Monday, March 31, 2014

Jesus and Wendell Berry on Public Prayer: "Get a Room!"

On Fifth Sundays at Open Table, we enjoy sharing stories and a meal as our worship experience.  Rather than posting a sermon this week, I'm sharing thoughts based on Bible study discussion from last week--and a poem I read that same Sunday in worship. 

Jesus and Wendell Berry on Public Prayer:  "Get a Room!"

Our Sunday afternoon Bible study group continues to work our way through the Gospel of Matthew, even as the lectionary detours from that Gospel during Lent.  Last week we turned to Matthew 6, especially Jesus’s injunction to “beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (6:1) and his instruction that “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Parent who is in secret” (6:6).   

You’ll recall that this part of the Sermon on the Mount (and the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday) emphasizes doing good works and carrying out religious practices for the right reasons. We’re to pray, give alms, and fast in order to express love of God and love of others, not for the sake of appearing pious. But emerging Christianity is revisiting and sometimes readjusting ancient spiritual practices--hoping to align our expanding understandings of God with vital forms of prayer.  Open Table, for instance, increasingly depends upon periods of silence as our deepest means of communal prayer. We are using embodied or action prayers to link our intentions to our actions. We need to pray together as a community.  But we admit that vulnerability with God and one another is not only difficult but sometimes downright unseemly.

Wendell Berry’s poem “An Embarrassment” stuns the reader with the unseemliness of a truly vulnerable public prayer.  Read it here:  Read it again.

Most public prayers drop to the ground with a “soft thump.”  But if “a lonely soul” were ever to pray “its true outcry” in public, “it would be as though / at a sedate party / a man suddenly / removed his clothes /and took his wife/ passionately into his arms.”  What a simile for public prayer!

Are Jesus and Wendell Berry telling us that genuine prayer can be experienced only in private?  Was Jesus saying the equivalent of “Get a room!” in Matt. 6: 6?

Is public vulnerability to the point of “embarrassment” nevertheless a necessary act of devotion, a risk worth taking?  

To what extent can a faith community “go into [our] room and shut the door and pray” together? 

Can we modulate our prayer voices to utter sincere if not passionate prayers publicly?
Perhaps other prayerful and progressive faith communities are asking these questions.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Giving Up the God Who Is With Us

Texts:  Exodus 13: 1-7;  John 4: 5-15

So far this Lent I’ve given up the God of Power, the God of Prosperity, and the God Who Shares My Enemy List.  Today I’m giving up the God Who Is With Us—although I do so reluctantly and temporarily. Because I will always long for Emmanuel: God With Us.  I will continue to sense the sacred in the chatty high school student who bags my groceries and in the simple bread I offer you at Holy Communion and especially in that moment when you take the bread and your eyes meet mine in a true communion.  I will still expect to hear the God Who Is With Us in bird song and poetry and the outrageous satire of the Stephen Colbert Report.  God breaks through to me in ordinary ways.

But in my daring—or dire—moments, I see that God is actually way out ahead of me.  I don’t feel this elusive God has abandoned me exactly, though I suppose I’ve felt that, too.  I’m talking now about the possibility of being too glib about God.  I just can’t pretend that God is my BFF, or deny that holiness is tinged with terror, or speak in Christian clich├ęs used like passwords to a private club.  God is wild, as was said of the lion Aslan, the Christ figure in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But we’ve domesticated God and pulled God around on a leash.  As a preacher, I catch myself at times speaking about God with more familiarity and certitude than any human has a right to.  So I try to live in that paradoxical experience of the God Who IS WITH US and even WITHIN US and also the God Who is Way Out Ahead of Us. Theologians like to say it this way: God is both immanent and transcendent, both intimately knowable and completely unknowable.

Here’s why I believe in the God who is out ahead of us.
1. First, I see this God in scripture—in today’s Hebrew Bible reading, for instance. You’ll recall from the larger Moses story that God, in the form of fire and cloud, led the Israelites to the Promised Land.  This God told Moses to likewise “go ahead of the people” even as God was going ahead of Moses to the rock at Horeb where Moses would find water (Exodus 13:6). The God imaged in the Moses story as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day is not easily embraceable or knowable. Moses’ God is shrouded and clouded in mystery and cryptically, evasively named “I Am.” This “I AM” God, unlike the Canaanite fertility gods, for instance, could not be imaged.  I mean, how do you create a visual representation of “I Am”?  How do you, if I may borrow words from The Sound of Music, “hold a cloud and pin it down”?  In fact, the "I Am” God later forbad graven images, making it less likely the Israelites would put their god in a box.

Hearing Jesus’s words to the Samaritan woman about water that gives eternal life reminds us that even glimpsing the divine in ordinary human encounters—as this woman did in a Jew whom she’d been taught to distrust—the mystical remains. The woman at the well tried to literalize the water of which Jesus spoke.  But she began to imagine a God as an unfathomable font of living water, something essential that slips through our fingers and which we can’t control. Appreciating the mystery of God is a healthy corrective when we are prone to believe we know the mind of God.

Westboro Baptist’s pastor Fred Phelps had, for decades, damned gays to hell. Fred Phelps died this week. Many, including a few former followers, believe he is now encountering a God whom he may not at first recognize, so certain was he of God’s hatred.  But we believe and hope, even for the sake of Fred Phelps, that if the Reverend Phelps did not know God in this life, he knows God the Merciful now.

We preachers, by the way, have a difficult job speaking both with conviction and humble circumspection, of sharing what we believe is a God word while recognizing our limitations and the limitations of human language to express the ineffably Sacred. I’ve considered printing this disclaimer in our worship bulletins: “This preacher tries her best to listen to the holy and preach words of goodness and truth, but you are responsible for your own spiritual discernment. Listen to this sermon at your own risk.” I love what Rhoda has said and which we quote on Open Table’s website: “I love my church because my pastor doesn’t tell me WHAT to think but encourages me TO think!” I love that y’all get that and I think you are also aware that I hit different theological notes in different sermons. Over time I try to play a range of notes as corrective emphases because good theology is nuanced and paradoxical.

For today this preacher is asking you to consider two problematic postures before God: at one extreme we cower before an imperious God like fawning subjects – and at the other we cozy up to our personal friendly God who’s there to do our bidding. Scripture pictures God as both the Pillar of Fire—and the Loving Father. Today’s scripture leads me to emphasize God as not entirely approachable.

2. The God Who Is Out Ahead of us is also confirmed in a basic Christian disposition that is forward looking.  The Christian gaze is on the horizon of the new dawn, which is our Easter posture.  Traditionally and ideally churches were built, like this one, oriented toward the East, into the dawn of the new day.  Each Sunday you are facing the direction of the next day with the past behind you. We are oriented toward hope, and the word “oriented”—think about its root in the word “orient”—literally means “to face into the sunrise.” For Christians, our truth North is actually East. Our very orientation should be a hopeful stance, an “East-er” stance, with Easter newness as our defining event and disposition.  Although Christians are rooted in traditions and stories from the past, our “orientation” is toward resurrection and potentiality and change—toward evolution, I might say.  Which brings me to my final and maybe most challenging point.

3. While scriptures affirm a God who is way ahead of us and Christian disposition points us forward, this future orientation toward the God Up Ahead is also hard-wired into our species and in the cosmos itself.  A God who is light years beyond us is supported by evolutionary science. Evolutionary Christianity attests to a God whose ongoing creativity must permit accidents, randomness, unpredictability, novelty, a God who has not, therefore, scripted your life and mine.  Science proves that the ongoingness of life requires diversity and chance.  Evolution follows some predictable laws of science as well as randomness, mutations, some false starts on the evolutionary tree and some accidents, some of which lead to heartier creatures that can survive by evolving as conditions change. Individual creatures continue to grow, adapt, and change or they die.  This cosmos continues to expand and change. So how can a God consistent with evolutionary science who does not contravene the order of the universe, be at work in your life and in this world?

Through love, which on the atomic level might look like simple attraction between atoms to create a new molecule, and which on the human level might create families and cooperative societies for their flourishing.  But love cannot be exerted through compulsion and manipulation.  On a very simple, personal level, you know that real love does not force or coerce or control.  Therefore, if we believe God is Love, we may have to give up the God Who Is a Puppeteer Pulling the World’s Strings.  You may have to give up the God Who Has a Detailed Plan For Your Life.  Moses’ God did not hand him a map.  In fact, the journey that should have taken only weeks took the Israelites 40 years of wandering, of detours and accidents.  Growth of the species and the human heart is not programmed for uniformity or efficiency; it’s programmed for connection and diversity, which help us survive and adapt and evolve.  The God of Moses and Jesus offers us a vision rather than a plan.  God is a dreamer, not an architect.  God is the point out on the horizon, not a GPS.  

And from that point out on the horizon, God exercises the power of love through allurement, not coercion. For more than a century, evolutionary science has prompted theologians to revisit the claims that God loves a world that seems brutish and cruel.  However, since love does not annihilate or force itself upon the beloved, then God’s loving grace must also mean “letting the world be itself”  Because God’s essence is love and God’s work is the continuation of creation, any manipulation of the creation is counterproductive. God’s alluring love can operate in our lives only to the extent that we desire and appropriate it (39-40).[i]

So the God Who Is Ahead of Us is not a God who scouts out the smoothest path or clears away any obstacles. God is out ahead of us to open up potentialities. God is in the ever enlarging possibilities for creation. God is out of ahead of us in terms of the height and depth of the love that is ever expanding. 

But God is also with us.  The whole world is shot through with sacred moments and God-lit people and holy places.  God is right here, right now.  In the smoothness of the polished wooden pew you can run your hand along.  In the play of light and shadow in this room.  God is in the next breath you take, which may be the most sacred and ordinary thing you can know.  God, another name for the powerful flow of love and life, is the active ingredient in our relationships.  

But consider that God may be at work in your life and in our galaxy by enticing, beckoning, attracting us—like an electron attracting a proton, like the pull of gravity, like the waft of a lovely fragrance. God’s influence is here but God—whatever that might mean—is always just up ahead.

God lures us into the future, entices us with hope, urges us to do a new thing, think a new thought, encounter a new situation, understand a new friend, hear a new word.

God works by tuning our hearts to an elusive melody playing up ahead.  

I close with this prayer of Thomas Merton, which captures a beautiful tension between the unknowable God who leads us from up ahead—and the God who companions us and never leave us:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I do not know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself. And the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I may never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always. Though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.  Amen

[i] Haught, John F.  God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution.  Boulder:  Westview Press, 2000.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Giving Up the God Who Shares My Friend/Enemy List

HEBREW BIBLE READING              Genesis 12: 1-3                                   
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

GUIDED MEDITATION, pt.1  “Giving Up The God Who Shares My Friend/Enemy List”
Sometimes the Bible disagrees with itself. In the passage we just read, we hear 2 consecutive but contrary theologies about what it means to be “blessed," and we see two different portraits of God. First we meet a God who is partial to Abram and his descendants. If you know the back story, you know God has already been playing favorites—when God preferred Abel’s offering over his brother Cain’s, for instance, and (spoiler alert for those who’ve not yet seen the movie Noah) when God saved only Noah’s family from the flood. And as the Genesis saga continues, God selects Abram and promises to make his name great while promising to “curse those who curse [Abram].”  The God we learn about in this story—this part of the story—has favorites.  The God of Abram seems to divide the world into two groups: 1) Abram’s and God’s friends , 2) Abram’s and God’s enemies.  And if we read further into Genesis, we will see that God’s favoritism will produce caustic sibling rivalries . . .  between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his older brothers.  This particular God seems to have favorite, just as fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had favorites.  Which is good news for Abram’s descendants.  But that also means The God Who Hates My Enemies likes only some of the poor schlubs on this earth, and you’d better hope you are on God’s good list for the blessings.  At this point it may be wise to heed Anne Lamott's warning: "“You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Does anyone else feel uncomfortable sometimes when people talk about how God has blessed them?  I cringe a bit when some folks glibly, sometimes smugly, talk about how God has blessed them—with a nice home or new car.  I hear the Flannery O’Connor character, the clueless Mrs. Turpin, bragging in the doctor’s waiting room about now God has blessed her with land and good sense, how blessed she is that she and her husband are not white trash or colored folks . . . until a girl sitting across from her in the waiting room hurls a book at Mrs. Turpin’s head.  You see, the things we label as God’s blessings don’t always seem to be evidence of God’s priorities.  (Recall our recent study of the Beatitudes to know whom Jesus blessed.) Blessed is a good word.  One of my favorites. But it can convey favoritism, tribalism, superiority.

So let’s remember whom God is favoring.  In the families of Genesis, God chooses the YOUNGER son to bless—not the oldest, as the tradition required.  Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph should not have received the birthrights of the eldest.  God upsets our notions of who needs special treatment.  You and I get to identify with the one who is blessed in Genesis only if we live on the margins of society, only if we are the little brother the family picks on, only if we are the oppressed and enslaved people who need to feel that they have not been left behind.  But if we are rich, if we live in a nation that’s become a super power, if our people have run roughshod over others, we do not get to use these stories to justify our domination of others by invoking the God of Conquest. 

For instance, it’s understandable that enslaved people in this country found hope in the Exodus story about a land God promised to those who’d escaped slavery in Egypt.  And who could condemn the early biblical writers of this narrative thread of conquest because, after all, they had been the conquered, they’d been captured and exiled to Babylon, scarred by the desolation of their home.  Who would blame THEM for telling stories in which they imagined themselves as the conquerors?  Let us allow Abram’s distant and displaced descendants, pining for their lost country, to tell a story of a God who favors THEM.  Let us sympathize with these storytellers. But let us not appropriate their story to justify a privileged people’s privilege or pride.  You get to tell the story that God loves you the best—only if it seems to all others that God has chewed you up and spit you out.

Let’s also be mindful of an alternate theme weaving through these same 3 verses.   You hear it best in the final phrase of verse 3:  God will use the chosen ones to bless “all the families of the earth.”  If that’s the case, God’s blessing of a favored one may mean tapping that someone for a difficult task in order to bless ALL of the earth.  Abram may not have won the lottery—and certainly not for his family alone.  Abram may instead have been chosen for a daunting journey.   Think of Frodo heading toward Mordor to save all of Middle Earth. Or the beleaguered Tevye, from Fiddler in the Roof, protesting to God: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?” Being chosen by God is not necessarily what we think of as a blessing.

I hear both theologies in these three verses. Surely there were then, as there are now, cross currents of feelings about if and how God allies with certain people.  We so need to feel that God is on our side, because we need to feel there are clear sides.  We think that God can be for US only if God is against other folks. 

But the kicker is that today this story is speaking to all the families of the earth who have journeyed far and intermarried for centuries.  We are all Abram’s children.
The question for us now: What is YOUR role in God’s plan to bless others through US? How have your blessings blessed others?  How might you use your blessings bless others?

First, “count your blessings”.  Think of gifts you have:  of personality, intellect, experiences, skills, material possessions, a physical body, family and friends.

Next, recall ways you have blessed others, ways your blessings blessed others.

Now consider ways you might use your capacities and resources and spiritual depth to bless others.

*SONG                                        “In Love You Summon”                  p. 37 in songbook

HEBREW BIBLE READING                Genesis 11:4-9                                 
4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

GUIDED MEDITATION, p. 2  “Giving Up the God Who Says ‘Stay Put’”

The Lectionary assigns this story during Lent because the Lenten season is often compared to a journey—a spiritual journey. Like Abram, we journey to a new place spiritually. We often get “stuck” in our inner lives—stuck in habits, mindsets, feelings.  We may, this Lent, need to give up the God Who Tells Us To “Stay Put.” 

Like Abram, we often journey on with God “by stages” (v. 9). You’re invited to reflect on various stages of your faith journey.  To help you imagine your spiritual journey in this way, one of our means of action prayers invites you to create a “map” that represents some of the stages of your spiritual life.

1.      You may prayerfully give to others from your own blessings.  As you contribute your offerings, you pray for ways to use your other (nonfinancial) blessings (of time and talents and abilities) to extend God’s blessings to others.
2.      You may receive bread for the journey and the cup of blessing.  As you take the bread and dip it in the cup, recall the life of Jesus, who gave himself for the sake of love. Give thanks.
3.      You may take paper and colored pencils back to your seat and sketch a map that symbolizes your faith journey. If you think of your life as a spiritual journey, how would you mark the twists and turns, deadends, meanderings, backtrackings, progress and INNER changes you’ve made?  You might place symbols along the way for things/people/events that have influenced or even redirected you along this spiritual road. Who’s been on this journey with you?  How have you experienced God? Have you reached Canaan yet? You’ll have the option to share this map later.
4.      You may kneel beside the pastor to share a prayer concern or ask for special prayer.