Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Trusting God

Genesis 9: 8-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 22, 2015

            The summer I turned 15 I was enrolled at a day camp as a counselor in training. One of the requirements of our training was that we would take a course in junior lifesaving in the freshwater pond where the camp was located. I had had rigorous swimming lessons since I was 8 years old but mostly in clear, chlorinated, heated pools. I didn’t know any of my fellow CITs outside of that camp. And our instructor was a handsome, burly 19 year old college student from UMass Amherst who looked like he was 25. To say the least, I was a bit intimidated by the thought of learning how to rescue someone from drowning.

            I suffered through leg cramps, swimmer’s ear, sunburn, sunfish nipping at my toes, and an endurance swim around the perimeter of the pond.  Finally it came time for our final exam.  Our class was divided into rescuers and victims, each of us taking our turn being one or the other.  I got to be victim to a girl I had become friends with over the summer.  Her name was Lisa.

            I admired Lisa because she was a strong swimmer.  She had chutzpah and a healthy sense of self-deprecating humor.  She had even managed to tow our nearly 200 lb. instructor Steve in a training exercise.  She impressed me because Lisa was only about 4 ft. tall.

            When it came time for us victims to perform our role, Steve would give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’:  down meant we would be completely passive as victims, limp, floating, perhaps feigning unconsciousness.  Thumbs up meant an active victim: thrashing, panicking, yelling, even attempting to grab onto our rescuer.  Steve game me a thumbs up.  Since I was over a foot taller than Lisa, I didn’t have the heart to grab onto her.  Instead I dunked her.

            She came up in the same spot in front of me.  I dunked her again.  Her head popped up right in front of me once more.  And I dunked her!  This was more fun than swimming with my brother.  I was actually given permission to dunk someone again and again!

            Finally, Lisa remembered what she was supposed to do with an active victim.  She swam away from me underwater, and from a safe distance she instructed me with what she was going to do and what she expected of me.  She then pushed a floatation device toward me, I grabbed onto it and she towed me to the dock.

            I had pushed her down, beneath the water.  Her head went down, the water closed in over her, the bubbles rising above her.  Not just once but three times.  Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit.

            Life can feel like that sometimes.  We think we’re doing all the right things, trying to be good people who sometimes cause others grief.  Then suddenly we’re under the water, pushed down, what sustains us slowly leaking out of us.

            Now, not to trivialize the flood story, God drowning the wicked multitudes and saving the righteous few, but life isn’t always a direct cause-and-effect universe.  Most of the time, we know better than to blame God when our lives are pushed down.  God promises Noah and his descendants that never again will God flood the earth and destroy human beings.  We no longer call a flood an ‘act of God’ but an act of nature.  Scientists would call them random events mixed with the effects of a human population interacting with the environment.  Physicists would quote the second law of thermodynamics, leaving God entirely out of the picture.

            But for we who believe and seek a relationship with the divine, God promises ‘never again’.  What then does that mean?  What does this covenant hold for us?  That God’s justice will no longer look like human revenge?   That by putting God’s bow up in the sky, our God is a God of nonviolence?  That God will not punish but teach?  Yes, all this and something much simpler.  ‘Never again’, laying down one’s weapon and promising peace is a way of saying ‘you can trust me’.

            Love requires total disarmament.   The love of God requires the Almighty to be as helpless and as trusting as an infant.  God becomes vulnerable with us and to us.  God reveals the soft underbelly of the divine heart, seeking a relationship, a connection—not only with human beings but with all of creation.

            But the words ‘trust me’ are ones that we post-modern folk can often regard with suspicion, even if it just happens to be the Almighty saying them.  I have a plaque with a saying attributed to Mother Teresa:   “I know God won’t give me any more than I can handle.  I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”  And we can all think of those times when we’ve had more than we thought we could handle.  As if we had been pushed down under the water.

So what does it mean to trust God?  Well, think of the people you trust, with whom you can be your most vulnerable self.  What is it that makes them so trustworthy?  What qualities do they possess?  Usually these are folks we can believe in, that is to say, they have integrity, their insides match their outside—they are authentic.

When we say we believe in Jesus, what the Church ought to mean when it says that is that we believe, we trust that he is the authentic, utterly faithful image of the fullness of God.  Recall these words from Jesus’ baptism:  “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”  We look to Jesus, his actions, his teachings, his authenticity as one who fully embodies God’s law and love.

Due mainly to the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the words ‘trust’, ‘believe’, and ‘faith’ have come more to mean to ascribe to a creed or doctrine or religious code.  Originally, these words had more to do with loyalty and relationship than with any kind of test.  The word ‘believe’ comes from an old English word which means ‘to belove’.  When we say we believe in Jesus, we believe in God, we believe in the Holy Spirit, what we’re really saying is that we belove them.  We have a relationship with them.  We trust them.  We trust that when a promise is made, that it will be fulfilled; that we are unconditionally loved; that when we are reaching for the surface, we will be raised up; that the kingdom of God truly indeed dwells within us and amongst us.

The opposite of faith and trust is not doubt but anxiety, worry, panic, fear—the very emotions that can lead to drowning.  Think about how often during the course of the day you are worried, anxious, fearful.  Think about those times you have felt those feelings at church.  Are there people here with whom you can share your anxiety, your worries, your fears?  Is this a church where these feelings are talked about openly and authentically or with only a few?  Is this a church where we trust each other?

Keeping our anxiety, worry and fear to ourselves is what makes us feel like we’ve gone under the water, is what drives apart community and gets us feeling as though we are in the dark.  When a community, a church operates from within those murky shadows, all of the decisions made, even with the best of intentions, contain within them an undercurrent of anxiety and worry.  Being open and honest about these feelings takes away their power over us, bringing the light of God into that shadowy place.  Believing in one another, being faithful in our commitment to each other, trusting that everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve got—this is how we rise out of the watery depths, it’s what brings us together, and gives our life together meaning.  This is what makes a church feel like home.

Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”  Said another way, “Belove one another as I have beloved you.  Believe in one another as I have believed in you.” 

To trust God is to belove one another, to believe in one another.  To trust God is to be who we really are, our authentic selves.  To trust God is to go under that water knowing that we will rise with the Spirit.  To trust God is to allow ourselves to be driven out into the wilderness, to be tended to by angels, and to keep following Jesus, even as he heads toward Jerusalem.

            A life built on the trust of God may seem like a fairytale to some, crazy to others, and there are days we wonder what’s in it for us.  A life built on the trust of God certainly is no rose garden.  I’m not being flip when I say Jesus trusted God and look what happened to him.

I’d like to share with you a quote by one of my favorite authors, Samir Selmanovic.  He grew up in what was Yugoslavia, the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother.  He was raised culturally Muslim but as for religion he was raised as an atheist.  At 18 he began his compulsory service in the army and it was through a friendship there that he converted to Christianity.  His family disowned him, throwing him out of the house, and it was years later before he was able to reconcile with them.  He is now a Christian pastor and the founder of an interfaith community called Faith House Manhattan.  He says this about what is promised in following Jesus:

“Jesus offered a single incentive to follow him…to summarize his selling point: ‘Follow me, and you might be happy—or you might not. Follow me, and you might be empowered—or you might not. Follow me, and you might have more friends—or you might not. Follow me, and you might have the answers—or you might not. Follow me, and you might be better off—or you might not. If you follow me, you may be worse off in every way you use to measure life. Follow me nevertheless. Because I have an offer that is worth giving up everything you have: you will learn to love well.’”

Trusting God, trusting in Jesus, trusting the unpredictable Spirit means we will learn to love well, to be forgiving, accepting, and compassionate—even when we’ve been pushed under the water.  Because trusting God also means that we will learn to be loved well, to be beloved, to know these words to be true:  “You are my child, the Beloved.  With you I am well-pleased.”


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Telling stories

Mark 9: 2-9
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 15, 2015 – Transfiguration Sunday


            When I check to see how many people have read a post on my blog, I engage in it.  As I anticipate how many notifications are on my Facebook page, I fall prey to it.  When I second guess myself, measure myself against others, and worry that I’m not enough, I foolishly think I’m free of it.  As soon as I charge in where angels fear to tread, I’ve lost my head to it.  When I’m attached to how I appear to others, when I crave approval and attention, it is then that I am wallowing in it.

            It’s one of the original seven deadly sins—something more than pride, which has taken its place.  Vainglory.  It’s not just for the famous and celebrated.  The root of all other vices, vainglory is subtle as it ensnares the human heart.  If we think we are immune, that just might be a sign that we need a booster shot of self-reflection.  

          Why do we need to care about whether or not we are vainglorious? Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, in her book Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice writes, “[The] reason to care about vice is that it keeps us from drawing closer to God (and other people) in love. That love relationship is what we are made for; it’s the cause of our deepest happiness. If we care about that, we will also care about obstacles that damage that relationship and thereby hinder our happiness.”[1]

            Sin is what separates us from God and each other. Nothing can separate God’s love from us, but there’s plenty we can do to put obstacles in the way of us and that love. We think we got it, we can handle this living thing, this loving thing, until we can’t and then we call out for help. Which, when you think about it, is another form of vainglory. We all have the ability to be crazymakers, to create our own suffering and drama, to put ourselves in a froth of our own making.

            Perhaps we haven’t inflated a story to the degree that NBC anchorman Brian Williams did.  We aren’t in the public eye when our persona crumbles to the ground.  We haven’t known the certain shades of limelight that can wreck a complexion, as Holly Golightly once said. But daily we can vacillate between the need to be recognized for our hard work and the anxiety that we haven’t done enough.  Our fluctuating sense of self-importance puts distance between us and God and each other.

            When Jesus ventures up a high mountain with Peter, James, and John, he’s about as close to God as the disciples have even seen him.  His clothes become dazzling, unearthly white:  Tide and Clorox—eat your heart out.  Jesus is joined by two heroes of the faith but also two ordinary men, Moses and Elijah.  Peter, James, and John are so terrified of all this glory that they don’t know what to say, what to do.  So Peter offers to build three dwellings, like mini temples, to keep all that glory on the mountain for a while.

            Then, as in the days of Moses and Mt. Sinai, a cloud overshadows the mountain and from the cloud God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”  Now you would think that the next words out of the mouth of Jesus would be awe-inspiring, amazing, awash with truth.  Jesus has just been given the best introduction anyone, anywhere could ever have!  Instead he says to his friends to tell no one what they have seen and heard until after the Son of Man rises from the dead.  Don’t tell anyone about this until after the Son of Man comes into his glory, which comes not from the acclaim of human beings but from God.

            Glory comes from God and is for God because God is the only one who knows how to handle it.  It’s too tempting for us human beings to indulge ourselves and our egos in some self-gratification.  Thinking ourselves to be the only intelligent life in the universe, it can seem like it all depends on us.  But the universe was here long before we arrived on the scene and it will go on long after we’re gone, no matter what we do or don’t do.

            There’s a Tibetan Buddhist saying:  “Don’t expect applause”.  Poet Ellen Bass in response wrote these words:

And yet, wouldn’t it be welcome
at the end of each ordinary day?
The audience could be small,
the theater modest. Folding chairs
in a church basement would do.
Just a short earnest burst of applause
that you got up that morning
and, one way or another,
made it through the day.

You soaped up in the steaming
shower, drank your Starbucks
in the car, and let the guy with the
Windex wipe your windshield
during the long red light at Broad Street.
Or maybe you were that guy,
not daring to light up
while you stood there because
everyone’s so down on smoke these days.

Or you kissed your wife
as she hurried out the door, even though
you were pretty sure she was
meeting her lover at the Flamingo Motel,
even though you wanted to grab her
by a hank of her sleek hair.

Maybe your son’s in jail.
Your daughter’s stopped eating.
And your husband’s still dead
this morning, just like he was
yesterday and the day before that.
And yet you put on your shoes
and take a walk, and when a neighbor
says Good morning, you say
Good morning back.

Would a round of applause be amiss?
Even if you weren’t good.
If you yelled at your kid,
poisoned the ants, drank too much
and said that really stupid thing
you promised yourself you wouldn’t say.
Even if you didn’t deserve it.

            If we receive any applause, especially when we didn’t deserve it, that’s what we call grace. While we are here on this earth, God intends us not for glory but for grace. Jesus tells the disciples not to say anything about the glory they have witnessed to spare them the humiliation to come when he is dead. Jesus’ crucifixion will be a hard enough defeat as it is. If the crowds knew the story of Jesus’ bright mountaintop confab with Moses and Elijah, the disciples would be ridiculed into a despair they may not recover from. Jesus’ teaching of love and grace would not be spread by hype, fame, or even rumor but by the changed-forever lives of his disciples; lives changed by loss, defeat, and failure but also by forgiveness, justice for the least of God’s people, and unconditional love.

            So when we’re telling our story, or the church’s story, let’s remember to not leave out the bits where we failed miserably or made shame-faced mistakes or said the really hurtful thing and how, not by our merit but by God’s grace, we’re still here today to tell about it.  In church language we call that redemption.  That’s what we call the power of the cross.  And not only that.  That’s what we call resurrection.  God’s glory.  Amen.


[1] Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice. Grand Rapids, MI: William .B. Eerdmans, 2014.

[2] Ellen Bass, The Human Line.  Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2007.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Take my hand

Isaiah 40: 28-31; Mark 1: 29-39
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 8, 2015


         This past Tuesday I posed some questions on Twitter and Facebook:  What sustains you?  What carries you through the tough times or when you’re just having a bad day?  Within 20 hours I got over 40 responses, from a wide spectrum of friends and family.  What was remarkable to see was people who did not know each other liking each other’s responses, creating a community of sorts whose main connection was through me, the questions I posed, and their answers.

So what sustains folks?  What carries some of us through the tough times or when we’re just having a bad day?  The responses ran the gamut:  chocolate, curiosity, commitment; actively seeking to see and to be the good in the world; music; the Jacuzzi and a fresh bar of lavender soap; nature; ritual; hope; art, creating stuff; riding the wave of emotion; distracting oneself with something good until the worst is over; having a sense of perspective; a cup of tea; writing; watching YouTube videos; exercise; animals, pets; watching sitcoms and cartoons; doodling; the Serenity Prayer; finding purpose in what we experience and learning patience; remembering to choose our battles, knowing when to step back and when to let go; keeping in mind that tomorrow will be a better day; meditation; coffee; finding a way to keep the situation simple; not taking oneself too seriously; going with the flow; getting out the bad mojo.

One friend said “Nail polish.  And Jesus.”  Andrea said “flying and Monty Python for a good laugh”.  A college friend with a wicked sense of humor said “sweet bloody revenge!”  More often than not, most people answered with some form of love:  wife, husband, spouse, partner, children, grandchildren, parents, family members, friends, pets—all the ways we feel connected and have a sense of belonging.

Only a handful listed God or Jesus or their faith as something that sustains them, that carries them through.  And I can understand that, because in this post-modern, social media, can-do, self-sufficient world, admitting publicly that we are sustained by God, that God carries us through can leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed.  It means we need help, that we can’t do it alone, no matter how many tools we have in our toolbox, no matter how many different ways we have to comfort ourselves.  There are indeed days and many a night when nothing but Jesus will do.

Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me stand

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the light

Take my hand, precious Lord

Lead me home

Jesus took Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand, lifted her up, the fever left her and she began to serve them.  There’s no rest for the weary, is there?  The need for serving does not end.  Now as then, serving is a disciple’s bread and butter, the center of following Jesus.  For this reason we need to take care of ourselves, so we exercise, eat right, get plenty of sleep as best as we can.  But we also need to refuel our joy, so we do things that nourish our spirit and help us feel lighter, like play and chocolate, doodling, letting our mind wander for a while, create stuff, fix things, cook something good.

How often, though, do we ask for help or allow help to be given?  In a movie or a TV show, every time there’s someone hanging from a cliff and someone extending a hand, there’s a moment when the person hanging isn’t sure whether to take the hand offered to them.  Frodo looks painfully at Sam, with Sam yelling “Don’t you let go!”  Usually these moments are employed to up the suspense.  Often there are no guarantees that the hands will reach, that the rescue will work, that either character is strong enough.  If we reach out, will someone reach back?

Church is intended to be that place, the people, the community that when we reach out, someone reaches back.  Not perfectly and not without flaws.    It’s an old saying:  The church is not a museum of saints but a hospital for sinners.  And we’re all here for healing of some sort.  Perhaps at some point in our lives someone one didn’t reach back for us.  Or they let go.  Or we were the one who couldn’t hang on, didn’t extend our hand.  But then someone, somewhere reached out a hand to us and lifted us up.  Maybe it was our spouse or partner.  Maybe it was the tiny hands of our newborn children or grandchildren.  Maybe it was a good friend or a complete stranger.  Maybe it was someone in this room.  Through the hands that we have, God reaches out.  Through the hands of others, God reaches in and lifts us up so we can serve others.

When my way grows drear,

Precious Lord, linger near

When my life is almost gone

Hear my cry, hear my call

Hold my hand lest I fall

Take my hand, precious Lord

Lead me home

What an enormous trust we place in each other and in God-in-with-us, in Jesus.  It’s not a trust to be taken lightly or for granted.  Not only that but God has entrusted us with each other and with everyone we encounter, work with, struggle against, and journey beside.  This trust that God gives asks of us a whole heart, the willingness to be vulnerable, and a degree of risk.  A tall order indeed.

And so we covenant with one another.  We do not loosely affiliate with one another.  We make promises.  We do not form a club or a gang or a clique, whose purpose is to exclude.  We call it family, we call it community, but it’s really something more.  We form a body and not just any body but Christ’s body.  The hand we extend, the hand we clasp is a forgiving hand, a merciful hand, an accepting hand, an unconditional hand.  In this covenant, this bond of love what is required is not perfection but patience.  And all of this is possible with the help of God.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable. The Holy One gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”  In the next chapter in Isaiah we are told “For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you’.”  Or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “Don’t panic. I’m right here to help you.”

Jesus knew what it meant to wait for the Lord.  While it was still dark, he went out to a deserted place and prayed.  He waited for God to show up.  Even when the disciples came looking for him, Jesus didn’t lose it.  He knew his mission was to serve the gospel: to proclaim to all who would hear that God’s love has the power to heal, to transform, to change human lives.  Take my hand, Lord.  Lead me home.


(What a wonderful happenstance:  I sang this in my sermon, then BeyoncĂ© sang it at the Grammys later that night.)