Scattered and Gathered

Readings: Psalm 67, Isaiah 56: 1-8

Miami Shores Community Church Interview Sermon

Unlike most parts of the United States, residents of South Florida know a little something about exile. For more than 50 years, Miami has been a landing place for political exiles and refugees from across the Caribbean, Central and South America. Even if we are not exiles ourselves, many of us probably know someone who is, or whose parents or grandparents were. 

So maybe the good folks of Miami Shores are better prepared to understand the book of Isaiah, its concerns and anxieties, than many others might be.

For the writing collected in the book of Isaiah is the tale of the trauma of exile. A true turning point in the Bible, Isaiah is where we start to see interpretations of God transform, from a warrior king to a Good Shepherd, and from a community based purely on blood and kin ties to one based on shared values.

I believe that as a church, we are in the middle, in a sense quite literally, of such an exile moment, so this book, and particularly today’s reading, have much to offer us.

For just as the land that the Israelites returned to was not the same Kingdom of Judah that they were banished from, so too is the religious world that we will be returning to different from March.

Before we dive too deeply, let’s do a little background about Isaiah.  We should probably understand the book of Isaiah as we have it in our Bibles as something more like a compilation, rather than a novel.

Scholars tell us that instead of there being just one person named Isaiah, there were probably three or four different authors who wrote under this name or in this tradition, and who had a faithful editor who helped to harmonize the voices.

As I mentioned before, Isaiah is about the Babylonian Exile. The Exile is perhaps, even more than the story of the Exodus, the defining and transformational moment of the Hebrew people from a political entity into a religious movement and people.

After Kings David and Solomon, there was a civil war, and a split into the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah. The kingdom of Israel is wiped out and its people dispersed into the winds by the Assyrians; if you’ve ever heard of the “Lost Tribes of Israel”, that’s them.

Our story continues with the Kingdom of Judah, who resist the Assyrians, and through political maneuvering, and an especially reform minded and faithful king, are able to resist the Babylonians for a while.

But eventually, the kingdom fails. Around the year 600 BC, the city of Jerusalem was invaded, looted, and sacked by King Nebuchadnezzar, whose name might be familiar. Most of the Jewish elites- especially the political and religious leaders- were sent to live in Babylon, in modern day Iraq.

This was obviously a traumatizing event for them. Solomon’s temple was destroyed, and they now had to process why their all-powerful God had failed them.

It is in this environment we see some of our most beautiful lines of scripture come to us.

Isaiah 40 is the source for the beloved advent song, Comfort Comfort ye my people:

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

And we have the words of our scripture passage for today.

We start with these lines

“Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.

Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.”

What we have here is a call to keep doing the slow and good work of justice, of making sure that we right the wrongs of our society that are odious in the sight of God: racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty.

What is also interesting is this is interconnected with the second line, which we might interpret as being about “personal piety.”

This is of course a little different in the Jewish context, but it is easily translatable for us as well.

Those of us with Jewish friends and family or colleagues, might have heard of the idea of observance- how closely and in which ways that particular Jewish individual and their community interprets and observes the Laws as laid out in the Torah and other writings.

These observances are often expressions of piety and closeness to God, serving a function similar to what our own faith in Christ does as Christians.

Thus, our author here is reminding us that there is no separation between justice work and personal devotion. They are part of the interconnected whole because there is no one and nothing in this world that is distant from God.

The next passage picks up on this theme and drives it home:

“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”

Let’s pause there for a moment, and try to reflect on just how radical that would have been 2600 years ago.

In those time, religion was synonymous with nation and people. There was no division between church and state, and the king was often a figure to be worshipped alongside any Gods.

Even in the Kingdom of Judah, the fate of the state is tied explicitly to the nature of the “good king” that they have.

So for to God to decouple these ideas, to say your allegiance to God is not a sign of your political allegiance or your cultural heritage would have been baffling.

Yes, this might not be that strange to us now, but let this implication sink in: we are called to organize our lives and communities around shared values, not around a political figure like a king, not based on who our families are related to, or our particular ethnic group or identity.

Yet this goes even further.

Do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

Eunuchs were men who had been castrated, sometimes for punishment, but often as preparation for service as high officials, so that they wouldn’t be tempted, either by sexual activity, or to pass on corrupt wealth to their children.

They existed as a third gender, which was not expected to conform to either the gender roles of men or women, within what was often a harshly binary society.

And they are celebrated here in this passage.

Not tolerated, but celebrated!

Their gender- and remember, issues of gender and sexuality are always linked, is not a hindrance, not something to be overcome, but a part of what makes them human. 

Indeed, the fact that they cannot father children gives them access to a legacy greater than that of people who bear sons and daughters.  If they decide to share in the common life and common values of the people of Israel, they shall have an everlasting name, a line of descendants that shall not be cut off.

In the deeply patriarchal societies of the Ancient Middle East, this would have answered existential prayers that the eunuchs might have had about their legacy and how to live a full life as a human where one could not participate fully.

The one last thing I’ll note in this section of the sermon before we begin to conclude is the most important ask from God to the people is not to follow the sacrifices, it’s not to follow all the rules and regulations around food.  It’s to follow the Sabbath.

This is another thing that is strange in this passage but so lovely at the same time.  To be a full-fledged member of the community, centered on these shared values, open to people of different ethnic groups and genders isn’t even about doing something.

It’s about not doing something. It’s about not working on the Sabbath day.  Religion isn’t to be something we busy ourselves with to make us feel good. It’s about connecting with God and with each other, making the world better in that slow work of justice, about keeping our eyes on the prize and on the horizon even when the world wants us to focus on the short term and what you can do for me now. Our faith is never an opportunity for shame.

So what are we to make about this?

In looking at Bible stories, I tend to do two different things. One is to put myself in the shoes of one of the characters in the story. To think about how I might react, or have reacted, in a similar situation. This is what I did last week in my sermon about Jesus walking on the water and Peter and the disciples in the boat surviving the storm.

The other is to imagine what God would say today to us in a similar situation.

What might God have to say to LGBTQ folks? What promises might God make?

Perhaps, “your faithfulness in spite of persecution by the church gives you a devotion to Jesus Christ that is unmatched. Your legacy shall be the injustices and wrongs you have righted, that your children, and those who follow you will live in a more just and peaceful world.”

What might God say to our immigrant communities, to People of Color making it in a white person’s world in the United States?

“Although they treat you as a foreigner, as though this land was theirs to give, the world belongs to the Lord, and it is yours to live on just as it was for the native peoples who once lived here, for the slaves and farmers who toiled here, for the workers who built this place. You have made this country and this place a tapestry, and it is all the richer for your presence here. Your faith reminds the world that Christianity does not belong only to white men.”

As we dwell in this time of exile from our buildings, reimagining what community means and who we are, let us remember to look back, to work done by our ancestors, both of blood and faith, but also to the future. We might not know what exactly it will look like, but only, because it is born by God, that it will be good.


Dream a Little Dream

Preached at the Middlebury Congregational Church

Readings: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Matthew 14:22-33

When we imagine stories from the Bible, we tend to see them in what I like to call “Precious Moments vision.”

Precious Moments, is that line of cute, small figurines of angels and children praying that either you or possibly your grandmother kept in the curio cabinet.

They’re designed to make us go, aww, when we think about God and that by itself might not be a bad thing. God is our heavenly father, our eternal parent, who cares after us like a mother eagle protecting her chicks.

Yet the Bible isn’t all stories that make us go, aww. Indeed, the Bible often isn’t cute at all.

I believe that the Bible, is a very human book. Now, when I say this, this doesn’t mean it hasn’t been touched by God, but rather that the Bible reflects the human experience in its breadth, depth, and complexity.

Our stories today are full of tension and drama, almost cinematic in quality. These are some of my favorites to preach from, because we can imagine long ago, these stories having been told orally, maybe around campfires in the desert, the learned old wise one telling a story long memorized from his youth. We can imagine hushed gathering of the earliest Christians, meeting in secret, hearing the proud testimony of those who got to see Jesus first hand.

Recognizing the tension and drama in our bible stories makes them all the more helpful and useful to us; after all, our lives are not always Precious Moments. Our lives are full of tension, contradiction, drama. Sometimes things don’t make sense to us, except perhaps in hindsight.

Indeed, I believe that the ability of our characters in the Bible to dream big, to be faithful, even to fail, in the midst of this tension, in the midst of hard times makes their faith all the more relatable, and points ever more to the goodness of the God among us, a God who is not distant from us in heaven, but who has dwelled with us in the flesh on Earth as Jesus Christ, and who continues to dwell in our communities and in our hearts, and who is there to pick us up when we fall.

Let’s take a look at how this plays out in our stories.

Our first story is the story of Joseph, he of the Amazing Technicolor Dream coat fame. To remind us of the story, this is the point in the sermon where I might bust out into a line from the musical, but unlike your pastor, I’m one of those ministers who sings with the microphone off, so I will spare you and your ears that indignity.

So instead I will remind us that Joseph is one of Jacob’s sons. Joseph was a strange young man. A papa’s boy, he ratted out his brothers, for what offense we are not told, but we can surmise from the rest of the story that it was some sort of scheme.

His father returned that love, and Jacob’s affection for Joseph made Joseph’s brothers jealous.

You may have noticed that we have a small break in our reading, and in that break, Joseph has a series of troubling prophetic dreams, where he sees a future in which his kin will bow down to him.

This was something they could not abide, and so they began to scheme. This scheme plays itself out in the second half of the reading and we don’t need to go over it in full, but there’s a couple of things I would like to point out.

The first is the way that they talk about Joseph, ““Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

My mind goes to so many places when I read this. After all, one of the ways we’re supposed to read and encounter our Bible stories is to imagine ourselves as them.

How many of us have thought outside the box, dreamed big, and then been ridiculed, lambasted, or even, in many cases, the object of physical violence because of it?

Maybe it was when we were children, and our imaginations ran just a little too wild for refined company and good taste.

Even if we were like this as children, many of us stopped doing as we got older. Our inner critics, those voices that tell us that the things we imagine can never come true, that to dream boldly is to be the subject of violence and ridicule, that our dreams are nothing more than fantasies, began to rule over us and constrict how we see the world.

Instead of aging broadening our horizons, we see our field of vision and activities narrowed and shrunken.

Why is this important to us as Christians? After all, we aren’t a ballet studio or an artist’s colony. Why might the ability to dream be important to us?

This is important to us because the ability to dream is an integral component to the life of faith we are called to as Christians.

The prophet Joel said that one day we, the sons and daughters of God, the children of the most high would dream dreams and prophesy.

We would be able to imagine, as the Prophet John of Patmos in his Revelation would, hundreds of years later, of a world where there are no more tears, for the home of God is among is among mortals.

Joseph dreamed. The prophets Daniel and Joel and Amos and Micah and John and more recently Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Rep. John Lewis all dreamed.

And if we’re listening to this and thinking, “Oh, I can’t dream, I’ve never had an imagination” or “Oh, that was so many years ago”, I will tell you now that the apostle Peter struggled with it at first, but he got better.

To dream isn’t something that we should expect to come naturally to us. Sure there are prodigies, but there are also prodigies of music and math and art and language and football. For the rest of us it takes work. This does not make the work we do without value.

Indeed, as we improve at these skills, God delights with us, for they allow us the ability to draw closer to God, and there is nothing that God delights in more than our closeness to him.

But yes, as I said just now, Peter struggled with it too.

Our second story is a famous one, also fill of tension and drama, of Jesus walking on water. The water, we ought to understand, occupied a special, almost mystical place in the hearts of the Hebrew people.

This is similar to how mountaintops tend to symbolically function in our Bible stories. Mountaintops are where we go to encounter God directly- Moses and the Ten Commandments, Elijah and the still small voice, the transfiguration story, all take place on mountaintops.

Likewise, to the Hebrew people, the waters were representative of something primordial, or possibly chaotic. At the very beginning of our Bibles, in the first verses of Genesis with God forming the heavens and the earth take place over the ocean, with the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, moving over the face of the deep.

So the waters, even though, we must remember, that some of the disciples were fishermen, had at best a healthy respect for the sea. After all, even today, fisherman is the most dangerous job in America.

Peter, Andrew, James and John, all fisherman, very well might have had friends or family who drowned in the sea.

So it’s not surprising that there’s a little bit of trepidation and tension in the story.

For it’s not as though this is a calm summer day on Long Island Sound with a 30 foot sailboat, tooling around with a beverage in hand.

It was early morning, and the men had spent the night on the boat. The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed, and it was being battered on the waves. The wind was against them. Remember that this was no clipper ship which could tack close to the wind. This was a simple fishing boat, probably not meant for overnight sailing or being at sea in a storm at all. This must have been terrifying.

We can imagine the sun rising, light creeping into grey stormy skies and tempestuous blue green waters with that that misty space in between sky and water. It is out of that misty space that the image of a man appears.

Yet it is not so clear of an image. They think this vision is a ghost, and they are sore afraid of it.

Until the voice cries out, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

It is their master, Jesus.

Peter is well, I’m not sure what, when he responds, still not entirely sure of the identity of this apparition.

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus does, and Peter starts to walk toward Jesus on the water.

He is doing it! He has this faith thing down!

Until the wind picks up, and he realizes just what the heck he is doing, and, frightened, he begins to sink.

How often is our faith going well enough until something out of our control happens and fear takes over? Until we begin to those voices of the inner critic, the inner doubter, the inner scared and hurt side of us.

It’s not a bad thing to have those voices, as they have their place.  Sometimes they really do keep us safe. If Peter had tried to walk on water before he knew Jesus he might have drowned.

Peter does dream. Peter has faith.  It is still a relatively young one and that’s ok, because when Peter starts to sink, Jesus is at his side, steadies him, and takes him back to the boat.

That’s an image to remember.

Not just Jesus walking on water, but Jesus helping Peter back into the boat, when his faith fails him.

For as we dream, as we have faith, and as often happens, that faith fails us, Jesus is there with us, steadying us, pulling us back into the boat.

Thanks be to God,


A Lost Coin

Psalm 113, Luke 15:8-10

I know last week our worship service went a little long, so today’s sermon will be a little bit shorter, but I hope the message is no less important and meaningful to you.

Some days, I wake up feeling like a million bucks: my hair looks good, my pants fit right, I successfully match my jacket, belt, and shoes, the dog is happy, my wife is feeling well.

All is right in the world.

Other days, I wake up feeling like a dirty and wet penny that’s been spending too much on the bottom of my shoe.

My hair feels thin, my shirt doesn’t fit right, the dog had an accident in the house, and I wear stripes and plaid.

Nothing is right in the world.

The remarkable thing about the God we worship, whom we share with our Jewish friends, family, and neighbors is that God is not more present to us when we’re successful or feeling good or hashtag blessed.

Yes, there are some stories of God showing favor to some figures and them growing prosperous and healthy, but how permanent is that wealth?

Kings David and Solomon have fabulous wealth, but at what cost?  Moral rot seeps into both men, culminating with David’s committing gross crimes against his subjects, and Solomon’s great legacy, other than the temple, is the civil war that succeeds him.

Others favored by God frequently face struggle, violence, death, and for many, destruction.

The idea that wealth and prosperity is a sign of God’s favor is both malicious for it tells us that when someone is poor or not doing well that it is their own fault that they are far from God.

This sort of thinking, at its worst, treats prayer like a magic spell, and God like a vending machine- God exists to dispense favors, not as sovereign lord of the universe.

I believe this is unbiblical.

Does the bible tell us that God is further away from us when we have a bad day? When we feel like that dirty penny, rather than when we feel like a million bucks?


Indeed, it is in those seasons in our lives for whatever reason that we are suffering from poverty- a poverty of spirit, money, time, friends, good hair even, that God is seeking us out the most.

Our psalm tells us that God “raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.”

Our God is a God who, although he loves everyone, has a special concern for the poor, and wants to see justice and equity among the peoples of the earth.

God wants to see the poor lifted up and sit them with those who are doing well.

Indeed, this is why the Bible has so many pronouncements of judgement, of anger, against those who would, in the words of the prophet Amos “Sell the poor for a pair of sandals.”

But neither is God’s concern for the poor limited to those who are poor in wealth.

The last few lines of the psalm tell us that.

In Israelite society, there were few people more in need of pity than a woman who could not bear children.

For in those days, a woman was defined by the men in her life- her father, her husband, her sons. 

So a woman who could not have children was seen as fundamentally broken.

Today, we know that’s not true at all, and that women are beloved by God whether or not they have children.

Many women have fulfilling lives with or without spouses or children.

But back then, that would have not been the case. 

So here, in this Bible passage, we have God saying that he is specifically on the side of those women who cannot have children, and that she will have a home, full of joy of children.

Now I would question whether or not this means biological children, and also, add the caveat of course, this would only happen for a woman who wants to have children, but God’s willingness to lift up those who are lowly is a unique to our God.

This brings us to our Luke reading, which is a parable about a woman, who has ten silver coins- not pennies, not talents of gold, but honest silver coins, useful for a few weeks of food, and who has lost one.

When one is lost, she lights a lamp, sweeps the house and searches carefully for it.  We can imagine her taking out the couch cushions, moving the coffee table, cleaning out that space between the stove and countertop, all searching for that lost coin.

And when she does find it, she rejoices. 

And the meaning of this parable couldn’t be clearer- Jesus gives us a rare explanation of what he meant.

Just as the woman rejoiced, there is rejoicing in heaven when one sinner repents.

To connect these two stories isn’t to say that being poor is a sin. Note that the coin is lost, and there is no moral judgement toward the coin.

I connect them to reiterate the point that as much as we search for God, God is evermore searching for us.

Searching for ways to connect with us, to love us, to let us be held in the palm of his hand.

Not just when we’re feeling the most blessed, but when we’re feeling at our most impoverished; financially, socially, and spiritually.

Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

“I Am, Because We Are”

Hebrews 11: 1-16, Matthew 8:5-10

Every summer at Silver Lake Conference Center, the summer camp where I spent last week, and many in this church have spent a lot more time, there’s a theme. This year, the theme was broadly about a phrase and a concept that although it’s from South Africa, might be familiar to some of us.

That word is Ubuntu, which roughly translated means, “I am because we are.”

Some of us might have heard of that word before, but if you haven’t, you might have heard of the person who has helped popularized outside of South Africa- Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Archbishop Tutu, was one of the leaders in the fight against Apartheid, the system of minority white legal, economic, and political dominance and segregation that ruled South Africa for almost 50 years.

The philosophy- and theology- which he preached and taught was centered in this idea of Ubuntu, “I am because we are.”

If this idea seems strange to us, that’s because it is! In some ways, it is a worldview that runs counter to American rugged individualistic notions- that if groups exist, they do so because of the individual persons inside of them.

Our American conception of the church is that it is made up of individual Christians who come together for fellowship, edification, and worship, while Ubuntu tells us something different. Ubuntu- “I am because we are”- tells us that we are Christians, indeed, that we are humans, because of and through others.

Let me explain.

I hope that we can all agree that we are Christians because of Jesus Christ, through his birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Ubuntu goes a step farther. Ubuntu says that we only make sense as Christians, indeed, as humans, in the context of other people.  In other words, our relationships define us. No one is an island, nor is Christianity a solo sport.

As foreign as Ubuntu- I am because we are- might sound to our American ears, I believe that this is closer to the biblical view of how we should see ourselves than the hyperindividualism we find here in America, that says that we exist- or ought to exist- independently and self-sufficiently from one another.

We see some evidence today for this in our Bible readings for today. Let’s look at our reading from the book of Hebrews first.

Our reading from the book of Hebrews is part of what I like to call the “heroes of the faith” section. This is, in many ways, the final build up to the climax of the sermon.  This is that third point, the crescendo of rising tension before it’s released.

It is the testimony of the faithful of ages past, a reminder to a people we can imagine to be struggling that their ancestors struggled too, yet through their faith, through their relationships with others and God, they persisted. They might not have received their reward in this lifetime, but they would receive it eventually, in that city that God has set aside for us, where God will dwell with us.

And it’s important for us to note that none of the heroes of the faith are faithful in isolation.  Even the most alone, Enoch, is faithful in response to God; Noah builds the ark to attempt to save a portion of a condemned world, taking his household with him onto the ark.  The stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not really about their individual faithfulness, but how they set out to build peoples and nations. They could only be because they were part of a people.  When they were alone, like Abraham was, like Isaac and Jacob were, they found others to be with.

This passage reminds us that although God works through individuals of great faith, God often does not do so through lightning bolts of inspiration in solo encounters, but through human relationships and encounters with the living God.

Put another way, it’s difficult to imagine a Biblical character not in the thick of their society, embedded in a community.  Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph’s family dramas and movements of peoples, Moses, Miriam, and Aaron leading the multitude of people of Israel in exile, Jesus leading the 12 apostles not into mountaintop retreat but into cities and towns.

There’s a reason that Bible characters, even when they do go to mountaintops to connect with God, come back quickly and teach and interpret alongside the people. There’s little space in our Bible, indeed, in our Christian tradition as a whole for someone who talks to God and does not want to then be with and among the people.

This is part of why the “spiritual but not religious” phenomena that is becoming increasingly prominent when people leave the church saddens me so much. People who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious often claim that religion is too controlling, that they may have a personal prayer or other spiritual practice- indeed these folks aren’t atheists- but that “organized” religion is too restrictive on their free spiritualities, their individual searches for God, for truth, meaning, and beauty.

Unfortunately, folks who go down this path often find themselves feeling isolated. They become disconnected from spiritual community both past and present, they might feel the weight of searching for God falls solely on their shoulders, and lack models for how to relate with others and God.

Spiritual but not religious folks will often say that they find God in a sunset, or curling up with a good book by a fire. But when has a sunset taught us compassion, and forced us to confess the wrong we have done to others? When have the stars held our hands and comforted us as we mourn, or celebrated with us as we rejoiced?

Nothing against sunsets or good books- I happen to love them both, but our spiritual lives, our work of faith must happen in the context of community, or else it too often becomes self-serving rather than God and others serving.

I firmly believe to be a Christian one needs to be part of a church, and indeed, the church, the universal body of Christ that transcends denomination, location, and time. To be a Christian is to be a part of a family of faith, that, although it has problems, as all families have problems, stretches back into the past and forward into the future, and grounds us in the practice of community and our connections.

I believe our Gospel story today tells us that becoming aware of how we are connected to each other and God is a key part of faithfulness.

Our gospel story is from the Gospel of Matthew, and it’s the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant.  The story is a curious one, an interfaith one.  For the Centurion, a local roman commander of soldiers, would have been a follower of the Roman religion, believing in Jupiter and Mars and all those Gods.

We shouldn’t think of this centurion as the local police chief- he was an occupying soldier of the foreign Roman empire, an empire Jesus opposes, and which would ultimately execute him. Yet Jesus hears him out, and agrees to heal his servant who is paralyzed. Yet that is not the end of the story, when it very well might have been. Instead, this centurion, who we can imagine to be a tough guy, probably in his 30s or 40s, a veteran of war, a soldier, recognizing Jesus’ power and authority over life and death. “Simply say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

The centurion is able to recognize Jesus’s authority because he knows, he’s aware of his own power and authority and how they affect others. This centurion essentially says in more poetic language, “I order people about and they do things, so I understand that you can do the same thing.”

The centurion is, because of his community.  The centurion makes sense because of the Roman soldiers, and because he realizes it, he is then able to recognize Jesus’ own authority. Ubuntu- I am, because we are.

And these are not the sole times in the bible in which people’s faith, identity, or humanity is best understood as part of a group rather than as individuals. In the Old Testament, salvation is often talked about as happening not to individuals, but to the whole nation of Israel. 

I am, because we are

Paul reminds us that we are part of one body of Christ, ears and eyes and hands, working and living together in following Christ.

I am, because we are

Indeed, the stories of faith- from the first people, to the Exodus of the Israelites to their Exile to Babylon, from Jesus’s birth to his death, and resurrection, are stories of communities, not just individuals.

I am, because we are.

So if the Bible tells us that we are only through and because of the communities we inhabited, the saints that nurtured us, our relationship with those who will come after us, and of course, the God who loves us, what does that mean for us?

What does it mean that I am, because we are?

I’m not going to be the one to tell you, as I’m figuring it out too, but, I’m willing to help us all out in moving closer to the answers.  After all,

I am, because we are. Amen.

“The Mediator of a New Covenant”

Hebrews 9:1-15, Matthew 12:1-6

Where does God dwell?

In the sky?

All around us?

In our hearts?

In nature?

Or maybe that is a question that makes no sense, because God is omnipresent.

After all, we can’t hide from God. Adam and Eve couldn’t.  Jonah couldn’t. We can’t. Or maybe we don’t have an answer at all.  That’s ok too.

In ancient Judaism- not modern Judaism, but ancient Judaism, there was an answer. The presence of God dwelt in a temple. In the time of the Exodus, this was a tent.  Later, David and Solomon built a temple.

It might be helpful for us to refer to our little maps of Solomon’s Temple at this point. More specifically, the presence of God abided in the mercy seat, along with the ark of the covenant, an urn holding the manna of heaven, the rod of Aaron, the tablets of the covenant.

If you take a look at your little map, this is what resided in the holy of holies.

But most people would never have seen these objects of faith and power regularly.

Our reading reminds us that only the high priest would have been allowed into the direct presence of God, and for him, it would only have been once a year.

If this seems well, restrictive, this doesn’t mean that God didn’t continue to be present in the tornado or the still small voice or in the heavens, or in nature.

But rather that God had promised that there would be one place where he would be, guaranteed. There are some Christian churches that actually have a similar structure.

In Eastern Orthodox churches, such as the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc., The place where the pews are is not called the sanctuary, but the nave of the church. 

The Sanctuary of the church is up at the front of the church, behind a barrier called an iconostasis, which is filled with different holy pictures of Christ.

And like the temples, most folks aren’t allowed up on the sanctuary- mostly just the priests and deacons.  It’s in the sanctuary that the priests perform the liturgy of communion, behind the iconostasis, a barrier of pictures and screens, through which folks in the pews have a general idea of what happens, but its through a mirror darkly.

For Orthodox Christians, the church is like a seashore, the place that connects heaven and earth.

But before we get too deep into church architecture or its theology, this scripture passage, like this sermon, however, aren’t really about the content of the holy of holies, it’s just our initial hook.

No, the real meat of this passage, as I hope the real message of this sermon, is about Jesus Christ.

This scripture explains one way to make sense of Jesus Christ; as the mediator and high priest, the man of Nazareth who is fully divine and fully human, able to travel between the outer temple and the holy of holies.

And not just in the earthly temples, but in the perfect one- Jesus doesn’t just go to the seashore, but into the direct presence of God, for he is God.

He does this in order to perform the perfect sacrifice: the one that does not use the blood of goats or calves, but the very blood of Christ.  It is through the work of Christ, and only the work of Christ, that as Christians we have been reconciled unto God.

All of our good works, from charity and kindness, our personal missions, to our worship together, our prayers, baptisms and communion, do not what reconcile us with God, that which make the relationship whole. 

They are, as our scripture tells us, like the things that happen in the outer temple.  Useful and good works that we should fill our lives with, but not the defining factor in our relationship with God.

If that sounds strange or odd, I believe it is this that is the reason there is nothing on heaven or earth that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Indeed, I believe that the alternative is horrifying.

Let me explain.

Back around the year 400ish, there was a monk living in what is today the United Kingdom named Pelagius. 

Pelagius was not a bad guy. He was, by all accounts, a pious man, who lived a harshly plain life.  Even his greatest opponents would find little to decry about his personal behavior.

Perhaps it was because of his own piety that he began to develop beliefs which emphasized free will, and our own ability to get closer to God by exercising that free will.

Free will isn’t a bad thing by itself.  A belief in free will is an essential part of our conception of liberty and freedom. That individuals are autonomous and have a right to govern and order themselves is key to our society.

And Pelagius, for his part, perhaps did get closer to God through his own piety and practices, using his free will.  This began to have him ask the question, why aren’t other people be able to?

Indeed, what does it say about us if we can’t? Or simply don’t?

If some become reconciled to God through their own willpower and free will, what about the many who don’t? or can’t?

Well, the implication is that for those of us that aren’t quite as pious or good or holy or plain and simple in our living as Pelagius, is that we would be personally affronting and insulting God with every act of ours that did not draw us closer to God.

Every sin that we committed would be unforgivable if we did not repent fully and turn from our wicked ways.

Although Baptism offered a clean slate, what happened afterward would be a stain on our souls, unless we stopped all sinful behavior, no slip ups allowed. 

For God demands perfection. This led to some weird stuff happening: there was a short period of time in which baptisms were delayed until the deathbed, to ensure forgiveness of all sins.

For under this system, every time we continue to covet our neighbor’s wife or house, to continue to not love our neighbor as ourselves, to not love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind, even when we promised we would tears us from the bosom of God.

If the human will is the arbiter of salvation, than it is we who must attempt the act of the sacrifice of our blood and lives, and those that fail to do so properly are not a part of God’s plan of salvation.

And I don’t know about you, but that sounds like hell to me.

Thank God, and I mean this is the most literal way, Thank God, that our salvation and reconciliation with God is less about us using our free will to choose God and live perfect lives, but more about God having chosen Jesus Christ and God’s love for the world.

Thank God that the hard work of reconciliation- and don’t let anyone tell you that reconciliation and forgiveness are easy- has already been done by Jesus Christ, the high priest and mediator, and that one day, it will be fulfilled in whole.

Thank God that as the old song softly and tenderly goes, Jesus is watching and waiting by the door, able to bridge the gap between humanity and divinity.

For we are not called as Christians to do the work of the high priest in the holy of holies.  That’s the work of Jesus Christ. 

Nor am I as your minister, exclusively called to do all the priestly work in the outer temple, the holy place. The book of Hebrews calls them the baptisms and regulations, but I don’t believe that means we should dismiss them.

Indeed, as Christians, I believe we should understand that the work of the outer temple, although they won’t perfect the conscience, won’t reconcile heaven and earth, are still good, and they are still the work that Jesus calls us to occupy ourselves with until Jesus comes again in glory. 

As Christians, we are called to, as I say in my benediction every week: Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast that which is good; render to no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honor everyone; love and serve the Lord our God, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit; and also to make disciples of all nations, uphold justice and righteousness, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to love God with all our hearth, strength, and soul, and mind.

We are called to try. Thank God that if we fail, and we will, that it will be ok.  That God will still love us, that Heaven and earth will still be reconciled.

That God loves us not just in spite of our failures, but as a parent loves a child grow through struggle, because of our failures.

Thanks be to God.


When Jesus Prays

Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9, Matthew 26: 36-40

As a pastor, I get to hear a lot of different prayers, types of prayers, and types of pray-ers. As such, I’ve come up with a few broad categories and generalizations, all of these in the spirit of gentle love. 

There’s the by the book folks, that pray out loud with solely things that have been pre written, and without a prayerbook in hand, seem to mysteriously devote themselves entirely to silent prayer.

There’s the opposite of this, that I like to call the “just-lord” prayer, that’s so extemporaneous that it seems to be composed of filler words rather than supplications. I call it the just lord prayer because they often sound like this: Oh Heavenly Father, won’t you, lord, just lord be with us, just lord, and so on for about ten minutes until you realize that nothing was actually prayed for.

And although that group tends, but is not exclusively so, conservative and traditional in their theology, my liberal and progressive colleagues are not immune to another type of prayer that ends up doing something similar- what I like to call the “name God so much that we forget to ask for anything prayer.”

Those often sound like this, “Oh mystery beyond our naming, heavenly star that shines eternal, morning dew that creates streams of grace, who was with the patriarchs and matriarchs,who…”and so on and so on for another few minutes until everyone in the vicinity is unsure of what is actually going on and someone says Amen and Blessed Be.

And then there’s the “scary boss prayer”

We can tell this one because it sounds like someone who’s scared of their boss trying to ask for a small favor, please, if you get a moment, if you have the time and it’s no bother, do one little favor for me that won’t be a big deal but only if it’s really no trouble for you, but it would mean so much for me if you could just…

And at a certain point, a tiny part of me wants to just yell out, “GO AHEAD AND PRAY FOR THINGS AND PEOPLE.  GOD HAS NO TROUBLE SAYING NO”

This brings us to our Hebrews scripture for today, which includes the wonderful verse “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need”

It’s a doozy of a verse, in that calls on us as Christians to do something that’s really quite hard.

Approach the throne of grace with boldness.

Rev. Dr. Thomas Long, who I spoke about a couple of weeks ago, has this to say about that passage

“Even though the Preacher is focusing here on prayer, he knows that confident prayer is not merely a matter of technique. Ultimately, bold prayer is an expression of theological trust; the practice of prayer rests on what we believe about God and God’s relationship to us. In short, how we speak our prayers of petition and intercession derives from how firmly we hold the creed.”

The practice of prayer rests on what we believe about God and God’s relationship to us. Therefore, how we pray is a reflection of what we believe about God and God’s relationship to us.

So if we go back to those 4 types of prayer that I lightly lampooned at the beginning, what do those prayers tell us about the pray-ers?

And of course, these are broad generalizations, and I say them in the hope and spirit of mutual growth.

I’m pretty obviously one of those book prayer types:

I believe this means that I or tend to have a formal relationship with God.  In my preaching and teaching, as well as in my own prayers, I tend to emphasize God’s sovereign majesty and essential well, otherness to us, to be treated with something like a regal distance.

I do make supplications and ask for things, but do so as a petitioner might to a king.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but our Hebrews passage reminds us that we are called to approach the throne of grace with boldness.  Not as a courtier, but as someone intimately beloved by God.

The “Just Lord” prayer, implies a different spiritual tenor.  This is a spiritual stance that sees God very intimately- perhaps too intimately.  The phrase Heavenly Father often appears in these prayers, and this reflects a stance which emphasizes God’s fatherhood and the familial aspect of relationship with Jesus Christ and God.

Once again, there’s nothing wrong with this, but it also tends to diminish the essentially different nature of God’s from humanity, and God’s Majesty and divinity. God gets turned into just another one of the dads at softball practice.

In reading our verse, we are to be reminded that it is indeed a throne of grace, which we approach with boldness.

For my progressive colleagues and friends, who sometimes pray to a God who must be overly named, I believe this reveals a tension in the nature of belief in the midst of a religiously pluralistic world.

What makes our prayers to this God different, effective, or special, when we have friends of many different religions (and no religion at all)?

And that’s a real and serious question that all Christians must be able to reckon with in our society.

There is no easy answer- to say that all religions are the same denigrates the uniqueness and beauty in the diversity of our religions, including the unique witness of our own Christian faith.

And at the same time, to say that other religions are not worthy of respect, tends to lead toward separation, discrimination, and ultimately violence, which is against the Kingdom of God.

Progressives are called to understand that God is alive in the midst of ambiguity, and our boldness in Christian witness does not have to silence the voices of others, but can instead inspire others to speak up.

As an example, back in March I went to a conference at my undergraduate college about the reformed Christian tradition and liberal arts education.

My college, Davidson College, is associated with the Presbyterian Church USA, that’s pretty close to us, and the denomination I would be most likely to transfer to if something happened to the UCC,

Anyways, one of the speakers was a Muslim professor of Islamic studies in the religion department, and he was asked about what it was like to be a Muslim professor at an explicitly Christian school, and his answer surprised me.

This professor, originally from Pakistan, said he loved it, because it allowed him the space to be Muslim and believe in God in ways that a secular university or college might not. 

Muslims, he said, have a much easier time making sense of Christian institutions than secular ones. There’s much more in common between Islam and Christianity than Islam and secularism.

He reminded me that our own prayers to not have to be a cudgel against others.  Prayer is not necessarily a zero-sum game. I know of few religious folks, or indeed, many non-religious folks, who don’t appreciate prayers being said for them.

So yes, let us approach the throne of grace, for to pray for mercy and help in a time of need is universal.

Which brings us to the last of our prayer types, the scary boss type. This one saddens me the most, for it implies a God which doesn’t have the time, or the care, or the heart to love us. It calls the bible a lie when it tells us that God is Love.

It says that we aren’t important to God, and my friends, there is no bigger lie that the forces of evil have spread than that each and every one of you are not an object of God’s care and affection and worthy of human dignity.

So yes, you, yes, me, yes, all of us, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

But this is hard. It’s very hard. Faith itself is not work, but in the life of faith, there are things we must work at. 

Thanks be to God that we do have some examples of what it might look like to approach the throne of grace with boldness.  Fittingly enough, our Gospel passage (funny how that works out), has just an example.

Here we see Jesus at possibly his most human and vulnerable.  He is described as being grieved and agitated, something we see rarely through the gospels.

“And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

Our Hebrews reading recalls this scene, telling us, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission”

The cup is a metaphor of death, the change that will come about with the crucifixion and the resurrection.

Jesus prays that there might be a way that his blood and suffering not be that which fills the new covenant.

Yet the faithful nature of Christ is always paramount.  Even when he approaches the throne of grace with boldness, asking for mercy, Christ knows that it is God’s will that must be done.  There are three times that Jesus prays in the garden.  By the end, he has his answer.

Let us remember this: Christ is our savior, lord of creation, and he is also our example.  In our prayers, following his example “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”


“The Family of God”

Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 12:46-50

Families are complicated.

Many of us here have families that not long ago would have been called “non-traditional”, with grandparents, inlaws, step and half children, bonus kids, cousins, aunts, and maybe a close family friend or Godparent filling out the roster.

I feel sorry for any Dunn, Therkildson or McSwyny children who have to make a family tree for a homework assignment.

And if we’re being honest, families are a little bit…weird.

I mean that both in the general sense; our ideas of what a family is a little bit weird if you stop and think about it, full of blurry borders and wavy lines that define who we choose to call our kin.

And, that each family is weird in its own way. Each family has its own dynamics of where power and loyalties lie, and those dynamics often reflect the realities not of the present, but the past.

For an example, I have five older siblings, ranging in age from 55 to me at 33, yet when we all get together at Thanksgiving and Christmas, somehow the imprinted pattern is that I’m forever 9 years old, eternally incapable of almost everything, and when we gather, I have to keep watch that I don’t get thrown in the pool again.

The flipside of that, of course, is that I am a grown man in my 30s, with a good job, and my siblings still send me cash for my birthday, just like I am 9 years old.

So I don’t think I’m far afield in saying that families are complicated and weird.

It’s easy for us to think of these complications and weirdness as the result of some sort of decay or degeneration in the life of the family, and to blame it on either the evils of the denigration of morals in a godless society, or the financial strains and stresses of the modern economy, but it doesn’t take much digging to realize that family has always been complicated.

But today I think we should erase one complication: sometimes we make too much of a distinction between families of blood and families of choice- that is, those persons who we choose to call family, but I would argue that all families are families of choice, and this includes the family of God.

We can read that in our scriptures for today.

In our Gospel reading, from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is doing his Jesus thing, teaching and preaching to a crowd indoors, when his mother and brothers appear outside and want to speak with him.

They assume that he will drop everything in order to talk to him.

Honor thy father and mother, after all, is one of the Ten Commandments, and violating it, at least by the letter of the law, could result in death.

As he so often does, Jesus turns this around. Family? What is family? He seems to ask us.  Is it just the ties of family and marriage, ethnicity and tribe?

And if this is a challenging question to us now in our personal lives, with all the complications of what makes a family, in Jesus’ time and place, this question would have been outright scandalous.

It’s hard for us to remember sometimes, but Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi, preaching to Jewish people, and Judaism, unlike Christianity, is a religion that’s also an ethnic group.

The Israelites had survived war, famine, assimilation and exile as a coherent people partly through their strong ethnic and tribal identities, reinforced by a religious identity.

So for Jesus to ask this question, “are you really my family?” to his mother, Mary, and his brothers, is scandalous, immoral, and against family values in his time and place.

Jesus’s answer is that in the Kingdom of God, family of blood will be secondary to family of choice. It is those who do the will of Jesus’s Father- God in heaven, who Jesus counts as his own kinfolk.

His disciples, gathered in front of him are his mothers and brothers and sisters. This reminds us of a key aspect of the Christian faith that is becoming more and more apparent in a secularizing New England and United States: No one is born a Christian; Christians are made and formed by faith.

As infants and toddlers, the adults around them- usually parents, but not always, as we remember how families are complicated- implant seeds of faith in baptism, and that faith is fertilized and watered by those around them until it blooms as our children grow into their identities as people and in Christ, through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.

So Jesus’ answer to this question is his way of telling us this fact: to follow Christ does not happen automatically because of the circumstances of birth.

Just because Mary and his brothers are related to Jesus does not give them a special place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

One does not get grandfathered into the Kingdom of Heaven, there are no legacy admissions into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus’s yoke is light, but it is a yoke we must each carry.

I do need to point out here too that neither is the Kingdom of Heaven a merit-based admissions process.  If it were, we would all be found failing. 

The work of the Christian is faith, and the will of God is that through our faith, we will be transformed into following the Gospel, fulfilling the law: Loving God with all our soul, heart, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves.

But the hard work has already been done. Our reading from the book of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus had to become a human in order to redeem creation, and especially humanity.

Jesus was no angel, in a literal sense.  He was and is God and man. Though his birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection, he acted as the high priest and made atonement for the sins of the world.

Through our faith and its resultant works, we become part of the family of God, adopted by the perfect father, brother to the perfect son. I hope we don’t come away from these challenging readings, however, with the feeling that our families of blood and families of choice are without value.

The Bible tells us that Jesus’ brothers become some of the leaders of the earliest church in Jerusalem. The Bible tells us Jesus’ mother Mary was one of the few that remained at the cross during the worst moments of the crucifixion, and to this day she has a position of honor in the church.

For us, those burdens that we have to carry ourselves? Well, family ensures that we don’t carry them alone. And I think this is what Jesus is really getting at in his answer. Family is not about blood relations but about the care we choose to have and give for each other.

Often those things are tightly related, but too often they are not. For whatever reason, we all know of people who have become family without being a direct blood relation, and there are folks who are blood relations that we do not call kin.

Many of us have a teacher who still gets a Christmas card, a school security guard who knows your life of faith better than you do, a friend who has been there when no one else would be who gets a thanksgiving invitation.

That is family.

Because family takes work. It means making choices.  It means actively choosing love, actively choosing compassion and actively practicing forgiveness and listening and sharing burdens.

With those acts, we choose our families. Every time we choose to do the hard work of love and compassion, when we listen, teach, and share our burdens, we choose our family.

I’ll leave us with a tidbit of wisdom I share at weddings. At weddings, the reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians often comes up- you can say it along with me if you have it memorized:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

One thing that Paul specifically does not mention, I note, is that love is easy. Love is hard work.

Our culture does not usually portray this; instead, we read “ten easy steps to a happy family” in a self-help book,  or watch a relationship straight in a romantic comedy that has 22 minutes of separation and hard times and then everyone lives happily ever after, or maybe a family that when it argues, does so with one liners and tension is resolved with a laugh track.

We know that this is not reality.

Love is in the hard kitchen conversations, slammed doors, tears, and the eventual opening of those doors.  Love is in the tearful confessions and assurances of pardon.

Love is in the everyday happiness of seeing one another at the end of the day, checking in with one another as the weeks go by, and seeing each other grow up and old.

This is the love that I hope you have with not just someone, but several someones that you call family. And it is also a pale reflection of the love that that God has for us, the love that God chooses for us, the God who chooses to call us kin.


In the Beginning…

Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1:1-5

Over and over again, I have made the point that how we talk about God is really important.

This is because I firmly believe that how we conceive of that which is the ultimate, the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end- God, in other words- has a great impact on how we see the immediate. The immanent reflects the transcendent. 

One example of this would be the fact that Christians are called on to forgive because God forgives us. And as the Gospel of Matthew reminds us in the parable of the ungrateful servant, who would we be to not forgive the meager debts owed to us, when our Lord has forgiven us much more.

What God accomplishes, we attempt. It is true that our forgiveness and will never match up to what God forgives- in sincerity, scope and scale, but we do what we can, muddling through life. But even if what we do is a pale imitation of what God does- and it always is- no painting or beautiful car has ever matched the purple pinks of a mountain sunset- how we talk about God matters.

We know that how we speak matters for another reason too- Pop quiz- how did God create the world according to the first chapter of Genesis?

God spoke the world into being. Our Gospel of John reading tells us that Jesus Christ is The Word of God. And just as God’s speaking created reality, how we speak creates realities too.

They do so not in the literal sense- I’m not talking about magic or anything like that. But how we speak and hear does change how we view the world.

I will use as an example my approach to preaching, which I’ve borrowed and adapted from my mentor, the Rev. Dr. Adam Tierney-Eliot.

In our modern world, in our strange American lives, the world seems to be covered in a mist, it feels difficult to see anything profound or real or permanent or ultimate or true, or yes to see God.

We live in a time that values flash over substance, that wants us to buy, buy, buy, that we are what we consume, yet when we find ourselves trying to grasp that mist, we find out that it is, in the words of Ecclessiasties, a vanity of vanities, or if you prefer the words of 70s supergroup Kansas, Dust in the Wind.

But sometimes, the mist fades and we can catch glimpses of God. Those are those God moments that we have- and we all have them, in as many ways as there are people.

Even people who aren’t Christian, or even religious will talk about moments when they feel a presence of something beyond them, or the binaries of the universe are resolved, or everything shifts and makes sense for a brief moment.

My job as a preacher is to hold up a lamp in the mist.  That hopefully I have seen something, and with the bible as the great illumination, I can point the way toward something I saw through the swirling shadows.

I can’t make you go there, but hopefully with the word of God lighting the way, I can point you somewhere and the Holy Spirit can guide your feet there. And it doesn’t happen every week, to every person. 

But I hope that at some point, I have held up the lamp of the word of God to point you toward something that is true. It might be through a joke, serious bible exegesis about the meaning of Greek or Hebrew, or a children’s message.

These are very different things and that is ok, for we know that God speaks to us in many and various ways. Our scripture passage today from the book of Hebrews tells us that this has always been the case!

“Long Ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” Let’s try to think- think back to your bible stories- what are some of the ways that God has spoken to the people of God- either literally, or metaphorically?

Let’s brainstorm a little bit: what about Moses- Burning Bush! But what about the 10 commandments? What about the Manna from heaven or the parting of the Red Sea?

What are some other ways that God speaks?

To Samuel and Ezekiel God speaks in a dream.

God sends a storm and a whale to eat Jonah, who then proceeds to have an argument about who God is allowed to love with the example of a withering vine.

And of course, there’s Jesus Christ.

But even in Jesus Christ, the word of God, we have four gospels- three that are pretty similar to one another with different emphases and one really different one (Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the similar ones, and John is the different one)

And inside those Gospels, Jesus tends to teach in parables, stories that are often open to interpretation! So even in the word of God that we consider truthful and definitive, we read and perceive Jesus Christ and his teachings differently.

Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long, Presbyterian pastor, professor, and widely considered one of the best living English speaking preachers, reflected on our reading from Hebrews and had had this to say about the many ways God speaks:

God also speaks “in many fashions.” The metaphor of divine speech encompasses, of course, the infinite ways that God’s presence, activity, and will are made known to human beings. Sometimes God speaks through visions and by stimulating flashes of insight, at other times God speaks through political movements and the shaking of the powers. Here God speaks in a dream or a waterfall, there in a prophetic oracle or a pillar of fire, or again in the still small voice, the commandments of the law, the stories of kings, the restless and brooding Spirit at the heart of the creation, or the journey of the sun across the noon-day sky. God speaks in the quietness of prayer and the noise of honest debate. God sometimes speaks in powerful moments of spiritual wonder and also in the seeming humdrum of committee meetings. God’s speech can be heard when nations make peace and when neighbors speak kindness across the backyard fence. God speaks through the Bible and also through the touch of a caring hand at bedside. God speaks in the voices of the choir, the beauty of art, the spangling of the heavens with stars, and the cries of the hungry for food, the lonely for companionship, the sick for healing, the pressed down for hope. God speaks in “many fashions.”

How beautiful the sentiment- the naming of all the different ways that God spoke to us, and still speaks in the world.

The United Church of Christ has a campaign going on called, “God is Still Speaking.” To be honest, it’s not my favorite slogan, but it does have a point.

How odd it would be of God if He spoke through the prophets, spoke perfectly through Jesus Christ, and then stopped speaking through prophets?

What then about those God moments that the Rev. Dr. Long reminds us of: the quietness of prayer and the humdrum of committee meetings? When nations made peace and neighbors peak kindness? Through the Bible and the caring hand, the voices of the choir, the beauty of art, the spangling of the heavens with stars, and the cries of the hungry for food, the lonely for companionship, the sick for healing, the pressed down for hope.

It is not wrong for us to recognize these ways that God is Still Speaking to us, and that God’s Word as revealed in Jesus Christ is the ultimate truth. 

Both of these things are true.

Just as Christians we believe that the prophets of the Old Testament point forward to Jesus, so too can we believe that God’s speech to us now points back toward Jesus Christ.

That’s one of the hard parts, and joys, of being Christian: we interpret everything through Jesus Christ. There is no good, no truth, no love outside of him, and where ever there is good, truth, and love, he is there, whether we recognize it instantly, or if the mist around us is simply too thick to let us see it.

As our reading last week from proverbs told us, and as the Gospel of John tells us, before the creation of the world, Jesus Christ was there. As creation was happening, Jesus Christ was there as a master craftsman. 

We can try to be away from God’s presence, but as much as we want to run from God sometimes, the story of the prophet Jonah tells that that is impossible.

For God’s reality is impossible to escape; our attempts to create our own are but pale imitations of the truth in Christ. So where are you finding God speaking to you? I hope its in church, in prayer, in the words of scripture.  But I hope its in other places too, for God spoke, and God speaks, in many different ways.

Because every little thing we can do to dispel the mist is good, for it lets us see God and the light of God in the world. And on our Christian way, what else can we do?


“Understanding God”

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, John 16:12-15

So today is Father’s Day, and we will be honoring that in our pastoral prayer,

But more than that, as a church today we’ll be honoring what’s called Trinity Sunday. Trinity Sunday is an ancient festival of the church, probably going back to around the year 1000.

Furthermore (tomorrow/today) is my birthday, and to misquote Leslie Gore, it’s my birthday, and I’ll preach what I want to.

I have talked before about how communion is possibly the most divisive and heated debate among pastors in the church.

If that is the case, the trinity is probably the most complex doctrine in the church.

I don’t know all the ins and outs of it, I readily admit.

There is terminology that I don’t understand, partly because much of it is in Greek or Latin.

Words like homousion and hypostatic, which are translated into English as words that we might be familiar with, like substance or persons, but which have very specific technical definitions in this case.

But don’t worry about them: I will not be using those words or words like them in this sermon again.

Indeed, it might not seem like it, if you don’t understand how Jesus is God, God the father is God, the Holy Spirit is God, but that they are not each other, I’m on your side.  I don’t understand the trinity, nor do I intend to explain it in metaphorical terms.

For the Trinity is a blessed and holy mystery, adapted by the early church to describe lived experiences of faith.

I truly believe it is a gift from God, and like so many gifts of God- the sacraments of baptism and communion, or God’s Grace, it’s not a gift we can rationalize easily.

If it’s a formula, it’s one that’s not rationally solvable

So, as often is the case when we talk about God, we come up with analogies about the trinity.

Some of the ones you may have heard:

The trinity is like water, with the three parts being like the three states of matter- steam, liquid and ice

The trinity is like a sun, with the star, its light, and its heat,

The trinity is like a clover, with the three leaves connected to one stem in the middle,

And honestly, they’re all wrong, and verge into heresies that the church does not profess.

I don’t use the “h” word lightly either.  The nature of God implied in those analogies does not fit with understandings of God revealed in the bible, experienced by faithful Christians for generations, and kept by the church.

If you think that the differences between Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, and this church are big, those differences are nothing compared to what comes about if some of these analogies became the primary means by which we understand God.

But by this point, I can see some eyes starting to glaze over, so I’ll stop talking for a little bit.

Instead, we’re going to watch a video.

This video is one of my favorites on youtube; it’s from a group called Lutheran Satire, and it has three characters in it- Saint Patrick, credited with converting the Irish about 1500 years ago, and two Irish peasants.

It’s about three minutes long- if you can’t see it well, don’t worry, you aren’t missing much, the graphics are pretty horrible.

Saint Patrick’s Bad Analogies

So although that video was, at least in my opinion, pretty funny, it does discuss some serious stuff, some of which we talked about, some that we didn’t.

They two lovable Irishmen talked about the limits of rationality and reason when we talk about certain mysteries of faith. 

The Trinity, they tell us, is understood through faith.  It’s a description of lived experiences of faith. It doesn’t make rational sense because sometimes faith doesn’t make rational sense.

Indeed, those heresies they talked about briefly in the video are all attempts to rationalize and box in God in ways that make “more sense”

Modalism, for example, tells us that God the father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, are all just revealed modes of God, not 3 persons.

This means that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are transient things, which are used for different purposes, and then…aren’t.

But this doesn’t seem to work out againstour lived experience of prayer throughout the ages.  After all, we pray to God, with the power of the holy spirit, through Jesus Christ! How could this be if one of them stopped being because they were no longer…useful?

Because I don’t believe God changes like that.  Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are eternal- the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus was with God, was God from the beginning.  The Book of Genesis tells us the same thing about the Holy Spirit.

So modalism doesn’t seem to work.

What about Arianism?

Arianism tries to tell us that Jesus Christ is a lesser being, a creation or emanation of God- a partial copy. The fullness of God in Jesus Christ was also only somewhat true, and in the views of the original Arians, because the material world was too dirty. But this makes a lie of the Genesis story; that God created the world and called it good.

But worse than that, Arianism does something even more profoundly terrible in my eyes: it ruins the Christmas story!

Christmas is so magical and mysterious and a little bit weird because God came into the world not as an copy of God in the form of an avenging angel, but as a baby, born of a woman.  So that doesn’t really work either.

Partialism tells us that the father, son, and Holy Spirit all parts of the same God, and, as described in the video, they’re only really “fully” God if they’re together somehow. But how could God ever be diminished?  How could there ever be less God? If we can imagine God as someone or something that could be diminished, we have already attempted to box in God far too much.

So what then about the trinity?

Doesn’t it box in God as much as any other doctrine?

I don’t believe so.

Because it’s to be understood by faith rather than the power of our own minds, rather than the trinity being something that boxes God in, the trinity reminds us that there is no box God could be held in.

And really, how unreasonable is it? I don’t have to understand something in order for me to believe in it. I don’t understand how a microwave works. Not really. A microwave is a box that I can put in, press some buttons, and when it beeps, food is hot, without the box being hot.

Is the trinity any less unreasonable than that? Is faith? Is God’s Grace? I’m not so sure.

I will say this: Thank God, we don’t have to be scholars to be faithful.

Thank God for the word of God, faithful testimony to the character of God and witness to Jesus Christ. Thank God we have a faithful lineage of saints who have taken care of these holy words.

Thank God for the blessed trinity.


Returning to God, Returning to Wholeness

Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21

You may not know this about me, but the first religion that I really studied in depth was not Christianity, but Buddhism.

And although I’m not, and never was a Buddhist, I took a fair amount of college classes studying it, and there’s a lot to commend about the religion, particularly the focus on mindfulness, and the study of how consciousness works. 

Western science is just now catching up to where Buddhists were centuries ago in that regard.

And as I became Christian, it was inevitable that I would compare what the two religions had in common. One of the major differences between Christianity and the Buddhism is said to be how we see time.

Buddhists, for their part, believe explicitly in cycles- that the universe has begun, will end, and will begin again.  For them, souls do the same thing- people are born, will live, will die, and then will be reborn. Circles within circles. This is the cycle they wish to escape.

Our Christian faith on the other hand, tells us that history is closer to a line than a circle. History began with the creation, time marches ever onward, and one day, history and time will functionally end in an eternity with God.

And while this is true, I believe our bible texts today show us that it’s a little bit more complicated than that. That perhaps history is closer to a spiral, reaching back and moving forward.

Our story in Acts, the birth of the church, and the coming down of Holy Spirit is both a reversal and a fulfillment of our Old Testament story.

Our Old Testament story today is the story of the tower of Babel.  It’s a pretty famous story- perhaps not Noah’s ark level, but pretty close, that explains why there are so many languages in the world.

It’s the story of a city and their efforts to build a tower so tall that they would reach the heavens. This story implies that if they were to reach heaven, perhaps this would put them on the level of God.

It’s a story of human pride in technological achievement overriding our sense of place in the universe as God’s special creation. It’s a story of us attempting to grasp and seize control of divinity, and the power that comes with it. As punishment, humanity becomes separated into different languages, different tribes and kingdoms and ethnicities. People go their separate ways, never to live again in harmony.

Yet as Walter Bruggeman, author and United Church of Christ pastor note, even in the midst of the great tragedy of the fracturing of the human race, God’s love and grace were there.

For one of the fruits of this dispersal was the expansion of humanity to all ends of the earth, the realization of God’s command to us to be fruitful and multiply.

This is the origin story of the diversity of the world and the peoples who live on it. It reminds us that even in the midst of tragedy and fracturing, God’s grace is there.

If there is a grand pattern in the bible of this sort of fracturing and eventual reconciliation- started in genesis and ending in revelation, then it happens in little ways too.

Let us take note of what happens in between this story and our story in Acts.

There’s the initial journey into and out of Egypt commemorated in the end of the book of Genesis and the book of Exodus. Once established in the land of Canaan, the Israelites eventually create the Kingdom by Kings Saul and David. King Solomon builds a temple, but soon the Kingdom descends into civil war and fractures into the Northern Kingdom and the Kingdom of Judah. The northern Kingdom is scattered as dust into the wind, while many in the kingdom of Judah are sent into Babylon, dispersed into the world. And yet, there is still healing and reconciliation. The Persian King Cyrus defeats the Babylonians, and the Israelites rebuild the temple.

If that sounds like a lot, that’s because I just summarized the first ¾ of the bible in 4 sentences.

But we can see patterns emerging in the midst of all that, patterns of creation, separation, and reconciliation. And if we see the tower of Babel as a separation story, we cannot help but see the story of Pentecost as a story of reconciliation.

The Pentecost story starts with the apostles in a house together, and a rush of violent wind.  Tongues of fire settle on them, and they began to speak in other languages. Outside, a crowd begins to form, and in this crowd are Jewish folks from all sorts of different places. There are Jewish folks from modern day Iraq and Rome, and everywhere in between, speaking a number of different languages.

We can’t help but be reminded of the Babel story at this point. But instead of the presence of multiple languages being a hindrance to cooperation and a source of division, here we see the presence of diverse peoples as an opportunity for God’s Grace and Power to shine.

For when Peter begins to speak, the people understand him.  And this is important, I believe-the people do not suddenly learn the Aramaic spoken by the country bumpkin Galileans- no, the people each understand the Gospel- God’s deeds of power- in their own languages.

The people to not have to learn to speak like the church does- God gives power to the church to speak as the people do.

This tells us that the church is called upon to testify to the deeds of God, speaking, through God’s grace and power, in the language of people who are outside of the church.  

This miracle of Pentecost is what some folks call a “sign”; the message is not only that it happened, but what it tells us about what will happen, and maybe how we should behave to help make it happen.

So if this story is a sign, what is it pointing to?

It tells us that although the Pentecost is the beginning of the story of reconciliation and healing of the world through church, it is by no means the end of that story, and indeed, it is a story that continues to this day, and will continue to the day Jesus comes again.

We know this for a few reasons: the first is that this story happens quite frankly, at the beginning of the book of Acts, not the end.  There are churches to be planted, people to be reached, struggles to be had, victories to be won.

Furthermore, if we think of the first and second chapters of Genesis as telling the story of the beginning, and Revelation chapters 21 and 22 telling the story of the end, there’s still a lot to happen in between.

We know this too by looking at the world around us. The people of the earth are not united in terms of language, although English, Spanish, and Chinese are providing strong cases to be the languages of the future, spoken alongside indigenous languages. 

English, especially, is spoken alongside indigenous languages in India, Africa, and Asia, a legacy of the British Empire. But in regards to our faith, when we join the church, we do not gain the ability to speak fluently so that others can understand us.

That said, there are some universalities in the church that can cross culture and language, and those are truly a gift from God.  But the truth is that my sermon in English would not be understood by someone who spoke no English.

The Tower of Babel has not been fully reversed, the peoples of the world aren’t one, but as a sign, the story of Pentecost provides us a sign of what it might look like when it finally is. Not that people give up their uniqueness and culture, but that we have ways of communicating that allows us to understand each other.

The other reason that we know that this story is not complete is because if we’re being honest, we aren’t in it yet. The story of Pentecost is about ethnically Jewish apostles speaking to an ethnically Jewish audience. This story of Pentecost happens before the conversion of Saul into Paul, before Peter and Paul begin preaching to non-Jewish Gentiles.

This is Christianity’s big religious innovation, quite honestly, a religion that crosses, or at its best, demolishes, ethnic lines. We can see the seeds for that in this Pentecost story.  If Jews from all the nations needed to, and could hear the stories of the power of God, why not all people?

Paul tells us that there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, all are one in Christ Jesus.

And while the church has often failed to live up to this statement in practice and thought, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted- there is no more segregated hour than 11AM on Sunday mornings, it is there for us as a guidepost.

This is the sign we should be following on our road to healing and reconciliation.

History hasn’t followed a straight line on this, but neither do the stories of the Bible.  There are periods of division and periods of unity, periods of disconnection, and periods of connection. We can think of these as little spirals moving us closer and further away from God, much as happens in our own lives of faith, and quite honestly, in the life of this church.

Right now, people are feeling a bit fractured, and it’s good to name that.  Low points happen to everyone and everything. But better times, times of healing and wholeness, times of reconciliation will come again.  Things don’t necessarily become the way they were before- they never do that, but hope tells us that new future is not only possible, but inevitable. 

Just as it was for the people at Babel, going out to the ends of the earth, for the people at Pentecost, spreading the gospel in different languages and cultures, and to us here, in this church.

Thanks be to God for that. Amen.