Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I am a child of God - and that's all that matters...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, June 23, 2013.  For two weeks we will be away - Montreal - and then back on July 14th.

The more I trust God’s intimacy and grace for me – and all of creation, too – the less I need or want things – or busyness – or distractions to fill my head.  You may recall that at the start of Lent I invited you to join me in a simple spiritual practice.  Every time we used water – in any way – we were invited to inwardly say:  “I am God’s beloved and my life has meaning.”  Do you call that exercise?

The genesis of this prayer comes from our roots in Judaism – from the practices of the heirs of Abraham and Sarah as well as Moses and the prophets – who regularly lift up short prayers of thanksgiving to the Lord for all manner of things. They are called berakah from the Hebrew word barak that means blessing. 

·       Blessed are you, O Lord our God, who gives to us nourishment in times of silence and solitude.

·       Blessed are you, O Lord our God, who brings to us the rising of the sun each day .

·       Blessed are you, O Lord our God, who from our mother the earth shares with us our daily bread.

Before the sharing of the wine at the Passover Seder, the host prays:  Blessed are you, O Lord our God, who creates the fruit of the vine. (Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melech Ha-Olam borey p’ree ha-gaw-fan.)  Our simple Lenten exercise was in essence a 21st century version of an ancient practiced designed to help us see everything as potentially holy and precious.  Well, as the result of praying this blessing maybe 20 or 30 times each day during Lent, two things have taken place in my life:

·      First, I am still doing it!  Whenever I wash my hands – or fill the dishwasher – or even flush the toilet, I say to myself:  Remember, I am God’s beloved and my life still has meaning.  On good days and bad days, when people love me or forget me, when I feel like a million bucks and when I feel like… garbage, the blessing prayer keeps me grounded in the truth that I am a child of God – beloved of the Lord – and my life has meaning.

·      And the second thing that has happened is that I find myself turning off more and more stupid, mean-spirited or simply ugly and violent television programs.  During Lent I told you that I felt inspired to quit watching cable news, right?  Those cats are just too vile and vicious to advance the cause of learning what’s happening in the world.  So, much as I once loved them, I haven’t spent any time with CNN, MSNBC or Fox News in five months.

And now I find I’m turning off some of the overly violent and gory mystery shows that I used to love, too.  I am a mystery junky – I probably should go to mystery junkies anonymous – because I LOVE ‘em.  But what I’m discovering these days is that some of the shows I used to enjoy look more and more to me like brutal pornography than entertainment.  And I don’t want to fill my head and heart with images and ideas of cruelty and destruction.  Because… I am God’s beloved and my life has meaning, right?

The apostle Paul once told his friends that those who seek to live into the blessings of God should turn their thoughts “to whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about* these things. And keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me and the God of peace will be with you.”  (Philippians 4:8-9)

Towards the end of his life, he also advised those he loved to avoid being conformed to the habits and goals of this world:  be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God— what is is good and acceptable and mature – so that you can do it in your everyday lives.  Eugene Peterson’s reworking of Romans 12 is pure gold:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Well, in both of the lessons assigned for today, there is a similar theme that boils down to this: I am a beloved child of God – and that’s all that matters to the Lord.  In fact, it matters so much to God that the One who is Holy is committed to finding ways to heal and nourish us – make us whole – even when we are wounded, broken, afraid, shamed and alone.  Let me give you three particulars that underscore this point.

First, from the words of St. Paul who tells us that from the sacred perspective of God, there are NO distinctions between people regardless of what society would have us believe.  He writes that now there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”  What Paul was originally talking about here has to do with social class – not contemporary notions of ethnic equality or gender liberation – but spiritual equality among the various social classes of Jews who wanted to follow Jesus.  And while I believe that we can extrapolate a broader message of freedom and equality from Paul’s insight, we should be careful not to attribute 21st century ideals upon 1st century words.  That would be an anachronistic mistake and intellectual dishonest.

·       So let’s be clear:  in Paul’s world, to speak of someone of the Roman Empire as a Greek meant they were well-educated, civilized and a part of the in-group who followed “Hellenized culture, customs and ideals.” (Malina/Pech, A Social Science Commentary: Letters of Paul, p. 372)

·       In the first century, you see, there was no Greek nation – it had been destroyed – and all that was left were ethnic city and locations like Thessalonika or Macedonia.  That’s easy to forget as we often superimpose a contemporary context upon the ancient world, but it would be misleading, ok?

So what Paul seems to be talking about here has to do with the social and spiritual relationships between people of very different classes and perspectives who now find themselves in the same church:   there were the cultural and political insiders – the Greeks – who celebrated a lofty and sophisticated Hellenistic culture, and, there was everyone else – who in the binary analysis of the Mediterranean world were simply known as… barbarians.  To be Greek was to be civilized – and everyone else was an unsophisticated outsider. 

·      Are you still with me?   Have I been clear about this?  Paul isn’t talking about ethnicity or gender justice; he’s addressing social status within the church.

·      And the same social stratifications are applicable to the other two categories Paul addresses – men and women and free and slave – wherein one group wields power and status over the other who live at the bottom of the heap.  Do you hear what I’m trying to say here?

Inside the community of God’s loving grace, Paul was telling his friends, there can be NO social stratification:  there are no insiders and outsiders, no bosses or peasants, no beautiful people and slobs, no conservatives or liberals, no winners or losers – because EVERYONE here is a beloved child of God – and that is all that matters.  Paul wasn’t a social revolutionary.  He didn’t take on the Roman empire in a modern political sense, although you can see how once people who had been treated as dirt all their lives started to be honored and celebrated as beloved children of God in church might want to expand this blessing into the realm of social justice and political dignity, right?

So that’s one insight.  A second comes from the story of Jesus restoring to wholeness the young man who had been possessed by demons. Most of us in this time and culture don’t’ experience demons in the way they are described in the Bible and are really troubled and uncomfortable with these stories.  They sound superstitious and simple-minded.  But one writer put it like this:  If we define “demons” as those forces which have captured us and prevented us from becoming what God intends us to be, we are as surrounded by – and even possessed by – as many demons as those whom Jesus encountered. Our demons can be of many kinds: mental illnesses, schizophrenia, paranoia, addictions, obsessions, destructive habits” (Michael Rogness, Working Preacher.org) and all the rest.  And if we look at the narrative of the story carefully, it becomes painfully contemporary:

·       The young man was totally cut off from his family, society and culture.  We was not only one of the “walking wounded” in a far away and, he was living in a graveyard like a zombies.
·      And his demons were destroying him – so much so that the young man no longer had any real identity and couldn’t even speak when Jesus came near him – it was the demons that recognized and named Jesus, not the walking dead.

Because they were Legion – more than 6,000 based upon the understanding of a Roman legion in Christ’s day – which is why Peterson’s calls the demons a MOB.  And the heart-breaking truth of this story is that this mob of wounds had robbed this child of God of his identity and name.  When Jesus speaks to the boy, he is unable to speak his own name.  He is “not Elijah, or Isaac, or John, or Frank, or Jo-Jo; he has become Legion…  completely defined by what assails him, by what robs him of joy and health, by what hinders him and keeps him bound, by all those things that keep him from experiencing life in its abundance.” (David Lohse, Working Preacher.org)

So what does Jesus do in this situation?  What happens to this child possessed by demons that restores him to his true identity as a beloved child of God?  Jesus heals him – casts out the demons – and restores this child to wholeness.  The word used in the Greek text is sozo that is sometimes translated as “saved” – other times as “healed” – but always could be rendered as “made whole,” too. 

·      So what distinctions do you make between being saved, healed and made whole?  They all have to do with being rescued from forces that cut us off from living as God’s beloved but each word is used differently, yes?

·      For example, has anyone ever asked you, “Have you been saved?”  What do they mean by this?  Usually there is a very narrow definition that has to do with making a doctrinal commitment to Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, right?   

And while I am not at all uncomfortable with speaking about Jesus as Lord and Savior, what’s the catch or problem with this question? It’s all about determining who’s in and whose out, right?  It’s all about restricting God’s grace to the in-crowd – and that is fundamentally flawed because… we are ALL the beloved children of God – and that’s all that matters.  We are not insiders and outsiders – saved and unsaved – saints and sinners.  That’s why I love what one Greek Orthodox monk replied when asked by a young American fundamentalist if he had accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior:  “Personal” said the monk?  “Oh no, I prefer to share him with everyone.”

The words we use to speak of holy things matter.  That’s why in these demon stories I think it makes more sense to talk about being restored to wholeness rather than saved.  Because then, if you are anything like me, you too can connect with the deeper truth of this story.  You may not have been possessed by a demon in an antiquated or superstitious sense, but I bet dollars to donut holes that you do know something about being made whole by God’s love. 

·      If you have been restored from an addiction – if you have been forgiven a betrayal – if you have found meaning by sharing compassion or doing justice – you, too have been made whole so that you can live as a beloved child of God whose life has meaning.

·      In fact, you could even say that you were born again and mean it – not in a narrow or judgmental sense – but rather as somebody who was lost but now is found, was blind but now you see, right?

And the third insight is simply this:  after the child is restored and made whole – after the disciples share both clothing and food with the young man and Jesus tells him to go back home and make things right there – Jesus sails away.  Now think about that for a minute:  Jesus makes the effort to travel into Gentile country and then after bringing wholeness to this wounded child he turns right around and sails away.  Why?  Why doesn’t he spread a little more love and grace around?  Why does the story end with his rapid departure?  One wise old preacher said

All he did in the land of the Gerasenes was heal this one possessed man. Which might mean that Jesus’ whole detour into this strange and unfamiliar place was to do just that: to rid this one man of his demons and transform him from being Legion to being a human being again, a human being who was also a beloved child of God.

The ministry of Jesus – his life, death, resurrection and ascension – shows us something of the character of God - it is about restoration and wholeness.  And what does God calls us?  Beloved.

Our God is not about insiders and outsiders – setting up divisive loyalty tests to judge who is worthy to receive grace and mercy – that is wicked and destructive.  No, our God comes to us to restore us to wholeness – and the good news for today is that:

Jesus is still crossing boundaries to do just that. He is still coming into the strange and unfamiliar world of our failure-ridden and lack-driven lives to cast out our demons. Jesus says to us again and again that we are more than the sum total of our past failures and disappoints. We are God’s beloved children, forgiven of our sins, healed of our disappointments and blessed with an open future. (Lohse)

So, beloved, let those who have ears to hear… hear.
2) sweet oxygen @ michellepower.tumblr.com
3) Into the wilderness @ pastorblog.cumcdebary.org


Peter said...

See the words of Sheikh Bilal on my blog, James.

RJ said...

Which one, Peter? I can't find an update... ugh!

trusting the sacramental wisdom of the seasons: the autumnal equinox

Yesterday a little package arrived: my used copy of Christopher Hill's 2003 book Holidays and Holy Nights - Celebrating Twelve Seasonal ...