Saturday, December 30, 2023

Resisting Darkness

 The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.  John 1:5

We are at the end of a year and more so than a lot of years this one seems darker than most.  Another war and the human slaughter that comes with unrestrained passions has broken out in Palestine and Israel.  The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine has dragged into its second year.  Mass shootings in the U.S. have outnumbered any year yet. A former U.S. President is under multiple indictments, while supporters find grievances of every kind to agitate for an authoritarian regime to save them. The grim darkness does seem to be overwhelming, and humanity, it seems, is incapable of getting along.  So what is the spiritual malady driving this?

Greed, entitlement, and an epidemic sense of personal loss - loss of power, control, respect for law and order are apparent wherever we look.  The white sense of historic privilege being "lost" to immigrants, people of color, and anyone else who doesn't share their religious and social values riles them up and fuels the divisions cracking open fears of "the other" where shooting them is deemed safer than talking.  Where will it end?  How will it end? Not well most likely especially if the spiral away from love and hope continues and the courage to speak about it remains silenced.

We must resist the darkness by being bearers of the light.  Fear mongering, lack of truth-telling, social isolation, fake grievances, lack of compassion, and resorting to violence are the enemy. Resisting darkness involves creating opportunities for diverse people to share memories and learn about the humanness of the other.  Resisting involves giving time and resources to address issues in one's community that are behind addiction, poverty, lack of medical care, lack of education/skills/training. The third way to resist is to find ways to laugh and smile about one's own circumstances and lessen the seriousness with which we take matters that do not affect us.  Faith is a powerful tool in widening our lens to see a bigger world, to see a God too big to be tied down to one doctrine or concept about "who God is."  There are many many ways the Infinitude of God can seep into our social DNA and transform our society from preoccupation with power & control to forgiving and letting it all go to live another day in a beautiful creation God made just for us to play in. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The Power of Grace - A Sermon Given @ St. Luke Episcopal, Renton, WA

 The Power of Grace

(Genesis 20:1-7, 9, 11-12; Acts 16:16-24; Mark 1:29-45)

Advent Three

It’s a difficult job believing in God and being a person of faith.  So I applaud each of you for showing up here for this rugged journey. Seriously!  It’s good to be doing this with you all.  Fundamentalists tell a lie – that the Christian faith is as simple as professing Jesus is Lord and you’re instantly lifted onto easy street.  But we do not travel “an easy street.”  No way. No how. As anyone with life experience knows.  We are given a Good Road – with a few course markers along the way and often, too often, that road is barely a tangled hard-to-locate path through a wilderness. There’s challenges and steep places.  It’s hard believing in God.  I think it’s even difficult for God to be God.  I think God has had enough eons reflecting on the task – ESPECIALLY of being in relationship with humans who consistently reflect back to God-self the vagaries and infinite multitude of ways GRACE and CHOICE can (or don’t) unfold.  

I teach a nutrition class where I start a timeline of human nutrition 200,000 years ago.  That’s roughly the archeological point that Neanderthals fade and Homo Sapiens come on the scene of creation.  Is that where Adam & Eve awake in the Garden?  I don’t know.  Perhaps.  And then I take the class on a travel through time looking at all the technological developments that the human race has brought to the table from taming fire to air fryers. We have been a truly creative handful for God.  I don’t believe God knew (or knows still) what all we were capable of.  I think God has been surprised and even shocked about the myriad of ways we can both love and hate so powerfully.  In the nexus between those 2 options is the Power of Grace.

One of my favorite Thomas Merton passages is in The New Seeds of Contemplation where he says, “A tree gives glory to God by being itself – a tree.”  Then he goes on to talk about humans also “only” need to be themselves to give God glory.  But, there is a difference – humans, like God, have a choice how to pursue our development.  We are empowered to choose Grace and creation.  Or destruction of relationship and misery.  As I was driving pondering this favorite jewel of a notion, I noticed the trees alongside the road.  How predictable they are.  How beautiful they are. Knowing that they almost never ever jump out on the road in front of me.  But boy howdy, watch out for the humans on the road.  Anything can happen with them!  And I’m sure God waits on pins and needles for what’s coming next with us.

Let’s get to the three stories this morning. They all involve at least one woman.

In the first is Sarah – Abraham’s wife – though the usage of that word “wife” in Sarah’s case is not accurate -- not if we’re thinking of modern-day matrimony. As the story makes perfectly plain:  perhaps “enslaved intimate” would be more precise.  Abraham is only too ready to pass her off to a more powerful man solely to buy himself favor and preserve his own skin.  And his egregiousness here is tripled as this is not the only time, he pulls this stunt & uses Sarah in this way. Sarah’s life has been that of many enslaved people: being passed along and used as human currency – in Sarah’s case – her “reward” is the promise of a child of her own where even that promise is really one that Abraham seeks for his own proof of prowess.  Abraham is one with the power in all this. He had the choice of what to do or what could be done.  Did his choice give glory to God?  Choice is power.  Humans have a LOT of it. Choices make things happen. Forced silence.  Hands tied. Whether with cords, training. or convention equals enslavement. Creation denied. Glory ignored. Grace besmirched.  What and how we choose to do what we do IS how power is exercised – and that is how love wins or love fails.  A huge part of the difficulty in believing in God is how hard it is in this society as it has evolved and is evolving to choose & ACT on love!

In the Gospel we see Peter’s mother-in-law.  She is sick with a fever.  First, who realized Simon Peter was married?  This is the only oblique reference made to Peter’s wife. I wonder what her life was like once Peter took off for Galilee, Nazareth, Jerusalem parts unknown with his ragtag team of buddies.  Did she/he argue about it?  Were there kids?  Naw, maybe just daughters…. That was the mindset.  Could his wife have said ANY thing?  And his mother-in-law.  It’s not lost on me that Jesus takes her hand, lifts her up, heals her of her fever, then she immediately, by social convention, is back to serving this tribe of men and villagers that have come to her door. Jesus probably did her two favors that evening – he healed her and he left as soon as he could with the whole tribe “chasing” after him.

Finally, the Apostle Paul is in Macedonia.  There’s a girl. She’s portrayed as a clairvoyant-for-hire as we learn – she is a kept soul by businessmen exploiting her gift for cash.  Yet, she steps outside of her social place, following Paul and his entourage announcing to all who could hear exactly what Paul was doing there.  She was his personal walking billboard! Yet after 3 days of it, Paul is sick of her.  And without asking whether she wanted his “healing” he just rips her gift from her – probably leaving her without any ability to care for herself at all – not that I assume her business “partners” were being in any way generous toward her… kind of pimping her out actually!  So where is she left at?  Nowhere because the story moves on with Paul & Silas. Oh sure, Paul and Silas get a beating and are thrown in prison.  But I would argue that even in that situation they had more power and other grace-filled choices available to them than the girl was left with.  Because they do (spoiler alert) do sit in jail singing hymns, experience a freeing earthquake and go happily on with their lives.

Except for the subtle infusion of grace by Jesus, these three stories don’t give us the impression of “grace with power.”  Rather, they illustrate women’s lives, how through social constructs they’re kept enslaved to the whims of the men and the society around them.  Yet if we recall the larger gospel saga, it is a parade of enslaved people – fevers, skin diseases, unclean spirits, lepers, demons, blind and lame people who DO experience the power of Grace who are lifted in their potential to give God the glory of their fully created love-selves.  And note the choice that empowers that! Jesus’ choice to act for them in compassionate liberating ways that spark a slow burning fire – like a wick on a candle, or perhaps a fuse on a firework that altered all time and all history.  We are sitting here because of all the falling dominoes of history that started with those acts of compassion Jesus took.  When John the Baptizer asked if Jesus was the Messiah – HECK yeah!   Jesus sent the message back to him –  “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers[c] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matt 11:5) Whenever we act with grace our own messianic potential is unleashed in the world!

So, I leave you with some questions and a prayer-filled invitation. 

In what ways might you feel enslaved or imprisoned – tied up, feeling powerless to change?  What is blocking your freedom or your joy or your dream?  Morton Kelsey defines faith as the deep understanding that the universe (or God) is kindly intentioned toward you.  Kindly intentioned!  That’s a profound message that gets lost in the brute meanness meant to belittle different gifts, talents, and self-identity.  Seek out the kindnesses that grow your heart.  Do you have the capacity to believe in, to hope for the grace-filled coming of Christ into your situation?  Be bold to dare it!  When we commit to opening even just the smallest door of possibility, to share the hope out loud – even if just to ourselves in a mirror – changes needed for that to happen will begin unfolding – because a God of Grace & love wills it to be so! Openness to the movement of God is the empowerment to make choices that cause dominos to start falling. That is your glory awaiting!

The flip side of this coin is who can you lift up or encourage?  In what ways can you be the hands of Jesus to totally turn a life around.  Or maybe just their day?  There are tens of thousands in our country who have given up hope and are looking for a strong man or dictator to give them security and hope.  How can you raise their hope and put their faith back in the One who promised a New Realm on Earth based not on revenge and grievance but on love, mercy, and peace.  The human world is held together not by persecuting enemies but by acts of service and kindness. The coming out of you and your faith, the coming out of Christ is the Advent of new life, new adventures, new friends, new options, new hopes and New Life. 

Finally, the invitation with me-- be open.  Follow the proddings of your spirit. Embark on prayerful listening. Be like the trees. Predictable.  Steady. Beautiful. Be who God created you to be.  Most of all, DO NOT be afraid. For behold!  There are tidings awaiting great joy!  Great joy in YOU!

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Rethinking "Messiah"

 The kickoff of Advent today means that we will soon be hearing the word "messiah" a lot in the coming month.  From Handel's "Messiah" to multiple passages throughout Judeo-Christian scripture there are few religious terms more tossed about this time of year. The literal English translation for messiah from its Hebrew and Aramaic sources is "chosen one" or "anointed one."  The details on how it gets applied are an interesting study.

Messiah gets a lot of attention this time of year primarily from the Christian community's observances surrounding the birth of Jesus.  Christmas and Easter are the two most significant "holidays" in the Christian year.  The way messiah is viewed in Christianity is significantly different from its Jewish origins.

In Judaism the "anointed one" or "chosen one" was commonly a denoted individual with special leadership powers.  They might be kings, High Priests, or possibly prophets.  They were, most often believed to be consecrated by God to fulfill their roles. One of the most beloved such leader was King David.  David was a powerful warrior king with gifted military strategy sense.  He led the Jewish people into a prolonged period of peace about 1,000 years before Jesus.  Their warring neighbors were all conquered and Jewish life was, for the most part, prosperous and good.  This period became one to which Jewish hearts harken back.  "Would that a messiah could again reign as David did," We hear this theme echoed throughout a reading of the major and minor prophets of the First Testament. So, Jewish identity with a messiah can be summed up as the looking for a new (as yet unknown) "messiah" who will recreate the days of past peace and glory.

Christianity, on the other hand, co-opted the term "messiah" and built an entirely different concept around the term.  Theologically, Christians have claimed Jesus to be the Messiah (as in one and only.)  In the Gospel of Mark there is an entire literary game going on of keeping the "messianic secret" until who it is is finally revealed by Jesus himself.  While some very early Christian sects hoped in the militaristic overthrow of Rome by Jesus, when that clearly wasn't going to happen, the meaning of messiah shifted in the Church to be the watch for Jesus' return when the faithful ones would be gathered up and taken to heaven.  So, the Christian messiah was already determined and he would carry his chosen ones to a heavenly place of golden streets and eternal bliss with harps and angelic choirs.

It is understandable how Christianity fell into this mindset.  Life in the Roman Empire was wickedly difficult.  Many a Christian died gruesomely in the Roman arena. The Jewish community didn't like them and life only grew more ugly for all as the Empire's control slipped, emperors lost their minds, and marauding bands of Celts moved in from the north. Hoping for a deliverer, for Jesus to return and carry them away from it all was a tempting Calgon moment. For two thousand years now, this deliverance connection to the Messiahship of Jesus has held the attention of a majority of Christians.

World times and life events shift as do theological interpretations.  The Church has held tight theological constructs - enforcing a systematic view too often defended with heresy trials, stake burnings, torture, excommunication, threats of fiery hell, etc. to manipulate not just peasant populations, but monarchs and rulers as well. Creative peace loving conceptualizations of interactive partnerships with God have been frowned upon or worse until recently.  While there are radically different positive ways to shape spirituality, the Church has frequently remained frozen partly for fear of rocking adherents' loyalties and partly for the sinful attachment to hierarchical power and wealth. 

Considering messiahs, people of faith might be better served by returning to a more Jewish concept.  Who among us has a solid reality-based conceptual sense of the problems humanity is facing and what are the psycho-socio-spiritual principles by which humanity can pull themselves out of the hot soup we're in?  This person(s) could very much be the messiah(s) the earth is looking for.   

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Returning to Eden

  As the wheels appear to be coming off the bus of human existence and countries of the world experience extreme opposing attitudes among their citizenry, the question arises when did things go so wrong between us? Scanning through the annals of time, we can find many examples of similar episodes between the two-leggeds repeating over and over, extending back in time to the story of Adam and Eve.

According to the myth, Adam & Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden at the dawn of human time.  It was a garden of perfection and general harmony abounded.  That is until the day the talking serpent showed up to convince Eve that there was more to be gained if she but took a bite of the forbidden fruit. Once she and her mate, Adam, had partaken of it their eyes were opened.  Their arrogance grew and they soon waltzed from the Garden to seek their fortunes on their own terms. The rejection of their place in the ecosystem they had enjoyed was just the beginning of humanity's problems.

To this day humans view themselves as "higher" than all other lifeforms and believe in their own god-like powers and capabilities. Some have taken their superiority so far as to denigrate other humans, attempting on numerous occasions to wipe "those vermin" off the face of the Earth. Leaping over all the genocide, wars, slavery, hoarding of resources, and poisoning of sea, land, and sky, we discover this arrogance of self-aggrandizement is squeezing the Earth into a potentially desperate corner. Only just now have we begun to collectively begun to wonder, "What have we done to ourselves?"  And how do we get out of this mess?

The good road back to Eden depends on the human coming-of-age realization that Eden existed because of the Love that created it and the homeostasis maintained by the peaceful coexistence of all lifeforms found therein. In Eden, there was no dominance of one species over another. Each one had its place and part in maintaining the balance.  The danger crept in when the temptation to control a single resource (the forbidden fruit) overpowered their appreciation for the love on which the Garden was based. 

To return to Eden is to return to Love.  Love for the built-in diversity of lifeforms - plants, bacteria, reptiles, mammals.... and humans.  It requires appreciation for each of the contributions those fellow occupants have in the balance needed to power the gift of life that the whole enjoys. Life depends on being willing to share, to be sensitive to the needs of "the other," and to be conscious of how and why others might be struggling to hold up their end of the balance. 

The animosity generated from this abandoned principle is the seed for ultimate destruction.  It is far past time to return to Eden values.

Monday, July 3, 2023

A Sermon - Given at Renton United Church of Christ

 Genesis 22:1-14 – Abraham Sacrificing Isaac


Gifts Back To God

 This is a story that kind of makes your modern parent voice rebel. So first, let’s take the context into account. The religions of the day were heavily influenced by superstition.  Most people in the region had household gods and a god for every purpose under heaven.  In the indigenous Canaanite religious culture where Abraham moved to, the most faithful ones sacrificed their children. This fulfilled several supposed purposes – to win their gods’ favor, to protect them from natural disasters, and to receive blessings on their crops.

So it is hard to know what was spinning through Abraham’s mind.  He is the biblical character I would most want to take to lunch and pick his brain.   Was he keeping up with the Joneses?  Did some Canaanite guru guilt or embarrass him into it? We don’t know. Often we will just shrug and move on and try to forget about that craziness…. AND YET, the shadow of it invariably arises again each Holy Week when some framers of Christianity claim that God “sacrifices” his son. If God interrupts Abraham’s sacrifice, why would God go through with it with Jesus?  Perhaps we should wrestle with Abraham a bit more.

So let’s take it from a different direction. When I was a boy growing up, my immediate family would hook up with my aunt’s family, and we would go camping at Kootenai Lake in British Columbia.  The cousins, my sister, and I would play a game of cards we called Put and Take.  We would go out and each get 25 rocks – these were our pots of gold.  Then we would take turns being the dealer who would deal out 5 cards to each player. Then the dealer would pull out 1 card at a time and say, “If you’re holding a 5 put in 1 rock.” Then another card, if you have any 3s put in 2… until 6 cards and been drawn. Then the dealer would repeat the process only having people take out rocks.  The dealer could then keep what was left in the pot, or if it ran out, the dealer had to make up the difference. Fun game.  Played for HOURS.  Parents would have to call a halt for us to eat or send us to bed.  Because we played the radical socialized version of Put and Take.  If anyone ran out of rocks, well, you could try to convince someone else to share their bounty, or there were always more rocks to be found in the campground.

Put and take has always been, for me, a simple child’s definition of how Christianity should work. All the players, even God, put in what they have. And we take out what we’re needing – yes, even God. What does God need, you might ask?  It’s clear in scripture – especially the Psalms -- that what God craves from us is gratitude, praise, and devotion.  Remember, God is love.  But what happens to love in a family when one member feels like they’re doing all the work while everyone else just sits?  The entire enterprise that humans label religion or spirituality is entirely about relationships.  Religion takes spirituality off the rails when it gets sucked into power and control games, just as some marriages and families get sucked into that.  But we know that healthy two-way relationships is how the universe is built – and that applies in human circles, human-nature circles, and we see it in biology, chemistry, and physics – put & take. That’s how God set up the entire universe.

But what’s happening in our human realm?  What I see happening is humans pushing love away in exchange for money & power.  How would the world be transformed if we operated out of shared mutual trust, where we just practiced put and take? We could demand it. Sure, duty and obligation form social guardrails, but we’ve witnessed in scripture & elsewhere how guardrails can end up constraining God’s love – twisting it & molding it into some grotesque shapes such as we see here with Abraham – striving to pursue some crazy social-religious practice of devotion to prove to God that he is worthy/he is enough.  Nobody has to prove to God that they’re enough!  God declared creation good at the end of the 6th day. You are enough. That stamp of approval was your birth. But the human ego craves a pat on the head, having control, having certainty that we are better than whatever the idol of the day is.

So let’s bring this back to love – can Love win over the human ego?  God’s love is infinite. On that, we can probably easily agree. (I would also say God’s love is unconditional, but a bit more controversial so I’ll leave that with you to wrestle with and maybe we’ll take it up another time.)  God’s love is infinite. But, as the old Sunday School song goes: “love isn’t love unless you give it away.” How does God give love away? God’s love is going to be the most tangibly obvious if we are demonstrating it.  With a few exceptions, I think that is how God intended it.  That’s how Jesus operated.  But golly dang, if human egos and our out-of-control need to control don’t slip in here. And the next thing we’re doing is hoarding love for “MY PEOPLE”, trying to steer it to whom it will go. Making rules about how it can or can’t be expressed. Then we all get grumpy and fight and throw things and hurt each other. I’m sure that “Dad” probably feels like pulling the car over to the side of the road to say, “If you kids don’t stop it right now, you’re all going to walk home.”

So imagine if you’re able.  A world governed by love and a rule that said, “When doubts arise, just give.”  “Give til it hurts.”  That was Jesus’ example. (Right?)  He never asked, “What’s in this for me?”  He was always about what can I give.  What can I give/how can I give it?  Like him, can I give til it hurts?  Immediately, my ego jumps in and asks, “What if I run out?” “What if I don’t have enough?”  The human ego is sly.  It tries to be rational, but it’s really craving control.  It worries about what-ifs.  Our shadow side is always trying to figure out what must be paid to buy not just God’s love but others’ love as well.  The human ego is always worried about “what’s enough? Don’t get cheated. Don’t get taken.”  We have billionaires (That’s a B – as in Boy is that Bonkers!) STILL insecure, still craving more.  For perspective on a billion: 1 million seconds is 11 days.  1 billion seconds is just over 31 years.  As of last week, Elon Musk’s net worth was estimated at $234 Billion.  This means if he spent $86,000 a day, he would not run out of money for 7,250 years. That’s how insecure and craven the human ego is.  And God says, “No little one.  I AM enough.”   OMG.  I can almost hear the whisper in Isaac’s ear through ALL the centuries– listen!  Can’t you hear God?  “I am enough.  You are enough.  We are enough.”  Just us – ourselves – alone or together -enough!

Returning to Abraham, why was the miracle of Isaac not enough for the old man?  Was he still striving to get God’s blessing or attention, like the cultists he was living beside?  Maybe.  Maybe to get their respect?  Or maybe he wasn’t doing that at all.  Maybe he was, in his own misunderstanding way, just trying to express to God how much devotion and love he had for God and his words didn’t feel like enough. Which makes it still twisted, yes!  But also kind of sweet. How great is our love for God?  Or for this institution, we call the Church?  What would we give to express it?

The thing we forget in our strivings is nobody outgives God.  And God doesn’t even expect you to try.  The Biblical tithe seems to put a limit on what one must give – that 10% of your income guideline that gets bandied about in many a church pledge drive.  But let’s toss that.  It’s a fine enough guideline and all, but what if our guideline was “give in proportion to my gratitude to God for all God has loved me with?”  Then where do you find yourself? And please don’t limit it to thinking only in monetary terms. Maybe just as hard as giving in proportion monetarily is giving up our own attitudes, opinions, and beliefs to find reconciliation or restoration of a relationship or remediation for long-standing wrongs that have fractured and held back equality and justice.  How much love does it require to just accept people for who they are and who aren’t exactly like me? Because no matter what we feel about “the other” – God, in God’s omni-loving way, put them or that thing in our world/life. That includes everything and everyone from the ridiculous: What is a mosquito for? But also to the opposite extreme: a precious, even sacred, Promised child. The stamp of approval Abraham may have been looking for seems to have been provided by the abundance of an Infinitely Loving God. Who is still in that business today – handing out stamps -- even for you. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Smudgy Living

 Ash Wednesday 2023

A common Church ritual that takes place on the first day of Lent each year is where the church gathers and receives on their foreheads a smudge of ashes on their foreheads.  The liturgy calls to mind one's sins, and in the words of the imposition of ashes: From dust, we come to dust, we shall return.  The smudging of one's forehead with ashes this year reminds me of how we allow all kinds of things around us to smudge up or interfere with our pre-birth-given image of God.  As good Christians, we strive to be accurate and truthful reflections of Christ and the one God wants us to be.  Yet, we know we often fall short of that ideal.  If we were perfect reflections of the Holy, we would shine forth with all the radiance of hope, compassion, charity, generosity, kindness, healing, and wholeness... but we don't.  The cross smudge says, "Yeah, I've fallen short." 

An Ash Wednesday service is sometimes a bit comical in how resistant to smudging some people are.  Some just don't want to be smudged, and that's their prerogative.  But others' foreheads just seem impervious to the imposition. Do they have purer transparency of the holy than foreheads that just welcome full-on black smudges?  I pause to hope. 

The world around us grows more smudged up with unholiness weekly.  The US society has yet to have a day in 2023 when a mass shooting has not happened.  The vitriolic rants, tweets, news -- many of it from self-proclaimed Christians, leave me wondering what it would take to polish their foreheads and transform the bitterness and violence to empathy and peace. How do we turn from our darker ashy side and be the clearer, shining light of the Holy?  

Therein is the purpose of Lent.  Lent is the 6 weeks of personal devotion, reflection, and practice of wrestling with the scrubbing process to increase deeper and wider transparency of the sacredness that is grounded in each of our basic constitutions.  I encourage you to take advantage of the many activities and offerings that churches all around provide to aid in that process between now and Easter.