Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘still-speaking’

Aside

Still Speaking and Water Still Flowing

Matthew 3:13-17

funny-baby-catholic-baptismBaptism stories are always fun to tell because if you think about it, what is stranger, funnier, or more awkward than dressing up someone in white clothes, sprinkling water on his/her head and rubbing it into his/her hair while people stare? Or, if you come from another tradition, what is odder than dunking the person in a religious bathtub, a pond, or some body of water while people stare? Wearing white in this case is also awkward because that means whatever is underneath is of great importance.

Hmmm….do I go with the Steelers jersey underneath the white, see-through robe, or the Led Zeppelin t-shirt?
Whether someone is baptized as an infant or a child, as a teenager or as an adult…we have to admit that this ceremony is a bit weird.

So last Sunday I was asked to lead such a ceremony at a friend’s house. Mom and dad, two honest people, were just not sure what it was…a baptism, a dedication, a christening…what do these things mean and what we were actually going to do?

Really good questions, actually.

What are these things and what are we going to do?

50+ people were staring intently at this baby boy all dressed in white and screaming his eyelids out. He was red in the face; would he ever stop crying? Mom and dad tried to soothe him and so did the two godparents looking on. But he just wailed louder. I finally put the water on his head.

First time [Creator]: kid is still screaming.
Second time [Jesus]: tears rolling down like a waterfall.
Third time will be the charm, right? Spirit: he didn’t like it one bit.

Even his dad was like…geez, this kid is not content right now. So I said the blessing and a benediction—as fast as I could. Poor kid—he probably just wanted to eat; or sleep; or get the diaper changed. And here I was talking about him to all those people and asking his parents questions and then putting water on his head and oh, that white outfit just wasn’t a good look for him. I don’t blame him for crying. Man, these baptism/dedication/christening things are so weird.

I still think that the parent’s questions were right on.

What is this and what are we going to do?

heQiBaptismWhat is this Christian rite of baptism [just another way of saying tradition]? What is this so-called sacrament? There are a hundred different answers and it depends on your tradition. For the sake of time, let’s just say that a sacrament in general terms is a ceremony or ritual that has some sort of religious or spiritual significance. But some people take that much more seriously than others. I would argue, though, that most people take it just about as seriously as my two friends who had their kid screaming through the whole thing. They both wanted to do something to mark the occasion of the birth of their child. They wanted family and friends to be there and experience it. They wanted to celebrate and eat and drink.

But it was less about religious tradition and more about all that other stuff.

For the house was filled with Catholics, all kinds of Protestants, and plenty of agnostics/atheists and non-religious folks.

What is this?

What are we going to do?

The water ceremony—at least for me—is more about identity and community than anything else. I said this to the whole group gathered: it takes a whole village to raise a child. I asked them to agree to be part of that village. I asked mom and dad to agree to give freedom to their kid to explore spirituality and to ask questions. I asked the godparents be honest and to be mentors.

And I reminded everybody that this crying baby was….a baby. All of this won’t be remembered. He will have no recollection of the so-called sacrament. Even one day when he’s older and people show him pictures, he will still not directly connect to that experience.

So what was this?

It was, in all honesty, a moment for the adults—the friends and family—to embrace each other and their commitment to be the village that raises the kid.

And what will they do?

That question is yet to be answered. The kid, as he grows up, will answer with his own life. His family and friends will answer by how they accept and love him, mentor him, and teach him.

Fortunately for him, it’s quite possible that he will never again have some strange guy rub water on his head or say strange words while he’s crying.

You know, Jesus was baptized, too, but it was a lot different. It’s a story told by all 4 Gospels. Jesus wasn’t a baby, but an adult. And there was no ordained clergy to put water on his head in the name of the Trinity or whatever. Jesus’ baptism story must have been strange, because all 4 Gospels tell a very different version of the same event.

Kind of makes we wonder if this cartoon about Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount is right:
funny-pictures-auto-scumbag-jesus-469460Yep. The Gospels of the NT often tell very different versions of the same story. Why? In storytelling, the audience matters. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s Gospels were all written for and to different people. So each Gospel tells its own story so as to make sense to the hearers.

Matthew’s version includes a unique dialogue between John and Jesus. John is hesitant to baptize Jesus. “No, Jesus, I should be baptized by you—not the other way around.” It’s almost like a “you first, no you first” kind of kid’s game. Well, that happens until Jesus reassures John that it’s okay for John to be the baptizer. Jesus literally tells John: Release it. Let it go. All the ideas of hierarchical relationships—who should baptize, who should be baptized, religious rites, etc.—let it go. This is a clear attempt by Matthew to address some controversy in the early church. You see, some people were uncomfortable with Jesus being baptized by someone else. That would imply John in the role of priest and Jesus as underneath John. At least, that was their worldview.

But that’s not all. Many wondered: isn’t baptism supposed to be reserved for sinners? So how in the world could Jesus be baptized? Some people believed that Jesus was without sin. So to them, this makes no sense!

Matthew’s Gospel is of course making a point—or at least trying to. Unfortunately, many so-called religious people limit the waters of baptism to a chosen few—people they choose. But Jesus, in Matthew’s story, contradicts that. Water [and baptism] is for everyone. It’s for all who are not perfect.

And that’s everyone.

Jesus is on the same level as us; he is immersed in water just like anybody else; he identifies as real person. The heavens open, but not to prove some sort of religious doctrine or to fit into church hierarchy.

The heavens open to mark the occasion as important, for sure. Pay attention, world. God doesn’t show favoritism. God is pleased because God desires for humans to understand identity. God is not some cold, non-empathetic deity equipped with rotating, exploding judgment lightning bolts, although that might be a cool anime movie.
GodInstead, God understands suffering, and crying, and doubt, and fear, and love, and curiosity, and confusion, and humanity…as it is.

People have tried for so long [and still try] to say that God only loves some people and only cares about my people and not them; and people still say this person who is gay or lesbian or Arab or from another land or speaking a different language or someone who is just plain different is outside of grace and mercy.

What is this?

What are we going to do?

Here’s the thing—if someone is never baptized formally in a church or even in a house—this is not really important.

Now some people will NOT like this on FB or repost this, for sure. But questions are much more important than the ceremony.

And how we treat people is way more important than baptism.

So what is this water?

stillwaterWater itself is a flowing, renewing, refreshing source of life for all living things—including us. When babies are well, babies—they are almost ALL water [75-78%]. That’s why they are so squishy. Water is part of our physical makeup. The rest of us are 50-60% water. We need it in order to survive. When the heavens open, so to speak, water comes down in the form of rain or snow.

So if you need to, forget the word baptism. Forget the word sacrament.

But remember to notice water.

Water is a sign of life. And water is provided for the whole planet.

Water should be available to everybody in the world.

The fact that some people in our world do not have access to water is a sign of our degrading humanity and our need to change. Water itself is essential—not to be a symbol for religions to argue about—but as a physical source of life.

And focus on identity. Because the second question of what will we do is one we must ask every day of our lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re an infant, a kid, a youth, or an adult. I think that God still speaks to anyone and everyone. Yes, we all talk about that differently and that’s fine. But I do think that God is still communicating with us. And I do think that God is pleased with people as they are. There is no hierarchy in humanity. We have created this lie ourselves. No one is more important than another, no one loved more or blessed more. We don’t have to wear white outfits or jump through religious hoops for God to love and accept us.

God is pleased with how you are you.

If you have ever been made to feel or have ever been told that the waters of healing, compassion, and purpose aren’t meant for you, then let the water wash over you. Put those harmful words aside. Let them go. Anyone who excludes certain people is just trying to control the water.

But the water is strong and free to flow and move as it will.

Just as God’s love is free to flow and move as it will.

I was at a Bat Mitzvah yesterday, and the girl chose this poem to be read in her rite of passage ceremony. It is a beautiful way to finish this.

200px-Lucille_cliftonLucille Clifton’s poem, blessing the boats:

 May the tide that is entering
Even now the lip of our understanding
Carry you out beyond the face of fear
May you kiss the wind then turn from it certain
That it will love your back
May you open your eyes to water
Water waving forever
And may you in your innocence sail through this to that

Water you can notice every day. It pours from the sky and comes up from the ground. It is not limited to a sacrament or a building or a church. Water is the still speaking, still flowing creator at work. And so be baptized, sprinkled, immersed, washed, refreshed and renewed by it every day. And be inspired to love, to show compassion to others…and be inspired to forgive. Because we are all filled with and surrounded by water….all of us. May the rivers carry us on our journey and lead us to live with love. May the still speaking and flowing water move through us and be shared with all creation.

 

God Is Still Wrestling…

Genesis 32:24-31   NRSV
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

jacob

Marc Chagall

The other week I went to my first Bris. Actually, a bris is Brit Milah, the Covenant of Circumcision. The wife of one of my friends just recently gave birth to a boy. In her practice of Judaism, the bris is an important religious and community-centered ceremony to celebrate this child’s identity and connection to his ancestors and current family. I was honored to be invited to such an event.

As my partner Maria and I entered the home in NE Philly, we spotted the ceremonial table, the empty chair for Elijah, the wine, the bris instruments, and an anxious group of family and friends.
The Mohel, an observant Jew who is educated in relevant Jewish law and surgery, was delightful in his explanations of the bris. He led us in singing and prayer. He made us laugh.
The Sandek [like a godfather], held the child on a pillow. Prayers and blessings were recited.
And then, the Mohel performed the procedure of circumcision.

On a personal note, I felt fine. I had none of those feelings of queasiness that some of my Jewish friends and colleagues warned me about. It seemed like I would make it through the ceremony without any problem at all.

But I was wrong….

The Mohel was done with the circumcision. He gave the child some wine and the little guy stopped crying. We sang again.

And then I felt nauseous; and then dizzy; and then the world started to fade to black.
I whispered to Maria:
I have to go outside for some fresh air.

I stumbled past the ceremonial table, trying not to make a fuss. I found the front door of the house and nearly fell on it. I struggled with the handle and finally got it open, only to collapse on a bench just outside. I put my head down and took deep breaths.

I was soaking wet–a cold sweat.

Meanwhile, inside the house, a little girl who was there with her family, stared at me curiously through the glass door as if to say:

I told you so. Don’t stand too close to the table!

Okay, so eventually, I felt better and was able to attend the rest of the ceremony. It was very nice. Mom and dad read words they had written about the child and his name. The mother talked about her relatives and how this boy’s name would connect to their lives and experiences. Afterwards, we ate food.

I celebrated the fact that hardly anyone seemed to notice that I had almost fainted and fallen right into Elijah’s chair.
—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

In the Jewish tradition, naming and identify formation is important. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we encounter stories about people from infancy to death–often learning their names and journeying with them through the various stages of their lives.
In this case, we are journeying with Jacob.
He’s middle-aged now. He has some money, a family, a herd of livestock—he seems pretty set. But he’s having a mid-life crisis, for sure. His brother Esau, if you remember, was the guy from whom Jacob “stole” their father’s blessing. Apparently, Esau is still angry about it and wants to take his birthright back. So previously in the story, Jacob sends word to Esau that he is coming, that he is rich, and that he hopes that Esau will favor him. But Esau isn’t buying it. He instead approaches Jacob’s camp with an army of 400 people. Jacob is scared. So he prays to God out of desperation, asking for help. But Jacob isn’t satisfied with just prayer. He reserves a bit of his wealth and sends it ahead to give to Esau. Maybe that will calm him down.

Jacob doesn’t hear from his messengers. This cannot be good.
Esau will surely arrive with a fury and possibly kill him. So Jacob sends his wives and kids to meet Esau and his 400 strong!

Then, that night, Jacob [all alone] encounters a stranger. The person he does not recognize starts wrestling with him—throws him to the ground. It’s WWE of the Bible! Turnbuckles, full nelsons, flying elbows.

wwe
But Jacob holds his own. It’s a tie.

Jacob’s wrestling opponent is smart, though. He does some move that throws Jacob’s hip out of joint. What irony this his, because Jacob’s name means the Heel. Now the guy who was born grabbing his brother Esau’s heel can’t even stand up straight. He’s out of balance.

The wrestler tells Jacob that it’s time to go. The sun is rising. But Jacob hasn’t had enough.
“I won’t let you go,” he says, “unless you bless me.”

“What’s your name? says the wrestler.

“Jacob.”

“You are no longer called Jacob. Now you are called Israel. You have wrestled with God and with humans, and you have prevailed.”

“But what’s your name?” Jacob wanted to know.

“Why do you want to know my name?” The wrestler refused to tell.

The blessing finally comes to Jacob—after this whole process. Jacob is convinced he has wrestled with God, so he names the place Peniel. He limps off, heading to meet his angry brother Esau.

The story continues. Jacob does in fact make it to see his brother Esau the next day. Surprise, surprise, it is a joyful encounter! Esau embraces him with tears of happiness. Forgiveness. They are brothers again. And Jacob says something important:

“I have seen your face, as though I had seen the face of God.” [Genesis 33:10]

Jacob thought that he had met God Almighty in the nighttime. He thought he wrestled with Jehovah and won. But the next day, he realized that the whole time he was wrestling with himself. He grappled with his fear, his selfishness, and the avoidance of the truth of his past. The face of God awaited him on the other side of the river, where his brother Esau waited with 400. Jacob was a coward. He had sent his messengers, even his own family ahead to meet Esau! But he could not face his fears himself! So after the wrestling match with himself—after sorting through his own fears, guilt, and issues—Jacob emerged with a limp. The limp is a sign of Jacob’s imperfections. He still needs to mature. He still needs to grow and find balance in his life.

The story does end happily with the brothers’ reunion and forgiveness.
But Jacob is never the same. He is no longer Jacob the Heel. He is now called Israel. He walks with a limp. He will always remember.

Friends, this story can speak clearly to all of us. Oftentimes, in our struggles of life, we wonder if God is our adversary. Why is this bad stuff happening to me? How come I have so much bad luck, God? Why don’t you favor me more? Can I get a blessing, God? Come on!

We want to steal a blessing.
We hold on for dear life to whomever or whatever; we attach ourselves until we get the blessing or the relief from our suffering. We cling to the illusion that what we feel inside [fear, resentment, depression, self-loathing]—we cling to the idea that we feel these things, because everyone else or external forces are causing them. The walls, we claim, are put up by others. We cannot be whole; we cannot be at peace, because others won’t let us.

But our opponent is not God. And most of the time, our opponents are not people either; or circumstances.

Our opponent is ourselves.

In the dark of night, our minds race to thoughts of regret. Things undone. Maybe like Jacob we have broken relationships with family or friends. For years, we have blamed the other person. After a while, we are afraid to even cross the river to try to make amends. There is no way, we think, that this person will accept us or offer forgiveness. Perhaps this is true, in some cases. Not always do we have to cross the river and encounter the person face to face.

But we DO have to wrestle with ourselves.
We do have to look at ourselves in the mirror.
We do have to admit that our fear is inside us and not coming from the outside.

So here is the blessing that we don’t have to steal.
If we do wrestle with ourselves in an honest way and stop blaming God or external circumstances, or whatever—we find a special blessing.

Like my friend’s baby boy, like Jacob–we are blessed with new identity.

You see, throughout our lives we can start to take on the identity that the world or others give us. Our past experiences give us names. Sometimes they are good and healthy, but other times they are destructive and hurtful names. Those names can haunt us at night, fill our minds with fear and depression—even take over our physical bodies. Our failures, disappointments, resentment, and regrets can solidify such names.

But the blessing we don’t have to steal is God’s willingness to help us discover a renewed and refreshed identity. God is still speaking, still acting, and still encouraging us to keep wrestling with ourselves.

And it is never too late to be renewed.

Friends, it won’t be easy to wrestle with yourselves. Sometimes, in the nighttime, you will struggle with your past and sometimes you will fear the future. It will be painful. You may wish for some instant relief—for God to swoop in and tell you a bedtime story and tuck you in.

But God will do something surprising instead. Your God will speak to you and fill you, encouraging you to wrestle.

Who are the Esaus in your life?
What rivers do you need to cross?
And God will meet you in that place where hope seems far away. And you’ll wrestle.
And then you’ll discover a new name, a renewed purpose for yourself.
And God will lead you to the Esaus of your life.
And God will lead you to whatever rivers you need to cross.
And a bridge will be built for you to cross over.
And when you do, tears of joy, kisses of greeting, forgiveness, and wholeness await you.

So may you find strength to limp over to the other side of the river.
May you find wholeness, peace, and forgiveness inside yourself.
And may others see the face of God in your forgiving, and blessing of them.

Amen.

Giving Up Your Seat = Empathy

Luke 14:1-14

QUESTION: What is the worst seat you have ever had? Consider a concert, opera, game, classroom, etc.

What is the best seat you have ever had?

a-place-at-the-tableHere we are in Luke’s Gospel, and Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem. Like a previous story about a bent-over woman, here we find a story in which a person is suffering from some sort of illness and then a healing takes place.

BACKGROUND ALERT: Jesus is warned about Herod of Antipas, the ruler of the region called Galilee. At this point in the journey, Jesus’ ideas have become dangerous to political leaders. Surprisingly, the Pharisees actually seem to be protecting Jesus from a possible threat. In spite of the danger, Jesus continues on.

And, like in Luke’s previous story about a bent-over woman, it is the Sabbath day.

Jesus goes to the home of a Pharisee for a meal. As I have mentioned before, in the 1st century in the Middle East, dinners were about more than just food. Great discussions [and debates] about politics, social issues, and religion would take place. Also, keep in mind that one who was hosting such a dinner would obviously invite people of the same social class [or higher], so as to guarantee an invite later on to a dinner at their house. People of low income levels would not have the home to offer so they would not be invited to such a dinner. They could not return the favor.

But we cannot ignore the man with dropsy, who is healed, on the Sabbath.

This man seems to be the male version of the healing story about the bent-over woman. Both stories occur on the Sabbath and in front of the Pharisees. So what is dropsy? The Greek word for dropsy is hudropikos, which is a derivation of the word for water. Dropsy carries with it symptoms of fluid retention and strangely, also great thirst. It’s not a disease really—just a side effect of another health problem. Just like with the bent-over woman, we do not know exactly what is causing his symptoms.

What we do know is that he is thirsty for the thing that he has the most of: water. A sad irony, don’t you think? He is retaining too much water, but is constantly thirsty.

Jesus asks the Pharisees a question, which we can probably guess the answer to:
Is it lawful to heal someone on the Sabbath?

The Pharisees give no answer, though we can assume what many of them were thinking:
The Law says that one cannot work on the Sabbath.

So I guess the answer is no.

Then, the example of the wedding feast.

At the dinner table, always sit at the worst seat in the house—never the best seat.
At first, it seems that Jesus is giving the Pharisees some good advice as to how to be falsely humble.

Sure! I’ll take the worst seat at the table, and then, later on, someone will move me up to the best seat. Sounds great!

But as Jesus continues on, it becomes clear that his point has nothing to do with false humility.

Jesus’ point is all about empathy.

The great reversal, as it is called, that the last will be first and vice versa—is about empathy. Do not identify just with your own social class, but with those who you call poor; those you call marginalized; those you call unclean. Identify. Empathize with them.

Invite them to your dinners and give them the best seats. Give up your own seat, even though they won’t repay you. There is nothing that you will get out of it, actually. The world and its social order will reject this behavior. No one will applaud your efforts, you won’t get an award or your name in the paper, and you won’t get more money or status out of it.

In fact, the only thing that comes out of it is that you will participate in God’s kingdom on earth. In other words, God already says that all people are equal. There are no social classes in God’s eyes. So the great equalizing God asks this of you in order to display God’s mercy and love—give up your seat. Empathize.

So another question for you: who do you usually welcome?

Your families, right? Or, on occasion, you might invite over a good friend, too, or someone you haven’t seen in a long time who just moved into the area. Okay, and let’s admit, sometimes we invite someone over because they invited us, and so we feel obligated. Like the Pharisees, an invitation to our home often has more to do with an exchange of favors than empathy.

And, even if we “invite” someone into our lives who is a so-called “poor” person or someone who is “marginalized” we often do it with the hope of salvation in mind—some sort of heavenly reward.

This is why I’m not a big believer in altruism, or the idea that we as people can act completely unselfishly when we help another. For each time we help someone, we are helped, too. We feel better and useful and when we see someone go from sad to content because we helped her, this gives us satisfaction. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. This positive, pay-it-forward kind of idea can have a wonderful impact on our corners of the world. We help someone with his/her best interest in mind; that person helps us, too.

But for Jesus, the expectation of reward is the problem.

We are not entitled. Oh boy…

ohno

No reward that we should expect if we are to truly empathize. The resurrection of the righteous is not about an express ticket to heaven. It is about new life [resurrection] for all of God’s children.

When we invite those who are left out and pushed down, we empathize with them. We choose to say and show that they are just like us. We choose to say to the world that salvation is not reserved for us. We exhibit controversial, uncomfortable behavior when we radically accept people as they are.

Sadly, we live in a world that promotes an opposite idea [and many churches do, too]. We are not encouraged to empathize with others, but instead we are encouraged to stay close to those who are just like us. The media often portrays a so-called “Christian” perspective that is suspicious of this kind of empathy that leads to social justice—especially if it means giving up a good seat at the table. In fact, recently, a well-known television commentator addressed U.S. Christians, instructing them to avoid at all costs and to run away from “those churches that talk about or promote social justice.” Wow.

But friends, don’t let this kind of nonsense or propaganda make you apathetic.

We are called by Christ to be inclusive and to welcome all to our tables. We cannot say or claim the word “gospel” unless we are welcoming the stranger, the foreigner, and the outsider.

We cannot preach, teach, or live gospel unless we welcome the gay man who was sent to “conversion camp” to get rid of his “gayness”;
or the two women who have loved each other for 13 years and still cannot get married;
the boy who learns differently than the other kids and needs more attention;
the young man who just got out of prison;
the young woman who battles addiction each day of her life;
the people of Syria who are dying and suffering;
the people of Egypt who are mourning;
the families split apart in the Sudan;
the family here in the U.S. that is undocumented and discriminated against;
the Muslim communities in NY or elsewhere who are spied on;
the atheist or the agnostic who has been spiritually wounded;
the teenager searching for acceptance and love in a cruel world.

Friends, we are made in the image of the still-speaking, still-welcoming God.

We have been given a place at the table. Grace and mercy are the place settings.

All of you are invited to the feast of great compassion by God.

So may your life be a table.

And may our tables be radically inclusive.

May our tables be set with no rewards in mind.

May the movement of the welcoming Spirit invade our personal space.

May we always invite those who will not return the favor.

May our church always reserve the best seats for those in great need.

May we choose to empathize with others and accept them as they are.

May our lives be inclusive tables. Amen.

Good Friday Reflection

Matthew 27:46:

And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice,
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

God…where are you?
God…are you on vacation? Did you take a break?
God…where are you?

This is the question posed in both Matthew and Mark’s Gospel telling of this part of the story while Jesus is on the cross. The words attributed to Jesus in both of these Gospels, are borrowed from the first line of Psalm 22 in the Hebrew Scriptures: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

It would be an understatement to say that these particular words have troubled and puzzled Bible scholars and theologians. Even the Apostle Paul, in his letters to Corinth and Galatia, struggled with his own interpretation of it. Was Jesus cursed? Did God give Jesus up? I mean, think about it: If Jesus is really God’s Son, sent into the world to save people, why in the world would God abandon him in the very moment when God was needed most? Seems pretty cruel and also inconsistent with God’s loving character, doesn’t it?

ChagallSo scholars talk. People interpret over the centuries. And two main perspectives emerge.

Perspective number one: Biblical literalists argue that this so-called cry of dereliction does indeed reflect Jesus being abandoned by God. Yes, God abandoned Jesus, because God needed to preserve God’s holiness. God cannot be associated with human sin, which Jesus took upon himself on the cross. In this view, God turned God’s face away from Jesus. And so Jesus cried out. Those who hold this view see this as the ultimate example of Jesus’ atonement, or substitution for human sin.

Perspective number two: God did not abandon Jesus. This cry from the cross was a fitting expression of an actual trust in God—reflecting the ancient traditions of the Hebrew prophets, psalmists, and rabbis. Jesus’ cry, in this view, is a lament. The suffering is real, the pain is real, but the trust is also real. God doesn’t turn away. In fact, Jesus communicates with God in an intimate and even argumentative way. God, if you are loving and just, why not be loving and just in this very moment?

Honestly, no one has a right way to view these words written in Aramaic. But I do think that if we remember the flow of the Psalms, perhaps our perspective will deepen and we’ll gravitate less to cookie-cutter explanations. Psalm 22, like many Psalms, begins with a lament and an honest-to-goodness challenging of God.

Where are you, God?

Then, the Psalm moves through history. In the past, God actually was present, faithful, and loving. Verse 4: In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. The God of history was there for us.

But then, Psalm 22 goes back to the here-and-now. God, people are hurting me; I feel alone; I have enemies; I sometimes feel lost and left out; God, things aren’t going well for me in my life! I am a worm, says verse 6, and not human; scorned by others; and despised by people.

Then the Psalm turns to honest pleading: God, help me! Don’t be far away! No one else will help! I am poured out like water, my bones are out of joint, my heart is like wax; you lay me in the dust of death.

But as the Psalmist brings the song to a close, praises begin to emerge in verse 22: I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. And justices take place: The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. Anguish and seeming abandonment turns to praise and thankfulness and belief in justice.

For me, these words in Matthew and Mark cannot be interpreted or meditated on without Psalm 22. There are more clues, you see. In Mark, the mocking crowd around the cross has an attitude and they shake their heads, saying: Since he trusted God, let God deliver him. This is Psalm 22:8 verbatim. The images of disjointed bones, the reality of thirst and the piercing of hands and feet all appear in Psalm 22 and at the cross. Mark and Matthew’s Gospels are painting this story with Psalmist brushstrokes. This is not a literal account, but a metaphoric retelling. God did not abandon Jesus, creating some sort of God-humanity separation.

God was always there, is always there, will be always here—still speaking, still loving, still acting.

Jesus’ cry is our cry. It is the cry of all those in the world who suffer needlessly. It is the cry of children, youth, and adults in Syria, Gaza, and Israel who experience violence on a daily basis. It is the cry of the hungry and the forgotten in the Sudan. It is the cry of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are persecuted, beaten, and arrested. It is the cry of all who feel alone, deserted, guilty, empty, depressed, lost, or broken.

Jesus’ words and the Psalmist’s words are honest and do not hide their feelings. They encourage all people to cry out to God and to expect God to respond.

God…where are you?

In the suffering; in the pain; in the rejection.

With those pushed down; with the oppressed; with all who are hungry and thirsty.

Where will we be?

Amen.

A Trusting Identity: We Are a People of Continuing Testament

Luke 4:1-13     

These 40 days of Lent is a time to reflect on identity. Who am I? Who is God? Who is my neighbor? Who are we? Whenever we look deeply at our own identity, if we are open, we can even surprise ourselves. We can find out something new that we didn’t recognize before. And always, always, identity formation is enhanced in community. The people around us help us to know ourselves better. I can certainly say that this has been true for me. Throughout my life, there have been people who have helped to shape and form my identity. Some were family; some were friends; some were teachers, mentors; and of course, the people we love deeply and commit our lives to [like life partners and spouses] help us see ourselves differently.

But there is trust involved. We won’t embrace someone’s viewpoint of ourselves if we don’t trust that person. If someone challenges us or encourages us to try something new or to change in a certain way, we do so because we trust that person’s knowledge of us. And we also trust that he/she has our best interests in mind and that this person loves us enough to tell it like it is—to be honest.

One of my struggles in all the churches I have been part of is the lack of trust I have often observed. There are a lot of people in the pews or on the church rolls who read the Bible, pray, serve on committees or boards, even preach and teach Sunday school. But they rarely [if ever] move past the superficial conversations to reveal doubts about God; or say that they aren’t sure about the Bible; or that sometimes there are not answers to life’s greatest questions. Likewise, there seems to be a lack of trust related to our tendency to check our brains outside the sanctuary’s doors. It’s weird, but once many church people are inside the sanctuary, they don’t think or ask questions.

As people of faith who then form communities of faith, our identities are formed by how we see the scriptures [the Bible], and our theology [how we think about God]. There is an identity phrase used by the United Church of Christ: God is Still Speaking. This phrase has sort of become the denomination’s unofficial slogan. There is a story behind it, as there always is. Some of you may remember the comedian George Burns. His wife was also a performer, Gracie Allen.

GracieAllenThey had their own show together. The story goes that after Gracie died, George found among her papers a letter left for him. The letter included the phrase Never place a period where God has placed a comma.[1] A few years ago, when the UCC was in the midst of developing an identity campaign, a man called Ron Buford was charged with leading the creative efforts. So he gathered ideas from people in local congregations around the UCC.

Ron was first inspired by a quote from one of the founders of the Congregationalist Church, John Robinson: O God, grant yet more light and truth to break forth from your word. The idea that there was more light to break forth and no period where God has placed a comma became God is still speaking.

CommaIt was not and is not a new idea, actually. Revelation continues; testament [literally, witness] continues. The Bible, though full of different religious traditions and a mash-up of different time periods and writers, we say is inspired by God. There is not a period. This means that one interpretation of a Bible passage or one theology is not the final one or the best one. God is still speaking means that what Reformed theologians like John Calvin or Martin Luther wrote or said or what Councils in Nicaea or Rome decided is not by any means the final word. God is still speaking recognizes that their perspectives were limited to their culture and time period and agendas. What about other voices and interpretations? This is what continuing testament is all about—trusting that there still light [new perspectives] to break forth.

For some, this is difficult to accept, and why people [within the Christian community] say that UCC stands for Utterly Confused Christians or Unitarians Considering Christ. The openness of the idea, however, of God is still speaking does not mean that we’re all relativists [and neither are Unitarians, actually]. In other words, we are not just interpreting the scriptures in a way that is convenient or consistent with our cultural practices, political beliefs, or just simply put—we are not seeking to interpret the Bible to mirror what we like and already think.

God is still speaking is about opening up the mind and heart to different and even difficult interpretations—perspectives that challenge our comfort zones and move us to humility and love-action. And yes, if we’re really open and ready to listen, we will find that some of our doctrines and dogmas were and are oppressive, racist, close-minded, and downright awful. Throughout history, people [and the church] have interpreted scripture in order to do something bad to other people. It still happens quite often today, I am sad to say.

This is one of the main reasons I decided to be an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ–precisely because I do believe that there is a LOT of wisdom, light, and meaning yet to be discovered. It’s really never-ending. I have no trust in a Biblical interpretation that cuts down other people. You’re Muslim—well, too bad! The Bible says you are going to hell unless you believe in Jesus; tough luck. Oh, you’re gay? That’s too bad, because even though Jesus loves everybody else, he doesn’t love you! You pray that way? Eat that food? Speak that language? Believe that about God? Good luck, because my Bible says: See ya!

 And yet, if God is God, how in the world could we possibly limit this God by slapping a period down at the end and saying: That’s it! There’s only one way to look at it! The Bible as a whole contradicts this. Have you ever compared the four Gospels? Their views of Jesus–what he did and who he was–are sometimes very far apart, and rightly so. Each part of the Bible has its own unique voice. Continuing testament, God is still speaking—the idea is nothing new. The Bible itself is made up of different viewpoints, theologies, and religious practices. Continuing testament is about being attentive to God’s creative movement in the world.

God’s not stuck in a book; or in an era; or even in a religion. God is love and that love is free.

It is with that effort to hear a Still-Speaking God in the Bible stories that we turn to Jesus’ retreat story. Notice I didn’t say Jesus’ temptation. I’m borrowing from Dr. Bruce Epperly, professor at Claremont University. Bruce equates Jesus’ so-called temptation in the wilderness with a spiritual retreat.[2] He argues that our take on the story is quite full of devil-baggage and thus, we miss the Gospel writer’s point. Jesus is on spiritual retreat—trying to find his identity after being baptized by John. Jesus goes to pray and think and journey. And in that process he comes face to face with himself.

devilIt is true that our view of this story is often clouded by our view of the age-old character, the devil. Yes, that evil dude with the goatee, horns, red suit, and trident/pitchfork. Honestly, there is probably no better example of a mishmash of history and legend than the character of Satan. Of course, less than 1% of how the devil is portrayed in popular culture actually includes what the Bible says! In fact, there is no devil in the Hebrew Scriptures [what Christians call the OT]. Evil yes; devil no. Even in the NT of the Bible, the personification of the devil is hotly debated. Yes, there are demons [evil, angry spirits], but always in people or in some cases, in animals. The devil as a personified character is never described physically. There are evil voices and people who do evil things—that’s it.

You see, over the centuries various cultures have defined evil in different ways. The U.S. concept of Satan or the devil is a combo of various Anglo-Saxon and other European traditions—mixing in a bit of Greek mythology.

FaustThe German tradition of Faust is often mistakenly combined with Jesus’ wilderness story. Of course, Faust, in the story, is a highly successful scholar who is dissatisfied with life in general and so he makes a deal with the devil to acquire unlimited knowledge. Many see Jesus’ wilderness experience as this personified devil trying to seduce him to make a deal. And this kind of thinking leads us to the idea that the devil appears in our heads or on our shoulders, trying to persuade us to do bad things. Finally, we come up with the famous but ridiculous phrase: the devil made me do it.

 

HomerEventually, we start to feel a bit like Homer Simpson who carried the burden of Good Homer and Evil Homer. Again, though, is this really what Jesus’ wilderness experience is about? Is there one guy who is pure evil and makes us do evil things? Do we make that guy responsible for the things we do? Honestly, I think this is harmful and certainly not truthful. All of us are responsible for what we do and say. Sure, we are all capable of evil. No doubt about that. It doesn’t take long to see that we are all capable of hurting, killing, destroying, stealing, lying, and hating.

But I argue that it is less about a pitch fork-wielding devil and more about a lack of trust. In Jesus’ wilderness retreat, he is “tempted” three times, but each time it is about trust. If Jesus did not trust that he would have enough to eat, then by all means, he would have turned the stone to bread. If Jesus did not trust that he had what he needed, he would feel the need to take power for himself; and if Jesus thought that God really didn’t care, he would throw himself down to test that theory. It is all about trust.

That’s the message I hear. In our identity as people of faith, it is about trust. We are in a relationship with a trustworthy God who loves us unconditionally as we are, creates all of us equally human; and leaves us with an incredible natural creation to care for and love. And God entrusts us with relationships, which are supposed to be built on trust.

Temptation, then, is really planting the seeds of mistrust in relationships.

We are tempted to lie if we don’t trust that a person will accept our truth.

We are tempted to be passive-aggressive and not talk with someone face to face, because we do not trust them to listen.

We are tempted to hurt another if we think that person will hurt us.

We are tempted to steal if we don’t trust that we will have what we need.

We are tempted to hate if we don’t trust that differences are okay.

We are tempted to be apathetic and individualistic because we don’t trust that our actions make a difference.

It is about trust.

And so, let us form an identity of trust.

First, trust that God loves and doesn’t hate. God creates and doesn’t destroy. God is engaged in merciful action and not legalistic judging.

And then, trust yourself enough to love someone as she is. Trust yourself enough to accept differences and even embrace them. Trust enough to stand up for someone when no one else will. Trust enough to be honest, and generous, and forgiving, and passionate about helping.

Trust.

There is more light to break forth.

God IS still speaking through your actions of justice, love, and mercy.

The testament continues…in you. Amen.


[1] Two Minutes for God : Quick Fixes for the Spirit (2007) by Peter B. Panagore

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”;

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