Sunday, June 26, 2011

Our Mission of Hospitality

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8, Year A

Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” In our gospel lesson today, Jesus talks about hospitality.

When I hear the word “hospitality” I think of front doors with welcome mats, a glass of cold ice-tea (with sugar in it of course), and people welcoming neighbors who are new to the neighborhood. These are the images that come to my mind when I think of “hospitality”.

Hospitality refers to the relationship between a guest and a host, with the host offering generous and cordial reception towards the guest. Hospitality in the ancient middle-east was more than mere politeness, it was crucial and expected. The desert and arid land of the Middle East was a very harsh environment. The ability to receive water, food, and shelter could be the difference between life and death for travelers. Numerous passages in the Old Testament tell the Israelites to treat strangers and resident aliens well, as they themselves were once foreigners in Egypt.

I think that it is fitting that this week’s gospel follows the one from last week. Last Sunday, our gospel reading (Matthew 28:16-20) was the great commission. Jesus told his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Jesus sent his disciples out as representatives of himself – to preach the gospel that Jesus preached, to teach the lessons Jesus taught, and to baptize in the name of the Triune God knowing that Jesus is with them. The disciples were individuals, but they represented something greater than themselves – Jesus Christ.

Our culture is very individualistic. I think that there are definitely some good things to say about recognizing that people are individuals – people have different aspirations, desires, motivations, likes and dislikes. But as with all good things – you can take it too far. Individualism taken too far becomes selfishness and it isolates us from one another, it fails to recognize that we are part of a greater whole – we belong to groups of people in families, friendships, communities. And rightly or wrongly, what a few people do can reflect poorly on the larger group.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Five: Faith and Culture edition

 This week's Friday Five posted by Terri is in honor of a week of interfaith study and celebration:

1. An experience of a religion other than my own - As part of my Hebrew language class in seminary, we attended a service at a local synagogue. There was a cantor singing in Hebrew, and it was very beautiful. I enjoyed this experience.

2. Classes I've taken on another culture or faith - In college I took several classes that are applicable to this category, including: Religions and Philosophies of China, Religions and Philosophies of India, Hellenistic Religions, and Hebrew Scriptures. In seminary I took a class on the Dalits (commonly called "untouchables") of India.

3. A book that I've found helpful on other religions God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World by Stephen Prothero. Prothero's premise is that all religions do not teach the same thing but that they agree on only one thing - that there is something wrong with the world. Each religion defines the ultimate problem differently and therefore has a different answer to the problem than other religions. For example, Christians believe that the ultimate problem with the world is sin and the answer to that problem is salvation from sin brought by Jesus Christ.  Other religions do not see sin as the ultimate problem, and so do not understand/seek salvation from sin as the answer.

4. Cultures I've experienced while traveling - I've traveled to various places in the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. These countries did have different cultures than my American culture, but their majority religion was still Christianity. 

5. Cultures/faiths that I would like to experience - It would be interesting to someday travel to a country that has a majority religion other than Christianity. Two places that I'd like to travel to someday would be Israel and India.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

What is Your Creation Story?

A sermon based on Genesis 1:1-5
June 19, 2011

I find creation stories fascinating. The way that the story is told tells you a lot about the people who wrote it and their view of the world and god (or gods as the case may be). What a person or group of people believe matters, because it effects the way they live their lives, the way they view the world and their place in it.

 There are two creation stories in Genesis, part of the 1st story is our Old Testament reading today. The story introduces God without any description of God’s origin or past history. As monotheists who believe that one God created everything, the beginning of Genesis does not seem shocking the way it would have to the Hebrew’s neighbors. Most near Eastern deities had parents and complicated biographies. The God of the Old Testament just is.

The creation story in the 1st chapter of Genesis tells us about a God who is cosmic and makes order from chaos. We learn that “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” For the Hebrews, water was often a sign of chaos. The deep was something to fear, no human being could predict or control the ocean waters. We have all learned from the book of Genesis that God created by speaking “Let there be…” but God also created by separating and making boundaries. Light and darkness were separated, the sky was created to separate the waters above and the waters below, dry land was separated from water.

 We learn from this creation story many truths but it should not be confused with a step-by-step instruction on creation that could be replicated the way cookbook recipes can be or science experiments can be. Genesis is not a history book like a modern day book about the civil war is a history book - we can understand more or less what went on the civil war, we cannot begin to understand creation but must use words and images to share what truths we can know. What we learn from this creation story is that there is one God who is and this God is responsible in an orderly way for the creation of all that we can see, and that God considered what God created to be good.

 One imperfect but helpful way to describe part of God’s creative process is to say that God creates by imposing order onto chaos, by separating thing from thing and making boundaries.

 As human beings, we are always trying to make sense out of things – I suppose it is our own way of trying to impose order onto chaos. In a small way we imitate God’s creative power – yes, we do create more of ourselves, but we also create new ideas and technologies that impose order onto the chaos of our lives. Perhaps this is a part of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God – to seek to make order from chaos by creating.

 The deep waters would have been terrifying to the early Hebrews, and so are a great image for chaos. Today, we have largely overcome that fear. We have created huge ships that can circumnavigate the globe, and we have sent vessels and cameras to the ocean depths to examine what bizarre and amazing creatures live there. We are capable of making helpful predictions about the paths of hurricanes – but we cannot make a prediction very far in advance and we cannot control hurricanes and tsunamis. Water is still chaotic and yet life-giving.

 In Genesis, God’s spirit hovered over the waters and God spoke life and order into existence. Water is still the most basic building block of our bodies, and it is the most pressing need that we have. It is highly appropriate that something as chaotic and fundamental as water became the symbol for baptism.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An Invitation to Dance - Sermon for Trinity Sunday

I'm not preaching this Sunday, so I'd thought that I'd post the sermon I preached last year. 

Trinity Sunday, Year C
May 30, 2010

Today is Trinity Sunday, the one day of the year in which the church celebrates the Triune God, a central doctrine of Christianity. 1 God in 3 Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I’ve heard it said that you can’t talk about the Trinity for more than a minute or two before you inadvertently wander into heresy. Unfortunately, I have to preach for more than two minutes, so I apologize in advance for any heretical ponderings – please don’t call the Bishop.

We usually use analogies to try to explain the mystery of the Trinity – but every analogy falls short in some way. A popular analogy is water. The Trinity is like H2O – it can be water, ice, and steam – liquid, solid, and gas. One substance, and 3 ways of being. I really like that analogy, but unfortunately if taken too literally it leads to a heresy – that of Modalism. A Modalist only allows God to be in one mode at a time. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all coexist together in the same time and place. Ice, water, and steam do not.

I think a more helpful analogy is that of my cat. I have a black cat named Gandalf. He is an indoor cat, and hates closed doors. If a door is closed, he wants it be opened. Gandalf will sit in front of the door, stare at it, and give a pitiful meow that can only mean “Why is door closed, why, why, why?”

Cats are pretty smart creatures, but their intelligence varies greatly from cat to cat. Some cats learn to open doors on their own, other cats will never learn on their own but they could be taught how to open a door, and still other cats will never learn how to open a door. The handles on our doors are levers, and Gandalf could theoretically open them. All he needs to do is to hit down on the handle with his paws – it could work.

Gandalf has not figured this out. He has come close. He will stand on his back legs, put his front paws up on the door and then stare intently at the door handle. It looks like he is on the verge of figuring it out – but he never does. He is just not quite smart enough.

This analogy doesn’t explain the Trinity, but I think it explains us humans trying to explain the Trinity. People trying to explain the mystery of God are like my cat staring at the doorknob – so close and yet so far away from ever understanding. A cat might accidentally open the door, or someone may show a cat how to open the door – but a cat will never fully understand how doors and doorknobs work. And so humans might stumble upon some truths and have other truths revealed to us, but we will never fully comprehend the full nature of God.

All language is so inadequate when it comes to describing God - so why bother? Why do we bother with a Trinity at all? Christians have 3 choices when it comes to describing God:
  1. We can give up on describing God entirely. In which case, how do we know what God we worship? Is it the same as Zeus, Athena, Baal, Allah, Quetzalcoatl? Or a different God? Obviously this first choice is no good, we need to know what God we worship. Our second choice is:
  2. We can come up with a very simple concept of God, one that is easy to understand but fails to do justice to the multitude of witnesses to God that we find in the Bible, Church tradition, Christian worship and experience. Or...
  3. We can do our best to remain faithful to Biblical witness and Christian experience of God – even though the end result is difficult to understand. Orthodox Christian theology has always adopted the last of these choices.

A long time ago Christians realized that taking the easy way out when it came to describing God was not good enough. I think that it shouldn’t be good enough for us today either. St. Augustine of Hippo once said – “If you can fully grasp it, it’s not God.” 

“If you can fully grasp it, it’s not God.”

What little we do know of God we know through the testimony of those who wrote and edited the Bible, the handing down of Church teaching and tradition, our communal and personal experiences during worship, prayer, and daily life, and our reason. All these testify to a God that is complex beyond our understanding, but there are some concrete things that we can know about God.

We know that God is creative – God is responsible for the existence of the world and all that is in it.
We know that God is loving and merciful – God came down to us as Jesus, who lived and died as one of us in order to reconcile us to God.
And we know that God is relational – That is the truth that the doctrine of the Trinity tries to express. God is relational, both within God’s own self and also with what God has created.

God is relational. We learn this from the words of Jesus in today’s gospel: "When the Spirit of truth comes …. he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears…because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine." In another place in John's Gospel, Jesus declares, "Do you not know that the Father is in me and I in the Father?" Still elsewhere Jesus prays that his disciples may be one "even as the Father and I are one."

This is the language of relationship and mutuality. Richard of St. Vincent, a 12th century scholar, contemplated this and “spoke of God in terms of shared love, a community in which that love is expansive and generous. It is love that cannot be self contained” and overflows.

The Eastern Church describes the Trinity as perichoresis, which literally means “dancing around.” Perichoresis refers to the mutual inter-penetration and indwelling within the threefold nature of the Trinity, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. “The love of God, the love that IS God is like a divine Dance, a dynamic and graceful and deeply intimate movement…. what we see in the Trinity is a dance of Persons who are mutually affirming, mutually caring. For the very essence of God is relationship, community, unconditional love.”(The Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson)

I’ve heard people say that God created the world and humanity because God was lonely. I don’t believe that at all. The Triune God is never alone in the same way that we are alone. God didn’t need us to be God’s dance partners. And yet, God did choose to create us, and redeem us, and invite us to join in the divine Dance. We are called by name to participate in this divine dance of love.

So many people feel alone, unloved, and separate from others. What would the world be like if everyone knew that God loved them and invites them to dance? The world would be a very different place indeed. The Kingdom of God is a place where everyone will know that they are valued and loved and welcomed into relationship.

This is the gospel we are meant to proclaim to the world, a gospel that speaks of God as relational and God’s love for us. “There is one God, who is relationship, who is Divine Dance, who is Love.” (The Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson) And all people are God's Beloved, invited to dance. Will you answer God’s invitation to dance?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Wild Goose - Sermon for Pentecost

A Sermon for Pentecost, Year A

When you think of the Holy Spirit, what images come to mind? I would bet that the two images that you first think of are a dove and tongues of fire. The dove comes from Jesus’ baptism, where the Spirit descended upon him in a form like a dove. The tongues of fire come from our reading from Acts which tells us of the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to be with the disciples.

Let’s consider those two symbols for a minute. Doves are considered signs of peace, they are docile and pretty. They do a good job at representing the comforting aspect of the Holy Spirit. Fire is not a sign of peace or docile, but the tongues of fire above the disciples’ heads were safely contained. No one got burned. Fire is bright, strong, and powerful, which could help to represent the powerful and inspiring nature of the Holy Spirit.

Fire and doves might the most common symbols for the Holy Spirit, but they are not the only ones. The Celtic peoples of Scotland and Ireland depict the Holy Spirit as a wild goose. The wild goose is better than a dove at portraying the untamable and unpredictable nature of the Holy Spirit. While doves emit a soft coo, wild geese are noisy and loud, often at inconvenient times. Wild geese are mean and are frequently considered pests by people. Wild geese are disturbing, disruptive, wild, untamable, unpredictable, and free.

The Holy Spirit as wild goose helps to get at the more uncomfortable aspects of the Holy Spirit. Yes, I did say uncomfortable and Holy Spirit together. This might sound odd, because we often call the Holy Spirit by the title “Comforter” but the Holy Spirit does much more than comforting the afflicted – the Holy Spirit also afflicts the comfortable when we are in places and situations in which we shouldn’t be comfortable.

We like to think of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, Helper, Guide – and the Holy Spirit is definitely those things. But the Holy Spirit cannot be tamed and put into a box of our choice – the Spirit is wild and free and goes where God wills.

David Lose, a professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, says that “the crucified and resurrected God we meet in Jesus is a God of paradox, and so we should look for no less in God's Holy Spirit.” He describes two paradoxes of Pentecost that I would like for us to contemplate today.

Paradox #1 – “The Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them.”

What do you mean, God the Spirit is not here to solve our problems but to create them? I would say that yes, God the Spirit does comfort us through our tough times but does not necessarily solve things for us. And in fact, the Spirit often times wants to shake things up. This is where the image of the wild goose can be helpful. The Holy Spirit makes noise, often at the most inconvenient times, and we are supposed to not chase the Holy Spirit away but to try to figure out why the Spirit wants to disturb us. The Holy Spirit comforts the afflicted – and afflicts the comfortable who need to change.

Human beings become comfortable and complacent, while the world changes around us. We need to grow and change and the Holy Spirit challenges us to do that.

After Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples could have gone back to their former careers as fishermen, tax collectors, and so on. But they didn’t. The Holy Spirit came to them and would not let them go back to their old lives, but took them to new and challenging situations and places as they preached the gospel.

Paradox #2: “The Holy Spirit doesn't prevent failure but invites it. Or, to put it slightly differently, the Holy Spirit invites us to find fulfillment and victory in and through our setbacks and failures.”

This is also hard for us to hear. I prefer the second way Dr. Lose put it – “the Holy Spirit invites us to find fulfillment and victory in and through our setbacks and failures.”

God doesn’t solve all our problems for us. If God did, then Christians would have easy lives. But looking back through the history of Christianity and through our own personal histories, we can see numerous problems and numerous failures and setbacks. Christians have not always done the right things and have not always succeeded at what they have tried. I know that I have not always done the right thing, and that I’ve not always succeeded at everything I’ve tried - and it’s a safe bet that that’s true of everyone here in this congregation today. In the movie Apollo 13, Mission Control says that “failure is not an option.” Well, failure is not only an option but it is inevitable.  Life is full of mistakes, accidents, failures, setbacks, things we would not have chosen for ourselves. The Holy Spirit strengthens us in these hard times, not just to get us through it but also to learn and grown from them.

It can also be helpful to think again of the image of a wild goose, particularly a young goose learning how to fly. Geese are awkward walking around on the ground. It is awkward for a goose learning how to takeoff, fly, and land at first. But the goose perseveres and become graceful and strong in the air – able to undertake extremely long journeys with its companions.

An interesting thing about wild geese is that they live and journey in companionship. Likewise the Holy Spirit is never alone but is in communion with the other aspects of the Holy Trinity – God the Father and God the Son. Likewise Christians are never alone, because we know that God is with us, the Holy Spirit is in us. And Christians have one another to journey with – we do not have to fly alone, and in fact, we do much better together.

I invite all of us this Pentecost today, to consider carefully (both for ourselves but especially as a church) - what problems the Spirit might be leading us to face, what risks we might have to take that might end in failure, and how we learn and grow from setbacks.

I’d like to end my sermon today with a prayer:

May the Holy Spirit bring us peace and comfort when needed, as well as very noisy reminders when we need to be less than comfortable.
May the church not try to tame the Holy Spirit and place God in a box of our choosing, but instead recognize the untamable, unpredictable, wild and free nature of God.
May the Spirit create appropriate challenges for us to undertake, that the world may become more and more the Kingdom of God that God wants.
May the Holy Spirit strengthen us through times of setback and failure, and help us to learn the lessons that God wants us to learn and find fulfillment in the journey.
Like a wind blowing where it will, and a wild goose flying where it will, may the Spirit move us personally and the church universally in whatever ways God wills us to be moved. Amen.