Sunday, March 12, 2017

Saying Yes


Lent Two - John 3:1-17

Speaking the Creed together is the traditional saying yes part of the baptism service; it is an optional part of the worship service every Sunday. Those who love to speak the Creeds might love it because it ties us to a long tradition of people trying to sift out what we believe about God, asking questions and trying to answer them. Was Jesus really God? Well, then, was Jesus really human? How could those both be true at once? We’re not quite sure but somehow… We say “yes” to both. Those who love the Creeds might love them because they are ancient, because they are unifying, because they are mysterious.

Those who don’t love the Creeds might not appreciate how these statements of faith grew more rigid in times when people were forced to say them at the blade of a sword or the barrel of a gun. I’m pretty sure that not one of us gathered here today would want to force anyone into faith (but we know that’s not true, unfortunately, for all people who call themselves Christians); we want people to know that God gives free will, God invites and does not bully people into faith… but for some of us, the words of the creeds kind of stick in our throats. If we don’t really love to say the Creeds, it might be because we are cynics or because our lives are so full of words, words, words…

But the reason the church holds onto these Creeds, I suspect, even as our church and culture are become less about intellectual assent to systems of belief and more about belonging, more about wrestling with the questions than establishing absolute truths, are that they are some of our most ancient, shared ways of saying yes.

In the night, in the darkness, a liminal time just like the wilderness is a liminal space, Nicodemus comes to get to know Jesus better. He’s been curious but clearly, there’s not a place in the daytime crowds, surrounded by his disapproving colleagues to get answers to his most persistent questions. Day after day, night after night, though, he’s wondered about what this Jesus is saying and doing… because who could do these things apart from the presence of God?

And after Nicodemus greets Jesus, with those words, Jesus points out that it’s a gift to be able to see where power comes from—you can only see God’s work and God’s presence through being born from above, or born again, or born of the Spirit! What does this mean? Well, it means the wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes… that’s what it’s like to be in God’s presence and know God’s activity in the world. You can’t control it, but maybe you can be changed by it.

Nicodemus asks “How can these things be?” In response, Jesus wonders aloud why it is so hard to teach even the most believing among us, why we don’t receive what God has to offer, why we find it so hard to trust in the God who loved the world so much that God placed God’s Beloved Jesus in the middle of our life to give us a glimpse of eternal life. “Indeed,” Jesus says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This is not the last we’ll hear of Nicodemus. He shows up again in John’s gospel after this life-changing conversation. He speaks up for Jesus[1] when the leaders are looking for a reason to kill him, and after Jesus is crucified, Nicodemus goes with Joseph of Arimathea to remove Jesus body from the cross. Nicodemus brings about 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint his body as they wrapped it in linen cloths.[2] It is way beyond an extravagant amount.

This is what happens, I think, when we actually encounter the Living God. No matter how challenging the words, no matter how able or unable we are to understand or respond or fulfill them, we are changed by the encounter… it might mean that when it’s most needed, we are able to speak up in the face of injustice, or to pour out our love and resources extravagantly in the face of loss, grief, tragedy.

At the Acts Bible Study both this week and last, we remembered what Luther said in his explanation to the third article of the Creed. That’s the part where we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit…” and here is how Luther explains that, “I believe that by my own understanding or effort I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth…”[3]

It’s not my good actions (or failures) that make me right (or wrong) with God. It’s not because of our abilities, not because of what we do well… the fate of the world is not in our hands but in God’s hands… and that is just as hard for us to grasp in the morning as it was for Nicodemus to grasp at night. Yet… through the power of the Holy Spirit, that breathes through this place as unpredictably as wind… and as reliably as the air that fills our lungs right now… through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to say yes to God over and over and over.

Saint Patrick, who was a slave in Ireland before he went back to share the love of Christ there, taught a beautiful hymn of saying yes to the God we know in at least three ways—through the Creator and the whole creation; through Christ, the Word made flesh; and through the Spirit.

In the middle of the gorgeous verses of I Bind unto Myself Today[4] is verse four—a series of prayers that read like an ancient rune:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.[5]

This is who we are invited to have at the very center of our lives—not ourselves, not our own good deeds, not our tremendous efforts, not our rules and boundaries about who’s in or who’s out—at the center of us, Christ. And we are invited to saying yes to Christ, receiving, recognizing, practicing trust in Christ, and as do, we being made new by the Living God.

Faith isn’t about getting everything right… and we don’t…
As a community, there are plenty of us who don’t believe, plenty who have trouble with trust (that’s right, you are not the only one)… but the core, the central thing is God’s saying yes to us. Belovedness is spreading, and that seemed impossible… but here we are. In life, in death, in life beyond death, what is most ancient and yet new is emerging, and we hear God’s repeated invitations to life.

[1] “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” John 7:51

[2] John 19:39-40

[3] Small Catechism, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 1162

[4] I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three
 I bind this day to me forever, by pow’r of faith, Christ’s incarnation, his baptism in the Jordan River, his cross of death for my salvation, his bursting from the spiced tomb, his riding up the heav’nly way, his coming at the day of doom, I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself today the virtues of the starlit heaven, the glorious sun’s life-giving ray, the whiteness of the moon and even, the flashing of the lightning free, the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, the stable earth, the deep salt sea, around the old eternal rocks.

[5] I Bind unto Myself Today, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 450. Images in this hymn are also similar to those in Madeline L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, in which she quotes Patrick’s Rune, whose origins are much more ancient (11th century, Gaelic, “The Book of Hymns.”)

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Saying No


Lent One - Matthew 4                                                                                                             

Merciful God, you called us forth from the dust of the earth; you claimed us for Christ in the waters of baptism. Look upon us as we begin these forty days, and bless our way through the desert of Lent to the font of rebirth. May our fasting be hunger for justice; our alms, a making of peace; our prayer, the chant of humble and grateful hearts. All that we do and pray is in the name of Jesus, for in his cross you proclaim your love forever and ever.

Welcome to Lent. This is an ancient season, going back to at least the year 325, the time of the Council of Nicea, a time when early Christians, trying to figure out their faith, drafted the Nicene Creed.  Lesser known was the work they did describing practices of the church… but one of these (Canon 5) was describing a season of preparation for baptisms at the celebration of Easter.
So, this season is very ancient…

I heard a part of the program “Science Friday” this week, and in that program, scientists were describing how they are working on storing data on DNA strands, and how all the information in all of our libraries throughout the earth, could be stored on DNA taking up no more space than the back of your vehicle. And that makes me understand how people who have been away from church for a while sometimes arrive in church on Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent… somehow, it’s almost like it’s written in our DNA. Like salmon who return to the place of their birth to lay eggs, we return… for a season when we might be able to find our identity in God again or for the first time. We return to meet Jesus in the wilderness. We return because maybe, just maybe, the Holy Spirit will breathe into us and deepen our faith.

On Wednesday, a young woman who works at the Capitol showed up for our new lunchtime service… and she expressed that she is trying not to be just a Christmas and Easter Christian, “Sorry… have you ever heard that expression?” she wondered with a nervous laugh. She is trying to get deeper. She is trying to “purify the vessel of her body,” she said, and it made sense to her to gather with a few other people for worship. On Wednesday evening, more newcomers came… in spite of a locked front door, they persisted (thank God!), and worked their way around the building and found an open door, and received a cross of ashes on their foreheads. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We were invited to begin the practices of Lent:  self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love – strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament…

On the first Sunday in Lent, today, we meet Jesus in the wilderness, observing these practices. Right from his baptism, where God declared that Jesus was God’s beloved son, the Spirit calls Jesus out into the wilderness. Some of you regularly go out into the wilderness… you know what’s there that that you can’t get anywhere else. Sometimes, we use wilderness as a metaphor for a place where we’re lost, but I don’t get that impression from Jesus. It seems more like he went out to the wilderness to deepen his sense of being found.
Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. It’s the same symbolic time as Noah and his family and all the animals spent on the ark. It’s the same time as Moses was on Mount Sinai before receiving the Torah, and the same length of time Elijah spent in the wilderness, nourished by God, on the way to Mount Horeb. So it’s significant timing and after that… Satan appeared. You heard their conversation just a little while ago.

First, knowing Jesus is starving (and certainly aware now, more than ever, of what that really feels like…) the tempter questions Jesus’ identity and tells him to prove it by doing what God can do—create something from nothing. Make himself something to eat.

How many times are we tempted, when someone questions us to tell ourselves these stories?—Now, I’ve got to prove who I am. Now, I’ve got to show them what I can do.
Somehow, Jesus realizes the response to the test is not to make the bread but to trust God to provide bread… and everything needed for life. The connection with God’s people, wandering 40 years in the wilderness, learning to trust that each day, every day, God would provide their bread for the day. It took 40 years of learning again how to trust in God rather than to be dependent on their oppressors. Forty years—every day—receiving manna.
Inspired by their witness, Jesus goes deeper than his hunger and uses God’s word as a shield. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Secondly, the devil takes him to the very top of the temple in Jerusalem, and uses God’s word against him. “You trust God? Okay, prove it. Throw yourself to the ground.”
Just imagine the fear you might have if you have never experienced a height like this. Just imagine being told that the only way to prove the trust you’ve just expressed in God is to jump, just give up, throw his life away. Who do we give the power to ruin our life?
But again, Jesus sees this for the illusion that it is. This is such typical anti-God behavior—trying to force God to act on our terms. Instead, Jesus takes a deep breath, and responds, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Finally, the devil takes Jesus up to a very high mountain and shows Jesus the whole world… and makes the boldest demand yet, “I’ll give it all to you. Worship me.” As if the world is the devil’s to give. As if Jesus would forget the one who called him Beloved.
Have we forgotten the one who calls us beloved in our efforts to control our life?
But at this point, Jesus is done with this game of misplaced power, calls his bluff, and deflates his inflated ego, “Yeah, I’m not even going to get into it with you, Satan. You’re not God.” And the devil leaves.

Angels come and minister to Jesus. And here’s an imaginative story that Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement told: “St. Bonaventure said that after the long fast of our Lord in the desert, when the angels came to minister to him, they went first to the Blessed Mother to see what she had on her stove, and go the soup she had prepared and transported it to our Lord, who relished it the more because his mother had prepared it. Of course.”
That’s a good comfort image. Soup from momma to break the fast.

In the wilderness, the devil throws three opportunities at Jesus and each time, Jesus says, “No.” In our baptism practice, we mirror this story saying no three times to whatever is evil, whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor.

We are asked “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?”
And we say, “I renounce them!” (It’s a fancy way of saying “No” to the devil and anything like him)
We are asked, “Do you renounce the power of this world that rebel against God?”
And we say, “I renounce them!”
We are asked, “Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?”
And we say, “I renounce them!”

By saying “No,” we open ourselves up to all the ways that we will be able to say “Yes” to the God who creates, suffers with, and brings life to us. And when we need it most, angels minister to us, giving us the bread we need to survive… or maybe we’re invited to be those messengers, sharing bread for love of God and neighbor.

Blessing from Jan Richardson, “Where the Breath Begins,” Circle of Grace, page 101-103
I tell you, this is where you will receive your life again.