parables as subversive act: “wait a minute! say what?,” november 13, 2016

Introit
Eliza Gilykson, “The Great Correction

Responsive Call to Worship
We gather for worship
having voted this past week
for our country’s next president.
Some of us voted for one candidate,
others of us for another,
others of us for still another.
It’s real, and it’s messy.
Some of us are more scared, some less,
some more angry, some less.
It’s real, and it’s messy.
We acknowledge that everyone we voted for is flawed.
It’s really messy.
We’re all aware of the difference
between campaigning and governing.
We all hope it will be better than we fear.
But in the midst of it all,
we also know our clear call
to work for justice,
to love righteousness,
to be humble with our God,
to look for God and to find God
in the least of these,
and to be faithful stewards
of God’s creation and God’s way.

Meditations
Obedience is frequently the opposite.
It is a jump into the unknown.
A move based on trust, not in a certain future,
but in a dependable God.”
—Ken Wytsma, The Grand Paradox:
The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God,
and the Necessity of Faith

When justice and love are rightly understood,
love is not in conflict with justice
but love incorporates justice.
—Nicholas Wolterstorff in Ken Wytsma

We don’t stray away from good doctrine or truth
by focusing on justice and compassion for those in the margins—
rather, we find Jesus and truth in the margins.
—Ken Wytsma

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Psalm 85:6-13
Will you not revive us again,
so that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.

Luke 18:1-8
Then Jesus told them a parable
about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge
who neither feared God nor had respect for people.
In that city there was a widow
who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice
against my opponent.” For a while he refused;
but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God
and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me,
I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out
by continually coming.” ’ And the Lord said,
‘Listen to what the unjust judge says.
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones
who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?
I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.
And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

Pastoral Word
There is a lot of raw feeling in this room.
And it’s not the same raw for all of us.
Some are scared, some angry, some defensive.
Many feel misunderstood.
Some feel concerns are being underestimated;
some that they’re being overestimated.
And we risk being isolated from each other
as we wait to see how things will continue to unfold.

I have prayed and struggled this week with what to say—
as someone with my own fears and frustrations,
and yet as pastor to the congregation,
who values how each one of you is feeling.

The election is over.
I do not condone protesting that becomes violent or even threatening.
I can also not condone just telling people to get over it
to just come together—as if we have had that modeled for us.
I affirm a peaceful transition of authority.

It is abundantly clear that Mr. Trump spoke
to a large number of people with economic concerns—
with an enormous amount of frustration with the status quo
and with our systems and their insiders—
the political system, the economic system, the media system—
with no hope of a better tomorrow.
I get that.
I share that.

I hope and pray he will bring constructive change to those systems,
even as he now works within one of them.
God knows they need it.
I will pray for him,
and I say to you it is up to all of us
to respect the office of the president
in the days, months and years to come.

It is also obviously true that Mr. Trump reached his position
by opening the door to vile language and behavior
that cannot and must not be condoned by anyone of decency or faith.
His rhetoric, if not his intent, has not just put people at risk,
people have been hurt.
Newspapers across the board and across the world
are reporting an uptick in hate crimes,
and I say to you it is up to all of us
to respect God’s call to care for the least of these.

This must be a safe place for all.
That is our understanding of sanctuary—
which means we can gather with our different raw feelings
and commit to work together to be together to work and worship together—
which means we offer all the love and support we can
to each other—
naming for each other what it is we hope for,
not just what we’re against,
and also naming for each other what we will not tolerate—
what we will resist.
And remember, we started saying “We are the resistance”
long before Mr. Trump ever announced he was running for president!

We offer all the love and support we can
to each other,
and to those who are scared—legitimately scared—
be they business owners in the path of protestors,
people trying to get home from work and scared to go through the city,
be they of another religion—another color,
another sexual orientation—another gender,
another nationality—another socio-economic status.

You will be respected here, we affirm.
You will be loved here, we proclaim.
You will, if need be, be protected here.

This is hard. What I’m asking of you is hard.
But we can absolutely believe there are very different ways
of working toward what is safer than what we now know—
and better and more right than what we now know—
and more hopeful for more people than what we now know,
but we must also unite in loving our sisters and brothers along the way.

It’s always easier just to be with people who all agree
but I believe this challenge to us as community—
this hard part of what community means—
is also of God.
So may it be so—
even here and now in and through us.

Hear now this prayer by Carrie Newcomer—
not just as a prayer to God,
but also as a prayer we can each one of us answer
for another one of us:

 

Witness of the Living Word
Our text begins with a word from Luke about the parable:
Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always
and not to lose heart.
So we’re told before we hear it—read it,
what the parable means.

Then we’re introduced to, the judge, an authority figure,
who did not fear God and had no respect for people.
And right from the outset, we’re predisposed not to like this judge.
This is Luke, after all.
And in that same city there was a widow,
and from the outset, we’re predisposed to like her.
Yes, because it’s Luke.
And she kept coming to the judge saying
(over and over and over and over again the verb tense implies),
“Grant me justice”—
which is entirely in keeping with our idealized view of widows in Luke

… except it’s not “justice” she wants.

If you have your own Bible here, cross out that word.
Cross out the word “justice,”
and write in the word “vengeance.”
The widow cries, “Grant me ‘vengeance’ against my opponent.”
Amy Jill Levine points this out in her book short stories by jesus
(Amy-Jill Levine, short stories by jesus
[New York: HarperCollins, 2014] 224)
and a quick look at the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament
(Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume II
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1964] 442) confirms this.

And that changes things.
Even positively predisposed to like the widow,
that changes things.
She’s not asking for legal help in the pursuit justice,
she’s asking for a legal justification for vengeance.

And so we realize—it dawns on us,
we really have no idea where the justice is in all this.
Maybe she was unjustly treated.
Maybe she didn’t like the way she was treated.
Maybe she was poor, powerless, and oppressed.
Maybe she had enough resources
to be able to afford to spend time
day after day after day badgering this judge—
which doesn’t necessarily sound like someone in dire straits.
Someone in dire straits doesn’t typically have time
for much more than simply getting enough food for the day.

For a while the judge refused her,
and since we don’t have any idea of the justice here,
and since vengeance is the Lord’s (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19),
that may well have been the right thing to do.

But then he says to himself,
“Well, I don’t fear God,
and I don’t respect people,
but I am getting awfully tired of this widow
pestering me.
So I will grant her her vengeance.”

Nothing about having assessed the evidence—
the validity of her claim.
He’s just sick of her presence—
tired of being bugged.
“So she doesn’t wear me out.”
You might want to cross that out phrase too, actually—
“wear me out.”
The Greek phrase is an idiom from the boxing world, actually.
Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 9:27, writing of athletic discipline
and commitment—of “punishing” his body reads our translation.
“Literally it means ‘so that in the end she may not come
and strike me under the eye’ ” (R. Alan Culpepper,
“The Gospel of Luke” in The New Interpreter’s Bible
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 338)—
“so she won’t give me a black eye.”

Now the widow’s probably not literally
going to give the judge a black eye,
so most scholars take this figuratively—
so she won’t embarrass him.
But we already know—we’ve been told,
this judge doesn’t respect people.
Why would he care about a little embarrassment?

And that’s the story.
A judge we’re predisposed not to like
initially does the right thing,
but then ends up doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason.
And a widow we’re predisposed to like
asks for the wrong thing,
goes about it in the wrong way,
and ends up getting it anyway.

We start off thinking we know who’s who,
and then it’s like they’re wearing those mission impossible masks,
and though you think you know who you’re dealing with,
they tear their masks off and turns out they’re someone else!
And we don’t end up admiring anyone.
We end up without anyone as an example.

And it is the parable thing of everything getting turned upside down,
but it doesn’t fall into what we might recognize
or name God’s way—God’s kingdom of heaven.
We don’t have created or recreated or established or affirmed
a better order—
an upside down as a corrective—
an intervention that makes more sense
from the perspective of our faith affirmations.
No, what we have is a mess.

And maybe—maybe, we hear Jesus asking, with a smile,
“Well now honestly,
how often do things fall into a neat order for you?
Make sense?
Or is it really all more of a mess?
And how often do the real people you know
fall in line as those who are all good or all bad?
Or are we really all more of a mess?”

It’s the mess, isn’t it?
And there’s no “it’s God’s will.”
There’s no “God’s in charge.”
There is no rhyme or reason—
no explanation.
Just the question will God find faith within the mess?

Not when things are good.
Not when things are easy.
But when life is challenging and stressful
and hard and scary.
Will God find faith?

And so, given the story, Luke’s opening verse makes sense:
pray always and don’t lose heart.
Keep the faith.
But the closing verses are a bit more challenging:
as mixed up, confused and confusing set of sentences as I’ve heard.
And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says.
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones
who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?

That’s another sentence to scratch out, by the way:
“Will God delay long in helping them.”
The Greek would more literally be translated
“Will God be patient with them?”

So, will not God grant justice to those who cry out day and night?
Will God be patient with them?
Though if they’re the ones crying day and night,
wouldn’t the question be will they have patience with God?
I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.
Quickly?
What about the crying day and night?
What about the patience?

And then, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

This makes no sense to me …

which is great; I love that!
We have some problems to think through:

a/ We have a theological problem
with the lousy theological idea
that anyone would have to badger God
into answering prayer;

and b/ the assumption made is not valid.
Will not God grant justice to the chosen who cry out day and night?
God will quickly grant justice.
Well, we know that’s not true.
God will quickly grant justice to them?
This is the tradition of the people in the wilderness
wandering for forty years.
This is the tradition of the people of the exile;

and finally c/ it’s still that word “vengeance” not “justice.”
“Will not God grant ‘vengeance’; God will quickly grant ‘vengeance’. ”
It’s still a vindictive story—
not a transformative one.
So it’s not what I would consider godly.

It makes no sense—

unless—
unless,
what if Luke’s “Listen to what the unjust judge says
is not a reference to an old quote
but an introduction to a new quote?
What if it’s not remember what the unjust judge said (past tense) back in the story:
“Though I have no fear of God
and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me,
I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out
by continually coming.”

But what if we have remember what the unjust judge says
(and the verb is actually in the present tense),
and then a new quote such that what the judge says is:
“And will not God grant vengeance to his chosen ones
who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?
I tell you, he will quickly grant vengeance to them.”

What if it is (because it sure sounds like it could be)
the judge justifying himself and what he did.
“Hey, doesn’t even God give vengeance to those who pester God?
And God does it quickly, right?” So did I.

I went to my Greek New Testament by the way,
to verify what I suspected,
and it’s true,
there are no quotation marks in the Greek.
So deciding what the judge said
is another one of those aspects of translation that is interpretation.

So no.
The way I’m reading … interpreting …
God does not grant vengeance.
No matter how much you pester God.
No matter how persistently you pray.

And life remains a mess.
And people are a mixture—a combination
of better and worse.
And people do good things and less good things and bad things—evil things.
And just when you think you know what to expect
the mission impossible mask comes off!

Michelle Bachman and Franklin Graham
are the only two whose pious sounding self-serving words of faith
I’ve had the misfortune of hearing or seeing this past week
that undid me.
And I’m sorry if any of you appreciate their theology,
but you need to know, from all I know, it’s a particularly cheap,
shallow, and perverse theology they espouse
that has God manipulating the presidential election.

Any of you remember the story of Israel first demanding a king?
The prophet Samuel was displeased and prayed to God
who said to Samuel, “Listen to the people.
They have not rejected you; they have rejected me”
(1 Samuel 8:7).
God does not pull the levers of politics.
Life does not proceed according to plan—
not even God’s plan.
It’s a mess.

And I tell you true, in all my years of pastoral ministry
(which are adding up to almost three decades now …
yikes!),
I have never ever found it helpful
to tell anyone going through their own hell
that there’s a reason for it—
a plan within which their hell is unfolding as planned.

I got a text early Friday morning from a pastor friend,
one of whose teenage youth hung herself.
You can probably imagine with me,
the last thing her loved ones need to hear is
that there’s a reason for such a senseless tragedy.

Now to get your continuing education certificate in pastoral care,
you also need to know never to quote Romans 8:28
to someone going through their own personal hell.
All things work together for good?
You run the risk of someone in pain hearing you say
that what happened to them happened so that good could come of it
instead of the much bigger and truer affirmation
that good will come again in spite of what happened.

Because so often what happens is just a mess.
And people are a mess.

So will the Son of Man find faith—
in the midst of the mess?

This is not a parable about persistence in prayer
to undo the mess,
but about persistence in faith
through the mess.

Do you keep the faith
when it doesn’t make sense—
when nothing makes sense?

This parable is about overturning the idolatry of sense and circumstance—
the fallible foible of a fable
that God is in charge
in a way that suggests circumstances are divinely manipulated—
that there’s a reason for what happens—
that life isn’t a mess—
that we aren’t messes.

It is; we are.
Our hope is not in a plan but in a presence—
not in what God will do in spite of us,
but what God does in and through us
who keep the faith.

That is the good news.
That is the hard news
for us today
in the mess.
Amen.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
1 Peter 1:6-9
In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while
you have had to suffer various trials,
so that the genuineness of your faith—
being more precious than gold that, though perishable,
is tested by fire—may be found to result
in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Although you have not seen him, you love him;
and even though you do not see him now,
you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
for you are receiving the outcome of your faith,
the salvation of your souls.

parables as subversive act: “God! a Samaritan?”

good-samaritan

(http://www.blog.wildemeyer.com/search/label/Amy%20Watts)

Responsive Call to Worship
Division and divisiveness are easy.
Rejection,
denunciation, and vilification are easy.
Exclusion is easy.
Blame is easy.
Enemies are easy.
Not easy to deal with, of course.
Easy to allow,
and then to blame and exclude—
denounce, vilify, reject.
We, as those who follow God in the way of Jesus,
however,
are not called to easy.
And what seems easy
is often only so in the short term.
We are rather called
to transformation and possibility.
We are called to grace.
We are called to love.
It’s not easy,
but this way lies hope.

Meditations
Love is the only force
capable
of transforming an enemy
into a friend.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

It takes a great deal of bravery
to stand up to our enemies,
but just as much
to stand up to our friends.
— J.K. Rowling

If you want to make peace with your enemy,
you have to work with your enemy.
Then he [or she] becomes your partner.
— Nelson Mandela

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Reading from the Old Testament
Exodus 23:1-9
You shall not spread a false report.
You shall not join hands with the wicked
to act as a malicious witness.
You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing;
when you bear witness in a lawsuit,
you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice;
nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit.
When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray,
you shall bring it back.
When you see the donkey of one who hates you
lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free,
you must help to set it free.
You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor
in their lawsuits. Keep far from a false charge,
and do not kill the innocent or those in the right,
for I will not acquit the guilty.
You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials,
and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.
You shall not oppress a resident alien;
you know the heart of an alien,
for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Reading from the New Testament
Luke 10:25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.
‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’
He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength,
and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’
And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer;
do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus,
‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied,
‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,
and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him,
and went away, leaving him half dead.
Now by chance a priest was going down that road;
and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him,
passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan while traveling came near him;
and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
He went to him and bandaged his wounds,
having poured oil and wine on them.
Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn,
and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii,
gave them to the innkeeper, and said,
“Take care of him; and when I come back,
I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor
to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’
He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Witness of the Open Canon
Sting, “Russians,” 1985

In Europe and America there’s a growing feeling of hysteria.
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets.
MIster Krushchev said, “We will bury you.”
I don’t subscribe to this point of view.
It’d be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too.
How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?
There is no monopoly on common sense
On either side of the political fence.
We share the same biology, regardless of ideology.
Believe me when I say to you,
I hope the Russians love their children too

There is no historical precedent
To put the words in the mouth of the president?
There’s no such thing as a winnable war,
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore.
Mister Reagan says, “We will protect you.”
I don’t subscribe to this point of view.
Believe me when I say to you,
I hope the Russians love their children too
We share the same biology, regardless of ideology.
But what might save us, me and you,
Is if the Russians love their children too

Witness of the Living Word
It’s a familiar Jesus story—
one of the most familiar.
And it’s been absorbed into culture like none other—
assimilated into the vernacular.
There is legislation named after it—
not to mention hospitals.
Ben Rodriguez just had surgery there this past week—
at Good Sam, as it’s called,
over there on Loch Raven Boulevard and Belvedere.

It’s a straightforward story—
really doesn’t need much in the way of commentary.

Other than maybe a little context—
much of which many of you already know.
And we’re not even going to consider
the frame of the story this morning, just the story itself.
So we could note that it’s a certain anthropos,
we read in the Greek—
which could mean a specific man,
but could also mean a human being.
Because anthropology is not the study of particular men, is it?
but of human beings.
There was a human being in the ditch.
We could remind each other of the specifics—
of that road from Jerusalem down to Jericho—
18 miles through the desolate Judean mountains—
dropping from some 2500 feet above sea level
to some 825 feet below.
We don’t really need to remind each other of how dangerous life can be;
we know all too well what human beings do to each other.
We could note that the priest and the levite passing by
set up an expected third passer-by,
whom we expect to do what the others, for whatever reason, did not.
We could call into question interpretations
that call Judaism into question
rather than two men who didn’t live up to the teachings of their own faith.
We could explore all that—
and more,

but the point of the parables
was … well, less that they made some point,
as that they made their impact felt.
Parables were and should be less about the head
and more about the gut.

And so this story’s not about robbers—
about the dangers of life—
what we all too easily believe people do to each other.
It’s not a story about the priest and the levite—
the Jewish religion—
its purity laws.
Nor is this a story about a samaritan, good or otherwise.

None of that’s what gets us in the gut.

Now there are … what shall we call them?
gutty dimensions?
to all of that:
to the dangers of our lives—
what we do to each other
(and depending on what’s just happened somewhere—
what’s in the news—that can hit hard,
but we forget it’s always somewhere).
There’s a gutty dimension to religious leaders
who don’t do what they’re supposed to—
don’t live in the way you would expect them to—
who focus on money or judgement or anger—on small—
and let their own faith down.
And we’re all moved by acts of unexpected goodness—
exceptional compassion.
Nonetheless.
Not what the story’s about.

Here’s another clue as to what it’s really about:
if the story were to go on,
how would it—how would it go on?
We wouldn’t follow the priest, the levite, or the samaritan, would we?
The narrative trajectory is into the reaction and response of the one
who was beaten and robbed.
So this story is clearly about a person who was in a ditch, a Jew
who wakes up
to discover—
what?
Not just what happened while he was unconscious,
but also that he now faces a critical decision—
to keep living as he had been—ignoring what happened,
or to make a fundamental change to his own perspectives and views—
to reorient his reality.

Because he wakes up confronted with the fact,
that he was saved by someone he wouldn’t want to admit saved him—
saved by someone who would make him think,
“It might be better if he hadn’t saved me—if I hadn’t been saved.
I can’t believe what he did to me.”

It is, you see, a misnamed story.
Commonly called the good samaritan,
it might better be called, as our sermon title this morning,
“God! the Samaritan?” (with just such an intonation!)

The trick is to reclaim some of the absolute shock
of those first hearers—
and of that human being who wakes up to wake up—or not.

“Yes, I know what human beings do to each other.
Look what some did to me—
taking my possessions, my dignity, almost my life.
But you’re telling me a samaritan did this?
Look what they do to us—
what they have done to us.”

“According to the Bible, Samaria had an earlier name, Shechem.
It was at Shechem that Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped….
The second reference to Shechem/Samaria
is Judges 8-9, the story of the false judge Abimelech,
who murders his rivals…
(Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus:
Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,
[New York: HarperCollins, 2014] 96).
Rapists and murderers.
And, you all probably know this,
Samaritans and Jews each had a temple—
the one in Jerusalem, the other on Mt Gerizim.
128 years before the birth of Jesus,
the Jewish king attacked Samaria and burned down their temple.
Samaritans and Jews both considered themselves
true to the Torah and the other as having deviated from it.
Throughout the gospels we get indications of this division—
Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John.
In Matthew Jesus warns his disciples not to enter Samaritan towns.
“In the chapter preceding our parable (Luke 9:51-56),
Luke recounts that a Samaritan village refused Jesus hospitality”
(Levine, 99). James and John suggest raining down fire.
Josephus recounts both stories of Samaritans killing
Galileans on their way to the pilgrimage festivals,
and of Jews plundering Samaritan villages (Levine, 100).

So this human being confronted with what had been done to him
must decide what to maintain—
and not so much just the same close-minded prejudices
as the accepted, taken for granted cultural norms.
Because here’s another thing to consider:
from what I can tell—
from what I’ve read,
this deep-seated animosity would have had less to do
with just personal experience in the present
than with those cultural norms
rooted in the stories of history and tradition.

So what we have here
is a cultural, national, systemic racism.
Well.
Well well well.

We looked, as you might imagine,
at a lot of images for a bulletin cover.
There are lots and lots of good samaritan images.
Most of them are of someone helping another.
But the help is not what’s most important.
It’s who’s offering it.

So in the image on your bulletin this morning,
note the different ethnicities of the characters.
Notice that the person in the ditch
looks like a cowboy,
while the person extending help looks native.
Notice how the one dressed like a cowboy
(cowboy boots—cowboy hat)
is wrapped in a bright, colorful native looking blanket.
Imagine a cowboy saved by an indian
in a culture in which the only good indian, don’t you know,
is a dead one.

The best stories lure us in
to thinking they’re stories about them
until we realize they’re stories about us.

And then we don’t just feel those stories in our gut,
they hit us in the gut.

Too much, we watch Star Wars and the dark side,
Harry Potter and the death eaters,
the fellowship of the ring and Sauron,
and never see the story in which we live—
never identify the empire in whose shadow we live—
the deep resonance with Revelation—with Scripture.

Whether it’s the Marvel universe
or Independence Day,
we look at aliens
and don’t see ourselves.
Can you believe what we do to each other?

Our fiction seduces us into processing stories as about them
until we realize they are always about us.

Now why is this so important?
Why so important to remember they’re about us?
And why are we thinking of parables as subversive acts?
Why would the subversive element be so important?

Because we are the resistance—
or not.

We are those who recognize the danger
in the stories of our culture.
We are those who recognize how different
the stories of culture are from the stories we tell.
We are those who confront the discrepancy.
We name the risk—
or we don’t.

If we hear the parable aright,
we are undone
to be remade.
Our world is undone
to be remade—
raised to newness of perspective—
newness of wonder and relationship,
commitment and possibility—
to be being redeemed.

Now we can pretend—
the church has historically done a great job pretending—
we can pretend the stories Jesus tells
don’t undo us—don’t undo our culture.
But what we then accept
is what the Jesus stories warn us of,
not what they invite us to.

And it’s not practical.
It’s not even necessarily what we call realistic—
or pragmatic—or safe.
But we are not called to practical
to what’s called realistic—
to pragmatic—to safe.
We are called to love—
in all its extravagance—
its grand gestures—
its hope—
its risk.

I remember proposing to Susie.
We were in Taos, New Mexico—the town square.
And I had planned this—
knew I was going to ask,
and yet I was shaking.
My voice quaked.
Because this was momentous
This question and this answer would change everything.
And it did.

There are moments.
There are moments—
particular questions and answers
that change everything.

The task the calling and the challenge of the church today
is to be a momentous threat to the status quo—
to the powers that be—
to the assumptions and categories and justification of our world.
Not to endorse—promote—approve—justify our culture,
but to question, confront and undermine it—
to sabotage it—
to resist.
To change everything.

And lest you’re overwhelmed or feeling argumentative,
no, we don’t have to resist everything
for everything to change.

And it’s not a call to anarchy I sound—
though you know as well as I,
there are significant parts to our culture
that run counter to our faith affirmations.
Ours is, however, a call to resistance,
not rebellion—
working transformation from within—
but clearly—indubitably
working for change—
to undo what is
that what may be
is other than what is.

We start by acknowledging the critical decision we face—
either to keep living as we too often do—
pretending Jesus is not relevant to our day-to-day living,
or to make a fundamental change to our own perspectives and views—
to reorient our reality.
And not just at a personal level,
but also at a cultural, national level.
We could start with—
oh, I don’t know …
our cultural, national, systemic racism?
There is a danger to our culture
by its very nature and being
that puts us at risk—
that puts at risk who we are called to be.
And so in response
we call ourselves to risk—
to risk who we are called to be.

You are the resistance.

Go with God.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Luke 6:27-36
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;
and from anyone who takes away your coat
do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
and if anyone takes away your goods,
do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?
For even sinners love those who love them.
If you do good to those who do good to you,
what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend,
expecting nothing in return.
Your reward will be great,
and you will be children of the Most High;
for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“immersed in what’s real,” august 28, 2016

drowning

Responsive Call to Worship
We are all immersed
in what we take for granted
and so don’t see.
Entering the water,
following in the way of Jesus,
we are immersed
in what’s most real—
immersed in truth.
And so, we are those, dripping,
who strive to see what we take for granted—
in the greater context of grace and love
so abundant it steals our breath away,
and we die to illusions of small and separate—
the fatal misperception of a part as apart.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

1 Corinthians 12:1-31
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters,
I do not want you to be uninformed.
You know that when you were pagans,
you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.
Therefore I want you to understand that no one
speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’
and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;
and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;
and there are varieties of activities,
but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom,
and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,
to another faith by the same Spirit,
to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,
to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy,
to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues,
to another the interpretation of tongues.
All these are activated by one and the same Spirit,
who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
For just as the body is one and has many members,
and all the members of the body, though many, are one body,
so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized
into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—
and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.
If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand,
I do not belong to the body’,
that would not make it any less a part of the body.
And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye,
I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it
any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye,
where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing,
where would the sense of smell be? But as it is,
God arranged the members in the body, each one of them,
as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?
As it is, there are many members, yet one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’,
nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’
On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker
are indispensable, and those members of the body
that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor,
and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect;
whereas our more respectable members do not need this.
But God has so arranged the body,
giving the greater honor to the inferior member,
that there may be no dissension within the body,
but the members may have the same care for one another.
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it;
if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
And God has appointed in the church first apostles,
second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power,
then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership,
various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets?
Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing?
Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
David Foster Wallace, from his 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address

There are these two young fish swimming along
and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way,
who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit,
and then eventually one of them looks over at the other
and goes “What the [heck] is water?”
Of course … the really significant education in thinking
that we’re supposed to get … isn’t really about the capacity to think,
but rather about the choice of what to think about….

The point here is that I think this is one part
of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean.
To be just a little less arrogant.
To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties….
Here is just one example of the total wrongness
of something I tend to be automatically sure of:
everything in my own immediate experience
supports my deep belief
that I am the absolute center of the universe;
the realist, most vivid and important person in existence.
We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness
because it’s so socially repulsive.
But it’s pretty much the same for all of us.
It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.
Think about it: there is no experience you have had
that you are not the absolute center of….

It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work
of somehow altering or getting free of
my natural, hard-wired default setting
which is to be deeply and literally self-centered
and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.
People who can adjust their natural default setting this way
are often described as being “well-adjusted”,
which I suggest to you is not an accidental term….

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Right now, many of us are immersed in school beginning?
transitions?
new schools?
new grading procedures?
new weather related closing policies?
new teachers and classes and relationships?
signing up for this and that?
paying for this and that?
planning—
lesson plans?
syllabi?
submission deadlines?
proposals?

We are immersed in newness—
even if for many of us it’s within a familiar framework.

Right now, we’re immersed in, can’t help it, politics—
the build-up to the elections—
all the implications of campaign rhetoric and tactics
and divisive partisanship
(and there is something, by the way, true and right about that.
Ours is no privatized spiritual salvation.
Ours is a being redeemed within the redemption of all creation.
It doesn’t get any more political than that).

And we’re always, doesn’t it seem?,
immersed in schedule—
in routine—
our responsibilities—
our commitments—
our pleasures—
fulfilling obligations.

And in all the details—
logistics—
passwords—
bills—
to-dos—
forms to fill out—
to get filled out—
chores.

We’re drowning in stuff—
drowning in debt—
drowning in desire for more stuff—
other stuff—better stuff—newer stuff.

Drowning in media—
in commercials and advertisements—
objectionable objectifications and justifications—
social media—
in the never-ending cycle of posting and wanting to be liked.

Immersed in negativity.

We’re immersed in what’s immediate—
the cough—
the pain in the hip—
the surgery—
the diagnosis—
the waiting—
the treatment.

Immersed in meal planning—
grocery shopping—
food preparation—
bill paying—
as David Foster Wallace called it
the day to day trenches of adult existence”.

Immersed in fears.
Immersed in hopes.
Immersed in memories—
in possibilities and in anticipation—
in what just happened—
in what’s going on right now—
in what’s next.

Immersed in stress—
that for too many turns into anxiety.

From a wider angle—
seeing more than just the self,
we’re immersed in relationships
with colleagues and peers—
working together—
with friends—
working to stay in touch—
to remain relevant.

We’re immersed in family—
trying to do it well—
to be honest—
to love well and laugh hard—
and forgive always—
to surprise—
to enjoy—
to engage—
to include—
to bless—
to love—
trying to do it right—
trying to do it better.

We have to be so intentional, don’t we?
Have to take initiative—keep taking initiative—
working to keep things real.

We are immersed in child care—elder care—
the books and toys and language of children—
the challenges of getting old
(which y’all regularly remind me isn’t for sissies!)—
the amazing gifts and the profound challenges
the elderly can represent for families.
We’re immersed in figuring out solo parenting—
solo adulting—
not having planned on that.

We’re immersed in crises—
one crisis after another.
In Louisiana they’ve been immersed in water—
in Aleppo in dust and blood—
in Italy and Myanmar, in tremors and aftershocks—
rioting in Zimbabwe—
violence in Turkey and Syria—
refugees.
There are so many shootings in our own country we don’t keep track of them—
so many hungry we can’t imagine.
We’re immersed in a systemic racism that still catches us by surprise.
We’re immersed in unjust economic and legal structures.
We’re really a great country with a whole lot that’s pathetic about us,
and to ignore either part of that is to cheapen what’s most real.

We’re immersed in a numbing response to crisis—
overwhelmed by so much need
we can’t pay attention to it all.

We’re immersed, I think, in good intentions—
the best of intentions.

We are, hopefully, immersed in communities—
neighborhoods—
sports—
school—
work—
here.

Depending on what you’re plugged into here,
we’re immersed in worship planning—
immersed in scheduling—
in service ministry—
building and grounds—maintenance—
heating and air—
the baptistry foundation—
the website—
conversation about the role and the future of the Church in our culture—
reflection—
prayer—
worship.

We’re immersed in so much,
it often feels like we’re drowning.
And immersed in what’s real—
drowning in what’s real—
honestly, right?
To be immersed in what’s real
is to not deny
any of the truths that flood our time.

And a lot of that in which we’re immersed is good, right?
But good can take up too much time and energy too!

I remember on several occasions now through the years
hearing Cheryl Duvall advocate for balance in life—
naming the different and important aspects of life
that all need to be acknowledged—
for which we need to find time.

But beyond any such balance
(which is not juggling
too many people these days mistake juggling for balance!),

one of the challenges these days—
maybe it’s always been a challenge,
is how many try and achieve balance
not by assessing where all the time goes,
“Oh, look how much time is going there into that,”
and then by dialing back there and that,
but by amping up everywhere else.

So, if I may ask
what, in your life—
in your drenched, saturated, overwhelmed life
is creative?
life giving?
people enhancing?
spirit refreshing?
joy bringing?
restful?
good?

That’s part of the balancing, yes?
Paul wrote long ago to the faith community at Philippi,
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing,
whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”
(Philippians 4:8).
Here’s my question for you this morning:
is that about balance?
Could be—think on these good things as a balance
to everything else coming your way.

But maybe Paul was about more than balance.
He goes on,
“Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received
and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you”
(Philippians 4:9).

What if Paul’s really saying something like
“Live into this story
to know the truth—
the truth that is not about balance,
but about foundation”?

Because foundation is not every moment.
What’s foundational is not all your moments—all your experience,
foundation is rather comprised of the moments you choose to value—
the affirmations you choose to make.
We build our lives
on the foundation to which we give our lives.

It’s not that the rest isn’t real—
not that it’s not important—
that it won’t take of your time and energy,
but it’s not as real—
not as true.

Immersed in moments,
and amidst the many moments are the transcendent moments—
that make time stop—
that make the planets stop spinning—
that take our breath away—
little things—
a smile with two teeth gone—the first two lost teeth, right Vera?
Katie Evans celebrated this week
a thank you from someone she helped at work.
It’s when you discover just how much the prayers of others mean

Jay Hogewood is the pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, LA.
They’ve been offering shelter and food to those displaced by the flooding.
Jay writes of a boy named Wendell, no more than 17 years old,
who walked miles in the Baton Rouge heat
down a street with no sidewalk from a questionable part of town
to hand off some pants and shirts,
and to respond to the how-could-it-be-anything-but-suspicious look
with a “They’re clean.”
He had a teddy bear (“I want one of the children to have this.”)
and two one dollar bills he gave to Jay
because as he said, 
“I think you’re showing the love of Jesus”.
We did, by the way, collect almost $700 last Sunday
to go to St John’s United Methodist Church to reimburse them for their expenses—
to allow them to keep showing the love of Jesus,
and you can still contribute toward that, if you wish.

It’s the dog lying down on one foot
as you lean back in your chair and put the other foot on top of her.
It’s two girls amidst the bickering and shrieking
and the difficult trying to figure out
how much too much time on the cell phone is
(we are, by the way, trying to implement a screen sabbath—
for the whole family, no screens on Sundays.
Because if you have to keep checking it,
it’s not the tool, right? You are!
Parenting from the pulpit).
but amidst the stress and frustration of parenting,
to have two girls standing in the front door
making that heart sign with their hands
as you leave for the grocery store.
It’s a baptism—
a commitment.
It is worship and story and song and prayer.
And “it is unimaginably hard to do this,
to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out”.

I usually show up here on Sunday mornings
with my computer and portfolio.
Today I walked in with my swim trunks in my gym bag.
It felt appropriate.
Going to work out.
It is unimaginably hard,
but it really is just about choosing, time and time again,
what moments are going to matter and why—
choosing amidst all that’s real, what story is true—
what truths are foundational.
As we say so often, it’s so simple.
Not easy.
But simple.

Consistency is the challenge.
We are immersed in so much that’s real,
will we consistently choose what’s true?

Hear this.
Remember it.
We are immersed in love
(remind yourselves of this often—
even if you don’t think you need to—
maybe especially if you think you don’t need to!)
We are immersed in blessing.
We are immersed in grace.
We are immersed in joy—
in gratitude—
in wonder.
We are immersed in God.

And that’s not about balance.
That’s about the truth we may take for granted—
the foundation on which we seek to create balance.

And church—faith—
is about helping us balance, yes—
modeling better balance for ourselves and our culture—
absolutely,
but also about affirming what’s more important than balance—
what’s foundation.

And we get to drown in that—
to be raised to newness of life—
life that is abundant—
life that is everlasting.
Thanks be to God.

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
David Foster Wallace, from his 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education,
of learning how to be well-adjusted.
You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.
You get to decide what to worship.
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true:
in the day-to day trenches of adult life,
there is actually no such thing as atheism.
There is no such thing as not worshipping.
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship….
If you worship money and things,
if they are where you tap real meaning in life,
then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.
It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure
and you will always feel ugly….
The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid,
and you will need ever more power over others
to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect,
being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud,
always on the verge of being found out.
But the insidious thing about these forms of worship
is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious.
They are default settings.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into,
day after day, getting more and more selective
about what you see and how you measure value
without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you
from operating on your default settings,
because the so-called real world of men and money and power
hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration
and craving and worship of self.
Our own present culture has harnessed these forces
in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth
and comfort and personal freedom….

… You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish.
But please don’t just dismiss it ….
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
It is about the real value of a real education,
which has almost nothing to do with knowledge,
and everything to do with simple awareness;
awareness of what is so real and essential,
so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time,
that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.” “This is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this,
to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.
Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true:
your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
I wish you way more than luck.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers,
and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body
so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;
as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
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.

the unfolding stories of the 194th olympiad: “Jesus over the city,” august 21, 2016

christ redeemer

Responsive Call to Worship
There is something profoundly appealing
about a powerful Jesus
impressively towering over the world—
irrefutable—
irrejectable—
but also, of course,
utterly irrelevant.
When God came
it was as a baby
who grew up in the middle of nowhere
to tell stories and love people—
not to impress them—
not to overpower them.
One assumes that way of coming
was deliberate—
intentional.
To put Jesus in control
is to do what God did not—
what God chose not to do.
We should thus beware, no?—
be aware of what it means
to raise up
the one who came down to us,
for it very well might mean
we crucify Jesus again.

Meditations
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
— part of St Patrick’s Breastplate

Christ over culture
is one of five perspectives
outlined by H. Richard Niebuhr
reflecting on the relationship of God and culture.
The others are: Christ against culture, Christ of culture,
Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture.

Most Christians salute the sovereignty of God
but believe in the sovereignty of [humankind].
— R.C.Sproul

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Colossians 1:9-20
For this reason, since the day we heard it,
we have not ceased praying for you and asking
that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will
in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,
so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord,
fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work
and as you grow in the knowledge of God.
May you be made strong with all the strength
that comes from his glorious power,
and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience,
while joyfully giving thanks to the Father,
who has enabled you to share
in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
He has rescued us from the power of darkness
and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,
in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—
all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Witness of the Living Word, i.
Congregational Interview:
Take a moment to reflect on this question
and to offer your answer if you have one:
What has been your most impressive experience of Jesus?

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
You’ve seen it a lot—
nightly if you’ve tuned in
over the last few weeks.
Dominating the Rio de Janeiro skyline,
overlooking the city from the peak of 2300 foot Corcovado Mountain,
is the Christ the Redeemer statue,
rising 98 feet
on a 26 foot pedestal,
weighing 635 tons,
with an arm span of 92 feet.

Originally conceived in the 1850s,
but nothing came of that idea
which was then suggested again in 1920
by the so-called Catholic Circle of Rio—
motivated by what they saw as the godlessness of society.
Donations came from predominantly Brazilian Catholics.

Local engineer, Heitor da Silva Costa was commissioned
to design a statue in conjunction
with French sculptor Paul Landowski.
The face of Jesus was created
by Romanian sculptor Gheorghe Leonida,
known in France as a portraitist.
French engineer Albert Caquot was responsible
for the internal structure
of reinforced concrete.
Paul Landowski worked with soapstone on the outside layers
and the whole thing was built
in the nine years between 1922 and 1931.

It was actually still being designed
while it was being built.
Heitor da Silva Costa is supposed to have said
that the workers were headed toward “inevitable artistic failure”.
But with no way to go back,
they kept moving on,
and today we have this
famous iconic image—
impressive—
rising above—
putting society and culture into perspective—
an appropriate perspective.

It’s our story—
our faith affirmation—
elevated above—
powerfully present—
impossible to miss.

And let me be clear.
I love the image of Christ the Redeemer over the city.
I love all those images we looked at—
images of Jesus rising high above the trees
and other surroundings—
rising from the depths.

I’m also deeply suspicious of the implications of such images—
of some associations with such images.
For what so many seem to want
is to make laws that raise up our faith—
or a particular understanding of our faith, right?—
make laws that protect God—whatever that means—
laws that require of others—
and then enforce—
that impose on others.

And it’s not that it’s not in Scripture, right?—
the glorification of Jesus.
Take the Philippian hymn:

though in the form of God,
Jesus did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
humbled himself
became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
(Philippians 2:6-11).

And such obviously impressive power
is shot through all our texts today.

Jesus’ is the glorious power
that rescues us from the power of darkness.
He’s the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—
all things have been created through him and for him.
Before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
The one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell—
reflection of God’s glory—
the exact imprint of God’s very being,
to sit at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

And how do you represent that
other than big? Impressive? Overpowering?

And so yes, we have this iconic image
of a huge, impressive, overpowering Jesus
looking down on the city.

Yet is not this iconic image ironic?
Or, in truth, not ironic—
more sarcastic?

And sarcastic on several levels

First, God is not interested in statues—
or in statutes,
carved in stone,
but rather on hearts.
That’s in the Old Testament—in Jeremiah 31:33.
It’s in the New Testament—2 Corinthians 3:3.
We’re not to invest in something externally impressive,
but something internally transformative.

Second, what happens when you look up?
You don’t look down.
And that is antithetical to our God.

A little digression here—a relevant digression (I hope!).
Y’all know Paul is the earliest writer of our New Testament texts
writing just some 20-25 years after the death of Jesus.
Mark’s almost 40 years after that death.
Matthew and Luke 50.
John 60 plus.

Here’s what’s interesting.
For Paul, arguably, Jesus is named Son of God at the resurrection
when God adopts Jesus—declared to be Son of God
with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection
from the dead (Romans 1:4).

Mark, writing a little later, identifies the beginning
of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God
as those days when Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee
and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
And just as he was coming up out of the water,
he saw the heavens torn apart
and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”
(Mark 1:1, 9-11).
So not the resurrection, the baptism.

Matthew and Luke, writing still later,
identify Jesus as Son of God at birth—
or, really, at conception—at the annunciation—
God with us.

Matthew’s angel tells Joseph, son of David,
“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,
for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus,
for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken
by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel”,
which means, “God is with us”
(Matthew 1:20-23).

Luke’s angel has similar words for Mary,
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” …
And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you will name him Jesus. He will be great,
and will be called the Son of the Most High ….
The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you;
therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God”
(Luke 1:28-23).

Finally, John, writing latest,
claims Jesus is indistinguishable from God from the very beginning:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being
(John 1:1-3).

The more removed we get from the man,
the more removed we get from the man!
The more removed from Jesus in time,
the more removed from Jesus’ humanity.

Some say it’s the early Church—
needing to validate their faith claims.

And I get it.
How do you affirm God,
but by looking up?

But we tend to think of God
as top of the food chain—
you know if God were into that chain.
The alpha being,
but also, of course, the omega.
And that’s the thing:
we put God, by definition, at the top
of a scale God doesn’t value.

We evaluate;
God just relates—
and loves—
and is present to and with regardless of our evaluations.

And the theology
is that God is great
because God is not.

If God were simply God by definition—
you know, supreme being—
creator—
ruler—
source of all being—all authority—
superhuman—
worshipped as having power over,
well, God wouldn’t be God.
Not the God we know and proclaim.

Makes my head spin a little bit,
but I like it!
You know, like some people like the rides at the fair
that you get off with your head spinning, stomach tossing;
others don’t.
All good.

God is not God by definition,
but by relation.

To be like God
the glory of God—the power and authority of God—
to sit at the right hand of God
is to be with people—to be with creation.

Part of the trick
is imagining the total inversion of reality it would take
for someone to be exalted
for being like Jesus!

But the core truth of our faith
is not I look to the hills (Psalm 121)—
to that impressive statue on the hill,
but I look to my neighbors.
Our faith is not something that makes you look up,
but precisely down and out.

Third, and cumulatively,
the statue is a kind of de-incarnation.
God became human,
and the kind of human God became
is not one that would tower over others—
look down on them.

Through all that glorious power of Jesus,
God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
yet not from above—
not imposed upon
but from being with—presence—relationship
not looking down, but getting down
(how’s that for repurposing disco lingo?!)!

There’s no way to take away
the undeniable power of the image.
But the story that goes with the image
is undermined when you look more closely at the city below:
the favelas—the slums—
the hunger—the injustice.
And I’m not picking on Rio.
Put Jesus impressively over any city—
put the ten commandments on the lawn of any city hall,
and however impressive they are,
the city will undermine the story.

Another poem by my new favorite Polish poet Anna Kamieńska
this one’s called “Small Things”

It usually starts taking shape
from one word
reveals itself in one smile
sometimes in the blue glint of eyeglasses
in a trampled daisy
in a splash of light on a path
in quivering carrot leaves
in a bunch of parsley
It comes from laundry hung on a balcony
from hands thrust into dough
It seeps through closed eyelids
as through the prison wall of things of objects
of faces of landscapes
It’s when you slice bread
when you pour out some tea
It comes from a broom from a shopping bag
from peeling new potatoes
from a drop of blood from the prick of a needle
when making panties for a child
or sewing a button on a husband’s burial shirt
It comes out of toil out of care
out of immense fatigue in the evening
out of a tear wiped away
out of a prayer broken off in mid-word by sleep

It’s not from the grand
but from every tiny thing
that it grows enormous
as is Someone was building Eternity
as a swallow its nest
out of clumps of moments
(Anna Kamienska, Astonishments
[Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011] 45)

That’s it!
Eternity is clumps of moments
woven together into a nest.

But particular kinds of moments.
Remember when I asked you to consider your most impressive
experiences of Jesus?
They were almost all service and worship oriented.
Greg reminded us all in the time with the children,
that there’s something about honest vulnerability—
about what I call failing forward.
As we draw to the end of the Olympics, I’ve enjoyed them—
enjoyed the amazing displays of athleticism.
But the stories I treasure most are not about that.

But rather about Maya DiRado, one of our swimmers
who won a gold, a silver and a bronze over these weeks
and said, “I don’t think God really cares about my swimming very much.
This is not my end purpose, to make the Olympic team.
My God is powerful and in control,
but I don’t think [God] cares whether I win.
It’s interesting theology you can get into when it’s a God of victory in your sport.”
My God, not only is she a theologian, she’s a good one!

She went on to say, “I think God cares about my soul”—

and I think it’s rather telling that that’s what Franklin Graham tweeted
“God loves you—He cares about your eternal soul.
That’s even bigger news than the Olympics.
Share it with others today.”

And too much of the church these days gets it wrong
in that emphasis on the eternal soul
while it was just the introduction to what Maya went on to say:
“God cares about my soul
and whether I’m bringing … love and mercy into the world.
Can I be a loving, supportive teammate,
and can I bless others around me
in the same way God has been so generous with me?”
(http://www.faithit.com/may-dirado-god-doesnt-care-gold-medal-swimming/)

In one of the heats for the women’s 5000 meter race,
New Zealander Nikki Hamblin fell
bringing down US runner Abbey D’Agostino,
who got up and instead of angrily racing on,
lifted Hamblin up, encouraged her to finish the heat.
And then, when it turned out D’agostina
had herself torn her ACL and meniscus,
Hamblin didn’t run on ahead,
but stayed with her, encouraged her in turn.
“You can make friends,” Hamblin said,
“in the moments that really should break your heart”
(http://sports.yahoo.com/news/nikki-hamblins-5-000-meter-000000095.html).

Any of y’all hear about the Norwegian men’s handball team?
Well, I’m not surprised.
They didn’t even qualify for the Olympics.
Why not?
Because in qualifying play against Germany,
with the game was tied, in the last moments,
Germany scored.
But wait! They had an extra person on the field.
Norway could protest and have the goal disallowed—
continue playing.
But the Norwegian conversation was rather
about how that extra person on the field had nothing to do with the goal.
They didn’t protest.
The goal counted.
Germany went on to the Olympics; Norway did not
(https://www.olympic.org/news/fair-play-awards-recognise-true-olympic-champions-in-sportsmanship).

There is a world—a creation
still being designed while being built—
followers of God moving toward
what so often seems like inevitable theological and ethical failure,

but in clusters of transcendent moments—
often ones you might think would break your heart—
usually not in victory—
y’all understand how absolutely counter-cultural this is?—
yet somehow ringing so profoundly true even amidst the Olympics!—

and if we keep moving on—
maybe what we end up with
is not some impressive statue—
not even a transformed reality,
but a being transformed reality.

We can be a part of a being transformed reality
by choosing the God story
into transcendent moments of which Eternity weaves its home.

Wow!

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Hebrews 1:1-4
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors
in many and various ways by the prophets,
but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,
whom he appointed heir of all things,
through whom he also created the worlds.
He is the reflection of God’s glory
and the exact imprint of God’s very being,
and he sustains all things by his powerful word.
When he had made purification for sins,
he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
having become as much superior to angels
as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

the unfolding stories of the 194th olympiad: “the losers who win,” august 14, 2016

derekredmund

Responsive Call to Worship
It’s part of our faith heritage—
tradition—stories—teaching.
It is God’s assurance—
God’s promise.
There is some divine investment
in a cosmic balance,
and it’s predisposed towards
those who have gotten the short end of some stick.
They will receive, our faith and our God claim,
the long end of said stick—
which is not the corresponding expression,
but makes the point, right? … which is the point!—
that it’s not whatever end of the stick we have
that determines—that predetermines our life.
Life is more far mysterious than that—
far more terrible and wonderful than that,
and so much of what we take for granted
as real and fixed and absolute
is merely what appears to be.

Meditations
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God …
the God whose very name is holy,
set apart from all others.
God’s mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who in awe before God.
God bared a mighty arm and showed strength,
scattering the bluffing braggarts.
God knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet,
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
Luke 1:46-47, 49b-53

Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things
and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here.
Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented.
Luke 16:25

You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all.
God’s kingdom is there for the finding.
You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry.
Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal.
You’re blessed when the tears flow freely.
Joy comes with the morning….
But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.
What you have is all you’re ever get.
And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.
Your self will not satisfy you for long.
And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games.
There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.
Luke 6:20-21, 24-25

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,
he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock,
he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them,
‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’
So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock,
he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’
They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’
He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager,
‘Call the laborers and give them their pay,
beginning with the last and then going to the first.’
When those hired about five o’clock came,
each of them received the usual daily wage.
Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more;
but each of them also received the usual daily wage.
And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,
saying, ‘These last worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal
to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong;
did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what belongs to you and go;
I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.
Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?
Or are you envious because I am generous?’
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
Derek Redmond, Barcelona, 1992

Pastoral Prayer
Another week, our God, more shootings.
More killing.
An imam and his assistant both shot in the head in Queens.
A man shot and killed in a police chase in Milwaukee.
Violence in Milwaukee in response.
A police officer shot and killed in Georgia.
Another officer stabbed in New York City.
An Ohio man arrested for killing a police officer in New Mexico.
Our own police department investigated
indicted for profiling—for excessive violence.

Yes, It’s a scary world in which we live,
but there are attitudes and choices—
ways of talking and acting—ways of being,
that make it scarier—
that amplify the fear and the hate—
amplify the anger and the violence.

May we be those who amplify
justice and peace,
grace and love,
amidst what’s scary—
creating a better world—
actively intentionally resisting what’s worst about us.

May we be sustained in this
in and through our worship and prayer and community,

always in the name of Jesus,
amen.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
It’s one of the tenets of our faith
wouldn’t you say?
The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

We toss it out relatively easily—relatively often.
I do—
and usually without thinking too much about it.
Just kind of generally—abstractly
thinking of reversal—inversion—
that verse I love from Acts
about being a part of turning the world upside down.

Point being, of course, were that to all happen—
reversal—inversion—oopsy daisy,
there are few, if any of us, without a lot to lose.

There are few categories in the world
in which all of us would not now already number among the first.
We have the long end of the stick and are due,
according to some of our scriptural affirmations, the short end.

So there are, it seems to me, as usual,
different levels of understanding—
or of applying Scripture.
(And the shift from understanding to applying is important—
part of a bigger shift
from our faith as something we believe
to something we live.)

And there is one level at which
Scripture has to do with some sense
of a divine tally being kept—
some cosmic balance
that will be imposed upon reality.

I don’t understand that.
I don’t see it.
I am not comfortable assuring anyone of this.
But it’s pervasive in our sacred texts.
It’s the apparent meaning of our gospel reading—
of other parables—think Lazarus.
“Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things
and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here”
(Luke 16:25).
It’s the Magnificat.
God knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet,
the callous rich were left out in the cold
(Luke 1:53-53).
It’s the beatitudes—especially in Luke
with the blessings and the corresponding woes
(Luke 6:20-26).

All of which is hard for me to hear as anything other than
if things are hard now, wait.
There will come a great reversal.

And I always have to wonder,
how is that not pie in the sky by and by?
How is that not false hope?—
an opiate distributed by those
who benefit from the way things are now—
those who don’t want the applecart upset—
things inversed—reversed—
the world turned upside down?

That’s when it’s so very important to remember—
as usual, that most of those to whom Jesus spoke—
many of those to whom the original writers wrote,
would have been those already with the short end.

So the question remains:
how to hear this—
how to imagine people with the short end of the stick
hearing this,
and not as wait—
not as good news one day,
but as good news now?

Because we’re not talking about philosophical balance,
but about sustaining hope in people struggling to hope—
about working for justice in a world that is not just
(our world is not just)—
about maintaining some sense of worth
in people whose worth is not celebrated in and by the world.

So there’s another level
at which inversal or reversal is not a promise for the future,
but a strategy in the present.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book David and Goliath
names the first part of the book
“The Advantages of Disadvantages
(and the Disadvantages of Advantages)”—
Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath
[New York: Little, Brown & Co, 2013] vii).
It’s a fascinating read.
Basically he suggests
there are opportunities in disadvantage—
a potentially helpful different perspective
that someone only has by virtue of the very disadvantage—
a perspective that is suddenly insightful—
creative.

It’s not an example he references,
but I invite you to imagine
how much I have lamented through the years
my nearsightedness.
Snowskiing I have one more thing than anyone else to fog up.
Waterskiing I’m always a little apprehensive—especially in back coves
that there’s something in the water I’m not going to see.
Snorkeling, the water actually increases magnification,
but there’s too much out of focus.

Then it occurred to me one day,
what if the first impressionistic painters were nearsighted?
Now I have no idea.
I googled, but sometimes that’s just more confusing!
But I do now occasionally take my glasses off and look at—
mainly trees
with the light coming through the leaves and branches
distinction dissolved into colors,
and they are beautiful.

I’m not sure that’s what we’re talking about though in our Scripture texts.
An opportunistic approach to circumstance?
And I’m even more uncomfortable to think in terms of strategy
(a we are intentionally last so as to be first kind of thing).

And we saw the footage from the 1992 Olympics
of Derek Redmond, a runner from Great Britain,
favored to medal, tearing his hamstring.
We saw him get up.
We saw his desire to just finish the race.
We saw his dad coming down out of the stands to help him.
Derek himself said, when he heard that familiar voice,
the emotions he had been holding in check, overwhelmed him.
We saw that.
His dad said, “You don’t have to do this.”
And he said, “Yes, I do.”
Said his father, “Then we’ll finish together.”
And they kept moving toward the finish line,
waving away the officials who came up to them.
What we didn’t see or hear was the crowd’s response.
It was powerful.

But did that invert/reverse what happened?
Turn it on its head?
Did it make up for not winning gold?
I saw an interview with Derek.
“To be honest, no,” he said.
And as beautiful as trees are,
I would still love not to need corrective lenses.

In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin,
four pole vaulters cleared 13 feet 11¼ inches,
but only one cleared 14 feet 3¼ inches,
and Earle Meadows took the gold.
Bill Sefton, of the US, and Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe of Japan
went to a jump-off.
The two Japanese both cleared 13 feet 7¼ inches, but Sefton did not.
Now there are a couple of different stories as to what happened next.
According to one, Nishida and Oe kept jumping until it got dark at 9 p.m.
But in the end, whether after a day of jumping or not,
the Olympic Committee told the Japanese team
to decide who would take silver and who would take bronze,
and Nishida was awarded the silver medal, Oe the bronze.
Some say it was a coin toss.
Some say it was because Nishida cleared a jump on his first attempt
that took Oe two attempts.
No one was happy. Least of all Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe.
So back in Japan, they took their medals to a jeweler—
one silver medal, one bronze—
and asked the jeweler to cut them in half
and then join bronze to silver and silver to bronze
creating new, heretofore unknown, unseen, unconceived Olympic medals.

And that was more than a different way of seeing things.
It was not opportunistic
It was not strategic
That was a rejection of the categories and labels of our world—
the assessments—
the criteria for winning and losing—
the designations of relative significance.
“The medals became known as the Medals of Eternal Friendship”
(http://worksheetsplus.com/Reading/4thReadingMedals.html).
(http://www.sports-reference.com/olympics/summer/1936/ATH/mens-pole-vault.html)

On the cover of the bulletin today,
are pictures of people who didn’t win their events.
Fencing. Gymnastics. Track and field. Tennis.
Some just lost.
Some may have been defeated by their loss.
Some transcended their circumstances.
Some may have transcended the very categories of win and loss
in the discovery—the affirmation—the celebration
of something more important.

The surface level of our scripture texts
inverts circumstance.

But for a while now, I’ve wondered how it makes sense
to simply invert circumstance
without changing their value—
the way they’re understood in the world.
Don’t you otherwise just perpetuate their failing—
their blindness or short-sightedness?

If someone is rich now and someone is poor,
to invert their circumstances
is to maintain the inappropriate significance of money, right?

So the question
the more important question, I believe, is—
is not how do I get the other end of this stick,
but how do we stop using this stick to measure our worth—
our esteem—our success?
How do we stop using this stick to beat some down
and raise others up?
The more important question, I believe, is,
what is transformative here in someone’s life?
What creates new possibilities in and for that life?
How and where is something more important named here and now?

A poem by the polish poet Anna Kamienska entitled “Transformation”:

“To be transformed
to turn yourself inside out like a glove
to spin like a planet
to thread yourself through yourself
so that each day penetrates each night
so that each word runs to the others side of truth
so that each verse comes out of itself
and gives off its own light
so that each face leaning on a hand
sweats into the skin of the palm

So that this pen
changes into pure silence
I wanted to say into love

To fall off a horse
to smear your face with dust
to be blinded
to lift yourself
and allow yourself to be led
like blind Saul
to Damascus”
(Anna Kamienska, Astonishments
[Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011] 79)

“Well, that’s lovely,” some of you may well be thinking,
“but John, we never know quite what to make of it
when you say—and let me see if we’ve got this right—
when you say, here’s what Scripture says,
but that’s not what it says—
or that’s not what it means.”

And well should you always wonder!
But here’s the thing … or part of the thing!

Because it’s not that Scripture just inverts circumstance—
takes what society deems desirable
and makes sure everyone gets their fair share at some point.
It’s that Scripture calls our criteria for evaluation into question.
In one of Isaiah’s descriptions of the suffering servant—
Isaiah takes what society values and, well—
describes the faithful follower of God
who had no form or majesty that we should admire,
nothing in appearance that we should desire.
despised and rejected by others;
an individual of suffering—acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces,
despised and held of no account
(Isaiah 53:2b-3).
And here it’s not that the short end of the stick
is inverted into the long end.
It’s that the long and short ends of the stick don’t matter.
The stick doesn’t matter
It’s just the person beloved by God—
seeking God’s will.

Time and time again through Scripture,
we have words and ideas falling over themselves
to say what can scarce be believed—
to contain truth vaster than can be worded—
not so much failing as always falling short—

falling inevitably into our categories of evaluation—
our ways of thinking,

and yet, nonetheless,
somehow,
falling toward truth.
And this is for me the inspiration of our sacred texts—
always containing hints, intimations, clues, suggestions
of the more that lies behind and underneath and beyond.

Not in any absolute correctness,
but in the consistency of indicators beyond itself.

Biblical rules? Biblical precepts?
None of them—none of them are perfect absolutes—
all pointers—indicators—signs
of life lived together in healthier ways—
of creation more whole and more holy.

So, a couple of questions for us to all consider.
First, do we really want for things to be inverted
reversed?
Do we really want the world turned upside down?
And I would invite an honest reflection here …
because for most of us
the lines have fallen in pleasant places
(Psalm 16:6).

And so that question, I think, has to be heard as:
do we care enough about those without our advantages—
those with that short end of the stick?
Do we care enough about them to risk
our own benefits?
Do we care enough about God’s creation
to look beyond our own measures
of success, convenience and security?

And second, if so, if that is what we want,
then how do we invert, reverse,
and turn the world’s categories upside down?
How are we undone
and remade?
How do we fall into the dust
to be lifted up blind
and led to the light—to new sight?
Transformed?

We are in training.
That’s what it means to follow God.
We are in training.
And the events in which we can earn medals
(although in these games to win any individual medal
is to prepare the way for more team medals)—
the events in which we can earn medals,
are love and kindness—
peace and justice—
forgiveness grace and mercy—
surprise—
wonder—
joy.

Some of y’all—many of y’all are gold medalists.
You know.

and so you know it’s so not about winning some gold crown,
but about realizing
that winning in a way that allows others to win too
creates not just a new way of being
but a new reality—
in which differences are celebrated—
the other is included and welcomed—
in which competition is not about winners and losers
but about ever growing into more.

So, again, I ask you,
have you had someone in your home
at your table for dinner with you
who’s different?
Someone from another country?
Someone who speaks another language?
Someone who’s gay or transgendered?
Someone from another socio-economic bracket?
Someone of a different ethnic background?
Someone of a different faith?
Someone you don’t understand?
Someone who’s been left out?—
seated at your table—with you—in your home—
dignified—
respected—
someone inviting you into bigger and more?

That is God’s dream coming true,
which is our dream coming true too,
though it may be one we don’t even know we dream.

Our categories left behind
in celebration of what is more important:
all people—every single person—
beloved of God
and by the people of God.

Imagine.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
1 Timothy 6:17-19
As for those who in the present age are rich,
command them not to be haughty,
or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches,
but rather on God who richly provides us
with everything for our enjoyment.
They are to do good, to be rich in good works,
generous, and ready to share,
thus storing up for themselves
the treasure of a good foundation for the future,
so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Philippians 3:12-16
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal;
but I press on to make it my own,
because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own;
but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind
and straining forward to what lies ahead,
I press on towards the goal for the prize
of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;
and if you think differently about anything,
this too God will reveal to you.
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.

the unfolding stories of the 194th Olympiad: “opening ceremonies: we’ve a story to tell to the nations,” august 7, 2016

opening ceremonies

Responsive Call to Worship
We have made,
even of storytelling,
a competition.
We want everyone to hear our story
instead of tell theirs.
We want to be the ones heard
instead of the ones listening.
What insecurity is this—
in which one story wins
and the other stories lose?
Storytelling at its best
models a sharing—
taking turns—
a time to speak and a time to listen.
Oh, and it’s not that stories can’t (and shouldn’t)
be evaluated
as better or worse—
more or less true,
but the point shouldn’t be
to winnow stories down
to one truest and best,
but rather to encourage the telling
of more and more stories
that are truer and better.

Meditations
We tell ourselves stories
in order to live.
—Joan Didion

The purpose of a storyteller
is not to tell you how to think
[or what to think!],
but to give you questions
to think upon.
—Brandon Sanderson

After nourishment, shelter, and companionship,
stories are the thing we need most in the world.
—Philip Pullman

I will tell you something about stories . . .
They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off illness and death.
—Leslie Marmon Silko

People take on the shapes of the songs and the stories
that surround them,
especially if they don’t have their own song.
—Neil Gaiman

The world is shaped by two things—
stories told and the memories they leave behind.
—Vera Nazarian

Power consists to a large extent
in deciding what stories will be told.
—Carolyn G. Heilbrun

The one who tells the best story
shapes the culture.
—David Walsh

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Hear this, O elders,
give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
or in the days of your ancestors?
Tell your children of it,
and let your children tell their children,
and their children another generation.
Joel 1:2-3

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.
Recite them to your children and talk about them
when you are at home and when you are away,
when you lie down and when you rise.
Bind them as a sign on your hand,
fix them as an emblem on your forehead,
and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
The Olympiad has not begun;
the Olympiad is over.
The 2016 Summer Olympics, on the other hand, are upon us!
Do you know that distinction?

The word Olympiad actually represents the four years between Olympic Games.
So the first Olympiad dates back to the four years
from the summer of the first Olympics in 776 BCE
to the summer of the second Olympics in 772 BCE.

Friday, reckoning from the beginning—from 776 BCE,
we ended the 698th Olympiad,
though you probably won’t hear these Olympics identified that way—
as the 699th Olympic Games.
Because by modern reckoning, which begins its count
with the Summer Olympics of 1896 in Athens,
these are the 31st Olympic Games,
leading to the 31st Olympiad.

So the Olympiad is over.
We are in the midst of 17 days of competition
in 306 events in 28 sports.

How many of you this past Friday, tuned in
to the spectacle of the opening ceremonies?
I actually didn’t.
I’d been planning too.
For a year.
Ever since planning this worship series last preachers’ camp.
But we were on the road back from this year’s preachers’ camp,
and were in Floyd, VA.
Anybody know Floyd?
South of Christiansburg and Blacksburg.
Southwest of Roanoke.

We happened upon Floyd five or six years ago,
when, coming back from Preachers’ Camp
on the Blue Ridge Parkway,
as is our custom,
we were driven off the Parkway by road work,
and, following the detour signs, ended up in Floyd—
at the Red Rooster Coffee Roasters—
which is located right behind the bookstore.
In the Floyd Country Store, they were setting up folding chairs,
getting ready for the Friday Night Jamboree—
post-it notes on the chairs closest to the stage
marked Bud, Martha, Larry, Edna, Thaddeus, Eleanor.

This time we planned to get there for the Jamboree!
We drove into town—through the one red-light
at the intersection of Main and Locust streets,
parked and walked back to OddF3llows Cantina and Tapas.
We passed seven bands in the span of less than a block—
or seven gatherings of people playing together (who knows!).
After we ate and the rain moved in, when we walked back,
one of the bands had taken over the inside of the Floyd Barber shop!
People packed in, standing in the doorway,
peering in from the sidewalk through the front window.

At the Floyd Country Store, the music started at 6:30—
went until 10:30 (or the band stops playing).
$5 cover charge if you go to the back
where “[o]n the dance floor are homemakers and teachers,
farmers and preachers, children and grandparents,
newcomers and old-timers, all in this place
to hear the music and share in a moment”
Jason Frye, Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip
(Berkeley, CA: Avalon Travel, 2015).

That’s where we were Friday night.
So whether you did or didn’t see the opening ceremonies,
let me invite you to consider
what we might have to say to the world,
had we such world-wide attention.

What’s the story we have to tell?
If it’s not a national one—not a cultural one.
Because we do have a story to tell to the nations, do we not?
That’s what we sing anyway.
And it’s traditionally the story of Jesus we’re talking about.
That’s the story we have to tell.

Jerome dated the birth of Jesus, by the way,
to the third year of the 194th Olympiad.
Weird, a little bit, isn’t it? To combine in our minds
Olympic stories and Jesus stories?

But the overarching title of the sermon series for the next three Sundays
is the unfolding stories of the 194th Olympiad
the still unfolding stories of Jesus
amidst these days of still unfolding Olympic games.

We’ve a story to tell to the nations.
Now some correctives are significant—
worth mentioning.
Two years ago, the Alliance sponsored a convocation,
the theme of which was:
we’ve a story to hear from the nations.

And part of the fun of the opening ceremonies is, after all,
hearing the stories of another place—
of another people—
listening for what is distinctive and different
even amidst what is similar and familiar.

Listening to others—valuing their story
is a very much needed corrective to the arrogant colonial patriarchal
tone of having the story to tell that every nation needs to hear.

Within the story we have to tell to the nations,
we also have a story to tell to our nation
because we get it as wrong as any.

We also have a story to tell ourselves, right?
It’s never just or even mostly about telling others.

Nonetheless, correctives acknowledged,
we do have a story to tell.
So what’s the story we want to tell?

My story, I’ve told you before,
is one of wanting to believe before I did.
And I’d like to tell you I remember wanting to believe in a story
spun out of ideals and dreams and visions—
hopes and prayers.
But honestly, what I remember
is wanting to believe I was included,
and afraid of being excluded.
Because the story told was one in which I was not included,
or in which there were conditions to being included—
in which I had to believe—had to profess
in order to be included,
which, to me, feels more like being excluded.

The story I would want to tell today would be a little different.
It’s the story of Jesus,
but it doesn’t have to be told that way.
Not at first.

That’s not to make the story easier—
to take away the high expectations,
but to tell a story defined in and by relationships—
a story of radical grace—
of a shocking inclusivity—
of an amazing love—
of a commitment to justice and peace—
a story with unconditional acceptance from the get-go—
you are included—
no exceptions—
no conditions.
There are also high expectations of you—the highest.

It’s a story rejecting fear—
rejecting violence—
rejecting manipulation and exploitation—
because of what we say yes to.

I’ve been a part of an Alliance visioning group.
We kept coming back to this idea of a yes at the heart of who we are.
An affirmation that undergirds any rejections—any condemnations.

In our time together, we came across a quote
by one of the founders of the Alliance,
Mahan Siler, retired pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist in Raleigh.
Wise man. Good man. Good words:

“The Alliance of Baptists was catapulted from a resounding ‘Yes!’
On the surface it looked otherwise.
At the time, in 1987, we were Southern Baptists declaring ‘No’
to the turns toward biblical inerrancy, exclusive male clergy,
autocratic pastoral leadership, narrow denominationalism,
piety without social and economic justice,
and the violation of state/church separate freedoms.
Our covenant was a counter ‘Yes’ to each turn.
But in retrospect, there was a deeper Yes at work.
We were expressing Yes to our sense of God’s movement
through the church in our day.
This Yes of discernment has been the continuity amid the discontinuities.
Immediately this Yes took on new manifestations—
theological education, mission as partnership,
interracial and interfaith relationships,
welcoming different sexual identities, ecological justice
and Alliance structure as partnership.
The forms of Yes vary; the courage to risk our discernments of Yes
remain … and will remain.”

I wrote a piece (I think we called it a prologue)
for that Alliance visioning group earlier this year.
I think it’s relevant this morning.

This we have heard—
have seen with our own eyes—
have touched with our own hands.
This that we know,
we name and share
that joy may be complete.

In the beginning,
yes!—
breathed—breathing.

We first came to be
in yes—
through yes.

Without yes
there is not.

And yes
is gracefull,
depthfull,
beautyfull,
truthfull,
hopefull,
faithfull,
joyfull.

Yes is always beginning.
Yes is possibility—

ongoing conversation
on the way.

Yes includes and invites—
shares and participates—

creates deeper relationship—
creates new relationship,
and it is good.

Yes blesses.

Yes does confront life
in the stark truth of its unfolding,
and so yes sometimes (often) says no,
but it’s always and only no
in the key of yes.

Oh, there can be angry no’s—
no’s of rejection and condemnation—
no’s to bitter tears of shared grief and pain,
but still,
they never overshadow the joyfull yes
of the Most High overshadowing all that is.

No without a yes context
is just a loud noise
signifying not much at all.

Yet if people only hear loud no’s—
and feel angry no’s—
not yes,
how can that possibly signify good news
for all people?
And that is a lot more than not much at all.

Still we believe
yes not only precedes no,
it subverts no—
without ever becoming no.

For even when rejected,
yes says yes.
Even when betrayed and denied,
yes turns the other alternative,
and hope and possibility remain definitive.

Yes is a way
ever onward
into more—
more righteousness—
more justice—
more humility—
into what is transformation—
what some call redemption
or salvation,
and what is,
and is obviously,
such good news.

Ours is a journey
discerning the way of yes—
in conversation—
telling the story of yes
(that has too often become the counter-story of yes)
and the stories of all who summon
the courage to risk yes—
whose hearts burn together—
light and heat,
along the way.

It’s the Jesus story.
Did you hear it?
It’s the ancient story.

Hear, O community of God:
The Lord is our God—
the God who is yes who is love who is here and there—
that God and only that God.
You shall love the Lord your God—
who loves you—
with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might—
just as you are loved—wholly, wholly, holy.
Treasure the stories of binding together—
of including—
of forgiving—
of loving—
of working for peace and justice—
the stories of wonder surprise and joy.
Recite them to your children and talk about them
when you are at home and when you are away,
when you lie down and when you get up,
in your comings and in your goings.
Tell your children and let your children tell their children,
and their children another generation.

A week ago today, at 5 a.m. we left Baltimore
headed to the North Carolina mountains and preachers’ camp.
We headed west out 70,
cut through the country on 340 and then 7 to Winchester
where we got off the road to have breakfast at a Panera at 7 a.m.
The time was important
because to our girls’ surprise,
Natalie and Lilly met us.
Yes!

In the course of breakfast conversation,
Natalie told us how much she liked being in Winchester,
but she then added,
“Lilly is clear that when she grows up,
she’s moving to Maryland and back to Woodbrook!”
Yes!

The other day, Susie and the girls set out to find some shorts for Sydney.
I was going to go by the bank, the library, Barnes & Noble, and the gym.
they set out,
then I did.
ran some of my errands.
came out of the parking garage at the library onto East Chesapeake,
turned left onto Virginia Avenue,
went by the Cinemark on my left and was waiting to turn left onto Joppa—
to turn down into the parking for Barnes & Noble.
You picturing this?
When the girls, having come around the Towson Circle,
pulled up to the same light on Joppa,
waiting to turn left into the mall.
They never saw me.
They do not know that I saw them.
I have not told them about this until now.
Yes!

What are the odds, I remember thinking?
To share in a moment like that?
Astronomical.
Unbelievable.

Yes is a story that binds us together
even when we don’t know it—
when it’s a story we want to believe
even when we can’t—
a story so true it can wait for us to say yes to it—
discover yes in it—
a story proclaiming and celebrating
that our lives are in truth marvelously woven together
with love and grace and hope
in time and place
in family and community.
What are the odds?

It’s a Sunday Morning Jamboree!
People have gathered together here in this room
and in rooms all over the world—
homemakers and teachers,
doctors, accountants, heating and air folks,
physical therapists and preachers,
children and grandparents,
newcomers and old-timers—
all in this place,
to hear the story and share in a moment—
to share in the story and be here in a moment—
the story and the present we want to believe—
that we believe ourselves into—
that believes in us.

There’s no better way to start a week.
Thanks be to God.

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
seven quotes on the power of story
1. “The world is not made of atoms. It is made of stories.” – Muriel Ruykeser

2. “The most important question anyone can ask is: What myth am I living?” – Carl Jung

3. “A lost coin is found by means of a candle; the deepest truth is found by means of a simple story.” – Anthony De Mello

4. “A life becomes meaningful when one sees [oneself] as an actor within the context of story.” – George Howard

5. “Every story you tell is your own story.” – Joseph Campbell

6. “Those who do not have the power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.” – Salman Rushdie

7. “The real difference between telling what happened and telling a story about what happened is that instead of being a victim of our past, we become master of it.” – Donald Davis

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Joshua 4:1-7
When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan,
the Lord said to Joshua: “Select twelve men from the people,
one from each tribe, and command them,
‘Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan,
from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you,
and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’ ”
Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites,
whom he had appointed, one from each tribe.
Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark
of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan,
and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder,
one for each of the tribes of the Israelites,
so that this may be a sign among you.
When your children ask in time to come,
‘What do those stones mean to you?’
then you shall tell them
that the waters of the Jordan were cut off
in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord.
When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.
So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial for ever.”

“summer blockbuster #2: salvation through, you know … sex and stuff,” july 17, 2016

materialism

Responsive Call to Worship
The unmistakable affirmation of our world is
that it’s all about what people can see—
your clothes,
your car,
your house—
your stuff.
It’s where you go—
what you eat.
It’s who you’re with
and what you look like together.
It’s what can be instagrammed
and “liked.”
It’s what’s tangible;
it’s what’s immediate.
As opposed to the assurance of what’s hoped for
and the conviction of what’s not seen.
And, again,
our faith stands witness counter to our culture.
So, again the question confronts us:
do we stand—let’s even say predominantly—
with our faith or with our world?
Do we prioritize our snapchat and instagram accounts
or the long conversation of our faith tradition with our God?
We are surrounded by what we do not see
that gives life it’s depth and richness.
May our culture never seduce us into thinking
our treasure is anything else.

Meditations
To be content with little is difficult;
to be content with much, impossible.
Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

What we need is less.
Joseph Rain

The world says: “You have needs—satisfy them.
You have as much right as the rich and the mighty.
Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs;
indeed, expand your needs and demand more.”
This is the worldly doctrine of today.
And they believe that this is freedom.
The result for the rich is isolation and suicide,
for the poor, envy and murder.

They have succeeded in accumulating
a greater mass of objects,
but the joy in the world has grown less.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A strange species we are,
We can stand anything God and nature
can throw at us save only plenty.
If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much,
and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy, sick.
John Steinbeck

The life of my people is to remember forever;
each head granary is full.
The life of your people is to forget:
your thing granaries,
and not yourselves, are full.
Alice Walker

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
Matthew 6:19-21, 25-34
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and rust consume
and where thieves break in and steal;
but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust consumes
and where thieves do not break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,
what you will eat or what you will drink,
or about your body, what you will wear.
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds of the air;
they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,
and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are you not of more value than they?
And can any of you by worrying
add a single hour to your span of life?
And why do you worry about clothing?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you,
even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
But if God so clothes the grass of the field,
which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven,
will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?”
or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”
For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things;
and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given to you as well.
So do not worry about tomorrow,
for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.
Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
a history lesson
The first recorded use of the term “Black Friday” was applied not to holiday shopping but to financial crisis: specifically, the crash of the U.S. gold market on September 24, 1869. Two notoriously ruthless Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, worked together to buy up as much as they could of the nation’s gold, hoping to drive the price sky-high and sell it for astonishing profits. On that Friday in September, the conspiracy finally unraveled, sending the stock market into free-fall and bankrupting everyone from Wall Street barons to farmers.

The most commonly repeated story behind the post-Thanksgiving shopping-related Black Friday tradition links it to retailers. As the story goes, after an entire year of operating at a loss (“in the red”) stores would supposedly earn a profit (“went into the black”) on the day after Thanksgiving, because holiday shoppers blew so much money on discounted merchandise. Though it’s true that retail companies used to record losses in red and profits in black when doing their accounting, this version of Black Friday’s origin is the officially sanctioned—but inaccurate—story behind the tradition.

In recent years, another myth has surfaced that gives a particularly ugly twist to the tradition, claiming that back in the 1800s Southern plantation owners could buy slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving. Though this version of Black Friday’s roots has understandably led some to call for a boycott of the retail holiday, it has no basis in fact.
The true story behind Black Friday, however, is not as sunny as retailers might have you believe. Back in the 1950s, police in the city of Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year. Not only would Philly cops not be able to take the day off, but they would have to work extra-long shifts dealing with the additional crowds and traffic. Shoplifters would also take advantage of the bedlam in stores to make off with merchandise, adding to the law enforcement headache.

By 1961, “Black Friday” had caught on in Philadelphia, to the extent that the city’s merchants and boosters tried unsuccessfully to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations. The term didn’t spread to the rest of the country until much later, however, and as recently as 1985 it wasn’t in common use nationwide. Sometime in the late 1980s, however, retailers found a way to reinvent Black Friday and turn it into something that reflected positively, rather than negatively, on them and their customers. The result was the “red to black” concept of the holiday mentioned earlier, and the notion that the day after Thanksgiving marked the occasion when America’s stores finally turned a profit. (In fact, stores traditionally see bigger sales on the Saturday before Christmas.)

The Black Friday story stuck, and pretty soon the term’s darker roots in Philadelphia were largely forgotten.
(http://www.history.com/news/whats-the-real-history-of-black-friday)

That’s the world—taking something bad and naming it good
and convincing others it is. As opposed to our faith—
naming what’s bad, bad, repenting, and living into what’s good.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Familiar verses those verses we heard read
from the Sermon on the Mount.
But they struck me this past week,
in their apparent straight-forwardness,
as rather complicated.
Not so much the first part.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and rust consume
and where thieves break in and steal ….
but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust consumes
and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Makes perfect if countercultural sense to me.

The movement of significance is from the physical
to the truthfull.
Not that the physical is a lie
(there is treasure to be had on earth),
it’s just not as full of truth as that step into
what’s more meaningfull—
what’s deeper and richer.

So we’re advised to prioritize what’s not physical over what is,
as much as what is might feature in the daydreams
of those who consider these words—
even among those to whom Jesus spoke.

Sure there’s a measure of stuff we need—
to survive:
food, shelter, clothing.
We’ve made of that a whole lot more—
too much more,
and we’ve invested in it
not just more than we were ever meant to,
but more than can ever come of it.
And commercials make promises
as absurd as those that presidential candidates make.
And we evaluate people on the basis of how much they have—
or say they have.

And I guess the question for each of us is:
“Do I treasure what’s of the heart,
or love the treasures the world has to offer?”

The second part of the scripture
came up at camp this past week.
“Consider the birds of the air,” we were told,
and so I did.
I considered the birds.
Scripture notwithstanding,
they seem to live very precarious lives to me.

I saw a video on YouTube a while back—
some of you may have seen it too—
of a bird at a baseball game hit by a pitch—
kind of an explosion of feathers.

On our way to the beach, a couple of weeks ago,
we drove over the bay bridge,
then over and under the bay bridge and tunnel.
Lots of dead birds on those bridges.

I’ve seen—I’m sure you have too—
those sad pictures of birds after an oil spill.

That plane that landed in the Hudson?
Both engines were taken out
because birds were sucked into them
as the plane took off into a flock of geese.

I have friends and family
who come back from hunting
holding dead birds upside down by their legs.

We were at Grandfather Mountain, NC
years ago, and there was a Bald Eagle and a golden eagle,
both of whom had been shot
and were no longer capable of surviving in the wild.
They lived sadly flightless lives in two neighboring enclosures.
Now those birds have since died of old age,
and those two enclosures, I’m told, have been combined into one,
in which two bald eagles live—
because even though it’s illegal to shoot them,
there will always be enough of them shot—
unable to live in the wild,
and so living flightless lives in captivity.

Now our scripture just talks about food, right?—
God providing food—
birds not worrying about food.
But the implication of the verses is that God’s looking out for birds,
right?
The implication is of an actively involved God.
That’s what I’m thinking when I read these verses,
and I don’t even believe in that kind of a God!

Now, maybe you can strictly adhere to,
“It just says God will provide food,”
and go with some affirmation of the balance established in creation—
a basic sufficiency—
even a basic abundance
in creation,
that we have messed up—
always more interested in profit and expedience
than balance.

But to claim these verses are about
such a fundamental balance seems a stretch.
It feels like a justification for what doesn’t seem true
at a more basic level.

We all know God doesn’t take care of birds.
So how do we explain this Scripture
as anything other than foolish?

And if God doesn’t take care of birds,
why would we think God takes care of us?

And how is the admonition to not worry about basic needs
not a voice of privilege—
the voice of someone who doesn’t have to worry
about food and basic needs
because the assumption is they’ll be met—
there will be enough?—

which couldn’t have been true for Jesus.
It doesn’t say anything about it in the gospels,
but my guess is, there were nights
when Jesus and the disciples went to bed hungry.
Mornings they woke up hungry.

My guess is when those people gathered around Jesus—
whether it was on a mountain or not—
when they gathered around to hear Jesus’ words,
there were plenty among them
whose lives were precarious—
who knew their basic needs were not guaranteed.

So then what does this Scripture sound like
acknowledging that birds die—
without that filter
of assured safety—
the assurance of money in the bank
and food in the pantry?

Well, remember before we heard the bird story,
we heard the treasure story—
in which we moved the significance and priority
from the physical to to the more truthfull?
What if the bird story works the same way as the treasure story—
moving from physical imagery
to non-physical truth?

Right? Just like there is treasure on earth—
there are physical needs of food and clothing.
But there are more important things we need.

So what’s more important than survival?
And we acknowledge first off,
that’s not a conversation most of us will have.
We’re going to survive.
But that may have been a more real concern
for Jesus’ original hearers,
who lived lives more precarious than most of ours—
less assured of basic needs.

We also need to remember
that it’s Jesus saying this—
who did not starve,
but did rely on the kindness of those around him
for his basic needs,
who knew more than we do of hunger and deprivation,
and also, who in the fullness of the story,
ultimately did not survive.

What if Jesus’ claim here
is not that God provides everything we need,
but what we need most?

What if the affirmation is that God
values/cherishes/honors/celebrates/loves/blesses
each bird—
takes delight in plumage and flight and song,
and how much more, to use the language we’ve just heard,
God treasures each of us?

So even in the most precarious of situations,
we remember God loves us.

It’s easy to say so what—
thinking of all those dead birds.

But I remember Russ Dean,
thinking about the power of God—
what God can and can’t do,
so aware of how many birds die, as it were,
saying, “If I were to be diagnosed with some deadly illness,
my parents—my family and loved ones
would be able to do nothing about that.
They would not be able to do absolutely anything about that.
But they would love me through it,
and their love would make a difference—
no matter the outcome.”

That raises another question.

Incorporated into worship at Passport
is something they call The Question of the Day.
It’s kind of like the living word, i. here—
a way to include voices from the congregation.
The question of the day this past Monday night in worship
was how do you know God loves you?
And they go around with a video camera
ask that question and film a bunch of answers
and then show the video in worship.

Some answers that I recall:
I know God loves me because my parents do—
or my friends do—my youth group—my church.
I know God loves me when I’m outside—
when I’m doing what I love to do—
when I’m helping others.

It’s a good question—
hard to answer—
harder to answer than answers would make it seem.

If God’s love is what I need most
how do I know I have it?

In our church group devotion time,
we wondered about not just accepting answers at face value
but pushing them.
Because we can all imagine scenarios—
in which parents don’t love you.
One youth at Passport went home a couple of years ago now,
and his family had moved—he didn’t know where.
They didn’t tell him.
Didn’t leave word for him.
He had to move in with some church folks
until they could figure out what to do.
What if your friends aren’t friends?
What if they’re mean?
What if you don’t have a youth group? A church?
What if you’re homeless and outside?
Would that still feel like the presence and love of God?

How do you know God loves you then?
How do we know parents and friends and church love us?
Because of the evidence, right?
They take care of us.
They feed us and clothe us.
They hug and kiss us—sometimes annoyingly so.
They tell us they love us, yes,
but their words are backed up by our experience.
So what’s our experience that indicates God loves us—
that backs up the claim so easy to make?

It’s a combination of what we’ve been told and taught:
for God so loved the world—
we’ve been told the stories—
taught the truth.
It’s a combination of that with our own experience—
with what we feel deep inside.

I’m not saying any of the answers given are wrong.
I’m just wondering if they’re enough.

My friend Allyson Robinson is the trans woman baptist minister
who spent a good part of her life thinking God rejected her.
That’s what she was told.
That’s what she was taught.
Rejection was what she experienced—
rejection and condemnation.
By the grace of God, she talks about a bare bones theology
that saw her through suicidal thoughts—
that saw her through the bleakest and hardest and loneliest of times.

And it’s the basic affirmation that God did, in truth, love her.
Despite what she’d been told and taught.
Despite what she’d experienced.
And that Scripture that questioned that, was itself to be questioned.
That churches that denied that, were compromising their fundamental calling.
And that her own understanding of experience,
was not necessarily to be trusted.

I think you have to want to believe—
deep down.
Some of you know how with addiction
you have to admit you have a problem.
And then you have to want to get better,
or nothing’s going to work—nothing’s going to change.
Same thing.

Do you want God’s love—
at the core of your being?
Is there anything you can imagine more important?
More life giving? Life sustaining?
More hope sustaining?

So know what’s important enough to worry about,
and then don’t worry about it!
God loves you.

We don’t all start with a bare bones theology like Allyson did.
Most of us don’t have to.
Many of us may never strip our theology down to the barest minimum.
But if you do—
if you ever have to—
if it’s ever more than theoretical Scripture interpretation—
Sunday School rhetoric—
if one day it comes down to it,
I want you to have in your memory banks—
this way of thinking about this text.
God will always provide what you need most—
the assurance that you are wonderfully created,
blessed by God as who you are,
and loved just as you are.

Bone comes to bone.
That’s first, and it is very good.
That’s foundation.
God loves you no matter what—no exceptions.
And then according to Ezekiel,
sinew is added to bone,
then flesh,
then skin,
then breath
(Ezekiel 37:1-14),
until you have life and life at its fullest—life abundant.
But full and abundant because of those bones—
because of that foundation,
never because of how much stuff you’ve accumulated.

It’s got to be more than just something you say though.

Too much we substitute
a picture implying experience
for whole-hearted, mindful presence.
I’ve told you all before
about the time we spent the better part of a day
lounging by a lake in the Austrian Alps.
The girls were playing in the lake—
in and out of the water.
The tour buses pulled up behind us and disgorged tourists,
reloaded and left.
We stayed.
We saw two young women—
I guess off one of those buses,
come over to the park area,
go into the bathroom,
come out in their swimsuits,
walk over to the water’s edge,
turn their backs to the lake and the mountain behind it,
pose for a selfie,
go back into the bathroom,
come back out dressed—
and leave.

Did they even see what they claimed to have experienced?

That seems ridiculous to most of us—
I hope … I pray.

But our culture is full of
the assumption of substance.

And we have to be careful,
lest a moment of silence and prayer
be perceived as nothing at all.
Words not made flesh, you see.

The integrity of our faith
is not in what we say,
but in how what we say
shapes the way we live and relate to others.

And I do believe the critical question for our time
is less, “Do we experience our faith claims?”
but “Do others experience our faith claims?”—
and not just as words—
and certainly not self-righteous words,
but as lives tangibly shaped by the love of God—
lives tinged with the wonder and joy of faith—
the promise of peace.
Is that what people catch glimpses of in and through you?
Is that what people see in and through us?

How do we help each other answer “Yes” to that?
or “Sometimes”—
maybe that’s a more honest prayer.

We tell the stories
over and over and over and against the stories of the world.
We seek the truth—the truth that is love.
Rejecting all other claims to ultimate truth
as we love—above all as we love.
And we remind each other that’s what we want—
to be identified—
to be defined
by the love of God.

May it be so.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Hebrews 11:1
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.