9/26/2022

Our Guiding Presence

 Inspired by Acts 2:1-18; Matthew 1:20-23, 28:19-20

 3rd of three-week series on Apostles' Creed

One of the things that I have found interesting about this series on the Apostles’ Creed, and I didn’t want this to get lost on you, is how much it has pushed us to learn how to talk about God in short, concise ways. Thanks to today’s technology, our society has an extremely short attention span. If you can’t explain something quickly and precisely in under a couple minutes, and even that might be stretching it, you will have lost your audience; whether your audience is someone you meet at the grocery store, or sit next to at the local brewery, or at the gym, work, school, wherever. And if you’re lucky enough to have someone actually ask you about your religious beliefs, one, you better be able to answer that briefly, and two, you’ll want to say it with some confidence. Otherwise, you can forget any follow-up questions, for sure! 

So, two weeks ago we covered the first of three sections of the Creed, and we talked about God as being a creative caregiver. Last week, we covered the second section, and we talked about Jesus as the good son. And this third and final section of the creed is all about the Holy Spirit, and goes like this, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Now, like the last two weeks, we could have taken any one of those clauses and dove deep into its meaning. But this didn’t feel like the time to do that. The question that has kept returning each of these three weeks is, “What are we proclaiming in this section of the creed, as a whole?” 

Laura Ann mentioned to me how odd it felt to not only read that text from Acts on a day other than the Day of Pentecost, but also to select from so many wonderful Pentecost-themed hymns, and I couldn’t agree more! I didn’t want this to be a standard Pentecost sermon, though there may be no escaping that this time. So, I asked myself, if I had to sum up the Holy Spirit, this last part of the Apostles’ Creed, in a short phrase, what would it be? These three weeks have really been like training sessions on how to give an elevator pitch to anyone asking you about your faith! No really, think about it. Week one, God the creative caregiver. God is not only the almighty creator but is creating, continually, all around us and within us, as God takes the time to intimately care for us, deeply and personally. 

Week two, Jesus the good son. Our Jesus inherited the very best of who God, Mary, and Joseph is and was, and has passed it onto us in the form of grace, love, and peace. I don’t know about you but I’d be more likely to ask a follow-up question to either of those, than to a person telling me to repent or go to hell! Amen? And this is what came to my mind for today regarding the Holy Spirit, our Guiding Presence. Our Guiding Presence. So let’s break that down a bit. As I’ve mentioned before, we have a habit of making our faith into this individualistic relationship between “God and I.” Some of that comes from our human nature, and some of that comes from our society, that good ol’ fashioned “American” rugged independence. However, that was never how our faith was intended to be lived out. 

One thing that I appreciate most from our ancient Jewish siblings, is that they had an all-or-nothing attitude towards their faith. My Hebrew professor used to say that for them, we’re all in this together. We’re either all gonna sink or all gonna swim, but either way, we’re gonna do it together. We’re either all gonna rise, or all gonna fall. I absolutely love that! And that’s why I included the word “our” in the phrase, “our guiding presence.” The Holy Spirit surely plays a part in our individual lives, but first and foremost, the work of the Holy Spirit is communal in nature. Think about our reading from Acts that I read to you today. Who did the Holy Spirit descend upon that day? One person? No. Multiple people in different times and places? No. She descended upon the community, upon all gathered there that day. She is our guiding presence, before she is my guiding presence. 

But guiding who, and guiding where? Well, the traditional answer to the who question is that she guides the church. But my theology is anything but traditional, and that was just the church’s ego talking any. That’s not how God works in scripture. The Holy Spirit works with and through anyone she wants to, regardless of what they may believe or don’t believe. Who are we to say where she will go and not go anyway! I believe the Holy Spirit is a guide for the world, for anyone who is willing to be guided by her. And that brings me to the other half of that question, where, guiding us where? That gets a little more nuanced. The quick and easy answer is, she guides us in the ways of Christ for the sake of the world. But at the same time, she doesn’t force us down any particular path. It’s a collaborative relationship between us and the Holy Spirit. 

A co-op if you will. Let me give you a real-world example. Let’s say the church is a sailing ship. A sailing ship relies on the wind to move it. Like our next hymn, let’s say the wind is the Holy Spirit. But that’s not all that moves the ship, is it! Someone also has to steer it, by manipulating the rudder. That’s where we come in. We harness the power of the Holy Spirit to take us where we feel God calling us to go. Now, this is where it gets complicated, because some people want to set a course that leads them to tell people that they need to repent or go to hell. And others, want to set a course that leads them to tell people that they are loved, and not alone. Period. No questions asked. No strings attached. I was walking out of the church the other day and it was a windy day, and as I’m walking out I notice our banner out front being pushed by the wind. 

From where I was standing, it looked an awful lot like a sail on a ship. I hope you can see that clearly enough in this picture that I took of it. My next thought was, well there’s my sermon for this Sunday! And it was not lost on me that this was not just any church banner blowing in the wind that day. But it’s a banner that represents our allyship with the LGBTQ+ community. And more than that, it’s a banner that represents the course we have set, a course that has led us to tell people that they are loved, and not alone. Period. No questions asked. No strings attached. Now, let’s move to that last word, “presence”, “our guiding presence.” My favorite part of the Gospel of Matthew is the literary bookends that Matthew created. 

At the beginning of the Gospel he reminds us of the prophet Isaiah’s words that a child will be born and will be called Emmanuel, which means “God – with - us.” They, of course, name him Jesus, and nothing more is said about this name Emmanuel, not directly anyway. Then, at the very end of the book, Jesus tells them to go and baptize and teach everyone what he had taught them, and his final words are, “And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” “Emmanuel, God with us”—"I am with you.” 

These beautiful bookends proclaim the truth of Christ’s continued presence in our lives through the power and wind and guidance of the Holy Spirit, who is always with us, never leaving our side, and ready to guide us, together as a community, sometimes with a gentle breeze, and sometimes with a storm if we’re being bad sailors and need a course correction. After all, she is God, and we are not. Thanks be to the creative caregiver, the good son, our guiding presence. Amen.

9/19/2022

The Good Son

 Inspired by 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 1:1, 14, 18

 2nd of 3-week series on the Apostles' Creed

According to scholars, the image on the left side of the screen is 1800 years old. It was discovered in 1857 in an ancient Roman imperial palace that was then used as a boarding school for imperial page boys before it was closed and buried for centuries until its discovery. It’s actually graffiti carved on a stone wall. It’s difficult to make out so a tracing of it is on the right. Ok, so what is it and why am I showing this to you? Let’s start with the inscription. It’s in Greek and it says, "Alexamenos worships his god." Alexamenos being the gentleman on the left of the graffiti. So that leaves the question, who is the God of Alexamenos? The figure that he is looking up to has been crucified but instead of it having a human head, it has the head of a donkey. 

It is believed by many that this is a representation of Jesus being crucified, as a way to mock both Jesus and anyone who worshiped Jesus, including poor old Alexamenos here. We have no idea who Alexamenos was, other than he apparently counted himself among those who were calling themselves Christianos, which simply means follower of Christ, where we obviously get Christian from. So that’s what this is, now why am I showing this to you? Other than being a history nerd who loves to geek out on this kind of stuff and who assumes everyone else does too, in our reading for today from First Corinthians, Paul is writing to the church in Corinth, and they were really struggling. 

They were divided. They were quarreling. They were having identity issues—are we a Jewish community, are we a Jewish branch, are we something altogether new? They were having loyalty issues—do we follow Paul, do we follow Peter, do we follow Jesus? They were a mess! You think we have issues! On top of that, apparently, they were feeling a lot of outside pressure, from all directions, from their Jewish siblings, their Greek siblings, the Roman government, not to mention the pressure of their own internal doubts as they questioned if this path they have taken was not only worth it but was legitimate. We have lost most of this perspective over the last 2000 years but at the time, to outsiders, of every kind, Christianity was, and forgive my language, was the stupidest belief they had ever heard of! 

I had some of you pretty scared there for a sec, didn’t I! I saw some hands go up getting ready to clutch your pearls, don’t try to hide it! I’m teasing you! Anyway, it’s a perspective that I think we need to bring back to our faith. Meaning, the stupidity of our faith, or as Paul called it, the foolishness of our faith, is not something to be ashamed of as those first Christians in Corinth were, but something that we should be leaning into, highlighting even! Maybe that should be on our welcome statement, right in between “we welcome…all abilities” and “all ages”, we should add “all fools.” What do you think? No? I think if I ever started a new church I would call it, “The Church of Fools.” It would at least get people’s attention! Seriously though, it’s this foolishness of our faith that really shines through in the second article of the Apostles’ Creed. 

Which is why we are here today, right? We’ll recite the whole thing in a bit but let me just read that second article for us now. “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s chosen one, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; and descended to the dead. On the third day Christ rose again; ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God, and will come to judge the living and the dead.” Last week we covered the first article, which was just one line about God the almighty creator, or as I ended up saying, “the creative caregiver.” I also went over some introductory creed info, as well as my own misgivings with creeds, so if you missed that you can find it online. The second article is all about Jesus, which sounds like it should be an easy topic, right? 

However, it was a little trickier than I thought. Mainly because I didn’t want this to sound like a Christmas sermon, or a Holy Week or Easter sermon for that matter. But if you take this creed at face value, it goes from “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of Mary” to died, buried, and rose, with nothing in between! Born…dead and risen. Just like that! But of course, you and I know, there was so much more in between. So, I wondered what I could say about Jesus that wasn’t just about the baby Jesus, or about his suffering, death, and rising. And for some help with that, I turned to the other reading that was assigned for today and that was the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Don’t worry, I won’t read the whole thing to you. This is the gospel that begins with, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” 

The author goes on to say that this, “Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” But as I mentioned last week, we don’t use the term “father” here when we recite the creed, and in that same spirit, we don’t use the term “son” either. There are lots of creative ways that churches and Bible translators have begun using. One version translates that last line this way, “we saw the Word’s glory—the favor and position a parent gives an only child—filled with grace, filled with truth.” Another one that’s often used to refer to Jesus is “heir.” Not air like what we breathe, but h e i r, as in the inheritor. There’s also savior, messiah, anointed one, we use chosen one here. But this is what really got my wheels turning. 

When we use terms other than "son" to refer to Jesus, it’s not because son is wrong, and it’s certainly not an effort to take something away from Jesus, as if we could. Quite the opposite in fact! It’s an effort to get at the fullness of who Jesus is, to get at the heart of what we are proclaiming about Jesus in the creed. Because when churches proclaim Jesus as "son", it’s not about his gender. It’s not his male anatomy that we are proclaiming, right? I hope not. If so, we need to have a whole other conversation! But this got me wondering, what are we proclaiming in this second article? More specifically, what does it mean to be the Father’s son? Or more generally, what does it mean to be a son? Or a daughter for that matter. 

What are we saying when we proclaim Jesus as God’s child, or heir, or anointed one, or chosen one, or whatever title you want to use? I’d love to hear how you’d answer that question, like on Wednesday night at our online Bible discussion? But this is where my mind went. We really cannot fathom what it must be like to be the almighty, the great parent, nor can we fathom being the child, the chosen one. All we can do is explore our faith through things we know. And for me, I know at least what it’s like to be a parent, and a child. In a healthy relationship between parent and child, I know firsthand that my hope is that my offspring will take what is best from me and make it even better. Likewise, I also hope that those things that I am not so proud of about myself, will not pass on, and will die with me. 

That is the hope anyway. And from a child’s perspective, especially an adult one like myself, that hope should be reciprocated. The child should actively want and pursue carrying on the best of what makes their parent who they are. On a personal note, this has really come into focus for me as I continue to process my mother’s death last year, and walk with my dad through however many final years he has. The topic of inheritance comes to my mind often, and I don’t mean the financial kind, but rather all the other things that our parents pass on to us, the intangible things, the things of the heart and soul. That section that I read from the Gospel of John ends with this line, ‘No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known.” 

Whether we like to admit it or not, people often get to know our parents through us, without ever meeting them. And that’s what John is saying here, and that’s what we proclaim in the second article of the Apostles’ Creed. To paraphrase one of my seminary professors, Jesus is the closest thing, the truest likeness, that we will ever get of God. Jesus inherited, and has passed on to us, the very best of who God is. And I have a feeling God whispered into Jesus’ ear just before he came down to us, “And while you’re at it, could you correct some of the crazy ideas that they have about me down there? They got me saying all kinds of things that I never said, and now they’re starting to write this stuff down!” Well, I don’t know how well Jesus did with that! But what I do know is this. 

The Jesus I know, the one as presented in our holy scriptures, is overflowing in grace, truth, love, forgiveness, acceptance, peace, inclusivity, and a heart of sacrifice like the world has never seen. And I have to believe that he was radiating the very best of who God is, and who his mother was, as well as Joseph. I have to believe that he was being a good son, the kind of child that anyone could ever ask for, after having the kind of parent in God, and Mary, and Joseph, that anyone could wish for. That is who we proclaim in the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, as foolish as it may sound to a world that is too often selfish, deceptive, condemning, merciless, vindictive, chaotic, and exclusive. The exact opposite of our dear Jesus, the good son. Thanks be to God. Amen.

9/11/2022

The Creative Caregiver

 Inspired by Genesis 1:1-5 & Matthew 6:28-30

 1st of 3-week sermon series on the Apostles' Creed

This week we begin a short three-week series on the Apostles’ Creed. Followed by a series on the sacraments, and then a series on Stewardship. Those sound fun, don’t they! Well, they do to me! I haven’t gotten a chance yet to do a series that’s more topical in nature. Most of the others have been centered on a particular book of the Bible. Having said that though, all of these series will be taking us back to the Bible, back to the origins of all those topics as found in the Bible. Of these three series, I think this one will be the most challenging for me. Not because it’s a difficult topic, but because I have mixed feelings about creeds. Some of you may not know this but not all churches use the Apostles’ Creed, or our other one, the Nicene Creed. 

Some churches use entirely different creeds. Some churches use none. Some churches, like my last congregation, write their own creeds! To varying degrees of success but we don’t need to go there. These aren’t my issue though. My issue with creeds, come from the way they have been used in the past, and continue to be used today. Rather than being the useful teaching aids that they could have been, they have usually been used as a line in the sand and therefore a tall border wall keeping many people out. Instead of helping people explore the basics of our faith, they were used as a litmus test to keep people out of churches who didn’t believe exactly like them. Churches have a bad habit of not wanting people who are gonna question their beliefs. Imagine that! And the creeds began being recited in the same spirit that we recite the Pledge of Allegiance. 

Today, many churches still recite a creed every Sunday. Bethlehem did here too, that is until they met me. I use it in worship, begrudgingly, during seasons that it makes sense to use them: the Apostles’ Creed during Lent as it is the creed most associated with baptism, and the Nicene Creed during the season of Easter, but not on Easter Sunday! And here’s why, Easter Sunday is when we have more visitors than any other Sunday. And where do visitors come from? Everywhere! From every culture, from every generation, from every status, from every walk of life, and, from every walk of faith, sometimes of no faith! Which is why we only use a creed for two seasons a year. Because it’s about reading the room, only the room for us is the entire world. 

Today there are more unchurched people than the church has ever seen before. The church decline that so many churches are really feeling today, started back in the 60’s. So now we have multiple generations of people that just don’t have much, if any, experience in church, let alone know much about our faith. I mean, people don’t even want their weddings and funerals in church much anymore! However, for many people, maybe even some of you, there comes a point in their life when something sparks their interest, their curiosity. Sometimes it’s a relative that sparks that interest, sometimes it’s a friend, a birth of a child, sometimes it’s a life tragedy of some kind. And so they show up on our doorstep, for Sunday worship, and are expected to begin reciting “I believe in God the almighty…etc.” 

If that happened to me, I’d be thinking, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold up a sec! I just got here! And you want me to agree to what?” Some might think, “Well, no one said they had to recite it with us!” And to them I’d say, but how do think that makes a visitor feel? How welcoming is that? That would be like me having one of my atheist friends over for dinner and making her sit through a prayer! I’m not doing that to them! I bet many of you wouldn’t either! Because one, you know hospitality better than most. And two, you also know how not to be a jerk to people! When we welcome people, we welcome all of them, everything that makes them who they are, and who are they are not. And that means welcoming their questions, their inquisitiveness, their doubts, their skepticism, their level of knowledge of things we have taken for granted, their arguments and debates! 

In the grand scheme of things, over the past two thousand years, this is not something that the church has had to adjust to in a long time. Not since the first century of our existence. But if the church has any future in the world, it’s gonna have to start learning a whole new level of hospitality. We’re now in the bonus rounds of hospitality! This is like a surprise quiz in hospitality class at the end of the semester! No longer are all our new members gonna come in nice, neat little packages with a bow put on by their previous congregation. No, that’s too easy! Some are going to expect us to put our money where our mouth is and walk with them, no matter how uncomfortable their path may be; explore faith with them; give them a safe place to wrestle their doubts; and give them all the time they need, and then some. 

But slapping them with a creed on day one, is not the way to do that. And let’s be honest here, there’s lots of stuff in our creeds that many of us have questioned, and continue to wrestle with. So, let’s not pretend we’ve got our act together here either! But our faith is not about knowing a bunch of facts, it’s about the journey, with God, with each other, and with the world. And speaking of the world, the first section of the Apostles’ Creed is just one line, but it’s a powerful one! “I believe in God, the almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” It seems pretty straightforward, but I assure you, volumes have been written about this one line! We could talk about what it means to believe in something or someone. We could talk about what it means to be almighty. 

We could talk about what it means to create, or what and where heaven and earth are. But I think we will talk about something that we don’t recite here at Bethlehem, the word Father. Now, we don’t use that title here often because not only is it not the way many people see God, but for some it’s too painful, like those who have had no positive males in their life, maybe only abusive ones at that. So to lump God in with all those, is just too big a hurdle for many, and I don’t blame them. So, we try to use neutral language and titles for God here, but I’ll be the first to admit, we lose something when we drop the parental language. But, “I believe in God, the parent almighty” just sounds stupid. So, I was thinking, if I were writing this 1500 years ago, how would I describe God? 

Well, hopefully, I would have the sense to ask Jesus. No, I don’t mean in prayer. I mean, what did Jesus have to say about God the almighty creator? How did Jesus describe God? In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said this, “Look at how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith?” Y’all think I’m rough on you! At least I’ve never called you people of weak faith! Seriously though, Jesus here is taking a look at the God of creation and seeing a God that cares for that creation. 

Cares deeply, and personally. This is not a God who set the world in motion and then stepped away. This is not a God who watches from afar when God gets bored. Jesus saw a God so intimately woven into our lives that God even cares about our basic needs. And this is the God that we proclaim in the first line of the Apostle’s Creed. So, to answer my own question, if I wrote this first line centuries ago, I think I’d write it something like this, “I believe in God the almighty, the creative caregiver of heaven and earth.” I like creative caregiver because, one, it’s not locked in the past, as if God’s act of creation isn’t still going on. And two, because caregiver gives it that parental touch and so much more. I also think of the way that an adult child becomes the caregiver of their parent, in the greatest role reversal of life. 

I think of the single parent trying to make ends meet while being the caregiver their children need. I think of the hospice worker who somehow treats their patients as if they were one of their own. I think of the schoolteacher who sacrifices her own income for children who aren’t even hers. I think of the nurses who saw us through the pandemic, often being the only one to sit with the dying as COVID overtook someone else’s loved one. Is God a father? Sure. Is God a mother? Sure. But God is so much more than either of those titles. That is the God that Jesus knew. And that is the God that we proclaim in that one little line from the Apostles’ Creed. Thanks be to God the almighty, the creative caregiver of heaven and earth. Amen.

9/08/2022

Romancing the Bible

 Inspired by Song of Songs

As some of you may already know, I don’t listen to much Christian music in my personal life. I did go through a phase in my twenties that started with Christian pop and ended with Christian metal, but that phase finally went by the wayside.  One of the things that I didn’t like about contemporary Christian music, which me and my seminary buds used to always make fun of, was that many of the songs were a bit too sappy for me, and by that I mean that a lot of them sounded like romantic love songs to God, or as we would call them in seminary, “Me and my boyfriend Jesus songs.” I mean, just listen to some of these lyrics. This is one from a song by Casting Crowns, “Your fragrance is intoxicating in our secret place. Your love is extravagant.” Come on. 

I don’t know about you but I have never commented on how God smells while in prayer! However, I tell my wife all the time how good she smells. Here’s another one, this one from Gateway Worship “I wanna…lay back against you and breath, feel your heart beat. This love is so deep, it's more than I can stand. I melt…” Again, I just don’t talk to God that way! Am I alone? I have talked to my wife like this before though. Oh man, you should see some of the love letters we’d write to each other back in the day. Talk about sappy! They’d probably make us gag today! Anyway, this caused a disconnect between me and a lot of contemporary Christian music, and I eventually just gave up on it. Besides, I have always found more of God or spirituality or religious themes in secular music than I have in contemporary Christian music anyway. 

However, I don’t share this just so I can dump on contemporary Christian music like my seminary buds and I used to do, but rather, to come to its defense. Never thought I’d say that! Because something else I learned in seminary, as I took a deeper dive into scripture than I ever had before, was that the Bible was overflowing with romantic love references! And here’s the kicker, at least half of those references were not between humans, but between God and humans, even going so far as to use the image of marriage to describe our relationship with God. So, as it turns out, all those sappy contemporary Christian songs that we used to make fun of, were quite biblical the whole time! Who knew! I still don’t listen to contemporary Christian music, but I at least can appreciate it now, and even use it in worship. Some of it. 

And speaking of worship, our Jewish siblings have the tradition of reading or singing very specific Bible books on major holidays, in their entirety! Esther is read on the festival of Purim, commemorating the saving of the Jewish people from a Persian king; Ruth is read on their festival of Pentecost, a harvest festival commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai; Ecclesiastes, or as they call it, Qoheleth, is read on the Feast of Tabernacles, commemorating their reliance on God during their nomadic days before they took the promised land; Lamentations is read on the Ninth of Av, when they remember various disasters like the destruction of their temples; and last but not least, can anyone guess what holiday Song of Songs is read on? Passover! And I find that fascinating and weird and profound all at the same time! 

Why? Because Song of Songs is a love song! And not just any love song but a romantic, passionate, erotic, love song! Not the kind of song that we usually think of during a major religious holiday! But that is exactly what the ancient rabbis did when they put their Bible together. I mean, listen to some of these lyrics! “An enclosed garden is my lover; an enclosed pool, a sealed spring. Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates with all kinds of luscious fruit, henna, and spices:…myrrh, and aloes, with the very choicest perfumes!...Let my love come to my garden; to eat its luscious fruit!” Here’s another one, “'I have taken off my tunic—why should I put it on again? I have bathed my feet—why should I get them dirty?' My love put a hand in through the latch hole, and my body ached for my love. I rose; I went to open for my love, and my hands dripped myrrh, my fingers, liquid myrrh, over the handles of the lock.” 

Whew! Is it getting hot in here? Did someone turn the AC down again? Here’s one more, “You are so beautiful, so lovely—my love, my delight! Your stately form resembles a date palm, and your breasts are like clustered fruit. I say, ‘I will climb that palm tree; I will hold its fruit!’ May your breasts be now like grape clusters…I belong to my lover, and my lover’s longing is only for me.” Ok, so I’m sure you get my surprise that this is read, in its entirety, on Passover. Not to mention, how it got into the Bible at all! Even more puzzling is that this is one of only two books in the entire Bible that never mentions God, not once. Anyone know what the other book is? Esther! Didn’t know there’d be a quiz today did you? Also, modern scholars believe that this was a secular song first, that was later coopted by the ancient Jewish community. 

So, what did they see in this book, that not only allowed them to include it into their holy scripture, but read it at every Passover? Well, like myself and many others, they had no problem hearing God or religious themes in secular music. And, like I mentioned before, the Bible is full of romantic love references to describe our relationship with God. That got me thinking about romantic love, and dissecting it a bit. What are the building blocks of romantic love, and how did they apply them to us and God? It’s not really something that is part of our own modern faith journeys, but now I’m wondering if we might be missing something! By not including this kind of love in how we think about the love between us and God, are we cheating ourselves out of an ancient but profound approach to our faith? 

Well, let’s see. I’d love to hear what you would add to this list but these are some of what I came up with as elements that make up romantic love. Fidelity. Fidelity is loyalty of the most intimate kind. Now, fidelity between humans often has a sexual connotation but it doesn’t have to. As we apply it to God’s love, we are reminded of how all-consuming God’s love is, how deeply it penetrates the core of our very souls, to the point that the two, us and God, are made one. And anything that gets in the way of that oneness, that tries to get in between, threatens that fidelity. 

Here’s another element of romantic love, respect, mutual respect. The kind of respect that acknowledges the autonomy and free will of the other. The kind of respect that protects one from being forced upon by the other, or made to become someone who they are not. As much as God wants to have a close relationship with everyone, God will not force Godself upon anyone. Likewise, we also should not box God into our own image, but should allow God to be who God is, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us sometimes. Just ask the prophet Jonah about that! 

I’m gonna put the next two on my list together, dire and passionate. A dire passion. Not only should there be passion between two lovers but there should also be an urgency to it, as if time is running out, or as if there may be a threat around the next corner. Though we only have 26 years under our belt, one thing we have noticed in our own marriage is that time is running out, meaning it has gone by faster than could have ever imagined. And, that there often is a threat just around the corner, a threat to our love. And it’s this dire passion that keeps us on the alert, as well as reminds us to not take time for granted. 

I’m gonna pair these next ones as well. Two more elements of romantic love are irrationality and blindness. Romantic love can cause you to do some of the dumbest things you’ll ever do in your life, as well as allow you to overlook so many faults in each other. Now that last one is easy to apply to God as God overlooks all of our faults! But irrationality, that might take a little imagination, but I think God acts irrational all the time in God’s continuing effort to love us. As we’ve heard in other Bible books, God’s ways are often seen as foolish, irrational even; but that’s just because of how much God loves us. 

And lastly, romantic love should be pleasureful. You know, when I was growing up, somewhere along the way I came to the conclusion that sexual pleasure was bad, dirty, ungodly, unholy, defiling, and in my mind, that meant it was evil. It was a very unhealthy perspective on sexual pleasure. And in my conversations over the years with many other people, I’ve learned that I was not alone. That many other people’s childhood caused them to come to that same conclusion. Which is another reason why I love that those ancient rabbis included this book in their holy scriptures, because pleasure, even the sexual kind, is anything but ungodly. As we learned last week, God wants us to enjoy life, to take pleasure in what we can, no matter the kind of pleasure we’re talking about. Safely, of course. 

What a gift this book is, opening up these and so many other elements of romantic love to the way we think and live into our relationship with our God! But it can’t end there. So, your homework for this week, no, scratch that, your homework for the rest of your lives, is to imagine and practice, what this kind of love might look like out in the real world, because what we say and do in here only matters if it matters out there. So, what might fidelity, an intimate loyalty, look like out there? What might respect, mutual respect, that creates safe places out there, look like? What might a dire passion look like as you traverse this world? What might a blind and irrational love look like out there? 

And what might the world look like if we started caring about how much pleasure is in people’s lives? I think you’d agree that pleasure, of any kind, is vital to a healthy life. Yet, despite our caring for people's needs like food, and water, and shelter, I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone ask how much pleasure our unhoused have, or the single parent working three jobs, or the elderly living alone. So, that’s all, just work on those from now to eternity. In the meantime, I pray that you, my friends, experience the intimate richness of God’s love, as it urges you to open up that love for others. Thanks be to God. Amen.

8/29/2022

Pure Imagination

 Inspired by Ecclesiastes 1:2-11; 3:1-17

Have you ever watched a movie and have it go right over your head? Or, as soon as the credits start rolling you just think to yourself, “What in the world did I just watch?” I had that experience with the movie “mother!” It stars Jennifer Lawrence. Has anyone seen that? That’s ok, I don’t recommend it. Not that it’s a bad movie, in fact, I thought it was a great movie, that it was wonderfully acted and made. However, it was a very disturbing movie and when it was over, I was left wondering not only what I just watched but why did I just have to endure that? In a nutshell, for those of you who haven’t seen it, Jennifer Lawrence plays a mother who throughout the entire movie is harassed and assaulted, in every way imaginable, with no help from anyone including her husband. 

After she and her baby both die a horrific death, she wakes up in her bedroom, looking different, but having to relive the whole experience once again in a never-ending cycle. Now, in spite of there being clues along the way, I had to look up what I had just watched, and apparently, the movie was about our exploitation and abuse of Mother Earth. Yeah, whoosh, right over my head! Without help, I don’t know how long that would have taken me to get, or I would have just given up thinking that was two hours I was never getting back. It was simply beyond my imagination. When I found out its real meaning, I wasn’t disappointed, I thought it was brilliant, and if it hadn’t been so disturbing, I would have watched it again with the new eyes and ears of my new understanding. 

Our Bible reading for today is a third selection from the Bible’s wisdom literature, this one from Ecclesiastes. If Proverbs was written by a wiser middle-aged Solomon, then the ancient rabbis used to say that Ecclesiastes was written by an old bitter Solomon, long jaded by a long-lived life. Think Walter Matthau from Grumpy Old Men or Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm. This author was wise, sure, but just like in our youth, wisdom can easily come off the tracks in this author’s old age. Today we read two selections from Ecclesiastes, from chapters one and three, and they give us a good taste of what this short little book is about. Let’s just say, we don’t catch the author at their finest hour. If this was a friend of yours talking like this, your first question would be, “Are you ok? Let’s grab a coffee and chat.” 

Clearly, they are not ok. Though we may not know who exactly wrote this, we can surmise that this was someone of great power and experience, someone who has seen the world and all that it has to offer, and is reflecting on what they have seen now that their life is almost over. The author has come to some conclusions, and they are not very positive ones! I want to pause here for just a minute and caution you from the urge to make everything ok for this writer. I think it’s in our nature to not only try and fix other people’s challenges or conclusions they’ve made, but also to try and explain it, make sense of it, make it fit into the nice, neat, safe little boxes that our minds have constructed. Especially when dealing with a Biblical author who is writing some disturbing things! 

But also when in the presence of a friend or family member who is going through something. However, there is something to be said for just sitting in it with them. Allowing them, and ourselves, to express our disappointment, even if it’s in God, to express our anger, our sarcasm, our bitterness, even if it’s directed at God, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even if it’s contradictory to everything they, or we, have said before. It might take some serious restraint, but there is a hidden power in just sitting in it with them. All we can hope is that there is someone willing to sit in it with us as well, if need be. This author is really going through something, and by first just sitting in it with them, you are thereby saving a seat next to you, when you need someone to sit in it with you. By first honoring this author’s challenges, you honor your own. 

But this author, geez, it sounds as if they have lost something, doesn’t it? Was it hope? Faith? Their wisdom? It even sounds like they just don’t care anymore, about anything! The first words are, “Perfectly pointless, says the Teacher, perfectly pointless. Everything is pointless.” The Teacher, by the way, is who the book is named after. In Hebrew it’s not called Ecclesiastes but Koheleth, which can mean the teacher, or speaker, or even preacher. And you probably know that opening line as “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Pointless is probably a better translation, but meaningless is even better than that. This poor writer has concluded that everything is meaningless. After all the hard work of life, the writer has noticed that nothing changes. 

Life is just this endless cycle of repeated patterns, and no matter how much or how little someone does, it never changes. “There’s nothing new under the sun” the author says. Here’s the thing, I don’t think the underlying issue here is a loss of hope. Oh they may have lost that too but I don’t think that’s the core of the problem. Nor do I think it’s a loss of faith or wisdom. What’s been lost by this author is an imagination. Bear with me. Did you notice how black and white their observations were? Birth and death. Uprooting and planting. Crying and laughing. Mourning and dancing. That whole list is full of things that are on opposite ends of their spectrum, but the author is not seeing them as a spectrum, but as if that’s all there is to life. But we know there is so much in between, so much gray to life than that. 

And I don’t know about you but I have shed tears of sadness and laughed at the same time! I have also inadvertently planted something while I was uprooting something else only to find out when that something sprouted. Likewise, I guarantee you that the parents of a wedding couple who are dancing at the reception are also mourning the loss of their once baby who is now going off to make a life of their own without them. And we who dwell on this side of the cross, we people of death and resurrection, we know that death and birth happen simultaneously all the time. But all these things aren’t so obvious are they? They aren’t always seen with the naked eye. But take some imagination in order to really see them, to see the grays of life. But oh the love and grace and richness you will see! 

With just a little imagination, you will see what makes life worth living, generation after generation, even though not a whole lot really changes. Or in the words of Willy Wonka, “There is no life I know, to compare with pure imagination. Living there, you'll be free if you truly wish to be. If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There's nothing to it.” Now, I could have ended my sermon right there, but, speaking of changing the world, I think a lot of the world's problems are caused by a lack of imagination. For instance, it takes no imagination to see an unhoused person on the street and think they’re lazy. But it doesn’t take much to begin to ask questions like, I wonder how she got to that point in her life? What led to this? 

It takes no imagination for a white person to see a black man and begin to feel some apprehension or fear, and maybe even assume he’s up to no good. But just a little bit of imagination could not only convince that white person that they have no reason to suspect anything, but may even get that person to begin to explore where those feelings and thoughts came from. It takes no imagination to ask a brown person where they come from. But with some imagination, you might think, I bet that person gets asked that all the time, even though they’re just as “American” as I am. And with one more dash of imagination, you might even ask yourself, “I wonder what that feels like, to be asked that all the time, in your own home country.” 

Like watching a movie that goes over your head like a fighter jet, or in the case of this author, after watching so much of life and their world, and it still not making sense or seeming pointless, meaningless. Don’t despair. Sit with Koheleth for a bit. Take your time. But don’t stay there. Ask yourself how much of your imagination you are using. Is it even turned on? When something doesn’t make sense to me, that’s usually the case. But don’t just do it for your own benefit, but for the benefit of the world, as you see the world, and the people therein, with new eyes, the eyes of your God-given imagination, giving you the power to pass on the love, and grace, and richness of life, that have been opened up for you. Thanks be to God. Amen.