How Long, O Lord? A Sermon in a Rural County Following the Election

Isaiah 6

We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. –Karl Barth

Election numbers

  • County 2/3
  • State 40%
  • National slightly less than 50%

Protests across cities

Fringe Trump supporters overtly threatening

We are a deeply divided people

Our hope that we would somehow magically come back together after Tuesday was naive.

***

Result of election of one who was openly

  • Racist
  • Misogynistic
  • Blamed immigrants and Muslims

Stories from circle re fear

Text: ”Half of this country just threw my life under the bus”

Election served as a trigger for sexual assault victims

Hateful “go home” notes left in people’s work mailboxes

Synagogues hiring security

Screamed at on way to work: “Trump! N****r!”

I spent much of Wednesday counseling, listening 

***

Others celebrate shock to polarized system

Needs have been ignored

Voting for him doesn’t mean you did so because racist

Some of you voted for him despite these things

***

View the world through the Bible,  faith, love

love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength…The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31 CEB

As followers of Jesus we are obliged to stand with those the powerful have attacked.

I sat down to write the scripture email late Wednesday. I came up with something not quite reflection.

I share some of that with you now:

***

“How long, O Lord?” asks Isaiah. “How long, O Lord?” must I fruitlessly prophesy to your people.

And God tells him that he must prophesy until the cities lay in ruins and the land lay devastated.

And, still, Isaiah goes where God sends him.

This is a discouraging story. 

The descriptions of the people turning away from living in accordance with God’s requirements,

their obstinate refusal to listen to the prophet warning of the pitfalls of their chosen path,

and, still the voice of Isaiah calling to them, is reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie. Love of neighbor be damned!

I have seen some horrible things as an educator and as a pastor.

I’ve been privy to some of the worst of what humanity has to offer.

I’ve often felt like following God’s requirements “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB) is futile.

Too often I’ve felt beaten down by shortsighted bureaucrats or politicians more concerned with bombing and killing others than feeding our own children!

My words of “you are God’s beloved” seem too little when the church — THE CHURCH! — spews hatred and rejects children of God.

In the face of an incoming president who has made fun of a disabled reporter, bragged about sexual assault, who has a racist history,

and who blames and threatens to discriminate against all Muslims — our sibling Abrahamic religion — all while claiming the Christian faith, I am discouraged. 

Does our faith even matter?  On the morning following the election I was counseling multiple people who are terrified that their rights are at stake now.

One young woman said to me, “I am scared for my personal safety!”

An individual one step removed from me was the victim of someone yelling, “Trump! N****r!” as he journeyed to work.

I imagine Isaiah saw some of the same underbelly of humanity happening all around him.

God does not seek prophets when humanity is loving neighbor and caring for the least of these (Matthew 25:44-45).

God saw the state of the world all too clearly in the time around King Uzziah’s death, in Isaiah’s time.

Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.” Isaiah 6:8 CEB

Isaiah volunteered to take God’s message to the people!

His response reminded me of a little girl who, as Hitler was spreading through Europe, wrote in her diary:

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” (Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank).

Just as Isaiah responded to God’s call to a seemingly fruitless task, we must not give up on God’s call to be the realm of God in the world.

If we are to call ourselves Christians, we must stand on the margins of society as Jesus did.

We must strive to manifest the extravagant love of Christ.

We must protect the vulnerable even when others empower hatred.

[Isaiah] said, “How long, Lord?” And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.”  (Isaiah 6:11 CEB)

And I suppose there is the Good News:

Even when we don’t deserve it, even when the only thing that remains is a holy seed, God does not give up.

Amen.

How Long, O Lord?

“How long, O Lord?” asks Isaiah. “How long, O Lord?” must I fruitlessly prophesy to your people. And God tells him that he must prophesy until the cities lay in ruins and the land lay devastated. And, still, Isaiah goes where God sends him. (Read Isaiah 6 here.)

This is a discouraging story. The descriptions of the people turning away from living in accordance with God’s requirements, their obstinate refusal to listen to the prophet warning of the pitfalls of their chosen path, and, still the voice of Isaiah calling to them, is reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie. Love of neighbor (Mark 12:29-31) be damned!

I have seen some horrible things as an educator and as a pastor. I’ve been privy to some of the worst of what humanity has to offer. I’ve often felt like following God’s requirements “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB) is futile. Too often I felt beaten down by shortsighted bureaucrats or politicians more concerned with bombing and killing others than feeding our own children! My words of “you are God’s beloved” seem too little when the church — THE CHURCH! — spews hatred and rejects children of God.

In the face of an incoming president who has made fun of a disabled reporter, bragged about sexual assault, who has a racist history, and who blames and threatens to discriminate against all Muslims — our sibling Abrahamic religion — while claiming the Christian faith, I am discouraged. Does our faith even matter?  On the morning following the election I was counseling multiple people who are terrified that their rights and personal safety are at stake now. One young woman said to me, “I am scared for my personal safety!” An individual one step removed from me was the victim of someone yelling, “Trump! N****r!” as he journeyed to work on public transit.

I imagine Isaiah saw some of the same underbelly of humanity happening all around him. God does not seek prophets when humanity is loving neighbor and caring for the least of these (Matthew 25:44-45). God saw the state of the world all too clearly in the time around King Uzziah’s death, in Isaiah’s time.

Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.” Isaiah 6:8 CEB

Isaiah volunteered to take God’s message to the people! His response reminded me of a little girl who, as Hitler was spreading through Europe, wrote in her diary:

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” (Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank).

Just as Isaiah responded to God’s call to a seemingly fruitless task, we must not give up on God’s call to be the realm of God in the world. If we are to call ourselves Christians, we must stand on the margins of society as Jesus did. We must strive to manifest extravagant love. We must protect the vulnerable now and especially if our president-elect continues to empower hatred.

Isaiah said, “How long, Lord?” And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.”  Isaiah 6:11 CEB

And I suppose that’s the Good News, even when we don’t deserve it, even when the only thing that remains is a holy seed, God does not give up. As faithful people we must not give up either.

Voting No While Standing With

Voting No While Standing With

Three caveats before I start: 1) I failed to do my homework before the CPCUCC Annual Meeting which led to my failure to speak out to the assembled; 2) I feel woefully inadequate to address solutions to conflict in the Mid-East; and 3) I am deeply troubled by Israel’s actions directed at the Palestinian population.  

***

The Palestine-Israel Network of the CPCUCC calls the gathered to pass "A Resolution of Witness " Photo by Maggie Sebastian
The Palestine-Israel Network of the CPCUCC calls the gathered to pass “A Resolution of Witness ” Photo by Maggie Sebastian

The Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ met last weekend for their Annual Meeting. The gathering passed “A Resolution of Witness Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” I voted against this resolution which can be read here. (This is the original version without friendly amendments added during the meeting.)

My concerns about this document began when I read materials on the information table. Terms like “European Jewish colonialism” and frequent use of the term “Jews” in background materials are at best vague and imply or place blame on whole swaths of people rather than Israeli decision makers. The tone of the materials and their reliance upon the Kairos document, which one Conservative Jew whom I respect calls “antisemitic at its core” were red flags for me.

When a proponent of the resolution described Gaza as an open-air prison, I was appalled. If our goal is peace and reconciliation terms like that only polarize. Peace requires the concerns of all parties be recognized and heard. As an American Christian that term was loaded with innuendo and implication that failure to pass the resolution was tantamount to condoning Israel’s actions against the people of Gaza.  How might a phrase like that be heard by Israeli Jews who live within a context Americans — especially Christians — can barely imagine?

It is no secret that embedded anti-semitism is both a contemporary and historical sin of the Christian church. Our sacred text itself has been used as a weapon to blame our Jewish sisters and brothers for killing Christ! This, of course, is historically inaccurate. The only entity that had the ability to crucify Jesus was the occupying Roman authority.

Too many Christians believe that Jesus’ criticism of religious leaders of his day implies a rejection of his own Jewish faith.  The biblical witness does not bear this out. His criticism of leaders and arguments with other Jews is analogous to differences argued within any mainline American Christian denomination. Our supersessionist reinterpretation  of some passages of the Elder Testament (e.g.; Isaiah 7:14) to have meanings never intended by the original authors too often affirms embedded anti-Jewish attitudes.

None of this is to suggest that the proponents of the resolution passed at the CPCUCC Annual Meeting last weekend are antisemitic in intention. We must stand with our Palestinian sisters and brothers — Christian and Muslim — who are victimized by the actions of the Israeli government. The conditions under which they live are abhorrent.

That said, when those of us in the United Church of Christ, a denomination committed to Christian unity and positive interfaith relationships, stand with oppressed peoples in Palestine we must do so without relying on antisemitic documents. We must intentionally seek to uncover the embedded antisemitism of our tradition. Until we do, our voice calling for justice will lack credibility.

In short, we need to stand in witness with our Palestinian sisters and brothers but we must do so without perpetuating the sin of antisemitism.

___

Related

My Speech to the Presbyterians, Rachel Lerner of J Street

Cautions to US Churches Regarding the Kairos Palestine Document

I Will Vote No on Divestment, Rev. Chuck Currie

Keep Calm & Jump Out the (Stained Glass) Window

Keep Calm & Jump Out the (Stained Glass) Window

Read below or listen here: 

I don’t know why. The kids knew we were going — we talked about it for weeks in advance. We’d Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 11.02.28 AMbeen going up to Jerusalem three times a year for the festivals since they were babies. And still they had to be cajoled to get dressed in their traveling clothes. They had to be reminded to pack their bags.

“Keep calm, mom,” they’d mock me. “Keep calm and carry on. We’ll be ready on time. Honest.” 

Then they’d giggle.

That’s when I’d send their father in to deal with them. I just might’ve killed them otherwise. I figured killing your children was not a faithful way to begin a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover. 

Even in my irritation, I could see that.

***

In the time of Jesus, there was not a temple in every community. Today, of course, there is a synagogue anyplace there is a community of Jews. 

Unlike us, weekly worship in community was not possible during Jesus’ lifetime. 

We are blessed by the foresight of those who did the fundraising and had the vision to see to it that this building was built. Still, I imagine there were probably some feelings of loss over the old building. 

Change is always accompanied by grief.

God always seems to come along with us, though. Wherever we gather God is present.

I think we are particularly blessed by this beautiful sanctuary. Imagine for a moment all of the saints who have worshiped here. You can almost feel their presence, can’t you?

I’ve had people tell me that they come here during the week when they can’t make it on Sunday. “I come into the sanctuary and pray,” they tell me. I’ve heard people at Summit Springs tell me the pleasure, the peace and the joy they feel when they look across the street to see our stained glass window lit up at night.

Can you imagine what it would be like if you could only come to church three times a year? Can you imagine if it took a day’s journey or more to fulfill your religious obligations? What if — after a long journey on foot with your children in tow — what if someone prevented you from entering the sanctuary? What if what this person did made it impossible for you to worship after you’d invested days in getting to church?

***

Yeah. I knew the vendors in the temple took advantage of us. It’s a lot like when you go to the airport and you pay five dollars for a pack of gum. The vendors in the marketplace outside the inner temple knew we couldn’t carry live animals with us from home. They also knew we needed animals to fulfill our religious obligations.

If we were going to be faithful to the Lord, we had no choice but to pay the prices.

I’ll never forget the year we made the trip for the Passover. Just as we got to the marketplace on the temple grounds — you know the place where we could purchase our animals for sacrifice — this guy starts throwing a tantrum!

He was shouting. He was yelling. He was threatening the vendors with a whip.

“Get these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a place of business,” he screamed. (John 2:16 CEB)

I didn’t know what we were gonna do. We’d dragged the whole family on the pilgrimage. The children were looking forward to the festival. It was a lot of effort to make the trip and then — this guy! — this guy had kicked all the vendors out of the temple.

I was ready to chew him out. I’m a lot like my Aunt. The women in my family aren’t  improper — usually — but we don’t hold back either. My husband must’ve sensed I was getting tense and angry. He took my hand and said,

“Keep calm and allow the temple leaders to deal with him.” 

***

The gospel writer — who was not the apostle John but another — is providing us with a theological explanation for the religious and cultural shift that is happening in his time. Scholars tell us, our anonymous John is a Jewish Christian writing to other Jewish Christians around the year 100 of the common era.

That is, he’s writing 70 years after Jesus’ death. The Temple in Jerusalem has been gone — destroyed by the Romans — at least three decades before John puts pen to parchment.

Still, the destruction of the Temple, which was the center of religious practice for Jews at the time, is a relatively recent memory. For us, it’d be as recent as the eruption of Mt. St. Helens and more significant because the absence of the Temple meant a change of lifestyle, a change of religious practice.The loss of the Temple was devastating for the Jewish people. It hastened the end of Temple Judaism and the already emerging development of rabbinic Judaism. 

After the year 70, the Temple could no longer function as the center of religious practice. This change was coming already but when Rome destroyed the Temple, the people had no choice.

And, so, when John tells this story in his gospel, he uses it much more metaphorically than Matthew or Mark or Luke.

By placing it near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, rather than near the crucifixion like the others do, he shifts the meaning.

When Jesus throws out the moneychangers, he makes it impossible for people to practice their faith. Of course, the temple leaders are gonna challenge him.

If you came here on Sunday morning and some stranger had moved things around, hi ad thrown some things out on the lawn, you’d rightfully ask by what authority they were doing so.

Then the Jewish leaders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?”

(It was reasonable during the time to ask for some sign from God that Jesus had the authority.)

Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”

The Jewish leaders replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” But the temple Jesus was talking about was his body. (John 2: 18-21 CEB)

John was brilliant! What poetry!

What he does here is take the event, or the story, of Jesus’ throwing out the moneychangers and he uses it to explain that, for the Jewish Christians he’s writing to, that Jesus is the access point to God.

Jesus functions similarly for the early church as the Temple did for Jews before the year 70. (Now, Judaism itself also found new access points to God but that’s not John’s concern at the moment.)

John has used this story to metaphorically remove the Temple as a path to God.

This is true for Jews, whose faith was evolving and transforming, as well as for the followers of Jesus who were just now — in the decades after the destruction of the Temple — becoming a separate religion from Judaism.

You see up to this time, Christians were simply a sect of Judaism which, of course, was the faith of Jesus.

This partially explains why John’s tone is so incredibly anti-Jewish and why he is so nasty about “the Jews” in his gospel.

John is seeking to separate from Judaism. His community is no longer a part of the local synagogue. The break, the divorce if you will, was not amicable.

From all that we know it was pretty darned painful. The writer of John apparently was still a bit on the bitter side from the experience and that’s reflected in his tone throughout the gospel.

Nonetheless, John’s gospel has much to teach us about our faith. Though we need to be cautious to avoid mimicking antisemitism in our own following of Christ —

— who we know was himself a Jew —

the still speaking God can and does continue to speak through the Gospel of John.

Remain calm and listen for the Holy Spirit in the fourth gospel.

***

If John can take the story of Jesus clearing out the moneychangers and lay a new metaphor on it, I should be able to apply meaning to our current situation.

So, how does this all apply to us? What message does today’s gospel reading have to say to us?

Consider John and his community’s context. Judaism is under major transformation after the fall of the Temple. No one knows what is going to happen.

The Temple and its practices have served as the primary organizing influence on the faith.

At the same time, there is a subgroup of Jews who believe the teachings of Jesus are the path forward… but as is typical in times of change, not everyone agrees.

I see a connection with our time. Consider that we live in a era when the church is floundering and is increasingly viewed as irrelevant. 

We all know that the church must find a way to change that. Some want to keep doing the same thing we’ve always done and hope that people will miraculously come back and start filling pews again.

But just as the Temple wasn’t coming back for the Jewish people, that is not going to happen for us. 

Where is God? Haven’t we done all that we were expected to do? 

The Jewish faithful made pilgrimages and made the required sacrifices. Jews practiced hospitality and shared with the stranger. We have tithed and formed women’s groups. We’ve sent missionaries around the globe to help others. We developed Sunday Schools and built larger buildings when the numbers swelled.

So Where? Where is God now?

We have an empty sanctuary. In many ways this sanctuary is as dead as the Temple. Rather than being destroyed in an act of violent destruction, however, our holy place is simply fading away.

It’s hard to remain calm and carry on when everything we thought was so, is rejected by the world.

Where? Where is God? God is here. Do you not perceive the Spirit calling.

I am about to do a new thing;

    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

    and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19 NRSV) 

For some Jews in the post-Temple period, God encouraged faith structured around the emerging rabbinical Judaism, a more congregational model of faith. For other Jews and a lot of Gentiles in the post-Temple era, God’s transforming power manifest through the incarnation in Jesus resulting in a new religion that we call Christianity. And just as our faith has gone through major transformations before, it is doing so again today.

Historically, each time God called God’s people to transformation, folks were confused and anxious. They didn’t know what to do.

Each time God called God’s people to transformation, some clung desperately to the past. They were afraid of what they couldn’t see.

Each time, however, God has remained faithful to humanity and there have been those who have heard the voice of resurrection. They have trusted in Jesus as our temple.

They’ve said, “Keep calm and trust in God. God is doing a new thing; Do you not perceive it?

Friends, now’s the time! God is calling us to give up our reliance on our buildings and our institutional structures. God is calling for us to let go of anything — anything — that does not serve to further the realm of God on earth.

Our ministry is not inside these walls. The world is aching and writhing in horrible pain. Why are we sitting here? Our ministry is out there!

We have a choice. We can either keep on doing what we’ve been doing — and die — or we can change.

 God is calling us to keep calm, trust, and jump out of the stained glass window. Amen.

***

This sermon was delivered at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ on Sunday, January 19, 2014.

Here. There. Everywhere.

Here. There. Everywhere.

I confess there are Sundays when I leave church discouraged. I put a lot of time, thought, prayer, and effort into preparing a spiritual worship experience. Most weeks I’m excited about leading us in worship.  And, so, when only a handful of people show up I can sometimes feel deflated.

Look! I’m creating a new heaven and a new earth: past events won’t be remembered; they won’t come to mind. Isaiah 65:17 CEB

***

Imagine what it was like for our ancient kindred who’d been exiled from their land for more than a generation. Imagine Saul’s story:

I was still a kid when we the soldiers came. I remember when we were thrown out of Jerusalem. I remember the long trip on foot to Babylon. Most of my growing up years were in a foreign land but my folks did what they could to protect me from their alien religions. 

I am no spring chicken, as you can tell by my grey hairs and wrinkles, but the day we heard that Cyrus was letting us go home, well, I danced in the streets. 

It was a long journey back but we were full of anticipation about how happy we would all be. That was before reality set in. Our city — God’s city — was little more than a pile of rubble. Our temple on God’s mountain was only a few stones, having been ransacked by our enemies. 

***

Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” Luke 21:5-6 CEB

In our two focus scriptures today, from Isaiah and from Luke, we are talking about two different temples.Both were built on the same spot. In Isaiah, the Hebrew people have returned to Jerusalem after more than a generation of exile. They were discouraged by the job before them.

Their temple had been leveled.

As the story goes, because they had abandoned God, they themselves were abandoned and sent into exile.  Now, they were finally home but home was not the same anymore. It was a wasteland. And so, the prophet Isaiah brings them a good word from God.

Be glad and rejoice forever
i
n what I’m creating,
   because I’m creating Jerusalem as joy
   and her people as a source of gladness. Isaiah 65:18 CEB

In Luke, the elaborate temple commissioned by Herod — is remarkable in its magnificence. Aspects, that is details of the temple are not yet even completed in Jesus’ time. Though Herod was an all around despicable man, he was also a builder and he spared little expense in building the temple.

Yet we know that less than four decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection the temple would again be leveled, this time by Roman troops. Writes Vernon Robbins, “After its destruction, people knew about its magnificence all the way to Rome, as a result of the exhibition of the plundered furnishings and the large paintings of the events of the Roman siege and burning of Jerusalem that were paraded on wagons in a triumphal procession in Rome.”  (FOTW, loc. 11650)

Recall that most scholars suggest that Luke was writing between the years 85 and 90. And, so, those who first heard Luke’s gospel, lived after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. This was a traumatic experience for Jews and the early Christians.

In his retelling of the life of Jesus, the writer of Luke seeks to reassure the early church, that the temple is no longer necessary. According to Luke, Jesus had foretold its destruction. The destruction of the temple is a pivotal historical event and Jesus characterizes it as the start to a time of change that will end for the better. He reassures those admiring the temple that,

When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.” Luke 21:9 CEB

Jesus lists and describes horrible things that will happen but reassures,

Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. By holding fast, you will gain your lives. Luke 21:18-19 CEB

It’s gonna be really terrible for awhile — really bad — but it will get better. Jesus, through Luke, is reassuring the early Christians that bad things will not last forever just as God through the prophet Isaiah reassures the post-exile Jews that,

I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and be glad about my people.

No one will ever hear the sound
of weeping or crying in it again. 

No more will babies live only a few days,
or the old fail to live out their days.

The one who dies at a hundred will be
      like a young person,
      and the one falling short of a hundred
      will seem cursed. 

They won’t labor in vain,
      nor bear children to a world of horrors,
      because they will be people
      blessed by the LORD,
      they along with their descendants. Isaiah 65: 19-20, 23 CEB

***

The basic premise of our scriptures today, Isaiah and Luke’s gospel is: God is creating a new heaven and earth. In Isaiah, times are bad and will get better. In Luke, times will get worse but then get better.

***

And, so, I look out at this beautiful sanctuary built at a time when churches were bursting at the seams. I look Screen Shot 2013-11-14 at 8.23.08 AMat the empty pews. We live in a world where church, where faith in a God seems to take a back seat to sports, or shopping, or sleeping in, or just about anything else. We live in a world in which the very thing, the very One who gives my life meaning seems to have been pushed to the margins.

And, so, some Sundays I feel discouraged. But much of the time I’m excited about the coming transformation of the church.

Though the churches are empty, there is a deep craving for the One who binds us together. There is a yearning for the extravagant love that accepts us and challenges us to be better people.

I sense a spiritual awakening in our world. God is active in the world encouraging and guiding humanity in new directions. We live in a time of significant change in the Christian faith. We’ve been living in this era all of my adult life,  it’s just become irrefutable in recent decades that the church as we know it is dying.

This has happened before. Phyllis Tickle says it happens about every 500 years. That is every half a millennium the church transforms itself under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit. The last time was the Reformation.

God is a creating god. God is a god of resurrections that follow death. Hard times always end. New life comes after death.

We see this in creation. The dying of fall becomes the death of winter only to be followed by the emergence of new life in the spring and summer. But throughout it all the One remains with us.

Consider our Bible stories from today. In much of the Old Testament our forebears perceived that God existed in one place. Think ark of the covenant. Literally it was a box where God was believed to reside. This is why the temple was built and rebuilt over and over again even when destroyed by foreigners. Always it was rebuilt on the mount in Jerusalem.

In their eyes, the eyes if our ancient kindred, God needed a place to be. God’s box needed a whole temple in which to reside. And then when attitudes and perceptions and understanding of God changed, changed enough…temples ceased being rebuilt.

When Rome destroyed the temple, that was the final death knell to a way of thinking about God in which God is often place-bound. You see, God is everywhere and in everything.

***

Like the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, four decades after Jesus’ time on earth, the slow death of what we think of as church is all around us.

Look!
I’m creating a new heaven and a new earth:
past events won’t be remembered;
they won’t come to mind.  
Isaiah 65:17 CEB

And though I sometimes get discouraged by our numbers, I know that this is just part of the process of the transformation of our faith. A living God like ours is clever enough and creative enough to guide us to new perceptions of what it is to be church, to be the people of God.

I suggest that just as our ancient forebears changed their perceptions of the divine One from existing in one place to existing everywhere, we too are in the midst of a perception-change. We are moving from thinking of Christ’s church as an organization to recognizing that just as God is everywhere, the church is everywhere.

Just as we no longer think of God as bound by place, as our ancient forebears did, the Spirit is whispering in our ears, encouraging us to rethink and broaden our perceptions. The church as we knew it, is indeed dying but… BUT being made anew all around is a church that is everywhere. It is a church that isn’t restricted to place. It is a church that is flexible and lets go of buildings for the sake of the Good News of God’s expansive love.

Though we can’t quite make out the details yet, God is creating a new heaven and a new earth, a new kind of church that responds to the spiritual yearnings and the justice cravings all around us. God is creating a church that is no longer place-bound, that no longer needs a box in which to reside, and in that way reflects the very nature of God, who is everywhere.

And throughout this transformation, though it may feel rocky at times, though you and I may feel discouraged by empty pews, or grieve for what once was, this is an opportunity for us to trust and embrace God. In the words of Jesus, “This will provide [us] with an opportunity to testify” and be God’s extravagant love in the world.

This is indeed Good News! Amen.

***

This sermon was preached at the Condon United Church of Christ on November 18, 2013.

The Colors of Dawn

The Colors of Dawn

The darkness of night gives way to contrasts of grey and blue.

Photo by Tim Graves
Photo by Tim Graves

Finally, the sky bursts forth with vibrant oranges and yellows.

Photo by Tim Graves
Photo by Tim Graves
1074910_10201537111892265_192592844_o
Photo by Tim Graves

 The oranges and yellows cannot be contained as they flow out of the east painting walls of concrete with their glow.

1025488_10201537116732386_1260404432_o
Photo by Tim Graves
Photo by Tim Graves
Photo by Tim Graves
Photo by Tim Graves
Photo by Tim Graves

 

Resurrection. New Day. Fresh & clean. Hope out of the death of darkness.

Then your light will break out like the dawn, and you will be healed quickly. Isaiah 58:8a CEB. 

Mobility, Simplicity, & Divine Memory

When we sold our house last year we were doing more than preparing for our move west. We were also committing to a simpler lifestyle by choosing to become renters and giving up most of our possessions.  I recall saying, “By renting our ministry can be more responsive to the Spirit’s call on our life.” Little did I know that God was listening and would hold me to my words.

Portland passion. Photo by Tim Graves

Settling into our efficiency in Portland, we were finding joy in our quirky, big city life. I was delighting in the city that I fell in love with as an adult and recalled fondly from my childhood. My wife was doing important ministry with veterans and I was working on “a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19).

But after five months, God lured us out of the city and into the Hood River area, a place famous for its windsurfing, breathtaking scenery, and outdoor recreation. I was, ahem, a tad stubborn. I didn’t want to leave “my city” but the Spirit reminded me of my commitment to faithful mobility.

The palpable presence of the Spirit in Maggie’s ministry as a clinical chaplain at Providence Hospital in the Gorge daily reassures me that this is our path. Opening myself to the pleasures of the Gorge I began hiking. On the trails of the Gorge and adjacent Mt. Hood National Forest I find God. I write about and photograph my spiritual adventures with gusto. (See some of my posts about Hiking with God here.)

It could not have happened without my brief stint in Portland nor without the sparkling allure of the Holy Spirit that enthralls my attention. I am now working on a project tentatively titled “Hiking with God.” I perceive the Spirit’s presence as I begin to outline and write a spiritual hiking guide to specific trails in the magical land called the Columbia River Gorge.

The “new thing,” the path upon which God lured me during a Holy Spirit moment in San Diego three years ago, has evolved.  God has me on a need-to-know basis. The single word “Portland” that I perceived during communion in San Diego was not a destination but a direction. I’ve learned that the divine deal works like this: I choose to be open to the Spirit and to continue removing clutter from my life. I also strive to respond to God not with “that can’t work” but with “how can we make this work?” and God nudges me toward responses that are loving to others and to myself.

Our God is a remembering God. God noticed that I committed to flexibility and mobility as part of following the Divine claim on my life. After a joyous summer of hiking, junior camp with the Oregon Region of my denomination, not to mention my near gluttony on the Gorge’s fruit and vegetable harvest, the Spirit called again.

And, so, I find myself in the remarkable town of Ione, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves

And, so, I find myself in the remarkable small town of Ione, Oregon as an Interim Pastor while the settled pastor is on sabbatical. I spend four days a week in a town of three-hundred fifty. I cheer at local sports, I leave my doors unlocked, and I smile with abandon. I am privileged to have this opportunity to fall in love with the people of Ione Community Church and the town. In the vernacular, “who’d’ve thunk?”

Though my time will end in January, my time in Ione has already opened me to other movements of the Spirit that — if they come to pass — will allow me to serve God inside the traditional church and among those who do not find God within an institution.

Remembering God,

Help me to trust you. Help me to perceive your loving presence and signposts. Help me to keep the clutter that obscures you out of my life that I may always throw off my cloak to follow love, to follow you.

Amen