“summer blockbuster #1: the myth of redemptive violence,” july 10, 2016

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Responsive Call to Worship
There’s a story pervasive in our culture—
so very well told in books—
so very well packaged on TV and at the movies.
It’s enjoyable—emotionally satisfying—
even cathartic at times—
and comfortable in its familiarity.
It’s the story of violence in the service of righteousness—
an attractive story
that undergirds much of our foreign and domestic policy,
characterizes entirely too much of our life together,
and permeates our daydreams as well.
Yet it insidiously subverts our soul—
our soul story—
the sole story worth our souls—
the story of Jesus—
the story of the God who abhors violence—
who, rather than inflicting it on others,
(and thereby condoning—justifying it),
absorbs it into Self—
the God who, in and through Jesus,
won’t commit violence—
the Almighty who doesn’t not believe might makes right—
committed, as God is, to an alternative story—
an alternative priority—
the priority of an absolute respect
for each individual’s freedom
to believe and act as he or she chooses—
and the commitment to suffer the consequences
in affirmation of that freedom.

Meditations
The belief that violence saves is so successful
because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least.
Violence simply appears to be the nature of things.
It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last, and, often,
the first resort in conflicts.
If a god is what you turn to when all else fails,
violence certainly functions as a god.
What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence.
—Walter Wink

The psychodynamics of the TV cartoon or comic book
are marvelously simple: children identify with the good guy
so they can think of themselves as good.
This enables them to project out onto the bad guy
their own repressed anger, violence, rebelliousness, or lust,
and then vicariously to enjoy their own evil
by watching the bad guy initially prevail….
When the good guy finally wins,
viewers are then able to reassert control
over their own inner tendencies, repress them,
and re-establish a sense of goodness
without coming to any insight about their own inner evil.
The villain’s punishment provides catharsis;
one forswears the villain’s ways
and heaps condemnation on him in guilt-free orgy of aggression.
Salvation is found through identification with the hero.
—Walter Wink

The myth of redemptive violence
is the simplest, laziest, most exciting,
uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive
depiction of evil the world has ever known….
Children select this mythic structure
because they have already been led,
by culturally reinforced cues and role models,
to resonate with its simplistic view of reality….
By making violence pleasurable, fascinating, and entertaining,
the Powers are able to delude people into compliance
with a system that is cheating them of their very lives.
—Walter Wink

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

with some of that lectio divina going on
2 Kings 2:23-25
Elisha went up from Jericho to Bethel
(and as background: in the telling of the story,
Elisha had just followed his master Elijah from Bethel to Jericho.
In both places the local prophets asked him if he knew
that this day God would take his master Elijah from him.
You don’t get the idea it was out of concern—
more a doubtful, “You up for this?”
From Jericho, they went to the Jordan River
where Elijah parted the waters of the river.
They walked through,
then Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.
Elisha assumed Elijah’s prophetic mantle,
parted the waters of the Jordan,
walked back through—
went back to Jericho where he made bad water good.
And while he was going up on the way to Bethel
(retracing his steps on a kind of vindication tour—
an in-your-face “Yeah, you better believe I’m up for this”)—
while he was going up the way to Bethel,
some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him,
saying, ‘Go away, baldy! Go away, baldhead!’
(And no to those who suggest
the term “small boys” actually refers to adults who should know better.)
When he turned round and saw them,
he cursed them in the name of the Lord.
(Because that’s what you should do if someone calls you names,
right?
Especially children—
especially a group of small boys!
And no to those who suggest calling someone bald
was particularly insulting in that culture at that time.
Because it couldn’t be—just couldn’t be, could it?
that Elisha was feeling the pressure of filling big shoes—
feeling a touch insecure—
in spite of what had been promised—
in spite of what he had accomplished,
because that’s the way we are—
and was so overly sensitive to signs of disrespect,
that he overreacted ….)
Then two she-bears came out of the woods
and mauled forty-two of the boys.
(And no to any who suggest this horror
might be justified
in the name of an unpredictable God
who can’t be tamed, domesticated, or controlled.
It’s rather more boys and feelings that can’t be controlled
and require the discipline of love, not the impulse of cursing!)
From there he went on to Mount Carmel,
and then returned to Samaria.
(He just kept going—
forty-two mauled children in his rear view mirror.
Maybe it’s important to remember
that even those chosen by God—
chosen by God to speak the word of God—
have horror in their rear view mirrors—
have violence and regret.
That might, in truth, be a better reminder
than any warning that God might do terrible things, so watch out!)

Within this, do you hear?
The word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
Consider now the news of the past week in a moment of silence.

Pastoral Prayer
Our God,
We remember with gratitude
that You hear what’s too deep for words—
the grief—the outrage—the fear—the hope.
We claim with awe
the reality that You honor all of what we all feel.
And then we proclaim with commitment—
You—
in the midst of everything—
You—
as light shining in the darkness—
as truth bigger than all religion and bigger than all fear—
as hope bigger than what seems possible—
as love beyond what we can even imagine—
as what we aspire to—
as what we’re called to—
standing against all that is not true—
not hopeful—
not graceful—
not loving.

Nurture what’s best in us.
Help us cultivate the discipline
to name what’s wrong—to name it broken.
Unapologetically—not defensively,
and to reject and exorcise what’s worst in us.
Guide us into the better story
You’ve been telling
and retelling—
the love story You tell creation—
the transformative love story that You tell us—have told us
from the beginning of time,
today,
will tell us—
tomorrow—
always in Jesus’ name,
amen.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
This past week, while I walked and sat on the beach,
eating and playing and talking with family and dear friends,
Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, LA—
and then Philando Castile, outside St. Paul, MN—
the latest killed in an appallingly ever-longer growing list.
532 people killed by police so far this year
depending on your source.
Some say that number’s 488. Some say 604.
All sources agree, the number is disproportionately
black and native american.

And as much as each particular set of circumstances matter—so much,
they also don’t …
in the utter and outrageous tragedy—
that is the toxic brew of our country’s
systemic racism,
the white privilege too many don’t see and acknowledge,
and our idolatrous embrace of violence—

in which deadly embrace five police officers
were murdered in Dallas, TX this past week
in a reprehensible and cowardly attack—
Officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol,
Mike Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa.
And our hearts are made big enough to break for all these deaths—
and not to deny the importance of any.
Our hearts are made to break at this violence—
not justify it—none of it.
And these, we remind ourselves, are just the names we know to name—
not all who have suffered violence this past week.

So we gather in worship
as the people of God following Jesus
on a day like today—
kids going to camp—all excited—
vacations ending—beginning—anticipated—
sun out—
expecting—what?—
wanting—what?—
needing—what?

Maybe today’s a day to listen to other voices.
We are so quick to feel we need to speak,
and so quick to feel like others should listen to us.
I’ve noticed, maybe particularly as a minister, that social media compounds the pressure
to almost immediately
have something to say in response to what’s happened.
Something is always happening!
Maybe we just need to listen.
Maybe we need to hear what’s going on.

Alan Green is chair of deacons at Metro Baptist Church in NYC.
he posted this past week:
“I come around a street corner and almost bump into someone;
they scream.
I go into a store; I get followed by undercover security.
I walk into an elevator; a purse gets held a little tighter.
I get pulled over; the officer can’t tell me why I was stopped.
These examples may seem trivial but these types of things
happen to me almost daily. 
It’s real. It’s just a part of my life.
Everyone has false perceptions made about them
but the perception of us – black men – gets us killed.
Sadly for me, it wasn’t until I lived in another country
and that ever present fear was not there,
did I really start to understand
the profound depths of that fear in this country.
God Bless those of us who deal with this fear all the time.
God Bless those of you who will never have to deal with it.
And God Bless those of you who don’t know,
but don’t know that you don’t know.”

A UCC minister in Austin, TX, Nikki, a friend from Waco days,
shared these heartbreaking words from her beautiful black 8 year old cousin,
who told his mother, “Mom, I don’t want to get killed by cops when I grow up,
and I don’t want to be black
because that’s the color of skin that gets treated bad in our country.”
And if you can’t imagine your child telling you that—
if you can’t imagine the child of your siblings—
the child of your friends, saying that,
that’s privilege.

The 4 year old daughter of Philando’s girlfriend,
did you know? was in the car when he was shot—
trying to comfort her mother.
We as a society are not worthy of the children born to us—
born with hearts still big—
undefiled by fear and small mindedness.

New Gingrich—Newt Gingrich said,
“It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me
through the years, to get a sense of this:
If you are a normal white American,
the truth is you don’t understand being black in America
and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination
and the level of additional risk.”

So it is, within our national toxic brew
of racism and privilege—of fear and of violence,
that we say here’s why Black Lives Matter still matters—
why no one, even today,
should respond to Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter—
why no one, in response to Black Lives Matter,
should bring up statistics about white crime, black crime,
white on black, black on white, black on black crime—
and why no one, even today,
should use the terrible death of police officers to derail the conversation
about the historical, statistical, and experienced truth
that black lives in this country don’t matter—
not that they don’t matter as much as other lives,
though that’s true too—
that they don’t matter.
And Alan got it exactly right—it’s a not-mattering rooted in fear—
white fear.
A racist is a person afraid.
And an afraid person with power is terrifying.

I came across, by the way, what I thought
was a helpful comment on Facebook
with regards to Black Lives Matter:
when you go to the doctor with a broken bone,
and the doctor tells you, all bones matter—
well, … that’s true.
But not what you need to hear at the moment!

And as much as we talk about second amendment rights in this country—
most of which is fear driven (have you noticed?),
it’s a white conversation—a privileged conversation.
Because carrying a gun can represent a death sentence to black men—
because of the fear we’ve cultivated—
and the consistently violent response to fear we’ve justified.

And police are often men and women afraid.
I certainly would be.
To be a police officer in this culture of ours?

I am invested, by the way,
in promulgating the idea that violence is an expression of fear not power—
that those who exploit violence are afraid not strong—
and more alike in their fear than different from
anyone or anything they say they oppose.

Maybe we need to listen to others—especially those other from us.
Maybe we need to offer lament.
We can do that; we have a tradition of lament.
Lament each life lost—
each life lived in fear—
each child let down.
Lament a broken system
we don’t seem to have the will to address,
let alone fix.
And it won’t fix itself.

James Baldwin wrote, ”If a society permits one portion
of its citizenry to be menaced or destroyed, then, very soon,
no one in that society is safe.
The forces thus released in the people can never be held in check,
but run their devouring course,
destroying the very foundations which it was imagined they would save.”
That’s our trajectory, my friends.
Fear and violence—ever more fear and violence begetting more
in a horrifying sequel we can’t escape.

Maybe it’s time to be quiet enough
to listen to the voices of others.
Maybe it’s time to lament.
But the truth of the matter is we also have things to say—
to remember—to remind each other—
to remind our culture.
We know a different story—
a better story than this one we tell so well.

Traci Blackmon, the acting executive of the UCC Justice and Witness ministries,
a tall, black, beautiful woman with a wonderfully tender sense of humor,
who spoke at the convocation of the Alliance of Baptists, gets it.
Lamenting the so many killed, she wrote
that the guns used this past week
“were loaded by the common enemies of fear and hate …
no matter who pulled the trigger.
We are all connected. We must mourn it all …
and we must all Love ourselves out of this.
Murder is a by-product of people who have lost their love.
Love is our only hope.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. got it.
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

But westerns have done more to catechize our culture
than any theologian—
than any program ever devised by any church.
John Wayne.
And why is that?
Westerns are physical at the expense of spiritual—
filling us so full of adrenaline.
They are so tangible—so attractive and immediately impressive—
so quick and easy—
full of characters you admire and despise,
not propositions to process, reject or affirm.
They’re stories, not doctrines—
scary stories in which, amidst fear,
people are saved by violence—
stories in which tragedy is averted by violence—
stories in which goals are reached by violence.
And it’s usually one good guy with a gun, right?
“Typically, an indestructible good guy
is set in opposition to an equally indestructible bad guy
who is beyond hope of reform. Nothing can kill the good guy,
although for the first three-quarters of the story he suffers grievously,
appearing hopelessly trapped. Somehow the hero breaks free,
vanquishes the villain, and restores order again….
The law in fact, is suspect, too weak to prevail
in the conditions of near-anarchy
that fiction has misrepresented as the Wild West”
(http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/resource/critical-perspectives-the-myth-of-redemptive-violence).

William Butler Yeats, in “The Stare’s Nest By My Window” wrote
We have “fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love.”

And the stories we tell become the stories we live.
And there are disgusting stories out there—
fear-filled—violence ridden.
To our shame—yet speaking to the truth of who we are,
they’re shot through our presidential campaign rhetoric.
But if it works in the short enough term for me
if I have enough power to be the one determining the circumstances,
and if it improves my circumstances, then it’s justifiable.
Whatever it takes to win—as long as you win,
is okay.

William Moore, writing for the Baptist Peace Fellowship, notes:
“Civilian casualties in the US Civil War were 5 percent of total casualties.
In World War I they were about 30 percent of total casualties.
In World War II they rose to about 50 percent.
In the Vietnam war the people killed were about 60 percent civilians.
In recent US conflicts, they accounted for 75 to 90 percent of deaths.”
Collateral damage
doesn’t matter—doesn’t count—
if you win—
if your cause is just.
And we justify more and more and more and more.
We’re born into it.
We’re raised on it.
We die in it—and, too much, because of it.

April 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy, speaking at the Cleveland City Club, said:
“Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily—
whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law,
by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion,
in an attack of violence or in response to violence—
whenever we tear at the fabric of life
which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children,
the whole nation is degraded.…
Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence
that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike.
We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far off lands.
We glorify killing on movie and television screens
and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity
to acquire weapons and ammunition they desire….
Some looks for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies,
but this much is clear; violence breeds violence,
repression brings retaliation,
and only a cleaning of our whole society
can remove this sickness from our soul.”

Walter Wink, long time professor of Biblical Interpretation
at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City,
was watching cartoons—Popeye to be specific
(could have been watching a western—a thriller),
and it occurred to him that the storyline (the always the same storyline)
struck him as familiar (and not just because it was always the same one!).
You were probably just thinking the same thing—
how so many of our cartoons—
how the popular storylines of so many of our TV shows and movies
resonate with the ancient Babylonian creation myth
(that’s what you were thinking, right?)—
in which “Apsu, the father god and Tiamat, the mother god,
give birth to the gods. But the frolicking of the younger gods
makes so much noise that the elder gods resolve to kill them
so they can sleep.
The younger gods uncover the plot
before the elder gods put it into action, and kill Apsu.
His wife Tiamat, the Dragon of Chaos, pledges revenge.”
the youngest of the gods Marduk kills Tiamat
and creates the cosmos from her body.
so “creation is an act of violence…. Evil precedes good.
The gods themselves are violent….
Violence is no problem.
It is simply a primordial fact”
(http://www2.goshen.edu/~joannab/women/wink99.pdf).

Genesis, written down while in exile in Babylon,
is a story offering an explicit counter to Babylon’s myth—
presenting good that precedes evil.
And so violence becomes a problem.
Not a given—
not an answer to a problem—
a problem.

Scripture is full of violence,
but it begins in explicit juxtaposition with violence.
We’ve noted that same pattern in Exodus.
The very beginning of the story presenting
the mid-wives’ non-violent effective resistance
of the evil power of Pharaoh,
while the story then unfolds
away from that initial affirmation into violence.

And throughout the Bible, there’s a thread,
even in stories of violence,
questioning violence—rejecting violence.
Remember that’s how we read Revelation!

So what if we more bluntly—more regularly—more loudly—
questioned—rejected violence?
Acknowledged—confessed the violence in our history—
as a country
founded on stolen land and enslaved bodies,
and as a people of faith?
Acknowledged—confessed
how we have traditionally heard our own story in its terms—
in violence’s terms—
sung hymns with violent imagery—
not questioned a bloody theology.
What if we choose the alternative thread—the other hymns—
a different theology—new images—
question martial imagery,
reject the violence of a sacrificial blood atonement theology,
told stories more explicitly juxtaposed with violence—
more persistently exposing violence as expression of fear?

I was reading Lauren Winner’s book
Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire
and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God
and one of the “overlooked ways of meeting God” to which she refers
is God as a woman in labor from Isaiah 42.
And it’s fascinating, the image is introduced
by a much more common image:
“The Lord goes forth like a soldier,
like a warrior he stirs up his fury;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes.”
So masculine—so martial—so violent.
But Isaiah then transitions away—away from that into:
“For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labour,
I will gasp and pant” (Isaiah 42:13-14).

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a Harvard history professor
of early early american history and the history of women,
author of the book Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History,
to which I admiringly refer, while simultaneously hoping
our girls are well-behaved at camp this week!
The title of a lecture she offered at the University of New Hampshire
is often lifted up as a tribute to her work:
“the silent work of ordinary people.”
In her acceptance speech
for the 1991 Bancroft Award at Columbia University
(this one of the most prestigious awards for a written work history),
she included the statement,
“Suppose we admitted for the sake of argument
that motherhood was powerful.”

My former professor—my friend, Bill Leonard,
in a recent Baptist News Global article, wrote,
“In ‘Words from a Witness’ (1967), [Elie Wiesel] told of a rabbi
whose conscience compelled him to declare:
“’Please do not be murderers, do not be thieves.
Do not be silent and do not be indifferent.’”
He continued preaching, but no one listened.
“Finally someone asked him, ‘Rabbi, why do you do that?
Don’t you see it is no use?’ He said, ‘I know it is of no use, but I must.
And I will tell you why: in the beginning
I thought I had to protest and to shout in order to change them.
I have given up this hope. Now I know I must picket and scream and shout
so that they should not change me.’”

Let us not be murderers. Let us not be thieves.
Let us not be silent or indifferent.
Let us not be racist.
Let us not ignore or defend our privilege.
And let us not worship violence.
Our country is dangerously on edge,
and the wrong priorities have led us to the brink.
What other story that has failed
(as completely as this one has repeatedly)
do we nonetheless defend and persist in?
If we do not want to go down
as racist, defending our privilege with violence,
we must change not who they are—
not any of them,
but us.
We must change our story,
and tell a story worthy of our children.

More people want a better story
than the story as it is.
And we need people telling that better story—
living that better story—
turning away from violence as power—
claiming the power of mothering—
laboring to birth that better story,
then nurture it
for the possibility of new life
and a better tomorrow for our children.

Sitting on the beach last week,
stunned at the news—again,
watching children play—listening to their laughter,
watching the waves roll in—hearing the sound of the surf,
thinking of God’s mothering love
inexorably crashing against the way things are—
come what may—
come this past week—
come next week,
washing our edges with everlasting love,
reshaping our landscape with grace,
the EasterTIde that, within the chaos,
never gives up
on the work
and the hope
of peace and justice and love.

What kind of story do you want our children to live?
If we leave it to our world,
it won’t be much of one.
But if we leave it to God …
maybe?

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
Consider now, in another moment of silence,
the news of the past week in one hand,
and the good news in the other hand,
and don’t let either go.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Isaiah 54:1-4a, 7-10
Sing, O barren one who did not bear;
burst into song and shout,
you who have not been in labour!
For the children of the desolate woman will be more
than the children of her that is married, says the Lord.
Enlarge the site of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread out to the right and to the left,
and your descendants will possess the nations
and will settle the desolate towns.

Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed;
do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace ….
For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
says the Lord, your Redeemer.

“graduation,” june 26, 2016

graduation

Responsive Call to Worship
We gather this day,
to acknowledge a threshold moment—
a thin place
between what’s been and what’s to be—
between what’s been studied, learned, and accomplished,
and all the more there is to study and learn and do.
It is so very good to mark growth in celebration,
and then so very good as well,
to celebrate having further to grow—
to note a mile-marker on the longer way
and to take joy both in the distance traveled
and the distance yet ahead.
Bless this liminal time and space
and those who stand in thresholds
looking back and looking ahead.
May it be with a sense of both gratitude and anticipation.
May it be with an awareness
of how we grow our life long with our whole person—
our minds, bodies, spirits, and emotions.
And may it be with a profound sense
of what it means to place our way
(where we’ve been and where we’re going)
within the way of Jesus.

Meditations
We are not a society that nurtures commitment-making. We live in a culture that puts a lot of emphasis on individual liberty and freedom of choice. Ivy League student culture is built around keeping your options open and fear of missing out. We live in a society filled with decommitment devices. Tinder, OkCupid, Instagram, Reddit; the entire Internet is commanding you to sample one thing after another. Our phones are always beckoning us to shift our attention span. If you can’t focus your attention for 30 seconds, how can you make a commitment for life?
But your fulfillment in life will not come from how well you explore your freedom and keep your options open. That’s the path to a frazzled, scattered life in which you try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one.
Your fulfillment in life will come by how well you end your freedom. By the time you hit your 30s, you will realize that your primary mission in life is to be really good at making commitments.

You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is arrogance and pride. Failure can lead to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.
David Brooks, Dartmouth, 2015

And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.
Neil Gaiman, University of the Arts, Philadelphia, 2012

Respect people with less power then you. I have, in the past, made important decisions about people I work with—agents and producers—based largely on how they treat wait staff in restaurants. I don’t care if you’re the most powerful cat in the room, I will judge you on how you treat the least powerful. So there.
Tim Minchin, University of Western Australia, 2013

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default…
We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need insider ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.
J.K.Rowling, Harvard, 2008

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005

What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, (and) your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania? The world is more malleable than you think and it’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape.
Bono, Penn State, 2004

If you’re a Democrat, spend some time talking to a Republican. And if you’re a Republican, have a chat with a Democrat. Maybe you’ll find some common ground, maybe you won’t. But if you honestly engage with an open mind and an open heart, I guarantee you’ll learn something. And goodness knows we need more of that, because we know what happens when we only talk to people who think like we do — we just get more stuck in our ways, more divided, and it gets harder to come together for a common purpose.
Michelle Obama, Eastern Kentucky, 2013

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Matthew 25:14-30
‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
a Litany and Prayer for our Graduates
You have grown up here on the stories of God.
We have told them to you, sung them to you, acted them out—
hoping to teach them to you,
and, in turn, with gratitude,
listened to you tell them to us, sing them, act them out—
teaching us in the process.

We have tried to live them—as best we could—
confessing our failures—
confessing too, our assurance that it is far better
to have tried to live these stories and fallen short of their fullness,
than to have given up on the possibilities within them
and never tried to live them at all.

We have prayed for you more than you know—
both in frequency and in urgency.
Amidst our prayers, we give thanks for you continually.
And today, we celebrate
your achievement with pride in what you’ve done …
and in who we see you becoming.

We will not put words in your mouths—
words of profession, words of commitment,
and we pray less that you claim any particular propositions of belief
than that you believe in the stories you’ve grown up with and on—
the possibilities of the world being turned upside down and inside out.

We pray these stories will sustain you, encourage you,
inspire you, transform you, accompany you
wherever you go, whatever you do—
because these are the stories, we believe,
so much richer than most any story of our culture—
the stories of great inversion, of tremendous surprise,
of profound wonder, of deep joy,
of God’s truth and grace, God’s love,
and the redeeming of all creation.

These are the stories we pray
you remember, reread, rethink, and choose—
choose to live toward—choose to live into.
We have no more important gift to offer you.
These are the stories we pray
you come to deem worth your own selves.
This we pray today, and through the years to come, Amen.

Witness of the Living Word, i.
I asked you at the beginning of the service,
to consider a word you would offer our graduates.
I invite you now to speak out—
to offer the word you’ve been considering—
significant to you—relevant—
the word you would offer all of us on thresholds—
in the midst of transition—
the word of affirmation, the hope, the prayer.
What word do you have to offer?

try
go
enjoy
tolerance
faith
work
peace
significance
patience
no experience is wasted except experience you choose to waste
explore
midwife
pizza
income equality
anticipate
caution
God’s guidance
virtue
truth
grace
forgiveness
love
health
fun
honesty
perseverance
deep listening
reflect
act

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
As we close out the month of June,
we close the door on the past school year.
And today, we honor our graduates.
We are proud of you—
of what you have accomplished through the years—
of your hard work.

We also acknowledge today,
others,
whose work has brought them to this day—
whose accomplishments—
whose discipline—
those who have accomplished, finished, completed,
and who also now await what lies ahead.

In the widest sense, you see, I address us all.

So acknowledging and celebrating ending
and accomplishment,
we offer congratulations.
We also acknowledge and celebrate starting anew—
beginning again—
not the same thing.
Obviously you’re not starting what you’ve just ended,
but what you have been prepared for.
This is growth.
This is progression,
and it is good.

We know everything has changed.
Everything is different.
Except, of course, for everything that’s not!
We know that you are leaving—
that who and how we are together in relationship will change.
But we also know these relationships are important.
They will last; they will go on—
changing—adjusting—adapting, but consistent.
We will be praying for you.
We will be watching—
eager to see how your story continues to unfold.

So on a day of transition—
a day of thresholds—a day of change—
a day of looking back on what’s been
and looking ahead to what’s to be,
there are things I hope you’ve heard—
seen—
been a part of
here at Woodbrook,
as a part of this faith community
through the years.

I’ve said all of this before.
I hope it sounds familiar to you.
But I get to say it again, today,
because it’s important—worth repeating.
Seven things … of course.

First,
and the first of three observations:
to reach a certain level of expertise
is simply to be ready to enter the next phase of learning.

And it doesn’t matter how hard you had to work—
how much you had to sacrifice—
how long it took.
All that matters is that you made it,
and now there’s farther to go!
That’s certainly not to say you can’t enjoy the moment—
enjoy the summer!
Rest.
Celebrate.
But don’t get stuck in an accomplishment—
even a significant one.
You’re so much more than that.

Whether it’s school or life or video games—
for those of you who play video games—
how many of y’all play video games?
Ah, well, you make it through levels of the game
in order to get to more levels, right?—
many times building on what you’ve learned
through the levels you’ve passed through.

If you ever get to thinking you’ve arrived,
you’ve actually fallen behind.

Okay?
Good endings are good beginnings.
That’s why, as we say downstairs in the WEE school,
good beginnings never end.

Second,
and the second of three observations:
I am regularly struck
at the gym
with the awareness—the affirmation
of how much work it takes to get stronger—
how much resistance I have to face and overcome
to be more healthy.
You don’t get stronger looking at weights—
playing with weights.

The times I’ve kept at it—
regularly—consistently and persistently working at it,
what was hard
got easier.
And then, you know what?
Sure you do.
You have to make it hard on yourself again,
or you stop making progress.

If you keep lifting the same weight the same number of times,
it gets to a point where it’s not doing you any good.
You need resistance to make progress.

That’s true at all levels of growth—
in all areas of growth.
As you graduate from high school—college,
you know that’s true about learning—
growing intellectually.
You have to crack the books—
and not always the same book.

It’s hard work—growing—maturing.
We tend not to think it so
when it comes to growing emotionally.
Why should I have to work
at what is my natural instinctive response to things?
We tend not to think it so
when it comes to growing as a person.
Why would I have to work at who I am?
We tend not to think is so
when it comes to growing spiritually.
Make a profession, say a prayer,
walk the aisle, be baptized, be saved. Be done.
We tend not to think it so
when it comes to growing love.
But it’s just as true as in the gym,
if not as practiced.

I remember walking to church one Sunday morning,
seeing all the people out walking, jogging, biking,
and commenting in morning worship,
would that people had more a sense of the importance
of exercising their spirit—their souls.

I’m not, by the way, claiming we know how to do this!—
that we should change our name to Soul Fitness!
I’m saying it’s what we are—
what we should be figuring out—
always stretching and strengthening
our gracing,
our serving,
our including,
our loving.

So,
good endings are hard work—
as are good beginnings.
They don’t just happen.
And it’s more than just wanting them to be good.
You make them good.

Third,
and the last of three observations:
there is nothing more important—
nothing more important for you to do—
to work at—to grow into—
to get better at
than loving—
and loving in such ways
that people know they’re being loved.

If you go from here
with some sense of the work it takes to love,
some sense of the importance of that work,
and some commitment to that work,
I will feel so very good
about what you take from this place
and this people.

So the three observations:
first, good endings are good beginnings;
second, good endings—beginnings are hard work;
third, the best hard work is love
which is beginning and end,
amen and amen.

Okay, now three suggestions:
first,
don’t count yourself among the first,
if you don’t include yourself among the last.

Second,
don’t trust any story that fits too smoothly
into and with the stories and ways of the world.

And third,
know that God is with you always—
loving you more than you know how to,
and, of course,
loving everyone else more than you know how to too.

All of this, as we’ve said before,
all these observations and suggestions
are very simple.
They’re not easy—
not easy to implement—not easy to do—to keep
to keep doing,
but simple to grasp—
straightforward.

There’s one verse, abstracted from its larger story in Matthew,
that sounds like a challenging expectation:
to whom much is given,
of them, much is expected.
And it is—
truly—
a challenging expectation.
And the context of the story makes it no less so.
In fact, the Scripture story we heard read earlier seems almost unfair.
Actually there’s no almost about it.
The story seems unfair
in its utter rejection of the servant who buried the money—
especially, as we’ve noted before,
since that was an appropriate way to keep money safe.
“[r]abbinic law says that whoever immediately buries property
entrusted to him is no longer liable
because he has taken the safest course conceivable …”
(Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew
[Atlanta: John Knox, 1977] 471).

It seems unfair,
but for someone wanting to grow—
improve—get stronger—get healthier,
challenging expectations are good.
We need more of them
in this world and in this culture of ours.

And we expect a lot of you—
with grace—
with love.

We don’t want to put undue, inappropriate pressure on you,
but we do want an appropriate pressure.

We have seen enough in you
to expect a lot—
to hope a lot—
to anticipate not just what’s going to unfold for you,
but how your unfolding story
will make the world a better place.
That’s what we expect of you.
That’s all!

And so it is our hope and our prayer,
when you consider your giftedness—
your passions—
your fears—
your growth areas—
your sense of God’s presence and God’s call,
we hope and pray some questions arise
out of your experience here
with us—with God—with Scripture:
what if life is not about playing it safe?
What if life is about risking it all?

So finally, above all else—
after all the observations
and all the suggestions,
one commandment
that is also assurance and reassurance.

Love.
The noun and the verb
that are creation and fulfillment—
beginning and end—
you and us—
you and tomorrow.
Go.

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
George Saunders, commencement speech, Syracuse University, 2013

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
with a little of that lectio divina going on
Luke 2:52
It’s just one verse, my friends,
but oh my, what a verse!
And Jesus—even Jesus—
Jesus the Son of God—
Jesus, God incarnate—God made flesh—
even Jesus increased in wisdom and in years.

Oh, he increased in years—big deal, right?
He was born. He was a boy of about two—
of about twelve.
He began his public ministry when he was about 30—
died when he was about 33.
Of course he increased in years.
That is, after all, part of what it means to be the incarnation.

But Jesus also increased, we read, in wisdom.
That’s what Scripture says.
We read that Jesus increased in wisdom in the Bible.
Nothing to skip over too quickly.
Jesus got wiser.
Now wisdom isn’t knowledge.
We’re not talking here about Jesus learning more—
though presumably he did that too.
Wisdom though, is about seeing better how
what you know fits into a bigger picture.
It’s about recognizing that there is,
always,
a bigger picture—
horizons far beyond what’s apparent.

Jesus increased in wisdom and in years,
and in divine and human favor.
Now God loves you.
Oh, God loves you so.
Yet you can increase in divine favor—
as did Jesus.
You can make God more proud of you.
You can make God’s heart sing.

It’s not just going to happen.
You have to work at it—
at living love—
manifesting love—
incarnating God—
to reach the horizons far beyond what’s apparent—
the bigger picture that is our calling
in Jesus’ name.

“the longest day,” june 19, 2016

solstice sunrise

Responsive Call to Worship
Time goes by.
Like a river it flows by—
through a landscape it is itself creating—
moving toward what it fears and what it’s anticipating.
Fluid—ever-changing—
its own banks and path shifting—rearranging—
its current circling, swirling, stalling,
quickening, running, and falling—
on the surface—through the deep,
only the promise of movement will it faithfully keep.
Through the landscape meandering ever to the sea,
not just life sustaining, but also life enhancing and stirring, don’t you see?
Yet, even carried along, as we wait to arrive,
there’s part of us that’s somehow alive,
planted alongside the river—
outside time by the grace of the Giver—
still, calm, tranquil, serene, unmoving—
proving the quiet is us behooving.
Worship’s part of what gives us eyes to see
past what usually, adequately, seems to be
into the vaster truth that’s there’s more than the river—
the mystery that makes us quake and makes us shiver—
that nonetheless embraces us in spite of it all
with the Love that faces us and makes right in it all,
and claims as far as we yet have to go,
the truth of the end, we already know.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Joshua 10:7-15
So Joshua went up from Gilgal, he and all the fighting force with him,
all the mighty warriors. The Lord said to Joshua,
‘Do not fear them, for I have handed them over to you;
not one of them shall stand before you.’
So Joshua came upon them suddenly,
having marched up all night from Gilgal.
And the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel,
who inflicted a great slaughter on them at Gibeon,
chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon,
and struck them down as far as Azekah and Makkedah.
As they fled before Israel,
while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon,
the Lord threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah,
and they died; there were more who died
because of the hailstones than the Israelites killed with the sword.
On the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the Israelites,
Joshua spoke to the Lord; and he said in the sight of Israel,
‘Sun, stand still at Gibeon,
and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.’
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,
until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.
Is this not written in the Book of Jashar?
The sun stopped in mid-heaven,
and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.
There has been no day like it before or since,
when the Lord heeded a human voice; for the Lord fought for Israel.
Then Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to the camp at Gilgal.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Tomorrow is the summer solstice—
the word solstice comes from two Latin words.
the noun for sun (sol), and the verb sistere (to stand still).
It’s our earthly bow to the sun—
when we are most inclined to the light we orbit—
when the sun is at its highest position in the sky from the North Pole—
when the sun rises to the north of east
and sets to the north of west—
when it seems to stop in the sky before moving south—
all of which makes for the longest day of the year.

It’s a day set aside from days of old.
The great stones of Stonehenge, thousands of years ago,
were so very carefully aligned
to the sunset of the winter solstice
and the sunrise of the summer solstice.
And if, tomorrow, you were to be standing amidst those ancient pillars,
looking to the northeast through that magnificent frame of stone,
you would be looking at the so-called Heel Stone
over which the summer solstice sun rises.

It’s astronomically important, you see, to note the longest day—
even when—maybe even especially when,
it’s not astronomy we’re talking about.

Right?
You know.
If there’s something you’re immensely scared of—
or something you’re incredibly excited about,
time elongates—stretches—slows down.

This past week in the county public schools,
led up to the last day of school on Friday.
Which meant there were four days of not doing very much at all—
four long days—even the half day on Thursday—
interminable days.
(Not really. They’re all over now, and it’s summer vacation!)

I remember as a kid—how many of you do?
thinking I’d never get to sleep Christmas Eve—
that this night would never end.
(It always did, eventually.)

When you’re waiting for the rest results—the diagnosis,
time drags.
And you’re afraid.
And you’re hopeful.
But you’re also afraid to be hopeful.

More frequently and more significantly
than orbits and angles and rotations,
expectation and anticipation and hope and fear
all effect time in a different kind of theory of relativity.

Over the past years, this truth has made
one particular scripture verse much more significant to me—
and much more poignant.
Paul’s words to the Romans:
all creation eagerly awaits
the revealing of the children of God (Romans 8:19).
To consider how long creation’s been waiting,
and yet, that creation is still waiting.
And it’s heartbreaking,
and yet still hopeful—
as time elongates—stretches—slows down,
and hope continues to survive.

Last week, moments stretched—
elongated—thickened—slowed down
at a dance club in Orlando,
and for too many, hope died.
Time stretched into forever
for people at Pulse—
for people whose loved ones were there.
Time warped in an horrific hate crime
by someone who may have hated himself
for what he did not understand or could not accept about himself—
whose anger may have been stoked by bad theology—
by angry, violent rhetoric.
We don’t know.
All we know is that time ran out for a better story.

In the aftermath of the horror,
and then through all the additional ugliness
of subsequent blaming and name calling,
you may have found yourself reading a lot about what happened,
and maybe been struck, as I was,
by the descriptions of gay bars and dance clubs
as sanctuaries—as havens—
safe places of refuge—
places in which people can just be who they are—
just as they are.

Remarkably similar to the way I would describe church.
Probably not the way most of the people who were at Pulse would though.
And, if we’re honest, we confess, church, all too often,
is where we sing “Just As I Am,”
silently adding the implicit next line,
but not you just as you are.

Author Jeramey Kraatz tweeted this past week,
“If you can’t wrap your head around a bar or club as a sanctuary,
you’ve probably never been afraid to hold someone’s hand in public.”

A friend of mine, Maria, this past week posted this:
“Yesterday afternoon, as Sally and I were downtown, I said,
‘I need to kiss you in public right now, so I won’t be afraid today.’
Every time we do that, it’s a conscious decision,” she went on.
“Every time, whether we name it or not, the lingering fear surfaces.
If you think for a second that’s just paranoia, you ain’t woke.”

Maybe it makes you uncomfortable—
to see people of the same sex expressing physical affection for each other—
physical love—sexual love—
maybe because it’s unfamiliar to you—
foreign to your experience—to your feelings and inclinations—
maybe because of the way you were raised—
because of what you were taught growing up
by your family—by your peers—by your church—
by the assumptions of our past.

Maybe it’s time—or past time—to question those assumptions.
For the past year and a half, we have fairly intentionally
been questioning those assumptions here—
studying the biblical texts—
raising contextual questions—hermeneutical questions—
theological questions,
and suggesting there’s nothing we can do (or should do)
more important than loving people—
and, as we keep reiterating,
loving them in a way that feels like love to them.

The question that turned things around for me was this:
if God is love, and it’s love I see here,
how is God not—how can God not be a part of it?
And if it’s love, don’t we celebrate it?
Aren’t we called to?
Whether it’s a familiar and comfortable expression of it for us or not?
And then, doesn’t it break your heart
that someone would be afraid to show—to share—their love?—
to make manifest God?
And doesn’t it make you feel—odd,
to think maybe we’re embarrassed by the presence of God?

God created a world
bigger than the one known to me—
familiar and comfortable to me,
and my world can either be expanded
by welcoming different and other and more into it—
by learning and growing,
or it can shrink
to the parameters of my perspective and comfort levels

which may not be capable of grasping the idea—
the possibility—the beauty—the reality
of gay bars and night clubs offering sanctuary.
I think I remember reading that the owner of Pulse
established it after her brother died of AIDs.
That makes her a kind of missionary, right?
In remembrance of love, I want to create sanctuary—
a place for people to feel safe—to feel like they belong
just as they are.

Ruth Coker Pitts was 24 years old in 1984
in Little Rock, Arkansas.
A young mother at the hospital caring for a friend with cancer
she noticed a hospital room door with a red bag over the handle,
a room that even the nurses seemed to avoid.

“Whether because of curiosity or—as she believes today—
some higher power moving her, Burks eventually disregarded
the warnings on the red door and snuck into the room.
In the bed was a skeletal young man, wasted to less than 100 pounds.
He told her he wanted to see his mother before he died.”

“I walked out and [the nurses] said, ‘You didn’t go in that room, did you?’
Burks recalled. “I said, ‘Well, yeah. He wants his mother.’
They laughed. They said, ‘Honey, his mother’s not coming.
He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming. Nobody’s been here,
and nobody’s coming.’ ”

Well she got the home number (this long before HIPPA!)
and called only to hear the woman—the mother say:
“[h]er son was a sinner .… She didn’t know what was wrong with him
and didn’t care. She wouldn’t come, as he was already dead to her
as far as she was concerned. She said she wouldn’t even claim his body
when he died. It was a curse Burks would hear again and again
over the next decade: sure judgment and yawning hellfire,
abandonment on a platter of scripture.”

Oh, that’s a deep hurt,
but not one I can so easily claim for myself,
when it’s inflicted on so many in my name.

“Burks hung up the phone, trying to decide
what she should tell the dying man.
‘I didn’t know what to tell him other than, “Your mom’s not coming.
She won’t even answer the phone,” ’ she said.
There was nothing to tell him but the truth.
“I went back in his room,” she said, “and when I walked in,
he said, ‘Oh, momma. I knew you’d come,’
and then he lifted his hand. And what was I going to do?
What was I going to do? So I took his hand.
I said, ‘I’m here, honey. I’m here.’ ”

“Burks said it was probably the first time he’d been touched
by a person not wearing two pairs of gloves
since he arrived at the hospital. She pulled a chair to his bedside,
and talked to him, and held his hand.
She bathed his face with a cloth, and told him she was there.
‘I stayed with him for 13 hours
while he took his last breath on earth,’ she said.”
Then she buried him. Because no one else came.

“Burks said the financial help given to patients—
from burial expenses to medications to rent for those unable to work—
couldn’t have happened without the support of the gay clubs
around the state, particularly Little Rock’s Discovery.
‘They would twirl up a drag show on Saturday night
and here’d come the money,’ she said.
‘That’s how we’d buy medicine, that’s how we’d pay rent.
If it hadn’t been for the drag queens, I don’t know what we would have done.’”

“While Burks got to see the worst of people, she said,
she was also privileged to see people at their best,
caring for their partners and friends with selflessness,
dignity, and grace…. ‘I watched these men take care
of their companions and watch them die,’ she said.
‘I’ve seen them go in and hold them up in the shower.
They would hold them while I washed them.
They would carry them back to bed. We would dry them off
and put lotion on them. They did that until the very end,
knowing that they were going to be that person before long.
Now, you tell me that’s not love and devotion.’”
Tell me that’s not God.

“‘Someday,’ she said, ‘I’d love to get a monument that says:
This is what happened. In 1984, it started.
They just kept coming and coming.
And they knew they would be remembered,
loved, and taken care of, and that someone would say a kind word
over them when they died.’”
(http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/ruth-coker-burks-the-cemetery-angel/Content?oid=3602959)

All creation is eagerly awaiting the revealing of the children of God—
the children of love—the children of grace.
For the church (with a capital C)—the church as a whole
has too much been complicit
in looking at love and wonder and instilling fear—
inculcating fear—
and I’m sorry,
I can’t see that as other than looking at God
in rejection.
Creation is still waiting

We have a wonderful story to tell—
the best I know.
But sometimes it’s not ours to tell—
when the church was not the church,
but the gay bars were,
and Jesus was a drag queen—
or Jesus was a gay man caring and grieving his partner,
awaiting his own death without a partner to care for him—
or Jesus was a woman who touched sick people
everyone else was afraid just to be around—
touched them deeper than anyone can possibly know
by loving them.

Sometimes we need to hear our own story
as one we’ve abandoned,
that is still and now lived
in the most unexpected ways and places.

For when the church does not love—
does not risk love,
it is no longer the church.
And then, by the grace of God
(and this is good news—it is such good news!),
by the grace of God, the truth and grace that ought to be church
sneak into a gay bar or a nightclub,
and Jesus isn’t politely and ritually breaking bread
and pouring wine in a suit,
but sharing grace and love
over peanuts and bar food
in flamboyant clothes
to loud music with a heavy beat
and mixed drinks and what’s on tap
and conversation and blessing and love.
Do this. Do this!

Because Jesus isn’t identified as who we’re comfortable with,
but as who someone dying is comfortable with—
someone who’s hurting—
someone who’s rejected and alone and scared.
And if that makes us uncomfortable,
well, it’s not Jesus who needs to change.

I’ve started reading a mystery series by Craig Johnson.
it’s a series centered around a sheriff in Wyoming named Walt Longmire.
Netflix made a TV show of the series—which I haven’t seen.
at the end of the third novel in the series,
Walt is in the hospital reading to his daughter,
who’s just come out of a coma—
reading from a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales—
from which he read to her as a child.
looking at the worn book, he reflects:
“Like a lot of things in my life, I’d just about worn it out,
but it was worn out with love, and that’s the best kind of worn out there is.
Maybe we’re like all those used cars, broken hand tools,
articles of old clothing, scratched record albums, and dog-eared books.
Maybe there really isn’t any such thing as mortality;
that life simply wears us out with love”
(Craig Johnson, Kindness Goes Unpunished
[New York: Penguin, 2007] 287).

That’s our job—our very straight-forward calling—
our awesome responsibility and our rather queer privilege—
to wear out creation with love.
Creation’s waiting.

I fear we—the church with a capital “C”—
we’re too much wearing the world out
with judgment
with dogmatism
with fear
with selfishness
with rejection
with exclusion
with defensiveness
with anger
when we’re just supposed to wear creation out with love.
And frankly, if it comes right down to it,
I’d rather be wrong about everything else and right about love—
because it’s wrong to think we have more important things to do than love—
wrong to have to justify why what we call love doesn’t feel like it to others—
wrong to try and justify limits on grace and inclusiveness and blessing.

Last Sunday were the Tony awards.
The responsive call to worship, by the way,
was a whimsical tip of the hat to Hamilton’s hip hop rhymes!

I sometimes—how many of y’all imagine accepting an award—
a Tony, an Oscar, a Grammy? depending on what was just on, right?
So Monday, walking the dog,
I gave my acceptance speech which went something like this:
(and I’m holding the Tony here in this hand—
have the leash in the other),
“As you might imagine,
there are a lot of people to thank,
but I think all of them will understand if I don’t,
and rather, take this time and opportunity
to say, as a christian—as a baptist minister,
I am so sorry.
So sorry for the ways christians and baptists
have fallen so far short of the story we claim
that we do not allow it to claim us—
that we have restricted the love and grace offered so freely—
that we have made so many of you feel less than beloved—
less than created in the beautiful image of God—
that we allowed the fear to win—
fear of what’s different—
fear of what’s beyond our experience and comfort—
fear of what is and what is not institutionally viable—
fear of a love so much bigger than we’ve managed to extend.

I’ve often maintained we are less responsible
for unreached people groups—
people who have never heard the story of God,
and more responsible for people who have been turned off God—
turned away from God—
by the church.

I pray the truth of our story sneaks in—
sneaks in to other stories
through other places (for you and for us).
I pray we haven’t ruined it for all the people
who have only known it (or not known it) through the Church.
I pray it sneaks in—
the beauty and grace and wonder of it—
the witness of lives of holiness and godliness
characterized by love—
in which repentance is the only appropriate response to not having loved—
and righteousness is not about who we love
but about how we love.

Now I hope you don’t hear this in any way
as rejection of my own story—
of my identity as a christian and a baptist—
the God story is the best story I know.
I hope you don’t hear it as just a downer—
as heartbreaking condemnation,
for today is also a day full of opportunity
to be reclaimed by the story I claim—
to practice wearing out creation with love—
and so to go out with joy and to be led forth in peace.
There is yet time for our better story.

So thank you for this—
with the deepest of apologies …
and yet still with hope—
and so with joy.”

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
Stephen Colbert, “Despair is a Victory for Hate

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
2 Peter 3:3-13
First of all you must understand this,
that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing
and indulging their own lusts and saying,
‘Where is the promise of his coming?
For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue
as they were from the beginning of creation!’
They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God
heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water
and by means of water, through which the world of that time
was deluged with water and perished.
But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved
for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the godless.
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved,
that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years,
and a thousand years are like one day.
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness,
but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish,
but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise,
and the elements will be dissolved with fire,
and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way,
what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness,
waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God,
because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved,
and the elements will melt with fire?
But, in accordance with his promise, we wait
for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

“the third of a trinity,” june 12, 2016

trinity image

Responsive Call to Worship
Into the disturbance
created in our understanding of God
by the advent of Jesus,
comes then the Spirit—
to keep our understanding of God from settling—
to keep us disturbed—
to keep our minds ever moving
from the abstract specificity of God transcendent
to the more concrete specificity of God immanent
to the anonymity of God the spirit,
in whom we yet live and move
and have our being
(not because the point is to move from abstract and transcendent
through incarnate immanent to the Spirit, you understand,
but to not get comfortable in any one understanding of God!)—
so to keep shifting our focus—
from stories of encounter
to reflection on experience
(and then encounter in experience—
and round and round)—
from the question, “why haven’t You?”
to the question, “Why aren’t we?”—
to keep us trusting God,
following Jesus,
and participating in the reality and the work of God
through the Spirit—
in the ever-developing story,
growing energy in its consistency,
through time and change,
to who we know God to be.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Acts 2:1-18
When the day of Pentecost had come,
they were all together in one place.
And suddenly from heaven there came a sound
like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house
where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire,
appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in other languages,
as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation
under heaven living in Jerusalem.
And at this sound the crowd gathered
and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking
in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished,
they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
And how is it that we hear, each of us,
in our own native language?
Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia,
Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene,
and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
Cretans and Arabs—
in our own languages we hear them speaking
about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed,
saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’
But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice
and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea
and all who live in Jerusalem,
let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.
Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose,
for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.
No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.

Acts 10:44-48
While Peter was still speaking,
the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter
were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit
had been poured out even on the Gentiles,
for they heard them speaking in tongues
and extolling God. Then Peter said,
‘Can anyone withhold the water
for baptizing these people
who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’
So he ordered them to be baptized
in the name of Jesus Christ.
Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Yesterday was the running of the Belmont Stakes.
Creator won.
Ironic.
Wish he had won the Kentucky Derby
when we were considering the first of a trinity!
And so it is that a different horse
won each of the three races of the Triple Crown.
No continuity.
No consistency.
And consequently so much less interest and energy.
I wouldn’t have even googled
who won the Belmont Stakes this year
if we weren’t doing this series.

Here’s the thing:
we noted a couple of weeks ago
that those who encountered Jesus
experienced in him a remarkable consistency with God—
a remarkable continuity to the story.
And in the unfolding continuity of that story being told,
there was created more interest and energy.
This story is our story of old—our faith story.

As the story continued to unfold,
certain events in Jerusalem were included.
We read about them in our Acts reading.
Pentecost, we call that part of the story.
And with the advent of the Spirit of God—the Holy Spirit,
there was named in Jerusalem that day
a new experience of consistency with God—
of more continuity in the story
located now in the disciples—
made manifest in their lives—
as had been promised by Jesus.

For Jesus had specifically named a sequential dimension to this story.
In the words of Jesus, we read:
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate,
to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth .…
You know him, because he abides with you,
and he will be in you” (John 14:16-17).
“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything,
and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).
Later, Jesus clarifies:
“When the Spirit of truth comes,
he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13a).
Jesus even says,
“It is to your advantage that I go away.
For if I do not go away,
the Advocate will not come to you,
but if I go, I will send the Advocate to you” (John 16:7).

The Spirit does not just come to reveal truth
to teach truth—as Jesus did,
but to guide them into truth.
The Spirit comes not to make affirmations of truth
but to guide them into living truth—
to guide them in implementing
what they had seen and heard.

Now these words of Jesus were, initially,
a promise to the disciples.
But later that same promise would be realized,
as we read in the story of Cornelius,
in the lives of Gentiles.

So, in what’s most important,
we affirm,
Jesus resonated with God—
as did the disciples—
as did, later, Gentile God fearers—

do we?

Is there continuity to the story of God in our lives?
Is there consistency to who God is in who we are?
I think I have said to you before,
more and more, I come to believe,
it’s not what we believe about Jesus that’s important,
but whether we believe in Jesus
and live accordingly.

Do we believe not in affirmations of truth
about God and Jesus and the Spirit,
but have we been guided into a living
consistent with that truth?
Do we believe in God and Jesus and the Spirit
as with us—
helping us live
grace informed
joy drenched
hope led
love based
wonder filled
lives
that continue the story?
Because that’s where the story continues to live.
That’s where there’s interest and energy—
in lives in which the story is real.

Rob Bell asks us to imagine
inheriting an uncle’s boat.
And it needs work so you replace the old wooden boards on the hull.
Then you notice the deck.
“Well, since I’m replacing wood ….”
But with all new wood, do you really want old hardware?
So then you replace the hardware.
Then the instruments.
Then the sails.
“If you keep this up,” writes Bell, “at some point
you will have replaced the entire boat,
and yet when you take your friends out for a ride,
you will tell them that this is the boat your uncle left you …
Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God
[New York: HarperOne, 2013] 52).

I’m not saying we are God.
I’m saying we can live lives consistent with who God is—
live lives in which people recognize God—
live lives in which we can name God with integrity.
And, my friends, it has to do with loving.
It has to do with loving.
And when people notice,
you will tell them,
“This is the life my God gave me.
And it is abundant and wonderful,
and I am grateful.”

Last year, with American Pharaoh
having won both the Derby and the Preakness,
the Saturday afternoon of the Belmont Stakes,
I googled the start time.
I didn’t tune in to actually watch the race—
I’m really not into horse racing,
but I did google it again, afterwards,
to see who won,
and was excited to see that American Pharaoh had!

The Trinity is the energy of continuity and consistency.

That’s what people are looking for
in the church—from christians.
The world is looking at us to see if they see God.
That’s what the world needs.
That’s what we’re called to.
That’s what will fulfill our living.
That’s what will bring us joy.
That’s what will redeem creation.

And yet,
Paul writes,
“I do not understand my own actions.
For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….
For I do not do the good I want,
but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:15, 19).
That’s Paul.

I put it this way:
I know if I eat the cookies and the candy—
the cake—the sweets,
a/ I’ll end up eating more than I should;
and, b/ I’ll end up feeling yucky.
I’ll feel so much better if I eat the melon and berries—
and as much of them as I want.

I eat the cookies—the candy—the cake.
Right?

But you know what?
The disciples ate the cookies too.
So did Paul.
They made poor and wrong decisions.
They did the evil they did not want to do—
as have all who ever followed God in the way of Jesus.

And yet,
hear this good news!
And yet consistency with God—
continuity within the story—
is not about perfection.
It’s rather about choosing this story
as the one you want to continue—
as the one you want continued in you—
in and by which you want to be known.
It’s about committing to this story as the one worth living—
the one worth ever coming back to—
even after falling short.

Finally,
our experience of God develops along with or within
our conceptual framework of God
that comes from tradition and heritage.
We see more what we expect to see
than what there is to see.
That’s not a judgment.
It’s just the way it is,
and our ideas about God are not as much
reflections upon our own experience,
but the frame within which we name experience of God.

I wonder sometimes
if the story that gave us the Trinity—
trinitarian theology—
unfolded as it did
in order to take God out of a conceptual framework
into our lived experience.

And so, of course, we have made of that
a conceptual framework!

But if Trinity is only reflection
on someone else’s reflection on experience with God,
instead of reflection on our own experience of God—
with God,
it’s of no use.

The Trinity as concept about God
is of no use if not incorporated in our lives
as practical reality.

We are baptized into a story,
not a conceptual framework—
into a way of living,
not a way of thinking—
a way of believing in,
not a believing about.

At its best,
Trinity is not about numbers at all—
not about persons of the godhead.
At its best,
Trinity is perfect invitation (it is three, right?)—
perfect invitation into a wonderful choreography
of transcendence, immanence and experience—
invitation into a story that keeps going—
that keeps surprising us
with the way it keeps going—
invitation
into the story of the continuity of God
that invites us all in
to the love that redeems creation.

Wow!

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
1 Thessalonians 1:2-9
We always give thanks to God for all of you
and mention you in our prayers,
constantly remembering before our God and Father
your work of faith and labour of love
and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God,
that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel
came to you not in word only, but also in power
and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction;
just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you
for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord,
for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy
inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example
to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you
not only in Macedonia and Achaia,
but in every place where your faith in God has become known,
so that we have no need to speak about it.
For the people of those regions report about us
what kind of welcome we had among you,
and how you turned to God from idols,
to serve a living and true God ….

addendum to “the way we hear words”

 

words

Hmmm. Hadn’t thought about regularly scheduled
need and preventative care-based errands and appointments
as alternative language for worship,
but walking the dog the other evening,
I walked by a car service center and a grocery store.

* * * * * * *

Come stock up on your staples
of life lived fully—wholly—abundantly.
Sample the fresh produce of fellowship and service—
the fruit of grace yielding one hundred fold—
sustenance and inspiration.

We offer a priceless selection of
bread and wine,
milk and honey,
oh, and saltiness and yeastiness.

Every Sunday,
we’re giving the stuff away!
in an organic experience
with no artificial sweeteners
and no artificial preservatives—
a homemade touch of heaven.

* * * * * * *

It’s time for my regularly scheduled tune-up—
a little routine maintenance.
I find my life runs a lot smoother
when I regularly
get an attitude change—
my perspectives rotated—
my priorities balanced—
the level of my grace checked—
see if my filters are clogged with justifications
and need to be replaced—
fill up on story in community—
top off the hope—
check the pressure of my joy—
vacuum out the accumulated trash—
clean off whatever’s between me and the world
that keeps me from seeing it with love and wonder.

* * * * * * *

Come with me Sunday.
It’s like the gym—
for your soul.
You know you have to work out your spirituality
or it grows unhealthily out of shape.

It’s like the bank—
for your spirit.
You know you have to make deposits
in order to make withdrawals.

It’s like the doctor’s office—
for your whole self—your holy self.
You know you need your annual physical
(and your regular spiritual),
even if you’re afraid of what you might hear—
that you might hear things you don’t want to—
that you might get hard news.

Come with me Sunday.
It’s a combination of necessary
and healthy
and proactive

* * * * * * *

It’s so very important—
too important for words we love to get in the way.

I remember an African-American ethicist,
asked about African-American worship—
specifically about the length of such worship.
“Don’t know about y’all white folks’ lives during the week,” she said,
“but I have to deal with enough throughout my weeks,
that I need more than an hour on Sunday to balance it out!”

What happens to a life
lived in our culture
and not regularly balanced out?

the way we hear words

 

words

I drove past a church building the other day,
and, imagined, as I sometimes try and do,
possible responses of those I might imagine as average passers-by,
to noticing the same church I was.
And I had the thought, honestly,
“What an odd thing for people to still do.”

As part of my staff report at our recent business meeting,
I reiterated the truth (and the challenge)
that polls consistently identify the single most important factor
for people visiting a church as a church member’s invitation.
I also noted that in a recent conversation,
we wondered if we need to re-think—re-word—re-frame
the whole inviting-people-to-church thing.
Because there are certain, almost inevitable, typically negative
connotations most people have with such an invitation.
Right?

And so I wondered if maybe we need
to preface our invitations with a clarification—
“I want to make it absolutely clear,
I’m not worried about the destination of your eternal soul when you die.
Nor am I the least bit interested in judging or condemning you—
using you to make me feel better.
I’m not after your repentance or your conversion,
and I really don’t want you to experience
any kind of exclusive, self-righteous, dogmatic absolutism.
And I can just about guarantee you,
the only way you’d hear any such stuff at my church
would be in its rejection as theologically inadequate!

And if, right now, there are any other
immediate gut-level responses you have
to being invited to a Baptist church that I can dispel,
I would love to!

Now, I am worried about the soul of life
as lived by all too many in our culture.
I am deeply interested in a more ongoing,
critical assessment of our culture.
I am after a greater appreciation of and desire for
nuance and depth and multivalent truth in story,
and I do want you to experience what I value in community—
what I experience as life-sustaining—
grace and joy enhancing.”

I also do happen to believe that nuance and depth
and truth and story all have to do with someone’s eternal soul (and mine)—
and the undermining of the reality of hell,
but that’s not necessarily anything to get into at that point!

Might such an initial clarification be helpful?
Maybe.
Or maybe we’ve reached a point where we need new terms altogether.
We’ve talked about whether the word “baptist” can be redeemed.
We’re of varying opinions.
What if it’s a bigger conversation?
What about the word “church”—
the word “worship”—
the word “Bible”?—
“God?”

I confess, I don’t know.
All so important to me
and yet so completely misidentified (I believe)—
so utterly misunderstood
in popular understanding
as to be, to my mind, virtually unintelligible.

So to be clear,
if we weren’t going to use any of our taken-for-granted language,
what is it we’re inviting people to?
What is it, specifically,
we find in our experience of church/worship/Bible/God
that’s significantly relevant?

Well, there’s that experience of intergenerational community and fellowship
that’s exceedingly rare in our culture.
There is a shared commitment to priorities,
which in and of itself, might not be all that rare,
but this is commitment—a shared commitment to priorities
for which our culture tends not to advocate.
There is an appreciation of the gifts the least of these offer us—
of the opportunity we have to be better stewards of creation.
There is an openness to and a celebration of
all people created in the image of God
and an openness to and celebration of
the incredible diversity of people created in the image of God.
There is a sense of responsibility for needed change
in ourselves and in our world—
and some sense that the change does’t begin by making others change,
but in choosing to change ourselves.
There’s a thoughtful, reflective dimensions to life and thought—
a playful humility to the ever recognition of more—
more than we know—
more than we understand.
There is an emphasis
on story-shaped identity,
and community shaped values and traditions,
and on the importance of ritual in the midst of the day-to-day.
Might naming some of this be helpful?
Again, maybe.

Coming at it from another angle,
what is it that people these days value being invited to—
would want to be a part of—
that would still have integrity for us?

Many of us understand and appreciate the work of recovery.
So come to one of our TA, RA, CGA, BA, SRA, WA meetings—
Theologians Anonymous,
Religiously Anonymous,
Church-goers Anonymous,
Baptists Anonymous,
Scripture Readers Anonymous,
Worshippers Anonymous.

Art is valued more than worship.
Join us in our weekly production of the
theater of the holy … and the absurd.
We gather to depict the absurd amidst which we live
and to stage the naming of truth together—
to remind each other that it does exist!

Of course there’s the ancient tradition of storytelling—
the almost universal appreciation of storytellers.
Come reinvest in story—
gathering to listen to stories—
to learn the telling of stories,
and to practice the living of stories.

Our culture appreciates entertainment,
and that’s nothing to dismiss out of hand.
Because entertainment doesn’t have to be
shallow, meaningless, immediately-gratifying
(or with an hour or so, at most, of delayed gratification).
There is something entertaining about great story,
and we have the opportunity to creatively slip in
something important/relevant/meaningful.
Come be entertained with story and music.

Our culture (generally one of conformity)
values stories of the rebel (ironically).
Join the resistance!
Weekly meetings
for reports, updates, and assignments
for the strategic undermining of the status quo.

Oh, or there is the sporting event—
perhaps the most popular and common Sunday liturgy in our culture.
Well, I can’t imagine a more profound sport:
the underdog taking on the dominant power of the day
in an ongoing series
in which the winning and the losing truly matter—
in a game of confrontation
and of strategy
with the highest of stakes.
Who, in truth, head to head,
has the best story?

Ultimately, I don’t care about the words.
I believe there’s a truth beyond them.
But penultimately,
it’s words we’ve got.
And it matters which ones we use.
It matters how they’re heard.
It matters when they get in the way
of what we want them to mean.

So, we need to figure out
how to otherwise contextualize the ones we have,
or we need to come up with new ones entirely.

Because God’s word is still to be made flesh,
and words that aren’t heard—
won’t be heard—
can’t be made flesh.

And we need to be careful
that we haven’t made our words
more important than the truth beyond them.

“summer vacation: the myth and the reality,” june 5, 2016

summer

Responsive Call to Worship
Memories of what was
shape expectations of what will be.
The better the memories,
the greater the anticipation.

When time present conforms
to time past,
all is well.
Experience is affirmed, reassuringly,
confirming what we think we know—
what we believe.

But when the now does not unfold
in patterns of recognized familiarity—
when it counters and confounds memory,
it’s not just disappointing.
It undermines
what we’ve inferred from experience.
It threatens our convictions about
and our understanding of reality itself.

What we need, more than experience—
more than reflection on experience
what we need to safely navigate into tomorrow
is a North Star—a fixed point
approximately aligned with our axis of rotation
yet transcending our planes of being.
What we need is a sense of the light of love—
that which is most definitive of God
and of truth through time.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Exodus 33:18-23
Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ And he said,
‘I will make all my goodness pass before you,
and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”;
and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,
and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face;
for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued,
‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock;
and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock,
and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by;
then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back;
but my face shall not be seen.’

John 14:6-9a
Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
If you know me, you will know my Father also.
From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father,
and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him,
‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip,
and you still do not know me?
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.

2 Corinthians 4:3-6
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.
In their case the god of this world has blinded
the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing
the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord
and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.
For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’,
who has shone in our hearts to give the light
of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
Olaf, “In Summer

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
It’s the first Sunday of June.
In my mind, and linked in my mind
to some memory of summers long gone by,
summer started—starts in June.
I know—I know, officially summer starts June 20
on the summer solstice,
but June 1.
And school was out—
not in the middle of June—not at the end of June—June!
June 1.
School was out and so were not just long pants,
but pants with buttons and zippers—
and shirts with buttons—
and socks—and shoes.
and, for the most part, schedules.

And with the onset of June,
at the beginning of summer,
you knew you had three months of this—
June, July and August—
before you had to get back out socks and shoes—
get back out pants that weren’t shorts
and shirts that weren’t t-shirts
and set an alarm
and go back to school—
in September!

Three months (June, July, and August)
of freedom—
of being outside—
of fun and play—
of vacation—of yay—of no school—of grilling
of water and boating and waterskiing and the beach—
of snow cones and ice cream—
of hammocks and long lazy naps—
of mowing the grass—
and the smell of that grass after rain—
of sweating and baseball and frisbees.

Now of course at some point, I reached an age
at which I had to get a summer job—
to make spending money—
to save money for college—
for the experience—for the responsibility.
Then I was in college
and there were more summer jobs
and a few summers—summer classes.

Then you graduate and get a “real” job.
And what happens to the memories
(and the expectations such memories generate)
of summer lasting from June 1 through July to August 31—
of three months of freedom—
of vacation?
Growing up sucks.

It is so not what you expect, Olaf!
It’s not what you anticipate.

“I get that,” you think, sitting in the pew,
“but I’m not here to grieve what summer was
and lament what it is.
What does that have to do with worship?”

I’m so glad you asked!
Because we do the same thing with God.
We do the same thing with Scripture.
We approach both with the expectations
of our tradition and of our past,
and often never see beyond that.

I invite you this morning to consider
some of our sacred stories—

and to remember with me Jacob,
alone on the banks of the Jabbok,
returning home after years away—
returning to face his brother—
who, when he last saw him wanted to kill him!
Jacob, who had dreamed visions of God—
of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven
with angels ascending and descending
and God present to him.
And when he woke up
he took the stone he had used as a pillow
raised it up as a pillar, anointed it with oil,
and named the place Bethel—
which means house of God
(Genesis 28:10-22).
And now he finds himself wrestling on the banks of a river
by the sky’s night lights
grappling through the night,
knowing he needed a blessing,
and saying in the aftermath
“I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved”
(Genesis 32:22-32)—
but ever continuing to wrestle
with the God who wrestles with us—
with the God whose house will never be a place—
a fixed place you can mark with a stone anointed with oil,
but whose house is the struggle to be real with us—
in and through us.

I invite you this morning to remember Moses,
raised perhaps on the stories of Abraham and Sarah
Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah—
also, of course, right? on the stories of Ra and Isis and Anubis
and the rest of the ancient Egyptian pantheon—
raised in the house of Pharaoh.
Imagine him, tending sheep
at the foot of Mount Horeb, the mountain of God,
standing before a burning bush that is not consumed—
hearing God call to him out of the bush,
“Moses! Moses!”
That, in and of itself, right?!
But then God says,
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt;
I have heard their cry.”
God hears us.
“I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”
God delivers us.
“So come, I will send you to Pharaoh
to bring my people out of Egypt.”
God needs me to deliver us.
And you remember, Moses asks,
“If I come to the Israelites and say to them,
‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you’,
and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’
what shall I say to them?”
And God gives Moses the divine name
I am that I am—
or I am that I will be.
Notice nothing about God was!
There’s no past tense in the name of God.
“This is my name for ever,
and this my title for all generations”
(Exodus 3:1-15).

To encounter God
is to be called—to be needed
in the work of God now—
to alleviate suffering and lead people out of bondage and oppression now.
I am with you are about the work of redeeming.
Bad grammar;
great theology!

I invite you this morning to remember Elijah,
standing on that same mountain, Mount Horeb, the mountain of God,
with the great wind splitting mountains—breaking rocks.
Wind is often associated with the presence and the power of God.
But God was not in this wind
And there was an earthquake.
And earthquakes are often part of descriptions of theophanies—
revelations of God.
But God was not revealed in this earthquake.
Then there was fire.
Fire is often imaged as part of the experience of God.
But God was not in that fire.
God was not in any of these expected manifestations of God’s presence.
God was, instead, unexpectedly,
present in the sheer silence
(1 Kings 19:9b-12).

God’s presence speaks through all experience
for those with ears ready to listen and prepared to hear,
and rarely the same way as before.

I invite you this morning to remember Jonah,
so stinking mad as he watches the city of Nineveh repent.
So angry as divine punishment—
the divine punishment of which he had warned the Ninivites—
is averted.
And Jonah bemoans who he knows God to be:
“You are a gracious God and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and ready to relent from punishing.”
And he goes on,
“And now, O Lord, please take my life from me,
for it is better for me to die than to live.”
If my human expectations aren’t met—
if you do what I can’t understand—
if you do what I don’t want—
if you love them,
I’d rather die!”
(Jonah 4:1-5)

God is rarely made present the same way,
but is always steadfast love.
You ready for that?

I invite you this morning to remember Peter,
in the villages of Caesarea Philippi,
already having had to begin reassessing God
in light of Jesus—
this teacher he was following,
who revealed himself over and over again
as some manifestation of God’s truth and God’s authority—
and somehow God’s presence.
Now asked by his teacher,
“Who do people say that I am?”
And while some said, “John the Baptist,”
and some said, “Elijah,”
he said, “You are the Messiah.”
But then Jesus began to tell them what was to be—
how things were going to unfold—
so unmessiahlike—
so ungodlike.
Peter now required to reevaluate Messiah—
still required to reevaluate God—
unable to conceive of Messiah as Jesus does.
And when he gives words to this:
“This can’t be!”
Jesus responds sharply,
“Get behind me, Satan!
For you are setting your mind not on divine things
but on human things”
(Mark 8:27-33).
“Well excuse me for being human.”
“Oh, you are blessed for being human.
But don’t be conformed to what’s been.
Be transformed.
Let this mind be in you—
calling you ever into more steadfast love.”

Here’s the truth (I think!):
the past does not prepare us for God.
Oh, it may make straight the ways on which God comes.
It may prepare the way of the Lord.
It does not—it cannot
prepare us for the presence of the living God with us.
Nothing can.

So here’s the challenge
not to let the past—
the past that is our faith heritage—
the past that is our faith tradition
the past that is our own experience in days and years gone by—
not to let expectations of God rooted in the past
prevent the present reality from unfolding—
to get in the way of what is and what will be—
of who God is now and of who God will be with us.

Our task is never to find a way to regain what was,
but to mine what is for the riches of today—
to what now
for the same presence—for the same truth
but now manifest for our time and for our place—for us.

Mohammed Ali once said,
“A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20
has wasted 30 years of his life.”
We could say the same of God.
A person who views God the same at 50
as that person did at 20 has wasted 30 years.

Sometimes that it’s not what it was—
that it’s not what we thought it would be,
is enough to ruin it for us.
May it not be so.

Yes, summer is different than it was.
Summers now from summers long ago—
this summer from last summer—
next summer from this one.
It’s not those wonderful three months of freedom.

And sometimes, it may be harder
to find the gift in what a particular summer is.
But oh, how important to try!
That’s what you have to do.
What is it this year?
What is it this summer—
that will bring me some wonderful sense
of that freedom—of that joy?

It’s very baptist, in a way.
We’re not here to tell you what,
but to tell you that—
not to tell you how or when,
but just to be ready.

You ready?

To expect—well, not what you expect!
To be ready to be open
to the unexpected—
to the unprecedented—
to the scary and challenging, yes,
but the steadfast love that is scary and challenging.

Love who?

It’s so not what you expect, Olaf!
It’s not what you anticipate.
It’s so much more.

So when you think it’s going to be one way
and it turns out to be something completely different,
or when it was one way,
but then turns into something completely different,
can we nonetheless expect to find within it all
God—
the unexpected presence
manifest
in the unexpected truth?

Take joy in the ever more—
in what you don’t know—
both the don’t know yet
and the can’t know.
Maybe one day we’ll see clearly—
completely—
face to face,
but now, within the dimness,
we see enough—
enough to want to see more—
to keep us moving—to keep following
the light that lies always ahead—

opening ever more
into the steadfast consistency of love—
what it means to love today—
what it means to love here—
what it means to love out there.
Not what it did.

I wonder—
I wonder through Scripture,
if the almost inevitable fear,
upon encountering God,
followed by that ubiquitous, “Fear not,”
was, always in turn followed,
by a consistent but unreported,
“Oh, it’s you.
I didn’t recognize you at first.”

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
Jonathan Richman, “That Summer Feeling

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
1 Corinthians 13:9-13
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;
but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child;
when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part; then I will know fully,
even as I have been fully known.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.