Thursday, May 22, 2008

His Eye is On the Sparrow

I was hoping my brother would blog about this experience--and he did! So I'm posting this video in honor of him. I'm convinced my dear brother incarnated God's eyes and hands the other day and through him, God's eye was on the sparrow. I give you Mahalia Jackson...

Monday, May 12, 2008

We Have What We Need

This month I have been preaching at a small congregation in The City, filling in for a friend who is on sabbatical. All last week I planned to rework a sermon for yesterday that I'd preached some years ago that reflected on the same text from the gospel of John that was one of the alternate readings suggested for Pentecost.

I had a very restless night sleeping on Saturday night. I felt like God was working on me. (Though I've never actually been to a chiropractor, I imagine it would feel quite a bit like that kind of work out--a realignment that's not particularly comfortable in the moment, but feels oh so better afterwards.)

I woke up at 6:00 a.m. Sunday and looked at the sermon I thought I was going to preach. All wrong. Instead, I preached the one that follows here. Whatever it's worth, it was the one I felt I was given.

John 20:18-23
Acts 2:1-21

Last Sunday, we read the texts in Scripture that were preparing Jesus’ followers for the time when they were no longer going to be able to enjoy Jesus’ physical presence with them anymore. In our readings last week, we got the sense that Jesus’ followers were gripped by fear; fear of the unknown, of the threat, maybe, of violence, fear of loss.

“How can we go on?” the disciples seem to ask, “Without the one that we love?”

But Jesus replies, in some ways to their unvoiced questions more than the ones they actually ask, that the Spirit will come and give them power so that they might become his witnesses on earth.

It is the coming of this Spirit that we read about in this morning’s scripture. The story we might be most familiar with is the one that appears in Luke’s account, in the books of Acts. The Sprit comes upon the gathered followers with the sound of a loud wind rushing over them. It is an overwhelming presence, even described by Luke as a violent one.

There is no mistaking that something has happened to the gathered followers: they have experienced the radical freedom of the presence of the Spirit in their midst, which has loosened their tongues, broken down barriers, set them apart from those who would scoff at them, and truly empowered them to go out, as Jesus had assured them they would, to become witnesses of Jesus’ on earth. This is the more familiar of the Pentecost stories—often referred to as the birthday of the church, when the Spirit that had once hovered over the waters before creation, now sweeps over a bedraggled group of followers and brings something yet again into being: this time an empowered community of witnesses of God’s astounding love.

But the text I felt more drawn to this morning is a much quieter Pentecost. This one happens so gently, comes to Jesus’ frightened disciples so peacefully, that it can almost be missed entirely. This is the Pentecost of the Gospel of John.

Once again, we encounter Jesus’ followers huddled together with their seemingly ever-present companion: Fear. This scene takes place in the upper room, on the evening of the resurrection. And the disciples have locked themselves in their room in fear. Their beloved leader had been killed only days before. And though Mary had come to the disciples that very morning to tell them she had seen the Risen Christ, still they sought out the comfort of close quarters, and the reassurance of locked doors.

One of the most astounding things about Scripture, I believe, is the extent to which it invites us into a profound confrontation with our own selves. It is so often the case, with Scripture, that when we’re able to hoist ourselves over all the centuries that have passed between these ancient texts and our contemporary lives—we are brought into an encounter with our own soul’s condition. There is no other place that this seems more evident than in the reactions and questions posed by the disciples. While we might find it easy, at first, to laugh at all of their blunderings and missteps, when we are truly honest with ourselves, we have to admit that their mistakes graciously illuminate our own.We know fear. We know the tendency to lock ourselves away from those who wish to do us harm. We know self-protection. We know how to close ourselves off from experiencing the presence of God’s extravagant love. We know how to shut out the world with all it’s horrors, brokenness, despair, and disappointments.

There is only so much we can take. This past week, as the horrors have unfolded in Burma, it is more than we can take in. How can we, really? The loss of life from natural disaster alone is unfathomable. But it is compounded unbearably by the inexplicable, inhumanity of corrupt government officials who leave people to die even as they seize the humanitarian aid sent by outsiders.

In the face of such overwhelming grief and horrific brokenness, if we’re honest, I think there is at least some part of ourselves that wants to lock ourselves away: protect ourselves from feeling the pain that is surrounding us.

Many of our churches will gather for worship this morning in just this way, don’t you think? Cloistered from the pain of this past week (whether in a global sense or in a personal sense), sometimes our worship takes place in rooms that are securely locked away from the reality of our lives for fear of the pain we all too often encounter there.

But here is the good news: We cannot lock away the Spirit of God. Because it is through our most hidden-away, locked-up places that the Spirit desires to move. It is to the most broken, horrific, grief-filled moments that the Spirit is drawn. The Spirit does not know separation or boundaries, but moves freely into them, always with the desire to reconcile, to draw out our wholeness for the healing of the world.

The followers of Christ locked themselves away in fear, but the Risen One entered the room. It is a divine breaking-and-entering, if you will. And, unlike the violent coming of the Spirit as we read about it in Acts this morning, in this account the Risen One stands in their midst and reassures the fearful ones: “Peace be with you.”

Then he shows them his wounds. And the disciples, John tells us, rejoice as they recognize Jesus for who he is. They rejoice when they see the evidence of his wounds. Why do they rejoice?

Well, maybe it is this: when we see the Wounded/Risen One, we see a few things:

First, we see the worst that can be done to any human being by other human beings. Second, we see the Divine One who did not self-protect, but willingly entered into the brokenness of the world. And finally, we see that brokenness is not the final word. Despair, abandonment, military might, betrayal, even death: none of these is the final word.

Again, Jesus says to his followers, “Peace be with you.” And I like to think that just as God spoke the world into being with commands as simple as “Let there be light,” so in the same way, Jesus spoke Peace into being with this simple phrase: "Peace be with you.”

And in doing so, the room that had once been close and humid with fear is now flooded with peace. It is in the reality of that saturating peacefulness that Jesus, the Wounded/Risen One, tells his followers what is expected of them: he sends his followers out of the room and into the world in the same way that he had himself been sent. In the same way, we must be reminded,
that wounded him so.

And it is at this point that we come to John’s depiction of the Pentecost—of the gifting of the Spirit to the bedraggled, beleaguered community of followers.

Jesus breathes on the disciples and says to them: Receive the Holy Spirit.

No tongues of fire. No violent wind. Just a breath.

John writes this as if it were a single moment, but I can't help but wonder if it actually happened over and over again. Jesus breathing on each disciple one by one. Much in the same way that we passed the peace this morning: a singular encounter, each one of us with another, coming in close enough to each other that we can feel each other’s breath.

In the same way, I imagine Jesus drawing each one of his followers close to him, in a warm embrace, close enough that they can feel the gentle breath of the Spirit move across their faces:

Receive the Holy Spirit.
Receive the Holy Spirit.
Receive the Holy Spirit.

and again
and again.

Receive the Holy Spirit.

The first step in opening ourselves to the pain in the world and in our own lives is to open ourselves to God’s love for us.

That love comes in many forms—sometimes in dramatic, unmistakable ways. And sometimes in the most intimate, gentle, and almost miss-able ways: a breath.

Despair, fear, abandonment and betrayal are not the final words. But what are the final words? In John’s Pentecost, they are these: Peace; I send you; Receive the Holy Spirt; And, finally, forgive.

This is the message of Pentecost. This is the message that birthed the church. This is the mission at our center. No matter how many times we forget it or how many times our sisters and brothers in faith forget it, it doesn’t essentially change: Peace, Go, Receive, Forgive. The outpouring of God’s love for God’s broken creation never ceases, never stops pouring itself out. Never stops breathing into the hidden-away, locked-up, broken places. Never stops inviting us out into a world we think we can’t face.

We can face it because we have received all that we need. When we look at one another in love
even in all our Wounded/Wholeness we know this to be true: We have all that we need.



Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Be With Us, God-With-Us

Over the past several years I have been teaching worship to seminarians. And part of teaching worship includes working with seminarians as they think about and begin to prepare prayers for Sunday morning worship experiences. Of the many things I love about the work that I get to do, this is one of my favorites. I consider it one of the most incredible privileges to be able to accompany people into the deepest waters of their faith. And the space of prayer will often plunge us into the deep-end of faith fairly quickly.

But over these past few years, I have noticed a pattern that has consistently emerged in the prayers I encountered from my students. And it is this: the most commonly repeated phrase, in all the prayers I read, is this one: “God, be with us.”

Actually, it was so often repeated by so many people that my first inclination was to treat it as a cliché: as a phrase that was written or spoken more out of habit than because it was particularly meaningful. Or maybe that it was not much more than a nervous tic in our prayer-speaking, much in the same way we might say “um”—as a way of buying time until we figured out what it was we really wanted to ask of God.

So I started out by circling the phrase and asking the students to reflect on what it was they were really asking of God, when they asked for God to be with us. This was for maybe the first year or so. But as the years went on, and the phrase “God, be with us,” continued to appear time and again, my attention was drawn back to it in new ways. Something about the request – and the number of times I was encountering it – suggested to me that something more was going on than was at first apparent.

This time, I noticed that there was a certain strangeness about the phrase, especially when we realize that we are praying to Emmanuel, the title or name that appears in Isaiah and shows up most often during the seasons of Advent & Christmas. Emmanuel means, translated, “God-With-Us.” So the strangeness of the prayer request is highlighted when we place the phrases next to each other: “Emmanuel, be with us,” or, literally: “God-with-Us, be with us.”

There is something about putting the prayer that way which reminds me of one of the greatest statements of faith recorded in the gospels: when the Roman centurion responds to Jesus: “I believe; help my unbelief.”

“God-with-Us, be with us.”

The thing is, if we are to take these prayer requests seriously, not as clichés, or as means of buying time, but rather as true cries from the hearts of those praying, then we start to wade into the deeper waters of faith. And it often seems that it’s in the deepest waters that two things can be true at once: I believe; help my unbelief. God-with-us, be with us.

So the question becomes this: If we begin our prayers by asking for God to be with us, what does this request say about our experience of God’s presence? Or, maybe more precisely, what does it suggest about our experience of God’s absence?
In this morning’s scripture readings we have two different moments in time folded in next to one another (like the back cover of an old issue of Mad Magazine), which, when taken together, form a distinctively new picture for us.

The earlier moment is recorded in John’s gospel and takes place shortly before Jesus and his disciples head to the Garden of Gethsemane where he will be turned over to the Roman authorities and eventually crucified. In this account, Jesus has just finished giving what is commonly referred to now as his Farewell Discourse—a long, looping, poetic, evocative plea and promise to his followers just prior to his being violently taken from them. In this morning’s text, Jesus has just stopped addressing the disciples directly and has, instead, started to pray for them (and by extension, most commentators point out, for the earliest Christian communities and for us)—all in anticipation of his leaving them.

In the Acts reading, we find ourselves on the other side of the cross post-resurrection, at the end of the forty days that the Risen Christ had to remain with his beleaguered followers (according to Luke, the author of Acts). This time it is the Wounded and Risen Christ who is addressing his disciples as he prepares to leave them one more time.

In both instances, Jesus the Christ is preparing his followers for the experience of his absence. These two liminal, or in-between, threshold moments fold in on each other and we find that we are facing a community of people who were themselves facing the loss of their most beloved one: Lost once to the violent convergence of religious fear and imperial oppression. And lost a second time to a cloud of unknowing, when the physical presence of God could no longer be grasped or, perhaps more importantly, clung to, possessed, or owned.

As strange and alien as some passages in scripture might strike us at times--and it is a strange thing to imagine Jesus slowly being lifted up from the midst of the disciples and taken into the clouds—one image I encountered when looking for a bulletin cover looked for all the world like Jesus was doing his best David Blaine impression and was levitating in front of a gawking crowd of frightened spectators—But as strange as scripture can sometimes be we can also almost always find something within that opens us to something true about ourselves and about God.

And the truth is many of us have experienced the loss of someone who was our most beloved. And many of us have experienced, maybe at that same time, but not necessarily, a sense of God’s absence in our lives or in our world.

And, no less jarring, many of us have experienced moments in our faith journeys when something we once understood, had a firm grasp on, has started to slip from our hands. It was true for a time, yes; but in order to continue to grow we find we need to let go of what was certainly true and open ourselves to not-knowing for a little while:

God, I believe; help my unbelief.

God-with-us, we pray, be with us.

The liturgical theologian, Don Saliers, writes: “Praying begins not so much with a sense of presence, but with some intuitive or even painfully concrete sense of God’s not being immediately present.” It is for this reason that prayer, according to Saliers, is always “a profound act of hope.” In fact, he pushes us even a little farther, and suggests that we do well to recognize our insecurity around God’s presence, because otherwise we begin to assume that “God is at our beck and call.” [See Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 108, 109, 111.]

How to say it? God’s presence is always a gift. But the certainty of God’s presence with us is not necessarily a gift. And perhaps most especially in North American, dominant culture where everything imaginable can be turned into a commodity. You know, last Sunday in church, my congregation sang the beautiful hymn, We Cannot Own the Sunlit Sky as the closing song for our Earth Day celebration. And as we were singing, my ten-year-old son glanced up at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Yeah, we can’t own the sunlit sky, but we can digitize it and then sell it.” We even talk about time as a commodity: time can be spent, wasted, borrowed, shared, stolen, or lost. I have tried for years to divest myself of economic ways of talking about time, but I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to do so completely. Because I am, we are steeped in a culture that commodifies everything it possibly can.

It is in this sense that our experience of God’s absence becomes as much a gift as God’s presence is a gift. Even when our experience of the absence of God is, as Saliers says, painfully concrete.

When the disciples watched as the Risen Christ disappeared into the cloud, don’t you think they experienced that rising absence with great dread? And yet, as they stood there gazing into the now-empty sky, they were called back to the present: Do not look for what used to be; Do not cling to the understanding of the Divine that you once held so dear; Do not seek to possess God. Rather, go and be the community that never stops seeking God.

In a little while, we will gather together around the table to break bread and share the cup in remembrance of the Risen One. And as we do so, I invite you to notice that the bread is always broken and given away; the cup is always poured out and given away.

The presence of God is only momentary before it becomes us as we eat it together. The presence of God is only ever a gift, given to us, given away by us, so that we might never stop seeking God, our beloved one.