Who is(/Who’s) God?

Psalm 139

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.
_____________

Society puts forth such a significant misleading story in the myth of “happily ever after” and “unconditional human love.”  It’s not possible.  And year after year, I see people yearn for relationships that simply can not be what we are taught, in the media, and romantic comedies, and literature, and hollywood scenes.  Year after year, I see folks heartbroken because their partner or child or parent cannot fulfill everything that is expected of them, every single time.

We are at a significant disadvantage in love, because we live with this necessarycondition of human.  Further, Love, real love, is not a feeling.  Real Love is a verb, an action of doing something for another, or for oneself.  Love is extending past our own comforts and boundaries in a way that simultaneously uplifts another and expands self.  M. Scott Peck writes in The Road Less Traveled that once the puppy romantic love ends and fades, once partners realize once again that they are two separate individuals with annoyances, preferences, needs, wants, goals, and life paths that may not necessarily line up in the exact same way, THEN is when the real work of loving can begin.  And Loving—the action of loving—is certainly work.

Parents, family, friends, partners, ….people choosing to be in full relationship with one another must work at it in order for relationships to deepen beyond a surface level.  We must overcome the inertia of laziness and the fear of genuine connection to go any deeper.  Peck notes that falling in “love” as our society deems it, is not real love.  “Falling in love,” he writes,

is not an extension of one’s limits or boundaries; it is a partial and temporary collapse of them.  The extension of one’s limits requires effort; falling in love is effortless.  Lazy and undisciplined individuals are as likely to fall in love as energetic and dedicated ones.  Once the precious moment of falling in love has passed and the boundaries have snapped back into place, the individual may be disillusioned, but is usually none the larger for the experience.  When limits are extended or stretched, however, they tend to stay stretched.  Real love is a permanently self-enlarging experience.  Falling in love is not.

Boundaries are stretched, and as a result of real love, we learn, grow, and are transformed. Ursula K. LeGuin wrote, “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.”  Consistent effort is required to maintain a loving relationship.

And because we are humans, it is so difficult for us to continue to work at love. We think that at some distant point, we will have “arrived” and that work is no longer necessary to love. We are, inherently, continuously working against the inertia of laziness.  We push against our limited condition of human, telling stories and myths of “unconditional love.”

But we: Lovers, Parents, Siblings, Friends,— are not able to Love Unconditionally.  Even when we cannot see them, the conditions are there.  For some, the conditions become painfully apparent.  Parents who realize that there is only so much they can do for their child.  Partners who are brave and strong enough to step away from an abusive situation.  Siblings who realize the best way to remain in relationship is from a great distance and at a surface level.  Adult Children who see the patterns of anger in their own parents, and choose a different way.  For others, they love blissfully unaware of the conditions in the distance.   Yet, we are not able to love truly unconditionally.

However, God is.

God is Love.
Christ is Love incarnate.
The Spirit is Love in action.

And God… Love… searches us and knows us, in our messy conditions of human… and calls us God’s own.  God’s overflowing love sees our inmost parts and calls us Very Good.

Even in our darkness, our depression, anxiety… where we are afraid, where we choose to turn away from the very best versions of ourselves… even that darkness is Light to the One Most High.  Despite our own interpretations of how we must behave and our own assumptions of how others should… God showers love and grace upon us.

We cannot imagine or truly understand the unconditional love of God.  We speak it, but even in speaking and preaching this truth, we limit it to words.  The love of God is beyond and before words— even before the words are on my tongue, God knows them completely.  Once uttered, God demonstrates God’s ability to be beyond the words we’ve said.

We can’t comprehend the unconditional love of God for all people: even those we have oppressed, ostracized, demonized.  Even those who have hurt us or those we love.  Even terrorists and atheists and those we’ve put on death row.

And when we believe, even beyond our comprehension that God loves everyone, then we must, too, believe that the redeeming radical transformative love of God is surrounding us, too.  The awareness of our worthiness to be loved changes lives and the world.

God’s love is unconditional.
For the new first-time grandmother watching her parenting tactics repeated upon her grandson,
God is love.

For the inmate of a petty drug crime stuck in a cell for 10 more years, and wondering if his life matters.
God’s love.

For the divorced woman searching for a place to find affirmation and love, and finding a radical space of love and renewal,
God is love.

For the elderly in assisted living who’s memory brings him between decades and faces that blur together,
God’s love.

For the trans kid who lives on the street corner, clinging to the love of God and help of a stranger, after she was kicked out of her home for being herself,
God is love.

For the exhausted work-o-holic upon the realization that he’s missed years of his family,
God’s love.

God’s love.  God is love.  God’s love.  God is love.  I think sometimes we, who cannot comprehend the words of love, and limited by our own human condition, and experiencing human love (and loss…)…. forget the expansiveness of the love of God.  We forget that God loves the person we hate most.   We forget that the grace of God, who loves us: fearfully and wonderfully made into these bodies and brains and hearts and complications.

We know the great Commandment to be ’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and strength,’ and the second, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’  There are three Love commandments in there.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love yourself.  All three of those come with compassionate action, and are related: loving yourself as the only tool you have to love the world and those in it and God who created it.

And in that love is work.

That’s the catch: We’re not made to be aimless.  We are not created to stay still and bask in this love.  We’re called to love in action, to be compassionate and stretch beyond what we thought was possible.  We’re called to love recklessly and intentionally: our selves. our neighbors. our God.

We cannot love unconditionally because we are limited by this necessary condition of human.  We are messy and broken and lonely and wanting.  We can choose to enter into and leave relationships for our own self care and community.   And in the midst of our human frailty is God, who has searched us and knows us, where we sit, where we rise; and knows our inmost thoughts.  God who is acquainted with all our ways. God who Is Love.  Who’s love is truly unconditional, never ceasing, never waning, never leaving.

So in closing, I leave you with these excepts from 1st John, the early Christians reminding each other:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. ..… Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.…… God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them …..

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Space Junk

PictureThis sermon has three parts.

It’s about Jesus harnessing the power of creation to help clarify questions of faith.
It’s about God in Creation and God in Community.
It’s about Synod, Space Junk, and making statements and creating space.

Braided together, hard conversations and escapism into sunsets point to the work of our generation: to do the work and be the church.

Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

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Who is this, that creation itself is in his power?

Jesus is teaching and evening comes.  He calls to them— let’s go over to the other side of the lake!  With his disciples, and not much else, they all got in the boat.  Then, a windstorm arose! Creation itself whipped up a ruckus while Jesus slept on, his head resting on the cushion as the fear and anxiety of his followers amplified.

Don’t you care?
Where are you?
We are dying!
He rouses, rebukes the wind, and in the coming calm, raises an eyebrow and turns to the people:  What are you afraid of? Where is your faith?
And they knew, saw power, saw Christ, and said to each other: Who is this that even the very elements of nature bend to his command?  Creation itself is in his power?

Who is this that draws on awareness of creation to change the state of things?   And why?
Maybe because sometimes looking at creation even helps us gain perspective and see the longer view.

This week: I slept outside on a porch and listened to a chorus of loons.  I swam in a lake with teenagers.  I walked in the woods.  I talked about God.  I slept beneath the stars on a ledge, Mt. Washington in the background.  I taught about Jesus.  I prayed that I might possibly see a Moose.  I sang songs with themes of justice.  I went spelunking in caves.  I taught teenage girls how to own their power and affirm their voices.  I taught youth that Christianity is not belief in certain things, but the willingness that being in relationship with God and each other.

Creation itself was the backdrop for taking the long view.  For youth and adult leaders to find out what is really important in Christianity and intentional community.  Where is your faith? came the question out of the awareness of the Power of Nature.  Whether it was beside a lake while the water lapped at the shore, or in the lodge with the laughter of the younger groups encouraging our questions and exploring, we, too, heard Jesus ask us about Faith, as we asked and learned and grew in ourselves and in relationship to God.

We had hard conversations about what it means to live in community.  If one’s bed time is 10 and another wants to stay up talking until midnight, how are we all going to make space for each other?  If one articulates her need to not hold hands during games, and another brings an exuberance of activity, how do we compromise?  If one speaks so quietly that he is rarely heard, and another’s voice drowns out his, how do we hear the concerns and find the community decision?  We began the week with a covenant of relationship, and lived through that covenant into community.

We learned that even in the midst of all of what we bring:

Youth from families that looked and acted differently,
from different areas of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and NH,
from a variety of access to wealth and privilege,
youth who identified themselves across the spectrum of sexuality and gender,
youth who pointed to their experiences at camp as the formative way they are able to articulate a connection to God,
youth who are leading churches and will continue to grow to Christian leadership…..
even in the midst of all this incredible diversity, we must have the hard conversations and keep the faith.

Though, I confess, it feels as if doing “faith” in nature, is easier.  When the power of creation surrounding seems to challenge and affirm community building… it seems as though the connection flows freely.

Even with the youth this week, when we thought about nature and sunsets and mountain tops and moose and loons and coniferous trees…. we could say, “here is God!”  …but in the moments of doing the work of being in community, it was harder.

Who are we, that the power of Nature so clearly shows the power of God, and yet the head of our Faith is one who commands the storm itself?  I wonder if the disciples thought this when they were experiencing the awe of “the nature” on the lake.  Creation herself honoring the power of the Christ… Finding God in nature and thus helping to see God in community.

Finding God in Nature is seductive, and easy for most.  Finding God in community is evasive, and stunningly rewarding, for those who are faithful enough to try.

We tested the limits of God in community when we gathered for our National Gathering of Church—General Synod, in Cleveland the beginning of the summer.  We spoke about controversial topics and voted on several major resolutions.  The tension in the room was so palpable that many pastors there were practicing their techniques in being a “non-anxious” presence.  We spoke about why we were calling a straight, white, cisgender, man over 50 to lead, when so many people were expecting a visual representation of diversity in our leadership.   We spoke about Just-Peace and divestment from Israel’s businesses profiting from within the settlements in Palestine, and whether we’d call that apartheid.  We called for the removal of the confederate flag and everything the symbol has been constructed to represent.  We resolved to learn and call attention to the use of the derogatory name of the Washington Football Team, the “Redsk*ns.”   You might imagine the tension in the room.

The whole time we spoke of these issues, there was running commentary on twitter.  People tweeted goofy, profound, Godly things.  We tweeted prayer and community hopes and dreams.  They tweeted opinions and mournings and wonderings.  We tweeted articles that would help people get learning and background of each vote.  They tweeted about the background conversations within each committee.  And then— something started happening in the place of tension, on twitter first:  people started asking for the Space Junk resolution.

What?!  Space Junk!?


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Space junk became the punch line to a tension filled hall of hard conversations.  Space Junk became the safe word- of, I’ve had too much! Sometimes conflict is hard! So is living in community!
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In the midst of a tension filled hall, the care of Creation and the power and call for our natural world cut through the complicated messiness and allowed us to step into our fullest selves and do the work of community.  Mirroring Jesus, we called on the awareness of Creation to change the state of things.

The hard work of living in community and being Christians together is that hard conversations never leave us.  They make us want to say “don’t you care! we’re dying!” And sometimes it takes an awareness of creation herself to call us to re-charge and come back to care.

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When we finally did get to the Space Junk resolution, the relief of our commonality bonded us together.  With little fanfare, and much relief, The United Church of Christ affirmed our commitment to be faithful stewards of all of creation, even beyond this world.  With some giggles for space junk, and go forth and prosper.

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The tension of the storm ceased, we were reminded of our faith, and to have faith in our covenantal process.  From Christ in the boat, to camp on the Mountain, to a witness in outer space, it always strikes me that finding God in Nature is seductive, and easy for most.  Finding God in community is evasive, and stunningly rewarding, for those who are faithful enough to try.

We take our cues from Creation, and bring our creative spirit into community, for the Christ that calls us together in faith and witness to the world:  in this space, and in all space.  This is the work of our era: to do the work and BE the church.

Acquainted with Grief

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Isaiah 52: 1-3, 13, 53:1-9

Awake, awake,
put on your strength, O Zion!
Put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city;
for the uncircumcised and the unclean
shall enter you no more.
Shake yourself from the dust, rise up,
O captive Jerusalem;
loose the bonds from your neck,
O captive daughter Zion!
For thus says the Lord: You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money.
……

See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Awake, Awake, Zion— This is a going to be a hard one. I’m going to name some hard truths, and do so with love. Church, let’s talk about grief. Institutional grief.

Why are are we grieving, Church? Because this isn’t the church we thought it would be 20, 30, 40 years ago, and it won’t be that which we expected.

Because space to grieve that reality is so important before we consider how we are going to be the church in the coming months, years, and decades.

I keep an eye on articles and statistics and pew reports and realities of the church at large in America right now, and we’re at a collective time of transition and grief. The pew report came out, again, and the numbers keep getting more and more stark. (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/ ) Every major Christian voice has something to say about the “declining membership” and “how to attract young families” and pointing to how what the collective church *is* doing, *isn’t* working.

We point to money: Less people choose to give to church.

We point to time: More people choose something else for Sunday morning. No one volunteers for committees that feel like part-time jobs.

We point to priority and attention: Church is no longer the center of community that it was even just 20 years ago, but in conversation and sometimes competition with several other community centers for the time, attention, and money of the same people.

One researcher writes, “At one end of the spectrum, 50% of American Christians attend mega-churches. At the other end 50% of Christian churches have no more than 75 people in attendance each Sunday. Many of the members of these congregations are now over age 50. Many live in rural areas. Many find it difficult to maintain their church facility and keep a professionally trained pastor on staff.” He goes on to say that some estimate 50% of churches will close their doors in the next 5 to 10 years. (Louis F. Kavar,Contemporary Churches: Spiritual Transformation of Congregations, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.) Churches around our town, state, country and world are feeling the strain. Church is collectively engaging— or choosing not to engage— with our changing role in the American landscape.

There is an undeniable reality of a change coming within the church! The United Church of Christ just called the Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer as our next General Minister and President— the face of our denomination— and he describes was is before us as “nothing short of a second Reformation,” and calls us to be attentive to what is already nailed to the framework of our door in the near future. (John Dorhauer, Beyond Resistance. Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015.)

Churches around the country are looking at this reality of what is before us and interacting with it in different ways. Another article I just read, and then tweeted about, is entitled, “Why the Church Needs Millennials, but Millennials Don’t Need Church.” In the article, Millennial minister Stephanie Vos writes, “From what I’ve seen, Boomers, by and large, are going to go to church. It would be nice if they found one they liked. And it would be even nicer if they found one that would cater to their needs.

…On the other hand, Millennials don’t care if they go to church or not – they are craving meaningful experiences, and that can happen at yoga or the meditation center, camping with friends or volunteering, protesting downtown or working in the community garden.” (http://thesaltcollective.org/why-the-church-needs-millennials-but-millennials-dont-need-church/#sthash.sehMRPoP.GgR2Uuzp.dpuf ) …As a millennial, I found truth all throughout that article, and reflected in my closest friends, and what they are up to right now.

And however we see—or choose not to see—this reality— here at Wapping Community Church …. will reflect the long term future of our church.

And Church? That means we need to be ready to make some decisions together.

Church? That means we need to have the courage to be in conversation. Especially when it’s hard. Opting out of the hard conversations is opting out of our future together.

Because Church? The alternative to this grief and conversation is finding or maintaining a church that will be a great one for a funeral.

Yet, Church, before we start those conversations and thoughts and wonderings… Before those who are brave enough look to the possibilities within Faith Formation and Open and Affirming and bravely enacting our statement of Welcome for All…. we have to grieve.

This isn’t what exactly what we hoped for, and what we thought, when we vision our community church. We visioned more children. A community center. A priority. So we grieve.

Church, though, I know one who will walk with us… a man of sorrow and well acquainted with grief. I know that we, as a people, have survived reformation after reformation… using words and sacred texts of old to point to the hope of the future, beyond and out of their original context, into a new context.

I can’t hear the scripture we read without thinking of Jesus Christ, and Handel’s musical interpretation, and sacrificial atonement. We know this scripture was written long before Jesus, and to a people that were seeking awareness in the midst of exile and despair. We know that the image of suffering servant was portrayed as the embodiment of the then people’s hurt and grief. And we know that vision grew in our Christian tradition through the generations to reflect One who Will came to heal… to take away the hurt… to help create something new in a different way.

We see how these IN words, FROM the context of which they were born, people read comfort and make meaning of their Babylonian exile. As Christians, when we read this, we think of how this particular text has been used to speak to balm the wound and the grief, and bring hope and healing, in the form of a Suffering Servant that we know as our Christ. Generations later, we still

read hope in the incarnation of a Suffering Servant— acquainted with grief. We read the text on Good Friday, because even still we see in these words evidence for our theological sense-making of the violence and perversion of justice as a man, acquainted with grief, hung discarded.

The text speaks to us even still today as we conceptualize the role of Church in this day and age, and grieve what we thought we would be. And as anyone who has interacted with grief knows, it’s a messy process that loops and surprises. To deny and suppress the work of it lets it sneak up in ways that are not healthy or helpful for church. It makes us act up and act out: lashing out at people who aren’t directly responsible, knowingly creating problems that would be easier to react to then the grief itself, speaking rumors in the parking lot instead of working together, putting bandaids on hurts that need much more extensive care.

When we think of grief, Kubler-Ross’ stages are accepted as norm: Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

Lou Kavar gives examples as follows for church:

Denial: Our church isn’t shrinking. It’s just a trend. We’ll always be here.

Anger: If it wasn’t for the poor leadership’s decisions, this wouldn’t be happening! It’s their fault! Or it’s the scandals, the TV scams, the media!

Bargaining: If we start another service at a different time with better music, we’ll have everyone flocking to the church!

Depression: We’ve tried everything and nothing works. Our kids don’t even want to come. Acceptance: “Perhaps, just perhaps, the important thing is the teaching of Jesus and not the organization. Perhaps there are different ways for Christians to gather and to live the message of Jesus that we haven’t explored. Perhaps there is a new form of Christianity emerging.” (Kavar).

Perhaps, even, you can recognize where YOU are in those stages of grief when you think of your relationship to church, and then to God.

Church, I’m so sorry. Have you heard that, yet? I’m sorry for this change. It’s going to hurt some. As we discern together, we will have growing pains. I’m sorry. We can grieve those pains— that it doesn’t meet what we thought it would, that people will leave without explanation, or effort, that we’ll have to let go of some of what we *thought* was *most* important in order to live the Gospel. I’m sorry. It will hurt.

Know that even as we grieve, there is one acquainted, intimately, with all of our institutional stages. One who finds self, and the ability to show up, even, and especially when our grief means that we behave badly in community—and then calls us to remember to love each other and then act like it.

Church, you who have grieved personal losses know, though, that no matter how you handle it, it doesn’t change the reality of what has happened, or will happen. We do know that it’s a process. Some push away their biggest supporters, and some come together as a community to grieve and receive support.

It is my hope that by naming this reality, we can intentionally look to our future together. We can sing the hymns of old that give us hope, and look to how we can vision for the millennial church. Because no more baby boomers are being born. And millennial culture is taking more and more of the American landscape. Church, we have to go there, too.

Church, you who are Israel feeling your grief, carrying the weight of emotion, you can relate to this passage, feeling beat up and interacting with grief of exile.

Church, we look to One who is the central message of our faith, who’s Gospel will live beyond this building and these boards and committees… to carry us through, and we relate to the suffering before we look to the hope.

Church, we have work to do, in naming this reality, we can grieve it in all the stages that will pop up and surprise us…

The importance of the message that we carry demands that we move forward in faith, even though we have not moved on.

Because, Church? we can come together and vision how to BE the Church for those who have yet to know the intimate and transformative love of Jesus Christ, himself well-acquainted with grief.

Amen.