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

Monday, June 27, 2011

You are welcome here

Proper 8, Pentecost 2A
Matthew 10:40-42

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’m reminded of a simple phrase that I heard over and over again a few years ago while traveling through Palestine. Whenever my colleagues and I would enter a shop or a restaurant or a home, the same few words would be said to us each time: “You are welcome here.”

It was jarring to my Western ears. I was used to “good morning” or “hello” or even sometimes “welcome”, but there was something about turning that one word - “welcome” - into a full sentence that made it seem somehow more declarative. The welcome seemed less like a perfunctory greeting and more like a real statement of fact: “You are welcome here.” Period. No questions asked.

Then the host would invariably offer us sweet and stout Arabic coffee and chairs for us to sit a while and talk. There were no “secret shoppers” in Palestine. It wasn’t enough to browse or even to buy. We were expected to build relationships. It was part of the ritual of being (or welcoming) a stranger.

The greeting might have been a quirk of language - most of the people that we met were native speakers of Arabic, not English, so maybe that jarring phrase just arose out of some translation from an Arabic greeting. But part of me wondered if it wasn’t just language.

There’s an ancient history in the Middle East of providing hospitality to the stranger. As those trade routes linking the East and the West grew out of the deserts few would have survived were it not for the hospitality of strangers. Travelers could not depend on a spray of Holiday Inns and Super 8s across the region. When they needed hospitality, they knocked on doors. And it was widely understood that if someone knocked on your door, you opened it and helped your guest however you could - because you might be a traveler someday yourself.

To be a stranger is to be, at least in part, vulnerable: out of place, not in the know. We’ve all been there at one time or another. Whether it’s a first day at school, or moving to a new town, or a new job, or even a new church, we’ve all felt what it’s like to stand on the outside of a community looking in. It takes nerves of steel and it always involves risk.

What would it be like if every time we found ourselves as strangers, we were received as welcome guests? Not just with perfunctory “hellos” but with genuine words of welcome then married with actions to demonstrate that the welcome was real.

That’s why I think the welcome I received from Palestinians was not just a quirk of language. They weren’t just saying words translated into English. They were translating the practices of their culture to those of us who were vulnerable strangers. They were translating not just their words, but also their welcome to those of us who were most foreign.

It’s been said that Christ came, not to make us better Christians, but to make us better humans. I learned a bit about how to be a better human from these mostly Muslim shopkeepers and hosts - all of a race that our culture has taught us to fear. We were about as foreign from one another as any could have been, but together we found humanity.

What would it be like if we - the church - made that kind of welcome our policy? What would it be like if, instead of perfunctory greetings, we offered people opportunities to build relationships?

Too often the church is so concerned with self-preservation that it can’t imagine, much less offer, real welcome. Too often churches’ welcomes come with strings attached. ‘You’re welcome if you come from the right background.’ ‘You’re welcome if you bring the right connections or gifts.’ ‘You’re welcome if you’re just like us, or at least willing to become just like us.’

Too often we welcome people so we can try to change them, but that’s not the gospel. We welcome people not to change them, but out of our hope that they will change us.

All people bring gifts. All people come pre-endowed with God’s love and support. It’s not our job to mold them into people who are worthy of God’s love, because they already have it. No questions asked.

It’s our job to welcome them, not just with our words, but with our actions: to fold them into the community of Christ; to build relationships; to let them change a bit of who we are; to meet their vulnerability with a bit of our own.

The Palestinians I met changed me. I think, perhaps, I changed them, too. We learned from each other about our cultures and we dispelled the myths that had been taught to us.

Those kinds of communities - the ones that spring up between strangers - are the only things that ever do change us. My culture had taught me that they were the incarnation of evil and enemy, but real incarnation had shown me that they were friends. Real incarnation had shown me that they were good.

It’s important that God came to us as Christ. God came as a human being, humbly born - a vulnerable stranger seeking welcome.

And that’s how God always comes.

It’s in those moments of incarnation that we find God; and, it’s in welcoming the strangers among us that we find real moments of incarnation.

The world teaches us to build walls and find divisions and draw lines. But God has drawn all of us in. God has shown our divisions to be illusory. God has laid down our walls so that we might use them as bridges.

God has welcomed us.

Now we are called to welcome God. Amen.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

God: where, when, and who we least expect

Trinity Sunday A
Matthew 28:16-20

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

In Matthew’s account of the Gospel of Jesus, these were his last words to that small and scrappy band of followers. In some ways, they were like us. They weren’t rich. They weren’t influential in the political spheres of their time. But they were a group of people who believed, even in the face of adversity.

Today is Trinity Sunday. A day set aside in celebration of a doctrine. There’s a degree to which it’s kind of hard to get excited about Trinity Sunday.

It’s not like Christmas, with the gifts. Or Easter, with spending time with family. It’s not even as easy to wrap our minds around as last week was - Pentecost.

We spend a lot of time talking about the three persons of the Trinity: God, the creator of all that is; Christ, God’s incarnation; and, the Holy Spirit, God among us. But most of us are more comfortable in the persons - as individual concepts - than in the doctrine of the three in one.

You might even wonder why the doctrine matters. Who cares if there’s a Trinity?

It’s a fair question.

And I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I have the answer. I don’t really know why you should care about the Trinity.

But the reality is, God, in general, can be a tough concept to wrap our minds around. There are some who say that the Trinity is a tough concept, but in reality, I think it’s more of a means to understanding the complexity of God - not something to be overcome on one’s path to knowing God.

Where I grew up, people tended to have pretty narrow images of who and what God was - usually an old white man with a beard. But as much as that image of God never really resonated with me, the bigger problem for me was not God’s demographic position, but that the people of my community seemed to have very firm understandings of how they thought God thought.

Perhaps not surprisingly, God almost always thought like them. More explicitly: God loved the people they loved. God hated the people they hated. God had their same prejudices and theological perspectives. God even agreed with them politically.

That’s were I had a problem.

As someone who’s been a kind of persistent outsider throughout his life, the idea of a democratic, “marjority rules” kind of God didn’t make much sense to me.

Here’s where the Trinity comes in: for me, the idea of the Trinity helps to explain the radical inclusiveness of God. Our tradition tells us (as was recounted in the first lesson again today) that God created all that is: the heavens and the earth, the dry lands and the seas, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, and all the beasts of the fields and even us. And after each moment of creation, God pronounced that it was good.

God could have created a flat world - monochromatic and bland. God could have made us all alike. But in the act of creating, God made a world rich with diversity. God’s dream as it lives in this world teems with complexity and difference, and God says that it is good.

God is not static or simple.

God is the old white man with the beard, sure. But God is also so much more. God is transcendent, distant, and mysterious. God is the unknown one off in the sky someplace who set us all in motion. But God is also local, personal, and present. God is Christ, our brother, who shares our pain and bears our burdens. God is Spirit, moving in the midst of us. God is the God of the past whose stories are told again and again through our readings and studying. But God is also here and now and for all time to come.

Most importantly, God is where and when and who we least expect God to be.

That’s what the doctrine of the Trinity is about to me. It’s a way of expressing that wisdom that we occasionally uncover that tells us to keep looking for God in unexpected ways. The Trinity tells us to think bigger, because God is ever-more than we can imagine. The Trinity expresses complexity. The Trinity says that God has a way to find us however we need to be found.

And that’s what we celebrate today.

Like that small and scrappy band of followers in an otherwise unremarkable corner of the ancient world who first heard the news of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that complex and always surprising God that we worship has found even us, even here, even now.

And like them, our teacher is also sending us out into the world: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” he says. Look to the people you least suspect of being receptive to or instruments of God, and there will be God. Don’t just look where it’s safe or convenient. Don’t just look where you’re welcomed. But make disciples of ALL nations.

God takes joy in all of the diversity of creation. It takes all of that to reflect the true image of God.

May the Trinity be our road map for dreaming bigger about how our small and scrappy band of followers can better find the truth of the God we’re called the serve. Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

To get up and do what needs to be done

The Day of Pentecost A
Acts 2:1-21
John 7:37-39

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Though we think of the Easter season - and even Pentecost - as a time of celebration, I can’t imagine that it seemed all that joyful that first time around. The idea of resurrection was still so new. The Jesus that they had known for those years had only been revealed as Christ for mere days. The world was upside down and seemed to make even less sense with each passing day.

Then there was the Day of Pentecost.

The disciples must have still been skittish from all of the drama and horror of the crucifixion. Their community had seemed to turn on them. Their leader had been killed. The place spoken about in the Book of Acts - that place where they were gathered - it must have been a kind of sanctuary for them. A place where they could collect their thoughts. A place where they could feel normal - even if only for a moment, and even if confined within just a few walls.

But then there was the Day of Pentecost.

A violent rush of wind encompassed them. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.

The world was upside down and seems to make even less sense with each passing day.

When I was growing up, it was a family ritual in our household to sit down on Saturday evenings and listen to “A Prairie Home Companion” on the radio. It wasn’t something we were compelled to do, by any means, it was just something we all did. I probably started listening while sitting on the floor and playing with my toys or something like that. But somewhere along the way I started actually listening.

“A Prairie Home Companion” is on public radio, so it doesn’t actually have any commercials, but they do have fictitious commercials that are interspersed throughout the broadcast. One of the standard ads is for “Podwermilk Biscuits - heavens, they’re tasty - and expeditious!” as they say. Among the many claims made by the Norwegian Bachelor Farmers who produce these gems is that they “give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.”

We all could use a touch of that, couldn’t we? Something that gives shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done?

That’s what the disciples needed that day in their sanctuary. They feared that the world was against them. They feared that they didn’t have the strength to get up to do what needed to be done. Jesus had commissioned them to go out into the world, but they were afraid.

Too often, we are, too.

Just as the disciples had a world that most needed their gifts, so, too, do we. There’s a world just beyond these walls that is aching for community and aching for love. There’s a world that is yearning for God but smothering under the weights of conformity and consumerism. There’s a world that thinks that the work and ritual of baptism is a fool’s errand, all the while it searches for meaning and belonging.

Christ gives us the gifts that we need to meet them where they are, and to invite them in. Each of us needs to preach the gospel we’ve been given in our own way, because there’s a world of people who will each hear it in their own ways.

Today we invite Jules in to this mission. In the years ahead she will grow, and become her own person. She will make her own mistakes and celebrate her own successes. And we, of this community, vow to hold her through all of that. To teach her, and to guide her. To nurture the Holy Spirit that we believe to be living inside of her, just as it lives in us. It’s a sacred trust - one that someone once made for us, and that now we make again for ourselves and for Jules.

The joy of this day is that we’ve found another voice. We’ve found another language to share the message of Christ with a world that aches for it and can here it only in the way that she will tell it.

She will be for us the strength we need to get up and do what needs to be done. We will be the same for her. Amen.