Monday, May 22, 2017

The Empty Space

Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21

How do you find God in the middle of the pagan marketplace?

How do you find God in things like, oh, cable news? a profoundly secular workplace?
among a thicket of family, friends, or neighbors who can’t understand what you get out of going to church and haven’t the faintest interest in learning – because golf or youth athletics or the beauty of nature or therapy or yoga meets their needs for community and meaning. (And besides, they’ll tell you, in those places, no one critiques your moral choices about birth control or gets excited about which kinds of families are legal.)

It’s easier to be an atheist – or at least agnostic – in the world outside our church doors, for most people, including many of us who come here every Sunday.

Some of us are blessed with the ability to see God in everything from a child’s laughter to the bee trapped in your office; from cancer to the grocery store checkout line, every day.
But not all of us. Not me, actually.
I do spot God in those sorts of things occasionally, but a good 75% of my life, I realize I’m not even looking, and so the presence of God in traffic or the mall or Facebook goes past unnoticed.

Many of us – possibly even most of us – aren’t actually looking for God in our secular worlds. We know we can find God when we look in church, in the Bible, in a few trusted people. So why worry in the rest of the world?
But the witness of scripture – and of generations of God’s faithful – is that if we aren’t looking, or aren’t noticing, we are seriously missing out. Missing out on grace for ourselves, and the opportunity to change the world without trying too hard.

Take Paul, today, for instance.
He’s been wandering around Athens, seeing the sights while he waits for his fellow missionaries to catch up to him, and he’s “deeply distressed” that the city is full of idols. He’s awash in the evidence that nobody seems to need the God he knows, the Lord who changed his life.
But finally in his frustrated tourist wanderings, he comes across one empty altar labeled: “To an unknown God.”
Now, he could see in that just more evidence of indifference and idolatry, but Paul sees God. Our God; the God made known to us in Jesus. And now he has the grace of God’s presence right there in the midst of ungodliness, and evidence of God’s presence that he can share, that will affect the world around him.

But most of the time, the presence of God in our pagan marketplace, in your and my day-to-day life, isn’t labeled at all, much less with any reference to God, named or unknown. So we have to train our eyes and hearts to look beyond the obvious.

That starts with believing it matters to find God outside the walls of the church and the words of the Bible. We have to believe it matters with our whole hearts and minds and souls – enough to risk disappointment and foolishness and failure as we go looking – not just believe it as a good idea.

If you are content to find God only here, an hour or two a week, or in the Bible, take the rest of the sermon off, and go get coffee.

If you’re still here, if you believe that it truly matters to encounter and respond to God wherever we go, well, just as your mother or your coach or your teacher told you, practice makes perfect.

This Lent, some of us made a point of looking for moments of God in each day, and telling one another about them. It’s a habit that gets easy once you get it formed, but it can also be a habit that limits where we look, if we are not careful.

Most of my God-moments this Lent, and most of the ones I heard about from you, were moments where joy or generosity or peace was suddenly and unexpectedly evident. This is the way we have been taught (when we’ve been taught at all) to recognize God at work in the world Two thousand years ago, Paul told the church in Galatia that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And to this day, those things provide joyful and solid evidence of God and God’s work bubbling away in all sorts of secular places.

But how many of you live lives where most of what you see and interact with – in the “marketplace” of commuting, sports, work, neighbors…on TV and the internet – is peaceful, kind, gentle, generous, loving, and joyful?
Where even half of what you encounter is that way?

The good news is that good news isn’t the only way to see where God is and what God is doing in the world. Coach and missionary Greg Finke writes that we can spot God at work even more certainly when things are going wrong. When we see a fellow human being in despair, or in need of healing, or struggling with the well-disguised forces of sin and evil that drag our hearts and attention away from God, “wherever hope and redemption are needed,” he says, “you can be sure of this: Jesus is present and working nearby.”*
We know this, Finke assures us, because redemption is the work that Jesus never, ever stops doing, whether we notice or not, whether we help or not, whether we care or not.

Have you seen that?
Have you seen that great need for healing, for hope, for redemption? In the life of a neighbor, a stranger? yourself, someone you love?
If you have seen the need, then you have seen the evidence that Jesus is near, at work, working healing and salvation.

And now I remember that even though I am used to looking for joy and peace to see God, I have found more powerful evidence of what God is up to in people’s lives when I am face to face with their needs for hope and redemption - an encounter as simple as asking how I can be praying for them.

The deep yearning of the human heart, the crying need for God in a human life, are like the blankness of that empty altar in Athens to an unknown God.
That emptiness, the gaping space itself is evidence of God already there, already at work, redeeming and making whole, inviting us to join in.

This truth echoes the promise Jesus makes to his disciples today, that after Jesus dies and ascends – when the one person to whom they can always turn to find the presence of God is suddenly and permanently absent from their lives – in that blank space, they can be sure, God is at work. The Holy Spirit: Advocate, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, is active and present, abiding with us forever.

The work of the Holy Spirit abiding with us now is to fill us with the truth that in those hungry, hurting times and places where the need for healing and hope are greatest, God is there, already at work, inviting us to join in, just as God is working in those radiant moments of joy, generosity, and peace.

And the Holy Spirit abiding in us prompts us to respond to this evidence of God’s work with all our hearts, by listening, by generosity, by praying, by loving.

Because when we look with heart and soul and eyes, for both the radiant joy and the deep yearning needs; when we see God at work and respond, others who are not even looking will find more than they knew how to seek, and God will be vividly revealed, healing and inspiring the world with and among and around us, everywhere, and every single day.

*Finke, Greg. Joining Jesus on His Mission, Tenth Power Publishing, 2014

Sunday, May 7, 2017

What Sheep Know

John 10:1-10

Let’s talk about sheep, shall we?
It’s Sheep Sunday today – not a holiday you’re going to find on your average wall calendar (or smartphone app), but it comes around every year in the church, a few Sundays after Easter.

So let’s do a little word association: What comes to mind when you think about sheep?

How about “good listeners”?  Is that something you think about when someone talks about sheep?

It’s what Jesus thinks about sheep, it turns out.Did you hear him just now?
…the sheep hear [the shepherd’s] voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.

The thing about sheep – according to Jesus today – is that they know where they belong because they listen. Listen for the right voice, the voice they know.

There’s an intimacy to knowing a voice, even if it’s lost a bit in the age of almost universal CallerID. To know the voice on the other end of the line so well it can start in the middle of the conversation without any need of introduction. To recognize a voice when you are in the midst of stress, a voice you’ll respond to when you’re drowning, or half-asleep, or out of sight and mind.

That knowing – that recognition powerful enough to penetrate panic, or distraction, or any other fog and noise – comes from time spent together, time listening to one another, and from deep emotional connections – not universally happy feelings, but powerful.
It comes from love.

Whose voice do you know that way?
Whose voice do you hear often, that’s so familiar that you don’t even think about it?

Family members? maybe some co-workers? Maybe a particular voice on TV or the radio…
Sometimes those voices get so familiar that they fade to white noise, or we stop listening. (Your mother may have had something to say about that.)

That happens to us, sometimes, with the voice of God.
When the Bible all sort of starts to sound the same… and you can’t remember offhand without looking at your insert what the first lesson said this morning.
Or the Golden Rule or the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm or the words of the Eucharist don’t feel fresh, or relevant, or about what matters in life right now.

It happens, even with well-loved voices.

And probably, on some level, that’s how the sheep hear and know the voice of their shepherd. It’s a voice that’s familiar, comfortable, safe enough, that it provides a reassurance or guidepost you don’t have to think about too much, like making the turn into your own driveway after 20 years of living in the same place.

We need that familiarity with God’s voice: the kind of familiarity that we can follow when we’re not really paying attention. We get that familiarity from time and repetition, by reading the Bible, coming to church, to Sunday School (as student or teacher), by praying the prayers, over and over and over, and as we get that familiar with God’s voice, what we really need to hear will pop out of the familiarity, from time to time – if we keep showing up.

But that’s not the only way we need to know a voice.

Think now about whose voice would stop you in your tracks.
Whose voice do you think you would hear, in a coma, in your dreams?
Whose voice would you respond to, would call you back to yourself, in the middle of a panic?

It might be some of the same voices who other times are part of our white noise. It might be someone different for you.

But these voices – a voice you’d respond to in a coma, in the middle of drowning, or in the middle of your most intense work or play – these voices mark our deepest trust and love. And that is definitely what Jesus means about the sheep knowing the shepherd’s voice.

We get familiar with a voice by time and repetition, but we only get that trust from actually trusting; by risking trust when you don’t have to yet: By walking for the first time because your father believes you can; riding the bike without training wheels because you trusted your mother to let go. By trusting your 16 year old kid to drive their little sibling to practice; or letting your 60 year old kid make decisions for you you wouldn’t have made yourself.
We get that trust in God by packing up and moving to a new job far away, or in a new field, by taking Jesus literally about loving our neighbors when we don’t like our neighbors, forgiving when there is more to be gained by holding out for retribution, by going on out and making disciples when people might laugh at us, or be uncomfortable with your passion.

We get that trust from trusting, and from love. From loving so much that you’ll do anything for your beloved, and from knowing yourself loved that much.

That’s what the sheep know: trust and belovedness.
That is how we know the voice we follow.

Some of us happen to hear the voice of God in words, words that apply to our immediate situation: “Choose this one. Stay here. Now! Not yet. Go to Galilee….”
Some of us don’t.

Others hear the voice of God by the movement of our hearts – when joy or sympathy or sorrow or hope pull you to certain people, new ideas and big dreams, or to action.
Others don’t.

Some hear the voice of God clearly in the words of the Bible, in the actions of the sacraments,
in the voice of a loved one, or by experiencing answered prayer.
And some of us don’t know for sure how we hear God’s voice,
but I promise you, you do.

You do, because the voice of God is love.

Think about what it feels like when you know that you are loved.
Whether it’s in rare shining moments, or long, quiet, barely noticeable assurance, that knowing that you are loved is what Jesus wants us to notice about sheep and the good shepherd today.

We practice that feeling – or we are meant to – at the altar, at communion, where the shepherd feeds us. We are called to practice being beloved among our families and dear friends. We practice being beloved by God, and returning and sharing that love, because that practice is how we listen to God.

So pay attention to your belovedness.
Stay tuned to that voice. Spend time with it.
Listen. Love. Be loved.

Because that is how God saves us; how Jesus gives abundant life.

That is how the good shepherd is known, in the world, and among us.
The shepherd is known to everyone by the sheep who follow that voice: to pasture, and out of danger, through love, and to abundant life.

Sunday, April 30, 2017


Luke 24:13-35

Yesterday was my Grandmother’s 100th birthday.

Last month, my father and I talked about how to mark the occasion, because this would be the first time we’d have to do so without her. She died last October, decades after she was ready to be reunited with her husband, but six months short of the milestone we’d all sort of started expecting her to meet. So it was an unexpected challenge, thinking about how to mark this 100th anniversary of her birth without her, for the first time.

And the first thing that came to my mind was dinner.
A nice substantial dinner in the middle of the day, with ham, and mashed potatoes, and probably collard greens. A few other dishes, and then pie. Very definitely pie.

You see, my childhood memories of my Grandmother are dominated by the dining table. I grew up as a picky eater, not interested in cooking (and to this day, my idea of cooking dinner is taking the Trader Joe’s goodies out of the freezer and putting them on a baking sheet). So my Grandmother’s home-made dinners were a daily wonder to me, when we visited. They were rich in butter and bacon, and unlike my parents, my Grandmother wasn’t worried about my sugar intake. She was a scratch baker – a true miracle in my eyes – and if there was ever a dinner at her house that didn’t end with pie, I have blocked out the memory.

My grandmother showed her love in many ways, but for me, her dinner table is a sign of love that looms large in my memories and heart, and shaped my sense of God’s abundance from a very early age.

Meals mattered with my Grandmother.
And they do with Jesus.

In Luke’s gospel in particular, Jesus is constantly eating a meal, going to one, coming from one, or talking about a meal. And in both of Luke’s stories about the resurrection, it’s a meal that makes Jesus’ risen presence a reality to his disciples.

Imagine this:
You’re headed home after an emotional holiday. The friends and family you’ve been with have suffered political and emotional whiplash as your friend was killed just when he was on the verge of doing great things, fulfilling his destiny.
Now there are rumors that he’s not dead after all. Crazy rumors, but someone you know was there and says that his grave is now empty. It’s crazy, but you can’t stay in the middle of it. There are responsibilities waiting, and you have to go, so you do. We hit the road.

The road is a good place, sometimes, for grief. Or for conversations about crazy things, speculative things, vulnerable things – for saying the kind of things that can be hard to say face to face, but that flow a little easier when you’re side by side, moving along, together.

We try to figure it all out. We get it off our chests, we process our experiences. We do the things you are supposed to do when you’re stunned and sad.
And along the way, someone else chimes in.
“Hey, what’s this you’re talking about?”

Sometimes it’s easier to tell a stranger, to talk about “out there” stuff to people who don’t know you and won’t hold it against you next Monday at the office, or suspect your commitment to them because you’re exploring something new.
And this particular stranger is interested. Passionately interested. Joins in the conversation, working to make sense of the whole thing with us, quoting scripture, citing authoritative sources for the things we’ve only speculated about.

Sometimes telling your troubles – or your wild ideas, your fondest hopes – to someone else creates a bond. You don’t want to lose the moment, and when we get to a stopping place, we don’t want to let go: “Oh, come in and have dinner with us. I insist.”

And at dinner, in the warm, nourishing intimacy of the table, the stranger picks up the bread: breaks it, passes it, shares it,
and everything changes.

Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

I don’t know why the traveling disciples didn’t recognize Jesus on the road. Preachers and scholars have plenty of explanations – distraction, expectations, the hand of God, – but whatever it was, I think Luke tells the story this way because he wants us to notice that the meal matters. That the dinner table is where the relationship is made real all over again; the meal completes the miracle of resurrection and redemption.

From God’s earliest promises of a homeland flowing with milk and honey, through the prophets’ visions of abundant tables, through the stories and actions of Jesus, throughout scripture, an abundance of good food is a sign of the completion of God’s promises.

So it is at dinner, at the table, in the act of receiving bread from God’s hand, that the disciples on the road recognize the completion of everything that Jesus has taught them; the completion of his promise of resurrection and return and redemption that they had heard, and wondered about, and never quite understood.

You and I, Luke’s readers, Luke’s hearers, are supposed to recognize not only Jesus in this story, but the Eucharist, the meal we still share two thousand years later to remind us that the promises of God are still being fulfilled among and in us.

The words of the story, that Jesus “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them,” intentionally echo the words that describe Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper when he offered his friends his Body, and at the feeding of five thousand hungry people with an abundance that overflowed even in the leftovers.
And when these traveling disciples rush back to Jerusalem, they tell Peter and the others how Jesus was revealed in the breaking of the bread, in the same words the community of apostles will use to describe their first Eucharistic meals, the breaking of bread which makes us one.

When we read and hear this story, Luke wants us to remember that this miraculous meal the disciples shared on the road is the same thing we do every Sunday, every time we meet for Eucharist.

We come from wherever we have been, sometimes puzzling over what has happened in our lives; we bring blessings and griefs and questions, and together, we remember and interpret the stories of scripture.
Then we break bread. And commit ourselves to the truth that the risen Christ is here, that love takes solid form among us at this table, just long enough for us to recognize and respond.

It can be harder to see a real meal in the wafers and wine than it is to see Jesus in them, I know. And sometimes, with all our prayer and faith, the wafers are just…well, a faint facsimile of bread…and the wine or juice is just grapes.
Sometimes dinner with my Grandmother was just dinner. Sometimes I was disappointed to find out the pie was just boring apple.
But even then, the flour and water, wafers or pie, are still love made physical, love made edible, love made – sometimes – boring and bland but still nourishing to the body and soul.

And other times, well…other times the pie was lemon meringue, and I tasted heaven. Other times, Jesus bursts into our sight, our hearts, as we receive a little morsel of bread from God’s hands, and we remember how Jesus has set our hearts on fire.

Sometimes that happens because we come to the table – the altar table, the dinner table – more open than usual, more vulnerable in our grief or wonder or spiritual hunger. Sometimes it happens because God just can’t be kept out of even the most ordinary days and things. Either way, those are the times that make gospel, that set resurrection loose in the world to redeem us all.

So keep eating, my friends. Practice being fed with love at your ordinary dinner table, whether the food is frozen or home-made. Practice being fed by love in the Eucharist, so that we are ready for those unpredictable moments when we recognize God’s promises fulfilled, right here and now, when heaven comes to meet us on earth, and we remember all at once how Jesus has set our hearts on fire, and go forth from the table to light the world anew.