Sunday, August 6, 2017

Too Good to Not Be True (Sermon)

Sermon Text: Matthew 14:13-21

Sometimes I think we don't want to believe in grace.

It is easier, more rational, simpler, faster, more efficient to act as though miracles have a more basic explanation. The feeling of lack of control is fun for a minute, for some people, on an amusement park ride, but basically entrusting our life to that feeling is like wearing Keds (flat soled sneakers) as ice skates- no purchase, no control, slow progress. The idea of grace is amazing, but regular dependence on the stuff is a risky business. We've all had enough of a taste of grace to believe it's real, but most of the people I encounter still seem to believe that God's main currency is pain, shame, and punishment.

Recently, a person talked to me about a situation that was grieving them. After spilling out a story of a friend's pain and trauma, the person said, "I believe that God is doing this to bring my friend to her knees. That way she will come back to the Lord. It's the only way." [Insert Pastor Poker Face] Further into the conversation, the person asked, "Do you think God is doing this for the purpose I stated?"

I carefully said, "I believe that understanding is bringing you relief and consolation right now."

I did not say, "No, I do not think that for one second. If those who have seen the Son have seen the Father, does this sound like something Jesus would do? Does that sound like a God who pursues with goodness and mercy all the days of our lives? Does this sound like the God who renews covenants and considers them irrevocable?" (John 1, Psalm 23, Romans 11)

How can we hold the idea of amazing grace in the same hearts that believe in a punishing and vengeful God?

Is God jealous? Sure, God is frustrated by our daily attempts at control, our casual idolatry, and our lack of trust.

Does God correct us? Yes, but we are corrected within the context of being yoked to Jesus, the pain we feel is likely the pull and tension of our attempts to go a way other than that to which the Lord leads.

Does God cause pain and grief and sorrow? This goes hand in hand with the theory of substitutionary atonement: that God was so angry, a sacrifice was required to appease the Divine and Jesus was that sacrifice. If we believe that kind of deity is the ground and source of all that is, we do not fundamentally have a sin problem, we have a god problem.

If grace is true- a continuous and renewing sign of God's character and covenant-keeping- then the pain that exists in the world does not come from God. It comes from the forces that oppose God. It comes from the sin that exists in us and is manifested in our choices, thoughts, and deeds. It comes from the continuous pursuit of control that exists within humanity and the idolatries that grow out of that pursuit.

This week's gospel reading, Matthew's version of the feeding of the multitude, talks about Jesus' compassion. In the wake of learning of his cousin's murder, Jesus continued to heal the people who came to him for healing. He multiplied food so that people who were used to hand-to-mouth living could know the momentary grace of fullness. It seems likely that the people there responded to his miracle by the miracle of sharing what they also had. And the scriptures tell us repeatedly that Jesus is God. When we see the Son, we have seen the Father. The character and actions of the Son reveal the character and nature of the One who sent him. If the unity, but not uniformity of the Trinity holds through that description- then it seems a safe conclusion that Jesus also reveals and speaks to the nature and character of the Holy Spirit.

God, Holy Parent, Holy Child, Holy Spirit, then is a God of abundance, a God who does not discriminate, a God who shows compassion, a God who is not cowed in the face of opposition, a God who heals, nourishes, and satiates (fills to enough!).

Is this, then, a God who seeks to drive us to our knees, to stir us to pain, to arm-twist us into faith?

Does this sound like a God at the ready to shame, blame, and frame us as wrong-doers and horrible people?

In order to live into the discipleship to which we have been called, in order to imitate Jesus in our daily lives, in order to be Christians- little Christs- in the world- we must wholeheartedly believe that grace is true.

Not only that, we must believe that grace is true, but also that it is abundant.

Not only that, we must believe that grace is true, abundant, and bigger than we can fully understand.

Grace welcomes, grace heals, grace feeds... and there are always leftovers.

I'm often told that people (you!) don't really like the idea of salvation being beyond our efforts... as in, there is nothing we can do to earn it. If we struggle with the fact that we do not earn our salvation, that Jesus has done that work for us and for all people, then we are struggling, in fact, with the idea that grace is true.

Just because earning our salvation is off the table doesn't mean there's nothing to do. There's all that grace to respond to. All that grace that is pushing us into the world. All that grace that moves us toward the work of listening, feeding, healing, praying, visiting, clothing, and advocating.

What does it mean to be evangelical. It means to carry good news.

Our good news is the news of Jesus Christ. It is the same good news that was learned, consumed, shared, and carried away from that hill in Palestine in 31 C.E./A.D. Grace is true and there's more than enough to go around.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

What Kind of Stranger Are You?

"What kind of stranger are you?"

The small black girl paused in her climb up the playground equipment and asked me that question. She was speeding around the playground with my white daughter and another little black girl. The three preschool age girls united in laughter, daredevilry, and energy were challenging each other to scrambling up, over, and under everything in sight. 

I tried to be inconspicuous as a spotter as they climbed on the equipment, trying to eye all of them equally for potential falls. Halfway through scaling the wooden framework, one of the little girls turned and looked at me. 

"Is that your daughter?"

"Yes."

"Can we play with her?"

"Sure!"

"Are you a stranger?"

"Um, yes, I am a stranger to you, but not to her." 

"What kind of stranger are you?"

I froze for a moment, cutting my eyes away from hers. For a kindergarten aged black girl in Anchorage, Alaska, what kind of stranger am I? What kind of stranger am I to her mom or dad, her older brother, her next door neighbor, her teachers, her cousin, her pastor or community leader? 

"Well," I said carefully. "I am the kind of stranger who you can ask for help if you are hurt or lost or scared. But you should not go anywhere with me or take anything from me. I am the kind of stranger who will be kind to you, but I still want you to know that not all strangers are the same." 

There's no way to explain to any child that strangers are not always the danger. That sometimes the danger is in your house or your school or the people in positions to protect you. I didn't say that I am a stranger who has fought for things for all Alaskans- like Medicaid expansion, more Medicare doctors, community policing, and more detox beds in the Anchorage Bowl. I didn't tell her that I'm the kind of stranger who wrestles with privilege and frustration and anger. I didn't tell her that I'm the kind of stranger who has a #BlackLivesMatter pin stuck into my bright pink pussy hat and I mean both symbols wholeheartedly. 

As far as she knows, I'm the kind of stranger who watches out for all the kids on the playground. I'm the kind of stranger who will push her on the swing. I'm the kind of stranger whose daughter will refer to other girls whose names she does not know as "my sister". (I don't actually know why she does this, but V told me once that all girls are her sisters. I didn't argue.) I'm the kind of stranger who will pretend to be a tickle monster under the slide, but will only tickle hands and arms of children to whom I am not related. I am the kind of stranger who will offer a bandaid for a scrape, but not a snack because I don't want children I don't know to be in the habit of taking food from people they don't know outside of an organized setting or a grownup's permission. 

I'm the kind of stranger who is not close to being perfect or even that good, but I'm strange enough to keep persisting in being better. 

What kind of stranger are you? 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wonder(ful) Woman

I loved Wonder Woman.

I loved it so much that I didn't want to leave the theater. When I got up, I didn't want to talk about the movie. I wanted to stay in the bubble where it was accepted that women are badasses and to be treated as equals (or even more powerful when they are!). I wanted to linger and wallow in the place where the presented and accepted truth is that women can kick butt AND love babies AND speak multiple languages AND be sexually interesting AND be warriors AND be leaders AND grieve AND can be funny AND can read maps AND can be gracious AND can silence detractors.

There was a whole lot of AND in the movie. Not so much OR.

The world is wide enough for AND.

Mostly, though, I gripped the armrests and wanted to cling to the place where I had seen something that was new to me in film.

There was a shape. A shape I see all the time. A shape that literally and metaphorically defines my life. I saw this shape in Wonder Woman and, for the first time ever, the shape was made by a female body.

In the climatic battle scene, Diana rises as she fights Ares. She rises with her arms spread from her shoulders. She rises with one leg down and the other slightly bent.

She rises and rises.

And, at the height of battle, she is in the cruciform position.

Her body makes the shape of the cross.

This is the ULTIMATE generic and specific hero body pose. It is not a subtle nod to Christian faith or human history. It is a literal appeal to the Jungian trope that has entered human consciousness in the last two-thousand years. The fighter, the bringer of salvation, the one who is on the right side of the fight will spread arms and resist power (and evil) through unconventional means. The specific physicality of the cruciform position indicates vulnerability and strength, humility and power, transgression and transformation.

The two scenes that always come to mind are at the end of Grand Torino and in the egg scene of Cool Hand Luke. The protagonists are seen- arms out, legs straight or slightly bent- triumphant, even in death.

But I've never seen a woman in this position.

There are so few movies with significant battling female heroines. In embodying female or femme heroism, our bodies are pictured as embracing, shielding, arguing, hiding, or taken by surprise.

There are likely examples that I don't know of, but for me... and I suspect for most people... the body of a woman, the savior of the movie, in the very, very familiar shape of the Western cross... seeing this was huge and transformative.

There are branches of modern Christianity that work to emphasize Jesus' maleness, as though the possession of a circumcised penis was the most significant part of the Incarnation. Jesus was male. Historically, that is factual. When read carefully, he is atypical of the men of his day- willing to talk to women, to be obedient to his mother, to acknowledge the fiscal gifts of women, and to take part in the healing of their bodies and restoring them to community. While Jesus was fully male, his male-ness did not blind him to the fullness of the creation he had always known- of which, female bodies, gifts, and lives were a significant part.

Wonder Woman is not magnificent as a film because it posits a female savior (of the film). That's not new, except in big tent comic book films. What was new was that Diana's body and spirit filled the space that heretofore we have only seen occupied by men. She was a boss- in word and deed. And the men around her knew it.

And when she rose, when she rose with her body in the shape that I try to live into every day...

When she rose with her body in the shape of the cross, not for glory, but for service and for love, I wanted to stay forever in the place where that was seen and accepted as real, good, and to be expected  (as in, of course a woman can do that).

Cruciform imagery, bodies in the shape of the cross, plays a significant role in all types of art. It matters that we see women's bodies in this position, not because they have been martyred, but because they have persisted and risen to the challenges of life and we recognize them as the heroes, the leaders, the goddesses, and children of God that they are.

Wonder Woman moved me, not because it showed me what I could be.

It reminded me of who I am.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Altars, Altars Everywhere (Sermon)

Outline for sermon based on Acts 17:16-31


Paul wanders through Athens, sees idols, and is dismayed at the sight.

What idols would someone see wandering through Anchorage? LCOH? Our home/car/backpack?

In order to convince the Athenians to put up an idol to a new god, the evangelist of the new deity must assert the ability to speak of the deity and the deity’s desires. One of the desires of the god must be to reside in Athens. The god’s Athenian residency must bring good will and blessing to the citizens.

Yet, the Athenians have installed an altar to an unknown god.

What actions in our life that would indicate to people that we worship a known God or an unknown god?

Paul speaks to them the one whom they have classified as “unknown” is actually God over all things. This God is not limited in space, time, or material, but is the source of all things. This God is not a small provincial idol, but the Divine Presence of every place and within whom everything “lives and moves” and has being. Furthermore, God is not capricious, creating blessing and suffering with equal whimsy. Instead, God has continued to create revelation of the Divine will.

It was God’s pleasure to reveal the Divine desire for relationship through worship, prayer, and service (summed up as discipleship) through the life and teaching of Jesus. God has also communicated an intention to judge all people on their discipleship and, according Paul, Jesus’ resurrection is the sign that this judgment will occur. There is time to repent (to turn around) and to live in imitation of Christ.

How do we do that, if we know longer see him?

Jesus tells us that we are not orphaned, but we have the Holy Spirit- who comes alongside us and guides us specifically in worship, prayer, and service to others.

Did the Athenians go out and tear down their idols?

Did the story of God’s omnipresence and power and Jesus’ resurrection move them to a conversion and dedication of their city, their homes, and their lives to the one true God?

Does it happen for us?

What are your (our) idols- not just visible things (like habits or physical items), but also intangibles like convenience, patriotism, intelligence, rationality, logic, efficiency, novelty, traditions, orthodoxy, or perfection? Idolatry can take all kinds of forms. These things can be our “unknown gods”, but they often have bigger place in our lives that the God who actually saves us from death, hell, and ourselves.


A thought to meditate on this week: how would you (we) need to alter our routines, homes, or lives to demonstrate that God- Holy Parent, Holy Son, Holy Spirit- has our truest devotion and our highest allegiance? What would that look like? And what holds you (us) back?

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Listen

If I was taking a walk with You, I’d say, “It turns out there isn’t a limit to how frustrated I can get. Or how many bad decisions people can make. Is there no bottom?”

I think you would be silent.

We would walk on and I would get exasperated.

Yes, with You.

“Are you going to say anything?” I will ask.

Stride, stride, stride. Pause.

“I am.”



Originally written for and posted at RevGalBlogPals.org, 5/19/17. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sermon: Made, Loved, Kept

I understand and I truly believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, from his conception unto his resurrection. In his fully human nature, he would have been tempted to sin. Not just the sins experienced through the devil's presence in the deprivation of the desert, but also in every day ways. Thus, when Jesus clearly states to Thomas,
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.
And Philip IMMEDIATELY responds,
Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.
I believe that Jesus was tempted. Perhaps not tempted to violence or sarcasm, but tempted to abandon patience, to growl at Philip, to roll His eyes, to throw up His hands and cry out, "How can I lead when the people I'm leading keep retreating?". A fully human Incarnation was tempted to something in that moment, but did not yield to that temptation. Blessed be the one who resists in the name of the Lord. (Hosanna in the highest.)

Despite having seen Jesus turn water into wine, bring sight to a man born blind, cast out demons, and restore Lazarus to life from the dead, once Jesus begins his "Farewell Discourse" to the disciples, telling them what is to come, they panic. They doubt their life experience. They forget what the truth they've learned. The Way in which they've learned to walk because slippery.

While Jesus, in that moment, resists temptation, the disciples give in to it. They give in to the siren call of despair, frustration, mistrust, and testing God. Asking Jesus to prove himself, again, is putting God to the test, even if the disciples felt it was necessary in their distress. Of course, most of us can relate to the disciples in that because we have often wanted, and sometimes demanded, that God reveal the Divine power through a clearer revelation of strength, healing, or resurrection.

In 2005, I went to Iona, Scotland for the first time. Getting to Iona in its own pilgrimage, in that one must get to Glasgow, then take a train or bus to Oban, then a ferry to the Island of Mull, a bus across Mull, and a final ferry from Fionnphort to Iona. Doing this journey alone in 2005, I was tense and nervous. What if I missed my stops? I did not know that each part of the trip is its own end... the bus stop in Oban is clear and the train terminates there. There is only one ferry stop on each of the boat trips. The bus across Mull starts one side and ends on the other. From the stop in Fionnphort, you can see across the water to Iona, easily recognizable by the huge medieval Abbey. You can be late, but you can't get lost- unless you become so distressed that you miss the signs or demand additional signs of your bus driver, who is not likely to be as patient as Jesus.

Additionally, in 2005, I had just come off my Clinical Pastoral Education work in Providence Hospital. I had been with life support withdrawals, natural deaths, unnatural deaths, and distress in medical treatment. My heart and my history had been laid bare in talking with my learning group for the purposes of learning to pull out the eye logs of my own experience so that i could be more fully present with others in their times of need and uncertainty. I was going to Iona to rest from all this and to heal in a holy place. Like the disciples, however, I was demanding a sign- a holy Iona experience- without contemplating the signs I had already been given.

And, in 2005, I did not have a holy experience. I was overwhelmed with my own stuff. I arrived just a couple weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and people in western Scotland, at the time, felt very free to tell me what they thought of how the United States government in general and President Bush in particular handled all manner of situations. One gentleman (?) even noted that I would just have to take his negative opinions on the chin. So, I was stressed about making the trip correctly, demanding of a holy experience of this much touted thin place, overwhelmed by life and death, and then attempting to figure out how to explain, if not defend, my home country. For a long time, I held all of this against Iona. Maybe it just wasn't a place for me.

So, when my support group of sisters of my heart in Christ- RevGalBlogPals- decided to make our own trip to Iona for study and rest, I hesitated before I committed to going. It was easier to say yes and to present a good case to you when I was traveling as a chaplain with the group. Knowing that I would be presiding, praying, and waiting in stillness with direction gave me purpose for this trip beyond hoping to redeem my last experience.

Yet, the last twelve years have not been for nothing. I have to come to perceive the presence of the God of life in moments of death. I have felt the truth of Jesus in the times when we have had to let a program or situation come to an end. I have known the Way of the Spirit in waiting for direction and clarity. Thus, when three of us missed a ferry by minutes, we were frustrated and attempted to find other solutions, but eventually settled into the reality that we were waiting. And, as one woman pointed out on Tuesday, four days later it did not matter that we were two hours behind everyone else.

This time, on Iona, I was blessed with the spiritual gifts of stillness, laughter, and healing. I don't think this is because I am that different, though 12 years makes a difference, but because I have learned from Philip. After asking again and again for signs, asserting that with one more I will be satisfied, I have learned that the signs are actually happening, constantly. If I watch for them, they will be seen. If I see them, their truth will be revealed. If I can perceive the truth of them, the Way becomes clearer.

On Monday night of this past week, I led compline- the last service of the day. It was the feast day of Mother Julian of Norwich, an English visionary and mystic from the 14th century. In preparing to remember her life, the reading I found in a prayer book was something that I hadn't read before...

From Revelations of Divine Love...
And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, 'What may this be?' And it was answered generally thus, 'It is all that is made.' I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.  
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But is to me truly, the Maker, the Keeper, the Lover- I cannot tell. For until I am substantially [united] to him, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to him that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.

All things have their beginning in the love of God. Because God has made them, God loves them. Because God loves them, God keeps them. Sit with that for a moment.

I can have some real Philip moments (and Thomas ones too, for that matter). How will it happen? How can I know? What can I do? What shall I say? Show me a sign. One more sign. A clearer sign. A louder sign.

However, daily I hold in my hand- water or bread or light for a candle or someone else's hand. Are there greater signs than these? Truths, ways, lives that God has made, loves, and keeps?

Julian of Norwich lived through the plague, the splitting of the Church, the 100 Years War, famines, political revolts, and a wide variety of other human- caused and natural disasters. It seems that people haven't really changed that much seven hundred years later. Frankly, when we look at the stories of the Bible- the disciples and their predecessors and spiritual descendants- people have always been the same.

When we, like the disciples, make demands of Jesus- about directions, signs, and explanations... surely Jesus is tempted to respond other than how he does. Yet, the Pioneer of our Faith does not yield to sarcasm, cruelty, or dismissal, instead Jesus says to Philip, to Thomas, to us-
Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 
Believe me, says Jesus to his weary and worried disciples, that I am One with the Maker, Keeper, and Lover of all that is and all that has been and all that will be. Trust me, says Jesus to disciples in pain and confusion, that all that has been created is beloved, including you. Yield your desire for control to me, speaks the Savior, and look at the Way that is open to you.

Julian of Norwich became distressed, like any disciple does, and Jesus spoke to her:


In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved.

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let your hearts be troubled. In the midst of chaos, pain, and turmoil, the path of discipleship- of doing the healing, companioning, and loving of Jesus in our neighbors- is actually very clear. Jesus says we will do these things, not in the way that he does them, but in the way that he leads us to do them- in the very places, time, and realities that we face daily. And, in the midst of all things overwhelming, we are made, we are loved, and we are kept. 

Do not let your hearts be troubled. All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. 

Amen. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Repost: 10 Things to Know about Hell

I wrote and posted this originally in 2015, but I recently dusted it off and updated it to preach to a group of clergy colleagues. It's one of those sermons that is truly written for oral delivery with asides, facial expressions, and gestures, but it's still good in the reading.
_________________



The Top 10 Things to Know about Hell

10. About 99% of the images in your head of hell- the red demon with a pointed tail, the levels of suffering, the pit of fire, the presence of those who never knew Christ, the darkness, AND the eternal wailing and torment (plus the image of Judas in hell)- are all from Dante’s The Divine Comedy (or The Inferno). His writing was a piece of political literature that condemned powers of his day that he didn’t like. It also was Dante’s way of confirming himself as a poet for the ages by using the poet Virgil, who lived and died before Jesus, as his guide. Additionally, Dante’s work was a distillation of Greek and Roman mythology, some alleged gospels from the second, third, and fourth centuries, and one other work that had serious influence in Dante’s lifetime. The majority of the artwork about hell is not from Biblical interpretation, but is based on The Inferno- which takes very little from actual Holy Scripture.

9. What was the influential work that circulated in Dante’s life? It was a work that had been translated into Latin and was very popular in upper class Italian household in the thirteenth century. Even if Dante hadn’t read this work, he would have been familiar with its descriptions of a fiery hell, divided into seven levels, and particularly populated by people who did not believe in God. What was this book? The Koran.

8. Isaiah 14, when it mentions Lucifer, is not talking about Satan. It is a prophetic statement against the then present-day Babylonian leader who brought suffering upon God’s people. The punishment for the shining leader would be an ignoble death and then to be completely forgotten. The prophecy also turned about to be prediction as no one is quite sure to which king this passage refers. Dante, as well as John Milton in Paradise Lost, expounded upon medieval Christian ideas of the ruler of the underworld being an eternal force that opposed God and was cast down. What force, anywhere, would have the temerity to attempt to oppose an eternal God? God has no eternal counterparts. Only God, as the Holy Parent, Holy Word, and Holy Spirit, exists outside of time.

7. The four horsemen in Revelation are not signs of the apocalypse. Apocalypse means disclosure. The four horsemen, as the images in Revelation 6 are called, are signs of apocalyptic literature. They help readers to know that they are dealing with a story that seems to be about the future, but is really dealing with present realities. The four horses and their riders are the gospel, war, poverty, and death. These things struggle, but one will triumph. (Hint: it won’t be war, poverty, or death.) Those who are believers or who wish to be believers must remember to place their trust in what is truly permanent and act accordingly.

6. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the dead are dead. Period. Sheol is a place where the dead may be gathered and perhaps they are shades, or shadows of their former selves in that place. Ancient Israelites did not engage in ancestor worship, unlike most of the other regional religions of the time. Furthermore, an attempt to contact the dead (as Saul did when he used a fortuneteller to contact Samuel) is a sign of failure to trust in God as the one who holds the future and in whom one should place all confidence. Sheol is sometimes perceived to be a pit where one might descend spiritually- like the psalmist or the prophets Jonah or Jeremiah. Yet the fear is of being forgotten and God does not forget God’s children. Even in the deepest depths, God still knows the intimacies of creation.

5. Satan is an adversary in the Hebrew Scripture, but not an eternal being. When Satan’s name is used in the New Testament, it is either a pseudonym for powers and principalities or how the presence of evil, within one’s own heart or outside of one’s self, is named. When contemporary religionists empower the name of the enemy by attributing works to Satan or giving Satan characteristics that are not biblical, they are engaged in a form of idolatry. Idolatry is not only worshipping the wrong god. It is also idolatrous to be afraid of the wrong power. The idea that there is a force equal to God with evil intent and the power to lure us into eternal separation and that we would be motivated by the fear of that being… Nope. That is not the essence of the Gospel, which is about the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

4. When Jesus talks about hell and says, “hell”, he is referring to an actual geographical location outside of Jerusalem. There, outside the city, was a horrible trash pit that burned constantly. The place was called Gehenna and it is the word that we have translated in the gospels as “hell”. Gehenna had once been the site of child sacrifices, the very sacrifices that were forbidden to Jews, but were practiced by other religions to appease their gods. It eventually became the place of the very worst trash and it was where Roman soldiers would dump the bodies of people who were crucified. It was this horrible place- a place of ignominy, terror, and avoidance- that Jesus urged people to avoid by encouraging them to care for one another, to tend to the sick and the dying, and to practice a radical kind of welcome. The Way of Christ would have meant being a community that saved one another, and the outcasts of society, from being burned with trash and forgotten.

3. In the fundamentalist Christianity in which I grew up, I understood the following: “Baptism, praying in the name of Jesus, and the King James Version of the Bible are all magical talismans against suffering in hell. Not drinking, dancing, swearing, or getting caught wanting to are also important.”

If “I will draw all people to myself” (John 12) AND “Nothing can separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8) and “I have seen the Lord” (John 20) are true, then which of God’s children will be cast into an eternal separation from the presence of grace? We are not all traveling up the same mountain. We are not all feeling different parts of the same elephant. But if God is God AND God is love AND God has been revealed in the person of Jesus AND the Spirit intercedes for us in a variety of ways, then we cannot confidently make predictions about anything that comes after what we know, except to say, “God will still be God and, therefore, in charge.” Is it in keeping with how God has revealed the Divine character to the world to punish people for an infinite amount of time for bad decisions made during a finite period of time?

2. He descended to the dead. Everything from Acts to 1 Peter to the Gospel of Nicodemus to The Inferno written about Holy Saturday- the day between Good Friday (when Jesus was crucified) and Easter (when he was known to be raised from the dead)- everything written about this is an attempt to answer the question, “Where the hell was he?” Truth: no one knows. We are comforted by the idea that Jesus took the message of his triumph over death to the spirits of those who had died and brought them (or those who believed) to heaven. It makes great artwork. We don’t know. Theologian Yvette Flunder says, “Religion is violent because we insist on making the uncertain certain.”  Trying to create a definite answer for what happens on Holy Saturday is, essentially, an attempt to nail Jesus down. Again. So that we don’t have to live with a little mystery.  

1. Hell is not a geographical location. It may be a spiritual location. Hell, if it is anything, is a perception of the absence of God. A perception that is patently false, but that appears when our own experiences, ideas, certainties, or doubts attempt to make gods of themselves through confidence or through fear. That perception is transformed through our acceptance, with Christ’s help, of the height and depth and breadth of grace. People need hell to exist as a reality because they don’t trust that there’s enough of God’s love, grace, or mercy to go around. If there’s not, they want to be sure they’re on the receiving end of it.

When we open ourselves to the hopeful truth that God’s grace overflows- in terms of time, space, context, materiality, and spiritual revelation- we then become more rooted in the joy of our salvation and the good news of freedom in Christ. Rejecting hell as something that must exist removes the scales from our eyes so that we can see how the kingdom of God is at hand.

Living faithfully, through God’s grace, means separating what we have ingested culturally through literature, art, theater, movies, and television and actually examining the written Word and the revelation that can come from tradition, reason, and experience. We reflect on those things in community and with the help of the Holy Spirit. Anything else leads us away from the grace that is amazing, transformative, salvific, and eternal. What can be said about anything that leads us away from the fear, love, and trust of God?  Resurrection grace says, “To hell with that.”


Amen.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Sanctuary

This sermon builds on the idea that the design of the sanctuary is to help us realize that we are safe there- baptized and safe in God's family, fed and safe with God meeting our needs, alive in Christ off the cross and safe because God is bigger. 

          It is one thing to tell children that sanctuary means safety and that everything in a church is designed to help us feel safe. It is quite another thing to try to convey that same idea to adults, particularly adults who are very aware of how church has not always represented safety or sanctuary for all kinds of people. Additionally, the words of the gospels have not always been used for comfort, consolation, or assurance of safety in God to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and circumstances.

           The church has been unsafe at times for women, for divorced people, for children, for people who sought the gospel in their own language, for people who were anything other than heterosexual and cis-gendered, for people with disabilities, for depressed people, for sick people, for grieving people, for people of no faith, for newcomers, for minority races in majority communities, for those who struggle with addiction, for those who do not have work or much disposable income, for conservative people, for liberal people. If I keep going, it would mean acknowledging that for almost everyone in here, at some point, has felt or does feel unsafe or uncertain about their safety in church. Which means that the very thing we call sanctuary hasn’t always been that.

            When that is the case, the church is nearly indistinguishable from the outside world. If this is not a fundamentally safe place, not a sanctuary, then people will look at the church and expect it to be violent in word and deed, untruthful, closed, oppressive, and dying. It is only when we remember, trust, and accept that the God of resurrection is all about the unexpected that we can be truly church- learning to live and die in Jesus and teaching others how to do the same.

            We are called to remember, trust, and accept that:

- God does not repay violence with violence, but meets violence with forgiveness.

- God does not repay questions or doubts with shaming, but meets them with experiences and teaching.

- God does not repay a lack of mercy with a lack of mercy, but with grace and disciplining.

- God does not repay an attitude of oppression with oppression, but with freedom in heart and mind.

            When the church imitates God, instead of the news or the powers and principalities of the world or even an insistence on tradition, when we imitate God- we enter into God’s tradition of life out of death, hope out of despair, truth from lies, and healing out of pain. The reality of the various resurrection accounts speaks to this.

            The gospel writers are counteracting despair. Mark is writing for those who need to perceive how God’s kingdom was at hand, even after the ascension of Christ. When Matthew and Luke are writing, nearly forty years after the events of the day in question, the Temple has been destroyed by Rome. The followers of the Way of Christ are beginning to experience serious struggles. The Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was only peaceful in that you could be left alone as long as you appeared to be cooperative in every way possible with the political leaders at all levels- keeping your head down, your taxes paid, and your mouth shut. There were wars or rumors of wars or quickly silenced insurrections with rebel factions disappearing into the deserts to try to live quiet lives of worship and devotion, which is an ironic way to rebel. The Fourth Gospel is specifically written for one of those communities, drawn together and attempting to live the Way of Christ according to the teaching of John the disciple.

            These were desperate times, during which people began to despair-  the expectation of every day being exactly the same as the day before and the complete lack of expectation that anything can or will change. Doubt is not the same as despair because doubt is logic combined with hope. Doubt looks at the facts, but believes in a larger truth. Despair believes hope is lost.

            For first century Christian, the resurrection accounts were written to remind them that their core story is an earth-shaking, ground-splitting, stone-moving, Rome-silencing event. The resurrection truth, their source of their life in community, is one that is designed to crush despair and feed the flame of hope.

            Across the accounts, Jesus is not where you think he will be, does not appear first to whom you think he will appear, and does not go to the place you expect him to go. (Galilee of the Gentiles isn’t exactly the expected appearance location for a risen Messiah.) In the face of all of that, despair cannot flourish. It is shaken off its foundations. Despair needs suffering, oppression, and routine (the unholy trinity).
           
            This brings the story to us.  We also live in a time of some leaders who act without thinking, think without studying, and study only those who agree with their worldview. We also know a world of competing military powers and oppression of the poor and marginalized communities. We know the exhaustion of attempting to alleviate pain and the feeling of frustration when we cannot gather the momentum to create real change. We need a place to feel safe and a place to draw strength for the work that our God leads us to and expects of us.

            Nevertheless, we are a community who needs to hear resurrection words. We are also people who need to remember that resurrection is an event that affects the whole creation. It shakes up everything. We are embraced by a love and truth that will not let death have the final word. That reality changes everything. Resurrection is an event of forgiveness, an event of God’s on-going revelation of divine mercy, the power of the Spirit continuing to create and transform. The earth cannot keep still under the power of that kind of love. It might not be geologically correct to say that God’s response of love to human violence shakes the earth to its core, but it is theologically true.

            Therefore, we do not despair. We keep the faith. It is not a faith that comes from seeing or even hearing. It is a faith that comes from God- God’s welcome, God’s inclusion, God’s hope, and God’s refusal to let the creation remain unshaken. God’s love is the same, day after day, year after year, eon after eon. That love is vast, however, that it contains truths that are beyond our comprehension- that death is not an end, that forgiveness happens, that all means all, that eternal love is exactly what it sounds like. The love of God gives us the sanctuary we seek and that we are called to offer to the world, most of all from this place. The vastness of the Divine Self encompasses all for which we dare to hope, in the light of which- despair shrivels.

            And then we crush it completely- with voices that quake with joy and trust, “He is risen. Alleluia.”

            He is risen, indeed.

Amen.


Whole Lotta Shakin'

In Matthew’s Easter account opens with two women approaching the tomb and an earthquake. (The two events are only related because of Jesus, not the former causing the latter.) The women are there to witness if Jesus walks out of the tomb, but he doesn’t. The stone is moved and he is simply gone. There is an angel sitting there, matter-of-factly, to tell them that he has been raised and gone to Galilee, just like he said he would.

We do not get a reaction of the women to the earthquake or to the rolling away of the stone. Unlike in the other gospel accounts, we don’t even know why the women are going to the tomb this morning. They simply are. Of course, it is possible women were no longer able to be surprised, given the events of the past three days and the fact that Matthew inserts several earthquakes into his version of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Both seio (the Greek word for shaking and quivering) and seismos (the Greek word for earthquake or commotion) are used liberally in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ last days.

All of this quivering and quaking indicates that something deep is happening. This crucifixion, the betrayals, the death, and the attempt to prevent anything unusual from happening to the body cannot seem to occur without provoking a seismic reaction in heaven and earth. Everything is shaken and stirred.

What should we make of all this movement? Is this an attempt to give geologic proof to the story of the resurrection? It is not. Matthew wants to counteract despair*. When Matthew is writing, nearly forty years after the events of the day in question, the Temple has been destroyed by Rome. The followers of the Way of Christ are beginning to experience serious struggles. The Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was only peaceful in that you could be left alone as long as you appeared to be cooperative in every way possible with the political leaders at all levels- keeping your head down, your taxes paid, and your mouth shut. There were wars or rumors of wars or quickly silenced insurrections with rebel factions disappearing into the deserts to try to live quiet lives of worship and devotion, which is an ironic way to rebel.

This kind of living leads to despair- the expectation of every day being exactly the same as the day before and the complete lack of expectation that anything can or will change. Doubt is not the same as despair because doubt is logic combined with hope. Doubt looks at the facts, but believes in a larger truth. Despair believes hope is lost.

The Christians in the time of Matthew had begun to despair. Thus, his resurrection account is written to remind them that their core story is an earth-shaking, ground-splitting, stone-moving, Rome-silencing event. The resurrection truth, their source of their life in community, is one that is designed to crush despair and feed the flame of hope.

This is a resurrection account in which Jesus is not where you think he will be, does not appear first to whom you think he will appear, and does not go to the place you expect him to go. (Galilee of the Gentiles isn’t exactly the expected appearance location for a risen Messiah.) In the face of all of that, despair cannot flourish. It is shaken off its foundations. Despair needs suffering, oppression, and routine (the unholy trinity).
Which brings the story to us.  We also live in a time of some leaders who act without thinking, think without studying, and study only those who agree with their worldview. We also know a world of competing military powers and oppression of the poor and marginalized communities. We know the exhaustion of attempting to alleviate pain, which feeling frustrated in the momentum to create real change.

Nevertheless, we are the same community who needed to hear Matthew’s words. We are also people who need to remember that resurrection is a seismic event. It shakes up everything. We are embraced by a love and truth that will not let death have the final word. That reality changes everything. Resurrection is an event of forgiveness, an event of God’s on-going revelation of divine mercy, the power of the Spirit continuing to create and transform. The earth cannot keep still under the power of that kind of love. It might not be geologically correct to say that God’s response of love to human violence shakes the earth to its core, but it is theologically true.

Therefore, we do not despair. We keep the faith. It is not a faith that comes from seeing or even hearing. It is a faith that comes from God- God’s welcome, God’s inclusion, God’s hope, and God’s refusal to let the creation remain unshaken. God’s love is the same, day after day, year after year, eon after eon. That love is vast, however, that it contains truths that are beyond our comprehension- that death is not an end, that forgiveness happens, that all means all, that eternal love is exactly what it sounds like. The vastness of the Divine Self encompasses all for which we dare to hope, in the light of which- despair shrivels.

And then we crush it completely- with voices that quake with joy and trust, “He is risen. Alleluia.”

He is risen, indeed.


Amen.


*This concept of despair is something I have adapted from a definition by Pastor Rob Bell.