Saturday, January 27, 2018

Construction Project

So, she says to me, “Do you think we’re up to moving things around in the room of requirement so we can rip up the carpet?”  Up to?  No, we aren’t, I mean, I’m not up to such a project, such a scale.  Nope, not me.  Uh uh.  Now we’re figuring out the how and the when.  Room of requirement is a Harry Potter name, for the room that is whatever they needed it to be.  I wanted to call it the comic book room, and that is the bulk of the stuff in that room.  But it also has a lot of her old family papers and stuff, plus a TV and the ironing board, and other odds and ends. Plus a place for a grumpy cat who still hasn’t forgiven us for this move, hence needing to rip out the carpet.    

Construction can be an unsettling process. Every time we tackle a project around here it seems like it only reveals a need to move on to the next one, and the next one and ... well, you get the point.  On the one hand we are glad things are being done, but sometimes we wonder if it is worth the struggle to get it done.  Sometimes we wonder if we wouldn’t be better off just putting up with something less than ideal so that we don’t have to deal with the change.  And the change and the changing can be difficult.  We aren’t always sure of the new thing that is coming, will it be better than what we had or not?  Personally, I like carpet.  Wood floors or wood laminate floors just don’t have the coziness that I like.  So, the change might not be what I really want.  Let alone the upset and the effort and the deprivation (Moving big long boxes of comic books and their shelves hither and yon in a space barely large enough for all the labor.  Oh, the humanity !).

OK, enough whining, for the moment anyway.   We all know that change is difficult.  We all know that building something, even something of value is a complicated, sometimes frustrating process - often enough to make us question along the way whether the effort is worth it.  But what does it have to do with our scripture and the fourth statement of the Creed?

Actually this weekend we’ll be looking at the fourth and fifth statements.  Our time is limited and so I combined two this weekend and two the final weekend.  But I thought I’d focus on the fourth statement in this space.  So, join us Sunday morning at Southport UMC at 8:30, or 10 or 11:15 for the rest of the story.  (Shameless plug)

What is that fourth statement?  I believe in “the holy catholic Church.”  Ah, the church.  That explains it.  Doesn’t it?  Since church is about change.  Church is about building, isn’t it?  Not a building, but building - the verb not the noun.  Not everyone would agree.  Especially on the change issue.  Some folks want to focus on the stability, on the constancy of church.  We want something to count on being the same, now and always.  It was good when I was kid, why should it change now?  Let’s just let things be, some would argue.  Why stir it all up?

What is the church for?  Stability or change?  Constancy or growth?  Holding fast or building up?  Here’s what our passage for the week says:

Ephesians 2:11-22  So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called "the uncircumcision" by those who are called "the circumcision"-- a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands--  12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.  15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,  16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near;  18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.  19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,  20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;  22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. 

Some of you may be feeling set up.  Sort of like I was with the innocent comment about the carpet.  You might be thinking I could have chosen a different passage, one that was not so obvious in making the point.  But, truth be told, it is hard to find a passage about the church that isn’t about building, about change.  That is what the New Testament presents.  The church is not designed to be a place to go and hide, or go and sit.  The church is not a refuge from the world, a bolt hole to go wait out the changes out there.  It is a place of transformation.  It is a place of healing, but not for healing’s sake.  You are healed so that you can continue the mission of the church.  It is a place of learning and growing, of serving and building.

Paul writes (I know there is some debate in biblical scholarship circles whether Paul actually wrote Ephesians - but I’m just skipping over that discussion for now.  Send me an email if you want to have that debate!) that the church is about demolition and construction.  Doesn’t sound very complacent to me.

The first order of business is tearing down the walls that divide us.  I know, I know, according to verse  14, Christ is the one who tore down the wall.  And that is certainly true.  That which divides us, that which makes one better than another, that which singles out for inclusion or exclusion was destroyed by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  The paradox is that though those walls were torn down, we keep putting them back up.  Yes, we can and should claim the freedom in Christ to see all people as part of the family - beloved as we are.  But we would have to be blind to not see that those dividing walls of hostility are still there.  Which means that the body of Christ must be in the demolition business.  We’ve got to stand alongside Christ to tear those walls down again.  And again.  And again.  It is a never ending task, to be honest.  It is also a sobering one when we realize that some of those walls have our fingerprints on them.  Some of those walls exist within us as we seek to identify those who we would include and those we would exclude from our own circles.  So a part of what has to change is our own propensity to erect walls of division.

If we’ve learned anything it is that deconstruction without construction is a fruitless exercise.  Something will come along to fill the hole we have created, and it just might be worse.  That is what is wrong with “just say no” programs.  Saying no is great as long as there is something to say yes to.  So, if the church is about tearing down walls, we also need to be about building something up.

But that something may be beyond our understanding.  At least for now.  Which means that we need to follow the lead of someone with vision.  In the midst of our renovation project, I was grumbling, I was uncertain, I was longing for what had been.  Now that it is done, I have said to my wife, you were right.  It is beautiful.  I couldn’t see it, but she could.  Her vision was enough.  I was just a part of the process.

Ephesians says that we are the building materials.  The vision is Christ’s.  And we learn to trust in that vision, and those who lead us in it.  Even when we can’t see it.  We are being built into the structure that is the temple, is the dwelling place of God.  We are being built into the facility that will allow anyone and everyone to see - not us - but the God who uses us as building materials.  We set our handicaps, we set our preferences aside for the larger vision of the church.

We are in process.  We’ve got to do something about the church.  Roll up your sleeves.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

Who You Gonna Call?

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Wow, a Shakespeare quote right out of the box.  Pretty impressive don’t you think?  This is a line from Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most quoted plays.  But it is also a play that has a ghost as a main character.  There is something, well, if not rotten, then just a bit strange in Shakespeare’s Denmark.  

It is interesting to me how many supernatural sorts of television programs and movies there are these days.  iZombie, and Supernatural, and Walking Dead, and on and on.  And I’ve been a Science Fiction and Fantasy reader from my childhood, so I love this fictionalized exploration into the unknown.  But what about our real world heaven and earth?  Are there more things than we have dreamt about?  Depends on how well you dream, I suppose.  

Well, before I get too far off the track, let me declare the subject for this week’s Bible study and sermon.  We are on the third statement of the Apostles’ Creed in our Credo series.  “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”  That’s our content, that is the object of our study.  We are going to dissect the Holy Spirit.  Umm.  We are going to try and pin down... We are going to try to define ... OK, we are going to amble around the subject of the Holy Spirit for a while and see what comes out.

The first thing that we note from the creed is how bald the statement is.  We don’t have any subordinate clauses to flesh out this word about the Spirit.  We don’t have any external references that will locate us in time or space.  We don’t have any descriptive adjectives that will give us handles on the Spirit.  It is like grasping the wind, like catching our breath.  Like capturing a ghost.

Every now and then you see an older version of the creed and notice that it talks about the Holy Ghost.  When I was younger, I thought that the Holy Ghost must be like Casper, the Friendly Ghost.  But holier.  Actually, I had no idea what it might be like.  But certainly not the scary kind of ghost.  Something good.  Something useful.  Something... that was just a little bit more than nothing.

Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Spirit.  We are a bit skeptical of those who go overboard on the whole subject.  They strike us as odd, as unnatural.  And we don’t want anything to do with that sort of thing.  We don’t want to lose  control like that.

This might be a big part of the issue with the Spirit, who’s in control?  Jesus tells us the Spirit is like the wind, you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.  It is just there.  Or not there.  Out of our control.  Which makes it even harder to grasp.  And makes us less likely to seek the Spirit when we need it.  Or Him.  Or Her.  Or whatever.

So, what is it that Spirit is supposed to do for us?  If we believe in the Spirit, then we ought to understand at least a little, don’t you think?  Well, this is what Jesus told us the Spirit was all about during what has come to be called the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John.  Take a look.

John 14:15-27  "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.  18 "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."  22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, "Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?"  23 Jesus answered him, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.  25 "I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 

There is a lot that we don’t know about the Spirit, no question about that.  But if we listen carefully to what Jesus tells us here there is a lot that we do know.  Or can believe in anyway.  

First of all, we can know, or believe that access to or awareness of the Spirit is a function of faith.  It involves a relationship with Jesus Christ.  “The world,” John quotes, “cannot receive” the Spirit.  The world doesn’t know the Spirit.  Not because they aren’t worthy, but simply because they don’t have this relationship of love that opens the door to the experience of the Spirit.  Oh, it is possible to have an experience of God without a relationship with Jesus the Christ.  But to know and be known by the Spirit takes something deeper, an act of will, an offering of self to the Lordship of Christ.  “I will not leave you orphaned” says Jesus.  I will not leave you Fatherless, out of touch with the Father.  There is a connection, a link to the Father that once came from the person of Jesus and now comes through the Spirit.  

The function of the Spirit, according to Jesus in verse 26  is to teach and to remind.  This Advocate (which is the Greek word “paraklete” and is sometimes translated Helper, or Comforter, or Counselor) is that abiding presence which connects to our sense of who we are.  We are reminded of what we already know.  We are reminded of the teachings that we learned as children but may have forgotten.  Or chose to set aside for a time.  It is the Spirit that comes and whispers in our ears to remind us that we are better than we sometimes behave.   It is the Spirit that comes to remind us even in the darkest of nights that we are not alone.  It is the Spirit that reminds us that we are loved - especially in those moments when we feel most unlovable.

It is not just what we already know that is recalled by the prompting of the Spirit.  We are pushed further, we are asked to climb higher.  The Spirit also teaches, calling us to new levels of understanding and experience.  The Spirit works with our spirits to claim deeper truths and new applications, we are stretched beyond our childhood faith as we grow and learn and live into the realm of the Spirit.  We have much to learn under the tutelage of the Spirit.

Which brings us back to the question implied in the title of this essay.  I know the reference is from a film that is about ridding us of the supernatural.  But here I guess I claim it for the opposite.  When we wonder who we are or whose we are, who you gonna call?  When we need a reminder of what we know to be true, who you gonna call?  When we need a boost, to learn more, to be more, who you gonna call.

I believe in the Holy Spirit


Saturday, January 13, 2018

That Jesus Thing

Bishop William Willimon tells of meeting with a young couple while he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University.  They came to talk about marriage.  They were in love and therefore sure that any barriers could be overcome.  But their parents weren’t so sure.  See, he was a devout practicing Jew, she was a Christian.  True to her culture the young woman spoke, with some exasperation, “but surely there isn’t any real difference in what we believe.  Is there?  Except for that Jesus thing.”

Ah yes, that Jesus thing.  In one sense it is such a small thing.  Such a one off thing.  A minor point in a complex theology.  A single figure in a rich history full of amazing people.  What is one person more or less in that line?  

Of course, we could argue that this one person was a pretty special person.  Wise beyond description, brave in amazing ways, uniquely self-sacrificing, and loving in ways we would dream of being.  But a person, exemplary, but a person.

And we would be right.  Yet wrong at the same time.  This is why the Jesus thing is so difficult to comprehend.  There is always a “yes, but” when it comes to Jesus.  Or maybe it is a “yes, and.”  Words fail us in the end.   Words capture pieces and pictures, but not the whole of that Jesus thing.  Even the creeds wrestle with a description of Jesus.  The longest part of the ancient creeds is devoted to Jesus.  Not simply because they had a lot to say about him, but because there was always more.  

The Apostles’ Creed says : And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

Whew.  You have to draw a breath after the Jesus thing.  It is both a statement of who He is, but of who He is in relationship to God and us.  As if He exists for Himself and yet chooses to be defined in community with God and with humanity.  “His only Son” and “our Lord.”  And then what God did with Him and what we did with Him, it’s all there, in this complex and yet terse statement, that overwhelms us in its simplicity and depth.

But if you think this is something, check out what the Nicene Creed does:  We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.  Through him all things were made.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.  For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. 

They wanted to try and define him, they wanted to comprehend him, they wanted to nail him down.  But they should have learned from the first attempt to nail him down.  This Jesus thing defies definition.  This Jesus thing is beyond our comprehension.  He defies our attempts to categorize him.  Simply because once we have him figured out, then we wouldn’t need him any more.  This Jesus thing would become one more thing that we have conquered, one more thing that we have figured out and then left to the side as we move on to other puzzles to solve or other mountains to climb.

So, what is left?  We need some handles on the Jesus thing, don’t we?  We need some way of grasping, of clinging, even if we don’t have full comprehension.  Without a place to grab onto, then Jesus becomes another of those incomprehensible realities like black holes and quantum physics that wrinkle our brows but don’t really impact our lives.

What’s left is poetry.  At least that is John’s response.  When explanation fails, go for poetry.  Or for music.  Our text for this week is a song of praise to the nature of Christ.  It is a theological doxology.  Well, what would you call it?

John 1:1-18  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  2He was in the beginning with God.  3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being  4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,  13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.  15 (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'")  16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known. 

We could, of course, analyze these words to wring out every thought.  That would be a way of approaching understanding.  And there are a few things I want us to notice together.  But in the end it is the power of the words that speak most profoundly.  Or if not power, then beauty.  There is something here in this Jesus thing that catches our breath when we gaze at it.  There is something that makes our hearts pound and tears come to our eyes.  It may be unexplainable, but it speaks clearly to the deepest longings of our soul.

In this hymn that John has written we discover that it is about us as much as it is about Jesus.  Yes, it adds a layer of eternity to the man from Nazareth.  And it wrestles with that thorny doctrine called Trinity.  (Is He Son or is He God, separate or the same - or somehow both?) 

But when the song begins to include us, we move to the edge of our seats.  When John sings of the life that is the light of all people, we hold our breath because we have both seen and touched it and have wept for the lack of it.  We lean forward toward that light, like a plant seeking sustenance from the sun.  We have beheld that glory.  And we have known him not.  We are both - acceptors and deniers - often at the same time.  Too good to be true, we find ourselves saying.  Too good not to be true, we hope.

We have tasted, we have received grace upon grace, and sometimes it is enough.  Other times we wrestle with the world, with our doubts, with our sin.  We do lose our grip from time to time.  And we wonder what it is all about.  We wonder if it is worth the struggle, the misunderstanding.  Don’t we all believe the same thing in the end?  Wouldn’t the world be better if we just stopped worrying about what it is that we believe?  Couldn’t we give in a little bit on that Jesus thing?  

That Jesus thing, according to John, is nothing less than life itself.  Life in all its fullness.  Life in all its depth and meaning.  Life as we long to live it.  We can’t be who we are, or who we long to be without  that Jesus thing.  


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Search Me

I don’t even know if we say that any more.  “Search me!”  Shows you how far out of coolness I am these days.  Ah, well.  But, I remember saying it all the time.  Search me.  It has probably been replaced by the ubiquitous “whatever” by now.  Search me.

It was a “I don’t know” kind of thing.  It was an admission of ignorance, and maybe of complacency.  Search me.  It refers to what we don’t know.  We are starting as Epiphany study on the Apostles’ Creed this weekend.  For the next six weeks we will be examining the light that this statement of faith brings to us here in the 21st Century.  I know, it seems like a long time.  But others divide the Creed into twelve statements - so it could have been worse!  

I’m just going with six articles of faith.  And this week we start with the beginning of the Creed.  I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.  So, we are looking at God.  Better yet we are studying God, we are analyzing God, we are, in short, doing theology.  Cool.  What do you know about God?  What do you think about God?  What do you believe about God?  Search me.

One of the problems the church has these days, I think, is that we are no longer sure what we believe.  We want to move beyond a childish faith, and we want to incorporate all that human beings have learned about how the world works - and how we work - and yet we keep being told that what we’ve learned about the world can’t fit into what we believe about God.  They don’t match, the bump up against each other and something has got to go.  Unfortunately, for most of us, what has gone is diligent theological thought.  Which isn’t the same as saying we’ve lost our faith.  We just don’t think about it all that much any more.  We can’t make it work, so we don’t bother.  What do you believe about God? Search me.  That’s what many have come to these days.  It is just easier.  Search me.

Of course, search me is also used in another way.  The way that Psalm 139 uses it.  And maybe it is that searching, or the acknowledgment of God’s searching that might help us reclaim our faith as a reasonable part of our existence.  Faith can be reasonable?  Does that make sense?  Search me.

No, wait.  I didn’t mean that.  Of course it can.  And our examination of the Creed just might help us make it so.  Luke Timothy Johnson, biblical scholar, presents in his book called simply The Creed that faith as an existential response of the whole person characterized by trust, obedience and loyalty (faith  is what we do not simply what we think), but that he “has come to appreciate how critical the role of belief is in structuring that response.”  In other words, if faith is about doing, our doing has to be driven by our believing.  And the church is the “gathering of those committed by faith to a radical response to God.”  But that response, Johnson argues, grows out of a communal sense of identity that is hard to grow without something like a creed.  

The Creed, then is that statement of belief that defines us as a community of faith.  It identifies us for ourselves and for the world at large.  We are the people who believe ...  And because we believe we live, we serve, we act, we love.  

The guiding scripture for this first statement from the Creed is Psalm 139.  The problem with starting with the doctrine of God is that it is, in the end, too large a subject to grasp in its entirety.  Every statement, every image, every description about God is only a part of the whole.  And the whole is beyond our reach.  Which is exactly what the Psalmist says.  Take a look:

Psalm 139:1-18  O LORD, you have searched me and known me.  2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.  3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.  4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.  5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.  6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.  7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?  8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,  10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.  11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,"  12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.  13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb.  14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.  15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.  17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!  18 I try to count them-- they are more than the sand; I come to the end-- I am still with you. 

The Psalm ends with an admission that knowing all of God is beyond us.  But it begins with the affirmation that being known by God is the nature of the relationship.  In fact the essence of the Psalm is the declaration that the only knowledge of God accessible is in relationship.  

The Creed reminds us that we call God Father.  This is not to reduce God to a human role, but to lift humans by acknowledging that the parenting role is a part of the divine.  So, whether we are father or mother, whether we care for birth children or adopted children or children baptized into the family of God, we reflect an aspect of God.  We believe that God cares and so we do too.

The Creed also reminds us that God is creator, and that all of creation has a single point of origin.  However we understand that creation to have taken place, we worship God as creator of all there is.  We can argue methodology, and we do, but there need be no conflict with the article of faith that claims God as creator.

The Creed echoes the Psalm with a single word - Almighty.  What does that mean?  Search me.  No, wait.  It means that there is more to God than I can grasp with my understanding.  It means that I trust in the power of God even when I can’t sense it.  It means I believe in the power of God even when it seems God has lost a grip on the world God created.  It means I will spend my days seeking evidence of that power and that presence with confidence and with hope.  

O Lord, you have searched me, and known me.  Let me in my own small way return the favor