Monday, August 27, 2012

We Are Not Alone

The Rev. Patrick Rogers provided yesterday's sermon at Open Table.  I thank him again for his important message to us on the theme of living generously.  I'll be back in the pulpit this Sunday.

Today I'm sharing a brief thought inspired by the first hymn we sang yesterday. It was composed by one of my favorite hymn writers, Brian Wren.  Along with Carlton Young, Brian Wren led a workshop at the Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville nearly 25 years ago that was formative for me in expanding images for the Sacred and promoting inclusive language.

Our service yesterday began with a hymn by the prolific, prophetic, and poetic Brian Wren.  “We Are Not Our Own” holds in tension two Christian faith claims:  1)We are not our own, and 2) We are not alone.  Verse 1 of the song leads with the first statement; verse 2, with the second. 

We are not alone. That’s the essence of our faith claim.  When Neil Armstrong, who died Saturday, planted the first human foot on the moon, he was not alone on that desolate orb.  You and I are not alone.  We are connected to one another in a union with the All-Encompassing Love of God.  As individuals, as a species, as a planet, we are not alone.  There is The More.  There is a Love that has formed us and holds all together. 

We are not our own.  That is our faith’s claim upon our lives. We do not merely connect to but also belong to one another in our obligations of care.  We have been shaped by others.  And we must live a life “for others”—to use a Jesuit phrase.  We owe one another “liturgies of care”—to use a phrase from Wren’s hymn.

“We are not alone” reminds me of God’s enduring care.  It speaks comfort.

“We are not our own” reminds me of God’s persistent call.  It speaks of responsibility. 

As residents of the Gulf Coast living in the path of Hurricane Isaac, our prayers are undergirded by the assurance that we are not alone, and our actions to help neighbors in the wake of the storm will be guided by the reminder that we our not our own. 

And so we hear this rhyming couplet as comforting and challenging:
We are not alone.
We are not our own.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Lady Wisdom: A Guided Meditation

Proverbs 9: 1-6

 Lady Wisdom

Lady Wisdom: A Guided Meditation
Proverbs 9:1-6
         The book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings and poems compiled over a period of several hundred years, some of which may go back to the days of King Solomon’s court.  In Proverbs’ opening chapters, wisdom is personified as a woman created “before the beginning of the earth” (8: 22-23).  Lady Wisdom, or “Sophia” in the Greek, has been linked to the "Word" in John’s Gospel, (“Logos” in the Greek), which was with God from the beginning. Some groups in Judaism and early Christianity considered Sophia to be a significant religious figure, though our English translations fail to retain her explicitly feminine character except in a few passages like this one.  Funny how the feminine images of God are easily recognized as metaphors, but the masculine images for the divine remain literalized.  Recently, however, there has been a renewed appreciation for long neglected feminine images of the sacred, as exemplified in the hymn to Holy Wisdom we sang earlier.
         Did you notice the way Lady Wisdom also resembles Jesus?  In today’s reading she’s associated with feeding others, as was Jesus, who invited all, especially the least, to the great banquet of God.  Like Jesus, whose life and death and resurrection we memorialize at this very table, Lady Wisdom set her sumptuous but simple table with bread and wine. 
         The writer of Proverbs describes Lady Wisdom sending out her invitation into the town.  Wisdom’s voice can be heard by the foolish and immature on the ordinary streets of their ordinary lives. In the ordinariness of our daily lives, we, too, can hear wisdom’s call.
         Some believe listening to life is the key to spiritual growth.  We can listen to ancient insights found in scripture, to the circumstances of our lives, to the people in our lives whom we love and respect and the enemies who nevertheless have lessons for us, too.  Sometimes the things we really don’t want to hear are the words we most need to hear. Lady Wisdom calls us to turn off the harmful tapes we unthinkingly keep playing in our heads, to hear the murmurs of this world with a heart full of Christ’s compassion, to listen to our lives as a spiritual discipline that can make us “willing to change ourselves and our world” (Muller 19). 
         One reason we come to this place and this table each week is to listen.  The “Sabbath is an incubator for wisdom. When we allow the rush and pressure of our days to fall away, even for a short period, we are more able to discern the essential truth of what lies before us” (Muller 165).  If we can pause from life’s distractions, listen for what is true about ourselves and our world, we will hear Lady Wisdom summoning us to a banquet already available to us.  But our meal with Wisdom must begin by knowing and accepting the generous compassion being extended to us. 
         I invite you now to do a very hard thing.  Richard Rohr says, “The simplest spiritual discipline is some degree of solitude and silence. But it's the hardest, because none of us wants to be with someone we don't love. Besides that, we invariably feel bored with ourselves, and all of our loneliness comes to the surface. We won't have the courage to go into that terrifying place without Love to protect us and lead us, without the light and love of God overriding our self-doubt.”
         So let us hold silence to contemplate a boundless love that is our origin and our destiny. I invite you to imagine God’s love pouring over you like warm waves that calm you and flow through you to others.  There is no fear in this place. Worries are washed away, our need to control and to know with certitude flow away and compassion for ourselves and others flows in and through us. Feel these waves of love and care.
         Immersed in divine love, we can move into deeper waters of discernment.  I’ll use the famous Serenity Prayer as our guide.  It might very well be titled the Wisdom prayer. Let me read it to you:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.  (Reinhold Niebuhr) 

         Wisdom is the lynchpin of this prayer.

         Pause now to consider:  What is one thing, a fairly important thing, you know you cannot change about yourself?  This is something you’d like to change but you cannot.   SILENCE
         What is one thing you can change? This is something you really want to change and though it would be difficult, it would be possible to change.  SILENCE
         With Lady Wisdom at your side, ask yourself how certain you are that the first thing is impossible to change and the second thing is doable?  Great wisdom is needed to tell the difference between what we can and cannot change.  Pause now.  Are you sure you’ve placed these two things you would like to change in their proper categories?  Maybe there’s something in your life you really can change but you’d nearly given up on doing so.  Maybe there’s something in your life you need to accept with grace and then recognize it may hold some gift for you.
         Fortunately, at the core of Christianity is the sense of community, so our task of discernment is both individual and communal.  We can bring others into our discernment processes. 
         And we as a faith community can continually ask probing questions together about our church.  According to a study Diana Butler Bass conducted of fifty remarkably vital congregations, one characteristic these churches all had in common was the regular practice of discerning, together, what steps they would take into the future.  These vital churches regularly planned times to ask questions of God and then listen carefully for God’s wisdom for their congregation: Who are we?  What does God want us to do? These churches practiced discernment by telling stories together; asking straightforward questions together; listening deeply, respectfully and empathically to one another; praying together with a genuine desire to find and follow a common path.  They regularly scheduled opportunities to do these things together as a way to make important decisions and achieve greater focus.
         But beware. Discernment for churches and individuals usually does not simply confirm our hunches.  Instead, it is a perilous practice that involves honesty, attentiveness, and risk.  And it often redirects our lives.  Discernment led me, as a contented 40-something English teacher, to give up my profession and pay check and become a seminary student.  Discernment has led some congregations to take unpopular stands and make difficult choices. 
         With Wisdom comes the obligation to deal with life head on, with open eyes and honest heart and courageous conviction. It is wisdom who calls us, who calls whole congregations, to reach the fullness of our humanity.  
Let us pray:
O Wisdom, may each choice we make be governed by your Spirit.  We pray this in the name of the one who was your Word and Wisdom made flesh.  Amen.

Bass, Diana Butler.  Christianity for the Rest of Us.  New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

Muller, Wayne.  Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives.  New York:   Bantam, 1999.

Rohr, Richard. “Silence” Richard’s Daily Meditations. (August 19, 2012).                    2012.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=L1hBBRwDOSU

Monday, August 13, 2012

Try a Little Kindness

The Rev. Dr. Timothy Downs,Conference Minister for the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, was the special guest of Open Table yesterday, and he preached yesterday's sermon.  We were honored by his visit and appreciative of his encouragement to us as we continue to grow as a new church in the UCC.  Rather than posting one of my sermons today, I'm sharing my own brief reflection based on yesterday's Epistle lesson from Ephesians.

 Text:   Ephesians 4: 31-5:2

31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 

“Be ye kind” was the first Bible verse I memorized (in the KJV) when I was a child.  “Be kind” is a six-letter version of the Golden Rule, which The Charter of Compassion[i] believes expresses the essence of all major religions.  Being kind is, according to the writer of Ephesians, the way we imitate God and live in love.

If it seems an impossible goal to live one’s entire life in a state of compassion, we might make a start at kindly living by dedicating the first moments of our next day to the practice of loving kindness.  Mary Oliver’s poem “Why I Wake Early” is good inspiration to “start the day in happiness, in kindness.”

[i] The Charter of Compassion,, The Charter is a call to restore the Golden Rule to the center of religious, moral and civic life. The path to a just economy and a peaceful world requires listening, understanding and treating all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.The Charter for Compassion is a cooperative effort to restore not only compassionate thinking but, more important, compassionate action to the center of religious, moral and political life. Compassion is the principled determination to put ourselves in the shoes of the other, and lies at the heart of all religious and ethical systems. One of the most urgent tasks of our generation is to build a global community where men and women of all races, nations and ideologies can live together in peace. In our globalized world, everybody has become our neighbor, and the Golden Rule has become an urgent necessity.The Charter for Compassion is not simply a statement of principle; it is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Being Signs

Text: John 6: 24-35

          “Signs” is the title of the 2002 apocalyptic sci-fi film starring Mel Gibson as Graham: a father, widower, and former minister. Graham lost his faith when he lost his wife in a brutal accident six months before hostile aliens started invading earth. It so happens that Graham’s loss of faith is as disturbing to his family as are the sinister creatures that form mysterious “signs” in the cornfields nearby.  Graham’s na├»ve younger brother, Merrill, believes that we are part of a grand design and are regularly sent signs to read and to heed that will “save” us.  Newly skeptical Graham insists that life is random.  In overtly religious symbols and language, the film asks us how we understand signs—be they inexplicable crop circles out in the cornfield or odd coincidences in our everyday experiences. 
         The questions the movie raises about “signs” are important, but its simplistic answers disappoint. By contrasting the brothers’ understandings of “signs,” the movie’s flawed assumption is that either we believe everything we encounter in life is some preordained, cosmic message to interpret--or there is no overarching purpose or pattern to any of life, absolutely no meaning or design. Superstitious Merrill represents a magical pre-modern view of the world.  Skeptical Graham represents an entirely rational modern view. But where is the postmodern perspective that makes room for both science and symbolism, both data and imagination, both the measurable and the mystery? What the film neglects but what scripture and my lived experiences suggest is a third understanding of “signs.” For me, God neither creates a secret code we have to decipher, nor does God remain remote and uncommunicative.  
         Certainly the Bible speaks of signs. Jesus did “signs and wonders.”  In the second chapter of John, we’re told that Jesus’s transformation of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana was “the first of the signs given by Jesus.”  Interestingly, his first sign prefigures his last sign at the Last Supper when the wine on that occasion signified the blood he would soon shed and was a “sign” of the new covenant.  Perhaps, because the young rabbi Jesus began his new ministry in a spectacular way—with a “sign”—we should not judge the crowds too harshly for subsequently demanding more and more signs of wonder and for traipsing after Jesus like paparazzi hounding a celebrity.  Our Gospel lesson picks up immediately after Jesus fed the multitude from the bread and fish in a little boy’s lunch—a pretty impressive sign.  Of course, Jesus had given real food to hungry people.  But when Jesus retreats by boat, the sign-craving portion of the crowd, their physical hunger satisfied, seek more signs. When Jesus tries to explain to the crowd he has already fed that he offers an eternal food, the sign-seekers counter by saying that they need to see his credentials.  After all, they argue, they deserve a sign from God because their ancestors received tangible signs. Manna, for instance. Bread from heaven.  You and I can appreciate this need to be wowed with concrete evidence, can’t we?  
        Jesus tries again to separate the signs from their referent: “What you really need is the true bread from heaven, not just literal bread to feed your bodies, but the bread of God that feeds your soul.  Don’t become so enthralled by the physical symbols that you miss the spiritual truths.  Don’t become so fascinated by the glitzy visual aids of my lessons that you ignore me and my message.”  And so he denies them another sign. 
         In Matthew’s version of this exchange Jesus is even more emphatic.  In that account, the Pharisees and Sadducees ask for a sign to test Jesus and he practically says, “You wouldn’t know what to do with a sign if I gave you one.”  Jesus is not being coy.  Jesus is saying, “If I provide an enormous flashing neon arrow pointing you to God, I’m afraid you’re going to worship the arrow.” Symbols are symbols.  We must ask what they are pointing us to see, what they are urging us to do, what they are reminding us to be.  Sometimes religious leaders themselves become the object of worshipers’ fascination and maybe their adoration rather than pointing the people Godward.  Even the Bible can become an object of worship rather than a device that points beyond itself to the ultimate. People of faith should not look in the Bible for a secret decoder ring  or a cryptic treasure map with a big X drawn to mark the spot where God is hidden   As Abba Sisoes, an early monastic, said, “Seek God, and do not seek where God dwells.”  It’s always a temptation to seek a religious experience rather than to seek God.  People of faith do not seek signs to verify God’s existence or confirm God’s approval of them or to feel some ecstatic religious experience. And what sign do we need besides Jesus? Wasn’t Jesus himself God’s greatest sign that God not only exists but loves us beyond all human loving? Rather than pestering God for signs to bolster our faith or to direct our choices, perhaps we ought instead to consider ways we might ourselves participate in the signs of God, to BECOME SIGNS.
         There’s an overlooked story in Exodus that illustrates this meaning of signs as something we ARE rather than something we seek and decode to decide our next move.  At Moses’ burning bush encounter, God promised to give Moses a sign AFTER he led the people out of Egypt; indeed, God promised it would be a sign constructed by the people’s response. Listen to Exodus 3:12:  “This will be the sign for you that it is I who sent you:  when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”   Here’s how I understand this verse.  When God first called Moses, God did not initially promise Moses a sign that would publicly authorize him as a leader and inspire trust among the people, as Moses might have hoped.  Rather, says this story, God promised that the people’s reaction after their deliverance would itself be the evidence or a sign that they had been saved by God.  Hear the verse again: God says, “This will be the sign for you that it is I who sent you.” At this point, Moses is no doubt thinking, “Good!  God is going to provide a dramatic and supernatural sign that will convince the people right off the bat that I’m their leader and that will point us exactly where to go.”   But God explains their sign will be that AFTER Moses brings the people out of Egypt, they will worship and give thanks on the mountain. 
         Who needs a sign AFTER they have been rescued?  
         I have often wanted a clear sign to guide me in a decision.  But mostly I just have to step out on faith and with hindsight recognize that God has been with me. 
         You might believe that God works in this world by orchestrating some or all of what happens in life.  Or you might believe there is no Mover who puts into motion any of the activities, grand and minute, in this universe.  Or you might believe that life is chancy, that we are creatures with some degree of free will, and at any rate God is not a magician who controls the discrete movements of atomic particles or people or planets but instead is a name for the noncoercive force or energy or evolutionary propensity that is luring us toward more mature love and connection. 
         The Pharisees and Saducees of Jesus’s day had remembered Moses’ manna, that tangible, spectacular sign of God’s providence.  But they’d forgotten that the very first sign God promised when Moses commenced his ministry was a sign that materialized long after Moses had moved forward in faith.  And the sign was not something God sent but that the people themselves created and participated in.  This means that our response to God’s saving way becomes, retroactively, a sign of God’s direction!  Grateful people are signposts to God.  We are to BE signs of God’s presence in this world. 
         People these days are carrying literal signs, and some of those signs are about other people’s signs:  “Eat Mor Chikin” said one last week, and “Tastes Like Hate” said another.  Maybe we won’t have to carry signs if we can simply BE signs of God’s love.
         As 1st John 4: 12 explains, although no one has ever seen God, if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is perfected in us, and we become an approximation or picture or sign of God’s love.  Theologian Roberta Bondi explains that early Christians “stood out from the rest of the culture by their unusual love for each other.  This love was neither abstract nor a simple matter of good feeling:  it was a way of being together, a way of prayer, and a way of living in the world, rooted in their experience and understanding of the God who had come to them in the resurrected Jesus” (To Pray and To Love, 15).
         Some folks this week chose to eat or to not eat chicken sandwiches and waffle fries. That meal symbolized something to them.  Today as we gather before the Lord’s Table, we are mindful that some gluten-free wafers and alcohol-free grape juice are more than just food and drink. Here God’s love for us and our love for one another and our unity as the body of Christ come together visually and spiritually. We gather at the Open Table and eat the bread of heaven and drink the covenantal wine to become part of an enduring sign to one another and to the world that grace abounds.  This is a meal that always includes, never excludes or judges.  The Realm of God is here on this earth, we announce by our participation, and all are invited to join in this great sign of love, unity, and community.
          This understanding of signs of God reminds me of a song from my youth entitled “Signs,” a counterculture song that lambasted the Establishment’s use of signs to make constricting rules and to exclude certain people.  Some of you fellow Baby Boomers will remember this song, the chorus of which went like this:  

     Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, 
     blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind.  
     Do this; don’t do that. Can’t you read the sign?*

         But in the final verse, surprisingly, the Church, of all society’s institutions, displays the only sign that invites and includes.  That last verse about the church begins, “And the sign said, “Everybody’s welcome.  Come kneel down and pray.”   Many churches have literal signs outside that convey a message to passersby.  We have a small, portable, simple sign: “Open Table meets here. Sundays 5 p.m.”  But our church and you and I as individuals are constantly signaling something to the world.  Is it: “Everybody’s welcome.  Come, kneel down and pray”?  I hope the signs we intend to convey are consistent with the signs we are wearing on our countenances and in our interactions each and every day.

         We do need signs.  God knows we do.  But we dare not ask to receive a sign passively. We must be willing to construct these signs of love, to participate as signs of God, which is an act of faith.    

God, we are here not just to seek signs of your presence or to read signs of your love but to participate in the life of the church so that we together become signs of your grace and goodness.  Thank you for the bread and cup that are the enduring signs of Jesus’s way of love and nonviolence.  Let us internalize those signs so they can be read by others.

* "Signs" by Five Man Electrical Band, 1971