listening to the faith, love and doubt in your life...

Here are my worship notes for this morning: it was a joy and privilege to baptize a young
family - father, daughter and son - in our old Sanctuary.  And it happened again: some of those who are not a part of the regular community - as well as a few who are hurting deeply in various ways - "heard" the call of God's presence for them while others went away perplexed. And later this week I'll start a conversation with another person who has is discerning a call to ordained ministry. A challenging and paradoxical time, to be sure. I can't help but hear St. Dylan's singing, "Something's going on all around you and you don't know what it is... do you, Mr. Jones?"

This week marked the 34th anniversary of my ordination into Christian ministry as pastor and teacher:  it has been my privilege to serve four congregations – six including my two internships during seminary – and all in wildly different parts of the United States.  I was first a seminary youth minister in Darien, CT, then an exchange student in San Jose, Costa Rica, and finally an assistant pastor at a large, inter-racial urban church in Jamaica, Queens, New York.  

Over the next three decades, God called me to serve rust belt communities like Saginaw, MI as well as the economically challenged urban center of Cleveland, OH.  We spent 10 years in the desert southwest in an oasis known as Tucson, AZ and now it has been nearly nine years in the green hills of the Berkshires. One of the unique joys for me in presiding at the ordination ceremony of Robert Hyde last weekend was that it was both a sacred celebration for Robert as he begins his journey of service and ministry in Christ’s name, and also an unexpected invitation for me to look backwards upon the trajectory of my own years in ministry.  The bard of Vermont, Frederick Buechner, once called us all to:  “Listen to our lives with care and insight.”

Listen… and see (your life) for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste and smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace… There is not event so common-place but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that!

It was an insightful exercise for me. And while I promise not to get all doe-eyed and nostalgic on you, I do want to share one observation that I hope resonates:  it would seem that I, like First Church itself, have been on a journey from big acts of ministry towards small acts of tenderness.  Theologically it has been for me a pilgrimage from feeling driven to do bold and dramatic things for God, to a life where I cherish doing quiet and beautiful things for the Lord.  When I was president of the student body at Union Theological Seminary, the professor of homiletics – that is, preaching – the great Jim Forbes of the Riverside Church in NYC, called me into his office one day and asked:  “Lumsden, why are you so busy?”
At first I didn’t know what to say, so Dr. Forbes continued: “You are a father of two small children, a husband, an assistant pastor, a student and president of the student body – and now they tell me you are organizing a bus to go to a demonstration in Washington, DC to protest aid to the contras in Nicaragua, is that right?” “Yes, sir” was all I could say. To which he replied with clarity and compassion, “Son, there’s plenty of time after you leave seminary to get yourself killed if that’s what you want. Why not use this time to slow down, savor your studies and learn something you don’t already know. Even Gandhi took a break in his battle against the Brits to get some perspective and soul food. Why don’t you do likewise?”  I didn’t have an adequate response then – and for after-wards decades I was haunted by his words – because they were so prophetic.

I didn’t change my activity much in seminary and kept at it after graduation, too. In Saginaw, I threw myself into anti-nuke activities and participated in two different peace vigils to the former Soviet Union – one of which involved taking 50 high school teens and their parents from our church to Russian in the middle of the winter. In Cleveland, beyond our ministry to street kids, I got elected to the Board of Education in an inter-racial reform team and took two more groups to the Soviet Union as well.  When we went to Tucson, I served a large church with 250 people attending two very different worship services – and took on the job of Moderator of the South-west Conference of the United Church of Christ, too.

And, truth be told, when we came here, even though I was moving away from my obsessions with doing something BIG and BOLD for God (and trying to kill myself with busyness), I still believed that we could beat the demographics of the Berkshires, beef up our worship and stewardship numbers in significant ways and rebrand First Church as THE place to be on Sunday mornings.But that hasn’t really happened, right?  Yes, we’ve become Open and Affirming – to be sure we’ve been on the cutting edge of bringing to birth the first grassroots community organization for social justice in the Berkshires – and we’ve created a well-respected new ministry of music and solidarity in the region. But we haven’t been able to overcome the demographics or trends that drive people away from religion in our culture. 

And for a few years, our more humble successes started to drive me crazy because I felt like a failure.  Not so much anymore, because it is clear to me that this is a time for doing something beautiful for the Lord - something tender and even something hidden rather than public – but for a while it was a challenge. 

These days I’m rather fond of the Psalmist’s song we heard earlier:  Do not be like a horse or a mule without understanding whose temper must be curbed with a bit and bridle else it will not stay near you… but be glad and rejoice in the Lord.  Psalm 32 opens with a small Hebrew word, asher, that is often translated “happy” or even “blessed.”  But asher cuts deeper than feelings – it literally means to take a straight path in life – and path that turns away from selfishness and stupidity, and lives into God’s grace.  The blessings suggested by asher are not emotions, but the result of being guided and disciplined by the unforced rhythms of grace.

Psalm One amplifies this using the same word to kick things off:  Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; their delight is in the law of the Lord, the practice of God’s way, and they meditate on God’s guidance both day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season and their leaves do not wither.

Jesus says much the same thing when he begins the Sermon on the Mount:  blessed are those… who know that they’re at the end of their rope; with less of you there’s more room for God.  And blessed are those who can show others how to cooperate instead of compete and fight – that’s when you all discover that you are a part of God’s family.

To be blessed, you see, is to know God’s grace and love inside you and then practice sharing that grace by the way you live. Blessing is a commitment to gratitude, the practice of spreading the beauty of God’s grace by how you choose to live.  St. Paul speaks of this as living as God’s new creation – people who can rejoice in the Lord always – because their lives are moving in God’s guidance.

 Now in order to live as God’s new creation, real people need a vision to practice and help organize their thoughts, habits, and actions. The wisdom tradition of ancient Israel clearly states that without a vision, the people perish. They flounder and get caught up in fears and anxieties or else turn towards selfishness, hatred and acts of aggression.  That is what both readings from the Old and New Testaments articulate: without an inner experience of trusting God’s grace and an outward vision to shape and guide us, we will become our worst selves.
In the Elijah, Ahab and Jezebel cycle this is expressed when Israel’s king – the one appointed to protect God’s people – chooses the way of greed and death over compassion and integrity.  And we need a word of context to make sense of this story because this is not about a real estate deal gone bad.

In ancient Israel people didn’t treat land like we do today in 21st century America. The land was
a sacred trust given to families passed on from one generation to the next. Bound by both religious law and tradition, these ancestral lands provided security and livelihood, farms for food and pasture to raise crops for sale, and could not be sold.  If the people of Israel kept the covenant – essentially honoring the Sabbath and living as good neighbors – then God would preserve them.  So let’s be clear that what King Ahab was proposing was against the law of the land.  And to make matters worse, Ahab was Israel’s king – appointed and anointed to uphold the covenant – and he was trying to cut a deal because he wanted a kitchen garden.

+ So Naboth wasn’t being cranky or uncooperative: he was walking the path of blessing – maintaining the covenant – honoring the way of asher – the practice of blessing.  And just to make matters worse, Ahab’s queen, Jezebel, hated the God of Israel.  My wife, Dianne, tells me that Jezebel was the Hebrew Bible’s equivalent of Cruella DeVille from 101 Dalmatians.  Just mean-spirited, self-centered and evil.

+ Now, did you grasp the vicious and bloody scheme she cooks up to violate the commandments and get rid of Naboth in the process?  Jezebel first yells at Ahab – dude, aren’t you the king? – you can do whatever you want – then she puts into action a plan for Naboth to be murdered so that Ahab can take possession of the vineyard.  And just so that we don’t miss the horrific consequences of all this, the text keeps telling us that the reason why Ahab wanted Naboth’s ancestral vineyard is because the king wanted to plant a vegetable garden.

So we have a king violating the commandments for some tomatoes, a queen plotting murder because she hates Israel’s religion and an innocent farmer’s family losing their land and their livelihood because no one would stand up for justice. The practice of blessing had fallen into disrepair in the land – and the result was murder – plain and simple.  That’s one of the powerful insights we inherit from the prophetic tradition, if we’re paying attention: namely that God’s people do not separate the social from the spiritual because ALL of life is to be lived as a blessing.  The great Protestant reformers called this becoming a living doxology:  praising the Lord with the content of our lives.  Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa put it like this: 

I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you’ because the good news to a hungry person is bread.

A living doxology means that social justice is simply the praise we share in the marketplace or the corridors of power.  Sometimes praise looks like writing or singing hymns, but it also looks like taking on the Keystone Pipeline. A living doxology might involve feeding the hungry, challenging the greed of the 1% or burning incense, baptizing babies or silent prayer. It might take place on a Sunday morning, but is no less real on a picket line for marriage equality.

ALL that we do in life – all the small things as well as the grand – are to be doxology:  ASHER – praising the Lord with our entire being.  In the Ahab and Jezebel story, if the appointed leader, the king, refused to deliver and serve Yahweh as Lord, then God would raise up a prophet who would. In this case Elijah, whose Hebrew name means: MY God is Yahweh - 'Eliyyahu. – The one who is guided on God’s path of grace and calls out the corruption of the hour by offering an alternative that restores doxology to the land. 

That same commitment to doxology is at work in Luke’s story of the woman anointing Christ’s feet with perfumed oil:  only this time we’re shown what happens when asher is celebrated and embodied.  If we read this encounter carefully we discover that apparently this woman of the streets has already been forgiven her many sins by Jesus.  That’s what it says in verse 47: I tell you, her sins which were many, have been forgiven – and that’s why she’s showing such great love.  We don’t know the where or the when, but it sounds like at some point in the past Jesus met her – talked with her and showed her another path – and she turned her life around in order to walk in the way of blessing.

And again, this story like the other offers us a clear contrast so that we don’t miss the point – and it comes in the so-called religious man, Simon the Pharisee.  Jesus in unambiguous:  Simon, you have the property, you threw the feast and by religious obligation you were required to have my feet washed – but you chose not to do it – and not out of neglect, but as a choice. You didn’t share a kiss of welcome with me either. But this once broken woman, who is still despised, she not only bathed my feet with her tears, she dried them with her hair – and then anointed my feet with costly oil.  Her faith – that is, her commitment to asher – a disciplined adherence to living as a new creation in grace - has made her whole.

Without a vision, the people perish; without the guidance of God’s blessing, we don’t know how to become a living doxology.  So how do we practice living as doxology in our era?  How are we to embody a faith that not only celebrates God’s love in a broken and all too busy world but does so in a 21st century context? How are we to live in harmony with people of differing faith traditions or no obvious faith at all in a post-modern world that mistrusts religion and calls all meta-narratives into question?  Or even how do we reclaim the blessings of Jesus in a culture contaminated with the blood of Ahab and Jezebel? Last week I used the notion of living into the way of the Cross as short hand.  I told you that the way of the Cross trusts that God isn’t finished with us yet. It is the spirituality of Psalm 22 – the unity of both Good Friday and Easter – the Passion and the Resurrection – that has been distilled into five words:  let go and let God.

There wasn’t time last to say this, but I understand that not everyone gets or even appreciates aphorisms or affirmations, ok?  Some of us yearn for the wisdom that beneath these short sayings.  As they used to say during some algebra exams:  I want to see your work. So let me give you another take on the wisdom beneath the simplicity of a spirituality of the Cross – a theologically sophisticated and rich articulation of what it means to practice the way of asher in our time – a commitment to living into the blessings of grace.  It was summarized first by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians as faith, hope and love and then fleshed out for our era by the contemporary Canadian theologian, Douglas John Hall, who describes living as doxology like this in his book, The Cross in Our Context:

The best way that I have found of conveying what it means to live into the vision of Christ’s Cross is by considering the so-called virtues of faith, hope and love in the light of what they are each negating. Unless the negation of each is understood, the positive statement of this vision is cheapened and made into a cliché. Fortunately, we do not have to speculate about what the virtues of faith, hope and love negate, for in each case the negation is clearly present in the collected works of St. Paul; and as the New Testament’s chief exemplar of this “thin tradition,” Paul speaks for all who have been grasped by the principles of the way of the Cross.

Hall is telling our generation that to practice the way of the Cross – to live into the discipline of God’s blessings as new creations who choose to let go and let God – requires nuance and tenderness. Specifically, it is essential to be guided by the via negativa – a path of understanding God’s truth shaped by what is obvious AND by what remains mysterious – a spirituality that is rational as well as mystical – paradoxical as well as analytical – a discipline that honors the seen and unseen rhythms of grace.  I think he is on to something crucial, so please listen carefully to how he makes sense of faith, hope and love in the 21st century.

First there is faith – and what does this term negate? The metaphor that crops up in Paul’s writings is “sight.” Faith, which “comes by hearing” (that is, by listening to the stories of how God’s grace has touched real people) is precisely a not-seeing. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” Paul writes in the letter to the Hebrews.  And what this describes is a trust that is not elevated beyond its proper limit. The act of trusting and the One trusted, is glimpsed—as through a glass darkly - but not seen face to face. Faith that is not sight is thus a trust in God that warns us against presumption. It is a faith that is able to live with its antithesis, doubt, so that we never act like we alone have a monopoly upon truth.  (Are you with me?  First we practice trust knowing that we do not have all the answers – and can never have all the answers – because we are not the Lord. 

Second there is hope:  hope is at once an orientation to the future and a recognition that the present is still lacking its promised fulfillment.  Hope realized is no longer hope. The stance that we call hope is one constantly made conscious of the fact that the present is always a falling-short of what is most to be desired. So the hope that is faith’s future dimension is always “hope against hope” (Rom 4:18). So, just as faith must live with doubt, so hope must live with its antithesis, hopelessness or despair. Further, what is hoped for must not be taken for granted. (There is always more of God’s grace than what is obvious as this moment – or any moment – is never the end of the story.)

And third there is love:  love negates many things as Paul makes so plain in the famous hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13. “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.But I think that what must receive priority here is power: “Love does not insist on its own way.” “Power or control is the antithesis of God’s love. The crux of the cross,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr “is its revelation of the fact that the final power of God over human beings is derived not from control but from the self-imposed weakness of God’s love.” God freely chooses to suffer in order to strengthen love and this is complicated for all to accept if we think chiefly in terms of power, omnipotence, almighty-ness. If God is love, how-ever, then the divine power must accommodate itself to divine love and not vice versa – that is basic.

I’ve printed those out for you to ponder as the week unfolds: faith, hope and love – what is seen
and what is unseen – what we can comprehend and what is beyond our comprehension – is how we practice living tenderly and humbly and blessedly into the way of the Cross. Such a spirituality fits with this moment in history. It makes sense for us as a faith community.  We are no longer FIRST Church – the founders and propagators of the faith in Pittsfield and the Berkshires in a big and bold way – rather we are a collection of broken, wounded, loving, gentle, creative, beautiful, blessed but often confused people celebrating God’s grace and trusting that God’s love goes beyond our capacity to comprehend or see.  I like the way Niebuhr distilled the essence of faith, hope and love for our generation saying:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

As I have discovered in my own ministry, this small and tender way of being a believer is liberating. Do your part, trust the Lord, let go and let God.  There is a beautiful sermon that another wounded healer, the theologian Paul Tillich, once offered up that is illuminating, so let me close with his words:

One of Martin Luther’s most profound insights was that God made himself small for us in Christ. In doing so, He left us our freedom and our humanity. He showed us His heart, so that our hearts could be won. When we look at the misery of our world, its evil and its sin, especially in these days which seem to mark the end of a world period, we long for divine interference, so that the world and its daemonic rulers might be overcome. We long for a king of peace within history, or for a king of glory above history. We long for a Christ of power. Yet if He were to come and transform us and our world, we should have to pay the one price we could not pay: we would have to lose our freedom, our humanity, and our spiritual dignity. Perhaps we would be happier; but we should also be lower beings, our present misery, struggle and despair notwithstanding. We should be more like blessed animals than men and women made in the image of God. Those who dream of a better life and try to avoid the Cross as a way, and those who hope for a Christ and attempt to exclude the Crucified, have no knowledge of the mystery of God and or humanity. 

In our day I am more convinced than ever that we have been called to reclaim a theology of the cross that looks to faith but not sight – to hope but not consummation - and to love but not power or control.  Let our lives be a humble but joyful doxology to the Lord, beloved, as we stand and proclaim our faith in song.


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