Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Water Is Life

John 4:5-42
March 19, 2017
Every once and a while serving on the board of a nonprofit has some perks. Last week I received one related to my work with People of Faith for Equality in Virginia: I had the distinct privilege and pleasure of having lunch with Bishop Gene Robinson.
I asked him what connections he saw between the reformation-type shifts in the global church that we’ve been talking about this year and his work for GLBTQ justice – in the church and the wider world. He said, “you know, David, people come to church looking for God and we give them religion instead. But that’s changing in a lot of places these days.”
I don’t think that disconnect is anything new under the sun, and it may be the root cause of all of the great religious upheavals throughout history. People are parched for a sip of living water, and the religious establishment says, “first let’s see if you’re after Lutheran water or Presbyterian water or some other weird flavor,” or “first, learn this 2,000 year-old-creed that in no way speaks to your thirst, but learn it first anyway,” or “tell me about your gender and your sexual orientation, first.”
In Martin Luther’s time, it would have been, “let’s talk about the matter of a small indulgence, and then we’ll get to the God-talk.” In Jesus’ time, as the reading from John’s gospel surely indicates, it would have been, “the temple is no place for a woman” or “let’s judge your marital status first” or “you are a Samaritan, you have no business in this conversation in the first place.”
There is and always has been a religious establishment who perceive as their first charge protecting the institution and guarding its gates. People come to those gates seeking God, thirsting for something to quench a thirst that they can barely name, and we say, “let me tell you the history of this lovely stained-glass gate. You know, my great-grandfather helped pay for the gate.”
And we wonder why the institutional church is collapsing all around us. Oh, and it is collapsing. Make no mistake about that. It matters not whether we are talking the Mainline or the old line or the out-of-line, the liberal or the conservative, the northern or the southern – the institutional church in North America is collapsing. Every single denomination that is older than a decade is experiencing membership decline. Mainline Protestant churches – Lutherans, Presbyterians, UCC, Methodists, Episcopalians, and so on – have seen total membership decline by more than 10 percent over the past decade. Since 2005, our denomination has lost about one quarter of its members – a decline of more than a half million. Heck, the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has tripled since 1990. And so it goes.
So Jesus and a woman of questionable reputation meet at the local watering hole. “Pour me a drink?” Jesus asks.
“I am so tired,” the woman probably thinks to herself. “I am tired of carrying this water; I am tired of the midday heat; I am tired of men.”
But she says, “You’re not from around here.”
“Why do you say that?” Jesus asks.
“Well, first off, if you were from around here you would know that men do not speak to women. Indeed, you’d know that a man should never be alone with a woman unless they’re married.”
“Hm,” says Jesus, “Well, in that case, call for your husband and I’ll speak with him.”
“I’m not married,” she replies.
“Yes, but you have been. And more than once. Quite a few times, I’m thinking.”
“Ugh. Men,” she probably thinks to herself. “Is that all they care about? Ever?” But aloud she asks, “how do you know?”
And he tells her, “I can see the sorrow and the pain in the lines around your eyes; I can hear the longing and the thirst in your words and in your voice. You come out here at midday to get away from the gossip and the talk, and you are looking for something that you can’t even name. I can give you water; water that fills you down to the souls of your feet and up as high as your spirit can reach.”
“Sir, give me a drink. Please. I am so tired and so thirsty.”
This is the word of the Lord to the church in our time.
The people are parched; let’s give them something to drink.
The challenge, of course, is that, as an institution, we have lost most of our credibility because we, too, are parched. We are too much like the dry bones to which Ezekiel preached, and the boneyard is the last place people come looking for a drink.
So, what good news can we possibly hear in this? After lunch last week, Bishop Robinson spoke to an interfaith group of several dozen NoVA clergy. He was encouraging us to continue the work for LGBTQ justice. He reminded us that it is still possible in about half the states in the Union – including ours – for a gay or lesbian couple to get married on a Saturday, get evicted from their apartment on Sunday when the landlord reads about the wedding in the lovely write-up in the local paper, and lose their jobs on Monday because management saw the story, too. And they have no legal recourse because such discrimination in housing and employment remains perfectly legal.
That doesn’t sound like good news at all! In fact, I think the woman at the well would understand such a story perfectly well, and could probably see herself in it, too.
Here’s the good news: just as Jesus met the woman at the well right where she was, and loved her just as she was, God is right there in the midst of not only the beautiful wedding but present, heart broken open in anguish, in solidarity with those who suffer discrimination.
That is good news for all who suffer, for all who thirst, for all who will be hurt by the policies coming out of the White House and the Congress these days. None of us suffer alone. God is there, in the midst of the down-trodden, the broken-hearted, the poor, the outcast, the prisoners and the oppressed, the children who will go to school hungry because there is no “demonstrable evidence” that feeding children produces results and the elderly who will no longer receive meals on wheels because “reasons,” the children of Flint drinking contaminated water because they are poor, and the water protectors of Standing Rock who remind us of the same deep truth that Jesus spoke: water is life.
The challenge to the church is as clear as clean water drawn from a deep well not contaminated by lead or by oil or by fracking. If we want to be where God is then we need to get ourselves to the places where we can stand in solidarity with the broken-hearted children of a broken-hearted God.
As Bishop Robinson said to us, “when the church goes out to do justice we find that God is already there.”
If people come to church looking for God, maybe the best thing they could find is a sign in the window that says, “gone fishing … for justice” and a note that invites them to join us – join us walking on the picket line, join us serving in the soup line, join us in crossing every line that would divide the people from one another.

Drink deeply from the wellspring for it overflows with living water, then rushes down in a mighty stream of justice and righteousness. In that water we will find life. In that water we will find the God for whom our parched souls thirst. May it be so. Amen.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Great Confusion

Psalm 121; John 3:1-17
March 12, 2017
John 3 … especially John 3:16. What more is there to say about this most-interpreted, over-determined passage that many of the faithful take as the heart of the gospel? I wrestled with that question for several days last week, and, well, I got nothing, or next to it. So I want to begin backwards this morning.
How many of y’all have done lectio divina reading with me or in other contexts? Lectio divina, or divine reading, is a Benedictine practice of devotional or inspirational reading of scripture in which one listens for a word of phrase in a passage that sparkles or shines out or strikes you particularly and then meditates on that word or phrase listening for the Spirit’s moving in your thoughts.
That’s not what I want to do at all. Instead, I have in mind this morning what I’m calling, almost seriously, lectio Diablo. Yeah, I want to invite you to think for a moment about the worst misuses or abuses you can recall related to the text, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
How many of you can recall an instance of being beaten over the head with that verse, or of seeing it used as a cudgel in some argument over religion?

One of the occupational hazards of pastoral life is being asked from time to time to take surveys for religious studies professionals. I got one last week, and took 15 or 20 minutes to complete it. Hey, I remember doing research so I try to help out when I can!
In any case, this one was about faith and political engagement, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the researcher was fairly conservative. The biggest tell for me was a question asking me to rate how important it was to believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation. That’s a question whose roots run straight back to John 3:16, or, more accurately, to John 3:18 where the author of John’s gospel adds a motivational kicker: “”those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
A few of us are old enough to remember the rainbow wig guy who used to show up at major sporting events sporting a t-shirt with “John 3:16” emblazoned on it. Just as an aside, if you want to read a really sad tale, Google “rainbow wig guy” and read about his life – a cautionary tale that a single verse of scripture cannot redeem.
But for a certain strain of evangelical Christianity, this single verse provides a firm enough foundation to rest an entire religion upon. If believing is all that matters then salvation is a simple transaction: I say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the only Son of God” – all caps and probably trademarked – and God stamps my golden ticket to eternity. If you believe this, then your top priority becomes getting others to believe it, too, because their salvation rests not so much on God’s love of the world but on your ability to convince others to believe it, too. When that’s your fundamental conviction, well, you might just wind up wearing a rainbow wig at baseball games.
The problem arises when you rest your entire faith on a single verse or even a single passage taken out of the context of the whole.
The Great Reformation had several watchwords or key, simple-sounding, and – of course – Latin phrases that came to define it and set Protestant churches apart from their Roman Catholic sisters. These included:
·      Sola scriptura;
·      Sola fide;
·      Sola gratia.
Or, scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone provide the key to salvation. It doesn’t take a math major to wonder quickly how there could be three “solas” when it seems that the word itself implies singularity, but the reformers were apparently theologians first and simple mathematicians eighth … or something like that.
In any case, these simple phrases provided a shorthand reminder that, for the Reformers, salvation rested on scripture rather than the tradition of the church, on faith rather than good works, and on the grace of God rather than any inherent merit of human beings.
These watchwords have their merit, to be sure. Most importantly, they shift the central focus of faith toward the relationship between the believer and God, and away from the relationship between the believer and the church hierarchy.
Every gift has a shadow side, of course, and the shadow side of this shift of focus toward the faith life of individuals has been a focus on individual salvation at the expense of deep community life and commitment to justice. You go too far down that road and you wind up with the Joel Osteens of the world and a gospel of individual prosperity that has way more to do with American consumerism than it does with Jesus of Nazareth.
When your principle commitment is to individual blessing in this life and individual salvation in the life to come, it’s also a pretty short leap to political support for an ugly stew of utterly unrestrained capitalism and a toxic libertarian-conservatism. That is to say, when your primary religious concern is individual salvation it’s easy to understand your primary economic concern as individual prosperity and your primary political concern as anything – say, income taxes or environmental regulations or being compelled, as a man, to pay for prenatal care for women – anything that stands in the way of individual prosperity.
You can get to the prosperity gospel pretty quickly from John 3:16, but you don’t have to. That is to say, whatever diabolical readings of John 3 you may have experienced over the years, none of them is inherent in either the text itself nor in an authentically Reformed reading of the text.
For when you proclaim sola scriptura, or scripture alone, you are not saying, “one verse alone.” As John Calvin put it, “There are many statements in Scripture the meaning of which depends upon their context.”[1] Furthermore, following the great confessional statements of the Reformation era, we are reminded, in the Second Helvetic Confession, that we Reformed folk “hold that interpretation of the Scripture to be orthodox and genuine which is gleaned from the Scriptures themselves … and expounded in the light of like and unlike passages and of many and clearer passages.”[2]
That’s a ridiculously scholarly way of saying, “don’t take David’s word for it, or the church’s word for it, and don’t take it on its own out of context of the whole.”
Moreover, when you proclaim sola scriptura you are also proclaiming, with the Reformers, fealty to the rule of love. That is to say, in this case along with the authors of the Scots Confession, “We dare not receive or admit any interpretation which is contrary to […] the rule of love.”[3]
That rule of interpretation holds simply that, when Jesus said, “love God and love your neighbor,” he ruled out any reading of scripture that demeans human beings or God. If our reading does not lead to love, then our reading is wrong.
That gets back to the heart of the matter in John 3:16: “for God so loved the world” – and the Greek word there is “cosmos,” or the whole of Creation. In other words, the Christ event, the whole Jesus story, is about God’s love for all of creation.
When the story of Jesus leads away from love, then we’re reading it wrong. If your reading of scripture leads you to believe that it’s God’s will and it should be legal for you to discriminate and refuse to bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples, well you’re reading it wrong. If your reading of scripture leads you to declare yourself anti-feminist, well you’re reading it wrong. If your reading of scripture leads you to support anti-Islam immigration orders, well then your reading it wrong.
Indeed, if we read just a few more verses past 3:16, we are challenged to understand that living into the truth of God’s love leads, precisely, to living love. “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:21). In other words, by their fruits you shall know them.
In still other words, if we read John 3:16 and the result of our reading is hateful language that excludes, then we’re doing it all wrong. If we read those words, and hear in them an invitation to live fully into that divine love, then we’re getting closer to the heart of the gospel.
When we draw closer to the heart of the gospel we’ll begin to wrestle deeply with the same questions that drove Nicodemus to seek out Jesus under cover of darkness. As we draw closer to the heart of the gospel, we find ourselves responding in all kinds of ways to the invitation to live in the bright light of God’s love. In that light, we know that God is love is love is love is love is love is love is love. Amen.

[1] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, 23.
[2] Book of Confessions, 5.010.
[3] Book of Confessions, 3.18

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Singing for Our Lives

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; Matthew 17:1-8
February 26, 2017
There are, according to some sources, more than 6,000 Negro spirituals. Almost all of the music we’re singing this morning has roots in that remarkably rich cultural soil. Think about that factoid for a moment: more than 6,000 songs of human faith and hope arising out of the most inhumane and hopeless conditions imaginable.
You can hear that hope and faith in the song theologian James Cone recalls his mother singing around their house in the small southern Arkansas town of Bearden:
O Mary don’t you weep don’t you mourn
O Mary don’t you weep don’t you mourn
Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep.
If God delivered the captive Israelites from the bondage of Pharoah’s Egypt, then God would do the same for captive slaves in America. That’s why the song was sung. As Cone puts it: “The power of song in the struggle for black survival – that is what the spirituals and blues are about.”[1]
They are about singing for one’s life. Why does any of this matter for us today? For a pretty much Anglo community whose lived experience is just about the furthest thing imaginable from that of slaves?
To begin with, this matters because the power of song is essential in all human struggle. Songs matter if for no other reason than creating beauty in a time of overwhelming ugliness matters. When we sing, we breathe together. Spirit is wind, it is breath, and when we join our voices we conspire – we breathe together – we engage a conspiracy of beauty.
More specifically, the spirituals proclaim in song the theological truth that black lives matter, and that they matter, first, to God. That truth has to have a claim on our lives, and that claim ought to make us uncomfortable if not with our own individual thoughts and actions, then, certainly, with the ways that white-dominated economic and political systems continue to marginalize and oppress people of color in our own town, across our own country, and around the world. People of color are still singing for their lives.
Our readings this morning are about going up to the mountaintop, and I cannot read them without hearing the echo of Martin Luther King’s final speech that concluded with his assurance that God had allowed him “to go up to the mountain,” to look over and see the promised land.
For King, that promised land was always the Beloved Community, where all God’s children are free at last. Children of color and children of pallor – all of us free: free from racism, free from sexism, free from heterosexism, free from militarism, free from corporatism. Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last. That’s what we sing for when we’re singing for our lives. Amen.

[1] Ibid. 1.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

You Have Heard It Said

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:38-48

February 19, 2017-02-14

“But we’ve always done it this way!”

Or, as they say, “the seven deadliest words in the church are ‘we’ve never done it that way before.’”
It is not too hard to imagine this refrain in response to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “But Jesus, we’ve always had an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That’s just the way things are.” Or, “But Jesus, we’ve always held our enemies in disdain, think of Moses and Pharaoh. Hating our enemies is just the way things are.” And, “Jesus, there’s no way I’m lugging that Roman centurion’s gear a second mile. I hate those guys with a perfect passion!”
Yes, everyone around Jesus had heard it said the same way, over and over, from all directions. Their sacred texts instructed them. Their religious leaders told them. Their culture assured them. What they had heard said was the Truth – with a capital T.
And yet. And yet here was this Jesus saying, “I know what you’ve heard, but I tell you it’s really the other way ‘round.”
Sometimes, of course, what you have heard said is true. But even when it’s true it can mislead you. Let’s take something as simple as the eternal truth that the sun sets to the west. Now add in that map truth: the Pacific Ocean lies off the west coast of the continental United States. With me so far?
These are truths that I have pretty much always taken as self-evident, or, at least, as correct. Which is why visiting our eldest in Santa Cruz messes with my mind. Santa Cruz sits right on the California coastline. It’s beautiful: the Redwood covered hills running right down to the beach just up the coastal highway from town; the Santa Cruz wharf jutting out into the beautiful water.
But then you sit in a restaurant on the wharf at sunset, and the sun doesn’t set over the water. It sets over the place where those redwood covered hills meet the coast just up the highway. Your east-coast liberal elite educated brain tells you, “wait a minute; that’s the Pacific Ocean I am looking out across. The sun has to set over there.”
But the sun doesn’t listen because it’s busy setting in the west, as it always does, while you are looking south because Santa Cruz actually sits on the northern edge of Monterey Bay, and even though you know this because you have been told and you have looked at maps to confirm it, your brain still says, “hey, I have heard it said that the sun sets in the west and the Pacific Ocean is on the west coast.”
And then I know just how the disciples felt. I do not understand reality any better than they did, and I’ve got satellite imagery to confirm it for me.
We carry around these ideas we believe so firmly that even when confronted by clear evidence that contradicts the ideas, we cling to the ideas rather than reform them.
Moses must have understood this problem well. Even having liberated the captives from bondage in Egypt he heard, over and over again, “it would have been better for us to have remained pharaoh’s slaves than to wander lost in this wilderness.”
When he set before them “life and death,” it would come as no surprise that many would choose death. Death was what they knew. Death was familiar. Death was what they had learned. To choose life was to choose something new. Choosing life required getting a new mind for a new time.
The earth shifted beneath their feet and they looked south to see the setting sun.
It’s the same direction the disciples were looking when Jesus stood on the hillside and pointed out another way. He might well have stood up there and said, “today I set before you life and death; choose life.” Today I set before you violence and hatred on the one hand, and on the other hand, difficult, perhaps costly love and, with it, a way beyond the cycles of violence and death within which you are trapped.
Given that, how many of us take the familiar route and choose death? Most of us, to be honest. Costly love is, well, too costly. It’s too hard. It’s asks too much of us and yields nothing to our control.
It promises only a slender reed of hope standing against a raging tide of memory and history that tell us that there is no other way than the way things are.
Moreover, we only catch a glimpse of that hope if we reorient our gaze entirely because experience has taught us to look only one way.
We still haven’t learned the basic lessons Jesus sought to teach there on the hillside, so it should come as no surprise whatsoever that we haven’t come close at all to learning anything about the underlying shifts of mind that he invited his followers into. That is to say, we’re really no closer to loving our enemies today than the Jews of Jesus time were to loving the Romans. We’re no closer than they were to learning how to turn the other cheek, to give up our sweaters and coats, to going an extra mile.
And we’re certainly no closer to understanding what was at stake when Jesus said, “you have heard it said … but I say to you.”
Consider how long it has taken and how difficult it has been to make so many basic changes. Think of what you have heard said from so many quarters over so many years on so many matters.
After all, you have heard it said that women should be silent in the assembly, but I say to you that the co-moderators of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are women and the whole assembly should give ear and heed what they have to say. You have heard it said that homosexuality is an abomination, but I say to you that the most profound and faithful weddings I have been privileged to lead have been between same-sex couples and that gay men, lesbian women, and assorted queer folk have been among my most important teachers and guides in the faith. You have heard it said that humankind shall have the responsibility of dominion over the earth, but I say to you that we are bound up with our fellow creatures in a single garment of destiny and that we humans beings are unraveling the whole thing because we have mistaken responsibility for domination.
When I stand at the edge of the ocean and face the rising sun, I think I know what’s what, but then I face that same sea on a different coast and am reminded of how small I am, how little I truly understand, and how desperately I need to hear a new word that I might get a new mind for a new time.
By way of closing – but now of concluding – this morning I want to pose a question. As I have noted often over the past two months, this year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the great reformation that fundamentally reshaped life in Western Europe. The Reformers had heard many things said about the church, about God, about the human condition, and into their time they spoke a new word. That new word resonated only because they asked the right questions. That is to say, they new “what they had heard said,” and, therefore, to what received truths they needed to speak a new and unsettling word.
So, my question this morning is, what have you heard said that needs to be said differently, or to be unsaid? In other words, what received and culturally approved word should we be calling into question as we live into the age of reformation?