Monday, May 31, 2010

Creating God: Sermon on Proverbs 8

There were so many things on my mind and in my heart as I sat down to write this sermon… I was thinking about the passage from Proverbs, of course, the mysterious and marvelous work of our creating God; and I was thinking about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, about how God’s creation is being affected there; and I was thinking about Trinity Sunday, because, after all, this is a unique day in the Christian year, a day when we take on theology and mystery head-on. I was also thinking about the Natural Church Development program, upon which we have embarked as a congregation, and how that process will soon begin to unfold and affect us all. I was thinking about change.

And it occurred to me: all these things are related, they are all connected.

We believe that God created all that is—the universe, the stars, the earth and all its bounties and beauties, including the bounty and beauty that is humanity. I believe God might have done this any number of ways, but it seems to me scripture gives us insight into the mind, the intention of the Creator, whatever the creative process. In the mind of the creator was the creation of something good, something marvelous. In the mind of the creator was creation for the sheer joy of it, pure delight.

As the consciousness of humans dawned—and I believe there’s good evidence it dawned gradually—they, we, tried to account for the marvels of things like light and dark, the waxing and waning of the moon, the inward surge and outward flow of the tides. Fire. Thunder. Life. Death. The first attempts at understanding these things and how they came to be was the creation of gods—many gods, a god for the sun and a god for the thunder. This made sense to the developing human mind.

Along came Father Abraham and Mother Sarah, bless them, and the Creator—who knew the secret all along, of course, that God is One, unique and holy—the Creator struck up a conversation with the aging couple and sent them off on a late-life trip to a land of promise, a land said to be flowing with milk and honey. And in their conversations along the way, the Creator invited Sarah and Abraham into a relationship, with just one God: YHWH, the LORD.

In time the people of the promise came to understand that YHWH the LORD was not merely the biggest and best God, the greatest and most powerful God. They came to understand that God is, can only be, one. That the origin of all things is, and can only be, singular.

And then, along came Jesus. And… a people who know that God is one had to struggle to understand a God who seemed to express the divine nature in ways that burst open categories of “one” and “many.” In Christ Jesus, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell [Col. 1:19], and after Jesus’ sojourn on earth was ended, the Holy Spirit of God was poured out so that the presence of God remained in, with and among us, forever. And this multiplicity of experiences of God has kept theologians lying awake at night and staring at their ceilings for 2000 years.

I’m not going to try to exhaust the mystery that is the Trinity for us today. In 2000 years of thoughtful Christian lifetimes, no one has been able to do it. Instead, I’m going to direct our attention towards one description of God-in-action, and ask that we let it play with us, let it resonate and rattle around in our brains and in our hearts, and maybe show us something about the inner life of God that might, in turn, show us something about our lives together as God’s people.

The book of Proverbs falls into the category called biblical wisdom literature—writings intended to teach about the purpose of life and the nature of God. Throughout Proverbs, Wisdom—who is personified as a woman—is contrasted with the Fool, the one who has no interest in learning about God or morality. In our passage, Wisdom is speaking to us—making her case, giving us her pedigree. Wisdon is telling us of her deep, intimate and ancient connection to the LORD.

Ages ago I was set up (established),
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.

Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth…
~Proverbs 8:23-25

I was there, Wisdom is telling us. She is saying, I have been around just about as long as God has been around. In fact, Wisdom is reminiscing about a pretty spectacular front-row seat for the work of God in creation. And all the images she uses have to do with birth—she talks of the depths and the waters, she reminds us of the waters of the womb; she is brought forth, as a mother brings forth a child. She is born.

Later, Wisdom says,

when [God] assigned to the sea its limit,

so that the waters might not transgress his command,

when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;

and I was daily his delight,

rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world

and delighting in the human race.
~Proverbs 8:29-30

Again, the watery images continue the theme of childbirth. And that phrase, “master builder”—which seems to give Wisdom an even greater role in the act of creation—can also be translated “little child” or even “nursling” or “nursing baby.” God is creating—planning and mapping out the intricacies of the world, while at the same time giving birth to and nurturing Wisdom.

In the early days of the church, when the architects of Christian theology were meeting in councils to try to understand the identity of Jesus Christ and the precise nature of his relationship to God, they turned to this passage. Here they found echoes of another passage in which God is creating. This is from the gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. ~ John 1:1-4

The early church councils read these passages and said, these things are related; they are connected. The figure of Wisdom in Proverbs, and Christ the Word of God in John’s gospel, are one and the same.

God is One, unique and holy. But God’s oneness is not stony and remote and set apart. God’s oneness contains eternal fountains of relationship: God, in God’s self, is relationship, the relationship we traditionally refer to as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I think it is this very relationality of the inner life of God that gives rise to the desire to create, specifically, to create us. A relationship of love—pure love—always wants to share that love. A relationship of love always wants to create, to give, to give back.

In our passage from the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (This week, it occurred to me: maybe he was referring to the doctrine of the Trinity.) He continues, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” [John 16:12-13]. The loving relationship between Jesus and God is amplified and continued in the loving relationship of both with the Spirit—the one who comes to help us to sort it all out, thanks be to God.

All these things are related. They are all connected. From the late-life journey of Father Abraham and Mother Sarah to our journey as a congregation, listening hard as God strikes up a conversation with us. From Christ the Word’s joyous participation in creation to our own participation in caring for God’s good earth, listening carefully for Wisdom to show us the way. From the promised sending of the Spirit to our own confidence that the Spirit is with us still, in us, among us, prompting, prodding and guiding us.

Someone once described human attempts to explain the Trinity as being like an oyster trying to describe ballet; we just don’t have the vocabulary. You notice, that has never stopped us from trying. And I believe that, as much as our ponderings no doubt evoke utter mirth and merriment in the Holy, Holy, Holy Lord beyond our comprehension, they also please God greatly. Because God is relationship, and don’t we always hope to better understand the one we love?

All these things are related. They are all connected. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen. Amen.


Illustration: Adam Howle at Artists for Christ.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Rush of Wind: Sermon on Acts 2:1-21

Two weeks ago we had a brief spring windstorm. Late that Saturday night we hunkered down in our homes, listening first to the whistle and then to the roar of wind outside. It blew through the rafters and rattled the windows. It made the hair stand up on the backs of our necks. It blew around items that weren’t strapped down—recycling bins, light patio furniture. I wondered, at a certain point, whether it might not lift the roof right off my house. In the morning, we surveyed the damage: downed branches, the occasional power line, and worse. For one neighbor the casualty was a beloved old tree. The wind has amazing and unpredictable power.

Our passage from the Acts of the Apostles depicts the coming of the Holy Spirit in a violent rush of wind. The Spirit comes in power and is frightening in its intensity. Both Hebrew and Greek use a single word to signify “wind” and “spirit” and also “breath.” At the heart of this image of “Spirit as wind” lies a fairly simple truth: like the wind, the Holy Spirit is most easily described by what it does.

It is fifty days after the Passover celebration. It is fifty days after the great Easter event, the resurrection of Jesus. For forty of those post-resurrection days Jesus has walked once again with and among his friends, alternately hiding from them and revealing himself to them, cooking for them, eating with them, and returning with them almost to a state of normalcy. People speak of finding the “new normal” after a major life event. But what is “normal” for someone who was dead but who now is alive? What is “normal” for one who has always been recognized as a man but who now is recognized as belonging to some other newly revealed categories as well—Lord, Messiah, even, God?

In a sense there has been no pretext of “normal” for Jesus and his friends since the resurrection. They exist in terra nova, a new land, in which the mission and ministry of Jesus must now be accomplished in a new way. This is dramatically demonstrated to them forty days after Easter, when Jesus is “lifted up, and a cloud [takes] him out of their sight” and into heaven, leaving Jesus’ work squarely in their hands. And yet… they haven’t exactly thrown themselves wholeheartedly into their work. They have not been preaching or teaching or casting out demons or healing the sick. In fact, the disciples and friends of Jesus have been in a kind of limbo. They have been hunkered down in an upper room. They have been praying a lot. They have attended to what you might call administrative details, choosing Matthias to replace Judas, for example. Their numbers are at a healthy “small church” level of 120. But they’re not growing. They’re not trying to grow. Frankly, they’re mostly trying to avoid dying.

Finally, the day of Pentecost arrives. For Jews, a harvest festival associated with God giving the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. The friends of Jesus have spent the night, once again, hunkered down in that upper room, all together in one place. “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting… All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…” [Acts 2:2, 4a] It happens in an instant: in a whistle, and then a rush, and then a roar… the Spirit comes.

It is easier to talk about what the Spirit does than who the Spirit is. Here are some things the Spirit does:

• The Spirit gives Jesus’ followers the ability to speak in other languages.

• The Spirit prompts Jesus’ followers to tell of God’s deeds of power.

• The Spirit promises insight—vision—to “all flesh”—sons, daughters, young, old, slaves, free—there is no limit placed on who will receive this particular manifestation of the Spirit’s power.

And that’s just in our passage. The same author composed the Acts of the Apostles and the gospel of Luke—they are a kind of two-part book, telling of Jesus and the early church. Together they have been described as “the acts of the Holy Spirit.” And that is so true. In chapter after chapter, verse after verse, the acts of the Holy Spirit are recounted. Luke’s gospel begins with the birth of John the Baptist—Luke tells us, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit” [Luke 1:15]. By the power of the Holy Spirit a young woman conceives Jesus, the one who will be called Son of God [Luke 1:35]. In adulthood John the Baptist tips off his followers that “one who is more powerful than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” [Luke 3:16]. Jesus begins his ministry quoting that powerful passage from Isaiah; “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…” [Luke 4:18-19]. And on and on and on: the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work in the life of Jesus.

The book of Acts reads the same way—the Holy Spirit is hiding in every upper room, providing courage in every jail cell, inspiring believers to prayer down by every river, and filling the mouths of Jesus’ followers with words—on the streets where they are compelled to share the Good News, and in the courtrooms where they plead their cases before the mighty. And on and on and on: the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work in the life of the church.

And the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work in our lives. As one theologian has explained it: if God the Father is God over us, and Jesus is God for us, then the Spirit is God at work in us. The Spirit gives us the gift of prayer. If you have ever been moved to say a prayer, whether at the bedside of someone you love or to simply say “thank you” for the glory of an early summer day—you have experienced the work of the Holy Spirit in you. The Spirit gives us the gift of the church. If you have ever chosen to do something that binds you more closely to the other members of the body of Christ—you have experienced the work of the Holy Spirit in you. The Spirit gives us the gift of forgiveness. If you have ever been moved to forgive someone who wronged you—or to seek forgiveness from someone whom you have wronged—then you have experienced the work of the Holy Spirit in you.

As dramatic and astonishing as we find the power of a wind that can uproot a tree or send a house spinning, it is nothing compared to the kind of power that can enter the human heart and change it. There are at least two astonishing examples of that specific use of the Spirit’s power in the Acts of the Apostles. First, we have the famous story of Saul the Pharisee, who at one moment is “breathing threats and murder” against followers of Jesus, and in the next is calling Jesus Lord and becoming his apostle Paul [Acts 9:1-20]. And second, we have the story we read several weeks ago, about Peter having a change of heart through a Spirit-given vision that persuades him that God’s love is for everyone, and we cannot construct walls to prevent others from having access to the Good News [Acts 10:1-11:18]. The Spirit can enter the human heart and change it. Both Paul and Peter know that, first hand.

Look again at the actions of the Spirit in our passage: they cluster powerfully around communication and understanding. The Spirit allows people to come together in understanding, who, before, spoke completely different languages. The Spirit fosters the best possible use of language—allows it to be used, not as a weapon or a wall, but as a bridge. It is no accident that on Pentecost Sunday we celebrate the birth of the church—a body of believers that is possible only because the powerful, awe-inspiring Spirit, has knocked down the walls that divide us, replacing “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, [and] factions” with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” [Ephesians 5:20b, 22-23]. We can’t do that on our own. The Spirit has to do it for us.

And now: The Spirit has been poured out. And so Jesus’ work has been placed squarely in our hands. And yet… something holds us back from throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into our work. We friends and followers of Jesus have been in a kind of limbo. We have been hunkered down in our own beautiful upper room, the church. And we have been praying a lot. And we have attended to what you might call administrative details, conscientiously keeping up strong rosters of deacons and elders. Our numbers are at a healthy “small church” level of about 77 in worship. But we’re not growing. Frankly, we’re mostly trying to avoid dying.

The Pentecost story speaks to our situation, point for point. Hunkered down. Worried about the future. Scared of dying. But then it comes: the strong rush of wind, and the Spirit entering in with a new imperative: Jesus’ friends and followers are no longer content to wait around inside. They are compelled to step outside their doors. They are driven to speak to others, even across boundaries of language and custom. They cannot help themselves: they are inspired to share the Good News of what God has done!

Pentecost is now. It is not merely some moment in the distant past, to be fondly remembered with a tear in our eye. It is now. The moment to step outside our doors is now. We know the Spirit by what it does, and the Spirit promises to be with us:

• The Spirit will continue teach us how to speak to one another, and how to reach out to others, even across great divides, how to share the Good News.

• The Spirit will continue to show us—every single one of us— a vision for the life God dreams for us.

• The Spirit will continue to dwell inside us, so that God’s dream for our lives becomes our dream.

Pentecost is now. The Spirit is as real as the breeze that will blow across your face and ruffle your hair when you step outside the sanctuary doors. The Spirit stands ready to renew us, from the inside out. Pentecost is now. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

One: Sermon on John 17:20-26

Jesus is praying for us, today, in this passage from the gospel of John. Let’s start there. He prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these…” by whom he means, his friends, his disciples, the ones gathered around him, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,” which is to say, every Christian who followed. Which is to say, us. Jesus is praying for us.

We are seven weeks into the Easter season, just a Sunday away from the great celebration of Pentecost, and the lectionary appoints for us a story that takes place on the night before Jesus is crucified. It sounds strange I know. But of all the gospels, the gospel of John shines with the resurrection in every verse. It is always there, saturating every scene, every interaction, every conversation. The resurrection is encoded in the opening verses… “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” [John 1:1, 3b-4]. The resurrection is behind John the Baptist’s description of Jesus, yelled out as he passes by: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” [John 1:29b]. In John’s gospel, the resurrection informs the content of the miracles, whether Jesus is turning water into wine at a wedding, providing the revelers with a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, or he is raising a man from death to life, a tantalizing foreshadowing of his own rising. Everywhere, in virtually every verse, the gospel of John speaks, shouts, sings joyfully of the resurrection.

And so, the resurrection is right there, even on the night Jesus is betrayed into the hands of those who will kill him. We have wandered into a powerful, private moment here. Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends. John’s gospel devotes four chapters to Jesus’ words of farewell, and they are modeled very much after the ancient Greco-Roman farewell speech: The speaker announces his imminent departure, recalls his life, urges his audience to follow in his footsteps, perhaps even surpassing him in their behavior, and consoles them in their sorrow. Our passage constitutes the very end of this lengthy goodbye, a moment in which Jesus has moved into a prayer on behalf of his followers—and it bears repeating, he is not only talking about the ones in the room with him, the men and women who have followed him, and learned from him, and sat at table with him, and allowed him to wash their feet; he is also taking about us. He mentions us by name, we who have heard of Jesus as a result of a long and ancient chain of storytellers and preachers, from the people in that room, all the way down to our grandparents, and our parents and our preachers and our Sunday School teachers, to us.

Jesus is praying for us. He prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” [John 17:20-21]. This is Jesus’ prayer: that we may be one, even as Jesus and God are one.

The next logical question: What does it mean to be one as Jesus and God are one? Great volumes of ink have been spilled over this exact question, and blood, too. It is a big question, and it might be that we can’t start there. It might be that we have to look more—locally. So, let’s look around us. Where do we see parables of what it means to be “one”?

Let’s look at the news. I know it might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but take politics: There was an election in Britain last week, and the painful global recession once again took its toll on the incumbents, booting Labor prime minister Gordon Brown out of office. But there was no clear majority winner, and so the party which garnered the most votes—the Conservatives—formed a coalition with the Liberal Democratic party. Their goal in doing this is clear: they have to rescue their nation from the brink of bankruptcy and worse. So these two parties—which are almost at opposite ends of the political spectrum—have chosen to become one, a single ruling coalition, in order to do the monumental task that has been set before them.

Or, we could look to industry and government’s response to the latest environmental disaster: There are some estimates that the amount of oil that has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in the past three and a half weeks is already greater than that lost by the Exxon Valdez. It quickly became clear, following the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent uncontrolled release of oil, that all hands were required on deck, and British Petroleum put out a call to, not only the US government (including our armed forces), but also to all the other oil companies asking for their help in trying to stem the disaster. As the technicians and engineers attempt to cap the spill, those who fish the waters of the Gulf of Mexico for a living are being hastily trained to do the arduous work of, literally, mopping up the oil and tar that have been washing ashore and working their way into the fragile Mississippi River delta. In other words, enormous numbers of people are coming together from very disparate backgrounds in the service of one goal: to save the waters and wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico.

One thing to note about both these examples of “oneness.” In each instance, people are coming together who are not necessarily likely allies. The fisherman and the BP oil executive, on April 19, had very different priorities, as did the Liberal Dems and the Tories on May 6. But in the wake of the disaster in the gulf, in the wake of the vote and the threat of a hung parliament, priorities were reordered, and those whose primary interest had been profits came together with their competitors and critics. Extraordinary events conspired to make “one” those who might never otherwise have found themselves seated around the same table.

What about us? “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” This is Jesus’ prayer. There are two separate themes in theses verses. First: Jesus’ desire that we be one. There is a belief that tends to make its way into our common life, that unity must equal unanimity. Or, to put it another way, that the way to be “one” is for all of us to always agree with one another. To be “one,” we must be of “one mind.” But our examples from the news show us another way. They tell us stories of those who may have strong, principled disagreements—those who believe we should or should not engage in offshore drilling, those who believe the tax burden should or should not be shifted from the poor and middle classes to the wealthy. All these disparate voices, the holders of these divergent opinions, suddenly recognize the imperative that they must come together, now, for the sake of something that is bigger, something that is more important than their disagreements.

And that brings me to the second theme: the reason Jesus wants us to be one. His reason is simple: “…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Ah. There’s the rub. Another glance through the newspaper reveals a sad truth: if there’s anything we Christians do well, it’s argue. The testimony for this is present right in scripture—just read 1 Corinthians for a rip-roaring account of a church with seriously dysfunctional relationships—I mean, people who are seriously at one another’s throats. And if we are at one another’s throats—and usually, what we’re arguing over who is most perfectly following Jesus—oh, the irony of it! Then none of us is really following Jesus! And that pretty much throws our opportunities for showing the world the wonders of our faith in the garbage heap.

Martin Luther’s definition of sin was “the human curved in upon himself (or herself).” When we play “who’s on first” with our faith—when I claim my faith is better or truer than your faith—I am embodying that definition of sin far more successfully than I am following Jesus. I am looking inward at myself and ignoring the whole beautiful and broken world God to which has called every one of us to bring the Good News of God’s love. And you know, the state of the world today—it’s every bit as big an emergency as a potential hung parliament or an oil spill. We have every conceivable reason to put aside our differences on behalf of the effectiveness of the gospel. We have every conceivable reason to show to the world that the followers of Jesus are “one,” because it is a world that is aching for repair and restoration, and our Good News is the prescription.

In 1991 the band U2 was recording “Achtung, Baby,” their seventh studio album. They were using as their theme the reunification of Germany; the Berlin Wall had fallen less than two years earlier. While they were in the studio, however, conflict arose among the members of the band over their musical direction and the quality of their material. After weeks of backbiting and slow-to-no progress the band began to rally, around a song that came about, largely, through improvisation. Here are some of the lyrics:

One love, One blood
One life, You got to do what you should
One life, With each other
Sisters, Brothers
One life, But we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

We get to carry each other. Not only that, we get to let God carry us. Jesus is praying for us. And that means Jesus has placed the notorious problem of our failure to be one in God’s hands. Our job is to follow Jesus, so that probably means we should put our “oneness” problem in God’s hands. And that would suggest that, in addition to working hard to set aside our differences, we should probably be joining Jesus in his prayer. It really is true that, if you have a complaint against someone, a resentment, the best possible thing you can do (for yourself!) is to pray for them. Nothing about smiting, mind you. Take that person—or that group of people—you have trouble with and pray for them exactly as you pray for the people you love most in the world. Pray for them joy. Pray for them success. Pray for them wholeness and peace and every possible blessing from God’s generous heart. Do this without reserve or tricky clauses. Do this for a month. Do this, and see what happens. Do this, and be surprised at God’s amazing capacity for healing. Do this, and behold the power of Jesus’ prayer.

“I ask… that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” We are one, and we get to carry each other. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Image courtesy of U2 Fan Life.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

"At the River": A Monologue of Lydia, Acts 16:9-15

Ever since I was a child I have felt the sure sense of something greater when I am in the presence of running water. I was always drawn to the river… it put me in mind of the eternal, as I saw the cool, crystal tides flowing fast from an unknown source and proceeding in an unending course to the sea. Even as a little girl, when my mother would clothe me in my finest robe and take me to the temple for the ceremonies in honor of Athena, I would hang back, dropping a stone into the water to watch its ripples. I knew the gods and goddesses were not in the temple. I knew they were playing along the riverbanks, frolicking in the water.

I grew up in Thyatira, the eldest daughter in a family with many generations of membership in the venerable guild of dyers. Thyatira was known throughout the world for its exceptional indigo dyes; that meant our city was frequented by the emissaries of lords, chieftains and kings. Every royal family had need of our luxurious purple cloth. They needed to let the world know. To clothe yourself in purple is to announce: I am royalty. I am king.

I was schooled in the trade by my mother. While my brothers learned the art and craft of creating and using the precious indigo dyes, my sisters and I were learning the fine art of selling our goods, whether to brokers or directly to the very, very wealthy and powerful. Because I also married—as did most girls and women—I was a working mother, once my children came along. My daughter, Maia, proved a particularly good traveler. She came with me on my many trips to Philippi, when, with an entourage of two or three men, we would travel the 250 miles to trade, to sell our dyes and our cloths to those who could afford them.

My travels took me to many rivers and even to the sea. And my travels led me into the presence of others who felt the presence of the gods in different ways. I remember well dealing with a Jew from Samothrace, who puzzled me by being unable to make an appointment on the seventh day of the week. When I pressed him, he said “It is a day holy to my God. It is a day of rest, not of work or trade.” When I heard those words—a quiet thrill pierced my soul. And I tried to imagine what would be the shape of a life in which one day of the week —one entire day—was so sacred that no work might be done on that day, no trade, but only a kind of holy rest.

It became my custom both at home and in my travels to find a place where I might gather with others who worshipped the God of the Jews. I took particular pains to do this on the Sabbath—that was what they called the seventh day, the Sabbath. And to my delight, I found that in many places where there was no Jewish temple, such times of prayer took place at the river. This to me seemed a sign from the gods—or was it, simply, God?—that the worship of the Jews was right and good, and I decided to learn from them as much as I could.

It was a particularly trying journey, that year, the trek to Philippi. The rainy season lasted longer than normal, and so we set out later in the year than we had planned. Add to that the fact that my daughter, my Maia, became ill—nothing serious, just the normal discomforts of a traveling child’s stomach. When we arrived at our usual place of lodging, the rooms had been given away, and we found ourselves scrambling for other accommodations in the busiest trading days of the year. On an impulse, I went to a neighborhood I knew to be a home to the Jews, and knocked at the closest door. A woman answered, just about my age, and I explained our plight to her. I could see curious children gathered behind her. She hesitated; I knew that Jews were loath to share lodgings with Gentiles. Finally she looked down and saw my little Maia, pale but upright, clinging to my skirts. Her face softened. “We will find a place for you.”

An hour later we were settled in modest but comfortable rooms, one for Maia and myself and one for the men. After I had soothed and sung Maia into a nap I noticed a flurry of activity in the household. Two little boys carried wood, laughing and teasing as they ran in and out of the house, one little girl swept the floors while another stood alongside her mother kneading fragrant dough for bread. I stood uncertainly in the kitchen door, and asked our hostess, Rebekah: “Please, tell me you are not going to all these lengths for us; we do not want to impose.” Rebekah looked up and laughed. “Not at all. The Sabbath approaches. This is how you will always find us as evening draws near on the sixth day of the week.”

The Sabbath. Of course! I had nearly forgotten. And we would be in a household of Jews as they went about their observances. I was thrilled. I set out with an assistant to meet one of my buyers, with a firm promise to be back before the sun had set. Rebekah in turn promised to look in on Maia if she should stir.

I returned as promised, and found that Rebekah’s husband was home with the meat for the evening’s meal. As we gathered at the table, I heard Rebekah’s quiet explanation to her husband of our presence, and saw with relief he responded with a smile. “Our Lord Yeshua never turned away a stranger, Jew or Gentile alike. You did well, wife.”

This was the first time I heard the name which is above all other names. But I did not know that yet.

That Sabbath meal remains as one of the highlights of my life. How can I explain it? It was not the food, though the food was delicious. It was the soul, the spirit of the meal. I remember the flickering light of the Sabbath candles as Rebekah lit them, and then waved her hands over them, as if to welcome the Sabbath as a beloved guest. She intoned the Hebrew prayers that brought the Sabbath in words:

Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe,
who has sanctified us with his commandments,
and has commanded us to kindle the lights of the Sabbath.

And then a similar blessing over the shiny brown loaves of bread and the cup of sweet wine. And finally, a blessing I found most mysterious:

Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe,
Who sanctified us with his commandments, and commanded us to be a light to the nations
and Who gave to us Jesus our Messiah
the Light of the world.

As I tucked Maia into her bed that night, she said “I love the Sabbath” in her sleepy child’s voice. “So do I,” I murmured, as I kissed her on the forehead… I loved it, and I hardly knew what it was.

We rose early in the morning. W followed Rebekah and her daughters as she took the winding streets of the city and followed them through the city gate, to a wooded path that wound gently downhill, bringing us, finally, to the location we were seeking: a place of prayer at the river. There was a circle of rocks there, just the right size upon which to sit, and we took our places as a group of about a dozen women gathered there. A breeze whispered through the leaves of the trees as the river swept freshly across the rocks below.

Rebekah spoke: “It is written in Torah: ‘When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.’” [Leviticus 19:34-35]. As she spoke three men walked slowly down the hill and stood at a slight distance, listening. One of them was quite young—hardly older than a youth. Another man, perhaps a bit older, was tall and pale; he hung back and seemed disinclined to speak. But the man who arrested my attention was older still, small of stature, with thinning hair upon his head, and a somewhat twisted, limping gait. But these were not the first things one noticed about him. The first things I noticed were his eyes. I have never seen such fire behind a man’s eyes, before or since.

Rebekah looked up, expectantly, and the man with the fiery eyes spoke: “Grace and peace to you, sisters, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus, the Christ. I am Paul of Tarsus, and these are my companions Timothy and Silas. We are following the leading of a vision granted by the Holy Spirit. We believe the Spirit brought us here to Philippi to share the great Good News with you. Let us tell you about Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, he who is full of grace and truth…”

For the next hour—or was it more? I have no idea—I listened to the story of a man who had no need to clothe himself in purple in order to show that he was a king; a man whose royal nature expressed itself in miracles, in healing, in acts of love towards the least of his brothers and sisters. I listened to the story of the one who was the true child of God. I listened, and finally, I knew.

I understood, at last, what the river had been telling me since I had been a child. It was then that my heart opened like a flower in the spring sunshine, and I knew that I had found the answer I had been seeking all my life: the river was calling me. Paul led my daughter and me, and the others of my household to the water’s edge and asked whether we wanted to be baptized in the name of Jesus the Christ, and I answered, yes, we did. And one by one he led us into the cold, swirling water, and lowered us into it so that we arose, breathless, gasping for air, and so filled with the Holy Breath of God. And since that day I have made it my one goal to live a life—a busy, active life, the life of a mother and a wife, the life of a merchant of indigo dye and cloths—to live this life in a manner worthy of the Good News that took hold of my heart that Sabbath morning at the river. I invite you to do the same. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Rules for Eating: Sermon on Acts 11:1-18

I am willing to bet that every person in this sanctuary not only has their own particular “rules for eating,” but can also rattle off at least two other sets of rules. That’s how prevalent the notion of “the right and wrong way to eat” has become in our culture. For most of us, arriving at those rules is a more or less casual affair. We go along in life, we figure out what works for us. For some of us, it’s “stay away from dairy,” for others it’s “no nuts, not ever.” Some of us feel better if we don’t eat past a certain hour in the evening; for others, that’s just when we’re getting really hungry. Many of us feel better if we do without certain foods; at the same time, we have the ones we absolutely, simply cannot do without.

The powers that be, those who look after the public good, have their $0.02 to add to the conversation. There’s the venerable USDA food pyramid. It breaks the diet down into grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, meat and beans, oils and what they euphemistically call “discretionary calories.” Alas, by the time we have eaten the requisite 6 ounces of grains, five-to-six servings of fruits and vegetables, and so on and so forth—all those things we need to maintain health—well, we don’t have a whole lot of discretionary calories left. Still, the Food Pyramid is the gold standard for Americans: it tells us what we may eat, urges us to eat a variety of foods within those possibilities, and promises that general good health will follow.

Other have submitted their health-based proposed rules for eating, everything from Dr. Dean Ornish’s claim that we should eliminate all fat from our diets to Dr. Robert Atkins’ claim of the precise opposite—that we should eat that fat! But health is not the only consideration when constructing rules for eating.

Several years ago, writer Barbara Kingsolver and her family decided to spend an entire year eating only food they’d raised themselves or food that was raised in their own neighborhood. If something didn’t fall into one of those two categories, they would learn to do without it. Her book chronicling that year is called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and it’s had a profound impact on the way many people are re-thinking their own rules for eating. A friend of mine—who also lives in the northeast—says she and her partner are working towards this goal, but there is just one thing holding them back: the avocado.

Of course, young parents often have rules for eating that boil down to two basic tenets: 1, Eat your food. And 2, Food goes in your mouth, and nowhere else.

As even this little tour through some of the better-known examples demonstrates, rules for eating often have to do with more than simply eating. They may be aimed at solving problems ranging from the epidemic of obesity to coronary artery disease to the problem of getting spaghetti off the walls. In the case of Kingsolver and the “locavore” movement, the problems being addressed are spiritual: we are disconnected from the source of our food. We rely too much on the “industrial food pipeline” and not enough on our neighbors. We’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating: food is always so much more than food. Eating is always so much more than eating.

We have a reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles, a book that tells us stories about the early, post-Pentecost church—the time after the resurrection, when Jesus’ friends are spreading the Good News through their own preaching and healing. In our reading, Peter is trying to explain an experience he has had, in which everything he had ever believed about the rules for eating has been dismantled and tossed away, at the instigation of God. Here’s the scenario. Peter, like Jesus, was raised a Jew, and so ate according to the laws laid down in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Here’s just a sample of Peter’s understanding of the way God wanted him to eat:

Any animal that divides the hoof and has the hoof cleft in two, and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cleft you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, and the rock badger, because they chew the cud but do not divide the hoof; they are unclean for you. And the pig, because it divides the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you. You shall not eat their meat, and you shall not touch their carcasses.

~ Deuteronomy 14:6-8

The rules for keeping kosher have been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some have tried to make the case that they were actually beneficial for health in the desert climate of the Ancient Near East, and that may be true. But the meaning of these rules in scripture is clear: honoring God’s instructions about eating has to do with the fundamental way in which Jews identified themselves as belonging to God. Their rules for eating, as well as other observances, made them a people set apart, God’s chosen people. Food is never just about food. Eating is never just about eating.

Back to Peter. He sees a vision—he’s recounting the vision today. In the vision, he sees all kinds of food—food considered unclean, inedible for a Jew—all this food, being lowered from heaven, and a voice commanding him to kill and eat. And he resists. He says no. Three times he says no. (Because, after all, this is Peter, and he likes to do things in threes, I guess.) And finally, he gets it. What he gets is this, in the words of the voice from heaven: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Peter is still puzzling over this vision when he is approached by representatives of Cornelius—a Roman centurion and God-fearer, who has had a simultaneous vision that he should see Peter. Please understand: as far as Peter’s beliefs are concerned, Cornelius is every bit as unclean—and therefore, as unacceptable—as that food was. When Peter comes to Cornelius’ home, and preaches the Good News to him and his family—well, it’s Pentecost all over again. The Spirit falls upon all the hearers, non-Jews that they are, and Peter sees it as God’s will and baptizes them.

And now Peter is back in Jerusalem, among the circumcised believers, those who are undoubtedly still keeping kosher, and he is asked a question: Why are you eating with these people? So Peter tells the story, he tells how his rules, not just for what to eat, but how to eat, with whom, were exploded, by a loud and clear message from God combined with his own experience of seeing the faith of Cornelius and his household. Peter concludes the story with a rhetorical question: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

For Christians, food is never just about food; eating is never just about eating. One could make the argument (and some have) that the early Christian movement, beginning with Jesus and continuing with his friends and followers, was almost entirely about table-fellowship. One could argue (and some have) that Jesus constantly pushed the boundaries of who is to be welcomed to that table. Jesus has no regard whatsoever for notions of clean and unclean, and he does his best to subvert and undermine them whenever he can. Here we find Peter following in his beloved master’s footsteps, and making the radical, truly scandalous judgment that the gospel is not to be fenced in, especially when God has made it so very clear: God gives the gifts of faith indiscriminately, to whomever God wishes. And the community is called upon to shift, spread out, and make room for another at the table.

And so here we are. Ready to gather around this table. And the gospel calls upon us, demands of us today that we know, in our hearts, as Peter knew, as Jesus knew, that the table of God is a radically welcoming place. Our rules for eating here have been expanded, opened up, so that we can make way for Jesus, the One who calls and welcomes each of us, who calls and welcomes all, the One who is the very welcome and love of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.