Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Freely Bound

Peg F. is Keystone's liturgist and a United Church of Christ member in discernment. In her paper, "Freely Bound" she shares her understanding of the core of our denomination, it's roots, and it's distinctive features as it looks to the future. Check it out, it's a great way to become more familiar with Keystone's wider community.

"Freely Bound"

The general characteristics, Spirit, or ethos of the United Church of Christ can be summed up in one word: covenant. The spirit of covenant permeates everything about the UCC, including its theological and political perspectives throughout its history, its organizational structure, its relationship to the world through mission, and its experience of God within the “beloved community,” which the “Statement of Faith” names as “people of all ages, tongues, and races.”

The theological roots of the United Church of Christ are firmly planted in the biblical history of covenant, a binding contract between God and God’s people. The evolution of covenant can be found within the Hebrew Scriptures. The Noahic covenant was an unconditional promise from God to Noah, whereby God will never again destroy Earth with a flood. The sign of the covenant was the rainbow (Gen. 9:8-17). Through the Abrahamic covenant, God promised Abram and his descendants the land from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates (Gen 15:18), and descendents too numerous to count (Gen 22:17). The sign of this covenant was circumcision, making this a conditional covenant by placing responsibility on Abraham and his descendents (Gen 17:11).

When God gave the Law to Moses, the relationship between God and the chosen people changed forever. The people now must obey the law in order to receive continued blessing. However, the initial choice to do so was made freely and communally. Thus, they were freely bound, a concept important to the ethos of the UCC. This time, not only did the people pledge to God, but also to each other. The covenant now involved a commitment to relationship among the community, as well as to God. The story continued as Jesus renewed the covenant by blessing the wine on the night he was betrayed, saying, “This is the cup of my blood, the new and everlasting covenant.” As Christians, when drinking of the cup, we are reminded that we are in covenant with each other.

Covenant language disappeared with the theology of the early church, but resurfaced with John Calvin. Calvin’s understanding of covenant related to grace. From the very beginning, humanity “violated” the covenant of “works,” and God’s grace was the only thing that kept humanity in covenant. Therefore, Calvin contended, the “covenant of grace” did not begin with Christ, as many Christians thought, but existed with God from the beginning of human history (Walker 136).

At this point, covenantal history became intertwined with the history of the colonies developing in North America. The English “Separatists,” after having attempted to reform the Anglican Church in the Netherlands, decided that the church was too corrupt for reform. Later known as the “Pilgrims,” they sailed on the Mayflower to Plymouth, totally separating themselves from the church. The Puritans set out to “purify” the Anglican Church, and came to America a decade later to position themselves as a “City upon a hill.” The “Holy Experiment” that ensued at Massachusetts Bay brought John Calvin’s theology of covenant into the Puritan way of living, using scripture as a guide not only for one’s personal life, but as a way of living to be embraced on a political level (Theology and Identity 3-5).

Covenantal language evolved into the "Cambridge Platform" of 1648, the document that Charles Hambrick-Hambrick-Stowe calls the "Magna Carta of Democracy." Its words call for an order of society in which church and state “may both stand together and flourish, the one being helpful unto the other in their distinct and due administrations." This bold statement was resisted by a number of laity, who feared giving any power to the political realm. Yet, documents such as the “Cambridge Platform” show that the history of our nation is a religious history, and that the roots of the UCC are grounded in the same ideals that formed our democracy (“A Company of Believers”).

Covenant continued to be emphasized by the congregational churches that began with the Pilgrims and Puritans, and covenantal relationships are still important to the UCC today, although they are sometimes difficult to maintain. One of the tensions that exists between the spirit of congregationalism and the ideal of covenantal relationships is within the portion of UCC polity that calls for autonomy. Reuben A. Sheares suggests that UCC polity can be “described as a ‘covenanted relationship of autonomous units of church life.’” These autonomous units are within a larger web of units, or expressions, that compose the UCC, and are described in the Constitution and Bylaws, which Sheares depicts as a “covenant within the covenant.” He portrays it as such because it “delineates the relationship between autonomous units of church life, even as it regulates the General Synod and those instrumentalities relating to it.” Most importantly, the document reveals the covenant between the members of the Body of Christ “within” God’s covenant (Theology and Identity 72-75).

It is important to note that the UCC holds Jesus Christ as the “sole head” of the Body of Christ (“Preamble to the Constitution,” par. 2). Therefore, the various expressions within the UCC that are in covenantal relationship are not hierarchical, although they are within an organized structure. The General Synod is the representative body of the UCC, meets biennially, and is led by an elected General Minister. The expressions contained in the UCC are the local churches (congregations) that are components of the associations that comprise the local conferences, each led by a Conference Minister. Some conferences, such as the Pacific Northwest Conference, do not have associations within their structure. All decisions are made “in consultation and collaboration” among the expressions (Article III).

Within the UCC’s structure are “Covenanted Ministries” which carry out the work of the church locally, globally, ecumenically and through interfaith relationships.” The UCC is “an inclusive, multiracial, multicultural church, accessible to all, engaging in ministries of justice, witness, healing, teaching, and preaching.” The four ministries are “Office of General Ministries, Local Church Ministries, Wider Church Ministries, and Justice and Witness Ministries” (Article X). The instrumentalities are the boards and commissions that function within the various expressions.

The Constitution of the UCC declares that “each expression of the church has responsibilities and rights in relation to the others” (Article III, par. 6). Yet, the Local Church (Congregation) is the basic unit and life of the UCC. It is empowered to manage its “own affairs,” and “formulates its own covenants and confessions of faith” (Article IV. par. 18). In other words, each expression has its own set of responsibilities, and each recognizes those responsibilities, while honoring their place among the others. Each expression of the UCC structure is freely bound to the other.

The very fact that each local church is empowered to form its own confession of faith demonstrates how difficult it is to define a specific theology or set of beliefs held by the UCC as a whole. This difficulty is compounded by the ecumenical nature of the church. Congregationalism, stemming from the Pilgrims and Puritans, is only one of four “streams” that comprise the current United Church of Christ. The UCC is also comprised of “evangelical,” “reformed,” and “christian” movements.

The Christian tradition is the only one of the four that originated on the American frontier. Like the Congregationalists, the Christian Church embraced autonomy. Both denominations hailed freedom of religious expression and united in 1931 to become the Congregational Christian Churches. In 1934, the evangelical and reformed churches, rooted in the German and Swiss movements within the Protestant Reformation, joined to form one denomination. The union of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches became the United Church of Christ in 1957.

The evangelical background, with Martin Luther as its source, brought to the fore rich discussions of grace and justification by faith that influenced Protestant theology for centuries. Martin Luther struggled tremendously in his life because he never felt as though he could ever do enough to earn God's grace and to merit eternal life. He felt enslaved by the laws of the Catholic Church. In Luther’s attempt to reform the Church, he wanted others to experience the freedom he found once he gained insight into St. Paul's theology of justification by faith through grace.

Paul’s theology can be translated into covenantal language. Basically, God created us and will love us always. We do not earn God’s love, nor do we need to work for it. The love and mercy that God bestows on us is "grace." Because we know (have faith or belief) that we are loved and graced by God, we respond by walking with God and living in love with God and with each other. Grace transforms us so that we no longer need laws to tell us how to walk with God and each other. We walk in covenantal love, which for Paul, is a fulfillment and true heart of the law. It is when we do not walk with God and each other that we are in a state of sin, or separation. Thus, grace and covenant are closely linked. For Luther, the Christian is the free-est--bound to no one but God--and is also the one most bound to others in love and duty.

The Reformed tradition contributed the theologies of John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, including that of covenant and Eucharist. Ulrich Zwingli said that "believers bring Christ to the supper in their hearts; they do not receive him in the supper." The focus is on the community and how they commit themselves to discipleship, and transubstantiation occurs within the worshipping community (Lindberg190). Zwingli's arguments were based on John 6:63, that by virtue of Christ's ascension, it is the Spirit that gives life and not the flesh (Lindberg 185).

Eucharist is one of two sacraments embraced by the UCC. Our current theology states that through the ritual of Holy Communion, the church celebrates the presence of Christ in the community, through which it is transformed. Frequency and manner of the ritual is decided on a local church level (Balaam 74-76). In most UCC congregations the table is open to all, for the radical abundance of God’s feast is for all to share. When we come to the table regularly, we are reminded of the covenant with God and with all Christians.

The second sacrament vital to the covenantal nature of the UCC is Baptism, which, through community ritual, welcomes a new member into covenantal relationship. Baptism, by immersion, sprinkling, or pouring, is a “central celebration” of unity in the church community. When a child is involved, the child’s family, including the church family, gathers to promise to nurture the child’s faith and union with Christ. Later in life, one can acknowledge for oneself a commitment to the body of Christ through Confirmation, or through a ritual celebrating membership.

It is important to re-emphasize that the autonomous nature of each local church makes it impossible to state that there is one specific formula of ritualizing that is standard. It is also virtually impossible to define a theology that is standard in every congregation, although there is a general non-fundamentalist attitude among UCC members. A progressive theology put forth by David Hambrick-Stowe sheds some light on this diverse ecclesial community’s understanding of its relationship with the world and its Creator (Theology and Identity 103-115).

Hambrick-Stowe emphasizes that the world and we who live in it, undergo a “beautiful, infinitely complex and mysterious change process,” and that this is intrinsically related to the Creator. Hambrick-Stowe illustrates that our God is a living God that “creates and responds to the whole universe in all its parts” infinitely and intimately. God is relational, and this relationship is symbolized in the Trinity, whereby God is not only in infinite relationships, but the essence of God is “intrinsically…eternally and essentially relational.” This relational aspect of God considers the importance of the entire cosmos, and how critical it is that a human centered traditional theology is augmented by an ecological theology that includes the precious world in which we live.

Hambrick-Stowe embraces the concept of “panentheism,” which suggests that “all is in God.” The underlying force of all that is in God is love. Through Jesus, who embodied that love, humanity is shown how the power of love can overcome evil, and that pain and suffering can be redeemed into “the larger harmonies and more creative adventures” that God continually has in store for God’s creation. His theology implies the covenantal nature of a community of faith. Furthermore, a community that embodies full relationship as shown by Jesus, is led directly into the church’s mission, which embraces human beings in all faiths and cultures, and reaches out in actions that promote justice and liberation.

Beatrice Wood, who was involved with the United Church Board for World Ministries, illustrates the UCC theology of mission (Theology and Identity 125-127). She indicates that our denomination, as one that strives for unity, needs to include in its understanding of mission those contributions made by people outside of our denomination, culture, and the borders of our nation. Furthermore, the best approach to mission work is no longer of a proselytizing nature, which, unfortunately, violated the nature of various cultures. Rather, it calls for a “participatory” model, whereby established mission churches work together with agencies to determine how our efforts together best reflect God’s vision of justice and peace. The pluralistic nature of the UCC invites opportunities for all to learn from each other’s theologies and cultures, including, but not limited to, those in our own country.

Wood equates the words “salvation” and “liberation.” Liberation theology includes diverse ways in which people express their theologies. Rooted in the liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt, the word now carries with it “the freeing message of the Christian gospel,” which calls all people to recognize that salvation is not for a time after death, where suffering and oppression are no longer, but the liberating message of the gospel is for right here and now. It involves not only a transformation into a new way of living peace and justice, but calls humanity to political action to bring it about. North Americans need to be aware that liberation theology challenges the very system of power within which the culture is embedded.

The UCC is absorbed in social consciousness, often at the cost of spiritual development. Many Protestants are strangers to traditional practices of piety and mysticism expressed in Roman Catholicism. Bengt Hoffman suggests that “the intellectual structures have prevailed over the inward aspect” that was so evident in Martin Luther’s monastic life (Maas 148). The Calvinist vision of the “City upon a Hill” truncated mystical inclinations with its focus on leading an exemplary life as modeled by Jesus. The deeply mystical side of Jesus himself has been de-emphasized.

Today, fewer people are stepping into a church building, claiming to be “more spiritual than religious.” Instead, they seek spiritual practices outside the doors of mainline Protestant churches. It is my experience that the UCC is among those churches that emphasize the intellectual forum and social reform rather than deep spirituality. Spiritual practices outside of a personal prayer routine and corporate worship might be rediscovered through ecumenical or interreligious connections, including practices evident in Catholic models, such as Ignatian spirituality.

It is spiritually critical to feed the congregation with corporate worship that embodies the movement of the Spirit. The weekly gatherings of the beloved community are the lifeline of the local church to its members and to the wider community. We gather for praise, we sing and dance, we remember that ours is a compassionate God, we recall our baptisms, we reflect upon the Word, we state our faith, we share joys and concerns, we offer gifts, and we share in the Bread of Life and Cup of Covenant. We are blessed and summoned to serve outside the doors of the building in which we gather. That ritual is vitally important to our basic human needs. When it embodies “full, conscious, and active participation,” the worship experience is richer and more Spiritfilled.

Also decided at a local church level is the use of the “Revised Common Lectionary” for corporate worship. The lectionary links the UCC to all of its brothers and sisters in Christ who share a common word. The scriptures, once hailed by the Protestant reformers as the sole authority of the church, are now embraced by the UCC as the words of a God who is still speaking.

The celebration of the liturgical seasons link us to universal truths through which humanity can fully explore and understand the deaths and resurrections of life which make up the human condition. We are globally bound through these cycles of the planet, and that realization demands that we seek covenant with all people and work to renew our commitment to the health of Earth.

The United Church of Christ is considered to be a progressive and liberal member of mainstream Protestantism, if not the most liberal and progressive member. This identity holds within it a responsibility to be a prophetic voice to a world that seeks unity. The denomination’s motto, “That we all may be one,” and the “God is still speaking” advertising campaign sum up the desire of this denomination to embrace its ethos of covenantal relationship. At the same time, the UCC’s balance of autonomy with covenant acknowledges that Christianity is a living and breathing entity through which the Spirit of God flows throughout and within every time and place.

Works Cited
-Bodin, Jan, Ted Braun and Tom Warren, eds. Balaam’s Unofficial Handbook of the
United Church of Christ. Cleveland: United Church Press, 2008.
-Hambrick-Stowe, Charles, and Daniel L. Johnson, eds. Theology and Identity: Traditions, Movements and Polity in the United Church of Christ. Cleveland: United Church Press, 2007.
-Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E. "'A Company of Believers Ecclesiastically Confederate' :
The Message of the Cambridge Platform." Bulletin of the Congregational Library at
-Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformations. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing,
-Maas, Robin and Gabriel O’Donnell, O.P., eds. Spiritual Traditions for the
Contemporary Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990.
-Walker, Randi. The Evolution of a UCC Style: Essays in the History, Ecclesiology, and Culture of the United Church of Christ. Cleveland: United Church Press, 2005.
2005 Edition of the UCC Constitution and Bylaws

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Lenten Invitation

Some weeks ago from this pulpit we heard the story of Jesus and his mother at the festive wedding reception at Cana. Rich gave what I thought was an uplifting and fun sermon about Jesus and the party-goers. As this story unfolded, we as community, were ultimately invited to explore and share our gifts. We were missioned by our pastor to go forth to surprise the world with random acts of kindness. I loved that morning in the pews, as I always do here with all of you. But that Sunday was particularly engaging for me as I listened to a delightful, humorous, and joy-filled message.

But in today’s reading from Luke, Jesus is far from a wedding hall, far from family and friends. He is at the end of a long, self-imposed exile prompted by the Spirit, a Spirit that has completely filled him, so much so that, at his baptism, according to Luke, the skies opened and “a voice from heaven was heard to say: ‘You are my beloved Son. On you my favor rests.’” Almost immediately after this even, Luke then tells us that he beloved is called away to be with his God and only his God – in the dry, rocky desert of solitude – Alone with the Big Alone, as we see at the beginning of today’s reading.

As I stumbled around in my own desert of anxiety, trying to prepare this reflection, I went on a whim to the Bible glossary and looked up the word, desert. To my surprise, this is what I found: Desert: -- “this word hold a major place in biblical thought: It is the desert that the people have experienced divine intimacy. The desert symbolizes the desolate sojourn of the times of trial. Jesus withdraws to the desert before beginning his ministry.”

This Spirit who loves Jesus so much, who loves us so much, draws us to that intimate time and space to adore us but also to work us over, so to speak. It is like God is saying: “You are so beautiful I can hardly stand it and I want you to go out into the world and love but Hold on Pard’, not so fast…there’s this shadow side I need you to look at and embrace before you head-on.”

In today’s Gospel the biggest part of the story focuses on the devil coming to Jesus after hi forty days with three over-the-top temptations for a very hungry fellow. This is high drama but for some reason I didn’t feel called to reflect on the temptations themselves. Temptation is a part of life. It is part of being human. It never ends. It is in the mysterious mix of out very existence, always on the sidelines ready and waiting for a spin on the dance floor, especially so when we are tangoing with our best selves, with open hearts. As my old mentor up on the reservation, Sister Ann, used to say in simple terminology: “Whenever things are going well and you are, with pure intention, striving to love and to do good, the ‘old boy’ likes to get in there and stir things up.” Annie’s more plain-spoken wisdom parallels a beautifully-written interpretation by Fred Caddock which connects to Luke’s desert scene. Although Jesus has come to adulthood and has been majestically anointed at his baptism, Caddock says: “The Spirit is leading Jesus but not jet to Galilee; the devil will not let him move that easily into the service of God. It probably was no surprise to Jesus, nor should it be to us: good news always has its enemies. Love generously and hatred will pull on boots and helmet; speak truthfully and falsehood begins to charm its auditors; live simply and extravagance sets up a carnival across the street; serve faithfully and self-interest renews its seduction of human pride.”

Our shadow is always with us and always will be. It is woven into our DNA. Big temptations, little temptations are part of our fabric and will play themselves out in our psyches in a myriad of story lines. Luke is really on to this because in his desert scene Jesus’ battle with the old boy ends with: “When the devil ha finished all the tempting he left him, to await another opportunity.” The beat goes on.

So that is why instead I want to zero in on those very first two, literally and figuratively, dry sentences from today’s scripyture: “Jeuss, full of the Holy Spirit then returned from the Jordan and was conducted by the Spirit into the deser for forty days, where he was tempted by the devil. During the time he ate nothing, and at the end of it he was hungry.” I want to explore a little more the reality of the forty days in the desert. What is this desert experience all about? God knows we have a need for it and God wants us there for important reasons. In wisdom and divine selfishness our God leads us to solitude in grand stretches and in smaller ways. – For God knows our human poverty and God loves us and wants intimacy with us. In the seemingly empty spaces, God will mold and shape, and at the same time reverence us right where we are at.

In the desert our spirit meets God’s spirit in a very human way. Under thehot sun there are good times and hard times with the One who wants us to become who we truly are and so desires to be in relationship with each of us. I keep thinking of the many scenarios that Jesus went through out in the barren land. At first there was probably the usual, “I don’t want to go there” resistance, perhaps an attitude of “What do I need this for? I just want to get on with the work.” Or, being the social guy that he was, maybe Jesus was thinking, “I get a little anxious when things are too quiet around me.” But in trust, I imagine Jesus got past this initial resistance and the growling stomach, and settled into some fabulous and fulfilling days of wandering through the mysterious terrain of discovery, touching into his gifts and laying down by his fire at night, looking up at the starry sky we seldom see in Seattle, awestruck in the emptiness, in the enfolding arms of his loving Creator. Continuing this sojourn there is no doubt that there were some big dust-ups between Jesus and His God out in the sand. Our God is a bit demanding for our own good. When we accept the invitation to solitude in faith and we have the courage to party with our distractions we will be forced to face and embrace our shadows and really look our wounds, our selfishness, our failing, our addictions and separation from others. This can be painful and harsh because of that old ego we all have, where we think we are center of the universe, or on the other end of the spectrum, we think that we are of little worth and beyond hope and change. This necessary holy face-off with our truth, is the on-going tempering God knows we need to respond to life with the fullness of our lives rather than react to live with reflexive selfishness and self-absorption.

I believe Jesus did not succumb to those very seductive temptations because of his relentless choice to listen with his heart to his God, because he had the faith to love and be loved by his God in the desert Unknown, the grand paradox that will nurture and embrace us, challenge us to our very core, and lead us to the Freedom to be uniquely and fully ourselves.

Perhaps on day 39 after resistance and awe and silence and struggle and emptiness and delight, Jesus might have prayed to his God this prayer echoed centuries later by another pilgrim, Thomas Merton:
“O kind and terrible love which You have given me and which could never be in my heart if you did not love me!
You ask of me mothering else than to be content that I am your Child and your Friend, simply to accept your friendship because it is your friendship. This friendship is Spirit.
You have called me to be repeatedly born in the Spirit, repeatedly born in light, in knowledge, Unknowing, in faith, in awareness, in gratitude, in poverty, in presence, and in praise.”

--This is God’s longing for our destiny—to live in the Holy One’s friendship and peace.—The is the path of Jesus, a deliberate walk—disciplined and yielding to the way of Generative Love—honed in the desert of reflection, sacrificial for the sake of life n day forty. In our solitude we find our freedom to submit to the way of Love in our daily relationship and speak the Truth to our collective shadow: The Domination System.

Dear Community, our Lenten journey is our invitation to the desert, our tradition’s call to follow God right to our blind spots, to turn from separation and embrace the Gospels. It is our built-in “time out” from our culture that is anything but reflective; a culture in need of compassionate, fully-alive and wise folk who have the desire and trust to enter into self-examination, contemplation, humility and the lonely spaces where God waits for us and grounds us for the sake of ourselves and for all creation; -Persons who transcend fear because they have responded to God’s invitation to look into the face of their character flaws, their darkest anxieties and elf-centeredness, embracing all that is there and allowing for the mystery of God to bring wholeness, healing and forgiveness; --Fearless companions because they live with certainty into the unconditional friendship of God whose love is bigger than all uncertainty and death.

Dear Community, these are the first of many days because Easter. This is our time to live our tradition with deliberateness and clarity of purpose. Will we really risk solitude this year and allow it a foothold in our daily living? The choice is ours to know that we loved and invited to live Divine Intimacy in wild and rocky grace.

Are you ready to go the way of Jesus? Will you go? I hope I can really do it this year—head off-road and be surprised, cherished a little, and unafraid to look where I dare not look. Indeed, there are brambles of judgment within me to trim, caves of complacency that need light, --and ego, always ego to ten and tame by the night fire.

Beloved, this is our time, it is necessary --- and it is good news.

-A sermon given by Rita P. on the first Sunday of Lent, 2010

Friday, February 19, 2010

Sermon, Transfiguring It Out

Transfiguration Sunday year C 0210
Luke 9:28-36
Transfiguring It Out
By Rich Gamble

So much of my preaching and teaching is aimed at making the Gospel of Jesus Christ something that we can understand. Yes it is challenging to understand a call to live our lives outside the hold of greed and violence. Yes it is hard to incorporate the upside down vision of the realm of God into our everyday lives. But if we buy into the basic supposition that God’s realm can be experienced in the here and now, and that God’s realm is the complete inversion of system of domination that currently rules the minds and actions of humanity, then there is coherent logic to things that Jesus says and does.

But this story isn’t about understanding the Realm of God. This story of the transfiguration is about Wonder and Awe. This story has a glowing Jesus, a talking cloud and dead guys walking around. Frankly the story would have made more sense if it had begun with Jesus serving the disciples some questionable mushrooms.

The story tells us that Jesus takes Peter James and John to the top of the hill and there they have this otherworldly experience of seeing Jesus glow bright white. If that were not strange enough, they then see Moses and Elijah having a conversation with Jesus. How did they know it was Moses and Elijah in the days before photography or even portrait painting? The story does not say.

And if things were not strange enough the disoriented disciples hear the very word of God. Well it says that the voice came out of cloud but we are inclined to believe that if clouds start talking to us that it is the voice of God. God says: "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

Simple direct statement and instruction. I like that about the cloud here. It doesn’t use a bunch of flowery language.

Glowing leader, long dead prophets having conversations, and talking clouds, it is quite an afternoon. If someone today were to report such goings on we might be inclined to say that they were delusional.

What are we to make of it?

When I was in the last year of college, I lived by myself in a small apartment in a rat and roach infested neighborhood of Kansas City MO. I went to class and I worked to pay for class and I walked. I was graduating with an English Literature major and had no job prospects and no clear idea of direction in my life. My girlfriend was in the process of discovering that she was lesbian and my close friends and family were in other towns. In other words I had a lot of time to myself.

To fill this time I would walk for hours. Being burly and naïve I did not worry about where or when I walked. I walked and I thought and at times I prayed.

I prayed for guidance, for direction, for companionship, I prayed that somehow the world would make sense to me.

One night as I walked I was overcome by a sense of wonder. I didn’t see any glowing apparitions. No long dead prophets walked with me. No clouds spoke. And yet, something filled me. I was caught up in the wonder of moment. Concerns about the future, about companionship, about meaning left me. All such things were crowded out by a sense of overflowing peace.

I remember that I stopped and reached out and touched the trunk of a tree, and I could feel the life flowing beneath my hand. I stopped at a dark alley and perceived something in the darkness and so stopped and waited. In a couple of minutes an opossum walked out and we stared at each other and I felt a bond between the two of us. During that night my concerns were replaced by joy and sense of peacefulness. I was in the moment and the moment was filled with wonder. As a whole when people start to talk about the mystical I get impatient because such talk usually seems to be a distraction from the social, political and economic ramifications of our faith. But in my life, I’ve occasionally experienced the peace that passes all understanding.

That, I think, is what this story is all about. Between dealing with the needs of the afflicted, the hostility of the leadership and the incomprehension of the disciples, Jesus takes a break to experience the wonder of Creation and the disciples get a peak. Even though they didn’t know what it meant or how to respond, still they remembered that moment when reality opened up to reveal so much more than they had expected.

Immediately after this story, Jesus and the disciples go down from the mountain to find a child afflicted by a demon, and the disciples unable to do anything to help. Jesus is once again thrust into the world of suffering, struggle and ignorance.

It should be noted that he doesn’t turn his back and go back up the mountain. He plunges into the work of healing and teaching. He returns to the path that will lead him to the cross.

As adults we sometimes have to work to take seriously the concerns of children. We know that in time the trauma of lost toys, bad hair, and homework will be seen to be insignificant but to the child at the time, it is all.

Elders can sometimes see the concerns of younger adults as small. Worries about status, style, career and possessions will grow small as we turn to face the implications of the end of our existence.

Our faith guides us to take seriously such things as human suffering and injustice. Because of our faith we find ourselves called to places we would rather not go, and into struggles we would rather avoid. But in the midst of anger and trauma, beyond the fear and anxiety there is always present the peace and serenity of knowing that the world as we know it is just a small part of wonder of existence. This peace we rarely if ever experience and if so, often forget but it is there.

The voice of God may thunder from a cloud, the wonder of existence may be felt through the bark of a tree, or in the clasp of a newborn on our finger.

We are invited to awaken to the wonder of existence which transcends the span of our lives linking us with those long gone and those yet to be. We are invited to awaken to see that in the midst of war and famine, suffering and death beyond the seemingly unstoppable forces of ignorance and greed, beyond the sadness of loss and the alienation of existence, that there is something …more. Something… wondrous.

Many try to sell us the peace we seek. If only we do what they say, buy what they sell, read their book, join their club, take their drug we will get there.

Our story of faith says that wondrous experience comes only as part of a life of faithful struggle to share the love of God. As we seek justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, truth for those mired in lies, and peace for those brutalized by violence; so we may just stumble into a moment where the doors of perception are opened up to reveal the peace that passes all understanding.

We may live our whole lives and not have a mountain top experience but our faith says that it is there. We can’t manufacture it. We can only be open to it when it comes. But whether we ever personally experience it, we proclaim that the love of God is there, and it is broader than our ability to perceive, longer than our years, and more filled with wonder than we can comprehend.

And that is good news.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Taxes Unite!

Olympia was flooded yesterday with nearly 10,000 citizens from all over the state of Washington. They came with a common issue, taxes. One might think that based on American history and our often exemplified love affair with finances that this group might be unified against taxes. This was not the case. While the subject of taxes brought citizens to Olympia, it was what to do about taxes divided this deluge of Washingtonians. I arrived as a part of the “Rally to Protect Our Future.” Our cry, “Yes on Revenue!” sounded a bit more appealing then, “More Taxes!” yet that was essentially our message.

In order to balance the budget with the its $2+ billion deficit Governor Gregiore proposed deep cuts that affected services for the elderly, reduced basic health care coverage, cut funding for university students, affected state workers’ salaries, as well as gouging services for the homeless, disabled and other vulnerable citizens. Representatives from these groups united at the capitol to oppose the cuts and advocate instead for new revenue sources. The 6,000+ crowd overflowed the capitol steps and demonstrated their passion as they cheered, jeered and took every opportunity let their voices be heard. I was impressed and surprised by the sheer number of people asking government to tax them (perhaps that's not how they saw it but I don't know how else to take it).

I cannot speculate on the varied motivations of the diverse crowd that gathered to plead with lawmakers to stop the cuts and find new sources of revenue. I know for myself, that I raised my sign high because I believe we must hold, protect, and cherish the vulnerable in our society. I’m willing to pay higher taxes if it will mean that the homeless, the poor, the disabled, and the ill receive much needed social services and health care. What’s more, I cheered loudly because I think that the members of Keystone believe as I do, that ultimately this issue isn’t about taxes, it’s about justice.

Posted by Brandon

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sermon: Transfiguring It Out

To play the audio from the sermon press play on the video below.

The sermon text is Luke 9:28-36.

"Some eight days after these sayings, Jesus took along Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.

And while he was praying, the appearance of his face became different, and his clothing became white and gleaming. And behold, two men were talking with him; and they were Moses and Elijah, who, appearing in glory, were speaking of his departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Now Peter and his companions had been overcome with sleep; but when they were fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with Him. And as these were leaving Him, Peter said to Jesus, 'Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles: one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah'--not realizing what he was saying.

While he was saying this, a cloud formed and began to overshadow them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, 'This is my son, my chosen one; listen to him!'

And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent, and reported to no one in those days any of the things which they had seen."

Image by Kevin McNeal

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Ones that Got Away

Today’s story is one I remember hearing often as a child. Our Sunday school teacher relived the tale with flannel graph. After sticking the people to the felt background we’d sing, “I Will Make You Fisher’s of Men,” a tune I still have stuck in my head.

But even as a child this image of fishing for people always struck me as odd. It made me think of bait, lures and hooks. I had a hard time connecting with this story. I asked Janelle what the story elicited in her and she said she thought of people heads on fish bodies wiggling about. This didn’t help.

But as I’ve been living with the story for the past week I have found new points of connection and I want to walk through the story with you.

The story begins after Jesus has been run out of Nazareth. The community there liked the message of good news for the poor, release for the captives, and freedom for the oppressed. They liked it up until the point Jesus mentioned that such newness of life was not only for them but for everyone, including their enemies. At this point they wanted to throw him off a cliff.

Jesus escaped the crowds and continued to teach the realm of God in both word and deed in the neighboring village of Capernaum. It wasn’t long before a large crowd had gathered pushing in on him from every side.

At this point Jesus sees a couple of fishermen cleaning their nets on the lake shore after a long night of fishing. Jesus convinces one of these fishermen, a man named Simon, to let me use his boat.

Now Jesus wouldn’t have been a complete stranger to Simon and his pals. Just prior to this story Jesus had healed Simon’s mother-in-law and I’m sure word of this wandering rabbi would have spread.

Once in the boat Jesus sets off a little distance from shore in order to teach the crowds. It’s interesting that at this point Luke (the writer of this gospel story) completely skips over the message Jesus was teaching. Instead, the story says that when Jesus was finished teaching he told Simon to go out into the deep waters.
Now this detail of the “deep water” might very well simply be Luke’s attempt to let us know the location where Jesus wanted to go on the lake. Yet this inclusion of this simple detail may also represent something more.

In the ancient Jewish world, water was often a symbol of chaos and deep water is often dark water. It’s in deep water where we often can’t see the bottom. It’s in deep water where we’re concerned about getting in over our head. Perhaps the deep water represents those places we would rather not go, the places of risk, discomfort, and uncertainty.

The call to go into the deep water sounds very much like something God does. God often calls us to go deeper; deeper in relationships risking vulnerability and intimacy; deeper into issues of justice risking the bliss found in just not knowing; deeper in our trust and deeper in our faith.

Deeper is where Jesus calls Simon to go.

Once in the deep water Jesus calls Simon to let down their nets. I can only imagine the sideways glances and sighs of the fishermen. They had probably fished this lake for many years. I’m sure they knew the best times to fish, the best locations around the lake. They had been fishing all night and caught nothing and now this wandering rabbi wanted them to send out the nets again. But then again, Jesus had healed Simon’s mother-in-law so they play along and lower the nets.

The story goes that as they pulled up the nets they were astounded with the catch. Their nets were on the brink of tearing apart they were so full of fish. As they hauled it into the boat the sheer weight of the fish nearly sunk their boats.
In a moment of awe Simon blurted out, “Master, leave me. I'm a sinner and can't handle this holiness. Leave me to myself.”

Jesus responds with the four words that comprise the most repeated command in the Bible, “Do not be afraid.”

And like a flick of a switch Jesus switches their profession with a turn of phrase, “From now on you will catch people.”

Perhaps this pronouncement foreshadows Luke’s sequel, the book of Acts, when Simon and the others will continue Jesus’ teaching and many people are gathered together as they catch this vision for this realm of God.

The story ends with these heavy laden boats coming onto the beach and the fisherman leaving it all behind to follow Jesus.

It’s at this point in the story that my heart is hooked; when it says they leave everything and follow.

I can only assume that as fishermen they had good days and bad days. Days when their nets were torn and they spent the entire day mending. And I’m sure there were days when they caught enough fish to feed themselves, their families, and maybe even some left over.

Yet on this day, this fantastic catch would certainly be a high water mark for them. The story sounds as though if there had been one more fish the nets would have snapped and the entire catch lost. Had one more fish jumped into the boat the weight would have been too much and the boat would have sank. The image is that this was the best possible catch imaginable and at this high point of success, they walked away.

I have to wonder what would have thought or felt as they let their catch get away. Would they have looked back over their shoulder as the catch lay upon the shore? Would they have felt a twinge of doubt or even regret? What would they have felt as they followed Jesus into the unknown, into the deep?

When the fishermen left their catch, they also left their nets, and their boat, in a sense they felt their very identity, their very role in that society behind.

One thing I can be sure of, no one would have said they expected this. Not a single one of them could have said, “Yeah, this is pretty much how I figured today would play out. I totally figured we’d catch nothing all night, quit for the day, then have some rabbi tell us where to fish and we’d bring up the biggest catch ever only to walk away from it.”

None of us can claim to know what we can expect out of life, much less out of a day. For we worship a God of possibility. We worship a God of surprise whose call can reorient our entire day, our entire identity. We worship a God of surprise, a God who, after a night of nothingness, brings forth a bursting abundance

But the story doesn’t end with the abundance; it ends with them leaving the abundance behind. It says they left everything and followed Jesus. What does it mean to leave everything and follow?

This idea of leaving all to follow Jesus is common throughout the gospels, and to be honest each time I come across it I’m not sure what to make of it. It seems overwhelming and in the face of such a daunting idea it’s tempting to believe this call isn’t mine. I mean, what am I supposed to do?

Does it mean Janelle and I sell everything and we take Winston and go into the wilderness like the ancient monks? Maybe, but somehow this feels like I’m taking it too literally.

So what does this calling mean for me, for us?

At the risk of sounding like I am singing someone else’s song I have to mention the domination system. We talk a lot about the domination system here. It is a way cultures orient themselves that seeks control, a mechanisms that seek to manipulate. It is a system of governance that defines power by the ability to force people to conform to one’s will; that defines significance by fame; and that defines wealth by what we can hoard.

Each Sunday morning in our call to worship we speak of coming out of this system. We say:

“Come from the world of extravagance for a few, which causes suffering for many…Come from the world of rich over poor, one race over another and one nation over all…Come from the world so full opinions that we become deaf to cries of those who suffer.”

Perhaps this coming out of the domination system is the “leaving it all behind.” But if I’m honest, sometimes it’s not that easy.

For just as the principalities and powers of the domination system want to take a hold of me and conform me to its image, sometimes I want to be embraced by it for all the empty, temporary privileges it promises. It’s a Stockholm syndrome of sorts, a becoming comfortable with your captor.

Let me give you an example. I remember the first time I saw a video on meat packaging slaughterhouses. If you’ve seen something like this, you’ve witnessed the savagery cows, pigs, and other animals can be subjected to by certain meat packing companies. After watching the documentary I couldn’t help but feel as though by purchasing these products I was contributing to this savagery. I knew I didn’t want to be a part of something so cruel, but at the same time, I like beef, I enjoy bacon. I felt a tension; perhaps you have felt a tension like this as well? Now I know that for this specific example, thankfully there are other ways to get meat products without the cruelty such as organic or free range farms. Yet this is simply one example of the tension I’ve felt in wanting to “leave it behind” and the temptation for the temporary privileges.

We live in a culture, a country of comparative wealth where at this time we receive many of the unsustainable benefits of the domination system. And sometimes it’s tempting to plead ignorance and stay in the shallows.

Perhaps leaving it all behind, leaving the nets full of fish, is a learning to let go of these unsustainable benefits of an unjust system.

Thankfully this calling to let go and follow doesn’t belong to any one of us in particular but to all of us as a community and together we will support, we will encourage each other as we will walk into this calling and follow Jesus into the deep.