Sunday, June 21, 2015


1 Samuel 17:32-49, Mark 4:35-41

It can’t really have surprised the experienced fishermen among Jesus’ disciples when a storm blew up and started battering their boat on the way across the Sea of Galilee - sudden and violent storms are normal if unpredictable on that lake - but the terror they felt was appropriate and real.
Even if you’re a strong swimmer, even if you’re close to shore, even it’s normal, water is deadly when it churns and blows. But when the disciples wake Jesus up for help, they seem to be looking for comfort and assurance more than rescue.  Instead of calling "Lord, save us," they ask "Teacher, don't you care?”
So Jesus is exceeding expectations when he gets up - turns right into the face of the storm - and says,“Sit! Stay!”
(Literally translated, it’s “Silence! Be muzzled!”  — sharp, severe commmands.)
And the storm obeys. The calm is sudden and paralyzing.

Until he asks them about faith, and all their anxiety returns as awe and wonder, and they shy away from the realization of just how close they’ve been sitting to God’s power: the power to tame the uncontrollable, turn the world upside down in an instant, and make everything obey.

That same unreasonable power is on display when David faces Goliath.
The Philistine champion is genuinely unbeatable - stronger than any other man, experienced, skilled and well-armed. The terror of Israel’s army was appropriate and real, and King Saul was quite right to try to protect the crazy young boy who volunteered to fight the champion.

Saul suits young David up in his very own armor - the best protection and weaponry to be found - but David strips it all off.  “I can’t walk in this,” he says, and sets out to confront the impossible with one slingshot, five stones, and theology.

In the face of the champion’s deadly strength and skill, it's not the slingshot, the weapon, that knocks down Goliath. It’s the theology.
It’s the way that kid leaps without a net, takes a hopeless stance, because he alone remembers the terrifying power of God, and is willing to shed all the assumptions and protections that stand between him and that power, protections most of us are so used to we can’t function without them.
While Saul, and his army, and everyone else around them  forgot the sheer power of God;
the power to tame the uncontrollable, turn the world upside down in an instant, and make everything stop and listen.

It’s actually easy to forget how powerful God is.
Even when we pray for miracles,  even when we recite the Creed — full of impossible things we declare that we believe — even when we talk and think about God’s power, it can be easy to forget the raw reality:
forget that direct exposure to God’s power turns your bones to jelly and runs tingling down all your nerves, the way you feel after a screechingly narrow escape from a car accident,
but more so.

So it’s a lot more comfortable to forget; to live without a constant shiver in your bones and trembling in your soul. It’s a lot more attractive to pray and discern God’s will, or try to follow Jesus’ moral teachings, than to expose ourselves to that power that’s impossible to resist or deny.
Most of us don’t actually have to experience that power directly as we try to follow Jesus or know God, but we get ourselves in trouble if we forget it’s real.

I’ve wondered this week if the people who gather regularly for Bible Study at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston had a lot of practice being stirred by God's raw power.  Their history suggests that like the disciples boating on the Sea of Galilee, they knew that sudden, violent, even deadly storms are a reality of life in the systems of race and class in this country.

The forces that stir those storms, of course, are different from wind and wave, but they are as powerful, more dangerous, and often feel just as intractable.

But welcoming the stranger is something you do as a disciple of Jesus, just like crossing over the Sea of Galilee.
Most of the time you don't drown,
most of the time you don't get shot, or firebombed, or beaten.
But sometimes those predictably unpredictable forces kick up, the danger is real,
and the faithful cry out, "Teacher, wake up, we're dying!"

I watch this happen in the news, and I grieve and pray, but I suspect that - like the disciples in the boat - I've forgotten to call on God's power,
and only remembered to call for comfort and assurance.

I think I’ve gotten too used to grief and anxiety in the face of tragedy, and that experience has made me more comfortable with the subtle, impersonal forces of racism and violence that stir up the violent storms like Charleston and Birmingham and the arson wave of the 90’s, and the Oak Creek, Wisconsin temple shooting,
than with the spine-tingling power of God that shakes and challenges me to my core.

But that power is real,
and it's still possible for Jesus to stand up among us today and command our messy, dangerous, fragile, common life to heart-stopping calm.
I suspect, though, that this story today requires the whole body of Christ, the whole church together - black, white, brown, new, old, young, shy, evangelical, traditional, conservative, liberal, diverse as can be - that only the whole body of Christ can command this storm to still.

And we won't do that if we're not constantly re-opening ourselves to the nerve-wracking, sense-jumbling power of God.
Because just like David standing in front of Goliath, human power can't make the difference.
We have to strip away the armor of custom and expectation and safety, and leave ourselves vulnerable to the power of God.

And the armor we have to discard for that is any belief that these storms are localized,
any belief that the problem isn't ours,
or that someone in charge can solve it.

I doubt many of us consciously choose those beliefs - they are the armor given to us by life - by Saul, by powerful leaders who want to protect us. And good armor is complicated to remove. But like David we have to learn when that protection actually gets in our way,
when to choose to disarm,
so that nothing stands between us and God's hair-raising power.

I've got some pretty good armor of my own that says "you can't preach this one as racism and an epidemic of guns because inflammatory words will keep people from hearing the gospel. You can’t preach what will sound political."
And I might be wrong about taking off that armor now.
(You’ll let me know if I'm wrong.)
But I can’t knock this giant down on my own, even with the best armor, and maybe God can.

It's not even a very big risk to put that shield aside for a few minutes – I’m not dying, I’m not even taking down all the armor that protects me in talking about race and violence - but it still makes my spine tingle a little, because I love you and I don't want to hurt you by starting a fight,
and because I am afraid of both racism and guns.

And it's precisely the shiver in my spine I want to share with you today.
Will you, this week, find something to raise your goosebumps or shake your nerves,
a little, or a lot?

Stand outside in a thunderstorm (we have an abundance of opportunities for that!),
say something heartfelt but truly risky in conversation,
love a neighbor you honestly don’t want in your neighborhood.
Do something that lets go of your safety net just enough to feel it in your spine and skin.

Not because every adrenaline rush comes from God, but because it's prayer.
Because if we stay in our armor we forget to demand miracles and transformation from God, we think we can do it ourselves, and limit what God can do with our vulnerability.

It’s a lot easier here and now to stand in a violent thunderstorm or preach a sermon than to volunteer for single combat or to dissolve racism, fear, and violence throughout our country.
None of these are what we do for fun. But I believe it’s worth it to try.
Because right now people are calling out to the Body of Christ, “Wake up! We’re dying! Don’t you care??”
So it might be a good idea for you and me to get our nerves raw with God’s power, to renew that connection:
to remember that the fearful awe, the spine-tingling shaky reaction, is a reality of faith.
Because we’ll need that awe to be part of God’s great and life-saving miracles.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Do You See What I See?

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34

What do you see when you look in the mirror?
That’s not a riddle - think about it; what do you see in the mirror?

When I look in the mirror, I see that my hair is coming loose, or that this skirt looks really good on me. I look for whether there’s still chocolate on my face, whether an outfit works… that sort of thing.  
So when I look in a mirror, I see circumstances, not a person.
I recognize myself, yes, but I don’t see myself. I look for the things others might see.

Maybe you see something deeper in the mirror. Well and good. But I’m going to guess I’m not the only one who sees this way.
And I’m going to guess that many of us also see other people that way.  

We recognize family, friends, relationships, but depending on what’s on our minds, we may look at friends and strangers and see skin, smiles, height, physical grace or awkwardness, a mood or cause for concern, really great shoes, spinach in the teeth…

That’s what eyes are for - to take in the physical world around us, to provide important information that helps us navigate, keeps us safe, gives us data for judgments. 
Not all the data, of course. We judge the beauty of a sunset, a lake, a person, a city street not just by eyesight, but by experience, culture, sound and smell, and more.

But many of us would find it very hard to judge beauty or safety without sight.
In fact, we’d probably judge character, trustworthiness, even friendliness differently without sight. There are plenty of studies out there that show that tall people are treated differently than short people: make more money, are described as leaders, are believed to be happier.  Other visible characteristics work the same way.
Might not be logical, or the way we’d like it to be, but that’s what we see,
and sometimes seeing is believing.

Until it fails us.
Judgements based on sight have failed me. They’ve probably failed you at least once in your life - whether it involved a scrape on your car door or a broken heart.
And that failure of sight and judgment echoes through all of our scripture today.

Jesus points out to his disciples that what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. 
Mustard looks small and grows enormous; farmed grain sprouts and develops and grows without the farmer being able to see how all the transformation happens.

And Samuel has a vivid lesson on sight.
God sends him to anoint - to recognize and establish - the next king of Israel. Samuel needs a good candidate, one that others will support, since just by anointing another one he’ll be committing treason against King Saul, who is still in power and already mad at Samuel.

Samuel follows God’s directions to go to Bethlehem, where God says, “I have seen for myself” a king among the sons of Jesse. He prepares to anoint the eldest: the obvious leader, the one people will respect, the one who, frankly, looks like a king.

Nope. Not that one. 
Against all logic and expectation, God’s not interested in the one who looks like a king in custom and culture and experience, as well as in physical appearance.

God whispers in Samuel’s ear:
“I don’t see the way you do.  You see what’s visible, you see what your eyes give you.  I see the heart.”

One after another the hearts of Jesse’s sons fail to look like kings to God, until they run out of sons, and Samuel, baffled, asks, “Are you sure?”
And then - finally - the family thinks of David: the runt of the litter, left with the sheep because he’s not big enough for ritual and politics and important stuff. 
And that’s The One.

It turns out that David’s also handsome - “good for seeing” - with beautiful eyes. But we’re supposed to be wary of that now - remember that even though he’s cute, his family didn’t think he was qualified - really, he just doesn’t look like a king.  We can’t forget that what we see and what God sees don’t necessarily match.

And - if you read ahead a bit in the story, you might justifiably wonder just what God sees in David’s heart that looks like a king.
The man is arrogant, generous, selfish, disrespectful, uninhibited, sneaky, inconsistent, passionate — as king of Israel he’s a soap opera-worthy hot mess— 
but every page of his story echoes with the fact that God loves him.

And maybe that’s it.
We’re never going to see what God sees, because God is looking not with eyes, but with love.
With an unpredictable, inhuman, vast and incomprehensible love that has nothing to do with whether David — or Caitlyn Jenner or Corey Crawford or Dennis Hastert or you or I — are inherently lovable.
God’s love sees a heart that’s different from all that we know.

We can look with love as well as eyes, and you probably already practice looking with our hearts when you look at the people you know best - at dear friends and family, but we still may not see the heart, because we are busy seeing our own experience of that person, seeing history and hopes and habits: looking with love, we see our hearts, not the other person’s. 

So if Samuel could teach us just one thing today, it would probably be  to believe our eyes, but not only our eyes. To believe that in every person, in every situation, in every beautiful place, in every ugly scene,  God sees something that I don’t see. To remember with every blink and every unconscious judgment, that God sees not only what you see, but something else, too: something different, something more, something completely unknown.

Samuel or Jesus might encourage us to see the world with two sets of eyes: the ones in our body, and the eyes of our faith: see with our trust that God sees more, sees differently, sees what we will never understand.

That double vision makes a difference to how we live.
Paul tells the Corinthian church that the difference between human and divine points of view can change enemies and betrayers into trusted friends, and encourages us to live as though we already see things from that divine point of view - “by faith, not by sight.”

So practice that at home today.
Start in front of the mirror. See the collar that’s straight and the hair in place and the things you want others to see,
and then look, with both sets of eyes, at the mystery of what God sees in you, of what God sees differently, of what God loves, beyond reason or merit.

Then practice when you’re at work, on the streets, at the pool this summer.   Practice seeing with the faith that knows you will never see it all - but that God sees hearts we’ll never know.

Practice that, and then, well, 
we’ll see.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Home Is That Place...

Mark 3:20-25

You’ve probably heard it said that home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
Robert Frost said it first, and we’ve turned it into a truism. 

But it doesn’t seem to be true for Jesus today.
He’s home - in Capernaum, his home base as a teacher, a rabbi - and he’s in trouble.

He’s experiencing a tremendous surge in popularity - so overwhelmed that he and his friends can’t even eat - trouble enough, already - and then his family arrive, conspiring with the religious authorities to shut him down. “Throw him out” not “take him in.”

The religious leaders want him off the public stage because his popularity and success undermine their authority.  They spread rumors that he’s demon-possessed, a servant of Satan. That would make him unclean, possibly dangerously contagious, not to mention just dangerous. You’d think that would thin the crowds, but it doesn’t work.

His family are just responding to the people who have been telling them he’s nuts; “out of his mind.” Perhaps they want to protect him; certainly they want to get him out of that crowd before it turns into a riot, just calm things down before it gets dangerous.
It’s reasonable, given what they know, but it’s conflict, not welcome. Suppression, not sanctuary.
No wonder, then, that Jesus redefines family; redefines home.

It’s easy to read his question “who are my mother and my brothers?” as a rejection of his biological family, replacing the ties of childhood and heritage with a family he likes better.
Fourth-grade emotional responses are not uncommon in the Bible, and not generally considered unGodly, either, but that’s not the point of the story.
Jesus is adding to his family, not rejecting it.
Jesus is adopting all these people: a big, motley crowd, including, no doubt, folks you wouldn’t really want to take home to Mother. 
Jesus is adopting them - us - as children of God, family who live in God’s house, share the food and the sofa and the laundry and the TV remote and all the responsibilities.

It’s as mind-blowing as outright rejecting his birth family would be. For his first hearers, being adopted as Jesus’ parent or sibling isn't a comforting assurance that we’ll always be there for one another - it’s a certainty-wrecking identity change,
a shifting of all of your assumptions about your relationships and obligations to strangers and friends alike.

Among other things, now there’s a whole ravenous crowd around you that you’re obligated to “take in” when they have to go home with you…
On the upside - maybe - now there’s a crowd that has to take you in, too.
And you can’t get away from Jesus, either, when he’s your brother. 
No matter how much he upsets the authorities (and gets you in trouble) or makes you question your faith, now you’re stuck with a life of miracles and transformations and the kind of spiritual fervor that’s probably pretty embarrassing at work or in public.

Adoption into the family of Jesus, into the family of God, is a gift. But it’s complex and challenging much more than it’s meant to be comforting or comfortable.
And Jesus doesn’t make it any easier by reminding us that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Think about that. How many of you have never (ever) fought with the brothers or sisters your parents gave you? (If you’re an only child and you argued with your parents, put your hand down.)
Now how many of you have never had a disagreement - open or silent - with another one of God’s children, another member of the church, say?

Fortunately, not all tension is a bad thing.
It can be creative, it can even work architecturally to keep a house standing.

But divisions are deadly.
And they’re sadly easy. Because not only are there disagreeable people in God’s house, God’s family. There are people we want to keep ourselves separated from - not always deliberately - often unconsciously.
People it would radically change us to unite with.  
People whose lives we fear, in one way or another.

There are the folks who try to sleep at PADS - and end up falling asleep in the library the next day, or bringing their own fears and disagreements into our public spaces.
Children of God, sisters of Jesus, brothers of you and me, with all the home-coming obligations that implies (not just at church, by the way!).

There are the People who are Ruining Our Country.
Whatever your political flavor, mild or strong, there’s at least one politician and an interest group out there that wants to change something you hold dear about our laws or culture.
“Those People” are family of Jesus, family of ours. Family we can disagree with, but can’t divide ourselves from.

Each of us has other folks we’d love to be divided from.
People it’s easy to either hate or forget because they do nothing but annoy you and you can’t understand them.  People whose actions I want nothing to do with - that I’d rather ignore than engage. People who bore you, people who embarrass you. People who use up the attention and resources I need.

What would it be like to call those people family?
To “take them in,” shelter them from danger, feed them, not once, but until they’re ready to leave.
Doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but you do have to recognize yourself in them and them in you.
What would it be like to receive shelter from them, to depend on them, have them share your joy and feel your pain?

You don’t have to be friends with your brothers and sisters; don’t have to invite them to all your parties, don’t have to give them the keys after they’ve wrecked your car, or hurt you.
But we do have to be united:
to hurt for one another in tragedy and grief,
rejoice for one another in success and in grace (even when I wanted that success for myself, yes),
and give our hearts to the truth that we share a home.

Call it earth, call it our community, define it how you will,
Jesus reminds us that “home” doesn’t belong to us alone,
but our home is that place where all God’s children find refuge.

Because in that home,
when we have to go there,
those unplanned siblings of ours have to take us in,

into God's home.