Sunday, August 31, 2014

"The First Thing God Noticed"
(And Why I've Stopped Writing Sermons)

I've been experimenting with noteless sermons lately. Thus fewer sermons here. Disaster, I know. You'll cope. And I'll have to come up with more honest-to-goodness blog-only posts. Like a real writer. You know, with original material. A win-win. And not forever, maybe. (I'm still talking myself into it.) We'll see.

Truthfully, I'm enjoying the noteless sermons. I think I most enjoy the openness I'm given to be surprised by the lessons on Sunday evening. Of course, I still read and pray the lessons in the week before each Sunday's liturgy, but if in the moment of the Assembly's worship, the Spirit whispers a compelling word or observation, I've already given myself permission to receive that whisper in a way that can change everything. An exercise in the discipline of being present to the present moment and God's activity in the present moment which - increasingly - is more in keeping with the shape and character of daily ministry. Improvisation at the Spirit's leading.

I know these sermons aren't as polished as my written ones, or half as clever. I hope they're less controlled and so also more honest, giving greater voice to the texts. I enjoy that these sermons belong to the worship and resist the preacher's attempt to cling to a sermon outside of the context of worship.

For that last reason especially, I'm not going to try to reassemble these spontaneous sermons here. Instead, I intend to utilize the blog on a regular basis as a space for debriefing - a place to collect some of the whispers I found most beautiful/challenging/encouraging/infuriating, whether these whispers made into the sermon or not.

Enough by way of setup and explanation. Here are some reflections from the readings for Proper 17, Year A.

Exodus 3:1-15

I had never noticed before how much noticing God does in these 15 verses. Three times, we're told, the story is moved along because of what God has seen. God has seen the misery of God's people and also how the Egyptians oppress them. Today, for the first time, I also saw that, before either of these, God notices Moses' notice of the flame in the unconsumed bush:

"When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!"

What a curious detail. Did God know Moses would eventually see? Was God waiting for the first person to come along and see? Could someone else have seen first and become Moses instead of Moses? How long had the bush been burning, waiting for Moses (or someone else) to notice? But when Moses turned aside to see, the LORD noticed.

Moses was a shepherd. On the clock. Which is to say he was noticed noticing God in the workplace. Where God was present and active. Had been present and active. For a long time, unnoticed. Maybe the shepherds before Moses knew better than to look for God on the job site. What does one make of the possibility that God is already present and active in the world to which we venture in any of our many vocations and careers? 

I was also much taken with Anathea Portier-Young's commentary in Working Preacher, especially her reflections on sandals as symbols of social contracts, status, and standing, and the corresponding claims and responsibilities of these to which we are subject. The LORD has Moses take off his sandals.

One of my favorite guilty pleasure songs is "Pumped Up Kicks," by Foster the People. The lyrics are terrible. And super catchy. A reminder that shoes - Air Jordans, Doc Martins, etc. - are no less symbols of status, standing and their attending attachments than sandals were for Moses in his Old Testament context. The LORD asks us to take off our shoes.

Like Moses, when called by God, we wonder who we are to receive such a calling. God's answer to Moses, and to us, is telling: "I will be you." In other words, standing without sandals, Moses finds his own identity reoriented in terms of God's action. Who are you? You are the one I am with. The one I continue to choose to be with. This is who you are.

Matthew 16:21-28

In light of the above, I love Kara Slade's reminder that the cross is "the burden that...unburdens us," insofar as we are asked to put away those things that get in the way of following Jesus, who is the tangible keeping of God's promise to be with us.

I find an imagination for taking up the cross in Jesus' rebuttal of Peter: "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus doesn't destroy Peter, or seek to. He puts him behind him. The language makes me think of the actions necessary for layering objects in most word processing applications. In each one, some version of, "bring to front" or "send to back." Like Jesus with Peter. 

Sunday worship is definitely a "bring to front" moment with respect to Jesus for most of us, but in light of God's surprise appearance at Moses' job site, it's worth wondering what it might look like to develop a "bring to front" instinct with respect to the cross and Christ's promise to be with us for other places in our lives. For all the places in our lives. Even/especially in those places where verbal profession is not possible or helpful, remembering that the "bring to front" instinct can shape our posture and intention of our presence in ways that reveal the heart of God, we remember that we are not except for "with God," because with us is how God in Christ has chosen to be.

To bring to front is to name there are places in my life where I have either given up hope of God's appearing or sometimes, perhaps, preferred God not appear. 

Romans 12:9-21

I didn't engage this passage much, but I loved hearing it for 1) the beautiful beginning of an imagination for the specifics of an identity determined by God's promised presence and 2) the reminder that the shape of the lives that take up the cross belongs to the people called Church.

For similar reasons, I am absolutely in love with the new blessing I'm using/borrowing from Dann Brown. It's the blessing with which he closed our Kindling Conference this past July. I think he got the words from a preacher before him. ;-)

"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 

"And the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you this day and remain with you always. Amen."

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Living Parables of Hope

Ferguson. Israel. Gaza. ISIS. ALS. Church decline. An underlying and profound popular cynicism of institutions like the one to which I have given my life. Resonating, sometimes, with the institutional naysayers.

Oh, and I'm long overdue for my tetanus shot.

Lots of reasons to feel discouraged. Short of hopeless, maybe, but situations are dire. And that's before I screw up the courage to take seriously the forecasts of experts in any of myriad disciplines who tell me my children's children - and maybe my children - will long for days like mine.


If recent conversations with friends and neighbors are true indicators, I am not alone with my felt helplessness in the face of so much brokenness and pain. The saddest thing, for me, is the occasional reluctance I feel - in myself and in my communities of faith - to trust that prayer is a credible response to brokenness I cannot change.

"Cannot change" is, of course, debatable. At a worship service my family and I attended on our recent vacation, a priest blessed us - the congregation - at the end of the service with the "foolishness to believe we can change the world." But I am grateful for sermons like this one, which long ago persuaded me that foolishness in pursuit of Christ a) brings with it a joy that the foolishness of world-changing never can, and b) makes possible from a place of hope and joy sustained connections to situations and people I cannot fix/change - even myself.

To reach out to others in love from a place of confidence in God's love is not an insignificant gift of the Gospel.

The late Brother Roger, founder of the community at Taizé, called the common life of the brothers there "a parable of community." This phrase - a parable of community - gives me hope and inspires even playfulness in the face of unbearably difficult realities. Where "change the world" language implies a kind of violence and begins with a kind of anger at the world (for which there often is warrant, and for which there is certainly a place in the life of faith!), to be a parable of community for the world is to communicate a riddle to the world of which the world must make sense. The energy necessary to change the world requires vigilant attention to sources of frustration and disappointment; the energy needed to be a parable for the world emanates as if from an unseen source of new life and is nurtured by an attention to what God in Christ has made possible.

Thus, lament, I think, is chiefly about taking the time necessary to locate through honesty and struggle the personal level on which Christ's joy most clearly speaks a parable into, and opens, the wisdom of our anger and disappointments. To be angry at the destructive anger of the world is good and right, to start. To respond only in anger to the anger of the world is to add to it - and miss that surprising subversion of the Spirit - laughter - which God, on that first Easter morning, gave to God's people.

By appealing to laughter as a gift of resurrection, I do not at all mean to suggest that the brokenness with which Ferguson confronts us should or can be laughed away. But Easter names God's refusal to let anything other than God's love for us - neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, not any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else - be the most true thing about us. Thus, Karl Barth can write, "Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God." Laughter exposes the powers of this world.

With the help of the Spirit, we have become God's people of laughter. And we pray to become a string of small parables in the midst of a world we refuse to change by the violence that seemingly defines the world. Living parables. The best kinds of parables are unlikely friendships. Parables - embodied pictures and standalone stories - of faith. Of joy. Of laughter and hope. Of attention to what God in Christ has made possible. Parables of reconciliation and forgiveness. Parables like the kind Jesus told: enigmatic, confusing, strangely compelling, at the same time near to the heart and just out of reach. Beautiful. Requiring further exploring. Disturbing. Perplexing. Touching the protected and hidden parts of ourselves. Leaning toward Jesus.

The best part of the parables is Jesus' refusal (with some exceptions) to explain them. The power of parables is not measured by change in the other, but by inexplicable, wonderful witness to the new possibility. These days, with God's help, to be - with God's people - a living parable of hope is my daily, hourly prayer.

I wonder where Christ's joy and life's struggle in you just now finds imagination sufficient to craft a living parable today.

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