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.