Tuesday, May 28, 2019

For the Healing of the Nations

Psalm 67; John 14:23-27; Revelation 22:1-5
May 26, 2019
Welcome to the Sabbath Cafe, our summertime experiment in worship gathering. Most of worship will be conversational, with just a brief homily to prompt some of our discussion.
The leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. The leaves of the tree of life wave on the winds of our breath as we sing songs of praise. The leaves of the tree of life shimmy to the sound of our song.
I want to play a brief clip for you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYnLRf-SNxY

That’s a group of Iranian young adults dancing to the Pharell Williams song Happy. I thought about that video, which is about five years old now, this week as I pondered the words from Revelation amidst the background noise of saber rattling.
There are at least two things you need to know about that video: first, Iranian authorities arrested those kids for behavior contrary to the values of the revolution, or some such garbage; second; those kids and their neighbors are the ones our leaders are talking about going to war against.
The leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. There was a story in the Post last week about the 50th anniversary of the battle known as Hamburger Hill during the worst days of the American war. One of the vets quoted in the story noted that by the end of the 10-day struggle over an otherwise anonymous jungle mountain the top of the hill had been completely deforested. The story had a picture with it that could have been called “when the leaves of the trees are gone the healing of the nations is a distant dream.”
On this Sunday of the Memorial Day weekend, my prayer is that we plant trees whose leaves will be for the healing of the nations. Moreover, I pray that we may water those trees with our tears.
Memorial Day falls always in the run-up to various Pride celebrations around the country, and this year Pride festivals will be marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. The queer folk – gay men, drag queens, lesbians – stood up in New York City against the powers and principalities – those enforcing traditional values who appear to me to be not that different from the Iranian officials cracking down on basic human expression.
That’s the kind of pride we need a lot more of – always. For exuberantly shared human expressions tend to end in tears. Sometimes tears of joy; sometimes tears of sorrow – but deeply felt human emotion tends to end with tears.
Honestly, I watch that video of Iranian kids dancing, and water rises to my eyes. I think about the long journey from Stonewall to marriage equality, and water rises to my eyes. I think about the possibility of another senseless war, and water rises to my eyes. I think about the complete lack of GLBTQ rights in Iran, and water rises to my eyes. I think about the weddings of loving same-gender couples it has been my deepest privilege to officiate, and water rises to my eyes.
May that water roll down and refresh the deepest roots of the tree of life, and may its leaves be for the healing of the nations.

Monday, May 20, 2019

New and Improved!

John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-10; Revelation 21:1-6
May 19, 2019
The texts for this morning – from John, from Acts, and from Revelation – all turn on something new: the new commandment that Jesus gives as part of his long farewell discourse in John’s gospel; the new understanding of accepted purity codes that Peter perceives at a key moment in Acts; and the eschatological vision of a new heaven and a new earth at the conclusion of Revelation.
Clearly, throughout scripture, God is regularly doing a new thing. God is a God of renewal, and, I can’t help it, but I think if Madison Avenue got ahold of the whole thing they’d stamp “new and improved” across the entire story.
Trouble down in Egypt land? Here’s a new and improved promised land!
Tired of life in Babylon? Behold, I’m am about to do a new and improved thing!
Tired of trying to keep track of 10 commandments? Here’s a single one: new and improved!
Yeah, no. The worst thing that can happen to the gospel of Jesus Christ is for it to get tangled up with the consumer culture of Madison Avenue. Indeed, the worst excesses of the North American church of the 20th and, now, 21st centuries have come out of that ill-considered combination. The whole prosperity gospel and consumer Christianity have roots there, and those roots sprouted a whole lot of the worst of conservative evangelical American Christianity.
Still, God is, regularly and throughout scripture, doing new things.
The thing is, regularly and throughout scripture, the new things that God is doing in the world confound, first and foremost, the traditional institutions of the faith.
Take this story from Acts. Peter stands in for the traditions of the faith with his declaration, “by no means, Lord; I will not do this ‘unclean’ thing.” Yet the vision persists – three times – and this traditionally faithful follower, who has, notably, denied knowing Jesus three times then proclaimed his love for Jesus three times, begins, ever so slowly, to see things anew. Peter begins to get a new mind for a new age and perceive this new thing that God is doing.
The new thing, in Peter’s case, is the beginning of the spread of the gospel beyond its traditional roots in Judaism into cultures and communities for whom traditional Jewish law and custom have no deep meaning or power.
The vision compels Peter to wonder and explore what will have meaning and power for cultures and communities beyond his Jewish roots. The answer? The new thing that God was doing in and through the life of Jesus, and, in particular, the powerful simplicity of a singular commandment: love one another as I have loved you.
If we are ever to taste a bit of the new heaven and new earth, the new Jerusalem that is the climactic vision of John’s apocalypse, it will only be to the extent that we learn to live Jesus’ commandment. If we love one another as Jesus loved his disciples, then that new heaven and new earth are close at hand.
It is, of course, a whole lot easier to say this than it is to do it. So much gets in the way, even when we authentically want to follow the way of Jesus in the world.
I take comfort, often, in the stories of Peter. Clearly, he wanted to follow the way of Jesus. Indeed, he sacrificed everything, and, eventually, even his life in his effort to be faithful. Yet, the gospels of full of stories of his failures.
Sometimes he just doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about. Other times he misses what’s right in front of him. At the end, in the garden, he turns to violence before Jesus rebukes him. And then, he turns away in fear as Jesus faces his final hours.
Even when the resurrected Jesus appears to him and asks, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter misses the cue. In that famous scene in the final chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus three times asks Peter, “do you love me,” and three times Peter says, “yes.”
We miss the depth of this exchange in most English translations that simply have Jesus say, “do you love me?” and Peter respond, “yes, I love you.” But it all turns on the Greek words, for the first two times Jesus asks, the Greek reads “Simon, agapas me?” and Peter replies, “philo te.”
Philo is best translated as the love of siblings. It’s what we hear in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Agape, as distinct from philos or eros – the love of lovers – is sacrificial, self-giving love that is concerned solely for the well-being of the beloved. It is as if Jesus asks Peter, “do you love me?” and Peter responds, “Yes, Jesus, I’m fond of you.”
Tellingly, after asking twice if Peter has a sacrificial love, an other-centered love, the love which Jesus has commanded his followers to have for one another, Jesus asks the third time, “Simon, phileis me?” It is as if, in that moment, Jesus realizes that the commandment he has given – new and improved – has been given to ordinary old human beings – not new, not improved, just us. And, in that moment, he lets the standard slip for an old friend.
Nevertheless, the commandment remains and it stands for us as an invitation to live into something new. Fortunately, that story from the end of John offers some helpful guidance to us in our old, worn-out, not-much-improved human condition: feed my sheep.
If you recall, when Jesus inquires about Peter’s love – even when he shifts from agape to philos, from sacrificial, other-centered love to “brotherly” love – his instructions remain basically the same: feed my sheep, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.
In other words, Jesus understands that he’s not addressing a “new and improved” human being, but, instead, a tired, fearful, confused, ordinary, run-of-the-mill human being. And the invitation remains the same: love one another, take care of one another, feed one another.
You want to live into a new heaven and a new earth? You want to experience a new Jerusalem? You’ve heard about the “keys to the kingdom”? Well, there’s actually only one key to the kingdom: love one another.
That key opens every gate to the city of God.
Let us pray: Holy One, you promise us that when we seek we will find what we’re looking for, that when we knock then the door will be open. When the door to the Beloved Community seems locked, you have given us the key – love one another. Give us the courage to use that key to open every doorway to justice and to peace. Amen.

Monday, May 13, 2019

A Table Prepared

Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17
May 12, 2019
Who are all these folks who’ve come from everywhere to gather at this feast and celebration? That seems to be the heart of the question the elder is asking in John’s eschatological vision. I read this scene from Revelation and I imagine it like this:
A very proper maître de standing at the main entrance to a grand ballroom. Very proper Renaissance art hangs from the wall. Why there’s a Leonardo … and over there, a Madonna by Raphael. A very proper chamber orchestra is playing very proper chamber music. Is that Mozart I hear drifting out from the great hall?
But the line of folks heading in? Why they don’t look all that proper at all. In fact, they’re a rather scruffy lot who look like they just come through a great ordeal. Look closely: there’s a family of immigrants; there’s an Uber driver; there’s a solar panel installer; there’s a house-cleaner; a union organizer; teachers, tech workers, street sweepers, and folks living on those streets; folks struggling with addictions, people suffering the strains of broken families; a panoply of powerlessness. The line in looks a whole lot more like a line up, more bread line than rope line.
Last week, after her incredibly sad and untimely death, a lot of quotes from the writings of Rachel Held Evans were floating around social media. This one just jumped out at me as I pondered our text from Revelation:
“This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”
What if that really is what faith is all about? “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” gathered because when the invitation to the great banquet came they said “yes” … and there’s always room for more.
What if that really is what faith is all about? A feast prepared in the midst of the brokenness of the world, in the presence even of those opposed to such feasting, a banquet of love that outshines and outlasts all the hatred in the world. What if that really is what our faith is all about?
I think we make a huge, fundamental, and fundamentally theological error when we think of faith first and foremost as having to do with salvation – at least, that is, insofar as we think of “salvation” as “salvation from.” That is to say, if we think about faith in response to God’s grace as saving us from some fearful fate, then we are motivated by fear.
And, to go back to where we left off last week – with the theological insight of Yoda – fear is the path to the dark side. Most fear is about scarcity – scarcity of stuff, scarcity of safety, scarcity of security, scarcity of love.
On the other hand, the images of Psalm 23, like the images in this passage from Revelation, are all about abundance: green pastures, still waters, overflowing cups; great multitudes with abundant food and drink.
The power beyond such provision is simple: love. For God so loves the whole of the cosmos that there will be enough … if we but accept the invitation to live into this love.
Sometimes it is hard to perceive this, and some days it is profoundly difficult to proclaim it. All too often the world seems bent on testifying against it.
Last week there was another school shooting. In the 20 years since the Columbine shooting there have been more than 230 school shootings in the United States. Last week another child died while in custody of federal immigration officials. More than 20 people have died in such detention in the past two years.
Meanwhile, the list of nations with ongoing armed conflict is so long that the Wikipedia page listing them all seems like it has run out of colors for its charts of deaths. Let’s just sum up: last year more than 125,000 people were killed in the 17 deadliest countries. Most of the folks who wind up on our southern border are fleeing some part of that violence.
Oh, and last week the United Nations issued a report warning that more than a million species face extinction due to human activity in the world – much of that due to climate change. Many of the folks who wind up on our southern border who are not fleeing violence are fleeing food insecurity due to climate change.
Most of this stuff is related – bound up in a tangled web of insufficiency, insecurity, and fearfulness.
It’s hard to see how love wins.
I’ve had a notecard on my desk since sometime in early March. It’s from one of the prayer stations from Lent. It reads, simply,
“We are …
            God’s love in the world.
            God’s light in the world.
            God’s hope in the world.
            God’s peace in the world.”
It’s a song waiting to be finished, and some day I’m going to find the rest of it. In the meanwhile, as I was feeling bound up on the web of insufficiency and insecurity and fearfulness this week, I looked at that notecard and I thought:
I think of God’s love in the world when I think of all the kids – including my own – who I’ve seen grow in love through the ministry at Camp Hanover over all the years we’ve supported that ministry.
And I think of God’s light in the world when I think of the ways we have worked in recent years to support immigrants and asylum seekers, and, of course, they ways we’ve been light and more light for a couple of generations of GLBTQIA folks in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and across the Commonwealth of Virginia.
And I think of God’s hope in the world when I think of the Young Adult Volunteers – including our own Christina Hogan – giving a year or two of their lives learning the deep lessons of simple life in community while sharing their gifts with folks whose lives often seem devoid of hope. And I think of the work that we’ve done and continue to do in disaster relief assistance with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance – whose motto, after all, is “out of chaos, hope.”
And I think of God’s peace in the world when I think of the work I’ve been privileged to do over the years with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, helping to reshape the church around the gospel of Matthew 25, and working to reduce gun violence, and supporting our Presbyterian siblings in Colombia through the accompaniment program, and so many other efforts to bring wholeness to a broken world.
And I know that there are so many other ways that we have, together, been love, light, hope, and peace in the world, and that we have witnessed to all of that and so much more over the many decades at CPC. Even now, we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses – all the saints who have gone before us, doing what they could, where they were, with what they had at hand.
None of these things are huge, and maybe they don’t even add up to much. But they are, at the very least, seeds. As Thoreau said, “though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
Expect wonders!
This morning, as we sing our closing hymn – For All the Saints – and we remember the witness and worshipful work of those who have gone before us, I invite you to come up to the table and take away a seed bomb. Go out and plant. Bring something beautiful into the world. “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders!”
That’s what happens when we come to a table prepared for us – we can be filled with wonder, and sent out into the world to share it with the world. Amen.