Monday, May 20, 2013

To draw all people

Day of Pentecost C.  19 May 2013.

Romans 8.14-17


            One of worst feelings you could probably name is the feeling of not belonging—or the worry that when you come into a new group, that you won't belong.  You won't like the others, or the others won't like you.  That you won't fit in.


            A lot of ink has been spilled in books about this, especially books about the church.  If a group has already formed, how well does it take in new members, how do the new people navigate their way and make friends…  How to keep the group healthy, and so forth.


            A cartoon I saw recently depicted an Episcopalian overlooking a busy street—full of people—and saying that the reason why their church wasn't growing is that there weren't any Episcopalians in their area.  And the point was made—all those people on the street are potential Episcopalians.  We just don't see them that way.


            A couple weeks ago I mentioned that when Karin and I go on vacation we like to visit other churches.  We don't wear our clerical collars.  And I'm often tempted to say when we walk in the door with our two children that we're a young family, new to the area, and we tithe.  And by the way, Karin LOVES to work with youth and young adults.


            But think about this.  When a person walks through those big red doors… Frank Griswold, the former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church once said, "Only Episcopalians paint their doors red and expect decent people to walk through them." 


            But when people walk through those big red doors, they are looking at us, and we are looking at them, and before even the first words are exchanged there are judgments made about whether or not this is going to be a good fit. 


            It happens in every group, in every church, organization, school, any place people gather together.  Part of the discernment is how much am I accepted.  So little feeler questions get asked of us, and we of them, to find out if we line up in terms of politics, sports, whatever.  I wish it weren't that way. 


            There are churches that come right out and force you to take a stand on certain things, in order to be a member.  I don't have to name them—you already know.  We have never done that, I'm very proud to say.  The Episcopal Church has always striven to be a big tent without litmus tests for membership.  I think it was Bishop Lee who joked that to be an Episcopalian you had to understand that the only unforgiveable sin was to be tacky.  At one time, you needed to know a salad fork from a dinner fork, and a footman from a valet.  But thankfully, officially, anyway: You simply have to be Baptized and then Confirmed.


            But even if that's all the church officially needs, there are churches that create hospitable and inhospitable environments on the basis of all sorts of things. 


            And beyond even the obvious stuff, there is the feeling of the place.  It's hard to define this, but sometimes you find yourself in a group and you can't put your finger on it, but you just don't feel like you should be a part of it.  It's nothing anyone has said or done, you just don't want to be there.


            The Hebrew people understood their community in very clear cut ways.  You were either a Jew or a Gentile.  God chose a people to be his people, and we are it.  So Gentiles marry Gentiles, and Jews marry Jews.  Of course, sometimes intermarriages would take place, and this became a significant problem.  The Babylonian exile was understood to be caused by the Hebrew people marrying Gentiles, so after the exile it became part of Pharisaical Judaism to put a stop to intermarriages.  And they took it a step further—to not even talk with Gentiles, Samaritans, or Syrophonencians or anyone from outside their race.


            How do you join?  You don't.   How do you talk about the possibility?  You don't.  How do you..?  You don't.


            As a consequence, family bonds were very strong—the family reputation was always at stake.  The choices people made reflected on their family and on their village or community.  It's still like that to some degree, but nothing like it was then.  If your father was a baker, you were a baker, and you inherited the farm, the family business, or whatever, and you passed long the family name, the family reputation, all of it. 


            I remember when I was a teenager meeting a Jewish couple.  As they spoke about their life, they kept mentioning "our son David."  They never called him "David."  It was always, "Our son David."  They were very proud of him, and understandably so—but the affection in their voices and the sense of ownership (not the right word) they felt came through every time they said, "Our son David."  Family.


            But what if you can't give birth?  Let's say that a Jewish man and woman wants to have children, and can't have children?  Can they adopt?  Well, it's different now, of course, but during the first century, adoption was not commonly practiced.  The child may be Jewish, but wasn't the same.  Sometimes a person could come into the family—sort of, kind of—but as a servant.  That way they were fed, and clothed, and raised up, but they weren't really sons or daughters.


            So imagine Jesus coming into this culture where sonship and family structure was very very strict.  Imagine how it must have felt to hear him call God, "my Father."  Or to teach his disciples to pray, "Our Father."  Or imagine the sea change in hearing Jesus use the noun in a generic way, "The Father."  It signaled a major transition in just the way that Jesus addressed God.  John carries this scandalous language all the way through his Gospel.  In fact, the first chapter—the Prologue—of John reads, "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God."[*] 


            In a culture that viewed family relationships so strictly, we cannot overestimate how subversive this language sounded.


            So then we come to Paul, who is planting churches throughout Asia Minor and the cities of Greece, on up even into Rome.  Paul was a learned man, a Pharisee by birth, and he has been moving in Greek, or Hellenistic circles where adoption would have been less of an issue—he can speak of adoption more freely amongst the Greek world, and so he does.  He writes to the church in Rome:


"14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, 'Abba!* Father!' 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness* with our spirit that we are children of God,17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…


            Paul is speaking of the Holy Spirit as God adopting us.  When we find ourselves drawn to God by affection or conviction it is the Spirit of God drawing us to himself.  Our yearning cry for unity with God is that of a son or daughter crying for the embrace of our parent. 


            The language is beautiful, and the meaning of it, rich.  The sense of belonging to God is based on love, not lineage—or perhaps I should say, the lineage is granted to those who love. 


            But, see, this isn't just about a personal relationship with God.  If all Christians have received this spirit of adoption then we are all brothers and sisters as well as children of God.  And by putting the Church in those terms, it sets us apart from organizations that are based on everything else. 


            We are together on the basis of our sonship and daughtership with God, and our brotherly and sisterly affection for each other, not on the basis of our politics, or wealth or social status.  Even though we continue to live in a fallen world where—at times—those aspects continue to haunt and divide us—it should not be so, according to Paul, and according to Jesus.


            Pentecost celebrates the mystery that the same Holy Spirit that draws us to the Father and to each other is also the same Spirit that sends us out into the world in witness to this acceptance.  No one should ever feel that they don't belong.


            When I was at my last church, I came across this saying that I really liked, "Within these walls, let no one be a stranger."  I liked it so much I got out an easel with that poster paper on it, and wrote it in big letters with a magic marker.  I put it up in the parish hall. And it was there for one Sunday, and then the next.  But then I went in the third Sunday and someone had torn it off the easel.  (Pause.)  Interesting. 


            It is our call, our charge, our role to go into all the world and preach this Gospel.  God has become one of us and embraced us in Jesus, who loved us to death, and was raised from the dead.  Through his resurrection we find acceptance, forgiveness from sin, and through his Holy Spirit we find ourselves part of a new community in order to draw others in. 






Please support the mission of Christ with your time, talent, and treasure.

Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

[*] John 1.12,13

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Where do you get this water?

To listen, click here.


Easter 7C.  11 May 2013.[*]


Revelation 22.17, 20-21


            Today I would like to preach on the last few verses of our lesson from the Revelation to St. John.  But in order to focus in on those verses, I'm going to read the whole lesson. 


            Jesus said, "See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."  Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.  "It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star." 


            Now, these are the verses I want to focus on:


            "The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.


            These are the last verses of the Revelation to John.  The last verses, really, of the Bible.  I will tell you without reservation that I love the Revelation to John—especially these final words.  They are words of comfort, strength, hope, and love. 


            I don't know what your relationship might be to this text.  My relationship with it did not start in church.  It started in my private devotional life as a teenager.  Somewhere along the line I heard a preacher say, "Read the back of the book.  We win."  And though I no longer understand the Revelation to John as a book about winning or losing, I have come to love the richness of the language, and what it says about God's desire for us.


            In these last words, we hear Jesus say again and again, "I am."  "I am coming."  "It is I, Jesus."  "I am the root and descendent of David."  "Surely, I am coming."  It would be easy to miss the power of that repetition, but remember that "I am" is the name for God.  Moses asked God, "whom shall I say has sent me to you."  And God says, "I am who I am--that is my name."  A better translation of the Hebrew would be, "I am becoming who I am becoming."  It's the active tense.


            When Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asks them "Whom do you seek?"  And the soldiers say, "Jesus of Nazareth."  And Jesus responds, "I am, he."  And remember, they fall to the ground at the name of God. 


            When Jesus was raised from the dead, he asked Mary Magdalene, "Whom do you seek?"  And the answer is right in front of her, "I am, alive."  So at the very end of the Bible there is this repetition, "I am, coming."  I am, is coming.


            But of all the power and beauty of the words of Jesus in this lesson, the words that really haunt me are not the words of Christ.  The quotation marks are not original to the Greek, but it is clear that the words I am about to read are from John.  Listen carefully.


            "The Spirit and the Bride say, `Come.'

            And let everyone who hears say, `Come.'

            And let everyone who is thirsty come.

            Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift."


            What do you make of those words?  The Spirit is the Holy Spirit.  The Bride has been established in the Revelation to John—and in other places—as the Bride of Christ, which is a poetical understanding of the Church.  The metaphor might be most familiar to Episcopalians from the hymn, "The Church's one foundation." 


            "The Church's one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord / She is his new creation by water and the Word / From heaven he came and sought her, to be his holy bride /  With his own blood he bought her and for her life he died."


            The metaphor of the Church as a bride is based on the Jewish custom of betrothal.  A marriage would be arranged by the parents, and the couple would be engaged, but live apart.  It was the father of the groom who decided when the son could go to claim his bride as a wife.  I am guessing that this was the father's decision because the father wanted to be sure that his son was mature enough to lead a new household. 


            So this is a metaphor that has carried over.   The Church is the bride, and we are waiting for the Father to release the Son to come and take us into our new relationship of eternal married bliss.  It's a very tender metaphor.


            So the Holy Spirit and the Church/the Bride say, "Come."  To whom are they speaking?  Well, that's a good question.  To Jesus?  To people who are not yet part of the Church?  Perhaps to both.


            John writes, "And let everyone who hears say, `Come.'  Well, that's interesting.  Everyone who hears..?  Is that "everyone" everyone who has ever heard anything about Jesus—even if they've never really understood it, or been part of the Church?  I don't know.  Let everyone who hears say, `Come.'  Is that a prayer to Jesus to come again—even if that "everyone" does not know what they are asking?  Again, I don't know.


            But then this moves into something a bit more profound, "And let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes to take the water of life as a gift."  Notice that the previous lines have been John urging groups of people to pray for the return of Jesus.  "The Spirit and the Bride say, `Come.'  And let everyone who hears say, `Come.'


            But then when he gets to those who are thirsty, he doesn't put words in their mouths.  Perhaps, they're mouths are too dry to pray.  He writes instead that those who are thirsty should come, and if they wish to drink from the water of life as a gift, they should come.  Come to what?


            It seems like John is urging the Church, the Holy Spirit, and really everyone, to pray for the return of Christ, but then in a sudden reversal, he drops that theme, and begins to offer water to the thirsty.  Come and drink from the water of life, as a gift.  No money.  Just come and drink.


            Maybe the words from Isaiah 55 are in the back of his mind, (Page 598 of the pew Bibles)  "Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?"  verse 3  "Incline your ear and come to me; listen, so that you may live.  I will make an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David."


            I wonder if John was reminding us of these words, because he has just given us the words of Christ, "I am the root and descendent of David."  In other words, "Remember the covenant, remember that I am.  I am the I am who is with you, and I am the I am who is coming to you.  You must also come to me.  You who are thirsty, come and drink.  No money, no problem."


            I think John is trying to get us right down to the fundamental yearning that we all have.  He uses the metaphor of thirst, possibly to remind us of the Isaiah lesson, but I wonder if the Holy Spirit would put an even deeper meaning there. 


            There are a precious few Christians who truly, eagerly await the return of Jesus.  If you read the entirety of the Revelation to John, the words of comfort are not as big as the words of warning—and the mind-blowing descriptions of what John believes will happen. 


            I have seen advertisements for preachers who claim to know everything there is to know about the Revelation to John, and for an entrance fee at Suchandsuch Church, they will give you the PowerPoint presentation that will "unlock the code."  These things are often marketed as helping faithful Christians get ready.  Don't go.  I mean no disrespect, but I think they are doing a disservice to the Christian faith.


            The Revelation to John does not end with a bang or a whimper.  It ends with an invitation to come and drink. 


            Come where?  Neither the Revelation to John, nor the Book of Isaiah tell us.  Come to church?  I don't know.  I have drunk the water of life in church.  There have been people and sermons and Sacraments and seasons that have been water of life—but not always. 


            Come to the poor and the lonely?  The needy?  Well… yes, I have drunk the water of life beside them.  Quite often, it is the thirsty people who know where the water is.  But not always.  Sometimes they're just thirsty.


            Come to the store, and buy something.  Retail therapy.  Do you ever get what my mother likes to call "the buy me-s?"  A couple dollars burning in your pocket.  Maybe something from a catalogue.  Maybe get a really good cup of coffee or a Big Gulp from 7/11.  You know, nothing major.  Just a coupla bucks.  Gotta buy me something.


            Put all your pennies and nickels together and go to Taco Bell.  I remember when I was in college, one of my buddies figured out that if you had $50.00 you could order one of everything on the menu at Taco Bell.  It's really only when you're 22 that you even think about doing something like that!


            Buy me something.  I want it; there it is.  It looks nice.  It tastes good.  I was thirsty and well… (Pause.)  And there's Isaiah, standing in the corner, shaking his head:


            "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your money for that which does not satisfy?"  "Let everyone who is thirsty come.  Come to the waters; and you who have no money come buy and eat."


            Where?  How do you get to this water of life?  I know what it feels like to drink from it.  It feels like being part of God.  It feels like walking under the trees on a quiet day, and the sunlight plays on your neck and you feel like one big lung just drinking in the air.  It feels like a little girl giggling at a funny face.  It feels like "now" is more important than "then," or "when we get there."  I know what it tastes like.  It tastes like a glass of water after mowing the lawn.  It tastes like large sweet strawberries or peaches. 


            See, it's not that Isaiah or John have a physical place to direct us.  They are speaking of a thirst that aches much more than in the mouth or the stomach.  It is a thirst for God.  A thirst for all that is good and noble and true.  A thirst for meaning and significance.  A thirst for a fresh start, alive and growing, sprouting and springing forth—true and wonderful.


            Everything about these last words is about coming to a place where there is real sustenance, and satisfaction, and welcome.  Of course the question arises,  "Where is this place?"  And when you begin to exclude the imperfect answers, you arrive at the only one possible.  The place is God. 


            And God says to us, "I am your place.  Come to me, and eat and drink."




Invite someone to come to church with you.

Just say, "Would you like to come to church with me?" 

[*] Adapted from Easter 7C.  16 May 2010.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Our home with God

Easter 6C.  5 May 2013.

John 14.23-29


            The fourteenth chapter of John is part of what scholars and clergy refer to as the "farewell discourses."  It is a section of John when Jesus is speaking tenderly and privately to his disciples.  The context is just before the arrest and trial and crucifixion. 


            It is likely that what John has given us is not an account of one particular moment in Jesus' life—as if he sat down with the disciples to spell things out—but rather a thematic compilation of things Jesus said.  John has artfully woven threads of comments from Jesus together into what seems like a seamless discourse.  To give structure John has punctuated the first part of the discourse with questions and comments from the disciples.


            First, Thomas asks Jesus, "Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?"  And Jesus responds, "I am the way."  I am is the name for God, but the point is also being made that the path forward is continue to be in relationship with him.  That just as a marriage cannot survive without regular communication and affection, neither our spiritual life deepen without engaging meaningfully and regularly with God.


            Next Philip says to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."  It's a reasonable request.  They have been following Jesus for awhile and he speaks often of "the Father," whom they understand is God.  I'm sure that at some level Philip understands that it's an impossible request.  Philip surely knew that even Moses was only allowed to see the back of God as God passed beside the mountains.  Philip surely knew that Jesus' own use of "the Father" is itself a parable.  God is like a Father in that God is strong and loving, passionate and forgiving.  Jesus chose to use Father instead of Mother, but I doubt—and this is just me talking here—but I doubt that he meant to deny the same strong and loving attributes that women certainly have. 


            To use less than human language would be to speak of something sterile and odd—to make God a concept, or a device.   To say God is an "it" sounds ridiculous, and places a limit on God's ability to relate, which is the very thing Jesus wants to change.  Instead Jesus chose to call God "the Father."  It was a bold thing to do, because of course YHWH—God—had said, "I am who I am" or "I am becoming who I am becoming."  The language in use was somewhat sterile and distant, so Father implies attention and intimacy. 


            Jesus responds, "Philip, I have been with you all this time, and you still don't get it.  If you've seen me, you've seen the Father." 


            And then comes a question from Jude.[*]  "Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?"


            Now this is a big question.  In fact, if you were to start reading John's gospel from the very beginning and read all the way through, you would notice the recurring theme of Jesus in public and Jesus in private.  He goes off to pray, he comes out to teach; he retreats with his disciples, he comes out to heal. 


            The question of Jude about the limited nature of Jesus' exposure to the world is a very good question, and it's not the same question as "when will you hold a press conference."  This isn't "reveal yourself," as if you've come out of hiding.  Jesus was never really in hiding in the way that we've come to understand that.  His travels would likely have been intended to stay just under the radar of the religious authorities, but let's recall that for a long time Jesus had a pattern of teaching in the Temple and spending the night on the Mount of Olives.[†]


            The question of when he will reveal himself is an apocalyptic question.  Jude is saying, "When are you going to bring about the kingdom of God on earth?  When will you rise up in the full power of your divinity and kick Rome out and inaugurate a just and righteous world?  This is, after all, what devout Jews had been wanting all along in a messiah. 


            And what we read today is Jesus' response to his question, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them."


            It doesn't take a lawyer to say that Jesus doesn't answer the question—at least, not in the same direct way that Jude asked it.  Instead, Jesus explains what revelation means to him and to the Father.  Not as some kind of press conference, but to those who understand what Jesus says, he and the Father will come to us, and make their home with us. 


            And that still may not be a very satisfying answer to those of us who want to see the Church grow faster.  What we would like is overwhelming evidence of God's beneficence and grandeur.  We want God to advertize his presence and power like a superhero.


            To say that God comes and makes a home with us when we keep the words of God and try to follow is difficult to accept, because those of us who do that understand.  You and I pray and try and believe, and as we keep going, God does indeed provide evidence of redemption and love when we have eyes to see it. 


            And we look over at our friends and sometimes, maybe family who do not believe, or who think we're a little nuts for believing, and we don't really know what to say. 


            I believe in God.  I believe that Jesus is the Son of God who has revealed to us who God is and what God does and I am baptized into this way of living and being.  One day, I believe I will know God fully, but until then, I will continue to pray and strive for the kingdom Jesus envisions.


            I might even extend this informal creedal statement a bit:  I believe that looking at the world through the eyes of Jesus reveals the world to be a more beautiful and happy place.  I believe his suffering death is an expression of the pathos we all feel and the desire we all have for intimacy with God. 


            But how I got there, and where I am now, and how that understanding has been contoured through my experience is impossible to hand to you and say, "Now, you can believe as I believe."  You are going to have to follow as best you can, and be in relationship with God to have this be meaningful for you, too.


            And because the experience of really walking this path is so personal, and so very much about the ways we live in our heads and the connections we make with our emotions and varying degrees of affection for humanity, honestly…this whole Christianity thing is a lot.  It's a lot to think about and it's a lot to live up to.


            But what I have described, which on the face of it seems like a weakness of Christianity is actually one of its greatest strengths, precisely because it is a relational faith that is revealed as it is lived.


            It allows the Jesus to make his home with us—as he said.  It allows God himself to be present with us in the hospital bed and in the foxhole as well as on our wedding day or when a child is born.


            Jesus does not wish to reveal himself to the world in the same way that he reveals himself to the disciples, because God is not merely a cosmic sovereign, or some sort of watchmaker who creates the world, spins it up for a couple millennia and then just lets it wind down.  Neither is God only concerned with nature, and plant cycles and weather systems.  God also—and perhaps more so—tenderly cares about the simplest movements of our soul.  God knows the point of our temptation, and the beauty of our poorest prayers.  And if God isn't interested in those tiny details, then he cannot be "the Father" Jesus calls him.  So Jesus says, We will make our home with you.  We will be with you in grit and grace of life.


            And in the next breath he says words that I hope have already been inscribed on your hearts.  They are words that are suffused with the Holy Spirit and bottomless in their profundity.  He says, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."


            God comes to the person who keeps this faith—the words, the actions—and to that person, Christ gives peace.  Peace that the world cannot give, because it goes right down into the core of our being. 



            This is the peace Jesus has.  A peace that is rooted in his relationship with the Father, that he opens out to all of us.  And in that relationship there is a deep knowing that everything we are begins and ends with God, who is already at peace with us.






Please support the mission of Christ with your time, talent, and treasure.


Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel



[*] I am choosing to call him Jude, instead of "Judas, not Iscariot" because inevitably the congregation hears the name Judas and cannot help but think of Judas the betrayer.

[†] Luke 21:37