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.
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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.