Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Writing on Our Hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on March 18, 2018, Lent V)

The Chalkboard

I grew up on the cusp of a revolution.  By the time I was graduating from Godwin High School, every student had a laptop.  We had the internet at the tips of our fingers.  Old excuses, like “the dog ate my homework,” were no longer in circulation.  Instead I was accustomed to hearing more electronic explanations: “The program crashed just before I finished,” or much more commonly, “I forgot to save my work.”

But it was only a few years before then that my classes were taught primarily on the chalkboard.  Most of you lived in the dark ages too, so you remember the chalkboard.  Even though I haven’t touched a chalkboard in over a decade, I remember it well.  I remember how in math the teacher would call us forward individually to solve equations on the board.  And I remember how sometimes as a prank, a mischievous student would squeeze a few pieces of chalk into the eraser.  And I remember how in elementary school, cleaning the chalkboard was one of our many responsibilities: line-leader, door-holder, and chalkboard-cleaner. 

Cleaning the chalkboard was crucial.  It was the only way we could move from one lesson to the next.

Israel’s Cheatin’ Heart

The story of Israel is a little bit like a chalkboard. 

As Jeremiah reminds us today, when God heard the cries and heartache of the Israelites in the land of Egypt, God took them by the hand and brought them out of Egypt.  In the process, God fell in love with Israel.  Today’s scripture refers to their relationship as a marriage.

The problem is, Israel forgot its marriage vows.  Well, sort of.  On the outside, things looked alright.  Priests were performing the sacrifices.  Prophets who knew the scriptures said many things in the name of God.  People were following the letter of the law.  Technically they were honoring their vows.  But they had what Hank Williams would have called a “cheatin’ heart.”  For they had forgotten the love of God.  God had come to them when they were oppressed, weak, and needful.  But now, they were neglecting the oppressed, weak, and needful, and instead hoarding power and possessions at their expense. 

Here’s how Jeremiah puts it: “From the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.  They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (6:13-14).  And Isaiah, who came before Jeremiah and was perhaps a prophetic role model, puts it like this: “Bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination.  New moons and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity….Learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa 1:13, 17).

In other words, while the Israelites were busy carrying out the vows of their relationship with God, a completely different law was being written on their hearts: entitlement, prestige, profit, and all at the expense of the needful.

Cleaning the Chalkboard

Which brings us to today’s scripture, where God is heart-broken.  God desires more than the Israelites’ holy habits; God desires their hearts.  So God declares, “I will put my law within them, and I will write in on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:33). 

In other words, God has the chalk in hand and wants to write something new on the chalkboard of the Israelites’ hearts.

What does that mean for the law of greed currently written on their heart?  Jeremiah never spells this out, but I think it means that, first, the chalkboard will need to be erased.  As I learned in elementary school, cleaning the chalkboard is crucial.  It’s the only way to get from one lesson to the next.  Or as David says in our psalm today: “Purge me with hyssop, and I will be clean” (51:7).  The desert fathers and mothers, who pioneered our faith in the first few centuries after Christ, stressed that this was the first step of faith: purging.  We must unlearn what we have learned.  We must shed our old thoughts and feelings, before we can put on Christ.

Our Chalkboard Hearts

Our story, I think, is little different than Jeremiah and the Israelites.  Because you or I or anyone who lives in this world, has a chalkboard heart full of writing.  Our family, our friends, and our society write upon our hearts a host of expectations and assumptions, fears and desires.  The funny thing is, I normally think of myself as having thoughts and feelings.  But when I step back and look at myself, I can see that in fact thoughts and feelings have me![1]  I am very often following a script written upon my chalkboard heart by the rest of the world.

I remember the first time that I flew to England.  At the gate to my plane, there were several men with long beards who were prostrating themselves repeatedly in prayer.  At that time, the news media were showing similar images whenever they talked about terrorism.  And so written on my heart was the suggestion that these men were dangerous.  I was fearful.  I’m ashamed to share this, but I also understand now that I was being shaped by forces beyond my comprehension.  As Paul says, we wrestle not with flesh and blood but with unseen powers and principalities (Eph 6:12).  Later I would share a flat with Reza, a business doctoral student and practicing Muslim from Iran, and I would meet many more Muslims who were scraping out a new life in England, despite daily being misunderstood and mistreated.  And over time something—perhaps the grace of God—slowly erased that fear on the chalkboard of my heart, and in its place wrote love.  For what else is the image of men and women prostrating themselves, than an image of faith?  It happens round the world billions and billions of times everyday, not as a prelude to terrorism but as submission to the will of God.

Recently I’ve been reading the work of Miguel De La Torre, a Cuban Baptist minister, whose ministry has taken him into the lives of undocumented migrants.  He shares their experiences firsthand from a ground-level perspective.  Before reading these stories, written on my heart was doubt and suspicion toward these folks.  What I had learned in history class and in general conversation was the idea that people come to our country because of opportunity—such is the story of my family, who emigrated from Germany—and our country has laws that very sensibly regulate this incoming immigration.  I was not prepared for stories like the ones that De La Torre told, like the ones about Mexican farmers who lost their farms years ago as a result of a trade policy pushed by our country.  These farmers then find work for substandard wages at the maquiladoras, factories in Mexico that are owned by American companies that export products very cheaply back into our country.  Unable to make ends meet with their meager wages, these farmers-turned-factory-workers finally make a perilous journey through the desert in order to look for a living wage in the country that has been profiting at their expense all the while.  They risk their lives not for opportunity but for the same reason anyone risks their lives: survival.  I understand that these stories are not every immigrant’s story. But they certainly have me questioning the writing on my heart.  So I wonder what Jeremiah would say?  Would he say what he said in chapter 22: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages” (22:13)?  And I wonder, too, what law would Jeremiah want written on my heart.  The law of a powerful and self-interested nation?  Or an older, untraceable law that repeatedly invites care for the weak and needful?  Indeed, I am haunted by the fact that the Hebrew Bible says only once to love your neighbor (Lev 19:18), but thirty-seven times says to love the stranger.[2]

The Only Way for Life to Grow

In our gospel text today, Jesus compares our life to a single grain of wheat.  If we hold onto our life, he says, we will lose it.  We will be but a single grain of wheat, clinging to the stalk, shriveled and fruitless.  But if we let go, we bear much fruit.

Which is perhaps another way of saying what Jeremiah is saying.  If we hold onto the script that the world has written onto our hearts, allowing ourselves to be possessed and directed by the thoughts and feelings that we have—which is to say, the thoughts and feelings that have us—then we will be little more than machines, following the same the program, the same code, day after day.

But as I learned years ago, cleaning the chalkboard is crucial.  It is the only way to move from one lesson to the next.  Perhaps part of Jeremiah’s message is that cleaning the chalkboard of my heart is the only way for life to go on, the only way for life to grow.   For only when my chalkboard heart is clear, can God write anew God’s law in my heart.

Jeremiah doesn’t explain what God’s law looks like, when it is written on the heart.  I don’t know what he had in mind, so I can speak only from my own experience.  For me, God’s law written on my heart is not some unchanging word.  It is a living word.  It is continually written and erased and rewritten.  Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the law that God writes on my heart when I allow it, is a person: Jesus Christ. 

I’m quite a poor student at times, and often I refuse to clear the chalkboard of my heart.  But when I have done so, Christ has been written on my heart anew, looking different each time, shattering my expectations and my assumptions, driving out old fears and filling me with new, life-giving desires.  So I have been led to embrace my Muslim brothers and sisters and to look with compassion upon the powerless who seek refuge in this powerful land. 

I’m grateful to you today for allowing me to share some very personal thoughts and feelings.  They are only my experience and perspective, and yours may be very different.  What I do trust for both you and me is this: Lord only knows what will be written on our hearts next, if we have the courage to keep cleaning the chalkboard.  For cleaning the chalkboard is the only way to move from one lesson to the next.


Christ of the new covenant,
Our hearts are covered
With self-interested scripts
Written by our world:
Empower us to erase
Our old expectations and assumptions
And to anticipate and welcome
The strange new script
Of your love. 

[1] Cf. Richard Rohr, Just This (Albuquerque: CAC, 2017), 34.
[2] Jonathan Sacks, Faith in the Future: The Ecology of Hope and the Restoration of Family, Community, and Faith (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997), 78.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Turning the World Right-side Up (Exodus 20:1-17)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on March 4, 2018, Lent III)

A New World

Today we pick up from where we left off last week.  If you’ll remember, God responded to humanity’s history of violence with blessing.  God blessed Abraham that he might become not only the father of a particular people but also the father of a new humanity.  A humanity that lived not by grasping or clawing but by leaving its own heart and home to seek the blessing of others.

The story in today’s scripture is no different than the story of Abraham’s blessing last week.  This remains the tale of a new humanity.  A new world.  That is what the Ten Commandments are about.

The Way of Life and Goodness

Simply because of the word “commandment,” though, it’s hard for me not to think of the Ten Commandments as a set of rules along the lines of, “Do this—or else!”  When I read them, I sometimes imagine a disciplinarian God with a ruler ready to whack against misbehaving Israel.

While some ancient Israelites certainly shared this perception—for we do occasionally get pictures in the Bible of a petty and vengeful God—that is not the picture that we get in the story of the Ten Commandments.

In fact, let’s just drop the title “The Ten Commandments” altogether.  Because that’s not what the original text calls them.  A more literal translation from the Hebrew would give us more simply “the ten words,” or “the ten sayings.” 

Here’s how Moses will describe the ten sayings and all the law later, when he addresses the Israelites for the last time before his death: “See, I have set before you today life and what is good, and death and what is bad….Choose life” (30:15, 19).  In other words, these ten sayings are not the peculiar rules and regulations of a controlling and vengeful deity.  They are, rather, the way of life and goodness.  Live like this, and life will be good.  Don’t, and what life you have won’t be worthy of that name.  It will be bad.

What I see

It’s a little bit curious to me how these ten sayings have become such a mark of religious identity.  People who display them in their lawns or at their courthouses often want to say, “We’re a Judeo-Christian nation.”  But if that’s the case, I have little interest in being called Christian (or Jewish).  Because much of what I see around me does not look like the life and goodness described in these ten sayings.  I see a world that serves the gods of riches and power and neglects the poor and the hungry in its midst.  I see a world that runs on greed and envy, one where stealing is sanctioned if it’s done with contracts and business suits, one where infidelity is just another commodity that people can purchase online at the click of a button.  I see a world where life is cheap.  Much of what I see around me does not look like the life and goodness that Moses described.

Personally, I think the ten sayings have less to do with our religious identity and more to do with how we live as human beings.  I think the ten sayings are like the physics of the spiritual world.  If we don’t live in their way, then we’re bound to fall—as surely as gravity will pull you or me down from a high place, if we don’t watch our step.

Overturning Tables, Overturning the World

Which is why, I think, Jesus had no problem charging into the religious and national capitol building of his day—the Temple—and overturning tables.  Because he was not only turning over tables.  He was overturning a world that had lost its sense of up and down; a world that become disoriented by greed and selfishness and neglect for one’s neighbors; a world that had chosen death and what is bad.

In other words, he was trying to turn the world right-side up.  He only ever wanted what God had wanted: life and what is good.  His story is the same as the story of Abraham and the story of Moses.  It is the story of a new humanity.  A new world.  A world turned right-side up.  Jesus would call it the kingdom of God.  But it had an ancient foundation, one that we hear in the ten sayings.  Listen beyond the “Thou shalt not” and we might be surprised at what we hear:


For imagine a world where people were not enslaved by possessions, power, or prestige.

A world where there was no Wall Street or Capitol Hill or Hollywood, because people found the holy image of God not in idols far away but in their neighbor and in the stranger in their midst and in the person who is different.

Imagine a world where social media was not divisive, because words were not for persuasion but only for praise and prayer.

A world where the bottom line didn’t matter as much as sometimes sitting on your bottom and enjoying a meaningful moment of rest, where you could just be—be with, be grateful, be happy.

A world where a person’s name was infinite, including the names of all their ancestors—a humbling reminder that we all come from somewhere; no one is self-made.

Imagine a world where there were no police and no corporal punishment because people did not resolve their difficulties through threat or force.

A world without pornography because people were never reduced to objects.

A world where doors never had locks because people shared all things in common.

A world where conversation never ended in polarized standoffs, because people never gave a bad name to others but instead tried to understand them. 

Imagine a world without glossy billboards, commercials, or advertising, because people were immune to envy.

Being Overturned

The ten sayings are not dusty old decrees for a day long gone.  They are God charging into the religious and political centers of our world and overturning the tables, turning us right-side up.  They are life-changing.  And like any meaningful change of life, they are difficult.  But as Moses put it so bluntly, they are also what makes life good.

If you’ve ever made a real change in your life—and by the way, change is what that fancy Christian word “repentance” means—you know that changes like the ones demanded by these ten sayings involve more than good intentions.  They involve commitment.  They start with small things, things as small as a mustard seed.  Maybe a little habit here, like blessing an enemy rather than cursing—maybe a little habit there, like seeing the image of God in strangers.  These changes are especially nurtured in community, where two or three or more are gathered.  They flourish at the Table, which is where we catch a glimpse of the world right-side up, in the love and sharing and self-giving of our Lord.

The ten sayings, which dream of a new humanity and a new world, can easily be written off as impractical.  Remember what we did the last time God overturned the tables of our world?  We wrote God off, crossed God out.  But thank God, God does not write us off.  The ten sayings echo still in our world today, and in them Christ is tipping our tables and turning things over, insisting on a new humanity, a new world.  This Lent, as we practice letting go of what we do not need, let us also practice being overturned.  Let us welcome the tipping grace of Christ and seek out the world right-side up, a world that God has dreamed of for quite some time.


Creator God,
Whose words wove goodness
Out of the material of creation,
Whose ten sayings can weave goodness
Out of our world today;
Grant us the grace
To welcome you
When you charge into the Temple of our hearts
And turn us upside down
And our world right-side up.  

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Father Abraham (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on February 25, 2017, Lent II)

“I’m Not One of Them, and Nor Are You”

In today’s scripture, Abram gets a new name, Abraham, which means something like “Father of Many.”  Because that is God’s promise to him: “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations….I will make you exceedingly fruitful” (17:5-6). 

It’s hard for me to hear today’s scripture without hearing echoes of a song that I learned long ago, a song that I probably sang at every Vacation Bible School and church camp I’ve ever been to.  I’m sure you know it.  We sang it here at our last VBS: “Father Abraham.”  When I was younger and I sang that song, I didn’t give it much thought.  I just figured that Abraham was our father because he was really old.  I just figured that all of our family trees, if you traced them back far enough, would converge at father Abraham.  And isn’t that just what today’s scripture is saying?  That Abraham would indeed become the father of many different peoples, probably including you and me?

Well, according to Paul in one of our other lectionary texts today (Romans 4:13-25), God was not talking about literal fatherhood.  God did not mean that Abraham would go on to be the lineal father of the Americans and the Czechs and the Argentineans and the Congolese, and so on.  In other words, if we’re talking about the children of Abraham’s bloodline, I am not necessarily one of them, and nor are you. 

What, then, could God’s promise of fatherhood mean?  How could Paul call Abraham “the father of us all,” especially when much of Paul’s audience was non-Jewish?

Father of Faith

It’s simple, says Paul.  Abraham lived before the temple and its system of sacrifice.  Before the Hebrew people received God’s law.  So Abraham is not the father of a religion.  He’s not the father of a religious people.  He’s the father of something much more elemental than that.  He’s the father of a fundamental experience.  He’s the father of faith.

If you’ll remember, Abraham’s story begins with letting go.  He’s seventy-five.  Settled in a nice metropolis.  Gathered together with his father and his brothers and all his family.  When God calls to him out of the blue and says, “Leave behind your country and your culture and your kindred, and go where I show you.  And I will bless you, and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (cf. 12:1-3).  Faith is what led Abraham to let go.  Faith is what made him leave his country behind.  His culture behind.  His kindred behind.  Faith is what led him into the wilderness, not knowing where he was going (cf. Heb 11:8). 

Abraham, according to Paul, is much more than the father of an ethnic group of people.  He is the father of anyone who has taken the leap of faith and let go of his or her life, trusting that the blessing of God lies outside the safe harbor of the heart, outside the four corners of the home.

Blessing: The Redemption of Creation

What Abraham does is pretty incredible.  Up until that point in history, humanity has done the opposite.  Rather than letting go, they have grasped and clawed for control.  Rather than living selflessly outside their hearts and homes, they have lived greedily from the center of their hearts.  The first humans grab the forbidden fruit in the hope that they will become as powerful as God.  Cain seizes his brother and kills him out of a jealous anger.  Things get worse and worse until all the earth is filled with this grasping and clawing, this violence.  Next comes the great flood, which we looked at last week, which is less a story of what God actually did and more a story about whom the ancient Israelites understand God to be—namely, a God beside rather than a God above, a God who hangs the bow in the sky (never really carried it in the first place) and comes down to enter into relationship with humanity.  But even with the promise of a caring and faithful God, humanity persists with its grasping and clawing.  Rather than filling the earth selflessly with life, they merge into the single, selfish heart of an empire—and empires always mean control and cruelty.[1]  How else could they accomplish their plan to build a tower as tall as the heavens, than through conscription?

What is God’s response to this history of grasping and clawing, this genealogy of violence, this fall of creation?  Blessing.

What a gentle response.  Openhanded.  Outward-facing.  It is the opposite of our grasping and clawing.

And when God responds to humanity with blessing, Abraham responds in turn. Trusting that blessing abounds outside the grasp of his heart, outside the reach of his home, Abraham lets go.  He leaves.  It’s no understatement to say that the redemption of creation begins with Abraham.

“I Am One of Them, and So Are You”

So is it any surprise when we hear Jesus say in today’s gospel scripture, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the good news, will save it” (Mark 8:35).  Is this not another way of saying what Abraham shows us? When we let go of our life, we enter into the blessing and redemption of the world.  But when we hold onto our own life—our country and culture and kindred—we lose it.  It’s like the child who holds onto the ball for himself, controllingly, protectively, unaware of the joy to be had in the game that could be played with others.  Holding onto our own lives closes us off to new life, to the redemption of all life.

I don’t know what holding onto your own life looks like for you.  For me, it’s sometimes as simple as reading and listening to voices that I already agree with, not risking real dialogue and change.  For many in our nation, I wonder if holding onto our own lives has not taken the shape of racism and sexism, and today especially nationalism and capitalism and gun enthusiasm—for how easily the flag and the dollar and the gun separate us from others. 

As Paul would later proclaim rather radically, being children of Abraham and followers of Christ means that we have let go of these things, that we are ultimately not defined by country or culture or kindred.  “There is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male [or] female” (Gal 3:28-29). 

All of this leads me to wonder if, for God, Abraham was meant to be not simply the proud father of one huge family, but rather the father of a new humanity, a humanity no longer defined completely by country, culture, and kindred; a humanity that does not grasp after control; a humanity that is redeemed from its past violence.  We see this new humanity most clearly, of course, in Jesus.  Jesus was ultimately a child of Abraham not because he was Jewish but because he was faithful.  Jesus faithfully let go of everything and confirmed what began with Abraham: the blessing and redemption of the world.

“Father Abraham had many children.  And many children had Father Abraham.  And I am one of them, and so you are.”  So let’s let go of the life that has defined us in the past, and follow Christ, who leads us outside our heart and our home and into the blessing and redemption of all the world.


Christ of the cross,
Even more than Father Abraham,
You let go of your life—
Country, culture, and kindred.
Not just on the cross,
But when you befriended
Tax collectors and women
And lepers and Roman soldiers.
Fill us with your faith
And your letting go,
That we might enter into
The blessing and redemption of all creation.  Amen.

[1] The language of “brick” and “mortar” in Gen 11:1-9 appears next in the Bible in the story of the Hebrews’ conscripted labor in Egypt.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Hanging Up the Bow, Slipping on Some Sandals (Genesis 9:8-17)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on February 18, 2017, Lent I)

Cranky Old Enlil

Enlil just wanted some sleep.  It seemed every time he lay his head down to rest, there was some new commotion.  This time it was the humans.  The other gods had convinced him that the humans were a good idea.  They would do all the work, so that the gods could enjoy their leisure.  At the time, that had made sense enough to Enlil.  So he had said, “Sure, let’s make some humans, and let them work the fields.”

At first the idea worked a treat.  Enlil grabbed a few good winks of sleep—around 1200 years.  But then the racket started.  The humans had multiplied exponentially, and now they were making all sorts of noise.

Rousing from his fitful slumber with a grumble, cranky old Enlil regretted that he had every agreed to the idea of the humans.  Something had to be done.  His sleep was at stake.  So he devised a plan.  He would flood the world.  That should do the trick.

And it did.  Except for one human who had caught wind of the news and built a boat.

A New Take on Old History

Such is the tale of the great flood according to ancient Babylonian tradition.  The oldest tablet of this story dates back to around one thousand years before the composition of the Hebrew Bible.  (If you’ve heard of Hammurabi, the Babylonian king famous for developing an organized code of law—this ancient tablet comes from around the time of his grandson Ammi-Saduqa.)  And this flood story is not alone.  There survive from other ancient Near Eastern cultures similar tales a great flood.

So the story that we have in the Bible is not new.  It is, rather, old history.  But it is a new take on old history.  It’s almost as if the writer of Genesis took what was common knowledge and then critiqued it, tweaked it, refitted it with a different understanding of God

Because in the biblical flood story, God looks very different.  Whereas crotchety old Enlil acts for selfish motives—for a few more winks of sleep!—God acts with the intention of helping the earth, rinsing it of the violence with which it has become filled (cf. 6:11-13).  Whereas cranky old Enlil floods the world out of anger, God floods the world out of grief.  Earlier in Genesis, the narrator explains, “The Lord was sorry that [the Lord] had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved [God] to [God’s] heart” (6:6).

And then in today’s conclusion to the story, God appears to grieve the great destruction that God has wrought.  Why else would God promise not to repeat the deed?  The flood hasn’t wiped out wickedness (cf. 8:21).  Humanity hasn’t changed.  But God has.  “Never again,” God says, apparently in grief.  Three times God says it: “Never again.”

Mechanics versus Meaning

This grief—this change of heart—this may satisfy some of us.  But perhaps there are others among us who still feel wary about this God.  A change of heart may all be well and good, but the fact remains that this God committed genocide—nearly geocide.  Is that the kind of God to whom we want to entrust our lives?  The flood is a troubling story, much more troubling than we make it out to be, when we tell it as a children’s story and show pictures of an ark and a rainbow and all the happy animals.  We don’t include pictures of all the bodies that must have been floating in the water, or washed up on the newly dried land.

But maybe reading this story as a historically factual portrayal of God misses the point.  Genesis alone is filled with historical contradictions.  Did God create humanity before plants, or plants before humanity?  Depends on whether you’re reading Genesis 1 or Genesis 2.  Did the flood last 40 days or 150 days?  Depends which verse you’re reading in the flood story.

Genesis, it seems to me, cares much less for the mechanics of what actually happened and much more about the meaning behind what happened.  I would say this true of the whole Bible.  Which is why for me, reading the Bible isn’t about determining the precise events of history.  It’s about listening for the heartbeat of God.  It’s about holding our interpretive stethoscopes up to the text and determining how another person or another people encountered the living God.

From a God Above to a God Beside

In the case of today’s scripture, I wonder if the ancient Israelites weren’t trying to make sense of what was common knowledge in their day—namely, that a great flood had come from heaven above.  The interesting part of the story, then, isn’t that there was a flood.  Everyone already knew that.  The interesting part of the story is the way that their understanding about God changes. 

In today’s scripture, as God repeats, “Never again, never again,” God also gives a sign of God’s promise: a bow.  This is the same word used for the weaponry of a bow and arrow.  Simply put, this God is hanging up God’s bow.  Never again will this God resort to violence against all the earth.  Instead this God decides to enter into covenant, into relationship, with humanity and all of creation.

So maybe the real drama of the flood story is not what historically happened, but rather how the character of God undergoes a profound transformation in ancient Israelite consciousness: from a warrior God to a relationship God, from a God who grumbles about sleep to a God who grieves about life, from a distant and detached God to a caring and faithful God, from God above to God beside, from a God of fear to a God of love.

Good News for the Wilderness

In my mind, this is especially good news as we enter the season of Lent, a season of wilderness, when we honestly face up to our lack of control and our losses.  Perhaps in such a season, our first desire is for a God who is in full control, a sky god riding on the clouds with his bow and arrow, imposing order from above through fear and power.  But the ancient flood tales remind us the full implications of such a god.  Genocide.  Nearly geocide.  What comfort is that to us who walk in the wilderness?

The good news of today’s scripture is what ancient Israel discovered long ago: that God does not carry the bow, but rather hangs it in the sky.  That God does do not declare war on the world but rather enters into relationship with it.  While the rest of the world imagined a God above who ruled with fear, Israel encountered a different God, a God beside them whose rule was love.

That is the good news that we see most clearly in Jesus. It is the good news that we do not walk alone in the wilderness.  In fact, that’s precisely where we see Jesus today in our Gospel scripture.

What Gets Us Through the Wilderness,
What Makes Us Who We Are

If you weren’t here this last Wednesday, you might be noticing for the first time that the paraments are missing in our sanctuary.  There is very little color.  This is a symbolic absence.  The emptiness of our sanctuary mirrors the emptiness of the wilderness.

But the table is still here.  As the sky reminds us that God has hung up the bow (was never really carrying the bow in the first place), the table reminds us that God has gone a step further: in Christ, God slips on some sandals and walks beside us in the wilderness. We know that God loves us not only because of the bow God hangs in the sky but also because of the steps God takes by our side…in the person of Jesus, who joins us in the wilderness, shares our sorrows and our joys, and shows us the way by the simplest actions, like breaking bread and giving thanks and forgiving others and washing each other’s feet.

And if the story of Jesus is any indication, the wilderness is in fact a place of great transformation, a place where through our lack and our loss we discover who we really are and who God really is.  In the wilderness, Jesus rejected dominion over the world and displays of supernatural ability: he rejected fantasies of power and prestige.  I think he was relying instead on the words that he heard just before he entered the wilderness, “You are my Son, the Beloved.”  Love was what sustained him in the wilderness and defined who he was to become.

May it be so for us this Lenten season, as Christ walks with us in the wilderness. 


Creator God,
Who does not grumble
But grieves;
Whose way is not control
But covenant and companionship;
May the bow above us
And the table before us
Be our sustenance in the wilderness;
May your love define
Who we are becoming.
In Christ our companion.  Amen.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Reattachment: Letting Go and Loving Anew (Matthew 6:19-21)

(Meditation for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on February 14, 2017, Ash Wednesday)

All Will Be Lost

Life is full of loss.  For every gift that we receive, we will some day be bereaved.  Whether by time or by change: by the slow decay of moth and rust or by swift and sudden theft.  Family, friends, homes, jobs, possessions, whatever we count as ours—all will be lost.

At around the age of twenty-one, Saint Augustine lost one of his closest friends.  For a time, he was inconsolable.  Eventually, the company of other friends helped to repair his soul.  But according to him, this consolation “was all one huge fable, one long lie.”[1]  “The place of one great grief,” he writes, “was slowly taken…by the seeds from which new griefs should spring.”[2]  In other words, he had not defeated grief but only deferred it; not mended it but in fact multiplied it.  For he had exchanged one friend for many.  And one day he would lose these friends too and would endure much more grief anew.

Letting Go

The tragedy, according to Augustine, is that he was looking for life in the wrong place—“where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.”  Writing to his past self, he cries out, “[Do] not cleave too close in love to [other people and things].   For they go their way and are no more.”[3]

In one sense, Augustine was telling himself to “let go” of that to which he grown so attached.  That is part of what Lent is about.  Letting go.  It makes sense.  If attachments are what bring us suffering and grief, then letting go is the solution.

But by itself, that’s a sad solution.  It’s like giving up.  It’s like saying, because love might bring heartbreak, I won’t love anymore.

Loving Anew

This is not what Augustine was saying, and it’s not quite what Lent is about either.  Letting go is only half the story.  Augustine urges his past self earnestly, “The good that you love is from [God].”[4]  “If [other people and things] please you, then love them in God because they are [changeable] in themselves but in [God] firmly established.”[5]

In other words, Lent is not about non-attachment, but about re-attachment.  We let go of things, so that we might hold them more lovingly, more truly.  Not as they are by themselves, but as they are in God.[6]  We learn to love our family and friends and all the good gifts of life not as momentary pleasures but as holy echoes and reflections and revelations of God.  They become handles by which we hold on to God, and when they leave, we find that we are not clinging onto thin air but onto God.  They become the most graceful steps in a slow dance that brings us closer and closer to our Beloved—God, the Giver, the One whose love nothing can separate.

Lent is about letting go, yes—but it is also about falling in love. “Blessed,” Augustine writes, “is the person who loves Thee, O God, and [their friends] in Thee, and [their enemies] for Thee.  For [this person] alone loses no one that is dear…if all are dear in God, who is never lost.”

A Symbolic Lenten Loss

You may have noticed that we have lost the paraments in our sanctuary.  It is a symbolic Lenten loss.  A reminder that the beautiful things of this world eventually decay by moth and rust or disappear as though by theft, but also a reminder that the heaven we treasure here on earth is never gone.  What we love most deeply in a gift is God: the goodness that shines in a gift is God.  So no gift loved in God is ever truly lost, for the God from whom it came and in whom it had life and whom we treasured is always alive. 


O Great Giver,
Whose gifts
We love dearly:
Family and friends,
Gardens and tables,
Bread and wine—
Loosen our grip
On the outside of these gifts,
That we may love
The You deep within.
In the name of our Treasure, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

[1] Augustine, Confessions (trans. F. J. Sheed; rev. ed.; Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), 57.
[2] Augustine, Confessions, 57.
[3] Augustine, Confessions, 58.
[4] Augustine, Confessions, 60.
[5] Augustine, Confessions, 60.
[6] Storing up treasures in heaven is another way of talking about treasuring the heaven that is here on the earth, loving the Giver whom we discover in the passing gifts.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Mountaintop Moments (Mark 9:2-9)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on February 11, 2017, Transfiguration Sunday)

Speaking from Experience

My housemate Nick had never been there, but he had heard wonderful things from his friends.  How the salad bar had more than just salad, but cheeses and meats and vegetables with names he did not even recognize.  How the waiters passed by your table ever few minutes, happy to grab you whatever you wished.  How the cooks prepared food behind a glass wall, so that you could watch the drama of cooking unfold before your eyes.

For months, Nick talked about this restaurant.  He speculated about what he would enjoy the most.  He theorized which dish was the best.  Until one day, it wasn’t enough just to imagine and salivate.  On that day, he messaged me and several of his friends and said, “I’ve heard about it.  We’ve talked about it.  Let’s do it.”

And so we did it.  We saved up for months and then went there for lunch.  And it was everything Nick had dreamed and more. 

In the days that followed, Nick kept talking about the restaurant.  But his talk was different now. He no longer spoke in hypotheticals.  Now he spoke from experience.  He was reliving the experience, remembering how each dish made him feel.  How each dish had touched his culinary soul.

The Difference Between Salivating and Savoring

Sometimes I wonder if religion is not a little bit like my housemate Nick and this restaurant.  What I mean is this: Nick talked and talked for months about food he had never eaten.  He speculated about recipes and cooking methods and dishes.  He recited the descriptions that he had read and heard from other people who had been to the restaurant.  But he had never been there himself.  He was talking about something that he had not experienced.

Religious folks know their scripture.  They’ve read and heard all about God.  They go to their holy places and speculate about how God moves in the world and why.  Their souls salivate with these thoughts and discussions.

But there is a world of difference between salivating over dishes and savoring them.  Between talking about food and eating it.  Between thinking about something and experiencing it.

Trivializing Our Experiences

I wonder how Peter, James, and John felt the day after their experience on the mountaintop with Jesus.  Did they think it was all “just a dream”?  That the dazzling whiteness was just a bright glare from the sun, that Elijah and Moses were just figments of their imagination, that the voice from the cloud was just their ears hearing what they wanted to hear? 

I don’t know how they felt, but I know how I would feel, how many of us might feel if we had had such an experience.  Our modern world has developed a special register for talking about mystical or otherworldly experiences like Peter, James, and John’s on the mountaintop.  Whenever we have a moment that does not fit into the normal frame of experience, we trivialize it with words like “just” and “only.”  Oh, it was just a feeling.  It was only my imagination.  It was nothing. 

I suppose we could ask these questions of Peter, James, and John’s experience.  Was it just a dream?  Only their imagination?  But I suspect that would be missing the point. 

When our friends have a dream, do we ask them: did that really happen?  No—we ask them, What do you think it means?  Because deep down we have a suspicion that there is more to the world than meets the eye.  It’s almost like the visible and material surface of our world is a curtain.  If we could peel back the curtain and see behind it, we would see the meaning of things: great goodness and beauty and truth.  That’s the way Paul talks about it in our other lectionary scripture today, where he says that the good news is “veiled” or “covered” (2 Cor 4:3).   

So whether Jesus’ clothes actually began to glow, or whether Elijah and Moses took bodily form right beside Jesus or not, may be beside the point.  Maybe the point is what these things meant.  For instance, that the man wearing a dusty robe whom they had been following was not simply a man wearing a dusty robe, but in fact the light of the world.

Mystical Moments as Experiences of Faith

Recently I have been enjoying the writing of a German liberation theologian named Dorothee Soelle.  Dorothee suggests that we have all had experiences of faith, whether we acknowledge them or not.  She ponders the possibility that as children, when we lived with a more open and trusting disposition, we all had mystical moments—moments where we experienced a deep sense of connection with the world, an unspeakable sense that all was well and all would be well. 

If you’re rolling your eyes at this idea—and trust me, in the right cynical moment, my eyes are rolling with yours—Dorothee would say that you’ve proved her point.  We trivialize these childhood experiences with words like “just” or “only,” as though they are merely flights of fancy amid the cold, gritty reality of our world.  But what if—she asks—what if these moments are in fact hints of a deeper reality?  What if they are glimpses of what’s behind the curtain of the world?

I won’t pretend to have had a full-blown mystical experience.  I doubt many of us have.  But I am intrigued with what Dorothee suggests.  Because I do remember moments from my childhood of heightened connection and wholeness.  Moments like when I lay in bed and imagined all the stars above me, and I felt lost among them, just a speck in the universe, but somehow that made me feel good and safe.  Or like when I played soccer and lost myself in the game, no longer a player but part of the flow, no longer concerned with winning or losing but enjoying the touch of the ball on my foot and the calls of my teammates and the unselfconscious joy of freedom.  Or like when I gathered with my family around a table, where we would hold hands and pray and eat and laugh, and I felt home in a way much deeper than we use that word for the buildings that we inhabit or the towns where we grow up.

Maybe these are mountaintop moments?  The skeptic in me asks, “Well what do these moments have to do with Jesus?”  At first glance, they seem to have very little to do with Jesus.  But when I think about it, each of these moments is made up of a loss of self or ego and an intense feeling of sharing and self-giving.  And are not these the very things that Jesus proclaimed as foundations of the kingdom of God?  Losing oneself and living for others?

What about you?  Have you ever had a spiritual experience like this, a mystical moment on the mountaintop?  The way several of my friends who are parents talk, I have to think that parenting can from time to time peel back the curtain of the world to reveal the light of Christ, a light burning with sharing and self-giving.  Perhaps any heartfelt relationship invites us into these mystical experiences, if we are willing to accept the invitation.

Treasuring Our Faith Experience

There is a world of difference between salivating over dishes and savoring them.  Between talking about food and eating it.  Between speculating about something and experiencing it.  A church that only talks about what it has never experienced—what’s the point of a church like that? 

The tragedy of our present world, is that it tends to trivialize any experience that is not grounded in the rational and material world.  It tends to trivialize dreams and visions, experiences built on feeling or intuition, the sorts of experiences that give substance to our faith and around which the church gathers.  “Oh that?  That was ‘just’ a dream.  It was ‘only’ a feeling.”

But our scripture today—where Peter, James, and John see bright lights and ancient figures and hear a disembodied voice—our scripture today pushes back on this trivializing mindset.  Our scripture today asks: What if these sorts of experiences are actually the feast that our faith is all about?  What if these are mountaintop moments, firsthand encounters with the light of Christ, a light that wants to shine, to be made visible, to be shared?  What if instead of trivializing these moments, we treasured them?  Took them with us as a light into the world?  Shared them with others, and cherished them in times of darkness and difficulty?

When Peter, James, and John left the mountaintop, they entered into their own Lenten season and followed Jesus on the way of the cross.  A way that was dark and difficult at times.  And Jesus would start talking about some scary stuff: about a cross, about making yourself last, a servant to others, giving your life for others.  And Peter, James, and John did not get it.  They could not understand.[1]  But still they followed Jesus.  Why?  I think it had to do with the memory of that mountaintop.  Their faith was not an abstract thought.  Their faith had to do with an incredible experience that had imprinted itself on their hearts.

That man in the dusty robe whom they were following?  He was not just a man in a dusty robe.  He was the light of the world.  And he would be with them every step of the way.  May it be so for us.


Shining Christ,
We catch glimpses
Of your light
Here and there,
But so often
We trivialize these moments;
Remind us
And inspire us
By these experiences
On which our faith feasts;
So that we might trust
In what we cannot see
In the dark and difficult days
Of our lives.  Amen.

[1] Cf. Mk 8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10:33-45.