The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Our fix-it faith
**SPECIAL ONLINE ONLY OFFER!!  So there was this really great quote in the article that I couldn't quite figure out how to work into the sermon.  So I'll just throw it in here - as a little lagniappe just for my online audience:

From Richard Feynman, physicist: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."

Trinity Sunday C
Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31; John 16:12-15

In the name of God: One, Holy, and Living. Amen.

There is an article in today’s New York Times about what it calls, “Our Fix-it Faith”. It explores, in the context of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, our belief (in the West, at least) that our technology can fix any problem we throw at it. That somehow, our knowledge will always be enough to triumph over our ignorance and hubris.

The article points to a Pew Research study from a few weeks ago – just a couple of weeks into the now 40-day and counting disaster. The study found that while 54% of Americans believed this oil spill to be a major environmental disaster, at the same time 51% also believed that technological efforts to contain it would be successful before it got out of hand.

Now that it is out of hand, our faith has been shaken.

This faith-shaking comes as a part of a string of recent shake-ups. For the past decade our faith in ourselves and in our technology and expertise has been tested again and again. From the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 to Hurricane Katrina that still ravages New Orleans even years after the winds have quieted to the recent and ongoing economic crisis to the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile to the volcano in Iceland that crippled northern Europe for weeks. All of this, of course, intermingles with our own unrelenting cycles of challenges and tragedies that don’t make the news or enter the national consciousness every day.

Our quest for stability and control fails again and again.

Perhaps this is why the church is more counter-cultural now than it has been since before Constantine. For, perhaps, the first time since the fourth century, our teachings are actively in contrast with the pervasive teachings of the dominant culture. Where our culture insists that technology will be our salvation, the church persists in teaching that our salvation is in Christ alone. Where our culture teaches that all shall be well through our knowing, we hear Jesus say, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” There is still truth to be revealed.

That’s a bold proclamation for our time. To a people consumed with zeal for answers and understanding, our Christ says, “All in time. Take a breath. Not yet.”

On Trinity Sunday the church is particularly susceptible to attempting to give in to the demands of the culture. When faced with the occasion of celebrating the Holy Trinity, we can find ourselves tempted to explain or define the Holy Trinity – the ineffable truth of one God in three persons.

I have, over the years, uncovered a few metaphors that help me to wrap my mind around the concept of the Trinity. I have understood the Trinity to be expressive of the diversity of God: as I survey the diversity of creation, it makes sense to me that God is One who is best known through diversity. When considering the God who made the birds of the air and the beasts of the fields and the fish of the sea – not to mention the air and the fields and the seas, themselves; as well as all of us in all of our diversity – it seems unfair to try to contain that God in simple, human terms. That God cannot be expressed in any linear, two-dimensional fashion. That God needs a Trinity – built-in diversity to accommodate the diversity represented by it.

Or, I have thought of the Trinity as the method by which we, in our own complexity, commune with a God of infinite complexity. Our bodies – our sensations and experiences and interactions – connect us with Christ, God of human form. Our creativity connects us with the Parent, the Ultimate Creator of all that is or was or ever will be. Our wisdom, both innate and acquired, connects with the Holy Spirit – writhing through our experiences and understandings to reveal the Divine where it had before been elusive. These three live in us, as individuals and as communities, as aberrations from our humble humanity to reveal the one God.

But even the best metaphors are just that: metaphors. They are not knowledge. Despite whatever poetic thinking I may impose on the Trinity, I don’t know it any more than I did before.

And that’s okay.

The church, like any great teacher, is at its best when it finds the point of transition between filling us with answers and information and leading us to wrestle with the deeper questions. It’s the shift from acquiring knowledge to cultivating wisdom.

It’s not easy. And it’s counter-cultural. The world begs us to fill it with answers. But the world is not a short-answer question.

Jesus, our teacher, knew this. He knew that knowledge would not give us the answers that our quest for understanding would.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”

All in time. Take a breath. Not yet.

We are seeing, right now and in the physical world, what happens when our faith is misplaced: when we trust in ourselves as our own, personal saviors. We are seeing what happens when we abandon the lessons of the Trinity and ignore the interconnectedness between the Creator and all that is created.

We have seen it before and we will see it again.

But the Spirit of truth is guiding us into all truth. There are no easy answers. But there is Wisdom: rejoicing before God always; Wisdom, rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

For that, I give thanks. Amen.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A love song and a prayer

Easter 7C
John 17:20-26

O God: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. Amen.

Have you ever encountered a really great love song? One of those songs that sneaked up beside you and touched the most private recesses of your soul when you didn’t expect it?

I had one of those experiences the other day.

I was away last week visiting family and friends around the South. I flew into Nashville where I borrowed a car from my parents and spent the next week on a road trip through Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, before heading back to Tennessee to return home to New Jersey. I stopped along the way to reacquaint myself with the people and places that make up many of the stories of my life.

It was a great week. In spite of all of the driving, it was one of those times that really fed my soul. And even when I was driving, my soul was fed. I was in a convertible, and the weather was just perfect, so I drove along with the top down, listening to mindless music, seeing familiar sites, and all the while accompanied by the fragrances of the South – honeysuckle, Confederate jasmine, and pine.

It really was a great week.

Then on Tuesday I flew back to Philadelphia. When I got back to my car – my very sensible Subaru – I decided to keep wrapping myself in that blanket of nurturing familiarity just a while longer, so on my way back to New Jersey I listened to one of my favorite bands: the Indigo Girls. I chose one of their earlier albums to fit my mindset. Hearing it was like seeing an old friend again after a long time away.

Somewhere in South Jersey, while I was driving north on the Turnpike, it hit me: this old familiar song – a love song – that touched me in a new way. It isn’t your typical love song. It’s not meant for a person, but for that peculiar union of place and time. It’s something like “nostalgia” but deeper in your gut than that word seems to imply.

The song is called “Southland in the Springtime”. The chorus says, “There’s something about the Southland in the springtime, where the waters flow with confidence and reason. Though I miss her when I am gone, it won’t ever be too long, ‘til I’m home again to spend my favorite season… there’s no place like home and none more pleasin’, than the Southland in the springtime.”

As those words enveloped me my eyes welled with tears. It wasn’t because I was sad to have left the South. It certainly wasn’t because I was sad to be home in New Jersey. It was because those words were, for me, so true. They touched my own experience of the past few days (and those days’ relationship with the rest of my life) in a very deep and intimate way. They caused a divine comfort to surround me – like an embrace from something or someone that was more than present.

I had that same feeling when I read this Gospel with new eyes about a year or so ago. I forget exactly when it was, but I was preparing to preach on an excerpt from the 18th chapter of John and I was feeling stumped by it.

John’s Gospel can be that way sometimes – at first glance it can seem a little obtuse. The style of writing can, at times, come across as so deliberate and calculated, that it almost seems to explain away any hope of clarity. “As you, God, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me…. The world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Huh?? It almost sounds like the kind of puzzle you might find in the Sunday paper: see if you can rearrange these words to make a coherent sentence.

I’ve learned that – though true in all of the Gospels, it seems somehow more so in John – that context is key. When I’m stumped by a passage or a story, sometimes the key to beginning to understand it is as simple as reading the things around it. Allow it to set its own stage. Some of its meaning might begin to flow from there.

So I first REALLY read the seventeenth chapter of John while preparing to preach on the eighteenth chapter of John. I remember sitting in the church with a Bible, feeling utterly confused. I’d already read the appointed text and about a chapter after it before turning back a couple of pages to begin reading the chapter before.

Then it struck me. This is a love letter. It’s a love letter about us – about me and about you – written millennia ago to God, but with us – the church of the ages – in mind.

It really is quite humbling – to be so loved through the centuries. It’s humbling to recognize that the Bible isn’t just a collection of stories of people long ago, but that it’s connected to our story. We were mentioned right there in the seventeenth chapter of John.

Jesus’ prayer for us was not about what we would do. Instead, it was about who, and how, we would be. He prayed that we would be “one”. He prayed that we would be in relationship with one another and that those relationships would be characterized by love. That’s how Christ lives: in our love.

We need that prayer now more than ever.

Our culture values individualism. We honor those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Even those from more vocal and evangelistic Christian traditions than ours talk about each individual’s “personal” relationship with Jesus.

But that is not Christ’s prayer for us. It is not that we will be strong, rugged individuals, capable of tending to ourselves in matters of livelihood and faith. It is that we will be faithful in our relationships. It is a love song “like a tapestry passed down through generations” – like an embrace from someone more than present. May we all practice that love. May we allow our individual threads through this world to interweave themselves into the community of Christ. May his prayer be our own. In the name of God. Amen.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Here is a really great moment from last night on Rachel Maddow where she puts the oil flow disaster off the coast of my homeland in perspective.

The whole clip is great, but if you're really in a rush - the meat of it starts at about 1:20.

Thanks, Rachel, for braving our insects to broadcast live from Venice, LA!  Thanks for helping to keep the country's focus there.