Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Extraordinary Sense of God: Beyond Human Binaries (1 Samuel 15:34-16:13)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on June 17, 2018, Proper 6)

This or That

I discovered spicy food at a very early age.  I don’t remember the day myself, but my parents tell the story this way.  As my mom, dad, and brother were preparing dinner, someone had left the refrigerator door open.  I was a toddler at the time and toddled on over to explore what was inside.  On the lowest shelf sat a red bottle.  I stuck its top in mouth.  And for the next hour or so, I was wincing and smacking my lips.  I had discovered Tabasco!

As far as I can reconstruct, that’s the day I learned the word “hot”—as opposed to “cold,” which the refrigerator certainly was.   And that’s the way we all learn, according to psychologists and linguists.  You can’t know one thing until you know its opposite.  Hot/cold, up/down, night/day: as children, we begin to make sense of the world by dividing it up into this or that.

As adults, we generally make sense of the world in the same dualistic, divided-up way.  And with good reason: these binaries are the basis of our survival, our self-preservation.  Without distinctions like poisonous/safe, healthy/unhealthy, predator/prey, friend/enemy, hot/cold, we wouldn’t be here today.

Binaries are the basis of survival.  But binaries can also blind us.  They limit the world to this or that categories.  Instead of seeing a fellow American, we see Republican or Democrat.  Instead of seeing a human being created in the image of God, we see man or woman, black or white, straight or gay.  Not only do these binaries blind us to deeper realities, they also make us biased.  Because binaries are about self-preservation, about keeping order, about keeping things the way they are. In any binary, we prefer the term that preserves our sense of self, whatever preserves the world as we know it.

Saul’s Selective Listening

If you were in a traffic jam, and you heard a random honk behind you, would pay much attention?  What if it were a police siren?  If you were on the sidewalk, and a stranger in a business suit was politely requesting help, would you approach him?  What if it were a homeless person whose voice was slurred?

The problem with Israel’s first king, Saul, was his selective listening: hearing this but not hearing that.  Right before today’s scripture, Samuel calls him to account for not precisely following the instructions of God, and Saul replies: “I feared my men and listened to their voice” (15:24).  In other words, King Saul was a people-pleaser.  He had strayed just a little bit from the command of God in order to please the strong men in his army (cf. 14:52). 

If you’ll remember from last week, God had warned Israel that a king spelled trouble.  Power would take without asking.  It would build itself up at the people’s expense.  Power would not ensure the justice of God’s good covenant.  It would not look out for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, as the covenant endlessly called for.[1]  Instead, it would do the opposite.  Power—a king of might, a king who would fight—this would take Israel back to its beginning in Egypt.  Or as God put it, “You will be…slaves” again (8:17).

Life under Saul did not look exactly like slavery, but in Saul’s selective listening, we catch a glimpse of power’s cold disregard.  Saul does not listen to God.  Nor, we might imagine, does he listen to the widow, the orphan, or the stranger.  Saul listens to the strong men carrying swords and spears. He listens to the people with power, the ones on whom his power rests.  What the widow, the orphan, the stranger, or God thinks…well, that can wait.

Samuel’s Selective Looking

In today’s scripture, we discover the outcome of Saul’s selective listening.  God has moved on.  God has already been scouting for a future king, and God’s found one!  Samuel follows God’s prompting and travels to Bethlehem.  

What comes next is a celebrated Bible story, a timeless classic that features in every children’s Sunday School curriculum.  Samuel invites Jesse to bring his sons before him.  First comes Eliab, and he must have had an impressive physique, because Samuel thinks, “Surely this is the one.”  But the Lord says to him, essentially, “Don’t look the way humans look, selectively, dividing up and judging by your categories, old/young, tall/short, strong/weak.  For God does not see that way.  God looks on the heart.”  In other words, Samuel was looking for the future king in the same way that Saul trying to stay king.  He was dividing the world up into this or that, and he was giving priority to whatever he thought would preserve power.  Saul listened first to the mighty men with swords and spears.  Samuel looked first for a son who was strong, commanding, and experienced.

Next comes Abinadab, and then Shammah, and then four more sons.  Each time, Samuel listens to God and shakes his head.  He must be perplexed at this point, because he’s seen all there is to see.  Maybe he confused God’s directions.  Maybe this is the wrong father and these are the wrong sons.  Just to make sure, though, he asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?”  Jesse responds that the youngest isn’t here, but is tending the sheep.  So he calls for his son David—who is the least of his sons, the last of his sons, the left-out son.  And he, of course, is the one.  God chooses him to be king.

More than Survival and Self-Preservation

The book of I Samuel contains within it a tension, a friction between the people of Israel and God.  We see it in today’s story, where Samuel anoints the next king, and in the story right before it, where Saul listens first to the voice of his army. 

On the one hand, there are the people of Israel grasping for power, power that will sort out their problems inside, power that will secure their borders outside.  This power builds quite naturally on divisions, which are a mechanism of survival and self-preservation.  This power splits the world up into simple categories, this-or-that, and prefers whatever will preserve things the way they are, whatever will preserve the present order.  

On the other hand, there is God whose covenant looks out for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, whose dream is change, the lowly lifted up and the powerful laid low.  The change of God continually bursts beyond the binaries of Israel.  It sees the potential for abundant life not in imposing kings but in a little boy like Samuel and later in Jesse’s left-out son, David.

The power of Israel builds on divisions, but the change of God bursts beyond these binaries.  Because God wants more than survival, God wants life!  God wants more than the self-preservation of the powerful, God wants beloved community, life for everyone.

The Unity of God’s Love:
From the Most Minor of Minorities

Which is the same thing that Jesus wants, the same thing we see in the Jesus story.  Jesus is consistently bursting beyond our binaries, our this-or-that thinking, drawing us beyond these divisions into the unity of God’s love.  It is Jesus who sees greatness in the smallest of seeds.  It is Jesus who proclaims enemies to be beloved.  It is Jesus who lifts high the little children as model citizens of the kingdom.  It is Jesus who calls the last first.

In the story of Samuel and Israel, as in the story of Jesus, God does not limit our world according to the divisions that we make, this-or-that.  Rather God sees infinite possibility in all things.  And thank God for that.

Binaries keep us alive.  But they also keep us from life.  When we divide the world up into this or that, and we make choices based on survival and self-preservation, the world hardens and closes in on itself.  When the powerful act to preserve the present order, to keep things the way they are, the world comes to a standstill.  No significant change in history happened because at first a majority voted for it.  The change of God that pushes past mere survival and self-preservation, that liberates slaves in Egypt, that looks out for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, that transforms enemies into friends, that draws us all beyond this-or-that into the unity of God’s love—this life-giving change of God grows from the most minor of minorities, from the smallest of things.  Like a mustard seed.  Like a little, left-out boy.  Like a convicted criminal on a cross. 


Mysterious and merciful God,
Who transgresses
Our codes of what is correct,
Our understanding of this-or-that;
Draw us into your holy quest
For more than survival and self-preservation;
Grow within us and our community
The tiny seeds of your kingdom,
In which everything belongs
And is filled with infinite possibility.
In the name of him
Whose love obeys no laws, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

[1] According to Baba Metzia 59b, some rabbis counted in the Torah 36 warnings against wronging the sojourner; others counted 46.  Cf. Jonathan Sacks, “Mishpatim (5768)—Loving the Stranger,”, accessed June 13, 2018.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Back to Egypt (1 Samuel 8:4-20)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on June 10, 2018, Proper 5)

The Way of God:
The Lowly Lifted Up

When Samuel was born into the world, his mother was dreaming of another world.  She sings a beautiful song about this dream, a song about the lowly lifted up and the powerful laid low, about empty tummies filled with food and barren wombs bearing children.  It was a song that challenged reality, for at the time the powerful in Israel ruled with greed and dishonesty, threat and intimidation.  Abusing their privilege, they swindled and stole and took advantage of the weak (cf. 2:12-17, 22).  It was a world perhaps not that different from ours, where profit-hungry businesses prey on the vulnerable and power-hungry leaders rule by threat and force.

But one night in the midst of this reign of terror, the word of God came to Israel.  Well, it came to an unsuspecting boy, Samuel.  And the word of God was change.  It was the same word that Samuel’s mother had sung, a word about the lowly lifted up and the powerful laid low.  It was a word that, as God said, would “make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle” (3:11).  Because it was at once both a promise and a threat, terrific or terrifying, depending on where you stood.  To those injured by the injustice, it was the terrific promise that the powerful would not prevail forever.  To those complicit in the injustice, to the powerful and the privileged, it was a threat.  A warning that sin—injustice—has its own terrifying consequences.

And sure enough, change happened.  The leaders of Israel died at the hands of the Philistines, and Israel itself fell into political disorder for twenty years (cf. 7:2).  By that time, Samuel had grown up and developed quite a reputation.  His words had become reality.  The powerful leaders in Israel had indeed been laid low. 

So when he spoke in the present disorder, everyone listened.  He gathered all Israel together, and what he did next, the Bible repeats three times, so that you can’t miss it—he practiced justice among the people (7:6, 15, 17).  In other words, he guided them in the way of the special covenant that God had made with them.  A covenant which might seem sort of strange to us today, because unlike our laws its priority was not to protect private pursuits and individual gains but rather to protect the needful, “the widows, orphans, and sojourners.”[1]  You might say, in fact, that its priority was to lift the lowly.  When Samuel practiced justice among the people, when he guided them in the way of God’s covenant, he fulfilled in the flesh his mother’s song and dream.  Yes, now the lowly—the widows, the orphans, the strangers, the ones who would have been most vulnerable under the unjust rule of the powerful and privileged—now they were lifted up.

From the Lowly to a King:
Fighting Power with More Power

This would be a perfect spot for the story to wrap up, to conclude with those reassuring words, “And they lived happily ever after.”

But they didn’t.  As Samuel grew older and less capable of guiding the people in the way of God’s covenant, he delegated this responsibility to his sons.  But his sons, the Bible says, “turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice” (8:3).  In other words, they fell into the trap of the previous leaders.  Their influence went to their head, and rather than looking out for the lowly, they looked out first and foremost for themselves.  It is a pattern we see over and over again in the Bible, leaders who afflict others in their lust for power, prestige, and possessions. 

You would think that the people of Israel would resist this growing power, that they would challenge the ways of Samuel’s sons, speaking the truth to this power, confronting this corruption with God’s good covenant.  But they do just the opposite!  When they see power growing in the hands of Samuel’s sons, they decide that the answer is even more power in the hands of a king.  They want to fight the fire with a bigger fire.

Forgotten in all of this, of course, is the matter of God’s covenant and justice for the lowly.  No one seems to remember how the last time Israel had rulers with such power and influence, the lowly were afflicted and left helpless.

No one remembers, that is, but God.  And in today’s scripture, as the people cry out for a king, God responds and reminds them just what they’re asking for.

[Read 1 Samuel 8:4-20.]

“Like Other Nations”:
The Way of the World

When my Old Testament professor in seminary read this scripture in class, he told us a joke.  “What do you get,” he asked, “when you play a country song backwards?”  “You get your truck back, your dog back, your wife back….”

Today’s scripture reads a lot like a country song (played forwards).  It is a litany of all that the Israelites will lose.  God warns the people about all that the king will take: their sons for the king’s army, their daughters for the king’s kitchen, the best of their fields and their vineyards and their produce for the king’s officials, their servants cattle and donkeys for the king’s workforce. 

And then comes the punch line, except this one is all punch and no funny.  “You shall be his slaves.”  Which is a horrible enough proposition, but it’s even worse considering his audience.  Remember who this is to whom God is speaking.  This is the people who were slaves in Egypt.  Their story is freedom from oppression, justice for the downtrodden, the God who listens to the least.  They were a sign, a witness to the way of God, which lifts the lowly and lays low the powerful.  By blessing Israel, God had intended to bless all the families of earth, to bring all the world into beloved community, where oppression and slavery have no place.

By asking for a king, the Israelites were playing their entire song backwards, disowning their story.  God, deliverance, justice.  They were reversing their history and returning to slavery.  They were effectively going back to Egypt.

Why?  We hear the real reason at the end of today’s scripture: “So that we…may be like other nations, and that our king may…fight our battles” (8:20).  In a word, the reason is power.  Power—someone with might, someone who will fight—power, they think, will solve their problems at home and abroad.  Power will put Samuel’s corrupt sons in their place.  Power will keep the Philistines and other enemies at bay. 

Twice when the people ask for a king, they rationalize their request with the reason that they might be “like other nations” (8:5, 20).  Power, in other words, is the way of the world around them.  But power is not the way of their God.  The covenant that God made with them is about looking out for the lowly—the widow, the orphan, the stranger.  The way of their God is beloved community.

Setting the Covenant—or Kingdom—Aside

I can’t help but wonder if our world today is but an echo of Israel’s world long ago.  I’m sure that the Israelites in Samuel’s day thought highly of the way of God, the covenant of community and justice to which they had agreed.  I’m sure they talked about it on Sabbath and recited its words and ideas at the dinner table.  I’m sure they memorized parts of the covenant and quoted it in small matters.  But I also imagine that when it came to larger matters—like national security or the economy or land management—they set the covenant aside as a rather idealistic and impractical guide, instead trusting in the more efficient means of power.  Looking out for the stranger is all well and good when it’s a harmless neighbor whom you’ve already gotten to know, but when it comes to securing the borders and ensuring that the harvest goes to law-abiding Israelites first, maybe the covenant isn’t so relevant.  Maybe what’s more relevant is a king who can protect us, who can make difficult decisions in our favor.

In the end, Israel would get their kings.  God did not stand in the way of their desire.  (The way of God, remember, is not the way of coercive power.)  But as they got their kings, there also echoed the words of God for any who would remember: “You shall be his slaves.”  Back to Egypt. 

For us, it is not the ancient covenant of the Israelites that we are tempted to set aside as idealistic or impractical.  It is the kingdom of God, where the poor are a priority, the homeless are sheltered, the stranger is welcomed, the world is God’s beloved creation, the enemy is loved, the excluded are embraced and welcomed to the table of fellowship.  These things are all great, but when it comes to questions of economic inequality, healthcare, immigration, climate change, military budget, it’s easy to set the kingdom aside for the sake of self-interested power.[2]  But if today’s story is any indication, this trust in power brings not freedom but oppression, not justice but slavery.  It leads us not to God’s promised land but back to Egypt.


God who lifts the lowly
And sets free the enslaved—
When fear and anxiety
Narrow our vision
And tempt us
Toward the way of power,
Remind us anew
Of your kingdom dream
Of beloved community
And a world made whole,
And enlarge our hearts to act
Not in the service of self-interested power
But in the service of others. 
In Christ, who proclaims your kingdom.  Amen.

[1] E.g., Deut 14:29, 16:11, 14; 24:19–21; 26:12–15.  Cf. Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 423.
[2] Rev. Granberg-Michaelson, who has served as chief legislative assistant to Senator Mark O. Hatfield, Director of Church and Society for the World Council of Churches, and General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America raises these issues as especially relevant to the practice of faith in the political field.  Cf. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, “From Mysticism to Politics,” Onening: An Alternative Orthodoxy 5:2 (2017): 15-21.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

The Change of God (1 Samuel 3:1-20)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on June 3, 2018, Proper 4)

A Beloved Bible Story

Today’s scripture begins with a beloved Bible story: Samuel and the call of God.

[Read 1 Samuel 3:1-10.]

Today’s story reads a little bit like a children’s fable or fairytale.  We imagine little Samuel lying in sleep when he hears a voice call his name.  Three times Samuel hears the voice, three times he runs in his innocence to the priest Eli.  Finally Eli figures out that the little boy is having more than a dream.  He’s hearing a call from God.

And so we end up with a simple, soft-hearted lesson about personal piety: about the significance of our evening prayers or about showing God full attention the way that Samuel finally did, when he said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Both are important lessons.  But they are also ways we domesticate this story.  This sentimentalized, soft-hearted reading of the story turns faith into a private matter, something we reflect on at night, at our bedside, in the quiet of our hearts.

When really this story portrays faith as the seed of sweeping and subversive social change.

Where God’s Change often Starts:
on the Margins

To put this story in perspective, it helps to remember that when Samuel was born, his mother sang a song: a song about the lowly lifted up and the powerful laid low, about empty wombs bearing children and empty tummies filled with food.  In other words, when Samuel entered this world, his mother was dreaming of another world.  Samuel embodies the dream of change.  Change will be his story.

So instead of imagining the boy Samuel in his pajamas and night slippers, kneeling piously by his bedside and praying to God in the safety of his heart, picture him instead as you might picture the hobbit Frodo at the start of The Lord of the Rings, dozing off in the hillside peace of the Shire about to be taken by a wizard and adventure; or the farmer boy Luke Skywalker at the start of Star Wars, going about his business on the remote dusty planet of Tatooine about to be engulfed in the fate of the universe.

These timeless stories echo a timeless truth, one that we find repeatedly in the Bible.  The change that saves our world often begins on the margins in the unlikeliest of characters.  The change that Samuel’s mom hopes and dreams for, is not a change that God enforces with a flick of the wrist or a momentary visit to earth.  It is a change that starts in the smallest and strangest of ways.  In a whisper.  In the dead of night.  To a boy.  It goes without saying that the boy is not an ordained priest.  (A reminder, if nothing else, that God does not follow our rules.)

What God’s Change often Becomes:
Public and Political and Precarious

If our story today begins on the margins with a rather personal and innocent touch, focusing on the boy Samuel as he hears from God for the first time, it quickly becomes public and political and precarious. 

But again, we need some of the background to understand this.  Right after Samuel is born and his mother sings her song of the lowly lifted up and the powerful laid low, the storyteller tells us about the leaders in Israel: the judge and priest Eli (cf. 4:18) and his two sons who were also priests.  Eli’s sons, the Bible says, were scoundrels with no regard for others or for God.  They stole from the people’s offerings.  And if someone confronted them, they would threaten them in return (2:13-17).  They took advantage of their power.  This included, the storyteller says, the way they treated women who came to the holy tent of meeting (2:22). 

Having domesticated the Bible, we often miss out on its all-too-human overtones of privilege and power struggle and political intrigue.  But it’s all here.  Today’s #MeToo movement, our world’s increasing distrust of the establishment, its jaded eye toward anyone who might have a vested interest—it’s not that different from the world we find in 1 Samuel.  Abuse of power, threats and intimidation, corruption and sex scandals—it’s all here, three thousand years ago, in these priests, these sons of Eli.  Behind the brief and suggestive sentences of our storyteller lies a familiar story: the privilege of a few, the ruin of many, and the hopeless inertia of the status quo.

What does God think about all of this?  That’s what some people might be asking today.  Where is God in the plight of the disadvantaged?  How does God feel about power that preys on the poor?  Well, today’s scripture gives us an idea.  [Let’s look now at the remainder of our passage.  Read 1 Samuel 3:11-20.]

Where is God when power goes awry, when the mighty mistreat the lowly?  The answer of today’s story is unsettling.  No longer is this an innocent tale of a private, bedside faith.  No, God delivers to the boy Samuel an ominous message: “I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle” (3:11).  In other words, change is on the way.  Not just for Samuel.  Not just for the sons of Eli.  But for everyone.  This is not a pious, religious change, but a sweeping, social change.  That will make ears “tingle” and hearts tremble.  This truly is the God of whom Samuel’s mother sang, who lifts the lowly and lays low the powerful, who cares for the hungry and barren.

How We Receive God’s Change:
A Promise or a Threat

What troubles me the most in today’s passage is the moment where God promises punishment forever on the house of Eli.  Is that the same God whom I follow?  Is that the same God revealed in Jesus Christ?  Is that the God who Jesus promises is kind and compassionate even to the ungrateful and the wicked (cf. Luke 6:35)? 

To read the Bible literally is to encounter all sorts of contradictions like this one.  In my understanding, the Bible is God-breathed and inspired even as it is a document of human experience and interpretation.  That means that each time we read, we must interpret it ourselves.  We must hold our stethoscopes near to the text and listen for the heartbeat of God under the layers of human story.

Personally, I doubt that the God of love—and love, remember, bears and endures all things—I doubt that this God promised eternal punishment on Eli and his home.  But even so, I do hear a divine heartbeat in this part of the story.  What I hear here, is a promise.  Which is also a threat.  Which is what troubles me still.

The promise, or threat, is this: Things must change.  And they will.  Not because God will come with holster and handcuffs, but because sin—injustice—has its own consequences. 

So the promise is good for those who are on the injured side of injustice: for those who are poor and needy, hungry and empty.  God is on their side.  Change is coming.  But the same promise becomes a threat, if you are among the privileged and powerful, complicit in injustice.  A “new beginning” for some means a “terrible ending” for others.[1]  Eli, who did no wrong himself but who did not restrain his wicked sons, would soon die along with his sons.  And the nation itself would fall into military defeat and political disorder.  Only when injustice had run its course and the nation had fallen into a heap could the change of God begin to take shape.

Does It Make Our Hearts Tremble?

The story of the boy Samuel is soft-hearted and personal and promising.  But it is also subversive and political and threatening.  And it shows a God who is deeply concerned and involved in a world full of political intrigue and abused power and collective injustice.

It is a lesson from the history of our faith, a matter ever to be interpreted anew.  The change of God that whispers on the margins, that cuts to the quick of a nation, that is both a promise and a threat—where is it today?

I wonder if the world might sometimes be dismissing the change of God when it dismisses the cries and complaints of others.  A few weeks ago at Common Table, we were reminded how easily the homeless are dismissed—“Oh, they could get help if they really wanted it.”  I am reminded also of how sometimes racial tensions are dismissed—“That’s all in the past,” say folks who are doing alright for themselves in the present.  I am reminded also of how other minority communities, like the disability community or the LGBTQ community, are dismissed—“How many special privileges do they want?” ask folks who can freely walk into churches and hospitals and schools without fear of suspicious or discriminatory response.

I wonder if these dismissals are not sometimes dismissals of the change of God.  A change that whispers on the margins, that cuts to the quick of a nation, that is both a promise and a threat.

Where do we hear it today—the change of God?  Does it make our ears tingle and our hearts tremble?


God of barren mothers
And hungry tummies,
God who lifts the lowly
And lays low the powerful—
Where are you in our world?
Draw us to your side
At the margins,
In the public square,
In your terrifying and terrific change.
Open our ears
To hear your as Samuel did,
And our hearts,
To follow you
Into your holy promise and threat. 
In the name of Christ,
From whose love emerges your new creation.  Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990), 28.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

"How Can Anyone Be Born after Having Grown Old?" (John 3:1-17)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on May 27, 2018, Trinity Sunday)

A Deep Spiritual Problem:
Living in the Present

“How can anyone be born after having grown old?”

Nicodemus asks this question while Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God.  Jesus had said that seeing the kingdom of God and entering it was like the experience of birth.  He said to see and enter the kingdom you had to be “born from above,” “born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus interprets these words rather literally and tries to work out the mechanics of a grown person entering the womb for the second time.  Even as I can’t help but laugh a little bit at Nicodemus’ naïveté, I also can’t help but feel that his question unwittingly points to a deep spiritual problem, which is this: How can anyone let go of their past and their growth, enough that they might live in the present? 

“How can anyone be born after having grown old?”

Why Give Up His Life?

Growing up, visiting my grandparents was a treat.  It meant the adventure of an eight-hour car ride through the mountains to Kentucky, then a dinner full of good home-cooking; after that a game or two; and then finally, sleeping in a basement full of ancient treasures.  We usually visited twice a year: summer break and Christmas.  They are some of my fondest memories.

When I was eight years old, my grandmother had a stroke that paralyzed part of her body.  Not too long after that, she moved into a nursing home.  And so did my grandpa.  I couldn’t understand it at the time.  My grandpa could still get around.  Why give up his life?  Why sell the house—where we had had such great dinners and played games together, where there were all sorts of treasures—why sell the house when he could still live there?

But my grandpa sold the house and went into the nursing home.  When my grandma passed away, he lived eleven more years there before his death.  We would still visit every summer and every Christmas.  I remember crowding into his little room.  He would always have collected a stash of candy from the gifts he had received, and he would give these to my brother and me.  He would also bequeath old possessions to us that he would never need again: books, ties, desk supplies.  Every Christmas, we celebrated at the end of the hallway with a piece of pie and ice cream, and my grandpa would invite the nurses whom he’d befriended to join us.  In the months between visits, he would write notes to us, cards, then emails, and then finally a friend of his would type the emails for him.

Living by a Different Spirit

When my grandpa first moved into the nursing home, I could not understand why.  But I think now I do.  Now I can see that he was living by a different Spirit than that which possesses much of our world.  He was being born anew.

From my observation, there are two ways of growing old.  (I realize that here I’m preaching of things some of you know much better than I.  I’m preaching more from impudence than experience—so please feel free to set me straight afterward!)

On the one hand, I have observed folks who grow old with bitterness and resentment.  Having spent a lifetime accomplishing great achievements and accumulating possessions and developing a fine reputation, they now face the loss of all these things.  Their bodies weaken and so does their command and control, they must downsize and leave behind prized possessions, and they fade ever further from the public eye and its favor.  They resist the change.  They grasp after the past even as it leaves them.  Perhaps they never entered the kingdom of which Jesus spoke because they have been too busy trying to build their own kingdom—and now it is crumbling fast.

On the other hand, I have observed folks like my grandpa who grow old with freedom and grace.  I have observed the same sort of thing here.  (Pat comes immediately to mind.)  They receive life not as a matter of their own control but as a gift and a responsibility.  My grandpa did not cling onto his home or his things or his reputation.  He let these go, not only because they were leaving him anyway, but also so that he could receive new gifts: the gift of a few more years with his wife, the gift of befriending others at the nursing home, and the gift of blessing his family and the people around him.  Rather than cling and claw to the past, my grandpa grew old with a different kind of Spirit—with trust and humility and gratitude for the many new possibilities before him.  In a way, he really was reborn: he became like a child for whom everything is new, everything a gift.

A Faith That Is Not In Control

In the church, the words “born again” are shorthand for making a personal decision to follow Christ.  They suggest that the life of faith is a matter of our control.  But according to Jesus in today’s passage, faith is about what is beyond our control.  “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:8). 

Who among us can tell the wind where to blow?  Being born from above, being born of the Spirit is just like the real experience of birth.  A newborn child is not in control in the least.  Being born of the Spirit has to do with how we live when we are not in control.  Entering the kingdom of God has to do with how we live when circumstances change and we are at a loss. 

Being born of the Spirit means being a little bit like a kite, allowing the Spirit to move us and work through us wherever we are.  For my Grandpa, being born of the Spirit meant that even as he lost his home and his things and his reputation, he trusted that the life of God would fill his sails and give him life.  So he received his new life as a gift and blessed others in simple ways, with table fellowship and generosity and notes of love.  And so he saw and entered, I believe, the kingdom of God.  A kingdom that is neither a pie in the sky nor the sweet by and by, but that is always already near us, even among us here, now, if we would believe the words and witness of Jesus (cf. Luke 17:21).

To Empty Ourselves and Open Our Sails

“How can anyone be born after having grown old?”

It’s a question worth asking wherever we are in life.  Because whether we’re 15, or 45, or 95, the temptation is to build and measure our life by the past and by our growth: by what we have achieved and gained and how others have seen us. 

To be born anew would mean to lose all of that, to leave behind the personal kingdoms we’ve worked so hard to create.  And yet that’s just the point for Jesus, isn’t it?  To see and enter the kingdom of God is to deny ourselves, to empty ourselves and open our sails to the Spirit wherever we are.  When we relinquish control of our lives and open ourselves up to the present reality and the Spirit that blows there, the holy wind of God will sweep us unpredictably into the life of a kingdom far greater than our own, the kingdom of God.


Christ who comes to us,
And full of the Spirit—
Inspire us with your example
And the examples
Of your followers,
That we too might be born anew
Of the Spirit,
Not through our own control
But through acceptance
Of your love and life,
Which dwell in all things.  Amen.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Groaning and Sighing (Romans 8:22-27)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on May 20, 2018, Pentecost)

Changing Plans

A little over 20 years ago, my family went to Glorieta, New Mexico for a summer missions conference.  You could think of Glorieta as a southwest version of Craig Springs.  We had gone there several times before for the same conference, and my brother and I had become familiar with the territory.  My parents could turn us loose, and we would wander across the various landmarks: the lake, the putt-putt course, the great sanctuary, the Chuck Wagon where meals were served.

This time, my brother and I decided to take a trail up a nearby mountain.  We hiked up to the vista, which was wonderful, drank plenty of water, and then started our trek back down.

Hiking in New Mexico is different than hiking in Virginia.  Here there are plenty of trees, making the trail unmistakable.  But in New Mexico, the trees are scattered.  After guessing between several apparent forks in the path, it became clear that we were lost.

We groaned and we sighed.  And then we made some calculated plans.  First we decided to follow what looked like a dried out creek bed.  A creek, we figured, would lead us to a river, which would lead us to civilization.  But the creek bed disappeared.  We groaned and sighed some more, and then we refined our plan.  We would bushwhack down the mountain in the direction from which we had come—or from which we thought we had come.  When we neared the bottom and saw no landmarks or even hints of civilization, we groaned and sighed some more.  But then we heard them: voices!  Changing our plan once again, we followed the sound for several hundred yards and stumbled finally into a graveyard.  Not quite civilization, but close enough for us!  The cemetery was just off the conference center. 

After much groaning and sighing and changing of plans, we had made it.

Beyond What We Can See or Say

Today is Pentecost, the day on which we celebrate the Spirit of God that fell upon the first followers of Christ that day in Jerusalem and that falls upon us still, if we would believe it.  Pentecost captures our imagination because of the spectacle: the speaking and understanding of different languages, the whirlwind above the faithful, and the flames that danced on their heads. But the real miracle is deeper than all this dazzle.  In ancient Palestine, people thought the Spirit only came to the prophets, and most people thought the Spirit had even stopped visiting them.  The real miracle, then, was the Spirit of God taking up residence in everyday folks like you and me. 

In today’s scripture, Paul talks about this miracle of the Spirit living in folks like you and me.  His description is perhaps a little surprising.  When I think about the Spirit coming upon someone, I think of someone suddenly acquiring superhuman strength and ability.  But Paul doesn’t talk about strength or intelligence.  He talks about the Spirit as an experience where we can’t exactly see or say where we’re going.  He talks about groaning and sighing.

Holy Groans and Sighs: Pulling Us Past Our Plans

The way that Paul talks about the Spirit, I cannot help but think of my brother and I, groaning and sighing on the side of that mountain in New Mexico.  More than once, we made a plan.  And more than once, things did not go as planned.  The creek did not lead us to water.  The bushwhacking did not lead us to familiar territory.  So what kept us going when those plans failed?

What kept us going, I think, was something like the Spirit.  Our sighs and our groans were expressions of our inability and our helplessness, which is to say, an expression of prayer.  The Spirit lives in us, I think, when we sigh and groan and open ourselves to what we can’t see and can’t say.  The Spirit is not in our plans, which are things that we can see and say, but in what lies beyond our plans and keeps pulling us forward when our plans inevitably fail.  The Spirit is not us, but God pulling us.  Holy sighs and groans pulling us.

Stronger Than Any Problem, Any Plan

Of course, those groans and sighs of my brother and me in New Mexico are minimal compared to other sighs and groans that we hear in our world.  The Spirit has moved in much more significant ways.

When I think about the history of the church in this nation, I am continually reminded of one story in particular.

According to many historians, the Civil Rights movement did not begin with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Nor did it begin with the spectacle of sit-ins and strikes.  It began in potlucks and women’s prayer circles and Bible studies and worship services longer than you’d like to imagine.  It began in the church.  It began in the groans and sighs that had sounded first in slavery and then in the racial terrorism of the Jim Crow era and finally in the era of legalized discrimination, known as segregation.

Groans and sighs are stronger than any problem.  And they are stronger than any plan.  The Civil Rights movement shifted strategies more than once.  What powered the movement through each change were groans and sighs.  Even when major legislative victories were won, Martin Luther King could be heard groaning and sighing, for as he put it, “Laws only declare rights; they do not deliver them.”[1]  Even today, we can still hear groans and sighs.  They are, I believe, the voice of the Spirit, pulling us toward communion.

From This Call, Plans Will Rise and Plans Will Fall

What about here at Gayton Road?  Have we heard the groans and sighs of the Spirit? 

Nearly a couple of years ago, a visioning team of folks from our church began meeting.  I didn’t hear many audible sighs or groans.  But as individuals shared their memories and their hopes, their joys and their frustrations, there did emerge a common sense of call.  You can see it in the image here, designed by our youth.  We feel called to share the life of faith around tables, in small groups, and with the needful.  Perhaps those who were here this past Wednesday night heard an echo of this call.  Gathered around the table, a small group of us learned about the needs of the homeless.  And I think we felt a pull, a tug, a call.

I believe that this call our visioning team heard, and the echo we heard this past Wednesday, comes from the Spirit.  And the like the groans and sighs of the Spirit, which are an experience where we can’t see or say exactly where we’re going, this call is beyond our best calculations and plans.  Which is to say, from this call plans will rise and plans will fall.  What keeps pulling us forward is the Spirit and its call.

Today at our board meeting—to which everyone is invited—there will be shared proposed revisions to our constitution and church structure.  Which is to say, there will be shared a new plan.  I’m excited about the new plan because I believe it lines up well with our sense of call.  But even more than that, I’m excited about the Spirit in which it was drawn up and in which it will be shared, the Spirit that lies beyond this plan and every plan and will keep pulling us forward when our plans inevitably fail.  I’m more excited about the Spirit of sighs and groans that pull us steadfastly toward what matters most.  The Spirit is sometimes a struggle.  But as Paul reminds us, this is a struggle not of death throes but of birth pangs and new life.  May it be so today.


Spirit of God,
Be present
In our sighs and groans,
In what we can’t quite see or say;
Bless our struggle
And make it one
With the struggle of God;
Pull us irresistibly
Past each obsolete plan
Into your unspeakable, unimaginable

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon, 2010), ebook loc. 2355.