Sunday, June 11, 2017

Life. Giving.




When you hear the word “God”, what images come up in your mind?   For many inside and outside of the church, a popular image of God is that of an old white man with a long beard, perhaps sitting on a fluffy cloud.  In fact, a satirical Twitter account under the name of God has exactly that image – an old white man in a white robe with a long beard sitting at a computer.   (I should caution that if you are a twitter user and if you look for this twitter handle, the tweets are often humorous, but the humor is sometimes PG if not R rated…whoever has this Twitter account has a bit of a potty mouth.)  For some, the image of the old dude with a beard brings comfort – sort of an image of a heavenly grandpa smiling down on us - while for others, it is alienating, oppressive, an angry god hurling lightning bolts, or at the very least a self-absorbed god who doesn’t look like us, who doesn’t understand us, doesn’t care about us.  There may be variations: In many cultures,  the skin of the divine image would not be white, and the image may be female instead of male – indeed, the name El Shaddai, an ancient name of God found in Genesis, can be translated “God of many breasts”.  Scripture has many images of God, not all male, not even all human.  For example, Jesus compares himself at one point to a mother hen trying to gather a brood of chicks that are running away from their mother in all directions.  St Paul points to the story of the rock in the wilderness that poured out water for the Israelites as an image of Christ.  And, of course, pagan cultures often had their own images of their gods, often having to do with strength, such as that of a bull, or that of fertility, symbolized by a female figure.   Of course, God is beyond our ability to understand, let alone portray, which is why any one image only captures a small portion of God’s greatness, and why the commandments include a prohibition on the worship of graven images.
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, when we consider another image, or perhaps more accurately another lens for understanding God: the Christian doctrine of God existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as one God in three persons. The word "Trinity" is itself not in the Bible.  The doctrine is derived by looking at the actions of God in conjunction with references in Scripture to "Father, Son, Holy Spirit" as in our reading from Matthew 28:19 and 2 Corinthians 13:13.  This doctrine differentiates Christianity from the other Abrahamic religions – Judaism and Islam, which insist that God is one being with no differentiation or division.   
One way of understanding the persons of the Trinity is by function – God as creator, Jesus as Redeemer, the Holy Spirit as Sustainer.  That is to say, God creates us, Jesus saves us, and the Holy Spirit sustains us.  Or we might think of God above us or around us, Jesus beside us, and the Holy Spirit within us.
But the classical definition of the Trinity is not that of one God with three functions, but one God in three persons: the Father or Creator generates, the Son or Redeemer is begotten, and from the Father and the Son proceeds the Spirit.  These three persons of the one God are said to exist in a state called perichoresis – the Greek word “peri” means “around” and the Greek word “choresis” is the root word for English words such as “choreography”, referring to a dance.  And so, according to this theology, the three persons of the Trinity exist in a kind of circle dance of mutual self-giving love, the Father to the Son, from both Father and Son to the Spirit, and from the Spirit returning to the Father.  Some of this comes from John’s Gospel, in which Jesus says, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me”.  Later Jesus says that he will ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit, who will be with them and in them.  And still later, Jesus says, “because I live, you also will live. And on that day you will know that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  And so Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are said to exist in a continual dance of self-giving love, into which Jesus invites us.

This all seems pretty abstract, and of course no words can ever describe God in God’s fullness.  So why bother about the Trinity?  Why not just leave it behind as some leftover from the Dark Ages, some arcane piece of speculation by medieval church fathers who clearly had entirely too much time on their hands?  What’s at stake?   One thing at stake is that this doctrine shows us that relatedness and relationship, connection to others, is at the very heart of God’s being and character.   That is to say, if we worship and serve a God who is, in the popular image, the old white dude with a beard floating out in space somewhere, we can perhaps be content with a one-on-one relationship with this being.  How we treat others may be a separate issue.  But if we worship a God whose very nature is an ongoing relationship of mutual, self-giving love, existing from the beginning of time and continuing to this day, and extending to include us, serving such a God will entail mutual, self-giving love on our parts.   Put another way, Scripture tells us that God is love – and the doctrine of the Trinity tells us that this love is constantly in motion, constantly in action, constantly growing, constantly expanding – and since we are made in the image of the God who is love, serving the Triune God will involve being conformed more and more into a life of self-giving love for God and neighbor alike, for the two are inseparable.  As God is love for us, we are called to be love to one another.  Or, put yet another way, since God is never alone but always exists in relationship, and since God created us in God’s image, we are not created to be alone – remember in Genesis, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” – but instead God created us to be in relationship not only with God but with one another.  And not just any kind of relationship, but a relationship of self-giving love.  As disciples following in the way of Jesus, for us, life is giving, and giving is life.   Life is love, and love is life.  To cut ourselves off from others and turn in on ourselves, to shut out our neighbor and be absorbed in ourselves, is to begin to die.  Sin is said to be curved in on itself – if the concept of sin were depicted in human form, it might look like a person gazing at his or her own belly-button and ignoring the rest of the world - and Scripture, and life, amply demonstrate that the wages of sin are death.  Again, to be in relationship is life-giving; to turn in ourselves – as individuals, as a congregation, dare I say as a society – is to begin to die. To turn in on ourselves is to sign our own spiritual death warrant.
The creation account from Genesis that we read earlier tells us much about this Triune God.  It follows a pattern – we’re told that in the beginning was a formless void, and the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters.  At each stage, God created something, proclaimed it good, there was evening and morning, and a new days, in which God created again.  We’re told that humans, male and female, were created in God’s image, created in some sense to resemble God.  And on the seventh day, God rested. 
Genesis is likely the only creation story with which we’re familiar – and actually Genesis has two creation stories set side by side, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 - but many ancient cultures also had creation stories.  These stories of other cultures existed to tell those cultures who they were and what life was like. The Babylonian creation story is very different, and I’d like to take a few minutes to summarize it, remembering that the Babylonians were rivals of Israel and eventually would conquer Israel for a time and sends its people into exile.  It was called the Enuma Elish, and was recited annually in April of each year.  While both the Genesis account and the Babylonian creation story begin with the universe as a formless void, they go from there in very different directions.  The Enuma Elish begins with a male god, Apsu, and a female god, Tiamat, who give birth to numerous younger gods.   The younger gods play too loudly and keep Apsu from sleeping…and you know how cranky us guys can get when our naps are interrupted.  Apsu decides to destroy these noisy children so he can once again have some peace and quiet, but as a good mother, Tiamat protects her children.  One of the Tiamat’s children, Ea, kills Apsu, his father.  Ea later marries another god and gives birth to Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonians.  The widowed Tiamat remarries, taking Kingu as her consort.  Marduk eventually kills Tiamat (his grandmother) and from her body creates the heavens and the earth.  Later Marduk kills Tiamat’s second husband, Kingu, and from his corpse create humankind.  (For those who may be curious, more details are at this link:  http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/Enuma_Elish.html)

Consider the differences between the Babylonian creation story and our own.  From their creation story, the Babylonians were told that betrayal and violent conflict and bloodshed were a natural part of life, baked into creation from the very beginning, and they lived accordingly. They saw life as violent and the world as a place where they had to watch their backs every moment, lest their own family members kill them in their sleep. If their own gods were like that, why should they strive to be any better? By contrast, Genesis describes creation as ordered, peaceful, with blessings at every step (“And God saw that it was good”) and humankind created in God’s likeness, with a mandate to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.”  And after all of God’s labors, God rested on the seventh day – so life has a daily rhythm of evening and morning and a seven-day rhythm of work and rest baked in from the beginning as well.  By contrast with the Babylonian account, Genesis tells us that peace, order, blessing and rest are baked into creation from the very beginning.  Genesis also tells us that, as humans are created in God’s image and likeness, we are of infinite worth, precious to God.

Whose script are we following?  If we – as individuals, as a church, as a society - say that we worship God and love Jesus, but accept betrayal and violence as a natural part of life, as “just how life works”, we’re following in the way of Marduk, the monster-god of ancient Babylon, and not in the way of Jesus.  If we – as individuals, as a church, as a society – say we are Christians, but turn away from our neighbor – our poor neighbor, our hungry neighbor, our homeless neighbor, our sick neighbor – we’re turning away from the embrace of the Triune God, who lives not only in us but in that very neighbor. 

As I said, this applies not only to us as individuals, but as a congregation.  If we at Emanuel Church try to live in our own bubble, we’re instead digging our own grave.  But the more we connect with others, and the more opportunities we give others to connect with us, the more life will be in this place.  Small as we are, of course we can’t do everything, but we can do something.  Given our size we may not be able to do great things, but we can do small things with great love.  And the things that seem small to us may be huge, enormous, even life-giving to others.  I’ve said it occasionally in sermons past that my home church, First United Church of Christ, Hamburg, Pennsylvania, saved my sanity, maybe my life, and the members almost certainly had no idea.  Before I was a pastor, I was a kid, and when I was a kid, from about age 10 on, alcohol and violence were a constant threat; my parents drank and they…had anger management issues.  School had its own issues – I was shy, awkward, asthmatic, with thick glasses…may as well have had a target on my back.  But when I was 12,  my parents made me go to confirmation class – I went kicking and screaming at first – but when I got there, I found a place where I could go and I didn’t get hit.  For the scared-half-out-of-my-wits 12-year old I was at the time, it was all I could do not to kiss the carpet.  No fists!  Safe space!  Who knew such places existed?  And having found safe space, why would I want to go home?....though of course I had to eventually.   But as I got to trust the folks at church…it took a while, I had major trust issues, but trust grew over time…I spent as much time at church as I could…and I lived in a small enough town that I could easily walk to church anytime I wanted. Occasionally people at church would ask me how I was doing.  And I didn’t say much….given the situation at home, and given how the rumor mill in that small town worked, I knew that keeping my mouth shut was the safest course…..so of course, I pasted on a smile and said I was fine….but they cared, cared enough to ask, and their caring saved me.  And likely almost none of the members had the slightest idea how much they were doing just by being there…..just by being there. Just by being.
Relationship, connectedness, self-giving love are at the heart of God, and at the heart of who we are.  May the love we get from God be the love we give to others.  May we share that love not only with those who love us, but with those we find difficult to love.  May our neighbors, our neighborhood, our city, our world be better for our having passed their way.  Amen.





later, Jesus says, “because I live, you also will live. And on that day you will know that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  And so Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are said to exist in a continual dance of self-giving love, into which Jesus invites us.
This all seems pretty abstract, and of course no words can ever describe God in God’s fullness.  So why bother about the Trinity?  Why not just leave it behind as some leftover from the Dark Ages, some arcane piece of speculation by medieval church fathers who clearly had entirely too much time on their hands?  What’s at stake?   One thing at stake is that this doctrine shows us that relatedness and relationship, connection to others, is at the very heart of God’s being and character.   That is to say, if we worship and serve a God who is, in the popular image, the old white dude with a beard floating out in space somewhere, we can perhaps be content with a one-on-one relationship with this being.  How we treat others may be a separate issue.  But if we worship a God whose very nature is an ongoing relationship of mutual, self-giving love, existing from the beginning of time and continuing to this day, and extending to include us, serving such a God will entail mutual, self-giving love on our parts.   Put another way, Scripture tells us that God is love – and the doctrine of the Trinity tells us that this love is constantly in motion, constantly in action, constantly growing, constantly expanding – and since we are made in the image of the God who is love, serving the Triune God will involve being conformed more and more into a life of self-giving love for God and neighbor alike, for the two are inseparable.  As God is love for us, we are called to be love to one another.  Or, put yet another way, since God is never alone but always exists in relationship, and since God created us in God’s image, we are not created to be alone – remember in Genesis, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” – but instead God created us to be in relationship not only with God but with one another.  And not just any kind of relationship, but a relationship of self-giving love.  As disciples following in the way of Jesus, for us, life is giving, and giving is life.   Life is love, and love is life.  To cut ourselves off from others and turn in on ourselves, to shut out our neighbor and be absorbed in ourselves, is to begin to die.  Sin is said to be curved in on itself – if the concept of sin were depicted in human form, it might look like a person gazing at his or her own belly-button and ignoring the rest of the world - and Scripture, and life, amply demonstrate that the wages of sin are death.  Again, to be in relationship is life-giving; to turn in ourselves – as individuals, as a congregation, dare I say as a society – is to begin to die. To turn in on ourselves is to sign our own spiritual death warrant.
The creation account from Genesis that we read earlier tells us much about this Triune God.  It follows a pattern – we’re told that in the beginning was a formless void, and the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters.  At each stage, God created something, proclaimed it good, there was evening and morning, and a new days, in which God created again.  We’re told that humans, male and female, were created in God’s image, created in some sense to resemble God.  And on the seventh day, God rested. 
Genesis is likely the only creation story with which we’re familiar – and actually Genesis has two creation stories set side by side, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 - but many ancient cultures also had creation stories.  These stories of other cultures existed to tell those cultures who they were and what life was like. The Babylonian creation story is very different, and I’d like to take a few minutes to summarize it, remembering that the Babylonians were rivals of Israel and eventually would conquer Israel for a time and sends its people into exile.  It was called the Enuma Elish, and was recited annually in April of each year.  While both the Genesis account and the Babylonian creation story begin with the universe as a formless void, they go from there in very different directions.  The Enuma Elish begins with a male god, Apsu, and a female god, Tiamat, who give birth to numerous younger gods.   The younger gods play too loudly and keep Apsu from sleeping…and you know how cranky us guys can get when our naps are interrupted.  Apsu decides to destroy these noisy children so he can once again have some peace and quiet, but as a good mother, Tiamat protects her children.  One of the Tiamat’s children, Ea, kills Apsu, his father.  Ea later marries another god and gives birth to Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonians.  The widowed Tiamat remarries, taking Kingu as her consort.  Marduk eventually kills Tiamat (his grandmother) and from her body creates the heavens and the earth.  Later Marduk kills Tiamat’s second husband, Kingu, and from his corpse create humankind.  (For those who may be curious, more details are at this link:  http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/Enuma_Elish.html)

Consider the differences between the Babylonian creation story and our own.  From their creation story, the Babylonians were told that betrayal and violent conflict and bloodshed were a natural part of life, baked into creation from the very beginning, and they lived accordingly. They saw life as violent and the world as a place where they had to watch their backs every moment, lest their own family members kill them in their sleep. If their own gods were like that, why should they strive to be any better? By contrast, Genesis describes creation as ordered, peaceful, with blessings at every step (“And God saw that it was good”) and humankind created in God’s likeness, with a mandate to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.”  And after all of God’s labors, God rested on the seventh day – so life has a daily rhythm of evening and morning and a seven-day rhythm of work and rest baked in from the beginning as well.  By contrast with the Babylonian account, Genesis tells us that peace, order, blessing and rest are baked into creation from the very beginning.  Genesis also tells us that, as humans are created in God’s image and likeness, we are of infinite worth, precious to God.

Whose script are we following?  If we – as individuals, as a church, as a society - say that we worship God and love Jesus, but accept betrayal and violence as a natural part of life, as “just how life works”, we’re following in the way of Marduk, the monster-god of ancient Babylon, and not in the way of Jesus.  If we – as individuals, as a church, as a society – say we are Christians, but turn away from our neighbor – our poor neighbor, our hungry neighbor, our homeless neighbor, our sick neighbor – we’re turning away from the embrace of the Triune God, who lives not only in us but in that very neighbor. 

As I said, this applies not only to us as individuals, but as a congregation.  If we at Emanuel Church try to live in our own bubble, we’re instead digging our own grave.  But the more we connect with others, and the more opportunities we give others to connect with us, the more life will be in this place.  Small as we are, of course we can’t do everything, but we can do something.  Given our size we may not be able to do great things, but we can do small things with great love.  And the things that seem small to us may be huge, enormous, even life-giving to others.  I’ve said it occasionally in sermons past that my home church, First United Church of Christ, Hamburg, Pennsylvania, saved my sanity, maybe my life, and the members almost certainly had no idea.  Before I was a pastor, I was a kid, and when I was a kid, from about age 10 on, alcohol and violence were a constant threat; my parents drank and they…had anger management issues.  School had its own issues – I was shy, awkward, asthmatic, with thick glasses…may as well have had a target on my back.  But when I was 12,  my parents made me go to confirmation class – I went kicking and screaming at first – but when I got there, I found a place where I could go and I didn’t get hit.  For the scared-half-out-of-my-wits 12-year old I was at the time, it was all I could do not to kiss the carpet.  No fists!  Safe space!  Who knew such places existed?  And having found safe space, why would I want to go home?....though of course I had to eventually.   But as I got to trust the folks at church…it took a while, I had major trust issues, but trust grew over time…I spent as much time at church as I could…and I lived in a small enough town that I could easily walk to church anytime I wanted. Occasionally people at church would ask me how I was doing.  And I didn’t say much….given the situation at home, and given how the rumor mill in that small town worked, I knew that keeping my mouth shut was the safest course…..so of course, I pasted on a smile and said I was fine….but they cared, cared enough to ask, and their caring saved me.  And likely almost none of the members had the slightest idea how much they were doing just by being there…..just by being there. Just by being.
Relationship, connectedness, self-giving love are at the heart of God, and at the heart of who we are.  May the love we get from God be the love we give to others.  May we share that love not only with those who love us, but with those we find difficult to love.  May our neighbors, our neighborhood, our city, our world be better for our having passed their way.  Amen.




Sunday, June 4, 2017

One Spirit


Scriptures:     Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-35,   I Corinthians 12:3-13,   John 20:19-23




At various times I’ve lived in large apartment complexes.  In such places,  it was hard to get to know my neighbors, the people in the apartment next to me, even though we were separated by just a wall or a floor or a ceiling – and sometimes that wall or floor or ceiling wasn’t enough to block out the sound from the next apartment.   And sometimes it’s not just sounds that come from the neighboring apartment.  I remember a number of years back, I had gone home from work and walked in the front door and to the refrigerator to get something to eat – only to find a large puddle of water on the kitchen floor. I checked under the kitchen sink – no, no leak there.  And then I looked up….and I saw water dripping from the kitchen ceiling.  I called the maintenance guy to tell him that something was going on in the apartment above me that was causing water to come into my apartment, and could he please check it out.  In the meantime, I was feeling kind of grossed out.  Was the water coming from the kitchen of the apartment above me?  From their bathtub?   And of course, there are worse possibilities.  It actually took several calls over several days until the problem was finally solved; part of the problem was plumbing, but part of the problem was that the upstairs neighbor didn’t know – or care – that their activities were causing water to drip into my kitchen.  And the way the apartments were laid out, I couldn’t even necessarily tell which neighbor.  It was a helpless feeling, having water from another apartment coming into my kitchen, and not being able to do anything about it.
Today is Pentecost, when Christians celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Pentecost takes place 50 days after Easter.  Remember that we’re told that for forty days after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples at various times, teaching and reminding him of what he had previously taught them.  Just before his Ascension, Jesus told the disciples that they would receive the Holy Spirit not many days from then.  And now, on Pentecost, the day has arrived.
Pentecost was originally a Jewish festival, and is still celebrated under the name of Shavuot.  In the Old Testament book of Leviticus (Leviticus 23:15-21), Shavuot or Pentecost (the latter comes from the number 50, representing 50 days from Passover) is a festival connected with the first fruits of the wheat harvest. Later this festival was connected with the giving of the law. As Christians, we can perhaps see Pentecost as the first fruits of the coming of the Holy Spirit, who writes within our hearts the new law of love.
We remember that according to the account in Acts, the Holy Spirit came with the sound of rushing wind and the tongues of fire on the disciples heads - sound effects and a light show, perhaps the closest a written account could come to the Sensurround side effects of a modern movie theatre.  And we remember that today – our altar is draped in red, and I’m wearing a red clerical shirt.  In some churches, the members are asked to wear red on Pentecost – all symbolic of the tongues of fire seen that day.  Since our fans are running, perhaps they can remind us of the sound of rushing wind.  I’ve never heard of churches doing that…..maybe because the symbolism connected to Pentecost came into being long before electricity was discovered.
 It's important, though, that the sound of rushing wind and the tongues of flame weren’t just there so that those gathered could ooh and aah.  Behind the attention getting sounds and sights was a purpose - to bring people together. The writer of Acts (who also wrote Luke's gospel, by the way) tells us that there were people from all over the known world gathered in one place, all speaking many different languages - but with the coming of the spirit, they could understand one another.  As we read about those gathered speaking in many tongues, yet being able to understand one another, we might remember the story of the Tower of Babel, when some of the first humans gathered in one place to build a tower with the intent that they could climb up into heaven and look around.  We  may remember how the story ended:  God confused the language of those who were building so that they could not understand one another, and they left off building the tower.  And since then, communication between people of different languages has been difficult.  But at Pentecost, it was God’s intent, at least in that moment, to undo what happened at the Tower of Babel and allow people of different languages to achieve mutual understanding.  Remember in our reading from last week, Jesus prayed that all his of his followers would be one.  The sending of the Holy Spirit was the way in which Jesus would bring this about.   According to our reading from I Corinthians, the one Spirit would equip the church with many gifts – wisdom, faith, gifts of healing, miraculous powers, prophetic gifts, discernment, the ability to speak in and understand unknown tongues.  Many gifts, but one purpose – to build up the church.
We live in a time of great divisions, and we need the spirit’s gifts today to build mutual understanding.   People often don’t know their neighbors, and that can be the case whether we live in a small apartment in a large, anonymous apartment complex or in a McMansion in a gated community.  Here in Bridesburg, I do have to say that neighbors know one another better than in many communities – it’s one of the strengths of this neighborhood, a sense of connectedness.  But beyond our immediate neighbors, we may not see how our actions affect others far away – and yet our lives are connected, especially as we consider climate change and various environmental hazards, because we all share the same planet.  Having water from a neighbor’s apartment dripping into my kitchen made me feel angry and helpless.   Now imagine living in a low-lying area threatened by rising sea levels.  Human activities are contributing to the problem, but it’s not like they can call the landlord and get somebody to stop running water.  In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, construction of pipelines to transport oil has threatened individual properties and entire communities – and so the gasoline we use to fuel our cars and the oil we use to heat our homes may come at the price of people having to move off land they’ve held for generations.   And here in Bridesburg, industrial activity benefitting millions across the country has left a legacy of health problems in this neighborhood.  In the apartment complex where I lived, as I said, I didn’t know my neighbors, and yet be living in the same large building, our lives were connected.  Similarly, though we don’t know our neighbors, by virtue of sharing the same planet, our lives are connected with every other life on the planet.  Just as on Pentecost the Holy Spirit enabled persons of many languages to understand one another, the Spirit continues to call us beyond ourselves and our own little lives to care for our neighbors, those next door to us and those on the other side of the globe.   We need the Spirit to open our eyes and ears and hearts to the ways in which our lives are connected to our neighbors down the street, and our neighbors around the globe.
Paul wrote:   “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”  May the Spirit open our eyes to the ways in which we are connected to one another here at Emanuel Church, and to our sisters and brothers in Christ across the country and around the globe. Amen.