovertible. We are called to be that love, that promise that speaks to the goodness which is stronger than evil, which will always overcome, and which is the final answer. We are called to hold the hand of those who walk through difficult and painful times. Centuries ago Hafiz wrote a poem saying, “Out of a great necessity we are all holding hands and climbing, Not loving is a letting go. Listen, the terrain around here, is Far too Dangerous for That!”

 

Remember—we are called to hold on to one another, especially when the terrain we travel through is difficult. We are one body in Jesus Christ. We belong to one another. We are called to hold out a hand to those who are alone, those who suffer. As we gather with friends and family around tables burdened with food under roofs which shelter us from the elements we are called to remember those who hunger, those who long for home and hearth, those who are homeless or refugees. We belong to each other, not loving is a letting go. Their suffering is our suffering. We cannot be well while our brother, our sister is not well. Our fates are tied together.

 

Remember—that the powers of the world, including most of the news media services, are for profit organizations which live and profit off of our fear and anxiety. When they tell us we will lose and we will suffer and we ought to be afraid, that we cannot be strong enough, rich enough, thin enough, remember that God knows you by name. That God knows you and has claimed you and no one and nothing can come between the love of God in Jesus Christ and you. Nothing. Remember that God created you in the image of God, you are enough, you have enough. When you find yourself feeling more and more anxious as the news persists in highlighting all the ways you ought to be afraid, turn it off. Rest instead in the Word of God. Rest in the promise of God’s eternal love and know it is OK.

 

Remember—you are more powerful than you think. Your words, your heart, your choices matter, and they impact others. What we choose to do with our words, our actions, our choices, impact others often in ways we cannot see. Remember that we all struggle with wounds, both seen and unseen and we need to be gentle with one another. We have the choice to be healers, to be friends to those who hurt and to remember that those who are in pain will often ask for help in the most ungracious ways, but that we can love them anyway. Because that’s who we are and that’s what we are created in the image of, a love that knows no boundaries, no limitations, and which loves the most unlovable. We are created in that image. Remember that.

 

Remember—mostly, who you are. Remember that you can choose to rest in gratitude and that a grateful heart is a peaceful heart, is a loving heart. Remember that God loves you and has claimed you. Remember that no one and nothing can come between you and the love of God in Jesus Christ. Remember that you are, yes you, you are a beloved child of God. Nothing can change that. As we begin advent entering into the unknown, the anticipation of the coming of Christ, I remember the many ways in which this community has chosen to live fearlessly as a witness to the love of God for all people.  A church that has gone outside its walls to witness to the love of God for all people. A church that has intentionally engaged in reconciliation! Now more than ever, may we continue to boldly give witness to the Light that shines in the darkness and cannot, cannot! be overcome. May it be so.

The Word We Seek

dietrich

~ click here for audio

Truth? What is truth? And Pilate washes his hands. Today I want to listen to these words which seem to cry out for the Word, a word of truth and power. We are so often beset by hopelessness, by fear, by terror. Images wash over us day in and day out reminding us that there is so much that is beyond our control, so much we deeply desire to change, to have otherwise, so much we don’t understand.

 

Diana Butler-Bass, one of my favorite theologians, wrote recently that our questions have changed. In the middle ages, and even before, when faced with tragedy we asked what God meant by this tragedy, had we somehow caused it, was it a punishment. Job’s friends asked him these questions, what have you done to anger God? Surely there must be something? Or maybe one of your kids did something? You know how kids are, they just don’t think sometimes. After WW ll our questions changed. For the first time it seemed possible that all of humanity could be wiped out. Before this we only questioned if our line or our memory might some day be gone, but after Hiroshima, after Nagasaki, an awareness began to dawn that it just might be possible that the human race might end, and an existential anxiety was born into our culture that had not existed before. Our faith was tested as never before as we were asked to stay present to the terrible potential and still believe. Philosophers began to proclaim that God is dead, for no god worth following could allow such a terrible potential. Our faith was tested, reasonable men and women washed their hands of God, despair seemed the final answer.

 

Truth? What is truth? And we too want to wash our hands and just go on with our day. Today in the face of the overwhelming news inundation we long for comfort, for relief. How can we see the king of kings in a broken, shattered body, hung on a cross? How can we see a way forward through loss and diminishment? I should have paired this scripture with a reading from Job! Because at one time or another we all sit in the ashes, we all mourn and cry out with Pilate, Truth? You want truth?

 

So today I want to listen to Pilate, to his loss and his desire for a word of truth. I want to hear him cry out that he can’t give you a word of truth, that he too longs for a word of truth, but power, he might say, I can give you power. I can give you security and certainty. Hold on now. You brought me this disturbing, unsettling man and you ask that I kill him. I can do that. I can take him out. Every man fears another with a sword and I have one. I have many. I only live in fear of those who have more, so yes, I can give you certainty, I can give you security, I can re-affirm your status quo. I can give you death to all unsettling, disturbing questions. I can silence your doubts and with the strength of my sword arm I can bring peace, the peace of the Roman army, the peace of occupation and surrender. That I can give you. But remember only that you came to me! I did not come to you! I who cry out for a word of truth but find it nowhere. I who have, at the end of the day, only despair and fear, certainty of death and fear of the one who will bring it.

 

This is how kingdoms work, right? Power over, not power with. Kings are those who take power, who have armies of strong men with weapons. This is how we have experienced kings. This is a worldly kingdom! My kingdom is not of this world, Jesus tells Pilate. I am not like you. I do not live by the sword. Hanging in the air, perhaps unseen and unheard is the statement I am the Word you have been longing for. I am the Truth. Pilate, unseeing and despairing, washes his hands. I can do nothing with this man, he says.

 

A tale of two kings, of two rulers, but only one filled with uncertainty, with loss, with despair. A tale of two kings, but only one will live, will be exalted, will be lifted up. Too often, I believe, we have credited Pilate with some feeling, some uncertainty about Jesus. As if, seeing and hearing Jesus he recognized something he’d never seen before, as if he might have had doubts, but I’m not sure about that.

 

If we had asked Pilate, who rules your life? Would he have not answered Caesar? It was the correct answer at the time, the right box to check on all applications. The rabbis and leaders of the Sanhedrin who had brought Jesus to Pilate knew this answer and when questioned they quickly asserted, we have no king but Ceasar. No ruler, no emperor, no king, but Caesar.

 

I wanted to pull our statement of faith from the Barmen confession today, but found no soundbite worthy piece of it that would do. But I still want to talk about this, this barmen confession that arose in the wake of WWll. For if we found ourselves facing a brand new existential anxiety, an awareness of the fragility of life, for if we found that our philosophers and popular culture was washing their hands with Pilate, Truth? What truth? The barmen confession spoke boldly that our word of truth is that God is king, God rules our life, now and always.

 

It was not as if some pastors had not proclaimed loudly that the fuhrer was king, was the ruler. It was not as if we had not turned away from God just as the crowd had done in Jerusalem, we had. We had been co-opted by earthly powers. We had begged for certainty and security. The barmen confession is about repenting of this. It is about proclaiming loudly and for all the world to hear that Jesus is King, now and always; that Jesus rules our lives, now and always; that we will not join Pilate at the fount, washing our hands again in despair.

 

The barmen confession is our loud proclamation of Joy!!! Jesus is King!!! Can I get an amen, can I get an alleluia? Jesus is King!!! Death does not have the final answer, the powers of the world are not the final answer!

 

Pilate is the voice of reason, the voice of the world, the voice that says, this world that you can see and touch is all that there is. There isn’t anything more. You will live and you will die and the only thing that matters is to have and get as much as you can while you live, to kill before you are killed, to live as long as you can, to grasp, and hold, and fight for what you want, for as long as you can!

 

This is the voice that says you ought to live in terror, you ought to live in fear, because death is coming and death is final. This is the voice that says that we need certainty and security because we are alone in the world. This is the voice that rulers of this world speak with.

 

The barmen confession professes something else. The barmen confession reminds us that, while we are prone to listening to the frightening, terrifying voices of the world, that we have another voice, a Word of Truth, that all the powers of the world cannot silence, cannot diminish, cannot take from us. We have a Word of truth that tells us we are never alone and we are never forgotten; we have a Word that tells us death is not the end and that we can live fully, and freely and unafraid.

 

Let that sink in. In our world today, with all the images of fear and terror saturating our society, we can live boldly and fully, with deep vulnerability and presence to one another, as Christians. We do not need to be afraid.

 

Oh our fears will jump up! Oh how they will yell and shout and insist that we need to be in control, we need to DO SOMETHING! Do something, end our uncertainties and insecurities, please, end our anxiety. If we are honest, we can all admit we are prone to this. Some of us are people who like to take control when we feel anxious and some of us are people who want someone near to us to please take control and assure us that we are cared for, but very few of us, in the face of all the worldly powers that face us down, frightening us, let go of all need for control. Very few and I admire those who can even when I doubt they’re actually doing it!

 

Thy kingdom come on earth, here and now, not someday, not in some far away distant place which we might see and be present to perhaps when we’re dead, but now, here. Thy kingdom come, where you are the ruler and the provider of all things and we can trust that. Thy kingdom come, where fear and terror are turned over to your to manage and we don’t have to be afraid anymore. Thy kingdom, not mine, not the republicans, not the democrats or independents, thy kingdom. Please, now, please here.

 

Please come into the anxieties and fears we carry, please settle our souls and help us to live with the uncertainties. Our way is not Your way, but we want to learn. We will not wash our hands with Pilate, removing all the stains of our mistakes and our regrets, but with deep humility we acknowledge our hands, indeed our whole body, is dust and to dust it will return, and with hope and conviction we turn to You, the source of our life and our joy, the promise that death and loss are not the final word and we ask that Your kingdom come, meaning Lord, that we ask you and you alone to rule in our hearts today and always. We will not join Pilate in despairing for a word of truth, for we have a Word, a Word that was with God in the beginning and through whom all things came into being and not one thing came into being that did not come through him.

 

With the writers of the barmen confession we confess that we have been afraid, with the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem we confess that we have sought certainty and security in earthly powers, but with the whole church we confess that we repent of this and we proclaim loudly and joyfully, with deep relief that Jesus is King, death and loss are not the final answers and they do not rule in our lives and in our hearts. Jesus, the word of truth, Jesus, the way, rules in our hearts and in our souls now and always.