Tag: spirituality

Rest on Grace

John 3:1-17jesus_nicodemus_2
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Paul’s writings are thick, complex, and wrote in a style of rhetoric, argument, that we don’t use much anymore. So let’s break him down into little bits today. First, let’s replace Abraham in our scripture with George Washington. Think: What then are we to say was gained by George Washington, our ancestor according to the flesh? Or rather, why do some people brag George Washington is their great-great-grandpappy? Does that make them more American than those not related to George Washington? In other words, it’s great to have grandpappies who did great stuff… but God doesn’t care who your grandpappy is… just like your American Citizen status doesn’t rely on being related to George Washington.

Next, Paul argues Abraham didn’t work for God, and God didn’t pay Abraham his due. This wasn’t an employee and store owner relationship. Instead, God -granted- -reckoned- -gifted- Abraham righteousness in return for Abraham’s trust. Paul even calls Abraham ungodly. God gifts grace to people who haven’t even turned their lives around towards living faithful lives. Faithful lives doesn’t win you God’s grace. God gives it freely. So, God doesn’t care who your grandpappy is… and God doesn’t require living a sinless life to receive God’s love.

If we’re going to use our American analogy, it would be that your citizenship to America doesn’t depend on being related to George Washington… and, it doesn’t depend on you speaking English, dressing in jeans and a tshirt, and being Christian. You can be American and speak Spanish, or wear a hijab, or pray at a Synagoge.

Why is this important to Paul? Because he’s writing to ancient Jews who had always been taught that their literal ancestor – Abraham – is what made them Jewish, and made them God’s people. These new converts to The Way of Jesus (seen as form of Judaism at the time) are NOT biologically related to Abraham. How can they, too, be God’s children?

Sorta like… many say that to be an American citizen, you have to have been born here. Raised here. OR act, look, speak and pray like you were raised here. But what about people born abroad to American parents, but due to the military, are raised in a foreign country and speak a foreign language and hold dual citizenship? Are they Americans? People who immigrate here – are they Americans? What about the Amish – are they Americans? We’ve got a lot of people who don’t wear tshirts, jeans, and speak Midwestern English. So what is the criteria for being an American?

Paul’s churches are asking – what is the criteria for being Christian?

He argues if being a child of God means being a literal descendant of Abraham… we have no reason to follow God. None. Born Jewish? Bam! You hit the jackpot. Automatic inclusion. Born Greek? Chinese? Sorry. You’re not loved, and even if you convert, you still are excluded. This way of thinking doesn’t promote faith. It doesn’t even promote living a good life style. It just promotes keeping a strict genealogy record so you can prove you’re related to Abraham, and so got your golden genetic ticket to God.

Instead, Paul argues that Abraham existed before there was really a Jewish people or Jewish faith. There wasn’t even a Torah, a Bible, at the time. So… being Jewish or following the Torah doesn’t include or exclude people from God’s children. Abraham was loved before the Torah and before Judaism. Instead, God’s children, Abraham’s heirs, are all of those who follow his faith. All of those people who trust God. And all those people – regardless of their biological ancestor, or their depth of knowledge of religion, or how little or how often they sin — none of this makes or breaks your relationship with God. Instead – you’re a child of God – just as you are, who you are – because God loves you.

What do you call this? It’s called grace. Unmerited favor. God loves you because God loves you. There’s nothing you can do to gain more love or to lose that love. To be Christian is to accept that love as reality with faith. With the belief in things unseen, not wholly proven, but chosen to be accepted. Paul writes, “God gives life to the dead, and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Biologically, you’re likely not related to Abraham… but you are his descendant through things that don’t exist. Living faith flows from him to you. You are Abraham’s heir. You are God’s child, too.

In our American analogy, you’re likely not related to George Washington, but you are his political heir. The spirit of democracy, freedom to speak, freedom to worship in your own way, freedom to influence your government is known to you. You’re an American child too, regardless of where you were born or what language you speak or how you worship.

Spiritual heirs are what Jesus and Nicodemus are talking about.

Nicodemus is walking a faith like our own, and like many of those whom Paul wrote to. In John’s gospel, light and dark, day and night, mean a lot more than just how much illumination there is. It also means whether or not someone is understanding Jesus, or if they’re misunderstanding Jesus. So Nicodemus comes literally at night and figuratively in misunderstanding. He thinks he knows who Jesus is: a great rabbi from God. Jesus tells him, “Bingo… and more. But to see more, one has to be born again or born from above.” The word used here in scripture means both — both again and from above.

Nicodemus is in the dark. He misunderstands and takes the literal translation — born again. He gets caught up in the literal – and starts picturing himself trying to get into a womb to be born again. SO not possible.

For our American analogy, it would be like saying Americans are those who are born American. But what about all the immigrants? Even if they get their greencards and are full citizens, are they still not Americans? They can’t be literally born again here. People don’t have two births.

Jesus explains – spiritual birth. The Spirit of God moves here and there, people here and there are reborn with it.

In our analogy, some people are spiritually born as Americans and come here with that spirit, that love, of liberty from wherever they were biologically born.

You just can’t predict who is going to faithfully vote and faithfully attend church based on their birth certificates. There are people born in America who never vote and there are people born with Christian parents who never attend church. Just as there are people born in Middle Eastern countries who move here and never miss voting, and there are people who have atheist parents who never miss time to pray.

Biological birth is not the same as spiritual birth.

Nicodemus, like many of us, still can’t get his head around it. He wants a clear checklist of what it means to follow Jesus. Sorta like we want a clear checklist of what it means to be American. But Jesus won’t give it to him. Grace isn’t earned. Grace — God’s love — is just given. Faith isn’t something to testify and be good for all time. Faith is lived. It is a verb.

Nicodemus asks for more help. He’s a scholar, he knows his religion, he’s affluent and educated and clearly devoted to understanding and practiving his faith. Jesus replies look – you disbelieve me about these earthly things. You know I’m doing miracles, but you still question. I told you God’s love is for more than Abraham’s biological children, but you didn’t believe. How am I to explain heavenly things to you? God loves you. God is saving the world through God’s son. God is giving new life — full life — life to the depressed, the lonley, the outcast, the foresaken, the poor, the ignored, the hopeless. God is welcoming in the “huddled masses” and “wretches refuse” and “temptest tossed.” God isn’t condemning them, isn’t condemning the world, but opening the door of welcome wide to all.

Have you ever pictured yourself back in ancient Israel? Like, say you woke up one day and you’re back there — 2030 years ago — and you actually meet Jesus in the flesh. I’ve always thought I’d instantly recognize him. I’d not be like Nicodemus and be sneaking in the dark. I wouldn’t be the religious leaders and spit on Jesus. I would know my Lord and drop everything to follow him.

Professor Karoline Lewis posed these questions that made me pause: “Do we really think that we could have understood Jesus any better than [Nicodemus?] this well-versed, well-educated Pharisee? And if we do, what makes us think so? What makes us so sure? Because we have two thousand years of Christianity under our belts? Because we have more theological insight? Because we have more faith?”

Nicodemus has more than two thousand years of Judism education under his belt. He’s literally speaking with Jesus in the flesh before him. He’s risking his reputation, his job, maybe even his life to speak with Jesus. Do we have more faith than that? And yet – here he is, misunderstanding because he is carrying so many expectations of who Jesus is and what God is doing.

… I might be carrying those too and stuck to my misconceptions more than God’s reality.

Jesus’ words are that whoever does good to the most wretched has done good to him. Whoever has spat on others has spat on him. Where did I see you Lord?

I don’t need to time travel back to ancient Israel to see Jesus in the flesh. Jesus is attempting to get his kids to school around Immigration Customs Enforcement agents. Jesus is sitting in a 103 tent watching her son slowly starve to death and praying the money comes through to get him help and out of this refugee camp. Jesus is the last survivor of a capsized boat in the Mediterranean.

In reality, I am Nicodemus. I get stuck in the literal. I get stuck thinking I’d recognize Jesus in the flesh 2000 years ago when I don’t even recognize him in the flesh today.

I try to follow Jesus. I try to understand, but I often look at the world with literal eyes and ignore the spiritual. Nicodemus shows up twice more in our gospel. He defends Jesus before his peers… and he helps bury Jesus. Nicodemus walks a faith life that goes into periods of darkness and light. Periods when he is attuned to the way God views the world, and Nicodemus does much good. And periods when he is confounded by God, and Nicodemus flounders, messes up.

That is why Paul’s argument and Jesus’ argument is so important to us during Lent: being a child of God, being loved by God, is God’s gift to us. We don’t earn it. We don’t lose it. We choose to respond to it.

We do wrongs individually, and collectively. We hurt others intentionally and unintentially. We miss seeing Jesus in others. We choose not to see Jesus in others. But God still loves us… even as we hurt God. Even as we take God’s child and shame him, torture him, murder him… God still loves us. Today, we still take God’s children of all backgrounds and shame them, torture them, murder them often by just ignoring them. But God still loves us.

And from that love, offers forgiveness. Offers us to begin again. Offers us a new life where we live more Christ-like and extend not condemnation, but salvation, to others. Out of God’s love for the whole world — not just Americans, not just Christians, not just Abrahamic faiths, but the WHOLE WORLD, Out of God’s love for the WHOLE WORLD, Jesus is given. Forgiveness is offered. We are given a new chance at peace, embracing each other, and living in harmony.

Amen.

Alpha and Omega

Revelations 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37.

We have so much to be thankful for. So, so much. The problem is, we have so much we sometimes can feel overwhelmed about how to thank God! We practice at Thanksgiving, but giving thanks is truly a spiritual practice that assists us daily…

A spiritual practice, a spiritual exercise, is something you do to help you be aware of the presence of God. Once a year we have the spiritual practice of thanksgiving, and give God thanks. But God is with us more than once a year. We are surrounded on all sides and even inside us.

Some people are able to be aware of God at all times… but most of us have monkey minds. We swing from thought to thought and get distracted. So it is easier for some of us to start smaller… taking our day’s beginning and end to be thankful.

I remember my aunt Joyce telling me to pray before bed and to count my blessings. I’m sure some of you have done this too. I’ve heard people say they wake up and say a prayer before their feet touch the floor — even if it is ‘Good morning and thanks for waking me, Lord.’

But what do you do when you’re counting your blessings and realize you’re up to 50, and then 100, and then… ZzzZZzzz… pretty soon, you either are asleep or you’re in risk of insomnia.

The other problem is that counting our blessings can become routine, boring, and when that happens, we stop doing them.

What great news God isn’t just 1 to 100, or A and Z, but everything in between too. So we can change up our prayers to make them more interesting, and to increase our awareness of all that God provides for us.

For instance, when you start getting bored counting blessings… try starting your day by taking a moment to lie there and think of one something you’re grateful for, for each letter of the alphabet: from azaleas to zinnias, or apples to zebras. Counting can go on forever, but there’s a limit to the alphabet… so it helps when you know you have to get out of bed. You won’t be lying there all day praying thanks… as tempting as that may sound…

John of Patmos, who wrote Revelations, says in his writing that language can’t explain what he’s seen. So he’s trying the best he can, but he saw pictures and felt things… We can pray in this manner too. Instead of words, we can think of pictures and remember feelings. We don’t need to name them or pin them down with the right word.

Scripture tells us the Holy Spirit intercedes, translates, what we pray to God even when that is sighs and silences. A prayer can be the feeling of gratitude and remembering the taste of a warm cup of coffee, the heat on your palms, the brightness of the morning sunrise glinting off the steaming cup, the feeling of peace before your day begins. Memories can be prayer.

For evening, when you’re readying for bed, a memory way to pray thanks for your blessings is to think of a color and pray thanks for everything you saw that day which was that color. For example, Lord – thank you for the color red: red apples, the red cheeks on my grandchildren, the red light on my furnace saying I have heat, the red sunset, the red strawberry jam on my toast this morning, the red blanket keeping me warm right now…

But morning and evening, and indeed, even crossing our hands in prayer, are not the only ways to say thanks.

Rabbi David Cooper wrote God is a Verb. The Hebrew name YHWH, the holy name, is never said by modern Jews. Instead, “Adonai,” the Lord, is said. YHWH, when scholars try to understand what it means and how it could be said, think the name may mean “I Am.” or “I will be.” or “I was.”

The name of God is… IS. Is existence.

Revelations, which was written in Greek rather than Hebrew, reads, “Grace to you from the one who is, and was, and will be.”

In other words, Grace to you from God. From YHWH.

Grace to you from the Verb, the Word, the Action, The Deed, the Love.

Prayers of thanksgiving can be verbs — deeds — too. I think pastor Carol Penner penned it best. She wrote,

“what if thankfulness has nothing to do with lists?
What if thankfulness is more like the difference between night and day,
the difference between being shut in and being free,
the difference between holding on and reaching out?
What if thankfulness is not something to be grasped,
not something that can be simply said, not some thing at all? What if thankfulness is transformation?
A Copernican revolution of the heart,
a re-centering, from our selves to [God’s] Son.
A blossoming, from bud to flower,
all the way to the ripe red apple.
A movement from life to death,
and beyond the grave to resurrection.
What if Thanksgiving is Christmas, Good Friday and Easter all rolled into one.”

I hear her saying how to have prayer in action. Prayer in verbs. This is living in gratitude. So instead of just praying thanksgiving at night or in the morning, or before a meal, it is living thanksgiving.

For example – giving thanks is praying to God thanks for food before you eat your turkey meal. Living gratitude, living in thanksgiving, is picking up an extra food when you go shopping to donate to the food pantry. Or – even inviting others over for your meal. Surely you know someone or more than one who has nowhere to go for thanksgiving? Why not your house!

Giving thanks is lying down for bed and praying thank you to God for the warm spot, warm house, and loving family. Living thanks is helping provide that same gift to others through program like the Columbus Refugee and Immigrant Services. They literally are providing homes and blankets for people fleeing Africa, the Middle East, and South-East Asia. They are helping them become part of our communities here in Ohio.

Giving thanks is a prayer. Living thanks is a life of gratitude.

Both are surely needed.

Thankfulness is like bookends. Prayer on one side, prayer on the other side, life in-between and prayer all through life.

We’re told God is like bookends too. A to Z, beginning and end, like bookends, brackets, holding us in. I kind of picture it like God’s hands are on either side of us, and Jesus is with us – so we’re held into this hug from the sides and above. It’s the same pose a mother hen takes holding her chicks in under her wings. And Jesus says he is like a mother hen. I like to picture and to feel that enclosed feeling of love and protection. It’s one of the things I am thankful for.

John of Patmos’ vision we call Revelations was that in all the chaos, in all the disorder of our lives, the most powerful person – the person with more power than governments, and tyrants, cheaters and lawmakers – is God.

Our lectionary reading gives us the moment a ruler, Pontius Pilate, confronts Jesus and asks him ‘Are you King of the Jews?’ The two banter, trade words, pun one another — but the answer comes down to this: I am king over all who belong to the Truth.

Anyone, everyone, who seeks after Truth, who wants to be Truthful, who wants to belong to Truth… is under Jesus’ rule. This may be Jews, this may be Christians, this may be Muslims or Sikhs or Buddhists.

A few decades later, John of Patmos has a vision of this dominion – and he sees – the whole world is under Jesus’ Truthful rule, and the world — it’s beginning, it’s current age, and its end — are all under God’s rule.

So there is no moment, no place, no time that ever was, is, or will be — that is godless. God is everywhere! As we were told, God is, was, and will be. God is A to Z. Our darkest times and our happiest times, our loneliness and more stressful times, and our most loving and careful times are all bookended, covered, supported, surrounded by God, carried by Jesus, and infused with God’s Holy Spirit.

Nothing is outside of prayer. Nothing is too little or too big for prayer.

A little thank you for clean sheets, a little time to stop and appreciate frost on a leaf, a little prayer in the car, a little pass-it-on deed and donation…

All of these thank yous are a life that testify to knowing God is in every moment of our lives.

Let us thank God for being with us at all times. Let us praise God! Praise God in prayer, praise God in deeds, praise God in how we live and think, play and worship, mourn and die. Let us praise God now and always! Amen.

Given to St. Michael’s UCC, Baltimore, Ohio, 11-22-15

Fast Food Diet

Numbers 11:4-29
Mark 9:38-50

Last week we spoke about cravings, and this week the theme continues. Now in the old testament, the Torah, some of the Israelites who left Egypt with Moses are strongly craving meat. They whine that in Egypt they had cucumbers and melons, leeks and onions, fish and garlic — and real meat. But out here, all they get is manna – the strange bread from heaven. Why did they ever leave Egypt?

Pretty soon more and more of the camp is complaining. So Moses goes and complains to God — why do you hate me so? Look at the people you make me care for, make me nurse along like I’m a mother breastfeeding children — these aren’t my kids! This burden is too heavy!”

So God says God will send so much meat that the people will literally have meat coming out of their noses and they will hate meat.

Moses points out there are over a half million men — plus their families — where is there enough meat to feed this many people meat for every meal for a month?

God answers — watch me. Gather elders and I will give them some of the spirit on them from you so you don’t lead alone. Moses does as God asks, and when the spirit settles on the elders, they begin to prophesize — proving their connection to the divine. Yet they kept their authority to speak and prophesize carefully only in the presence of Moses. Two other men, however, who also were leaders, didn’t go to the meeting. Yet they, too, began to know the word of God. In the camp — away from the authority of Moses — they began to prophesize.

Word got back to Moses real quick on the lips of a young man. Joshua tells Moses — “Moses, stop them!”

But Moses replies, “Are you jealous for my sake? I would that all of God’s people were prophets and that God would put the Spirit on them!”

Our reading ends here, today, to drive home the Christian message that Jesus gifted the Spirit to all people — just as Moses once wished.

But what of the promised meat? After today’s reading, the meat does come. Quail arrive in a windstorm. And they eat as much meat as they can handle. But while the meat was still in the teeth of those who gathered it, a plague struck and the people who had craved other food died.

In Numbers, the author says God did this. Science would say that eating meat that falls out of the sky from a hurricane is eating spoiled meat and listeria kills people. Scholars, however, say the entire story is a way of speaking of spirituality.

See, food in the Bible is often a sign, a reference, to spirituality. Jesus is the bread from heaven. Lamentations food for the soul is desired. In John, Jesus tells his disciples he has food they do not know of to eat – it is the food that is the will of God. We are told to labor for bread that doesn’t perish but abides into eternal life. We are reminded at each communion how the simple food of bread and pressed grapes are so, so much more than that which nourishes our bodies.

Food is a symbol. It represents life. Represents goodness. Represents spirituality. Represents God.

With that in mind, some scholars read this disturbing story in Numbers as a story about the people coming to terms with a new spirituality.

In Egypt, they had many religions. Lots of different kinds of food. Many different gods to pray to and to feed their souls. But out here, in the wilderness, they have only got YWHW – the strange God of Moses and of their great-forefathers. So while in Egypt they had specialty gods — out here they only have one universal god. And this is getting pretty bland.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone special to pray to for womens’ problems? Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone special just for children? Rather than saying evils — like plagues, listeria, deaths — come from the same God who gives births, medicine, and health — it would be easier to say an evil god sends evil. The people, in this interpretation, crave more variety in their gods.

If they can’t get more variety, they at least want more substance. This bread alone diet is boring. Give us something harder! Give us more spirituality! Give us more truths! Give us something to sink our teeth into! Give us the meat!

Moses goes and tells God he’s had it — he’s been nursing these babies that aren’t even his. He is giving them the most basic spirituality, the most basic nourishment, the most basic faith — and they aren’t happy. They want more. They say they want meat. No more of this simple religion stuff. Give them the plethora of gods in Egypt or give them more substance than what they have now.

And so the quail are hard spiritual meat, hard truths, scary realities, crazy paradoxes, the deep nuances of religion, the hard to comprehend wisdom of God — the power, and breadth, and immensity of God. As soon as the people try to get their mouths on all of this, they die. It’s too much. God is more than we can understand or know. Just a portion of God’s power diluted through Moses still makes the elders go crazy and speak prophesies. That diluted power makes even other elders who weren’t even present when God transferred the Spirit prophesy. So in this story, when scholars read it as a story of spirituality, the people balk and cannot handle meaty religion.

They need the milk-bread religion. They need the simple stuff. The people who kept to just the basics and trusted that is all they needed survived. The ones who craved more died.

… In this interpretation — which was really favored in the middle ages — a good faith doesn’t have to know everything, a good faith just has to trust what they have is enough.

… I think I would have been among those people who died.

I can’t stand not knowing something. So this interpretation, although it helps explain God doesn’t willy-nilly kill people for doing as God permitted them to do… this interpretation still discourages asking questions and wanting to know more.

I didn’t come to the UCC to remain silent. One of the UCC slogans about don’t check your brain in at the door of the church really appeals to me. I want to use my brain in church! And I believe God wants me to use my brain too!

So, I don’t like either way of thinking about this troubling story – either God as the source of misery and joy, nor as God wanting us to be stupid followers.

Instead, I like to hear this story as a reminder that our faith grows. It’s okay to start with a faith that’s made of milk and bread. That’s the faith the Israelites started off with. It’s okay to begin our faith journeys thinking Jesus surely was a blond haired, blue eyed, beautiful man… because a lot of us are blond haired, blued eyed, and we see images painted of Jesus when he looks like that.

But as we move into more solid food, more mature spirituality, we realize that Jesus– who was born in the Middle East as a Jewish man — likely didn’t look like a proper modern German.

Because our faith began with picturing Jesus looking the same as us ethnically is nothing to be embarrassed about. We all start with milk and bread. We slowly move towards meat.

I think this is what Jesus’ harsh words are about in Mark. When we see others who we think are still on beginning faith, we shouldn’t belittle them. We shouldn’t hurt their faith with questions theologians can’t answer with gallons of spilled ink. No, their faith will be tested in time — tested with fire, hardships — and they will become salted, full of salt, full of flavor, as God sees fit.

So that same lesson applies to us… there’s no need to be ashamed we don’t have answers to some of the hard questions… for instance, what does Jesus mean about Resurrection? Life eternal? Do people have bodies? Why does parts of the Bible contradict itself? Why do we have stories like the one today that says God does hurtful things?

These meaty questions are hard to digest. Giving fast answers — I don’t know and I don’t want to think about it — or “because the Bible says so” — work for awhile, when we’re on simple diets of bread and milk. But eventually, these lose their salt. Life gives us bigger challenges, greater fires, than what we’ve faced before. So we go back to our faith, and spend more time, grow into it, and take a more nuanced understanding of God back with us to face the world.

Fast food diets — full of quick easy food, lots of fat, lots of sugar and salt — are tasty. But they don’t nourish us. Faith that is fast, easy to follow, full of sweet sayings and salty good wisdom — is tasty and great… but it doesn’t nourish us for long.

Eventually, we have to go looking for more nutritious food to sustain our walk with the Lord. Eventually, we have to face harder questions. There’s no rhyme or reason, no particular age — whether child or adult — when this unsettling realization that we’ve outgrown the Happy Meal of our Faith and we’re not satisfied. It just happens… many, many times over the course of our lives. And that’s when we go for more food — and maybe even more nutritious food.

Maybe our prayers change from “Now I lay me down to sleep” to also knowing The Lord’s Prayer, or personal prayers.

Maybe our understanding of the Bible changes, or how we relate to God, or to one another.

Or maybe we learn new facts that make us think in new ways – such as today in the Younger Saint’s Moment we talked about how a popular story in Jesus’ time was the tale of Odepius and how he cut out his eye. So Jesus, when saying we should cut off our limbs, maybe was turning that popular story into a lesson that instead of maiming ourselves, we should just not do wrong in the first place.

However it is, our faith changes so that it is nourishing again. It is manna again. It is salt within us, so we can be at peace with one another.

It is okay where ever you are on your faith journey and where you have been. We’re all on this faith journey. We’re all traveling at different paces, starts and stops, going backwards, running forwards, and utterly veering off the road. But together, we’re all walking together — and none of us will lose the reward of a cup of ever-flowing, ever life-giving water because we travel this journey in the name of Christ.

Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore Ohio 9-27-15