My Fault and Her Choice

My Fault and Her Choice

I had a woman leave my church earlier this year. It was my fault.

rearview
Photo by Tim Graves

The first complaint came on the Sunday I suggested in my sermon that Christians do not have to love their neighbor alone. That is, because the golden rule crosses the boundaries of traditions we can work together for the common good.  I believe she expected me to repudiate the implicit message that human beings can reach the divine through many different paths.

I did not.

I told her that there are multiple ways to interpret her beloved John 14:6 in which Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 NRSV) Explanations of the historical context in which it exists didn’t soften her stance. Discussing the overall inclusive message of John didn’t change her view. Encouraging her to pray and reflect didn’t help.

In the end, I appealed to her own restoration movement church background, in which interpretive agreement is not required for fellowship. In short I said, we don’t have to agree on this point to live and love others together. That didn’t help much either.

Her tactics to convince me of my misguided ways included drive-by attacks on Facebook when I posted quotes or other items that were, frankly, innocuous by most standards. A Thomas Merton quote, for example, could degenerate into accusations that caused me to finally shut off the thread.

Over time her concern became more and more about me. She called me a “false prophet” or one who leads people away from the truth. The final straw that led to her resignation from membership was that the Central Pacific Conference of the UCC and I took public stances in support of marriage equality in Oregon. But let me be clear: her departure was about how we interpret the Bible.

I read the Bible as the expanding story and theologies of people of faith over centuries. To me, the Bible’s truths are not in the precise words on the page but in the loving God who inspired — and continues to inspire — people to grow into the image of God in which we are all created. She reads our shared sacred writings in a more constrictive manner.

I had a woman leave my church earlier this year. Come to think of it, it was her choice.

___

Watch the Golden Rules video I created and showed on the Sunday that prompted the first complaint:

For a good discussion of John’s “I am the way,” read this blog by Crystal St. Marie Lewis. http://crystalstmarielewis.com/2014/05/18/what-theologians-wish-everyone-knew-about-john-14s-i-am-the-way-proclamation/

___

Related Posts

Characterizing the Truth, August 26, 2011
Aliens Among Us (sermon), July 25, 2014
Weary of Literalism, June 21, 2014

 

I Am the Gate: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

I Am the Gate: An Ash Wednesday Reflection
I Am the Gate. Photo by Tim Graves.
I Am the Gate. Photo by Tim Graves.

By the sweat of your face you will eat bread—until you return to the fertile land, since from it you were taken;  you are soil, to the soil you will return.” (Genesis 3:19 CEB)

On Ash Wednesday we recognize our human mortality. But sometimes we say ashes to ashes and dust to dust (or in this case soil to soil) to imply that we are dirt, that we are worthless. When we say that we came from dust and return to dust what we are really implying is that we are interconnected with the earth beneath our very feet.

We are part of the wholeness that God creates. To suggest that we are dust is to suggest that even the dust is worthy of the love of God. We are integrated into creation not separate from it.

***

Sin. We also focus on sin on Ash Wednesday but I think we misunderstand. We think of sin as something we’ve done wrong when sin is by definition not a mistake but a separateness from God. And so in this passage from John, Jesus offers us a way out of sin.

He is more than the image of the shepherd who cares for us and gives us personal salvation, though he is all that for Christians. Jesus is the signpost pointing us toward the One who loves ALL people, the One who loves each of you.

So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. (John 10:7 CEB)

Jesus is the gate. For his followers Jesus is the opening through the 12-foot concrete fence topped with barbed wire that we have constructed to separate ourselves from God. Jesus is the gate which swings wide so that we can find green grass and abundant, life-giving streams.

And, so, because Jesus points us toward God we do not have to sin. The promise of the shepherd means that we do not have to be distant from the One who loves.

Amen.

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.

Communal Healing

Communal Healing

You may listen to Communal Healing by clicking here.

They were bright yellow with bold black letters. I don’t know if they made it to Condon, or even to the west coast, but they were all over the Bible belt. Like someone had sprinkled cinnamon sugar on french toast, “I FOUND IT” bumper stickers were sprinkled on cars all over my north St. Louis county neighborhood. One of my friends even plastered three of them all over her notebook.

Screen Shot 2013-06-04 at 1.43.26 PM

I was confused. Asking someone about it was like being present at the anti-Pentecost. Those I could understand one moment suddenly began to speak unintelligibly. They spoke

in words I didn’t understand. They asked me questions I couldn’t answer.

  • Have you been saved?
  • When did you find Christ?
  • Do you know where you’re going when you die?
  • Did you know God tricked the devil?
  • Jesus died because of your sins, did you know that?

And in this high-pressure peppering of questions I suddenly realized I was being evangelized. I was being pushed to attend a specific church or, rather to embrace a literalistic and non-questioning faith. I was being asked to give up the tradition of thinking for myself. I was being asked to give up the kind of Bible study we did at the storefront Disciples of Christ church my family attended.

I was being told to stop asking questions, to stop listening for a new word in the turbulent 70s. The answer had been found. All I had to do was follow someone with an “I FOUND IT” sticker to their church.

***

This kind of high-pressure evangelism is exactly why too many Presbyterians, Methodists, Disciples, ELCA Lutherans, and UCCers are afraid of the word evangelism. I think it may be a factor in why more than one of you in this church have said that your faith is a private matter.

You have rightfully been hesitant to share your faith with others for fear of being pushy, for fear of being overbearing, for fear of telling someone else how they should believe. But fear is not a faithful perspective. It reflects a lack of trust in the Divine. The all too human emotion of fear, leads us astray from trusting in God.

***

Like many of you, I am a universalist. That is, I perceive that the one we call the Holy Spirit, the one others call by other names, manifests in different ways for different people. The extravagant love that is within all, is between all, and is over all leads some to follow a Buddhist way of life.

The same Love leads some to follow the teachings of Muhammed or Krishna or the Great Spirit. Faithfulness to Love is for some found in the ancient traditions of Judaism.

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 9.29.10 AMFor you and for me it is in Jesus, the one who breathes in God and breathes out Love, that we find our faith. It is in Jesus that we meet God. It is in the Great Healer that our wounds are wrapped in healing balms. It is in the Great Challenger that we are called by God to seek justice for our kindred across the globe.

Before you say I’m ignoring what the Bible says…

Before you say I’m being swayed by misguided political correctness…

Know that Universalism is a justifiable position based upon the whole of the biblical witness. When we interpret John 10:16 through the expanding circle of God’s love rather than by its original meaning. When we interpret John’s words through the expanding circle of God’s love that is manifest from the Hebrew Bible to the gospels and to the book of Acts, we see that the One we call God loves all of God’s people.

Says Jesus in the book of John,

I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them, too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. John 10:16 CEB

And, so, we don’t have to be afraid to share our faith with others. We don’t have to be pushy or intolerant to share our faith. We can share our faith without being like those who “found it” and who have settled answers to all questions.

We can share our faith without using approaches like those that offended each of us at one time or another.

***

But, some say, “I am spiritual but not religious.” Some suggest that they don’t want to hear about any communal faith.

Though there are many good reasons for rejecting institutional religion, from historical atrocities to pushy evangelism and hate-filled theologies, we must be careful not to define faith as an individual matter.

To avoid those who want to define your experience of the Great Mystery, of God, is rational and good self-care. So, I absolutely empathize with those who mean that they want to have nothing to do with institutional faith when they tell me they are spiritual but not religious. I dance on the same stage as those who struggle with institutionalism. Many of you, I know, dance there with me.

But…

But a healthy and growing faith cannot be spiritual but not religious in the sense of being a solitary act. We need one another. Writes Lillian Daniel, the pastor of First Congregational Church UCC in Glen Ellyn, Illinois:

There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

As we’ve been journeying through the book of Acts, we have learned that community was critical to our ancient kindred, the apostles and others, who sought to follow the teachings of Jesus in the early decades after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.

The immediate response to Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the people, was a sense of awe and a desire to follow the teachings of the apostles and

“All the believers were united and shared everything.” Acts 2:44 CEB

Those whom the Holy Spirit touched on Pentecost did not disperse to pray privately. No,

they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. Acts 2:46b-47a CEB

Even when their lives were threatened by those who valued power more than God and for whom institutionalism was a tool for their own well-being, rather than a way of spreading the Good News, the apostles depended upon a sense of community. They depended upon one another. When Stephen was arrested in today’s reading, notice that

his face was radiant, just like an angel’s. Acts 6:15b CEB.

Though Luke, the writer of Acts, undoubtedly was implying that Stephen was a good and faithful man, that faithfulness was developed within the community of followers. Stephen’s strength to face the council who in verse 54 respond to his words by becoming

enraged and … grind[ing] their teeth at Stephen (Acts 6:54 CEB)

comes from living in a community of others who follow Jesus. And, though, Stephen will ultimately be stoned to death, he remains faithful to God.

That kind of faith can only sprout and grow when others water and till the soil around you.

We need one another.

***

Likewise, Jesus in our gospel reading today affirms that faith is not a solitary act. He affirms that faith is communal. That we need one another.

The Roman centurion seeking healing for his servant would never have gotten to Jesus had it not been for the community of Jews who spoke on his behalf. Writes Luke in the gospel,

some Jewish elders [went] to Jesus to ask him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they earnestly pleaded with Jesus. “He deserves to have you do this for him,” they said. “He loves our people and he built our synagogue for us.” Luke 7:3b-5 CEB

And, so, it is a community — in this case Jews who helped a faith in Jesus sprout within a Roman soldier. It is the Jewish community who watered this faith as it grew toward the sunshine. They and the Roman friends of the centurion enabled him to reach Jesus with his request of healing for his servant.

After the community of Jews and Roman friends had spoken to Jesus, he turned to the crowd. Luke tells us that Jesus was impressed with the centurion after hearing the community’s words on behalf of the soldier. Writes Luke,

He turned to the crowd following him and said, “I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.” Luke 7:9 CEB

With our rugged American sense of individualism, we’ve traditionally interpreted Jesus’ commendation of “faith like this,” to refer only to the centurion. As if his faith sprung up in a room by himself, we assume Jesus is affirming ONLY the centurion for his strong faith.

But Jesus — who himself lived the communal life of a good Jew of the early first century — had just witnessed a faith fertilized, watered, and sprouting within a community. It was only after the community of witnesses to the centurion’s faith spoke that Jesus affirmed the strong faith of the centurion, a man within a community.

***

We need one another to fertilize and water our faith. And though we will each have solitary spiritual practices — various forms of prayer and meditation and reading our Bibles ourselves — we need to talk with one another about our experiences of the Divine.

We need to participate in Bible study and other learning experiences together. We need to worship together.

Just as our children need spiritual mentors to grow in their faith, we as adults and near-adults need spiritual kindred to affirm us and sometimes challenge us. We need a tapestry of different ideas, a plethora of gifts of the Holy Spirit, and others to journey alongside us.

Our pews are more than half-empty…we also need those other folks. We need to listen to their experiences of the Divine and we need to share our faith with them…even if they never walk in the door of this church.

We are called to be the Body of Christ, to be the Good News in the world. We are called to be faithful in our own right but also to plant seeds, to fertilize young sprouts, and to weed the garden. We are called to lift up and share the Good News of God’s love with everyone we meet. Amen.

It’s All Made Up Anyway!

“The Holy Trinity’s all made up, anyway!” My friend thought I was joking. I wasn’t and I’m not. I’m not an atheist; I believe in God. I’m even 

Painting by Anthony J. Kelly. Image retrieved from Rev. David Eck’s blog.

trinitarian with a higher sense of the Holy Spirit than many other mainline Christians. Still, it’s pretend.

I perceive a divinity that connects us, that flows through us, and encourages us to lovingness. Our stories and theologies — including trinitarian theology — reveal truths that are beyond the rational, scientific explanation. They are not, nor were they ever intended to be literal, historical retellings of facts. 

Through the Christian biblical narrative, however, God continues to speak. For me, Jesus is,

“the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you have really known me, you will also know the Father.” (John 14:6-7b CEB Read this passage in context.)

This is the path upon which God has lured me. This is the only way for me to be the loving, unique person that God created me to be. It is in the life of Jesus, that I enter into a relationship with the love that underpins all of creation. It is in the human Jesus that I learn how to be who God calls me to be.

Jesus functions as a gate for me (John 10: 1-10 CEB). However, just as it is naive and ineffective to expect all children to learn via only one modality (e.g.; visual, auditory, or kinesthetic), it is naive to think that God’s love only opens through one gate. The arrogant teacher is one who thinks there is one — and only one — way to reach all children. This assumes the gifts, skills, challenges, and experiences of each individual is the same. 

Arrogant Christian spirituality, is one that projects its own gifts on all. When we do this we deny the truth reflected in Paul’s writings to the Corinthians. That truth is that as we seek to follow the One, we each have unique roles and gifts.

Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? (1 Corinthians 12: 14-17 CEB Read this passage in context.)

Though Paul wrote to a squabbling community of Jesus followers, to expand this truth beyond Christianity is to hear the voice of God in a new time and place. Paul — and the other authors of the canon — wrote contextually. That is, the biblical writers spoke to specific people in a specific era, place, and culture. When we read and study the texts thoughtfully, communally, and prayerfully, we hear God’s voice for today. We can find truths.

The gospels interpret the life of Jesus as he challenged the prevailing human-defined circle of acceptable behaviors and the people that were worthy of God’s love. The Good News of the unfolding Realm of God (love) is that it is for all of us. God’s love is expansive and extravagant! The One is love. The One, who I call God, reflected in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament reveals an arc of loving inclusiveness and justice for all.

To find God through Jesus, does not require dismissing others. On the contrary, to follow the teachings of Jesus is to engage in loving, respectful relationship with others. Other peoples have stories, metaphors, and narratives that describe their experiences of the One, the divinity that I perceive. Just as the Christian Bible reveals truths, the sacred writings (or verbal stories) of Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Rastafarians, and others reveal truths. They reflect the ways that others have experienced the One I call God. Is it hard to perceive that the mysterium tremendum that is God, might speak to others in ways that make sense to them?

Rather than limiting God, I accept the Trinity as a metaphor that helps me to describe how I experience the One. It helps me to follow the Divine’s call on my life. I don’t need to idolize it into a literal fact anymore than I need Jesus to be the only way to the extravagant, expansive love of God. 


Onion Peels on the Treadmill

There are a couple possible explanations for what happened to me this morning. One, is that I was abducted by aliens a la X-Files. Another is that I have brain damage caused by getting to the gym regularly. As much as I enjoy watching science fiction I’m reasonably sure I stayed earthbound this morning. I also think at my age my heart would go long before my brain from exercise. No, this lost time has another explanation but I need to share a little background before naming it.
The Divine, the One that I call God, began stirring things up for me in 2001 and moving me toward accepting a Call toward ordained ministry. I had just left a session at the NYSAEYC State Conference led by Geoffrey Canada. I called my wife from outside the hall where he had spoken. I recall telling her that a big change was coming in my life. I wasn’t sure what it was but I had a moment of clarity courtesy of the Holy Spirit. This, however, is not about the details of my Call. Not today. My point here is that my calling has been and continues to be like the peeling of an onion. I’m on a need-to-know basis with God. “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,” who John reports Jesus as saying, “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’” has been peeling the onion ever since. (John 14: 26-27 NRSV) 
Onion peels have been piling up on the floor at an increasing rate in the last six-months. At times the smell of peeling onion has brought me to tears: tears of awe, tears of disbelief at what is revealed, tears of joy, and the occasional unexplained tears. All the tears are gifts of the Holy Spirit and I embrace them as I did my daughter on the day she was born. Just as the pace of technological and cultural change is accelerating in all of our lives, the movement of God in my life is accelerating. Both can be wonderful. Both can leave me a little overwhelmed. God’s movement in my life is both the cause and antidote to the whiplash that I feel at times.
One of God’s cathartic onion peels fell to the floor this morning. It was somewhere between Limp Bizkit and Mandisa on my iPod soundtrack that I lost ten minutes. So, where was I during that missing time? I was in communion with the Divine, with the One who loves each one of us extravagantly. I was with and within the arms of One who held me and my anxieties, the One who is calling me to a new thing and filling the floor with onion peels. 
I left the gym this morning with more than better health and tear stained cheeks. I left the gym with the reminder, the revelation, that as I move forward on this path of faith that God doesn’t exist in a box, a gothic cathedral, a brick building built in the Seventies, in the woods, or even on a treadmill at my local Y. God is at all those places and within all those places. God is with you and with me and within both of us. 
The extravagantly loving Divine One, whatever name by which we refer, reaches out to us. The Spirit can and does commune (communicate and manifest) with us in many different ways and places. When we turn from the Divine, hurting one another, when we use holy texts as weapons to exclude and hate, when we kill in God’s name, when we create god in our image instead of seeing the holy in each of us, we harm not only ourselves but God. 
I yearn for the day when we will fully embrace the divinity within, between, and all around us. Until then, I will accept each onion peel as it comes and do my best to follow the Divine to where I am called.

Trust the Spirit (A sermon concerning children)

Four-year-old Dominic wandered into the kitchen where his grandmother sat at the table. He immediately saw her red eyes, the clumps of damp tissues, and the photos of Grandpa Wally strewn about the table. 
 
“Grandpa Wally is ok, Granky. He misses you but God’s hugging him.” At that, Dominic hugged his grandmother.
****
The Jewish people hadn’t had self-rule for a very long time. They were patiently waiting for God to keep God’s promise and restore Israel to them. Yet, it was hard and keeping their people and their faith was increasingly difficult. Their children were tempted by the strange ideas of the Romans who oppressed them. 
In much the same way, the early Christians of Mark’s church were striving to keep their budding faith in a world that preached earthly power and worship of many gods. So, Mark was concerned about church cohesiveness and sustainability. He knew that the family, that strong marriages and children brought up as followers of Jesus were essential to survival as a people, as a church. 
And so, when Mark tells the story of the Disciples barring the children from Jesus, he places it immediately following two discussions in which Jesus criticizes divorce. You see, a church facing persecution couldn’t survive if families were splitting.
This is one traditional way of understanding this passage. Understanding who Mark was writing to as his early church faced a culture that was not filled with followers of Christ, and many think faced persecution, is important to our faithful understanding of scripture.
Another, way that folks have preached and thought about this passage, and its similar ones in Luke and Matthew has to do with the nature of children. Children tend to be more innocent than adults. Most children haven’t had the tragedies, or the daily trials, or the time to unlearn who God is. So, unlike adults, they tend to be more open-minded, more full of wonder. And, so, in this traditional interpretation Mark is implying that Jesus wants us to be more open-minded and full of wonder at the magnificence of the Divine, of God. This interpretation focuses on Jesus’ admonishment that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10: 15b NRSV)
I can’t really argue with this interpretation either. It is a valid understanding of the gospel with much truth in it. Still, I think there are other ways to look at the text. When we open ourselves to the Spirit and ask different questions, there are indeed other ways to hear the voice of God through the gospel. Recall that after the resurrection, before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told the disciples that, “‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.’” (John 14: 26-27 NRSV)
Friends, that is indeed Good News. Not only do we have an abundantly loving God who sent the Son… Not only do we have the Son who was ignored, persecuted, and finally killed at our own hands, and who overcame death when he rose three days later… Not only do we have the Father and Son, but when Jesus ascended into Heaven our abundantly loving God provided the Advocate. The Holy Spirit is here to guide us and to continue to teach us. Jesus knew there was still much for us to learn.  Do we Trust the Spirit to guide, remind, and to teach us?
Let’s consider now, what does Mark tell us about the nature of children? What does the Holy Scripture tell us about children and their relationship with God, with the Divine in Jesus? When the disciples sought to stop the children from bothering Jesus, when they sought to be gatekeepers of faith, and restrict children from being in direct relationship with Jesus, “he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them.’” (Mark 10:14a NRSV) 
So, from Jesus, we learn that children are to have unfettered access to God. Children do not need a gatekeeper to decide whether they are worthy, or well-behaved enough, to be in relationship with the one true God. When we Trust the Spirit to guide, teach, and remind, we allow children to be with the Divine in ways that make sense to them.
Yet, often we use Children’s sermons to interpret the stories of our faith in cutesy ways or as entertainment for adults. And when we insist that children sit still and worship in ways that are meaningful only to adults, we are functioning as gatekeepers. 
When we control children’s experiences of God, we become the disciples speaking sternly to the children, preventing them from knowing God, keeping them from a personal relationship with Christ. When we control experiences we’ve forgotten to Trust the Spirit to guide, teach and remind us. 
 
But what else can we learn from the Jesus and the Children story? Notice that the children want to be with Jesus. Parents aren’t forcing them to go to church, ahem, to Jesus. Children have a relationship with the Divine when they come into the world and it is up to us to support that relationship. We also learn in this passage that Jesus values children. It could even be argued that he has special place in his heart, a special place in the Kingdom–for children.
“It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10: 14b-15 NRSV)
 The Divine Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that he desires a relationship with children, unfettered by gatekeeping adults. From the perspective of his first century followers this was radical. Children were important for carrying on the lineage, or for labor, but they were far from important members of society. In an era without hospitals or prenatal care, it may even have been necessary emotionally for mothers and fathers to withhold attachment to their children until they reached a viable age.
Children as special? Children as important? Hardly.
Then here comes Jesus who says children have the keys to the Kingdom. Our Lord and savior really was a pro at turning conventional wisdom on its head! But this shouldn’t surprise us, the God of Israel, Elohim, the God that we still worship today, had the same habit in the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament. God has a way of using unlikely people in unlikely places for God’s purposes.
Recall that God used a Hebrew woman, Esther, to save the Jewish people. Recall that Rebekah, Isaac’s wife was used by God to assure that God’s promise to make many nations of Abraham’s children through Isaac became a reality. When Rebekah made sure that responsible Jacob received Isaac’s blessing she Trusted the Spirit to guide her.  
And remember that not only did God promise in Genesis to make many nations of Isaac’s offspring, God promised to do the same with Ishmael, Abraham’s son born of Hagar the slave woman. So while we are descended from Isaac, our Muslim sisters and brothers are descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael. So, in an era when we have folks demonizing Muslims, we should not be surprised when Jesus turns our ideas about who is worthwhile, about who is beloved upside down.
Likewise, in our Old Testament reading today, God calls Samuel–a boy, an unimportant child, to lead God’s people. God uses children for the purposes of the Kingdom. Perhaps, this is because they still Trust the Spirit to guide, to teach, and to remind them about the Divine will.
When Samuel hears the voice in the night he is at first, confused, and at the behest of Eli, an adult, he responds to God. So, while God uses children, adults who Trust the Spirit to guide are also indispensable in the march toward the Kingdom of God on earth.
****
A ten-year-old boy woke from a nightmare on the top bunk of the bed he shared with his younger brother. He was frightened. Terrified really. He’d seen too many images of 9/11 on the television and had dreamt a plane was heading toward his city. Fortunately, someone in his church had taught him, had modeled for him that prayer works. So this boy, this ten-year-old child, prayed to God. 
 
“Help me to not be afraid.”
 
As an adult this boy, reports that he felt an immediate calm come over him. His fear was lifted and he was able to fall back to sleep assured that his faith in God, that his Trust in the Spirit to guide, to teach, and to remind was well-placed.
 
*****
So, God desires a relationship with children and children seek after the Divine, striving to maintain the closeness to God that they came into the world with. And we are needed to help. As adults we’re crucial, essential, and necessary in God’s plan to help children grow in their faith. At times, as we each travel on our own journeys of faith, it can seem overwhelming and intimidating. Our children are leaving the church in the twenty-first century in record numbers. 
Yet the Good News is, our extravagantly loving God is also a dependable God. The Holy Spirit remains with us today. Trust the Spirit to guide, to teach, and to remind us.  
What do we need to do to help children maintain their relationships with the Divine? What are we called to do to help our children grow in their faith of our extravagantly loving God?
First, we need to model faithful behavior. We need to pray with, for, and in-front of our children. We need to talk about our own questions about God. God is not afraid of doubts, or questions. Doubts are the active Spirit luring us in our own growth in faith. When we Trust in the Spirit we know that we are up to the task.
Second, we must allow unfettered access to God. We need to provide appropriate worship experiences for children. Children need experiences that hold meaning for them, and that are developmentally appropriate. Children need experiences that are open to the Spirit’s guidance, teaching, and reminders.
Patsy and Jan and the Sunday School teachers are working hard at providing educational experiences for our children but children need worship, too.  It is the rare child under eight or ten, or twelve who worships best in our adult worship services. And, it is the rare child who–when provided a holy place of unfettered access to the Divine, doesn’t truly worship
When we bar children from the Lord’s Supper, we’re being gatekeepers  keeping children away from Jesus. When we expect bodies that are made to move to be still, we’re blocking our children’s path to Jesus.
But when we modify our worship service to be fully inclusive of everyone, including children. When we appreciate small voices and those who listen while rolling on the floor beneath the pews. When we do these things we are flinging the open the gate to Jesus.
Some churches have significantly changed their community’s worship to be fully inclusive of children and their worship needs. Others have chosen to provide a worship space and experience geared directly for children. Our sister churches in Logan, Parkersburg, and New Martinsville have taken the second approach by adopting the Children Worship & Wonder ministry.
Either way, when we provide that place, that time, that space… When we Trust the Spirit, the Spirit will guide, teach, and remind our children.
Finally, we need to be a community of Jesus followers who respectchildren and make them feel welcome. Frankly, we do a pretty good job with that. Our kids seem pretty comfortable among us. Yet, we can always do better. 
We need to be open to children’s ideas about the Divine as they construct meaning, as they learn about God within a loving environment. We must guard against becoming like the disciples and acting as gatekeepers when children express unorthodox, nontraditional ways of characterizing God. This is how children learn. 
Trust the Spirit to guide, teach and remind our children. We mustn’t let our own understandings and perceptions of God separate our children from a personal relationship with Jesus. When we hear our children questioning, we know they are learning. We know they are engaged with the living God.
When children say things that surprise us, or shock us, or worry us, trusting the Spirit allows us to respond with “hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way.” When we’re asked questions which we find hard to answer, trusting the Spirit allows us to say, “I don’t know. What do you think?” or “I wonder.”
When we raise our children in a community of faithful people who Trust the Spirit to guide, teach, and remind each of us along our journeys of faith, we will raise children who have strong relationships with God, who seek to do God’s will, and who are always growing and learning in their faith. 
*****
The six-year old boy asked his mom, “When will my new baby sister learn to talk?” 
“In a couple years, sweetie. A couple years.”
 
Later that day the six-year-old asked again. “When will my new baby sister learn to talk?” 
 
Mom replied “In a couple years, sweetie. A couple years.”
 
That evening the six-year-old was asking his dad, “When will my new baby sister learn to talk?” just as his mom walked into the room.
 
“Why are you so concerned about when your sister will talk?” asked the Mom.
The boy looked his parents in the eyes and replied, “I want to talk to her about God. I’m starting to forget.”
*****
When we raise our children in communities of faith that allow questioning, that allow children unfettered access to the Divine…
 
When we model faithful living and habits and tell the children the stories of our faith then the Spirit will be able to do the Spirit’s work.
Trust the Spirit to guide, to teach, and to remind our children. God will not disappoint us. Amen
 
*****
This sermon was delivered by Tim Graves on Sunday, September 12, 2010 at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Wheeling during the Light a Candle for Children 40 Days of Prayer for Children leading up to the Interfaith Children’s Sabbath in October, many sermons.