Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for September, 2012

La Oruga Muy Hambrienta [The Very Hungry Caterpillar]

Mateo 17:1-9/Matthew 17:1-9
Mariposas

Cuando era un niño, recuerdo que mis papas leyeron un libro que se llamaba La Oruga Muy Hambrienta. Cuantos de Uds. han leído este libro? Es ecrito por Eric Carle. Es muy corto. Y lo voy a leer:

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Al claro de luna reposa un huevecillo sobre una hoja. Un domingo de mañana, salió el tibio sol, del huevo salió una oruga diminuta y muy hambrienta.

Enseguida empezó a buscar comida…
El lunes comió, comió y atravesó una manzana, pero aún seguía hambrienta.
El martes comió, comió y atravesó dos peras, pero aún seguía hambrienta.
El miércoles comió, comió y atravesó tres ciruelas, pero aún seguía hambrienta.
El jueves comió, comió y atravesó cuatro fresas, pero aún seguía hambrienta.
El viernes comió, comió y atravesó cinco naranjas, pero aún seguía hambrienta.
El sábado comió, comió y atravesó un pastel de chocolate, un helado, un pepinillo, un trozo de queso suizo, una rodaja de salame, una paleta, un pastel de cerezas, una salchicha, un pastelito y una tajada de sandía.

¡Esa noche, tuvo un tremendo dolor de estómago!
Al día siguiente era domingo otra vez.
La oruga comió una hermosa hoja bien verde, y se sintió mucho mejor.

Y no tenía hambre, ni era una pequeña oruga. ¡Ahora era una oruga grande y gorda! Construyó una casita a su alrededor – un capullo-y se encerró en ella por más de dos semanas. Un día hizo un agujero en el capullo, empujó un poco para salir y…

¡Se encontró convertida en una bellísima mariposa!

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Me encanta la historia. De hecho, la vida real de las orugas que cambian a ser mariposas es algo de la naturaleza que nos fascina. Por qué? Porque una oruga verde y extraña que se convierte en una mariposa brillante y bonita es increíble. La transformación, o la metamorfosis es significante. No debería de sorprendernos que esta historia de una oruga muy hambrienta nos pone a pensar en nosotros mismos. Estamos viendo el evangelio de Mateo, específicamente la historia de la transfiguración. Bueno, les digo que esta palabra transfiguración no es algo habitual. No ocupamos esta palabra en la vida cotidiana. Y la historia en Mateo es un poco rara.

Aunque estamos leyendo el nuevo testamento, esta historia tiene su raíz en el antiguo testamento, realmente la escritura hebrea de los judíos, que se llama el Tora. Si quieren, pueden ver el libro de Éxodo, capitulo 34. Esta historia es muy conocida. Moisés, el profeta, va a la cima de la montana Sinaí. Allá recibe los mandamientos de Dios. Pero miren lo que pasa–cuando Moisés baja de la montana para compartir estas instrucciones con la gente—su cara empieza a brillar y a la gente le da miedo. Los Israelitas no pueden ver a su propio líder, Moisés. Desde este momento y adelante, Moisés tiene que llevar un velo sobre su cara después de hablar con Dios. Es difícil imaginar a Moisés como una novia, verdad? Pero así fue. Y noten que lo que paso a Moisés es similar a lo que paso a Jesús en el evangelio de Mateo. El detalle que Mateo nos da es que la ropa de Jesús cambia a ser de color blanco brillante.

Pero vamos a pensar más en esta palabra transfiguración. Como estamos leyendo el nuevo testamento, el idioma original es griego. La palabra griega por transfiguración es metemorphothe, en español, metamorfosis. Ocupamos esta palabra para describir cuando una oruga  muy hambrienta cambia a ser una mariposa. La que emerge de un capullo es completamente diferente a la que entró. Metamorfosis. Transfiguración. Algo nuevo emerge.

También, lo que a mi me gusta mucho de esta historia es que podemos ver la reacción de los tres discípulos de Jesús—Pedro, Jaime [Jacobo], y Juan. Ellos estaban con Jesús en este momento importante. Pero ellos no brillaban como el sol ni llevaban ropa blanca. Pero si vieron algo. Moisés y Elías aparecieron en frente de sus ojos! Y luego, una nube brillante los tapo y la voz de Dios habló desde la nube! Obviamente, estos tres hombres eran más que observantes inocentes. También eran transformados! Se quedaron petrificados, escondiendo sus ojos hasta que Jesús les dijo que fue tiempo para ver hacia arriba. Cuando lo hicieron, Moisés y Elías habían desaparecido al igual que la nube; los discípulos quedaron solamente con Jesús, su maestro. Pero no eran iguales. Nada era igual. Después de esta experiencia, Jesús y sus discípulos empezaron su ministerio. Viajaban a los pueblos. Ensenaron, sanaron, compartieron la misericordia de Dios. Su experiencia en la cima de la montaña les transformó y les dio todo lo necesario para vivir la voluntad de Dios en el mundo.

Entonces, que pasa con nosotros? Vamos a empezar con la experiencia de la montana. Han tenido una experiencia así? Les ha llamado Dios a subir hasta un lugar muy alto para conversar? Pues, a la mejor muchos de Uds. van a decir “no” porque no recuerdan una experiencia santa en la cual Dios les reveló la gloria del Señor personalmente. Yo tampoco no puedo decir esto. Tal vez no han tenido la experiencia cuando las nubes les han hablado o visiones de sus antepasados. Pero recuerden que las experiencias en la montana no son iguales. Dios nos habla donde nos encontramos y como somos. No cada persona responde igual. Entonces, piensen en un momento de su vida cuando sintieron la presencia de Dios. Un momento cuando eran inspirados a creer o tener fe; una experiencia cuando algo los motivó para seguir el camino de amor y misericordia. Tal vez fue cuando eran niños o jóvenes o recientemente como adultos. A la mejor pasó cuando estaban orando o hablando con un amigo muy querido; o cuando estaban estudiando por una examen o cuando estaban trabajando. Piensen. Cuando les habló Dios? O si no saben si han tenido una experiencia así, piensen en un momento de mucha claridad, un momento cuando el amor fue evidente; una experiencia de compasión, perdón o gracia.

Ahora, recuerden lo que pasó después. Que hicieron? Empezaron a ser parte de una comunidad de fe? Empezaron a orar o a leer la biblia? Cambiaron de trabajo o pueblo o aun cambiaron de país? Oraron por la primera vez no por obligación sino por gozo? Pueden ver? Las experiencias de la montana en la comunidad de fe empiezan y terminan con acción. Primero, Dios actúa en la montana. Luego, es nuestra respuesta que sigue. Entonces, la primera cosa para recordar es que nosotros tenemos que bajar de la Montana. No podemos quedarnos en la cima porque no es una realidad. Nuestras vidas no siempre son bonitas ni transcendentes, ni muy espirituosas. De hecho, día al día nuestras vidas son rutinas; son normales; no siempre sentimos la emoción de la montana. Usualmente no tenemos visiones de Moisés o Elías; no siempre oímos la voz de Dios. A veces no podemos ver absolutamente nada y Dios parece muy silencioso.

Sin embargo, vivimos aquí en la tierra muy lejos de la montana. Que hacemos?

La respuesta nos lleva otra vez a la montana. Tenemos que escuchar. Empezamos con esto. Si no escuchamos a Dios, la experiencia no significa nada. Si no escuchamos a Dios no vamos a aprender, no vamos a darnos cuenta de su misericordia y su amor. Hay una razón porque Dios hablo a los tres discípulos y solamente dijo algo simple: Escuchen a mi hijo. Ellos necesitaban oír de Dios que Jesús de Nazaret era más que un hombre loco que caminaba contra la corriente. La enseñanza de Jesús y su ejemplo de vida eran invitaciones a los discípulos para reconocer su propósito en la vida. Amigos, tenemos que escuchar. Si solamente hablamos de muchas cosas y de religión y lo que debemos hacer o lo que otra gente debe hacer—no escuchamos. Y así no actuamos. Pero si escuchamos con paciencia y humildad podemos ser inspirados a vivir como gente de amor, fe, y justicia. No siempre hablaremos sino que actuaremos en nuestra comunidad, en nuestras casas, donde trabajamos, donde estudiamos—donde respiramos. Así la experiencia de Dios es viva, no solamente dicha.  

En si, tenemos que cambiar. Moisés bajó de la montana de Sinaí y fue un hombre transformado. Tenía otra perspectiva. Aunque fue una persona muy tímida el decidió ser un líder. Asimismo, cuando Jesús bajó de la Montana su cara brilló tanto que pareció otra persona. Sus discípulos eran cambiados también. No regresaron a su rutina. Eran inspirados para salir de su monotonía. Tenían confianza. Tenían empatía por otra gente. Abrieron sus corazones y mentes para aceptar a cualquier persona. Ya no eran orugas. Eran mariposas. El amor de Dios era evidente en sus vidas. No quedaron en la montana. Decidieron vivir y eso fue una gran bendición para muchos.

Amigos, si decimos que somos personas de fe y mas que esto, si decimos que seguimos a Jesu Cristo, que significa? Para ser sal y luz en el mundo, nuestras acciones tienen que brillar más que nuestras palabras. Perdonamos? Amamos de verdad? Aceptamos? Enseñamos misericordia? Buscamos unidad en nuestro mundo? Tenemos hambre por justicia para toda la gente?

Yo no soy una persona de gran fe. Todavía tengo momentos cuando no escucho bien a Dios o a mi hermano o hermana. A veces me quedo en la Montana. Pero todavía sé que Dios me habla y nos habla hoy. Tenemos la oportunidad para escuchar. La compasión de Dios nos habla de muchas maneras. Para poder escuchar debemos ser hambrientos como la oruga. Debemos tener hambre por la justicia y la misericordia.

Amigos, tenemos que salir del capullo. Porque las mariposas escuchan esta voz que dice: la misericordia de Dios es para todos. La voz dice: vengan, los que tienen hambre. Vengan y cambien. Coman de la comida que satisface. Que se den cuenta que no importa sus situaciones, sus dudas, o sus errores. Todavía Dios les habla. Todavía Dios les ama. Todavía hay oportunidad de cambiar. Son mariposas—con un propósito de escuchar, vivir, compartir, y ser nuevas criaturas. Amen.

 

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Get Your Sabbath On

Genesis 1:26-2:4:  Down-to-Earth Resting

 Unplug the television
And make way for an old vision
Which will now be a new vision
Yes Headliner, lay the foundation
Dig your hands in the dirt
That’s right
Children play with earth

Gain knowledge of the big
But small earth around you
Dig your hands into the dirt
The dirt that made you
Get acquainted with the earth
The earth that eventually will take you
And the world that hopefully
Will appear to wake you

Children, play in the fields
Play in the grass, climb Mr. tree
Get to know each branch
Give it a name
For the branches resemble the many decisions
You will have to make in life

Eat of the earth children,grow an apple tree
Taste the apple, communicate
Watch and listen to the neglected mother of all
Short, tall children play with earth
Eat rhubarb wet from the rain
Beautiful fruits all the same
Pears, oranges and grapes from the vine
Children it is the earth’s time

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT – CHILDREN PLAY WITH EARTH

One of my favorite hip hop groups of all time, Arrested Development.

The song, Children Play with Earth, is lyrically wonderful even as it is challenging. The earth is big and small; and it made us. The earth will eventually take us. It will also wake us. We should play in the fields, grass, and trees and give the branches names. We should plant in the earth so as to have food to eat of the earth. We are to watch and listen to the neglected mother of all—the earth.

We are in our third week of exploring the first creation story in Genesis. Today we read its conclusion: day 6 includes the creation of humankind, male and female, in the Creator’s image, blessed and given great responsibility to care for the earth, waters, animals, and all living things. Day 7 marks the moment when the Creator views all of creation and is pleased. Time for rest.

The last two days [or ages] of this creation story contain two very important words that we will unpack: adam and Sabbath. Now of course, in our English translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, we see the word humankind for adam, and the word rest for Sabbath. Let’s start with this word adam, a word shared by Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Bahai’s in the creation stories. In the Hebrew language, there are root words that consonants and vowels get added to in order to form variations of the root. ADM is the root word and is masculine. Words in Hebrew are like words in Spanish. They have masculine or feminine forms, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are male and female. Is a chair female? No really. So ADM is a masculine root, but our word here in Genesis 1 is also used with adamah, the feminine derivation, which means earth.[1] So we get, in a nutshell, Hebrew wordplay which leads us to adam meaning humankind from the earth.

And with that, I’m reminded of a childhood memory. I was eight years old, I think. I received my first Bible; I still have it. In that Bible, there were pictures from time to time, along with the words. I particularly remember Genesis. Right away, the word adam is important, because as I learned about this story, I saw a picture of a man. His name was Adam. I assumed [as did the people who drew these pictures and strategically placed them there] that the creation of humankind was really the creation of this man named Adam. Capital A. So as an eight-year-old, I imagined this dude appearing out of nowhere. And he already had a first name, just no last name. Just call me…Adam, he would say.

Look! I’m hanging out with my monkey-friend, bananas! Capital b.

But that’s not really true, is it? Genesis1 doesn’t give us this detail. Instead, we get a generic word that means humankind from the earth. At this point, you may be thinking, Wait, I seem to remember that God formed Adam [capital A] out of the ground, and then this lady Eve out of his rib]. Tsk, tsk. You’re skipping ahead! We’re still in Genesis 1, remember? Adam as a proper name is not in this story. Human life [both male and female], is created by Elohim [God], in Elohim’s image, and that means male and female. And they don’t have names, these humans. They are told to have kids and grow their population. So these are the first humans [plural] and there are lots more of them, eventually. And this is before we get to the proper names—before some dude named Adam and some lady named Eve. My Bible was wrong, or at least it assumed too much.

Why the specifics of this? Well, the Semitic people [a general term to describe the ancients of the Middle East] were used to playing with the earth, digging their hands in the dirt. They were people of nature—in tune with it and certainly respectful of it. Their worldview was akin to the ancients of the Americas, who also honored the natural world and believed that they were created from it and would eventually return to it. The Mayans, for example, in their creation story the Popul Vuh, specifically state that the humans were created from the mixture of corn and water, called atole. Corn of the earth + water from the sky = human beings.[2]

La Creacion, Diego Rivera, 1931

So the story establishes for us that not only are the birds, fish, animals, trees, waters, skies, and land good—not only are human beings good—but the relationship between them all is good. I’ve heard a lot in my lifetime about this concept of having dominion over the whole earth—that somehow as human beings we are given free reign to do whatever we want to the natural order. After all, aren’t we meant to rule over it? Many take this to mean that animals come last. The environment is not our problem. The oceans are for our use anyway, so we can throw our trash in them without feeling guilty. This of course is the problem when we read the Bible like a bumper sticker. The entire rest of the creation stories [and the Bible itself, for that matter] make it clear that dominion over the earth and its creatures means great responsibility on the part of human beings to care for creation so that all living things can fulfill their Creator-given purpose. Having dominion means caring for, allowing the natural order to thrive, to see creation as good, just like God did.

So why do we avoid this challenge? Why do we so often abuse the creation so graciously shared with us? I say it’s because we forget about adam with a lowercase a, we forget where we come from and where we will all eventually go. We neglect the earth, sky, and waters and all the good creations within them, because we only think about ourselves. We forget who we are. In fact, it’s almost like after the 6th day, after humans are made, we end the creation story. Done. Time to move on. I have things to do, places to go, money to make, stress, a full calendar, and no time for creation caring. And then we’re disconnected from it all. We’re not connected to where we come from. We don’t dig our hands in the dirt; we don’t play with the good earth. We’re too overscheduled and busy to care.

But there is another day in the Genesis 1 story, a seventh. The Creator looks over all that has been made and is pretty pleased with it. It’s all good. And it’s time to rest. So we’re to our second word in Hebrew, Shabbat/shavat. In English, we translate this as Sabbath. Here in Genesis 1, it is very loosely translated as rest. I say loosely, because Shabbat, in the Genesis 1 context, is probably better translated as cease or end. The Creator, Elohim, ceases to create, at least for the moment. It all looks good from the Creator’s viewpoint. It’s not like the Creator was tired or fed up with making things. It was time to end. One cycle, one age, was completed. A new one begins.

Of course, Sabbath for many Christians is a laughable subject, really. Take me, for example. Is Sunday supposedly my Sabbath? Since I can remember, Sundays have always been full, full days of classes, worship services, practices, meetings and events. Rest? Ending? Closure? HA! Not a chance! Of course, I’m no martyr here. There are many [besides ministers] who work a lot on Sundays. Or Saturdays. You see, we’ve lost the concept of Sabbath. It’s not a day to sit in a pew or fulfill some religious obligation. It’s not a time to schedule things. Sabbath is unplugging, gaining new perspective, closing and opening; Sabbath is set apart as sacred. Sabbath is a moment to hit the reset button so we remember who we are: all of us people of the earth, created in God’s image, good and blessed, connected to each other, meant to care for the earth, its creatures—meant to care for each other. Sabbath is a time for reawakening.

I believe in Sabbath. I know that when I’m done with my Sunday responsibilities, when the door closes behind me in my house, when the phones are not answered, and I have Monday in front of me—Sabbath begins. As Hebrews 4:10 states, I enter God’s rest. Sabbath is communion with our Creator, a reminder about the image we are made in. And my Sabbath connects me, not just to the earth, waters, and animals—but to my brothers and sisters around the world. My Muslim brother prays in his car five times a day when we works in the city and finds wholeness and peace; my Jewish colleague makes amazing food to share with others and lingers a long, long time at the table counting his blessings; my atheist friend hikes a trail and smiles at the beauty of trees around her. Our Sabbath connects us. We don’t need to run to sanctuaries, meetings, and events. They are not Sabbath. Instead, we feel the rhythm of life around us and in us—all created good by our Creator.

And we realize together that everyone—EVERYONE—is a good creation, deserving of food, of water, of land, and of Sabbath. And we claim the responsibility to care for the creation and to care for the people of the world. We don’t do it because we want to get something out of it; we don’t do it because we feel power; we care because we come from the earth—all of us. And we all our God-images—all of us. And we all deserve Sabbath—all of us.

And so I challenge you and myself to dig our hands in the dirt. I challenge you to recognize where you come from. I challenge you to stand up for others who are denied their good humanity and to help those who are denied their right to Sabbath in their lives. But in order to be who you were made to be, you are going to have to experience Sabbath in your own lives. Living Sabbath, being human, is about joy and thankfulness. It’s about relationship with the merciful, loving Creator. It’s about forgiving and being forgiven; it’s about justice that costs us something; it’s about love without strings; it’s about recognizing that everyone’s full humanity includes God’s creative work.

Get acquainted with the earth–

the earth that eventually will take you

and the world that hopefully will appear

to wake you.

Amen.


[1] The Jewish Encyclopedia.

[2] Popul Vuh.

Genesis #2: Creation is Pretty Cool

Genesis 1:14-25

 The Still-Creating God

How many of you have a baby book? I’m looking at mine right now. I also have my HS scrapbook that my mom put together before my HS graduation party. The only reason that I have these in front of me is because my parents just recently moved to Colorado and thus emptied their Josh memorabilia in my lap. Honestly, I haven’t looked at my baby book before. As for my HS scrapbook, I thought it was pretty cool when I was 17. But a week after my HS graduation, I was prepping for college and never looked at it again. I haven’t seen it since. It’s fun to reminisce and look at pictures, isn’t it? At the time when we put together these memory collections, they seem to be a pretty accurate summary of our lives—where we’ve been, what we looked like, the specific dates and occasions. It’s a bit like the Facebook timeline, which provides a year by year, linear sequence of pictures and events, places we’ve lived and worked, people we’ve connected to. But I admit to you that as I look through these pictures and walk down this nostalgic path, I see a baby or boy or a teenager far removed from the person I know to be myself. Do these snapshots with actual dates written on them tell the story of our lives? Or is there more to the story that goes far beyond what we see or write down?

We are looking at the creation stories in the book of Genesis. As we do that, we also reflect on our own stories—discovering where and when God’s story intersects with ours. It’s like what one of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Conner wrote: The divine will works in and through the most ordinary human motivations and aspirations.[1] Also, perhaps tonight and tomorrow you will hear the sound of a ram’s horn being blown, the shofar, because tonight begins the Jewish observance of Rosh Hashanah. It is indeed the Jewish New Year celebration to remember the creation of the world. So we, with our Jewish brothers and sisters, dig into the Genesis story, to reflect on the special relationship between God and humanity. Just as a reminder to all of us Christians–the book of Genesis is part of what we call the OT, but really it is part of the first 5 books of Moses, called the Torah or Pentateuch.

Also, a gentle reminder that the creation stories in Genesis are not black and white, scientific accounts of how all that we see came to be. These stories are not about proving something true or false. They are instead incredibly beautiful, creative, and mysterious narratives telling the story of the birth of the moon, sun, stars, land, water, plants, animals, and human beings. The Biblical accounts were never meant to be scientific proofs or history books. This was and is not their intent. Poetic writing, as Genesis clearly shows, is meant to draw out of us a playful and rich imagination. Genesis chapter one is part of the family of creation myths that exist around the world. Now for some reason, the word myth attached to Genesis can be troublesome for some. But let’s keep in mind what a myth actually is: a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation.[2] For generations, sacred myth stories have sought to express what is unexplainable in our human experiences. Just because something is a myth does mean that it is not true. But the truth of a myth lies not in its scientific explanations or proofs, but in the story’s message. GK Chesterton, famed English writer, once wrote: [even] fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.[3]

Perhaps we are afraid of referring to the Genesis creation stories as myths or fairy tales because we think that by doing so we dishonor God. But I think this sort of understanding of scripture is quite narrow. If we really think about it, what is the purpose of Genesis? Is it to prove scientific facts? Is it even to promote a religion? Or is it to express a genuine context and perspective of people trying to make sense of their lives? Is the story deeper than what appears on the surface? Whenever we look at a Bible story, we must always ask: who are the people writing this? Where did they live? What were they experiencing? Why would they write it in such a way? What inspired them and challenged them? And in this case, what were they afraid of? Keep in mind that every story comes from a deep, human place. When was Genesis written? We don’t really know. Some say before the Israelites’ exile in Babylonia [sixth century b.c.e.]; others say afterwards, so post-exile. But let’s just say that for the moment, we can escape timeless debates about when Genesis was written. Let’s imagine for a moment that pre or post exile–the Israelite people [including the hero character Moses]–were a suffering people. They were driven from their homes. They got lost. They were anxious for things to change. They needed hope. They lived in uncertainty. This is true to the story—the deep place it comes from. Much of Israelite story-telling is about remembering where they’ve been, the struggles they encountered, the hope they found, and how these experiences made them who they are.

And Genesis is of course an ancient writing. The people of ancient times saw the world differently. The stars, the moon, the sun, the land, the waters—they were all part of a miraculous, mysterious world. They didn’t have GPS tracking devices, cell phones, atlases, Google Earth, TV meteorologists, or sonar. They read the stars as they were. They measured the sun’s rising and setting as it naturally appeared and disappeared. They had great respect and fear for all of creation. Their perspective could not have been more different than ours is today. The ancient Israelites were like the indigenous peoples of the Americas–the Mayans, Aztecs, Navajos and Lenape–those who first walked these lands, people of the earth, sea, and sky. They heard, saw, and felt nature’s great acts. And in nature, they saw, heard, and felt their Creator. Truth be told, you and I cannot see the world as they did. We are living in 2012. Many of us cannot even remember a time before cell phones or the internet. Many of us have never hunted and gathered for our food or navigated the stars in a boat we built or followed a river to its source or cultivated crops in a once-barren land or measured the hours of the day and night by only the sun and the moon.

So in order for us to experience the meaning of the Genesis myth, we have to read it through other people’s eyes. Joseph John Campbell, a mythologist, once said: Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts — but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. I wonder, have you ever thought of the Genesis story as someone else’s story and not your own? What if we read Genesis as the story of the ancients, and stopped interpreting it according to our modern-day religion? How would that shift the meaning of the story for us?

Perhaps we would be more open to the imagination of it. Lights in the sky, signs, and seasons. Days are not 24 hours, but endless ages. Stars are more numerous than numbers can count. Sun sheds light generously—reminding us at the start of each day that whatever happened yesterday is over. Likewise, when the sun disappears on the horizon, we remember that the day is nearly done and all that we are stressing about because it’s incomplete can indeed wait; there is closure. The moon looms over us at night, lighting our path even when it’s dark. We remember that even when our lives seem aimless and full of doubt—light is still present, never leaving us. We are not alone. And then we just might hear the voice of the Creator, saying that it is good. Yes, the world is good. Even though it is full of wars, violence, and hate. Yes, it is good. Even though we struggle to forgive ourselves at times. It is good.

And the waters come rushing down the mountains forming great rivers that empty in the sea. If we hear them, we realize that water is a source of life. We could think about baptism; we could think about washing, cleansing, and making things new. The waters, of course, have their source in the ground and the sky—moisture forms in the ground and is lifted up into the clouds, which open up to rain down and the waters flow. It is nature’s great pilgrimage reminding us that we all have a common humanity, each one of us a common purpose. And then birds fly and fish swim; monkeys and squirrels climb and deer leap and buffalo run. So many species. So many varieties and yet so much harmony. They eat and drink what they need. They replenish the soil naturally. Their instincts lead them to symbiotic relationships with other animals and even with us, if we so choose. God sees them as good—not just mindless creatures. God sees them as good. And God speaks a blessing to them. Fill the waters and the trees and the lands. It’s meant to be. We are all connected. We are all good creations, in spite of how we destroy and neglect and forget to share the land, waters, and trees. It is still good, says God.

My hope for everyone is that the Genesis creation story ceases to be about religious or scientific debate. Instead, this story is about the Creator speaking, blessing, and giving life. And the story leads us to ask about our own stories: What is God speaking to us today? What is God creating today? How are we blessed today? Do we think of ourselves as good—along with trees, plants, animals, waters, sun, moon, and stars—all connected and purposeful?

We talk about a Still-Speaking God in the United Church of Christ. This phrase still-speaking and the phrase don’t place a period where God has placed a comma give testimony to a belief that God is not finished with us or with the world. The words written in this Bible are not frozen in time nor limited to traditional perspectives or church doctrines and dogmas. On the contrary, God is still speaking through the stories of the Bible. Getting caught up in human arguments that turn us into enemies is the wrong path to take. We are created to be grateful. We are made to offer our thanks and praise for life all around us–just as our ancient ancestors around the world did and still do.

Friends, God IS still speaking in your life–intending to create and bless you. Don’t let the darkness of life fool you—it’s part of good creation, too—and it also doesn’t last forever. Eventually, the night sky is it up by the sun. Eventually, the rains come and wash through us. We are created to realize that the Genesis story is a sacred myth—one with symbols and meaning and truth. It is a story. It’s not meant to be figured out; it’s meant to be enjoyed. And the story continues in our lives. For God is still speaking to you, still creating in you, still blessing you. Will you see and hear and feel this? Will you recognize that this is good? Will you see all others around you as good? The story is not finished. The Divine story mingles with our story. Participate in the creative, beautiful, good work of the Creator. See, hear, and feel where it takes you. Amen.


[1] Flannery O’Conner: Mystery and Manners, 1961

[2] Webster’s Dictionary

[3] Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel”;

In the Beginning….

Genesis 1:1-13 NRSV

 The Ginormous Story

VIDEO: Children of Eden

Let there be

Let there be

Let there be…light

I woke up from a curious dream
I dreamed a perfect garden
And there were whirling shapes
And swirling sounds
And I wasn’t lonely anymore

I woke up from a wonderful dream
Woke, full of energy and hunger
And now this hunger will be stilled
And my emptiness be filled
As I set about to build
My dream

Let there be, let there be morning
Let there be evening, day
Let there be, Let there be waters, weathers, winters, wonders
Let there be land and Speeding comets with hearts of ice!
Spinning planets with rings of fire!
Cosmic sparks and quasars and quarks
And suns convulsing
Pulsars pulsing
Let there be Whales! Snails! Sharks! Larks!
Apples trees with dappled barks!
And granite mountains and flaxen plains
Giant lizards with tiny brains
Flourescent fish and crescent worms
And a million bugs and trillion germs

Let there be
Let there be
Let there be

You just saw a performance of Children Of Eden, a musical based on the Genesis stories of scripture, book by John Caird of Les Miserables fame, and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, known also for Godspell and Wicked. This particular live staging is from the 2011 production of the Actors Charitable Theatre in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Children of Eden tackles one of the most known [and misunderstood] stories of scripture. Creation. Creator. Sky, water, land. Plants. Animals. People. How do we make sense of it all? Creation stories are huge in every culture of the world and certainly this particular creation story is not the only one. For example, in the Americas, the most well-known creation story that is truly American is the Popul Vuh, the Mayan story; in English, the Book of Counsel or Community. The Popol Vuh was found in the Guatemalan Highlands, somewhere around 1550. Its significance looms large because it is the main surviving Mesoamerican creation document; the others were destroyed during the various conquests. The Popol Vuh’s story focuses on the creation of all in nature, including human beings who eventually are made out of corn. Popul Vuh continues with the adventures of the twin gods, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.[1] Here is an excerpt:

This is the account of how all was in suspense, all calm, in silence; all motionless, still, and the expanse of the sky was empty. This is the first account, the first narrative. There was neither man, nor animal, birds, fishes, crabs, trees, stones, caves, ravines, grasses, nor forests; there was only the sky.  The surface of the earth had not appeared. There was only the calm sea and the great expanse of the sky. There was nothing brought together, nothing which could make a noise, nor anything which might move, or tremble, or could make noise in the sky. There was nothing standing; only the calm water, the placid sea, alone and tranquil. Nothing existed.

There was only immobility and silence in the darkness, in the night. Only the Creator, the Maker, Tepeu, Gucumatz, the Forefathers,* were in the water surrounded with light.[2]

For the next month or so, we will be focusing on stories—creation stories from sacred texts, but also the stories of our lives. While we explore the two creation stories in the book of Genesis, we journey alongside the children in our faith formation class, who are learning about the same stories. It is appropriate, too, that a week from now, Sept. 16-18, our Jewish brothers and sisters will be celebrating Rosh Hashana. This festival is the Jewish New Year celebration that commemorates the creation of the world. Jews pray and reflect on their sins against God or against their fellow human beings. Of course, there is food, special teaching and worship, and the Shofar–ram’s horn—an instrument blown to symbolize an awakening from spiritual slumber. Rosh Hashanah is a time to emphasize the special relationship between God and humanity. So it is appropriate for us to be exploring Genesis during this time; after all, Genesis [bresheit in Hebrew] is one of the five books of Moses called the Torah [or Pentateuch]. Remember too that the word “torah” can also be used to refer to the entire Jewish bible (the body of scripture known to non-Jews like us as the Old Testament and to Jews as the Tanakh or Written Torah). Torah can also mean, very broadly, the whole body of Jewish law and teachings.[3] As we look at the Genesis creation stories, remember that these stories are shared. Christians, Jews, and Muslims draw from the same stories—though we often write and speak in different languages.

Of course, there are a million different directions in which to go with this first Genesis creation story. Right of the bat, let me say something. We’re often tempted to turn Genesis into a science vs. religion argument. This debate is distracting, because surely we cannot compare the days of creation in Genesis 1 or the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 &3 to the theory of evolution. Do we really expect this road to lead us to real answers? Instead, we must all keep in mind that the Genesis stories are small parts of a larger story—just like our daily stories are part of the great-big story of our lives. In fact, as I mentioned before, the word Torah is used to describe different parts of one big thing. So Genesis is not just about chapters 1-3, but about the whole, ginormous story. Let us look at the creation stories as scenes in a larger act of a dramatic play. There are characters. There are sets. There are lighting schemes, entrances and exits, symbols, and props. And someone wrote it!

Who did write these creation stories? In traditional Judaism and Christianity, the Pentateuch [five books] is considered a faithful and exact record of the word of G-d to the prophet, Moses. On the other hand, there are many who believe that various authors at various times put together these stories in Genesis. This is known as the Documentary Hypothesis or JPED. Honestly, I don’t have time in a sermon to explain this. But let’s just say that there are many perspectives about Genesis authorship—debates that go on and on. Of course, archeological discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls open up even more debate about the Bible. I think we miss the point though, if we focus only on the author[s] of Genesis. Any great story that we cherish surely has an author or authors. But it is the story itself that we cherish. So it is with Genesis and any sacred text. The story is sacred to us and to Jews and Muslims alike, because faith plays a part in it. People of faith believe that God is in the story, that God is the main character who loves humankind and is active in their lives. There is no room for hate, exclusion, or separation in such a story of hope, beauty, and divine spark. Who wrote it–Important perhaps–but a question that probably won’t be answered to our satisfaction.

And anyway, Genesis isn’t trying to bombard us with details to figure out. Much is actually hidden in the story—yet to be revealed and written—without periods and exclamation points, but instead, a story with commas and three dots in a row. Even the start of Genesis 1:1 is mysterious. In the beginning is actually the title of this writing. There is no date set for when everything started. Was it a big bang or a cosmic collision of stars? These things are not important in the story. What is important is that Elohim [God] was…darkness was…then Creator began creating…plants, animals, sky, land, water…harmony…and above all—light! These words and phrases at the start of Act 1 are important. They are setting the stage; they are dramatic, beautiful, and mysterious. And they reflect upon us a hopeful, wonderful idea—that this Elohim-Creator can break through darkness, chaos, and emptiness. This Creator wants light to happen, to reveal, to shine, and to be…good. In these first few words of the great-big-story, we discover a bit about the personality of this Creator, to be revealed more and more. This Creator enjoys creating. This Creator thinks light is pretty special. This Creator judges all that is made as good.

Honestly, though, most of us have skipped ahead in the story. We know that this Creator kept on creating. We know that the story keeps moving forward to human beings. The story continues on in Exodus. We hear the story of Moses and the Israelites. They struggle, but this Creator goes before, with, and after them. They journey. They develop a relationship with this Creator. They love and are loved; they walk in darkness and find light. And then, as Christians, we skip ahead to places like the Gospel of John, re-telling and re-interpreting this story with: 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. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.[4] The story gets personal. We start to see hope in this Creator. Life and light shining even in all of our darkness? A Creator’s light and love that can overcome all of the emptiness and fear inside us–this is good!

And that is part of our story, isn’t it? For we all have stories of pain, sadness, joy, hope, despair, light, and darkness. Some of us tell ongoing stories without periods and mostly commas–how we are still overcoming darkness. Sometimes we tell stories of addiction. Sometimes we tell stories of broken relationships, of times when we felt that we were completely alone. At moments, our stories are joyful: we finish school; we find a life partner who loves us; we forgive and are forgiven. Our stories often include births and deaths, tragedies and triumphs. And all these little, daily stories are part of a ginormous one.

Friends, I believe that the creation story is best experienced as part of our own personal story—not as a black-and-white description of what really “happened” billions of years ago. I think that if we experience it personally, then we have the opportunity to experience re-creation and renewal in ourselves, alongside Jews, Muslims, and all who share this planet. For we all have stories to share and to tell. Our stories remind us of our common values and humanity, our common questions, our common love, hope, and need for community. And this creation story reminds us that the Creator is interested in love, in light, and in all that is good. This should move us to see our neighbors around us as good creations; this should move us to care for trees, and plants, and animals. This should move us to love.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson puts it this way:

The first story we are given is of a God who cannot bear to be alone. A God who is driven by love to create a world of flowering and cascading diversity in which nothing is precisely like what came before it; in which each new creature is delightfully fresh and novel; in which God, thrilled by each new creation, says: This is good. God cannot be God if God cannot love.[5]

And so, good creations of God that you are—tell your stories. Listen to someone else’s story. And may love and light be the threads that weave our stories together. Amen.


[2] Popol Vuh: Part I, Chapter 1

[3] The Book of the Torah, Mann, Thomas. http://www.jewfaq.org/torah.htm

[4] John 1:1-5, NRSV.

[5] Shavit Artson, Bradley, The Bible is a Book of Inclusion and Love.

A Response

Mark 7:1-23     

 The Human Heart Leads Us…

           Today’s story is in the Gospel of Mark. Remember that Mark is known to be the first Gospel written—the one that the other Gospels borrow from. Imagine yourself in Syria. Yes, a long time ago, but in Syria. The authors of Mark may have gathered together this collection of stories there, sometime around 70 C.E. These writings seem to be aimed at a specific audience: Greek-speaking non-Jewish people [called Gentiles], living under Roman rule. So imagine yourself there, in that context. Mark must explain Jewish traditions you see, because the readers aren’t aware. They don’t really know the Torah [books of Moses] or even the Talmud [Jewish oral tradition]. They don’t really know or understand all the religious rules of the synagogue [called the temple]. And they don’t speak Hebrew, they speak Greek. So imagine yourself a Gentile; wait, we are!

          And now imagine Jesus of Nazareth, a man of Jewish heritage, educated in Jewish law, the Torah, the Talmud, the religious practices. This Jesus knew the Pharisees and the Sadducees well. The Pharisees were the Jewish people who believed in authority from the oral law, which was their tradition of interpreting the Torah [Moses Law]. The Sadducees [often called scribes], on the other hand, only recognized Moses’ Law, the Torah. So you can see why these two groups both of the same basic religious belief system were at odds with each other. And notice that they came from Jerusalem, the big city, the religious epicenter, the temple’s resting place. They were the religious elites. But they found Jesus in the towns, in rural areas, in Galilee, far from the temple. And he was with Gentiles who knew very little about laws and religion. They were the marginalized.

          Obviously, the Pharisees and Sadducees noticed that these Gentiles were outsiders; they were different. They ate food without washing their hands properly. Ew! But it wasn’t that the Pharisees and scribes were acting like parents telling their kids to wash their hands before dinner. They were actually more concerned with tradition than they were with germs. They were religiously Gentile-phobic. Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands? they asked. This was a huge barrier between people—all this religious tradition. Jesus knew it and so he was convinced that this issue of Gentiles being unclean needed to be settled once and for all. Otherwise, this kingdom community of God idea, where all were welcomed, would not be viable.

          I’m actually really glad that I never got into a debate with Jesus. He was good. He went right to the Hebrew Scriptures, quoting Isaiah: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. The temple authorities, according to Jesus, were ignoring the commandment of God and clinging tightly to human traditions. That’s a direct reference to the Pharisees’ claim that their oral tradition was of God, just like the Torah Law. But Jesus called it mere human habit. And he brought it home by talking about the family, more specifically, mom and dad. Honor your father and your mother. A big commandment.

          And then he drops a word we don’t know and once again you and I definitely feel like clueless Gentiles. Korban. Korban was a word that meant money or assets willed to the Jerusalem temple. These korban monies could no longer be used by a family once someone made a vow of korban, promising this money to the temple; there was no way to go back on it. It didn’t matter if tragedy hit your household, if someone needed assistance, even if mom and dad were dirt poor. Korban was final. So it was a huge contradiction. Both Pharisees and scribes claimed to follow God’s commandments, and yet, how were they really honoring their father and mother if they gave all their money to the temple and refused to help their families in need?

          This statement seemed to quiet the Pharisees and scribes, because Jesus then had plenty of time to address the Gentile crowds. Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. Now the story shifts. Jesus and the religious leaders had been arguing about the body, the external, what was clean or dirty. Now Jesus talked about what was on the inside; the heart. Notice the thematic word-play. The Pharisees and scribes were religious insiders who mocked those like the Gentiles who were outsiders. The Pharisees and scribes were concerned about what was outside the body. Jesus was concerned with only the inside. Now let’s get to the heart of the matter, pun intended.

          For the ancient Hebrews, the word for heart was lev, spelled lamed-beit. The heart was the center of personality and being. As described by Jewish scholars and writers, the heart is the inner self—what it means to be human. It is intellect and rational thought. The heart is memory, emotions, determination, desire, will, and courage. The heart is completely an internal concept. What is external, on the outside, does not affect the heart. This understanding is quite different than much of the Western world’s thinking about the heart, which can often include the idea that “the devil made me do it.” That Western thinking does not exist in the majority of Biblical Jewish thought. Instead, when we as humans act, our action is motivated by our heart—not some external force causing us to be bad or good. Therefore, people have the ability to choose which impulse to follow, a dichotomy of the heart. The two sides to the heart in rabbinic understanding are yetzer hatov [good inclination] and yetzer hara [evil inclination]. But it’s important for us to understand that yetzer hara is not some demonic force that forces someone to do something bad. Instead, it is a drive towards pleasure, property, or security. Pursuing these things is not evil, but if we pursue it without limit, it can lead to evil. This idea is appears in the book of Genesis.

          All human beings, therefore, have the ability to choose. This is the basic concept of free will. In the Talmud [the Jewish oral tradition], it notes that all people are descendants of Adam. Therefore, no one can blame his/her own bad impulses on their ancestry. Everyone makes his/her own choices; everyone is responsible for those choices. You can see why this more Jewish understanding of the heart is important if we are to better understand what Jesus was teaching. In the Western world, we most often associate the brain with thought and the heart with emotion. The ancient Hebrews, however, saw the heart as the mind—including both thinking and feeling. Apply this to Deuteronomy 6:5: Love God with all your heart. This is not just an emotion, but also a thoughtful process of making decisions and acting on them.

          I’m fascinated and encouraged by such an understanding of the heart that in the American Christian church we have misunderstood, or in some cases, pushed to the side. It’s easy, you see, for us to verbally attack the Pharisees and the scribes, noting their legalistic nature and obsession with religious rules. They exclude; they marginalize others; they are hypocrites. But let’s keep in mind the story in Mark. Jesus doesn’t just criticize Pharisees and scribes; he makes a statement about human beings in general, including his disciples. We are all hypocrites—all of us. We are all legalistic; we all marginalize others with our religious rules. The question is: will we admit it and turn away from such attitudes that indeed, come from within our hearts?

          In Christian circles these days, there is a lot of focus on who belongs in or who is left out of the church. Some draw the line with certain sexual behaviors or orientations. Still others invite into their church only those who vote just like them and agree on certain political and social issues. Other churches are just fine with everybody being Anglo-Saxon; or English-only. Many churches welcome people of the same social level and leave out those who have less material wealth or a limited educational background. It’s tiresome. Really. I’m weary of all this. Thankfully, Jesus has something to say about it. All of us who think we’re church insiders who know what God’s law is and which religious rules people ought to follow—we are left on the outside. This is ironic to be sure, but it’s what Jesus taught. It’s also what Paul taught, even though many have misinterpreted much of his writings. Paul wrote in Romans 2:29: But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.

          So why do we continue to keep discriminating by the letter and neglecting the heart? Why are some out and others in? Why do we keep focusing on external rules and neglect the inward heart? The Christ teaching is that sure–we can follow doctrines, religious rules and rites, but they do us no good if we neglect the heart. Our inward self is what actually moves us to do what matters most in the world. It is our heart and not our rules that matters most to our neighbors. Yes, friends, we are all more than capable of evil, of stealing, of killing, of cheating, lying, gossiping, selfishness, envy, and cowardice. But we are also fully capable of good, compassion, love, sharing, healing, justice, truth, encouragement, generosity, gratefulness, and courage.

          What Jesus asked his disciples to do was to consider what matters most in life. Do we care more about external religious rules? Or do we care more about the internal heart? Do we care more that people see us performing pious acts so they will call us a good Christian or a religious person? Or, do we care more about being honest with ourselves and with God, claiming our decisions [good and bad] as our own, not blaming or judging others? Jesus of Nazareth made it clear: in God’s community of reconciling love, dirty hands and feet, people who cannot follow all the rules, they are welcome and accepted. The Pharisees, the scribes—they are also welcomed and accepted. The people who pray and the people who don’t know how; those who read the Bible a lot and those who are afraid to; people who marry, divorce, drink, smoke, dance badly, sing well, speak languages other than English; those who laugh and those who cry; people who have hope and those with none; kids, babies, teenagers, adults; religious and non-religious alike. This is God’s community.

          And we are invited in—even if we’ve felt like we’ve been on the outside. And we’re invited to accept responsibility for those times when we hurt someone or caused evil. And we’re encouraged to ask for forgiveness, humbly and honestly. And as broken human beings who daily struggle with our heart’s motivation, we can encounter hope in the message of Jesus. For God knows our hearts, knows what we are capable of. And this Still-Forgiving God extends compassion and mercy to us so that we can remember that we are capable of doing good in the world. This is the heart of the matter. This is the core of life. We are to listen to our hearts. We are to cultivate all that is merciful and compassionate within it. We are to recognize also its imperfections so as not to hide them. We are to love God and our neighbor by using our brains, feeling emotions, and moving our feet. What is on the inside will always bear fruit on the outside. Amen.

Hmmm…Bread

John 6:35-51

NYE Reflection #4: Imitating Bread

 

VIDEO/STORY: JR Martinez: you have a voice: you want to make a change?

JR Martinez’s story is inspiring. In the blink of an eye he went from a confident nineteen-year-old in Iraq cruising in the desert in a Humvee to a helpless, burning soul trapped inside a military truck torn apart by a landmine. Then, a bitter, painful recovery in a hospital bed. 34% of his body burned, lacerated liver, broken ribs. A glimpse into a mirror to see that his face and body would never be the same. He shouldn’t have survived. Even when he did make it to a hospital, he almost didn’t survive. How could he recapture his will to live? What was the point? But something clicked in JR after his mom strongly told him that it didn’t matter what he looked like on the outside. He started to realize that no matter how dark the place was that he was in, it mattered more how we he would choose to live his life. What mattered most was who he was and how he lived. So seven months later as an outpatient he visited another injured, depressed patient and shared his story with him. JR found that this helped that individual hope. He started visiting other patients. He started encouraging people with his story. He started to uphold a new philosophy by keeping 2 words in his back pocket: adapt and overcome. JR moved from imagining to happening. Rather than being paralyzed by the tragedies and struggles of life, he chose to act, and his voice and his story continue to bless people and inspire them to make positive changes in their lives.

Katie Britt, one of the participants from UCCW, was inspired and moved by the whole experience of NYE. Katie has a unique perspective and reflection that she will share with you now.

As I hear Katie tell her story–as I remember JR Martinez’s story—I am inspired and encouraged by how their experiences, but good and bad, moved them to do something positive. I know that Katie will take these experiences with her to college and find ways to bless others and accept all people for who they are. She will encounter obstacles, but like JR, Katie will find ways to adapt and overcome. But I admit to you that this week most of my thoughts have stayed in the dark place that JR talked about, as I continue to think about the events of last Sunday. I’m sure most of you know of what happened in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, at the Sikh Gurudwara, the place of prayer, worship, and community for members of the Sikh religious community. A peaceful and well-established community of Sikhs in that part of Wisconsin is devastated by the loss of six human beings at the hands of a gunman. There is no explanation, no appropriate words to say. It’s just tragedy, loss, anger, sadness, and pain. When I heard about the shooting, my mind raced back to our visit to the Sikh Gurudwara in West Philadelphia. It was only last December 4th that members of this church—youth and adults—experienced the hospitality of the Sikh community in Philly. We experienced their prayer service, wore head scarves, and shared food with them. And now this. One of over more than 700 attacks on Sikh communities in the United States since the events of September 11th, 2001. Why Sikhs? What have they done? Have they prayed too much? Have they been too peaceful? Why?

The answer lies on the outside. Many, many people in this country see turbans and headscarves and think one thing: Muslim. Still others move much further to: terrorist. Suddenly, what’s on the outside seems to matter so much more than what’s on the inside. I spent a few days talking with my friends and colleagues in the Philadelphia interfaith community. There was candlelight vigil in Philadelphia. There were letters, phone calls, and emails to the Wisconsin Sikhs, but also to the Philly Sikhs. Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus–people of various faiths wanted to show their support and express their great sadness. But I sat in emptiness wondering why it always takes something as horrific as this for us to wake up. I questioned why especially in our Christian churches we choose to remain so ignorant of our neighbors—how they live, practice their faith, who they are as people. I just wondered if we actually lived what we say we believe on Sundays—how would that change our world, or at least the little corners of the world we live in? Instead of being silent, what if we used our voices loudly to speak out against discrimination and prejudice? What if we believed that the men, women, children, and youth of the Sikh community were part of our family?

And then my thoughts turned to bread—the delicious bread that the Sikh people shared with us on that December afternoon. We dipped it in the curry and the yogurt sauce. We laughed. We learned as they taught us. We asked questions. We sat on the floor together. I left the Sikh Gurudwara filled. Why? Was it the bread, or was it something else, something way more significant and important? And why now, after the violent event of last Sunday, did I feel so empty? I felt hollow and with a bad taste in my mouth, because I don’t understand how we as human beings can hate, hurt, and kill simply because of someone’s appearance, or simply because we don’t know anything about them and they are different, so we assume that they are a threat to us. And my emptiness deepens when I think about my own Christian community—that often we are silent when it comes to injustices, persecutions, prejudices, and hate. I watch the NYE videos and remember how accepting and passionate about justice the youth were for those 5 days in Indiana, and I wonder why we don’t keep that going.

And I continue to think about bread—and this time, I wonder about the bread that Jesus talked about. We’re reading John’s Gospel again, and once again, we find Jesus using that famous I AM statement. Should bring us back to the Moses and the burning bush story. The I AM, ego eimi in Greek, appears 24 times in John’s Gospel. It’s Jesus taking on a prophetic role, being the voice and human embodiment of the Still-Speaking God. This time, I AM the bread of life. The divine name of God is linked with earthly, natural things. It makes sense if you think about it. The dust had settled after such an amazing event involving fish and bread [again] when 5000+ people were fed. People were in awe. Jesus wasn’t impressed, though. He tried to move the people to think differently about what had happened. They were thinking about wheat, white, rye, or pumpernickel. Jesus was thinking about life. The people remembered manna from heaven—all the things from their past. Jesus called them to the here and now.

So of course there was resistance to Jesus’ message, but it wasn’t as we often paint it. It wasn’t resistance from the Jews in general. Keep in mind that Jesus himself and the majority of his disciples were Jews. No, this resistance and argument came from within Judaism itself. The Jews of the temple aristocracy were not ready to accept this new perspective that seemed to feed so many with radical ideas. Again in John’s story, our author reminds us that Jesus wanted the people to “see” with new eyes. In order to understand living bread the people needed to see a new way.

It’s at this point that Jesus brings his message home. He uses the phrase “truly, truly,” what we call the double amen saying. The double amen is meant to grab our attention, to let us know that something important comes next. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. But the English translation of whosoever believes sells the Greek short. This isn’t about believing in something [like a doctrine or dogma] and then obtaining eternal life. It’s a verb in Greek that is less related to the head and more about action. Truly, truly, I say to you, whosoever lives faith has eternal life. Consistently, Jesus’ message was that faith involved an action. People were not healed simply because they “believed” in their heads. They were healed because they reached out to touch a cloak, put down their mats to walk, ripped off bandages, climbed trees, and physically changed direction. The eternal life, the living bread, was not some sort of heavenly goal that you waited for your whole life, but was instead a way of day-to-day living in the now of God’s loving presence.

As people sought to live out this idea, the concept got practical. Be Imitators of God, Paul said. Don’t just talk about Jesus and living bread, but live it out in the world. Don’t just say you love God, but show it by loving another person. Don’t just talk about justice, but make it happen in your community. Don’t just quote scriptures, prayers, and songs, but walk, run, jump, and move to do works of compassion and mercy. Bread that lives. A message grounded in action. It’s like Mahatma Gandhi once said: my life is my message. Jesus of Nazareth modeled this. As bread of life, he gave his life for the service and love of others. He became nourishment for those who were hungry, refreshment for those who were thirsty. He embodied this. Then he mentored others to do the same. We, imitators of God, are to be bread for the world. We are to embody this love, grace, compassion, and life-giving service in the world. But we must remember that we are not perfect—not superhuman bread, not puffed up about it, not pious, not overly proud or sure that we’re better because we’re bread. Otherwise, we will not be nourishment or refreshment to those around us. But if we’re ourselves, admitting that we don’t have all the answers, that we fall, too; that we struggle with faith, money, family, behavior, and life—we humbly become the bread that truly feeds people. Those who encounter us will find a friend or an advocate. Those who are oppressed or pushed down will find safety in our standing with them and for them.

Friends, as people of faith who follow this Jesus Christ, we are supposed to believe that our lives are active participation in the work of God that feeds the world. We’re called to embody a God who gives of self without reward in mind. We’re meant to eat of the living bread that fills our souls with compassion, honesty, mercy, and love. But if we claim this bread, this Jesus Christ, we do so at our own peril. As fellow preacher Rev. Juan Huertas says:

We cannot eat of this bread and forget.
We cannot eat of this bread and walk away.
We cannot eat of this bread and go on with life as usual.[1]

My empty feeling this week stem from this disappointment—that in the church we often pay little attention to being “feeding people,” we spend less energy seeking to be a community of the “living bread for the world.” Sadly, we often spend more energy fighting over the things that separate us, the things that exclude others, that close our doors. We even start to question whether certain people are created equally in God’s image. And yet, we’re offered this living bread. What will we do with it? Will we replace hate with love, ignorance with understanding? Will we decide that being a follower of Christ means living as a follower of Christ, being bread of life for whosoever needs it? I hope and pray that it doesn’t take tragedies for us to really do this. May we use our voices to encourage, bless, and stand for justice. May our hands and feet move to acts of compassion. May we be living bread in all places and times. May we see with new eyes that this kind of living is God’s loving presence in the world. Amen.

 


[1] Rev. Juan Huertas pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

One

John 6:24-35

 NYE Reflection #3: What Must We Do to Be One?

 The sounds, the images, the feelings of National Youth Event still linger on. Indeed, we imagined a better world and a blessed community in which all people were welcomed and accepted for who they are, and their gifts embraced. Our imaginations were expanded to believe that this just might be possible, even in our hometowns and cities. And then, after the thrill and wonder of it all, we got on buses and we came home. Back to the grind of work, preparation for school, the daily routine, and life. And the great event we experienced and the miracle of blessed community that filled us and made us whole now was in our memories. But what next…

And so it was for the characters in our Gospel story in John, just right after the great event of the feeding of the 5000 and then Jesus’ Gold medal performance in the Olympic water walking event. Crowds of people were looking for Jesus all over the place and couldn’t find him. When they finally did, he was on the other side of Lake Galilee. Apparently, Jesus’ bus didn’t blow a tire. The crowds weren’t looking for him so they could thank him for such a great teaching or because they were so satisfied by the sign of such a great meal of bread and fish with such an open community. They went looking for Jesus because they wanted more. And, they wanted to figure out what all this meant. But what next…

As they found out, though, they were not about to get more bread for their stomachs or another miracle, but instead an interpretation of what had happened. Your stomachs are full, said Jesus, the supposed miracle man of Nazareth. Don’t eat the food that doesn’t last, but eat the food that lasts forever. Well, the people had to have been interested now. Not only had Jesus filled their hungry stomachs, but now he was promising to give them a lifetime supply of all they could eat buffets! Imagine getting the word from your favorite restaurant that you can come whenever you want and eat all you want for free. They were ready for that and said: Okay, Jesus, so what do we have to do to perform the works of God? In other words, just tell us what to do so we can get what we want! But again, not quite the answer they expected. Jesus responded with: Believe in the one whom God sent, and that is a work of God. Uh, okay. But they needed a way to control this God-stuff, something tangible so they could believe in it.

                   So the people spoke: What miracle will you perform so we can believe in you? What are you doing that’s so special, Jesus? I mean, look—our ancestor Moses was pretty awesome, because when we were stranded in the wilderness, Moses gave us bread that fell out of the sky. It didn’t require some ornery kid with a few loaves and fishes. If fell out of the sky, man!

Then Jesus spoke: Really? You’re going to bring Moses into this? He didn’t give you that bread from heaven. It was GOD, by the way, and the bread that GOD gives you is way better than any buffet you could imagine. GOD’S bread gives life even to the whole world! Now the people were REALLY excited, because this sounded even better than the manna: Give us this bread always. But Jesus said: I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. And then the 14 hour bus ride seemed like 24.

          They were focusing on the wrong kind of bread, of course. Their bread would eventually get stale. And Jesus was asking them to widen their perspective to experience the bread that endures. Meno is the Greek word for endures in verse 27. Meno is used often in John to describe Jesus’ relationship with those who follow him. You remember the image of the vine and branches. Jesus said: If you Abide/Endure in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Abide/Endure in my love. This enduring bread is a metaphor of Jesus’ relationship with us, humanity. This relationship is accessible to all. There are no left out people, because this relationship endures. It endures through changing cultures, times, and circumstances. This relationship bread nourishes us and sustains us.

At National Youth Event, we experienced much of what this enduring relationship can look like. We were together and all being fed in the way we needed to be. I was so impressed with the acceptance, tolerance, and compassion of the teenagers. I saw this kind of abiding love in them. We looked forward to what we would do with this nourishment—how we would bless people. But our bread and fishes miracle event didn’t last forever. Eventually, we all returned to our homes and churches. Sadly, reality was different than what we experienced in Indiana. For if we’re honest, we know that the bread we most often consume is WAY below the standards of bread we are offered. Like the crowds in our story, instead of looking forward, we look back to our past and think that the things of old will always satisfy us–even if some of those things are intolerance, prejudice, close-mindedness, fear. Like the people looking for Jesus, we keep looking for something to satisfy us and quite frankly, we never find it, because we are looking for the wrong things. Sitting in a pew won’t satisfy us; proclaiming a doctrine or creed won’t fill our stomachs; quoting Bible texts to support our point of view won’t quench our thirst; walking through the old rituals won’t make us whole; hanging out with the same people who are just like us won’t enrich us; just believing without living it doesn’t bless people.

          I think there’s so much to this bread metaphor, if we’re willing to embrace it. So much grace, because in a world full of conflicts, walls, divisions, and unsatisfying things, we can choose to believe in a GOD who endures with us through it all. We can choose to believe in a God who is present in our suffering–always there and still loving us when we doubt and fear and say unspeakable things when no one is watching or listening. We can choose to fill our mind and hearts with an eternally patient and forgiving God of love, even when others seem so eternally impatient and hateful. We can choose to remain, abide, and endure in a love and mercy that is meant for ALL people. We can choose to believe that our mountaintop, miracle moments that often end abruptly in a bus ride serve to push us forward with new energy, joy, perspective, and hope. They miracle events may not last, but the bread will.  

And the bread is meant for all people. If you ask me, that’s where we get sidetracked, when we lose purpose today in the church. We ought to consider such wonderful bread as a gift that is not limited to just us or to those we like. We ought to endure in our own walk with God–not criticizing someone else’s relationship with God because it’s not like ours. See, we’re all tempted at some point to go looking for Jesus to try and make sense of this faith thing and this God stuff, to fit it into a category, but we miss the point. Faith, God’s love and mercy–this enduring relationship—are not things to make sense of. They are things to embrace; to be thankful for; faith and God’s enduring love is for us to live.  

None of this church stuff matters unless we live it out there. Now listen, regardless of whether you like or don’t like the letters of Paul in the New Testament, this Ephesians passage certainly is relevant. The dynamic was this: in the 1st Century, Jews and those who were not Jews [Gentiles] had a hard time accepting each other. Both groups couldn’t quite wrap their minds around the concept of unity through reconciliation. It was really difficult for them to accept that those “far off” were now equally gifted by God and that the dividing walls had been torn down through Christ.

I don’t think the distinction of Jew and Gentile works for us in our context. Today there are different walls between people. We make distinctions between races or ethnicities. He’s black, she’s white; he’s brown; she’s yellow; you’re green. We divide ourselves by social class—rich; paycheck to paycheck; just scraping by or dirt poor; bmw or bicycle or Septa bus; big house with a nice yard or one bedroom apt or cardboard box. We build walls of sexuality—gay or straight; bi or trans; active or chaste. And like the 1st Century folk, we separate by religious belief or lack thereof—Christian [with too many categories to name], Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Agnostic, Atheist, Neopagan, Sacred Earth.

          And yet, the dream of God for us—for all people—is that through the enduring, reconciling bread of Christ, unity is still possible. Jesus was the one who broke down the dividing wall or the hostility between us. But unity—being one—does not mean that we are all the same. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Unity doesn’t blur distinctions or uniqueness. The Body of Christ, what we today refer to as the church, is defined as: the wisdom of God in its rich variety. It’s all these different people bearing with one another. The uniqueness doesn’t go away, nor should it. The uniqueness is a blessing. And it doesn’t prevent us from growing together.

          In fact, it is our acceptance of one another as we are that helps us claim the really, really satisfying bread. When we speak up for someone who is not our best friend when he is bullied; when we reach out to help someone who doesn’t speak our language; when we show hospitality to a stranger; when we invite in someone left on the outside; when we rejoice, cry, laugh, pray, eat, dance, sing, hug, donate, repair, cook, lift up, encourage, and surprise with kindness. THAT is the fruit of our enduring relationship with our God. Because we all eventually go home and face reality. We all find ourselves looking for Jesus and purpose and something to satisfy us. And then, we realize that the most important part of the bread that lasts is how we burn the calories. Who do we love? Who do we help? Who do we reconcile with? Who do we call friend? And then, with these actions inspired by the bread, we do find unity. And we find wholeness, too. Amen.

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