Monday, March 26, 2018

Part of the Crowd

Palm Sunday – Year B
March 25, 2018
John 12:12-16

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!" Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!" His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

Everybody loves a parade. At least that's the way the saying goes. Me, I'm not a big fan of parades; but that's probably because I'm also not a big fan of crowds. When I'm around a lot of people, it's not that I have a panic attack, or get overly nervous, it's that I would rather just get what needs to be done and get away from the chaos of it all. It's like shopping at Christmas time. Other times in the year, I can easily spend hours going from store to store at the mall; but when the crowds are out I want in and out as quickly as possible.

Missy loves going to concerts. She loves that environment. The mass of humanity moving together to the performance of the band on stage. Me, not so much. I'd much prefer to be at home listening to the album than at the stadium watching. I've pretty much always been like that. Maybe that's one of the reasons I prefer smaller membership churches to the megachurches that seem so popular today. Who knows. What I do know is that our text from John this morning deals with crowds, and that this coming Friday, when we reflect on the crucifixion of Jesus, we will be dealing with the crowds once again.

Most of the time, when I've approached this text in the past I've done so focusing on the type of King the people in the first crowd wanted. Or, the way the crowd at the crucifixion seemed blinded by their own desires and blood lust. The message of peer pressure is easy to see within these texts. Or, perhaps we see a reflection of where we may have found ourselves if we had been present those days. Would we have waved our palms, or shouted for crucifixion, or both? I'm sure that's what a lot of the sermons you have heard over the years have sounded like too.

In my preparation for this week's sermon I spent some time jumping all over the internet looking at ways in which the church has come to this passage and to this day. After several hours, I was honestly a bit frustrated because it seemed like I kept running into the same thoughts again and again being presented with different words. It's not that those words were bad, I was just hoping to find a way of breathing new life into these words. It was in the midst of my frustration that I came across a story that inspires the rest of this sermon.

Four years ago, in the midst of the season of Lent, Pope Francis greeted the crowds of pilgrims that crowded St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. I'm sure we've all seen pictures of that mass of devout humanity seeking to have a moment of eye contact or receive a blessing from the Pope. As he was blessing the people, a voice cried out in adulation, “Pope Francis, there is no one like you!” A comment I'm sure we can agree with. Francis has been a breath of fresh air for the Catholic Church. Yet, it was Francis' reply that hit me. “You too. There is no one like you!”

Which got me thinking. One of the cries of the crowd that day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem was, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Without a doubt, the crowd was directing this exclamation at Jesus. At the role they saw him filling as the one who comes in God's name. Yet, could Jesus not have responded that day just as Francis responded to the man's cry? “You too, you too are blessed when you come in the name of the Lord.”

When I look around this sanctuary, I see a lot of difference. I see tall and short, old and young. I see a whole lot of people of whom I can say, “There is no one like you.” Yet, at the same time as I look out I see people that are all created in the image of God. I see people that are all alike in their desire to come to know God in a deeper, more meaningful way. I see within all our 'not alikeness', that we are still united as one in Christ, one in the name of the Lord.

Often on Palm Sunday we are challenged to think about the crowds we may have been a part of. But, what about the crowd we are a part of as followers of Christ? The crowd we are a part of as those who come together in the name of the Lord. Or as the reformers said, we are all a part of the priesthood of all believers.

How do you come in the name of the Lord? How do you go out into the world, to others in the name of the Lord? How do we do that as a congregation, as a community of faith brought together as one in spite of, or because of our diversity?

One of the phrases we hear in the United Church of Christ is “That they may all be one. In essentials unity, in non essentials diversity, in all things charity.” I pray our congregation is living proof that we can all get along, despite many of us coming from different denominations. We can hold different theological beliefs and argue about them, and still be unified in our love of God and each other. That’s the essential part according to Jesus. In fact I believe, we are challenged to think for ourselves, and develop our own theology. I think this is part of what makes us, not just tolerant, but respectful of those holding differing views.

The life of faith is often referred to as being a journey, one in which there are often unexpected twists and turns, one in which there can be many starts and stops, times when we think we have strayed from the path. Yet, this journey of faith, even though it often may feel otherwise, is not a journey that we make on our own. It’s not an individual spiritual quest we’re on, but a group travel experience. Everyone has a role and a responsibility, providing part of the resources for our journey. Christ has graced “or gifted” the community with skills needed to keep us all on track. We are part of a crowd that travels together.

Like the pilgrims that traveled in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, we are all different, all with different stories to tell, yet all journeying together. It doesn’t mean we all look and speak and act the same. Here at Zion UCC, we invite all people to be a part of our family of faith, our journey in the name of the Lord: believers and agnostics, conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, women and men, those of all sexual orientations and gender identities, those of all races and cultures, those of all classes and abilities - all are welcome to join us on our journey. To be a part of the crowd.

Like all crowds, we have our differences and don’t always agree with each other. But by treating each other in a loving way - by reaching out towards one another with loving actions, we can overcome our differences and mend our divides quickly. How we behave towards one another and towards other people is the fullest expression of what we believe. We are constantly growing, maturing in wholeness and love, coming alive in Christ, who keeps dolling out the gifts to help us grow and mature. He provides us with apostles, others in the crowd to keep us company, with prophets who inspire us to action, with evangelists who spread the word, with pastors who care for our needs, and teachers who remind us of Jesus and his message.

Each and everyone of us is unique, there is not another person exactly like you. Not just in the way we look, or the way we act. It's also about the ways we think about God, ways we think about the church, how we understand the gifts we have can be used in the service of God for the benefit of others. Each and every one of us is called to be a blessing to others. To use our God-given gifts to be a blessing. To be, as C.S. Lewis said, little Christs to one another. We are to be a crowd of 'little Christs', all different, yet united in our striving to be Christlike. Part of the crowd. Blessed be. Amen.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Lonely in the Pulpit

The church I serve is a little island of open-minded, progressive, extravagant welcome in a rather large pond of more conservative, less accepting, no-go all congregations in our area. In fact, you would likely have to travel 30 miles or more to reach the next community of faith that shares many of our perspectives.  Which makes collegial pastoral relations interesting.

I was invited to a pastor's prayer and conversation meeting soon after I arrived over 2 years ago, I've never been invited back.  For about 2 years now I've been trying to attend a weekly coffee conversation with several other ministers, but I've had to curtail that in recent months.  I was becoming the token Democrat, the token progressive, and far too many times the butt of jokes.  I was leaving those gatherings more upset and tired, than fed and renewed.

I love my congregation, I love the people I am blessed and honored to serve, but there are many days when I am lonely.  Days when I wish there were other church leaders in the area who shared some of my “liberal” perspectives and beliefs.  Life is hard enough as a progressive in a conservative area, without adding being a pastor.

Please don't hear this as whining or complaining (even though it is), this is more about trying to raise awareness of the need for collegial relations between ministers that carefully avoid descend into theological critiques, us/them conversations, discussions about the latest “soul-saving” action by the local mega-church wannabe.  Is it not possible to simply gather together, to support one another in our ministry, to see our differences but not allow them to be issues of division?  Is that too much to ask?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Facing Hard Truths

As a Christian, especially as a pastor, one of the thoughts that is often on my mind is the state of the church. Not just the church I serve, but the church as a worldwide expression of God's mercy and grace shown through Jesus the Christ.

In church circles, one of the constant conversations has to do with shrinking numbers of members and attendees, the shrinking of monetary gifts and support, the closing of churches with regularity, the loss of clergy, the rising number of people who classify themselves as 'nones'. As a supposed 'leader' I'm tasked not only with serving the church I have, but growing it (not letting it shrink); yet it seems that all but a very select few individuals and churches fail at both not allowing the church to shrink, and growing its numbers.

There are all sorts of explanations and excuses put forward for why this is happening. The culture is at fault, the collapse of the family, the busy-ness of our modern lives, modern interpretations of biblical passages, humanistic approaches to theology. The reasons are never ending. One of the areas that I think gets far too much of a pass is the church itself, or at least the way a lot of people and leaders of the church present themselves to the public.

There was a time when the church was seen as a beacon of hope, a sanctuary where people came for relief from the world around them, a time when leaders of the church were seen as people to be admired, respected, listened to. There was a time when we didn't just sing hymns about being known by our love, we actually were. That time is now well in the past. How is the church viewed by many today?

For far too many (perhaps a majority of folk!?) the church and its people are seen as places and people of bigotry, intolerance, discrimination, judgment and hypocrisy. If that is the way we are viewed is it any surprise that people want to stay away? Who in their right mind would want to be associated with, join with, an organization with that sort of reputation? Rather than bringing people to faith in Jesus, rather than growing the church, the church has in many places become the enemy of Christ's message. Rather than creating disciples and believers, it is creating non-believers.

Popular Christianity, especially what I call 'neo-evangelicalism', is consumed with a sky-is-falling, get-saved-or-else, difference-shunning, science-denying theology that despite its sugary sweet wrappings of worship bands, light shows, podiums instead of pulpits, stages instead of chancels, auditoriums instead of sanctuaries is seen as filled with discrimination, hypocrisy, and bigots. And people are seeing it for what it is, and wanting nothing to do with it.

It's not that they don't like what Jesus taught, most would likely agree with Gandhi's statement of “liking Christ, but not liking Christians'. These folks open up the Bible, they read the stories of Jesus reaching out to the poor, including the outcast without judgment, demanding we love our enemies, turning the other cheek, leaving judgment in God's hands, being less concerned with rules and more concerned with relationships. The thing is they aren't seeing that in the church.

Instead they see a glorification of war and nationalism, they see active discrimination and condemnation against the LGBTQ community, they see the continued diminishment of the role and equality of women, they see the fear-mongering against people of different faith traditions or practices, the cries of, “All lives matter', when they are challenged to face our cultural racism. With each and every day the church itself, the way it presents itself, the things that it holds of value becomes the very thing that drives people away and destroys its core calling to be the voice of Jesus in the world.

There will come a day, and for some it has come, when the church will be forced to look at its empty shells of buildings, the handful of folk gathered to worship, its diminished role in society, and do some deep self-reflection. Will the church admit it has become its own worst enemy? Will it admit that those who have left the church haven't stopped believing in Jesus and his teachings, it's just that they can't find it in the church?

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther questioned the practices and teaching of the Catholic Church and gave birth to the Protestant Reformation. The time has come for a new reformation within the church, a reformation focused on the teachings of Jesus, a reformation that celebrates love, mercy and grace without limit. A reformation that reflects the person we see in the pages of the Bible, rather than one created by fear and manipulation.

Come Lord Jesus, inspire and ignite your church. Break us, and mold us according to your image.

Monday, June 12, 2017

On Faith: Sharing our Stories

On Faith: Sharing Our Stories
June 11, 2017
Luke 8:1-3; Matthew 28:1-20

Today we celebrated the baptism of Amanda, and the joining of the church by Farrah, Melanie, Amanda, Mary, and Cristin. If you haven't yet had the chance to get to know these women, please do so. They each have a wonderful story to tell about who they are, their families, their faith, and the journey that brought them here to Zion United Church of Christ.

I like stories. I'm sure you also like stories. Pretty much the whole world likes stories. The stories we tend to like draw us in, help us to identify with a character or a situation, provide some insight as well as enjoyment, and then end in a way that wraps it all up in a nice package; so we can sit back, sigh, and say, “That was a great story!”

Today we begin a new journey together, a new set of stories. Those stories are ones we will be hearing and reflecting on for the next several months. The stories will be about faith; our faith, your faith, and the faith we testify to in the United Church of Christ. For the next few months, each and every week we will be diving into our faith looking at one part of it, or maybe a part of the church, or maybe something else. Either way we will be taking time to look at our stories.

Today, we heard the story of Mary Magdalene. We first encountered her in our reading from Luke, where we discovered she had been possessed by seven demons, which had been called out of her by Jesus. That's a story to tell. Then, we met her again in Luke's account of the resurrection where she was the first of the witnesses, the one who returned to the disciples with a story to tell that would trump all other stories.

Stories. Stories about Mary Magdalene. Stories from the lives of our new members here at Zion, stories about the lives that has been found within these walls for the last hundred plus years. My stories, and your stories. Stories of Faith.

By hearing the stories of others, their faith, and their doubts, their encounters with God, and what it means to them to live life as followers of Jesus, we become a part of their story as well. Their stories influence our story. We want to know a loving God who understands us and accept us as we are. We want to be in covenant with God and with others through Jesus Christ. We want to become part of the vision of the reign of God. As we become more familiar with the story, the more we become a part of it.

The story of Christianity, the story of our faith is found and told in three essential locations: the words of scripture, in the words and lives of other people, and in the regular coming together of God's people in worship, praise and thanksgiving.

Within the pages of the Bible, we find the story of the relationship between God and humanity. Within its pages we find the human story, our story of falling away again and again, the story of a God who never abandons us, the story of salvation. Our realization of our many failures, our repentance, God's mercy and forgiveness. Our relationship with God is dependent on who God is and who we are as God's people. The Bible tells us that story.

In worship we hear and tell our story in a different way. Through prayer and praise, God's word and the sacraments; worship is meant to be a joyful response, a thanksgiving of God's people to God's redeeming love in Jesus the Christ. As we gather regularly together, over the course of each year we hear and explore the stories of Jesus' birth, his teaching and ministry, his death, and his glorious resurrection. In worship, we deepen our understanding of and faith in God's saving grace.

Faith, though is most powerful when it is shared. When we hear the stories of faith from each other. We need to hear those stories: the stories of young and old, the stories of people who grew up in the church and those that are just recently part of it, those who are like us and those who are different. The Holy Spirit moves and breathes through these stories, and we must be open to hearing it. By hearing other people's stories, our own stories are enriched and deepened; our identity as a child of God, as a follower of Jesus strengthens.

The story Mary Magdalene told the disciples on Easter morning changed the world. In the hearing and telling of our stories we are changed, in the telling and re-telling of the story of faith the Church grows and the world is changed again and again. What is the story you have to tell? What stories have meant the most to you? When was the last time you told your story? May we discover the stories of who we have been, who we are becoming, who we are yet to be; and may those stories heal us, bless us, and empower us in all we say and do. Amen.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

No More Lines

Fifth Sunday of Pentecost – Proper 7 - Year C
June 19, 2016
Galatians 3:23-29

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Over the last week I have been dwelling on a knife's edge between sorrow and anger. The horrific shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando early Sunday morning has affected all of us in some way, and is the subject of many news stories and much conversation.

I am grieving the senseless loss of life. So many people killed in an act of hatred, so many young lives ended by the hail of bullets. I grieve the fact that someone can hate a group of people so much the only route they see is to wipe them off the face of the earth. I feel for the families, the friends, the partners, the husbands and wives, the parents and children that are now having to bury their loved ones. I grieve for a nation that can't seem to escape the brutal killing of men and women each and every day.

I am angry, I am furious. Why? Why is it that the story is about the killer rather than the victims? Why do we want to ignore the fact that these people were killed because of who they are? Why is it that we are the only church in the area that felt moved to have a vigil, to talk about it on social media? I’m tired of the all the talk about gun violence in our country, and the lack of action. How many bodies will it take? When did America become the country where “others” are somehow no longer as important as “self.” Are these men and women not our sisters and our brothers? Are there lives somehow worth less because of who they love? Because of who they are?

Last Tuesday evening we held a candlelight vigil in front of the church. It was an event thrown together quickly, in less than 2 days it was planned and advertised. 72 people showed up. 72 people who had been affected in various ways by the shooting. Perhaps they had known someone. Maybe they were part of the LGBTQ community themselves. Maybe they had a son or daughter, a brother or sister who was part of the community, and the horror in Orlando had touched them. The senseless killing of anyone should affect all of us, we should all be grieving.

Why is it that we are so divided? Why is it that after the killing there were people speaking from pulpits in churches around this country, not mourning the loss of life but declaring it was God's vengeance? Why? Why do we hate each other so much? Why do we again and again draw lines in the sand between us and them, between who is in, who I out? Why is it that hate and fear, bigotry an intolerance are allowed the power they have?

Yes, I am angry. Yes, I have shed many tears over the last week. Do we, or do we not worship a God that declared love for all creation? Do we or do we not serve a God that sent Jesus to us, and died on the cross, not for just some of us, but for each and everyone of us? Am I wrong in that? Have I somehow been led astray, bamboozled by a good sounding story? Are we or are we not all children of God?

I wish that the tendency to draw lines between us and them was just something new, a new development, but it is trait we have been dealing with, likely since humans first walked on this planet. The church has had to deal with it in many ways in the nearly 2000 years since Jesus walked among us. Drawing lines, wanting to define who is part of the inner circle, trying to control access and rights in the church was what Paul is addressing in his letter to the Galatians, a portion of which we heard this morning.

The situation in Galatia was that some in the church were arguing about the new people in their midst. They weren't like them. They hadn't been coming for their entire lives. These weren't people who had begun their lives as Jews within the church, these were Gentiles. These were outsiders. They had to be controlled. They had to be informed that they couldn't just become part of the church, they couldn't just be accepted the way they were. First, they had to convert to Judaism, they had to follow the Jewish law, they had to be circumcised. A line had to be drawn. So they reach out to Paul for advise, what are they to do? How can they convince these new people that they need to change, that they need to become like those already in the church?

And Paul responds. Why? Why do they need to change? What is it that is not enough, what makes them somehow second-class Christians? He lays out his argument: the Galatians were declaring faith in Jesus, faith in the saving power of God, yet were trusting in the ways things had been – the rules that Judaism demanded they follow. Yet, had following those rules ever saved anyone? Had anyone ever been able to follow them all? Even he, Paul, a Pharisee, someone obsessed with following each and every minutiae of law had not been saved by following the rules. He had only been saved by faith. Faith that tore down those walls that had been built, wiped out those lines that had been drawn between the “them's” and the “us's.”

Do you believe Jesus saves, or do you believe that following the rules saves? Which is it? You can't serve two masters. Is it God, or you? And if it is God, if you choose faith, then, as Paul says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Do you see any lines? Do you see any division between who is part of God's family, and who is not? Do you see a ranking? Do you see that one person or group is better or has more power than another? I don't.

Paul wants the Galatians to see that living in Christ was different. Jesus was by all accounts a good and faithful Jew, but he began questioning those laws that didn't match what his heart was telling him. All those lines that had been drawn to separate one people from another. The law said no healing on the Sabbath; so he was supposed to let someone suffer until the law said he could end that suffering? Seeing the suffering on the faces of the mothers looking for their sons in the hours following the massacre in Orlando, I would have done anything to alleviate it. Anything. The law or the love, which matters more? The law saw people based on their infractions. Love sees people differently.

How do we see people? How do you see a person who lives on the street, for instance? Those who work with the homeless population cringe at the label of homelessness, because it reduces the entirety of someone's being to one adjective that seems to overrule all others. A homeless person could be an artist, a cancer survivor, commissioned officer, or a comedian, but the label of homeless is all that they are all to often seen as. Almost certainly they are not seen as a child of God.

The person at the restaurant who can't get our order right might be labeled stupid or lazy, but what if they are grieving a death, struggling with an unexpected pregnancy, or tired from having been up all night studying, trying to make their kids lives better. Are you seeing them as a child of God, as you give them an angry, exasperated glare for bringing you green beans when you asked for broccoli?

To so many, those killed at the pulse gay club are just gay, with whatever preconceptions and judgments go along with that. Why is the label of their sexuality the predominate factor in how we look at them? When I watch the coverage, I see people who were taken advantage of at their most vulnerable, compassionate people helping others in the midst of their own suffering. I see fathers and sons, sisters and brothers. I see children of God. And my heart weeps.

In the last week, as a country we have also been mourning the death of an icon, a hero to many– Muhammad Ali. The boxer, the self-proclaimed ' Greatest'. In an interview, his daughter Hana shared with CNN these words of her father: "There is only one true religion, and that is the religion of the heart. God never named it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. Man gave the titles, and that's what separates and divides us. My dream is to one day see a world that comes together to fight for one cause -- the human cause..."

The human cause. Isn't that what the message of Jesus is all about? The human cause. Ensuring that the hungry are fed and the lonely are visited and all people are able to live in peace and justice and love. Because the labels that we put on one another, the lines we draw, the walls we build, mean nothing compared to the label of child of God that surpasses all else. Love one another, do not pass judgment. Look at every person you meet first as a child of God, and then wonder if all those other label really matter. Maybe, if, with God's help, we can move past all the labels and all the lines, we will never again have to live through another tragedy like this. With God's help, no more lines. Amen.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Seeing God

Trinity Sunday – Year C
May 22, 2016
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Does not wisdom call,
   and does not understanding
        raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
   at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
   at the entrance of the portals
        she cries out:
"To you, O people, I call,
   and my cry is to all that live.

The Lord created me at the
   beginning of his work,
        the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up, 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—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
   or the world's first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
   when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
   when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he 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." 

One of the things about growing up in another country, especially a third-world country like Papua New Guinea is that there would be times when you saw something for the first time and were amazed. It's hard to remember now, but I know that every time a new student arrived at the school from the U.S., they were barraged with questions and their doodads and music were the talk of the school for a few weeks. Just being new made them the center of attention.

Being in New Guinea, we were at the intersection of the stone-age and the modern world. You could go into a village and find people still living in grass shacks, while in town people had televisions and flush toilets. Yet, from time to time you would hear a story about another outlying tribe encountering the outside world for the first time. They may have seen planes flying over their heads, but they had no idea that people were riding within them. There would be occasions when a young person from a village would come to town for school, sometimes staying for several years, then return home and have to share with their village the things they had seen and experienced.

100 years ago, most of New Guinea was still essentially stone-age, and so when the missionaries came from Europe and America with their furniture and books the natives would see new and amazing things every day. One of those things was the piano. So how would you explain a piano to someone who has never seen one, and has no reference to being able to understand it? Well, in New Guinea they said: One pela, bigpela, blakpela bokis. Na dispela bokis em I gat teet; na taim yu paitim teet bilong em, em I krai out. In other words: it's a big black box with teeth, and when you hit the teeth it makes noise. Not bad, huh. I think it describes a piano pretty well. But, what if you were to only get a bit of the picture? Just the keys, or just the body, or just the sound? What then?

It reminds of the parable of the six blind men that heard about an elephant and went to discover what it was like. They all touched the elephant but in different places.
"Hey, the elephant is a pillar," said the first man who touched his leg.
"Oh, no! it is like a rope," said the second man who touched the tail.
"Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree," said the third man who touched the trunk.
"It is like a big hand fan" said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.
"It is like a huge wall," said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.
"It is like a sharp sword," Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.
So, what does an elephant look like?

If you think that would be a hard question to answer, I've got an even better one: what does God look like? How would you describe God to someone who had no clue? Would you be able to do it without making the person even more confused, or getting into an argument with another person about your description (because your describing God's leg, and they God's trunk)? Today is Trinity Sunday, and I am tasked as pastor, and you are tasked as congregation with thinking about what God is like; what God looks like, how we understand God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God the Creator, God the Redeemer, God the Sustainer. If you think six blind men describing an elephant was difficult, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Let's talk about the Trinity; how God is three individual distinct persons, yet there are not three Gods, there is just one. So, God, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are different people, but they are the same. Let's talk about how the same God that created the world, died on the cross, and as he was dying cried out to ….himself? Or, how Jesus prayed to God throughout his ministry, so was he talking to himself? There's a reason why the Trinity has caused so much angst and discussion, at times even splits within the church over the last 2000 years. It's something that we believe, yet can never truly understand. Sort of like, trying to describe an elephant when you're holding onto the tail.

So, what are you supposed to do? Where are you supposed to go to discover God, to see God? Are we supposed to go to the great big cathedral down the road? Are we supposed to go to the mega-church that meets in the basketball stadium? Are we supposed to go on a pilgrimage to a mountain in another country to talk to a holy man wrapped in a sheet? Are we supposed to turn on our tv, and listen to someone in a nice suit? Where do we go? Proverbs says that Wisdom is at the gates, crying out. Not in some far off special place, not in some holy citadel on a high mountains. At the gates, where we go and pass each and every day. Not in the cathedrals, but in our neighbor hoods.

Wisdom is sometimes understood as one way of speaking about the Holy Spirit (thus speaking about God); sometimes it's understood as one of the first things God created. We could go round and round, arguing about who and what Wisdom is, but what Wisdom does is clear and of greater importance: wisdom points us to God. Proverbs uses the imagery of nature to speak of wisdom pointing to God. Nature works together. We see the smallest of insects and the largest of fish. We count the number of different types of flowers. We are astounded by the colors on a spring day. We observe how nature works, how each animal and plant, each fungus and bacteria, each eagle, each living thing plays their part in concert with another. Individually and together nature is an organism that points to something far greater than itself. Proverbs helps us to see what the Psalms declare again and again, that nature itself sings out its praise to God. Nature helps us to see God. Wisdom helps us to see God.

How do you see God? Do you see God in the arguments and discussions that happen at large church gatherings, where people of faith discuss how a passage in the Bible or in their own organizing documents is to be understood? Do you see God in how we understand baptism or communion? Do you see God in arguments over whether the miracles and virgin birth in the Bible are real? Do you see God in the often over-the-top debates over the role of women in the church and abortion? Do you see God in the fight over bathrooms or affirming individuals gender or sexual orientation?

Me, I have a hard time seeing God in most of those situations. Not that God isn't active; I believe God is active in all those times and many more. But, I don't see God in discussion like those, I don't see God in our understanding of the Trinity. I see theology there – literally talk about God. But, I don't see God. I can perhaps get an idea or two about who we think God is, but I don't feel like I see God.

So where do I see God? I see God in the parent that stays up all night cradling their sick child. I see God in the teenager that mows the lawns of their elderly neighbors – for nothing. I see God in the woman that knits and donates baby caps for the brand new babies at the hospital. I see God in the person who reaches out a helping hand, when other hands are refusing. I see God in the husband who visits his wife every day in the care facility, feeding her, washing her, and dressing her. I see God when the outcast are welcomed home. I see God in the child holding hands and playing with another child of a different race or religion. I see God in the collection of food for the needy. I see God in giving a hug when words will not suffice. I see God in the lives and actions of people around me. I see God when God is active through the actions of people.

I hate to say it, but I could really care less about the specific theology that we throw around. About our specific doctrines or practices, whether we believe in the Trinity as explained in the Council of Nicea over 1500 years ago. Those things haven't really helped me to see God. They may have given me the technical words, the phrases to talk about God and sound all religious and stuff. But, I have come to know and see God through others.

Which brings us to the challenging part: how would people describe the God they see you living out? Is it a God of love? Is it a God that helps those less fortunate? Is it a God that does what is right for no reward? Who is the God you are helping people see in your lives? Who is the God we at Zion are showing to the Ohio Valley? How would people describe that God? How do you feel about that? What do you think? Amen.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Locked Out

Second Sunday of Easter – Year C
April 3, 2016
John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."  A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Last Sunday was Easter, with all its pomp and glory. Today we continue that celebration, once again we get to sing some of our favorite most triumphant hymns. And once again, as happens every year the Sunday after Easter, we get to hear about the disciple Thomas, you know, the disciple that wasn't around the first time Jesus appeared to the other disciples and declared he wasn't going to believe Jesus was alive unless he saw it with his own eyes, and touched him with his hands.

So often on this Sunday we focus on faith and doubt. On how faith shouldn't be dependent on proof (that's why it's called faith after all). That was actually the direction I was planning on going. Talking about doubt and faith, about how doubt wasn't a bad thing if it drove you to dig more deeply, to explore your faith more fully. Doubt leads to questions, questions lead to exploration, exploration leads to new discoveries. If Columbus hadn't doubted the world was flat, where would we be today? That was my initial plan. But, as often happens, my initial plan has changed. And it changed because I actually took the time to look at the Gospel text in Greek (something I rarely find I have the time to do.)

I ended up focusing on the word for locked, as in the doors were all locked. One of the most uncomfortable feelings in the world is walking up to your car or your home and discovering you are locked out. You often just stand there with a confused look on your face; wondering how in the world it could happen. You always have the keys in your hand when you get out of the car, yet there they are sitting on the seat. You wander around the car, trying all the doors trying to figure out how you might be able to get in. If you can get a wire coat hanger, you might try to jimmy the lock. Eventually, you either call your spouse to bring you their extra key (that is if they aren't with you!) or you give in and call the locksmith. You feel about ten inches tall.

Getting locked out is uncomfortable. It makes you feel like an idiot. It makes you feel like everyone is looking at you as you struggle to get into your car in the pouring rain. But, being locked out doesn't just happen with doors. It was less than a hundred years ago that women were locked out of being able to vote. They were locked out from getting a college education. They are still locked out of getting equal pay for equal work with their male coworkers. How long were women excluded from sports at the high school and college level before Title IX protections?

We locked people out of other things too. Whites only water fountains and swimming pools. Whites only lunch counters. To this day there are country clubs in this country that do all they can to make sure all their members are of a certain skin tone and culture. For much of the church's history women have been locked out of the role of pastor, and still are in many denominations. In many churches people are locked out of being able to participate in communion unless they are members of the church.

Being locked out sometimes happens in subtle ways: we assume that person who comes from “that” part of town will never be a success. We put the child with disabilities in the remedial classes at school, or assume they don't want to be in sports. We're shocked when the little girl joins the wrestling team, or the boy declares he wants to be a fashion designer. We put all kinds of barriers, both real and cultural in front of people to keep them from being able to follow their dreams, and stay in the roles and societal positions where we think they belong.

Over the last few months, we have heard Donald Trump speak often about building a wall to lockout people from crossing our southern border. And just in the last few weeks there have been states passing laws (or attempting to pass them) to limit the rights and freedoms of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. Locking them out from being able to find a place to celebrate their union, or even be in a place of business if the owner doesn't get the right 'feeling' about them. These laws even make it a crime for people to go to the bathroom if someone thinks they don't have the right letter on their birth certificate. Locked out. Sounds a lot like those 'whites only' water fountains to me.

In our text, the disciples were huddled together, in fear, behind locked doors. They were their hiding to keep themselves safe from the world beyond that door that they were terrified was going to be the death of them (just as it had been Jesus' death.) Locked in, and the world locked out. Which is where I made my discovery. The Greek word for locked out, or closed in this passage is kleiso. It's actually the root of our word close, you can hear it kleiso- close.

There they were, locked away in their fear when Jesus comes to them, appears in their midst, seemingly walks through the locked doors, breaks through the barriers they had erected to keep things out. Jesus walks in and, what does he do? He blesses them, he says, “Peace be with you.” That should be enough, but it's not even after seeing Jesus the disciples are still gathered behind those closed doors the next time Jesus comes. Still huddled in fear, trusting in God, but scared of what might be out 'there' that might want to come in.

Sounds a lot like the church today. But, today we aren't scared of the religious elite (John calls them the Jews). No, today we are scared of the muslims, or the gays, the people with crazy ideas, those abortionsist 'baby killers', the list goes on and on. Sure, we say they are people, but do we really? It's like that church in Wintersville that has changed it's sign to say, “all are invited”. Not all are welcome, invited. Sure, come, but you might not be welcome here; you might have to change who you are, we might not accept you, you might find yourself locked out of the church.

Is that what the church is supposed to be like? Closing our doors, locking people out because they aren't like us, because they make us nervous, because we have never really gotten to know them? Of course not. And that is where the other half of my discovery this week comes into play. The Greek word for church is ekklesia. It's where we get the word you sometimes hear in church gatherings, ecclesiastical. But, it's roots can be traced to another word. What's that word? Kleiso – the word for closed. The words are the same, with one difference, there is a prefix on ekklesia that negates it, that reverses it. Literally, the word ekklesia, the Greek word for church, means open or unlocked.

Jesus comes to the disciples, locked away, closed off, on their own; and breathes upon them. “Open up, come out, unlock your doors, become the church. Do not live in fear, live within the peace I am giving you. Do not be kleiso, be ekklesia.” Do not be closed off in fear, but opened up in faith.

What doors have you closed? What practices or ideas have you built a wall around, to keep away from you and your faith? What barriers have you placed (even accidentally) in the lives of others? We have all done it. We all have doors we should be unlocking, sanctuaries of perceived safety we should be coming out of. If we are the church, if we are the open community as it was first envisioned, that is not only our calling but it is who we are.

The resurrected Jesus still comes to us, breathes his Spirit upon us, gives us peace and calls us to come out, to unlock our doors, our hearts and our ears, to open our doors. Most of the time, when we hear the children's rhyme about the church that says, 'open the doors and see all the people,' we look at it from the perspective of looking at all the people in the church. But, we are called to open our doors and see all the people outside, waiting to come in.

This is the church, and this is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people. (with actions to the rhyme, but ending with opening and spreading arms to see all the people) Amen.