God and Not-God: A Short History

Sermon for Sunday, May 22, 2016 || Trinity Sunday C || John 16:12-15

GodandNotGodThere’s a group of folks at St. Mark’s that meets every Thursday morning for Bible study. The class is called “Genesis to Revelation,” and as its name implies, we set ourselves the goal of reading the entire Bible. We started last autumn and should finish sometime around next winter. It’s a daunting task to read the whole thing, but very worthwhile too. A few weeks ago, we were working our way through a particularly thorny section, and one member of the group said something to me that made the whole group double over in laughter. She said, “Well, I thought I understood this until you started explaining it.”

So with that humorous word of caution in my mind, I turned my attention to Trinity Sunday, traditionally one of the thornier preaching days of the year. Continue reading “God and Not-God: A Short History”

Tell Me a Story

Sermon for Sunday, February 14, 2016 || Lent 1C || Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

tellmeastoryRight now, the bedtime ritual at home goes something like this: bath time around 6:15; diapers and pajamas at 6:30; stories, snuggles, and songs until 6:45; and then, blessedly, sleep. We rotate through many beloved and well-worn bedtime books: Goodnight, Moon; Time for Bed; Guess How Much I Love You; The Going to Bed Book. Leah and I can recite every one of these and more. But I tell you, I can’t wait until Charlie and Amelia are old enough to ask us to make up bedtime stories.

“Tell me a story.” They’ll say these four magical words, an integral part of any bedtime liturgy, and their request will lead to a holy moment of collective imagination. I will ask, “What would you like a story about?” Pirates? Faeries? Princesses? Dragons? A faerie princess who saves a dragon from pirates? Okay. Here we go. Then the liturgy continues with four more magical words: “Once upon a time…”

Story shapes us. We make meaning by telling stories, which is one of the reason I love our Godly Play program so much. Godly Play stories teach the language of faith and celebrate the wonder of God’s movement. Those fantastical bedtime stories fill us with fervent hopes for lives of high adventure and romance, through which we learn chivalry, fidelity, and courage. We all have family stories, which rehearse the triumphs, failures, and oddities of life. There’s the endearing one about how your parents met; or the painful one about the Pacific Theater in 1944; or the embarrassing one that you hope your mom made up, but you know she didn’t. You don’t remember this, Adam, but one time, when you were potty training, your grandmother helped you, and then you sent her out of the room because you wanted privacy to wash your hands.

Above and around and within each of our little stories, the one, great story weaves: the story of God’s relationship with creation. This great story subsumes and explains and connects our stories with those of the rest of humanity. The one, great story has been recorded and bound, but it has never finished being written. When we tell the story, we participate in it. Put another way, when we remember the story, the story remembers us. We are each members of the story, and we discover our place in it when God re-members – reconnects – us. So let’s tell a version of that story now, beginning with our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures.

In today’s lesson from Deuteronomy, Moses directs the people of Israel to observe this work of remembering when they enter their new home after forty years of wilderness wandering. From the first harvest of your newly settled land, he says, take the first fruits of the ground and offer them to the Lord. While you faithfully give up the only piece of the harvest you are assured of reaping, rehearse your faith by telling this story. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” Moses bids the people to locate themselves in the collective memory of Israel. Each member can be re-membered by identifying with the story, by seeing themselves in the story. Even the youngest can say, “That’s me. I’m part of that great nation. I cried out to the Lord when the Egyptians afflicted me. The Lord heard my voice, brought me out of Egypt, and promised me a land flowing with milk and honey. And, see, here I am in that land offering my first fruits to God in thanksgiving.”

By directing the people to tell the story when they settle in the promised land, Moses hopes they will remember who they are and whom they belong to. But his hopes are in vain. Over the next couple hundred years, the people of Israel do a horrible job remembering. By the end of the Book of Judges, when a downward spiral has led to civil war, wanton rape, and vicious murder, no connection exists, no shaping happens. What does happen is entirely brutal and stomach-churning, and I’m telling you now only because it’s part of the story. Instead of the re-membering that occurs with the storytelling Moses urges, there is literal dis-membering of a rape victim (19:29). At this low point in the story of Israel, Moses’s bidding to rehearse the collective memory all but vanishes.

But all is not lost. The beginning of the book of Samuel tells us “the lamp of God had not yet gone out”: the story still remains in the hearts of the faithful (1 Samuel 3:3). The prophet Samuel learns how to listen to God from his teacher, Eli. Samuel then holds the story in trust as David’s monarchy establishes itself in Israel and Judah. Generations later, King Josiah rediscovers the “book of the law” (which may be Deuteronomy) and realizes how much of the story has been forgotten (2 Kings 22). When the people are forced into exile, the connecting nature of the story sustains them. They remember how the Lord brought them out of their bondage in Egypt. The prophets tell and retell the story of God’s relationship with creation until its shaping power begins to work a change in the people of Israel and Judah.

That change reaches fruition in the great story found in the Gospel. In today’s reading, Luke connects Jesus back to the story of Moses, as Jesus’ forty days in the desert mirror the Israelites’ forty years of wilderness wanderings. Jesus meets the devil on several occasions, and Jesus resists the Evil One with the power of the great story. Unlike the people at the end of the Book of Judges, Jesus remembers what is written: “One does not live by bread alone…Worship the Lord and serve only him.” In desperation the devil then tries the same tactic, quoting the story to Jesus, but it isn’t the devil’s story to use. And Jesus frustrates the devil with the collective memory of the people of God: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

The early church shared this collective memory during the forty days of Lent with the culmination of a years-long program of formation. Seekers discovered that they had been members of the great story all along. When they learned their part in it, the community of faith re-membered them with the sacrament of baptism on Easter. The story shaped them, as it shapes us when we take the time to remember it and tell it.

Today, fewer and fewer people know this story, this great story that connects us all to each other and together to God. And yet never has there been a better time for the kind of re-membering that telling this story can cultivate. How many of us know people who are lost, disconnected, untethered to anything greater than themselves? I know I do. And sometimes I am one of the lost. But then someone tells a piece of the story, and I remember who I am and whom I belong to. This is one of our great duties and joys as followers of Jesus: to tell the story, and to live the current chapter of the story. The Gospel according to John ends with this curious verse: “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). We are those books.

So this Lent, practice the story: read it, tell it, live it. And if a child looks up from under the covers at bedtime and says to you those four magical words, “Tell me a story,” then I hope you’ll join me in beginning like this: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”

Art: Detail from Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown; illustration by Clement Hurd

What Kind of Life?

Sermon for Sunday, February, 16, 2014 || Epiphany 6A || Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37

whatkindoflifesquareWhen I was a little kid, I wanted to grow up to be a fireman. Well, a fireman and a garbage man. Well, a fireman, a garbage man, and a baseball player. Well, a fireman, a garbage man, a baseball player, and a paleontologist. I wanted to be a baseball playing, dinosaur-fossil finding, fire fighting trash collector. And you know what? That didn’t happen. Something even better happened. I got to be someone whose job it is to walk with people during the most important moments of their lives and point out God’s movement in those moments. I got to be a priest. And I got to be your priest.

But getting back to my childhood’s occupational dreams, I can tell you one absolutely essential thing about them, which is this: My parents never quashed them. They never told me to stop dreaming. They never told me I was being silly or that I couldn’t, in fact, be a baseball playing, dinosaur-fossil finding, fire fighting trash collector. Instead, they encouraged me to reach for the stars and to fuel my dreams with all the fodder of my boundless imagination. When so-called “reality” set in years later, I didn’t feel betrayed by this encouragement, as one might expect; rather, the early training in dreaming big helped me retain the capacity to imagine more and better possibilities than so-called “reality” presented.

Such a capacity involves consciously making choices about what kind of life you want to live. Do you want to live a small life boxed in by the scarcity inherent in subscribing only to the notion of the currently possible? Or do you want to live a full life unbounded due to the abundance inherent in trusting in the creativity of our God? What kind of life do you want to live?

This is the question that both Moses and Jesus address today in our readings from the book of Deuteronomy and the Gospel according to Matthew. And this is the question they challenge us with today. What kind of life do you want to live?

Moses has stood on the mountaintop and looked on the vista of the Promised Land. But he knows he himself will never get there. He’s about to die, but before he does, he has a few more words to say to the people of Israel who have been walking with him through the desert for forty years. These words make up the book of Deuteronomy: Moses’ last speech, the last piece of the law, the restatement of the Ten Commandments and more, and these words today, in which Moses gives the people a choice:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity,” he says. “…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses…” And then Moses, with all the fervor of someone who knows his time is short and his words precious, implores the people, saying: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

Well, we know those people and their descendants had a, shall we say, checkered history with this choice. Sometimes they listened to Moses’ final invitation, but more often than not, they didn’t. The rest of the Hebrew Scriptures trace the trajectory of this choice and of God’s constant and persistent calls through the prophets to renew it and once again “choose life.”

When Moses issued the original invitation before his death, he was speaking about all the fullness of life with God and one another that the Law was designed to promote. But over the centuries, people interpreted and reinterpreted the Law into smaller and smaller boxes. By the time of Jesus, the Law of Moses had been parsed to within an inch of its life. The people, against whom Jesus spoke, had gotten lost in the minute details of the Law and forgotten its original intent to promote the fullness of life, the dream that God always had for God’s people.

And so we watch Jesus ascend the mountain, sit down, and begin a long sermon. He speaks of blessings for people not normally considered blessed (what we call the “Beatitudes”). He speaks of the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And then he says something curious, which we read last week. He says this: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

To fulfill the law. To complete it. To make it what it was always designed to be. In his fulfillment of the law, Jesus takes one step past Moses’ original choice. For Jesus, the choice isn’t simply between life and death because he has already chosen life for each of us. His choice is what kind of life.

And now we hear Jesus offer examples of the kinds of life we might lead. In each one, he takes a piece of the law and expands it, deepens it. Not just “do not murder,” but also, be reconciled to those you are estranged from. Not just “do not commit adultery,” but also, act with virtue and fidelity in all things. Remain in relationship rather than looking for easy outs. Speak truthfully always rather than trying to convince people through deceptive oaths.

In each example, Jesus offers two paths to choose: division or reconciliation? Depravity or virtue? Isolation or relationship? Dishonesty or truth? Each choice builds the kind of life we lead. Our lives can be small – empty of meaningful relationships, bursting with regret, littered with the collateral damage of strife, envy, and enmity. Or our lives can be full of all the good things God yearns to share with us – the abundance of lives lived with and for others, the joy of trusting and being trustworthy, the simple grace of acting virtuously.

Just a quick aside—I know Jesus’ language seems awfully harsh, and, in reality, it is. But we have to remember that he lived in a world where punishments included actually having body parts chopped off and where divorces could be handed out for baking mishaps. While some of his words might be hard for us to digest, the seriousness of his tone and the weight of the message can still sink in.

This message offers us the expansive dream that God invites us to be a part of – the kind of dream where someone might actually grow up to be a baseball playing, dinosaur-fossil finding, fire fighting trash collector. Or more to the point, the kind of dream where someone might actually choose the abundance of reconciliation, virtue, positive relationship, and trust.

If we are to take a step today to not only choose life, but choose the abundant life that Christ offers us, what might we do? Let’s start with a baby step. A mentor of mine, the Rev. Dr. David Lose, suggests this: think of two relationships you currently have. One should be the most wonderful, fruitful, mutual, and loving relationship of your life. The other should be one that’s on the brink of failure because of neglect or hurt feelings or betrayal. Take both of these relationships to God in prayer. Ask God to help you see what sustains and strengthens the first one. Why is that relationship important to you? What about it do you have to thank God? For the second relationship, don’t try to place blame, but instead hold the other person up in prayer to God. Offer God the brokenness of the relationship as something that can’t be mended without God’s help. What actions and choices can you make to move that second relationship to better health?

As you pray about these two relationships, remember the choice that Jesus puts before us today. What kind of life do you want to lead? A life full of reconciliation, virtue, uplifting relationships, and trust? A life of abundance? Yes, all that and more. A life of dreams that are so big that only God can contain them.

“U” is for Unity (March 13, 2013)

…Opening To…

If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps. The first step, which follows the call, cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. The call to follow produces a new situation. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

…Listening In…

Israel, listen! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; context)

…Filling Up…

This Lent, we are exploring our faith by running through the alphabet. Today, “U” is for Unity. Yesterday, we talked about “Trinity,” so it seemed only appropriate to follow that up with some talk about “unity.” (Plus, it conveniently starts with the next letter in the alphabet. “Unity” comes from the Latin word for “one.” If you’re from the United States, you’ve seen this Latin word your whole life — on our money. E Pluribus Unum reads the phrase: “Out of many, one.”

So, if the Trinity is a perfect relationship of three persons (read yesterday’s post if that’s confusing; and I’m not saying it will stop being confusing, by the way), then what can we say about the “Unity” of God? Well, judging by the Latin root, we can say God is One. The relationship among Father, Son, and Spirit is so perfect, so seamless, so integrated, that God isn’t three. God is One. The old adage is “Trinity of Persons, Unity of Being.”

God invites us to love and serve God in a similar integrated fashion. Note the verse above in the “Listening In” section. “The Lord is our God, the Lord is one,” says Moses. And the very next thing he says is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” These two thoughts are connected — God’s “Oneness” and our internal unity.

So don’t just love God with a piece of yourself. Don’t compartmentalize by putting your relationship with God in an box on the shelf, which you take down only when you need something. Rather, love God with the whole of yourself, with you heart and being and strength — with the unity that is you.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the Mighty One who sustains the universe and the Intimate One who keeps me whole; help me to love you with my entire being and to dedicate myself wholly to you. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, trusting that you never leave me, trusting that you are above, below, behind, before, beside, and within me.

100 Decisions (October 26, 2012)

…Opening To…

Decision is a risk rooted in the courage of being free. (Paul Tillich, Theologian)

…Listening In…

Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live—by loving the LORD your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him. That’s how you will survive and live long on the fertile land the LORD swore to give to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30:19-20; context)

…Filling Up…

We make hundreds of small decisions every day. We make big decisions every once in a while. In either case, increasing our awareness of God’s presence in our lives is the best way to consistently make the right choices. I believe that God always and forever yearns for us to choose those things that will bring us – individually and collectively – abundant life and complete joy. That doesn’t mean that we will breeze through life. It doesn’t mean that life will be easy. It doesn’t mean that every decision we make will bring the outcome we expect or desire.

But God’s yearning for us does mean that God will never abandon us to face the consequences of our decisions alone. In the verses above, Moses advises the people of Israel to “choose life,” which is a short way of saying: “choose only those things that affirm the vitality of your existence, that make you thrive, that show that God isn’t done creating yet.”

With all that in mind, I invite you to review the last week. Sit down with a pad of paper, or pull out the note feature of your iPad or smartphone, and list every single one of the decisions you’ve made this week. No decision is too small. It could be as small as “whether or not to make a certain pass in your soccer game.” No decision is too big to list either. It could be as big as “whether or not to plagiarize your history essay.”

See if you can get 100 decisions. That may seem like a lot at first, but if you look at your days and really comb through them, you’ll start to see just how large the number of decisions you make is. After making your list, review it and but a star next to all the decisions you made in full awareness of God’s presence in your life. It’s okay if you end up not starring many or any at all. Next week make the same list. In the meantime, try practicing being more aware of God’s presence and God’s yearnings for you. And I guarantee, next week’s list will be full of stars.

…Praying For…

Dear God, thank you for trusting me enough to make my own decisions. Help me not to misplace that trust, but always to remember that you are with me in all my choices. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, rejoicing that you are with me in all the decisions I make.

“I” is for Idolatry (March 5, 2012)

…Opening To…

So daily dying to the way of self, so daily living to your way of love, we walk the road, Lord Jesus, that you trod, knowing ourselves baptized into your death: so we are dead and live with you in God. (Thomas H. Cain, from The Hymnal 1982)

…Listening In…

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9You shall not bow down to them or worship them (Deuteronomy 5:8-9; context)

…Filling Up…

This Lent, we are exploring our faith by running through the alphabet. Today, “I” is for Idolatry. The first four letters of the word “idolatry” tell you what the word is all about. It has something to do with “idols.” But the concept of “idol” has changed very much recently due to a certain piece of pop culture that dominates the programming on the Fox broadcast channel. For nearly a decade the show American Idol has been propagating the notion that being an idol is something to be striven for, and, therefore, praising said idol is also a good thing.

Of course, idols are actually things to be avoided altogether. Historically, idols were representations of gods crafted out of materials. The worshippers imbued with a pseudo-divinity the very things that they themselves had made. In this way, while they paid lip service to some semblance of religious observance, they kept the control of their lives at home. They did not seed their personal sovereignty to any sort of effectual deity.

In this day and age, idols are more subtle, and, I think, more powerful. We practice idolatry any time we worship something that is not God. This may be money or power or fame or any number of a host of abstract idols that pulls us away from focusing first on God. We tend not to use the term “idol” because that word has been co-opted by a television show. But even if we don’t name our worship of other things as such, it is idolatry nonetheless. And when we do put other things ahead of God, then we’re breaking one of the big ones, indeed the first commandment.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the only one who inspires me to true worship. Help me cast away all of the things that clamor for that worship so that may turn ever only to you. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, thankful that you continue to shine your light in my heart and mind, that I may continue to know you better through every way that you choose to reveal yourself.