Monday, September 13, 2010

An Idol Tale

This sermon was preached for morning worship on September 12, 2010 at the Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst. The readings for the day were Exodus 32: 1-14 (The Golden Calf) and Luke 15: 1-7.

Our reading today from the book of Exodus is a famous one. It takes place just a few months after the people of Israel have made their great escape from the land of Egypt, as they wander in the wilderness en route to the Promised Land. They are still learning, sometimes the hard way, what it means to be God’s Chosen People—and how to live and work and worship in an authentic way as the people of God.

It’s hard to be God’s people in the wilderness. The newly freed people of Israel are struggling with what it means to be free—they are hungry, and thirsty, and afraid—they press their leader Moses to the limits of his patience and complain about their plight even when God ‘s grace is tangible all around them in the incredible gift of manna falling from heaven.

It’s hard to be God’s people in the wilderness. The newly freed people of Israel are impatient and distrustful, and when Moses is called by God up to Mount Sinai to receive God’s continuing revelation to them—including the Ten Commandments, laws of conduct and order, instructions for the construction of a tabernacle and the Ark of the covenant—the people start to get uncomfortable. By the time Moses has been holed up with God on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights –they’re more than uncomfortable. They’re restless, they feel abandoned, they don’t know who’s in charge, they’re maybe a little—or a lot—afraid. Needing reassurance, they tell Moses’ brother Aaron, “Make a god for us.”

And so Aaron does the only thing he can think of to calm the people down—he oversees the creation of a golden calf—and this golden calf isn’t just any old idol to be worshipped. This golden calf, Aaron tells the Israelites, is an image of “Your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” And no doubt relieved and reassured by having a familiar god right there that they can see and touch and understand, the people begin to worship and celebrate.

They’ve made a terrible mistake.

When God sees his chosen people dancing and drinking and making sacrifices in his name to the golden calf, he is furious at their lack of patience, their lack of loyalty, their lack of understanding, and he’s almost ready to bring an end to this whole experiment with the Israelites and destroy them altogether. Despite all that they’ve been through and experienced, despite coming to know God as the one who led them out of slavery in Egypt, despite the guidance of the Ten Commandments (as in “you shall have no other gods before me. . . you shall not make for yourself an idol. . .”), the people still don’t get that God is not a golden calf who can be seen or touched or made into an image or an object.

The golden calf called for by the people and created by Aaron is an offense against God because no finite image can ever fully capture the infinite God. God is indescribable and elemental. God calls himself “I am who I am”—which is on the one hand completely obvious but on the other hand completely mysterious. God can be known, or experienced, or revealed but can never, ever be domesticated, described, or completely understood.

I wish I could tell you that this episode of the golden calf was the last time any of God’s people got it wrong and started worshipping a false image of God instead of God himself. But I’m afraid that worshipping false images and idols is a pretty common preoccupation of all times including ours. Certainly theologians and preachers have railed against this kind of thing for centuries—one might even say millennia.

I know that you’ve all heard this before in one sermon or other—that we all worship something, even those of us who don’t acknowledge the presence of God. We worship, as one commentator puts it, things like “money, power, fame, career, self, or the Minnesota Vikings.” We worship the ideal of the perfect body, or a political perspective we know is right, or a movie star, or a particular brand of craft-brewed beer.

As churchgoing Christians, we’ve pretty much internalized the idea that we shouldn’t be worshipping these things instead of God; that instead of putting our faith, and our hope, and our trust in these kind of things, that we need to put our faith in God as revealed through Jesus Christ.

But just like Aaron, who was doing the best he could with his limited understanding, and set up the golden calf not as a new god but as an image of the One True God, the God who had brought the Israelites out of Egypt—just like Aaron, we can still sometimes set up idols for ourselves that are false images of the true God.

Rolf Jacobsen, an Old Testament scholar at Luther Seminary, puts it this way:

“. . .Idols can also be our false images of the true God. Things that we associate so much with God, that we worship them instead of God—the church building, the old liturgy, the retired pastor, the painting above the altar, a doctrine to which we cling too tightly. . . This form of idol can actually be even more dangerous to faith than outright idols.”

Furthermore, Professor Jacobsen tells us that the story of the golden calf, “. . . exposes what happens when God's people fall prey to the temptation of confusing the human "image of God" that is a spiritual leader (a pastor, parent, bishop, teacher, mentor) with God. When that leader disappears, humans can lose sight of God and lose faith in their direction.”

Just like Aaron, we can be going along our own spiritual path, confident of our direction, our traditions, our doctrines, even our leadership—and we can still get ourselves in trouble because no finite image—even if that image is a principle, a doctrine, a building, or a person--can ever fully capture the infinite God.

God is who God is. God can be known, or experienced, or revealed but can never, ever be domesticated, described, or completely understood.

But where does that leave us? If every tradition, doctrine, building, and person is a potential false image of God, how in the world are we supposed to figure out the difference? How are we supposed to worship in spirit and in truth? And there is a larger question, too. How in the world are we supposed to live as God’s people in the world if God himself can’t be described, or imagined, or understood?

Of course I’m not advocating that we all run screaming from the sanctuary at the impossibility of these questions. Instead, I do have a few ideas about how to tackle these questions, ideas drawn from the scriptures we read today. No doubt many of you will have more, drawn from other sources, and I hope you will share them with me. For now here’s some ideas to start with.

The first thing is humility.

I believe that the episode of the golden calf calls all of us to humility. Just like Aaron and the Israelite people here in our passage from Exodus, we all have ideas, and images, and experiences that have shaped our understanding of who God is and how God would have us worship and live. But unlike Aaron and the Israelite people, we need to have the humility to acknowledge that our understanding is imperfect and our ideas are just too small and incomplete to adequately or completely describe the God Who Is.

And here’s a quote to chew on, something that was on my mind a lot this week as I considered both this passage about the golden calf and the various controversies about Muslims and mosques and Koran-burnings that were spinning out of control in the media. It’s a quote from spiritual writer and fellow Presbyterian Ann Lamott. She says: “You can tell you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

We may not be able to avoid setting up idols for ourselves as we struggle to understand and describe God; but we have to have the humility, as God’s people, to acknowledge and to discard those idols and images when we catch a better glimpse—or a different glimpse—of who God is and how God is working in the world.

The second thing I think we can glean from this passage is about trust—trusting in God’s leadership, God’s revelation, and God’s provision. Scripture tells us that the people of Israel in the Sinai wilderness are impatient, restless, and afraid because Moses “delayed to come down from the mountain” and they “did not know what had become of him.” They’ve lost sight of the fact that it wasn’t Moses, but God who delivered them from slavery and brought them up out of Egypt.

The Israelites have also lost sight of the fact that the God who delivered them from slavery hasn’t really gone anywhere--he is still there with them. God has provided manna from heaven to assuage their hunger, and even as the Israelites pout and agitate for their golden calf God is working, just a ways up the mountain with Moses, providing guidance, and comfort, and principles for living their common life together as God’s people.

Even as his people betray him, God is working to lead them, to reveal himself to them, and to provide for them. God loves us, is faithful to us, and is reaching out to us even when we turn our backs on him. That’s something we can trust.

So, humility. And trust. Those are two things we can hold on to as we try to know God authentically, to worship God truthfully, and to live as God’s people in the world.

There’s something else, too, that I think we can glean from today’s scripture readings—and I’m not really sure how to say it best, so I’ll just try and you can tell me if I’ve succeeded and it makes sense to you.

It seems to me that we—in our post 9/11 world—with all the best intentions in the world—have participated in setting up an idol—an image that we worship, that keeps us from living as God’s people in the world-- fully free, fully redeemed, fully infused with God’s grace. And that idol is—the notion of safety.

We seem to have this idea these days that safety is a right; that we all should be safe, from everything, all the time. We should be safe from terrorists. From bombs. From oil spills. From disease. From injury. From abuse. From emotional distress. From death even.

This belief in the ideal of safety—or maybe I should say the idol of safety—is an undercurrent that seems to run beneath everything we say and everything we do, as individuals and as a society—whether it’s making foreign policy, adjudicating legal cases, considering what medicines and treatments we want to pursue, deciding where we live, or who our friends should be.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not wishing bombs, oil spills, disease, injury, abuse, emotional distress, or death on anyone—ever, any time. And I certainly do believe in the ideal of safety.

But here’s how safety becomes an idol for us: when safety becomes the value that determines our every action and reaction and emotion and commitment; when our desire for safety trumps love, or trust, or respect, or hope; when our desire for safety keeps us from talking to people, reaching out to others, working to ease another’s pain; when our need for safety prompts us to hate, to scorn, to betray, to vandalize or to burn; when being safe means more to us than being authentic people of God.

In today’s passage from Exodus, the Israelites set up their golden calf precisely because they want to feel safe. It’s risky business being out there in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land; it’s risky business being a free people; it’s risky business following a God you can’t see or touch. But that place of risk is exactly where they’re supposed to be. That place of risk is exactly where God has led them to--where they encounter God--and where God reveals himself to them.

If we had time to look at our gospel passage for today, I might point out that the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness to go after one that is lost isn’t pursuing a strategy that any of us would consider safe. Wouldn’t it be safer to just cut your losses and focus on keeping the 99 together and out of danger? One out of 99—isn’t that an acceptable loss? Pursuing the one at the expense of the safety of the 99, or at the expense of yourself is a strategy of risk.

There’s nothing safe about seeking and searching—about reaching out, extending oneself, exploring the different or the unknown. There’s nothing safe about loving God or loving our neighbor as ourselves.

And looking at the bigger picture of the Gospels, there was nothing safe about Jesus’ life in the midst of humanity, his association with sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors, his defiance of religious and political authority figures, and his criminal’s death on the cross. And there was nothing safe about the lives of the saints and sinners who followed him and endured prison, torture, and martyrdom for the sake of faith in Christ—except, of course, for the ultimate safety offered to them, and to us, in Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and in his redeeming promise of eternal life in the presence of God.

Today’s scriptures remind us how easy it is to let impatience, or fear, or any of a number of golden calves, distract us from knowing and experiencing, and following, the God Who Is.

Today’s scriptures remind us that being God’s people involves humility—and trust—and the willingness to take the risk of loving, of reaching out, of following God into the wilderness and into freedom.

Today’s scriptures remind us that not even our own safety can trump our walk as God’s people and our work as Christians in the world--and that our only true safety is to be found in God’s presence, whether it is God’s presence here in this life, or God’s nearer presence in the eternal life to come.


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Face In the Crowd

This sermon was preached for Palm Sunday on March 28, 2010 at the Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst. The day's Gospel reading was John 12: 12-16.

What’s the biggest crowd you’ve ever been in? As I think back on my own life experiences, I would have to say that the biggest crowd I’ve ever been in was in Boston in the mid 1980’s, when I went to one of those Fourth of July Boston Pops concerts on the Esplanade in front of the Hatch Shell—the one where they play the 1812 overture with cannons, and then follow up with fireworks. It was already crowded when we got to the Esplanade early in the morning and spread out our blanket—and by concert time some 12 hours later—8:30 pm—I was just one of about 500,000 people waiting for the festivities to begin.

I bet some of you have stories that would put that one to shame. Maybe you’ve been in Times Square for New Year’s eve, or in New Orleans for Mardi Gras,—or maybe you were in Paris on VE Day in 1945, or listening to Martin Luther King in Washington, DC in 1963, or in London for Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997.

Or maybe the biggest crowd you’ve ever experienced was somewhat closer to home—a basketball game at the Rose Quarter, or the Rose Festival Parade, or a political rally at Waterfront Park.

How do you feel when you’re in a crowd? Are you thrilled? Are you energized? Are you comfortable? Do you feel powerful? Do you feel claustrophobic? Do you feel confident? Or are you afraid?

In today’s gospel reading, as well as all the ceremony and festivity of this day, Palm Sunday, we as readers and listeners and believers are not only brought together as a people in worship—but we are also brought together as participants in the sacred story—as members of the celebratory crowd that surrounds Jesus with waving palms, and shouts of “Hosanna!”

The word “liturgy”—the word we use for the order of worship itself—comes from the greek word “leiturgia,” meaning “work of the people”—and our work for today is to be part of the story—to celebrate this miracle-working Messiah who arrives in triumph.

Like the palm-waving crowds lining the Jerusalem road, straining to catch a glimpse of this superstar riding into town, we know who Jesus is, and we just can’t contain our excitement. Jesus will be our leader. We know he will be our savior. We know he will embrace his own power, rescue us from Roman occupation and restore us to our rightful place before God and in the world. We know he will do great things, and he’s going to do them for us.

And today, just for today, we are confident enough and courageous enough to dance in the aisles and proclaim the new reality we know is coming: “Hooray for Jesus! He is the King of Israel! God bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

But if you’re following the story in the gospel of John, you know that all of the excitement and celebration of the palm-waving crowd on this day are only a brief respite from the clouds that have been gathering over Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, and the shadows that await him after he enters the city.

The authorities have been plotting to discredit and arrest Jesus almost continuously through John’s gospel, but after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead in Chapter 11, just before the jubilant crowd’s palm parade in chapter 12, the authorities’ plots take a more sinister turn—as John tells us in chapter 11 verse 53, “From that day on, the council started making plans to put Jesus to death.”

Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a celebration—but by entering the city and revealing himself in such a public way, Jesus is making himself a very visible target for those who would arrest him and do him harm. He is also making himself the focus of the crowd’s messianic, political, and revolutionary expectations—high expectations that he will not fulfill in a way they can understand or expect.

Before the week is out, Jesus will be betrayed, and beaten, and bound; and as he stands for judgement before Pilate, the crowd outside—perhaps some of the very same people who danced around with palm branches—will be a street mob, angry and frustrated over unfulfilled expectations, howling “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and demanding his execution.

As we follow the story of Jesus—here in John, and as we come to it in worship throughout this Holy Week leading up to Easter—I think we have to acknowledge that if we see ourselves as part of the jubilant crowd, we can also, with a terrible convicting honesty, know that we have it in us to be part of the angry mob as well.

Could that be us, there in the streets of Jerusalem, one moment celebrating the arrival of the Messiah, and the next moment demanding the execution of the lamb of God? The gospel of John thinks so, and part of the ironic power of the Palm Sunday story is the way it requires us to hold up the mirror of truth and see ourselves in it—see our fickle, and frustrated, and fearful selves as we really would have been, and perhaps even now as we really are.

I’ve been thinking about the power of crowds—and the power of mobs—quite a bit these past few weeks as I’ve watched the health care debate and advocates both for and against the health care bill kindle debate and discussion—and also incite anger, and fear, and polarization.

I’ve seen some really ugly things happen this week—people getting spit on and called names—acts of violence, death threats—and I will confess to you that I have had some really unpleasant moments in my own heart as I read postings and blogs and heard comments from old and dear friends of mine that revealed their thinking on this issue is different from mine—and I’ve been so tempted to just cut off all those people I disagree with—“well, if that’s the way you think, we can’t be friends!”.

I’ve been thinking about how easy it is to get polarized, to see issues and relationships in terms of winning and losing; I’ve been thinking about all the times I’ve been right about something and all the other times I’ve been wrong. I’ve been thinking about the crowd that first celebrated Jesus and then demanded his death, and how we are all so much like them, and how it is so hard—when we stand at a liminal moment, a doorway moment between one event and the next, between one reality and the next, between one stage of life and the next, between one relationship and the next, between one destiny and the next—how it is so hard, standing in that doorway, to see what lies ahead, to understand it—and how important it is that we choose how we react—that we choose how we treat one another—that we choose to trust the future to God.

The crowd that celebrated Jesus with palms when he entered Jerusalem knew what they wanted—a Savior and a King—they were so angry and disappointed when they didn’t get it that they turned into a mob and turned their backs on Jesus.

What the crowd didn’t understand was that God’s heart, God’s wisdom, God’s providence was bigger than they could possibly imagine; that what God was accomplishing through Jesus wasn’t just the salvation of a person, or a people, a city or a country, but the salvation of the world itself.

Remember that saying, be careful what you ask for, you just might get it? Despite their frustration, their fickleness, their fearfulness, and their fury--this crowd got so much more than they were asking for, more than they could ever have imagined—forgiveness, redemption, eternal life and joy--and so did we, and our children, and our children’s children, to the end of days.

How hard it is, when we are in a liminal moment—a doorway moment between one stage of life and the next—it is so hard, standing in that doorway, to see what lies ahead, and to understand it. John’s gospel tells us that we can trust the future to God—and that in those moments of frustration, of fearfulness, of fury—it matters most how we treat one another.

Imagining ourselves as part of the crowd on Palm Sunday, and as part of the mob on Good Friday, helps us to understand that neither of those things—crowd or mob—is who Jesus calls us to be. Instead, we can look again to the gospel of John—to the next chapter, when Jesus gathers the disciples around him and bends to wash their feet—to see the kind of relationship Jesus calls us to have with him and with each other.

Jesus washes the disciples feet and then he tells them, “I am giving you a new command. You must love each other, just as I have loved you. If you love each other, everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

Jesus calls us to be not members of a crowd, but members of a community.

At a time of social upheaval and unrest not too far in our past, Rev Martin Luther King spoke time and time again about the potential for non-violence to create something he called “The Beloved Community.” Dr. King said,

"Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight fire with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies—is the solution to the problem."

Members of a crowd can keep score. Members of a crowd can be winners or losers, can dominate and punish, hurt and exploit. Members of a crowd can indulge in fear-mongering and one-upmanship and hate. Members of a crowd can give tit for tat and blackmail and payola.

Members of a community, on the other hand, know each other; are invested in each other; are honest with each other; hold each other accountable; live with each other; serve each other; comfort each other. Members of a community love each other and work together. Members of a community trust one another and trust in God.

We as a church are called to be not a crowd but a community. We are called not to jostle one another for position or privilege but to wash each other’s feet, to learn from one another, to pray for each other, to see the face of God in one another.

We are called not to compete with each another but to love one another; not to dominate each other but to serve one another; not to stir up fear in each other but to build up hope in one another. We are called to join hands with one another and to trust in God. And in living this way we not only claim the gospel promises for ourselves, but we proclaim them for others. “If you love each other,” Jesus says, “everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

Like people throughout the ages, we live in turbulent times. As we navigate our own stormy waters--as we travel into the gathering shadows of Holy Week—let us live and let us worship not as a crowd but as a community—as a Beloved Community—serving one another and loving one another and putting our trust in God.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

It's Not All In Your Head

This sermon was preached on January 17, 2010, at the Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst. Texts for the day were Luke 18: 9-14 and 1 Thessalonians 5: 12-18.

What a lot of praying—and thinking about praying—we’ve been doing lately. There’s the weekly “Teach Us To Pray” class. There’s the 100 Days of Prayer project that many in this congregation are embarked on. There’s this sermon series on prayer, of which this is the second installment. There are the heartfelt prayers we’ve lifted up to God as a congregation during this winter season as we celebrated births here and far away; as we mourned loved ones who have died; as we gave support and comfort to those in our church and neighborhood who have suffered unemployment, poverty, or illness; and as we pondered the future of our own community of faith. In the ecumenical community, tomorrow marks the beginning of the annual observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

And I know that during this past week all of us have been in prayer for the people of Haiti, who have suffered so much in their history and are suffering unbearable losses and pain as a result of Tuesday’s earthquake. When we look upon the horrors of this far off disaster, when our eyes are wet and our hearts are breaking, when we so much want to help brothers and sisters in need and we feel like there’s nothing much we can do, we pray. Prayer has always been, and must be now, our guide and companion during times like these.

There are so many times when prayer seems like the simplest, most natural thing in the world. Overcome with love, or fear, or grief, or weariness, we put our head in our hands--we fall to our knees—or leap to our feet. We bow our heads—or lift up our arms. In hushed and reverent tones—or shouts of joy—or screams of anguish—we cry out to God.

There are so many times when turning to God in prayer seems like the simplest, most natural thing in the world. And yet, sometimes, prayer does sometimes present us—at least it presents me-- with some difficulties.

Twenty five years ago, when I was just beginning to hear my call to the ministry, I was very, very nervous about prayer—about my own prayer life, which I had a sneaking suspicion didn’t measure up to the ministerial gold standard. I’d never been much of a pray-er.

Praying seemed so easy for some people--but I was very, very nervous. I was particularly nervous about praying in front of people or leading a group in prayer. I was afraid that I wouldn’t do it right. I was afraid that I’d stumble over my words, or repeat myself, or forget what I was saying—that I’d ask for something inappropriate, or in the wrong way—that all my prayer inexperience would be revealed for all to see.

Or worse, I was afraid that I would open my mouth and nothing would come out—that I would have nothing at all to say, and that there would be long, embarrassing silences. And how could I be a minister, and hope to lead a congregation, if I didn’t know what to say to God—and how to say it? And what if my prayers were so bad, so awkward, that God Himself was offended?

Am I alone in that? Do you all sometimes feel like that too? I am imagining that some of you have experienced those obstacles—and some of you might be experiencing them right now. I am thinking particularly about those of us who are participating in the 100 days of prayer and praying together in triads—scheduling prayer time, taking turns praying, voicing out loud your hopes, dreams, and desires of the heart.

I can imagine that you might be pretty self-conscious in a situation like that. Maybe you’re together in groups with people you hardly know, or people who are very different from you; or people you’ve been feuding with for the past 50 years. Maybe you’re with people who have more—or less—experience at this Christianity thing than you have, or whose ideas of how we should pray, what we should pray for, or what we want from God, don’t match with yours at all.

How do we pray? What do we say? How do we say it? What do we ask for? And how do we know we’re doing it right?

The scriptures, as you know, are full of advice about who and what to pray for and where and how to pray.

In our gospel reading for this morning, taken from Luke, we hear Jesus tell a parable about acceptable and unacceptable ways of praying, describing with favor the humble prayer of a tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”—and declaring that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Elsewhere in Luke, of course, when the disciples beg Jesus, "Lord, teach us to pray,” Jesus advises them, "When you pray, say: 'Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’” And this, what we call the Lord’s Prayer, is the granddaddy of all Christian prayers, the heart and the backbone of our prayer life at home and in worship.

Our scripture lesson today from Thessalonians also brings us prayer advice, this time from the apostle Paul. The letter to the Thessalonians, reflects Paul’s intense relationship with the Christian community in Thessalonica and reveals his advice to that community at a time of difficult challenges, both external and internal.

In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul exhorts the community to “pray without ceasing” and to “be at peace among yourselves” – listing for them things that make for peace.

One thing I find interesting about this passage is that its directive to “pray without ceasing” is only one of a long list of activities that, for Paul, characterize the practice of Christianity and show forth the presence of Christ in the midst of the community.

Prayer is one strand of authentic Christian practice. In Thessalonians, we see that strand of prayer gathered together with other strands that witness to Christ’s presence--being patient, rejoicing always, giving thanks, helping the weak—and woven together to form a strong rope that defines and undergirds the community.

For Paul, prayer is completely integrated into all aspects of the authentic Christian life; prayer is not passive but active—it is an action that powers, pervades, and proclaims that the Thessalonian community is living out “the will of God in Jesus Christ.”

Another interesting aspect of this passage is that Paul’s directive to “pray without ceasing,” and his calling prayer one of the things that “makes for peace,” shows the Thessalonians, and us, that prayer is a powerful resource for Christians in community who seek, who grope, who yearn for unity with one another and with the world. Paul makes clear here that unity—agreement on doctrine, or purpose--isn’t a prerequisite for prayer—but that conversely, prayer is a prerequisite for unity.

In other words, we don’t pray together and for each other because we are a community. We pray together and for each other because we want to be a community. Paul’s words in Thessalonians assure us that in the spiritual practice of praying together and for each other--we become a community.

According to Oxford professor and priest Jane Shaw, one of our greatest worship resources—the Anglican Book of Common Prayer—came to being out of this notion of forming a community around a shared practice of prayer. Dr. Shaw notes that the goal and the hope of Thomas Cranmer, author and compiler of the Book of Common Prayer, was to

". . . create a prayer book that . . . all (worshippers) could and would use. As he was writing his prayer book in the 1530s and 40s, he looked across to central Europe and saw that people were killing each other because of what they had to confess – mostly about how they were saved or what they believed about the nature of the Eucharist, whether it was a mere memorial, bread and wine or transformed into the body and blood of Christ. He wanted to try and avoid that sort of confessionalism and bloodshed. He hoped that everyone could just show up and say together, in their own language, common prayers for common sins, common prayers for common thanksgivings, common prayers for common praise – ‘common’ meaning in this instance ‘shared’.”

Thirdly—let’s talk about what Paul might mean here in Thessalonians when he says “pray without ceasing.” This notion of ceaseless or constant prayer is one Paul returns to over and over again in his writings.

For Paul, authentic prayer means praying “Always” and “unceasingly”; as one scholar has put it, this means that

". . .Prayer is then not merely a part of life which we can conveniently lay aside if something we deem more important comes up; prayer is all of life. Prayer is as essential to our life as breathing. . . .To pray does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things or to spend time with God in contrast to spending time with our family and friends. Rather, to pray means to think and live our entire life in the Presence of God. . . .Our whole life, every act and gesture, even a smile must become a hymn or adoration, an offering, a prayer. We must become prayer--prayer incarnate."

For me, Paul’s idea of “praying without ceasing” opens the door to a whole new way of thinking about prayer. If we think about how to weave ceaseless prayer into the fabric of our lives, it seems to me that the questions about prayer that worry us and make us nervous--How do we pray? What do we say? How do we say it? What do we ask for? How do we know we’re doing it right? And what will other people think?—suddenly become unimportant.

Maybe you have heard the saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words. I recently read a variation on this saying, coined, I think, by popular spiritual writer Max Lucado which goes like this: Pray all the time. If necessary, use words.

What if prayers aren’t about the words we say, but about who we are and who we want to be?

What if praying isn’t asking God for something, but about being in God’s presence?

What if prayers aren’t limited to our heads or our mouths, but dwell in our hearts and souls and bodies?

And what if praying isn’t communication with God—but communion with God?

When I was in seminary, and experiencing for the first time the diversity of Christian practices different from my own Presbyterian upbringing, I was introduced to a traditional spiritual discipline and mystical practice from the Orthodox tradition: the Jesus Prayer. Have any of you heard of it?

The Jesus Prayer goes like this: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." It is used, according to Orthodox theologians, “to enter more deeply into the life of prayer and to come to grips with St. Paul's challenge to pray unceasingly . . .The Jesus Prayer is offered as a means of concentration, as a focal point for our inner life.”

Praying the Jesus prayer is deceptively simple. You just say it, those simple words, over and over and over. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." And so on, and so on.

According to those who use this prayer as a spiritual practice, as you begin to speak the words of the prayer over and over, the words are simply that—words—“a prayer of the lips, a simple recitation.”

As you say the prayer again and again, you enter a second level of prayer, a deeper level of concentration, a state in which, Orthodox scholars tell us, we may “pray without distraction”: “the mind is focused upon the words" of the Prayer, "speaking them as if they were our own."

The ultimate goal of praying the Jesus prayer is to reach the third and final level of prayer in which the words you are saying are no longer the content of the prayer. This is a level of prayer which is not intended to transcend the body, but to unite the body and the soul in a state of mystical experience called “prayer of the heart.”

At this stage prayer is no longer something you do but who you are. It is part of the rhythms of your body; your heart beats to it, your breath moves to it; you are the prayer, you live the prayer, and as you live and move, you are praying without ceasing.

Now is this really possible? I don’t know. But the idea of praying without ceasing, moving past the words and becoming a living prayer, of attaining that physical union with God, is a powerful one that has inspired many people to try this practice, and to write about it.

What if prayers aren’t about the words we say, but about who we are and who we want to be?

What if praying isn’t asking God for something, but about being in God’s presence?

What if prayers aren’t limited to our heads or our mouths, but dwell in our hearts and souls and bodies?

And what if praying isn’t communication with God—but communion with God?

What other ways could we find to pray that get us out of our normal patterns, out of our heads, out of our dependence on the words we say and how we say them?

Our Presbyterian tradition (believe it or not!) offers us some ideas about praying without words—and here I’m quoting from our own Presbyterian Book of Order:

  • One may wait upon God in attentive and expectant silence.
  • One may meditate upon God’s gifts, God’s actions, God’s Word, and God’s character.
  • One may contemplate God, moving beyond words and thoughts to communion of one’s spirit with the Spirit of God.
  • One may draw near to God in solitude.
  • One may take on an individual discipline of enacted prayer through dance, physical exercise, music, or other expressive activity as a response to grace.
  • One may enact prayer as a public witness through keeping a vigil, through deeds of social responsibility or protest, or through symbolic acts of disciplined service.

What ways can you think of to bring prayer without words into your prayer life at home, in worship, and in the 100 Days of Prayer?

Will you walk a labyrinth? Attend a protest? Do an art project? Knit or quilt together? Spend time prayerfully gardening with your hands and your hearts working God’s good earth? Will you hold hands in attentive silence? You’re a creative group. I can’t wait to hear your ideas.

Pray without ceasing. If necessary, use words.

We’ve been praying a lot lately. My hope, and my challenge, for all of us, is that in all our prayers--easy and difficult, spoken and silent, wordy and wordless--we might know the inspiration, and hope, and transformation of an encounter with the living God—and that we might use all our resources and traditions and creativity to know Christ, to inform our faith, and to form us into a community.


Monday, June 29, 2009

Stuck In The Middle With You

This sermon was preached on June 28, 2009, at the Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst in Portland, Oregon. The text for the day was John 5: 1-9. For the children's message, we talked about the story from Winnie-the-Pooh in which Pooh gets stuck in the doorway to Rabbit's house (having eaten so much honey)--and I referred to it during the sermon--so a portion of that story is reproduced here.

"So (Pooh) started to climb out of the hole. He pulled with his front paws, and pushed with his back paws, and in a little while his nose was in the open again ... and then his ears ... and then his front paws ... and then his shoulders ... and then-'Oh, help!' said Pooh, 'I'd better go back,' 'Oh bother!' said Pooh, 'I shall have to go on.' 'I can't do either!' said Pooh, 'Oh help and bother!' ...

Bear began to sigh, and then found he couldn't because he was so tightly stuck; and a tear rolled down his eye, as he said: 'Then would you read a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?' So for a week Christopher Robin read that sort of book at the North end of Pooh, and Rabbit hung his washing on the South end... and in between Bear felt himself getting slenderer and slenderer. And at the end of the week Christopher Robin said,

So he took hold of Pooh's front paws and Rabbit took hold of Christopher Robin, and all Rabbit's friends and relations took hold of Rabbit, and they all pulled together ... And for a long time Pooh only said 'Ow!' ... And 'Oh!' ... And then, all of a sudden he said 'Pop!' just if a cork were coming out of a bottle. And Christopher Robin and Rabbit and all relations went head-over-heels backwards ...and on top of them came Winnie-the-Pooh free! "

A. A. Milne

Well, here we are, beginning the fifth chapter of John, and already we are beginning to see the Gospel writer introducing a different mood into his narrative. The first four chapters have been rich with signs and scriptures, prophecies and callings, miracles and metaphors.

We’ve seen Jesus’ divinity announced by John the Baptist and we’ve heard Jesus call the first disciples. We’ve seen Jesus turn water into wine at Cana, drive the moneychangers out of the temple in Jerusalem, and heal the son of a royal official of Capernaum. We’ve seen Jesus reach out to Nicodemus the Pharisee and the Samaritan woman at the well, and we’ve heard Jesus teach about living water and being born of the Spirit. And with these signs, and miracles, and metaphors, Jesus has proclaimed his identity as the promised Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the World—and he has drawn many of the people around him to faith.

When we reach the fifth chapter of John, we begin to become aware that, as Jesus the Light of the World reveals himself more and more clearly, there are clouds looming on the horizon—clouds of opposition and persecution that begin here in chapter 5 and gather strength and force in chapters 6 and 7—so much so that, in chapter 7, the religious authorities have already reached the boiling point and sent temple police to arrest him.

Our reading for today from chapter 5, the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda, marks a turning point in John’s story, the moment when the Pharisees decide that Jesus must be stopped. From chapter 5 onward, the religious authorities begin to understand just who and what Jesus is claiming to be—and they are determined to do away with him. As time goes on, their opposition to him only intensifies.

But that’s not where we’re headed today. Today, we’re going to focus on the miracle.

In today’s reading we see Jesus, in Jerusalem for a festival, approach the pool of Bethesda. Jesus sees many people lying around this pool—the gospel tells us, “many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed’—all hoping to find a cure for their ailments in the healing waters. Jesus focuses all of his attention on one man—a man who, we are told, has been ill for thirty-eight years, and asks him what at first glance seems to be an obvious question: “Do you want to be made well?”

Instead of answering Jesus with a yes or a no, the man begins to make excuses: “Sir I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me”—and I know it doesn’t say this directly in the text, but it certainly implies it—that not only has the man been disabled for 38 years, but he’s been sitting beside the pool for 38 years--trying to get into the water for 38 years, and never making it to the front of the line—for 38 years. Over and over, again and again, for 38 years, this man has been doing the only thing he knows to do in pursuit of healing—and over and over again, for 38 years, the healing just hasn’t happened.

So I see this as a Dr. Phil moment. Imagine Dr. Phil, the afternoon TV psychologist, leaning out over the pool, fixing his eyes on this disabled man, and saying in that inimitable Texas drawl, “So son, how’s that workin’ for you?”

The disabled man may want to be healed. But what he’s doing about it just isn’t working. He’s doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result—insanity, right? He’s stuck—stuck in a system, stuck in a groove, stuck in old patterns, stuck in the past. Stuck, like Pooh in the rabbit hole, a "wedged bear in great tightness."

Maybe this man thinks he’s doing the only right thing in the only right way; but certainly, he can’t imagine or envision any other way a different way of thinking, or doing, or being—any other way out of his dilemma. His paralysis is not only physical—it’s mental, and emotional, and spiritual as well.

In fact, he seems to meet all the criteria for being “stuck” itemized by one personal trainer I read about—and the personal trainer was talking, of course, about being “stuck” in your process of diet and exercise, but it’s a pretty good description of our man by the pool nevertheless: “ Your energy drops dramatically; You suddenly become undecided, confused as to your next step; Now, playing the game becomes more important than achieving results.”

That certainly seems about right, doesn’t it? Especially that part about playing the game being more important than the results. The man by the pool seems much more committed to the process of getting to the water than he is to the result of being healed.

That place by the pool of Bethesda isn’t so different from the world we’re living in right now. And aren’t we all now, or haven’t we all been in the past, “stuck”—physically, emotionally, mentally—or spiritually?

I think it would be very hard right now not to feel stuck—and if you’re not, I congratulate you! I feel stuck every time I turn on the TV or open a newspaper. It is very hard to see the American automobile industry floundering. It is very hard to see newspapers going bankrupt and folding up. It is awful to see banks fail, and homes foreclosed, and jobs lost, and our wars go on and on. It is hurtful to see churches getting smaller. It is harrowing to be stuck in relationships that stagnate, or to watch someone you love sink into dementia, or to flounder in the grip of unremitting depression.

Or maybe, if we look deep within ourselves, our stuckness is really a stuckness in behaviors or ways of thinking that are easy, compelling, and destructive—or maybe, like Pooh with his little "honey problem," we’re stuck in the grip of sin, floundering around with something we know is wrong, we know needs to change, we know needs to be healed, and yet—we just can’t find a way to stop.

Whatever our issues may be at any moment of our lives, it is excruciating to feel the world changing shape around us, and to feel that the rules and relationships and institutions which have served us so well in the past might just be becoming irrelevant. We may want to heal ourselves, our culture, our economy—maybe find a new direction for our church—but we feel like we don’t have the tools—like the disabled man at Bethesda pool, and indeed all the people gathered by that pool to compete for healing--we’re so stuck in what is that we can’t imagine or envision what could be.

I recently read a wonderful article, an interview with a professor from Harvard Business School named Timothy Butler, called “Feeling Stuck? Getting Past Impasse.”

In the article, Professor Butler—who is also a psychologist, psychotherapist, and career development counselor-- talks about this experience we all face from time to time in our lives—this sensation of “feeling stuck”—as a time of crisis for us, and as a time of opportunity. In fact, he says, “Without it we cannot grow, change—and—eventually—live more fully in a larger world.”

Dr. Butler calls this time of “being stuck” a time of “impasse.” He says, “The meaning of an impasse is a request for us to change our way of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world. At impasse our model—our cognitive map of life and of the way we’re going to fit into it—is no longer working. Continuing with our usual approaches to problem-solving will not help us break through. Impasse means that we need to change our whole approach to the problem. We need to change our repertoire of ways in which we approach life’s challenges.”

In our gospel story, the disabled man at the pool is at an impasse. He is stuck; his map of life and the way he’s going to solve his problems is no longer working. He needs to change his whole approach to the problem.

And sure enough, someone—someone named Jesus --reaches out to the disabled man—across the void of impasse-- and gives him something new to try—a completely new approach—something undoubtedly out of his comfort zone. “Do you want to be made well?” he asks him. “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.”

Now, this is a man who can’t even get himself to the edge of the pool. Jesus tells him to do something unexpected, impossible, beyond his imagination, and ours—and he even does it on the Sabbath, a time when work of any kind—even a healing like this—would have been against the religious law.

And therein we have the miracle. Jesus tells the man to get up and walk—and at once the man is made well, and he takes up his mat, and he walks. Jesus’ miraculous and gracious intervention changes the man’s whole approach to his problem, sets him free to live more fully in a larger world, and transforms the time of impasse into a time of redemption and grace.

Jesus’ healing of the man by the Bethesda pool shows us that despite getting stuck in old patterns of being and doing; stuck physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually; that we need to face those times of impasse with new eyes and new ears, with a willingness to leave behind patterns and processes that just aren’t working any more, and with attention to new ways of interpreting and ordering our life experience.

Jesus’ healing of the man by the Bethesda pool shows us that it is Jesus’ presence, and power, that can make us whole: that can push, or pull us, out of the depths of sin, or hopelessness, or despair--and that we need to be alert, awake, and attentive to his presence and his voice as he calls out to us.

By bringing healing to the man by the Bethesda pool in an unconventional and unexpected way, Jesus challenges our conventional understandings of what the world is like, and how the world is ordered, what God is like, and how God chooses to be active in the world. Jesus shows us that new possibilities for understanding the world and our place in it exist, and that the way to these new possibilities is in him and through him.

Like the man by the Bethesda pool, sometimes when we’re stuck—whether we’re stuck in emotional distress, in physical need, in sin, or some combination of the above--, it isn’t tradition, or routine, or persistence that’s going to get us moving again. Sometimes, when we’re stuck, we have to give up our reliance on the past, and our investment in the safe and the familiar, and take a leap of faith.

Sometimes, when we’re stuck, what we really need to do is to take Jesus’ hand and trust in him. Or we need to see in the outstretched hands of our community--pushing us, pulling us, prodding us--the outstretched hand of God.

In his article, Dr. Butler talks about that time of being stuck, that time of impasse, as an opportunity to look at our situation with new eyes and ears; an opportunity to listen, to begin to go deeper into the self; and an opportunity to deepen our insight into the nature of who we are. “Each impasse we face,” he says, “is an opportunity to look a little deeper and understand better what works for us. The more we know ourselves, the less we are thrown by the next impasse.”

And I am pretty sure Dr. Butler wouldn’t mind if I added just one more thought here: that each impasse we face is also a spiritual opportunity--an opportunity for a deepening of our insight into the nature of God.

Pooh certainly takes the time for some spiritual reflection when he asks for "a sustaining book, such as would help and comfort a wedged bear in great tightness." And who helps Pooh to reflect, and grow--or in his case, shrink!--and then to be popped free of his great tightness? His companions and friends, of course--his fellowship. You could even say that Pooh turns his time of impasse into a time of redemption and grace.

The miracle at the Bethesda pool shows us in a powerful way that the God we worship--the Christ we know—reaches out to us when we’re stuck, calls us out of our sin, and pain and paralysis, and—if we choose to take his hand and believe in him--both sets us free to live more fully in a larger world, and transforms the time of impasse into a time of redemption and grace.

The miracle shows us that God is always calling us out of ourselves and into something new. It brings us confidence that, in partnership with God in Christ, we can discover new, unprecedented, creative ways of knowing and worshipping God-- organizing the life of faith and organizing our lives in faith—and bringing God’s kingdom to reality in our church and in our world.

And most of all, Jesus’ healing of the man by the Bethesda pool shows us that, ultimately, it is Jesus’ presence, and power, that makes us whole: that can push, or pull us, out of the depths of sin, or hopelessness, or despair—restore our relationships—and bring us the healing, the redemption, and the new life we seek.

As people of faith, let us know in our hearts the confidence promised by the gospel. Let us leave our stuckness, our sins and systems behind and get up, take up our mat, and walk. Let us take Christ’s hand, follow him out of the impasse of the past, and into the graceful future of life in him.


Hello, It's Me

This sermon was preached on June 21, 2009, at the Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst in Portland, Oregon. There were two texts for the day--Exodus 3: 13-15 and John 4: 19-26.

For those of you who were here last Sunday, our destination this morning in John’s gospel—chapter 4—is familiar territory. We spent some time in last week’s sermon looking at the first part of this chapter, listening in as Jesus, resting beside a well on his way back to Galilee, encounters a Samaritan woman and asks her for a drink of water. When she wonders aloud that he would choose to speak or interact with a Samaritan such as she, Jesus tells her, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

But that isn’t the end of the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman—in fact, Jesus talks at greater length to the woman at the well than he does to anyone else in any of the gospels. Our scripture reading today continues their conversation as they move from the subject of water—and living water—to a discussion of right worship, which we know from Biblical scholarship was a source of conflict and bad feelings between the Samaritans and the Jewish people of that time.

The woman opens the topic, telling Jesus that “Our ancestors”—the Samaritans—“worshipped on this mountain”--a place called Mount Gerishim in Samaria—“but you”—the Jews—“say that the place the people must worship is in Jerusalem.”

It’s a seemingly unresolvable religious conflict between their peoples: but Jesus surprises the Samaritan woman when, as so often seems to happen in John’s gospel, Jesus changes the ground rules and lifts their conversation from concrete physical place to expansive spiritual concept: “God is spirit,” Jesus tells her, “and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Worship in spirit and truth.

So what kind of worship is that? Do Jesus’ words, directed at the Samaritan woman and her faith community so long ago, have anything to do with us? We’re not Samaritans, we’re Christians—and not only Christians, we’re Presbyterians. We’re already believers. We’re already here sitting in church on Sunday morning showing, as my mother in law would say, “whose side we’re on.” We’re reading Scripture, and singing hymns, and hearing a sermon, and talking and thinking about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We know how to do church. We’ve got this spirit and truth thing down!

And of course we do. But.

I know that you as a congregation have been in dialogue recently about your ministry, what the future holds for this church, and how God is leading you to serve him and the community. It’s an opportunity to speak a prophetic word, to explore new things, to take a leap of faith, to use your holy imaginations in co-creation with Christ.

I also know that for all of us times of transition and change—even if that transition and change is barely visible on the horizon—can be deeply unsettling, and even frightening—as we imagine—or fail to imagine—a new reality, and wonder about our place in it.

And this experience isn’t new, or unique to this congregation in this place and this time--Portland, Oregon in 2009. It’s an experience that has faced every Christian community, in every place, in every time that Christians have gathered together. In a very real way we could say that every moment in our congregational life is—and has been—and will be—and perhaps should be—a moment of change, a moment of challenge, a critical moment on which the future of our fellowship turns.

At this particular moment in our community of faith, it seems to me that we, like so many other Christian communities before and after us, can look to Jesus’ words about worshipping “in spirit and in truth” to guide us, to form us, to reassure us, and to challenge us as we ponder and strategize and dream together about ministry, and worship, and being church—now and into the future.

Let me hold up for you this morning a few of the things I see in this passage, and in the concept of worshipping in spirit and in truth—a few of the things that speak to us where we are today and illuminate what is—for us as a congregation and a community—the very thing that makes of us a church—that makes us an authentic community of Christian faith.

Pastor Greg was kind enough to give me a wonderful book on the Gospel of John, called “Written That You May Believe” by new testament scholar Sandra Schneiders. One of the things she says characterizes this gospel is that, in John, there are no “second generation” Christians—people who never meet Jesus for themselves. Time after time in this gospel, the telling of the good news and the hearing of good news is always followed up with an authentic personal encounter with Jesus.

We see this in our gospel passage for today; the Samaritan woman forsakes her water jar, goes into the Samaritan village and tells the Samaritans there about Jesus; but they come to belief only after they come to Jesus and see and hear him for themselves. In verse 42, we read that the Samaritans say to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” As John envisions it, it is the personal encounter between us and Jesus that calls us into relationship and brings us to faith; and it is in the context of that relationship that we find the truest expression of worship in spirit and in truth.

So that’s the first word for us this morning. Worship in spirit and in truth happens in the context of our relationship with Jesus. It is the result of our personal encounter with him—not only that one first, blinding moment of personal salvation but an ongoing, unfolding, living, growing, covenantal revelation that continues to touch us, and move us, and guide us, and companion us, all the days of our individual lives and all the days of our life together as a congregation.

The second element of today’s text that I’d like to lift up for your consideration—and the element I believe is really the heart of what it means to worship in spirit and in truth—is found in verse 26, when Jesus tells the Samaritan woman something amazing. He says, “I am he”—incredibly, entrusting his heretofore hidden identity as the Messiah to this chance-met Samaritan woman, persuading her to abandon her errand and her water jar, and sending her forth to proclaim Christ to her people.

Jesus says, “I am he.” It is the first of what we call the “I am” statements that fill the gospel of John: “I am the gate,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the way,” and “I am the vine.” But more than that. Jesus isn’t just saying in some kind of obscure way, “Hi, it’s me, nice to meet you.” In the original Greek text this phrase is “ego eimi”—and we could translate it as simply “I am.”

“I am.” That’s right, it’s strikingly similar to God’s revelation of himself to Moses in our first reading this morning from the book of Exodus: where Moses, astonished by the bush that burns and is not consumed, says to God, “What shall I tell the Israelites is the name of the God of our ancestors?” and God replies “I am who I am. Tell them ‘I am’ sends you.”

When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman “I am,” he is not only claiming to be the promised Messiah. He is claiming to be nothing less than God himself. He is revealing himself as the God of Moses and our ancestors—and he is also revealing himself as the God who calls all people, even the Samaritans—into relationship with him.

Jesus is telling the Samaritan woman that the first, most critical element of worshipping in spirit and in truth is not the “where” of worship—or indeed the when, or even the how-- but “whom.”

True worship is not achieved by doing the right things in the right way, saying the right words, singing the right songs. True worship is not achieved by doing at all. It is achieved by being; it is achieved by drawing near to God, experiencing God face to face and heart to heart, entering into relationship with the One Who Is, in whose presence we can be who we truly are.

One of my hospice chaplain friends tells the story of a man who had everything going for him. Let’s call him Dan. Dan had a prestigious job as a top administrator of a computer company in Silicon Valley, a seven figure income, a beautiful, palatial home. He had a Mercedes, a Porsche, and a Jaguar. Dan’s wife was beautiful and loving, and his kids were high achievers. And on top of all those other things, Dan was a gifted musician. He was a genius with the guitar, played guitar like Eric Clapton.

And then Dan got a very cruel disease, ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. And everything changed.
Dan became progressively paralyzed and weak. He lost the ability to drive the Mercedes, the Porsche, and the Jaguar. As time went on, he couldn’t work. He lost his income and his home. He lost the ability to hug his kids, be intimate with his wife, or even go to the bathroom by himself. And the worst moment of all, the very last straw, came when Dan’s son put his beloved guitar into his arms and Dan couldn’t play it any more—even worse, it slipped out of his hands to the floor.

This man told his hospice chaplain that if he could have taken his own life at that moment, he would have. He had lost everything that had once defined him as a person. He couldn’t “do” anything any more—he couldn’t even move. He could just lie there in the bed. That was his existence, and he was in an existential crisis.

And yet. All that time and space of lying in the bed, unable to move, eventually brought Dan an amazing revelation. He had lost everything that had defined him—and yet—he realized that he was still there. The awful and devastating disease made him understand that he—Dan—the real Dan, the essence of Dan, the authentic Dan, you could even call it the soul of Dan—was more than the sum of his roles, responsibilities, and actions in the world. He was truly and deeply and simply himself. If you will, he had become spirit. He had become “The Dan Who Is.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about yourself that way, thought about who you are—who you really are—I know I don’t think about it very often. It’s a little scary to think about, actually. Who am I, down deep, if I’m not mom, or daughter, or wife, or the one who works, or the one who likes romance novels, or the one who eats pie before dinner, or the one who preaches, or the one who drives kids around town.

Who are you--the Terri who is, the George who is, the Pat who is—once you’ve peeled back all the layers of your roles, and responsibilities, and activities—all the layers of the “You who does.” It’s kind of a mystical notion, kind of hard to get your head around.

But John is a pretty mystical gospel. And I’m pretty convinced that when the “You who is” comes together with the “God who is”—that this coming together in relationship of our authentic selves with God’s authentic self in Christ is worshipping in spirit and in truth as the Gospel of John envisions it.

The coming together of our authentic selves with God’s authentic self is how we can make worshipping in spirit and in truth real in our own lives. And the coming together of our authentic corporate self—“the congregation who is”—with God’s authentic self is how we make worshipping in spirit and in truth real in our congregational life—whatever the words or music we use, whatever the location or circumstance we might find ourselves in, whatever the leadership, whatever the budget, whatever the choices or challenges. When the God who is comes together with the congregation who is—now that’s worship. That’s ministry. That’s the church.

There’s one more aspect of this gospel passage that struck me as I prepared this sermon and that I want to lift up to you today as we consider this notion of worshipping in spirit and truth. And that is, did you notice that the Samaritan woman asks questions? She asks: “How is it that you ask a drink of me?” “Where do you get that living water?” and then, even after meeting Jesus and believing in him, she says to the Samaritans in the form of a question, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

And Jesus doesn’t seem at all threatened or irritated by her questions. On the other hand, he seems to welcome them, and to use her questions to draw her closer to himself.

Meeting Jesus and coming to believe in him does not answer all the Samaritan woman’s questions. It doesn’t stop her from thinking, and wondering, exploring and growing.

Perhaps meeting Jesus, believing in him, and coming into relationship with him, has given her the opportunity, and the confidence, and the curiosity, to keep asking questions. Perhaps it is in the questions—and not the answers-- that she continues to grows closer to the God who is, and comes to know her true authentic self, the Samaritan woman who is. Perhaps this questioning, curious seeking is also a hallmark of worshipping in spirit and in truth.

Worship in spirit and in truth happens in the context of our relationship with Jesus. It is the result of our personal encounter with him—an ongoing, unfolding, living, growing, covenantal revelation that continues to touch us, and move us, and guide us, and companion us, all the days of our life and all the days of our life together as a congregation.

Worship in spirit and in truth happens when the "God who is" encounters the "you who is"; and it is the coming together of our authentic corporate self—“the congregation who is”—with God’s authentic self that makes worshipping in spirit and in truth real in our congregational life—whatever the location or circumstance we might find ourselves in.

Worship in spirit and in truth happens when we are not afraid to be questioning, curious, seeking—knowing that God is not threatened by the questions, that God welcomes the questions—and that the questions are evidence not of our doubt, or of our disbelief—but just the opposite—visible and concrete evidence of our deep, ongoing and authentic relationship with God.

On this day--and all of our days--let us worship together in spirit and in truth.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Living Water

This sermon was preached on June 14, 2009 at the Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst in Portland, Oregon. The text for the morning was John 4: 7-14, and the worship service included a baptism.

It’s just water—just ordinary water from the tap. It came to us today, as the Portland Water Bureau motto says, “from forest to faucet”—from the Bull Run watershed high in the Mount Hood National Forest, through lakes and streams and dams and pumps, through miles and miles of industrial piping underneath our streets and yards and sidewalks, carried in a pitcher from the church kitchen sink, and poured out here into our baptismal font. It’s just water, ordinary water from the tap.

And yet, when little Oliver received the sacrament of baptism in our midst a few minutes ago, this water wasn’t ordinary at all. This water, so familiar and so useful to us for drinking, and cooking, and bathing, and swimming, and washing the car, and doing the dishes—when we used it in baptism, this water became more than ordinary. It became sacramental: a central sign, and seal, and symbol of our Christian faith. It was set aside for sacred use. You might even say it became living water.

Our gospel reading for today from the fourth chapter of John, which tells us of an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well, is not primarily about baptism. But it brings us, in compelling and evocative terms, the image of living water that illuminates not only our understanding of baptism but our understanding of the Christian faith that we profess to live and live to profess –our understanding of the nature of God, the person of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

In our gospel passage, Jesus pauses by a well, and strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan woman who has come to draw water. Jesus doesn’t wait to be recognized or greeted; instead he reaches out, asks this woman, a stranger, for a drink of water. When she responds to him in astonishment, Jesus reveals that he is the bearer of living water, telling her, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Now Jesus isn’t talking here about literally whipping out some hidden canteen of water from underneath his robe. Jesus is talking, as he so often does in John’s gospel, in metaphor; he is offering the Samaritan woman, and all of us, no less than himself, the Son of God, the promised Messiah; he is offering the Samaritan woman, and all of us, the spiritual reality of his presence and his power. The living water he offers the Samaritan woman, and all of us, is nothing less than life itself, life in him, and life forevermore.

It is this same living water Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman that little Oliver experienced today in the sacrament of baptism. Before he can even form the idea of God, or say God’s name, Jesus has called him by name into the Christian community, claimed him as his own, and offered him the living water of grace, redemption, and eternal life. And it is this same living water that Jesus offers to all of us, freely and unconditionally and graciously, today, on our own baptismal days, and every day of our lives.

If you do a little research on “Jacob’s well,” the place where Jesus and the Samaritan woman talked about “living water,” you’ll find that it’s a little bit special. It’s a famous well, a place that the gospel of John’s original readers would have certainly known about, just the same way we know about the origins of, say, Perrier, or some such.

In particular, Jacob’s well is said to tap into not an underground cistern or area of still water, but instead it seems to tap into an underground river, so that the water isn’t just sitting there, quiet and contained, but sweeping along of its own volition—powerful and uncontrollable, lively, fresh, and always renewing itself. It’s an appropriate setting, isn’t it, for a discussion of “living water,” especially when we remember that medieval theologian Meister Eckhart famously said, “God is a great underground river that no one can dam up and no one can stop.”

The image of God as a living, rushing river is beautifully captured by the Christian singer/songwriter Stephen Curtis Chapman, in his song “Dive,” which is one of my very favorites. Perhaps some of you know it? Chapman writes:

There is a supernatural power
In this mighty river's flow

It can bring the dead to life
And it can fill an empty soul

And give a heart the only thing
Worth living and worth dying for

But we will never know the awesome power
Of the grace of God

Until we let our selves get swept away
Into this holy flood

So if you'll take my hand
We'll close our eyes and count to three
And take the leap of faith

Come on let's go

I'm diving in, I'm going deep, in over my head I want to be
Caught in the rush, lost in the flow, in over my head I want to go
The river's deep, the river's wide, the river's water is alive
So sink or swim, I'm diving in

How interesting, and how fitting, that Jesus and the Samaritan woman ponder the nature of God and the presence of the Messiah, as somewhere deep beneath their feet a living river rushes by—a physical representation of the spiritual reality of the living water they discuss.

And now, I’d like to think a little bit about Perrier.

If you go to France, and sit down in a bistro or restaurant, and order a drink of water—“boisson de L’eau”—the waiter will ask you something puzzling. It’s especially puzzling if you speak really bad French, as I do! The waiter will ask you “avec gaz?” Which means essentially exactly what it sounds like—with gas.

What he’s offering you is a choice between still water—water from the tap, or in a bottle like this—and sparkling water, like this Perrier right here. And let me ask you what’s the difference? There’s a little something extra in this one, the Perrier. It’s infused with little bubbles of gas—we Americans call it carbonation—little bubbles of gas that move, and pop, and fizz, and tickle your nose. And if you shake up this bottle and open the lid, what will happen, do you think? Perhaps those little bubbles will get all excited and push the water out of the bottle in a great foaming gush.

This Perrier water has bubbles of gas—maybe we could say, air, or breath, or spirit—that make it move, and sparkle, and expand, and seem to breathe.

Here’s the thing. Perhaps the gas that infuses the water in the Perrier bottle is kind of like the Holy Spirit—the breath of God--that infuses our ordinary baptismal water and makes it sacramental. Perhaps it is the movement of the Holy Spirit—the breath of God—that infuses our ordinary lives in baptism and makes us not only receivers of living water but enables us to be that living water for others.

So I hope that the next time you sip a “boisson de l’eau avec gaz,” whether in Paris, in downtown Portland, or at your own dining room table, that you will remember the Holy Spirit; that you will remember your baptism; and that you will experience, again, the presence and the power of God in your life, bubbling and splashing and overflowing.

Jesus tells the Samaritan woman, “The water that I will give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” As theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it in his book The Spirit of Life, “ The well of life is not in the next world, and not in the church’s font. It is in human beings themselves. If they receive the life-giving water, they themselves become the well-spring of this water for other people.”

As we experience it in baptism, living water is water infused with the Holy Spirit to become that visible sign of the invisible grace we know as the living love and presence of the risen Christ. As we are touched and washed and made wet by the physical water which sprinkles on us, pours over us, or immerses us--so are we touched and washed and made new by the living water of the Spirit working in us, and with us, and through us—quenching our spiritual thirst; claiming us as members of God’s family, and, as Jesus puts it in our scripture passage for today, equipping us to “gush up to eternal life”—or as we say in our rite of baptism, “to continue forever in the risen life of Christ.”

The river’s deep, the river’s wide, the river’s water is alive--

On our baptismal day, on this day, and every day,
Let us say together,

We’re diving in!


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thanking It Forward

This sermon was preached on November 23, 2008, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon. There were two texts for the day--Luke 17: 11-19 and 2nd Corinthians 9: 6-15 --and the sermon and worship service followed a Thanksgiving theme.

“Thanksgiving is a time for families and friends to gather together and express gratitude for all that we have been given, the freedoms we enjoy, and the loved ones who enrich our lives. We recognize that all of these blessings, and life itself, come not from the hand of man but from Almighty God.”

Those are the words that begin this year’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, signed on Friday by President Bush at the White House. As most of us learned in school, the celebration of Thanksgiving and its attendant prayers and feasting was traditionally thought to begin with the friendly gathering of Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621, continuing for years, officially and unofficially, throughout the early years of our country. And each year since President Lincoln officially revived the tradition in 1863, each President of the United States—no matter what his party, religious tradition, or philosophical convictions-- has made an annual proclamation declaring a national day of thanksgiving.

As I prepared this sermon, I browsed through close to 150 years worth of Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations online—the internet is a wonderful thing!—and I was struck by all the ways each year’s proclamation reflected the personality of the president and the tenor of the time in which it was issued. (For example, it won’t surprise any of you when I tell you that some of the very longest proclamations seemed to have been written by Bill Clinton!)

Many of the proclamations recount the story of the first Thanksgiving and quote stirring words from George Washington, William Bradford, or other historic figures; many of them list particular achievements and accomplishments of the year just past, and call for Americans to pray for particular goals to be accomplished; and all of them state unequivocally that our blessings as a people and as a nation are not of human creation, but are gifts bestowed by God—and urge us to to set aside time, together, to offer God our thanks.

Thanksgiving is a distinctively American holiday (although, to be strictly accurate, it’s also celebrated by our neighbors in Canada). But the idea of thanksgiving—of devoting concentrated time and conscious energy to recognizing and giving thanks for our blessings and God’s love and care for us—the idea of thanksgiving is, and has always been, central to our understanding of our belief, our worship, and our lives as Christian people, followers of Jesus and members of his church in the world.

In fact, since we’re going to be dusting off our Greek a little bit in this sermon, we might as well begin by talking about the Greek word for Thanksgiving—a word that is used throughout the New Testament. Does anyone know what it is? The Greek word for thanksgiving --thankfulness, gratitude, giving of thanks-- is “Eucharistia”—and it’s from that word for Thanksgiving that we Christians derive one of our common terms for communion, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper—one of our most important moments shared together as a community of believers in Christ. We call it “The Eucharist.” And in fact, “Eucharist” is the preferred term for communion used by many of our brothers and sisters in the Christian community, including Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, United Methodists, and Lutherans.

Each time we meet as a community of believers at Christ’s table in communion, we meet in Eucharist—thanksgiving—offering to God our prayers, and our praises, and sharing together in the gifts of Christ’s body and blood, given for us. You can’t get any closer to the heart of our faith than Eucharist—you can’t get any closer to the heart of our faith than the idea of thanksgiving.

There are so many passages in the Bible that give us insight into the idea of thanksgiving—that speak of giving thanks to God as a necessity, a spiritual practice, and a way of life for God’s people. We have read two of those passages from scripture this morning. These passages are probably familiar to you, and each one has something to say to us about what thanksgiving is, and the spiritual gifts that a life of true thanksgiving imparts—principles that can guide us on Thanksgiving day and all the ordinary, but no less important, days that follow it. Interestingly enough, our first reading, from Luke, is all about thanks; the second reading, from 2nd Corinthians, is all about giving.

In our Luke passage, we see Jesus traveling between Samaria and Galilee, on his way to Jerusalem. Along the way, he encounters ten people with leprosy, who call out to him and beg him to have mercy on them. They want to be healed of their painful and disfiguring disease. Jesus tells them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” and as they go on their way, they discover that their leprosy has disappeared.

Nine of the ten keep going on their way; only one turns back, throws himself at Jesus’ feet, and thanks him. And Jesus, after wondering that only one of the ten would return to give thanks, tells him, “Your faith has made you well” (that's the NRSV translation).

So we can learn from this passage that giving thanks is good—that it’s something Jesus approves of. But there’s more. If we dig a little deeper and look at the words Luke uses in the original Greek text, we can see that one particular word, katharidzo, means “they were made clean” in verses 14 and 17; and another word, iaomai, means “healed” in verse 15.

And yet—in verse 19, when Jesus says “Your faith has made you well,” he uses a different word entirely from those two. He uses the Greek word sodzo, the meaning of which doesn’t really come through here in our English translation. The meaning of sodzo is much better captured in the King James translation where we read that Jesus says: “ Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.” Or you could put it this way: “Your faith has saved you.”

In this story from Luke’s gospel Jesus shows us clearly that healing is not the same as wholeness. All ten of the people with leprosy are healed, but only one—the one who returns to acknowledge Jesus and give thanks, is made whole in a spiritual sense; only one, the one who gives thanks, is restored to right relationship with God; only one, the one who gives thanks, is given his salvation.

I see this difference between healing and wholeness every day in my work at hospice. We care for people for whom healing is impossible—our patients have a terminal illness and an expectation of less than 6 months to live. Of course, we have doctors and nurses who attend to our hospice patients’ physical symptoms, and yet all of us know that physical healing is no longer the goal of our care.

Instead, each day I see many of our patients take steps on the journey to wholeness. Assisted by our social workers, our chaplains, our volunteers, and everyone on the hospice team, I see patients reconcile with estranged family members, come to terms with disappointment and regret, explore the meaning of their life’s work, find comfort and peace, and --maybe most importantly-- say those things to their loved ones and to God that bring their lives and their relationships to spiritual wholeness and completion: I forgive you. Will you forgive me? Thank you. I love you. And goodbye.

By showing us the difference between healing and wholeness, the story of the ten people with leprosy from Luke’s gospel teaches us that giving thanks is more than the spiritual equivalent of an obligatory thank you note to God. Giving thanks isn’t just going through the motions, giving credit where credit is due, or counting blessings on our fingers. The story of the ten people with leprosy teaches us that giving thanks is a deep spiritual journey of return and restoration to right relationship which acknowledges Jesus as Lord, brings us closer to God’s infinite wholeness, and reaffirms for us the reality of our salvation.

In our passage from 2nd Corinthians, we find a different insight into thanksgiving as a spiritual task. Whereas the story of the ten lepers is about thanks, this passage is about giving.

Here we find the apostle Paul writing to the church in Corinth, encouraging them to do their part in taking up a collection for the struggling and poverty-stricken Christian community in Jerusalem. Paul urges them to give generously, for “God loves a cheerful giver.” And he tells them that “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.”

For Paul, thanksgiving is found not just in raising words of thanks to God, but in performing acts of generosity and service to others. Paul tells us that it is the giving—the giving of our selves—the giving of our time, our resources, our ministry—that truly gives thanks to God.

This idea of giving to others as thanksgiving to God might make us re-evaluate that question we’ll no doubt hear a lot this week—“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” What would our holiday look like if each of us took our cue from Paul and spent our day not cooking for our own family, but serving in a soup kitchen for the hungry; not napping on the couch, but opening our doors to those who sleep outside; not counting our own blessings but trying to be a blessing to others? What would our every day look like if we took our cue from Paul and lived each day of our lives this way—giving thanks to God by giving of ourselves?

Well, I think it might look a little bit like the idea called “Pay it forward.” Have any of you seen that movie? It came out some years ago. It’s based on a book of the same name, and is probably still available on DVD, if you’d like to see it or see it again.

In the movie, an 11 year old boy named Trevor, who comes from a troubled home is given an unusual assignment in his social studies class at school -- think up a practical way to make the world a better place, and put it into action.

Trevor comes up with an idea that he calls “Pay It Forward" -- do a needed but unexpected favor for three different people without being asked. And then, when each recipient asks, “How can I pay you back?”—tell them, “Don’t pay it back, pay it forward”—asking each recipient in their turn to go out and do an unexpected favor for three other people.

Now in the movie, Trevor doesn’t make the wisest choices when he tries to put this into practice, and his three favors-- letting a junkie stay in his home, fixing up his mother with his teacher, and trying to rescue one of his schoolmates from a bully—don’t seem to work out. And yet, amazingly, one day a journalist comes to Trevor’s door asking about “Pay it forward” because someone has done him a favor and he’s traced the idea back to Trevor—and Trevor learns that his idea has caught on and is becoming a movement far beyond his own home town.

Maybe—if each of us, in the spirit of the apostle Paul’s vision of giving as thanksgiving, were to live each day not paying it forward, but thanking it forward, we might start a movement that grows far beyond our home town—and maybe, we might get a little closer to being God’s beloved community and bringing Christ’s community to fulfillment on earth.

As we know from the Biblical witness and from our rich, ongoing Presbyterian tradition of worship and service, the notion of thanksgiving is a central part of our faith and our lives as Christians. Each time we meet as believers at Christ’s table in communion, we meet in Eucharist—thanksgiving—offering to God our prayers, and our praises, and sharing together in the gifts of Christ’s body and blood, given for us.

As we see from the story of the ten people with leprosy, thanksgiving is about thanks— it's about returning to God in thanks to acknowledge Jesus as Christ and Lord, to restore our relationship with God and to be made whole in the spirit of joy and salvation.

As we learn from Paul in 2nd Corinthians, thanksgiving is also about giving— it's about giving to others in a spirit of generosity and love. It is about thanking it forward, not only on one holiday a year but on each day of our lives as people of faith who claim Christ’s beloved community as our own.

As we gather at table on this coming Thursday, our national Thanksgiving Day— as we gather with loved ones, friends, fellow citizens, and the whole family of God, in all its beauty and joy, in all its brokenness and sorrow-- may we resolve, together, to weave the strands of Eucharist, of thanks, and of giving, into our relationships and our celebrations—and into the beautiful, and challenging, fabric of our lives.