Monday, August 14, 2017

August 13, 2017 - Walking on Water

The passage from 1 Kings is the origin of the name of the Still, Small Voice group that gets together on Saturday afternoons.  We gather for contemplative prayer.  We gather simply to be with God.   The “still, small voice” is an older translation of the “sound of sheer silence” in the New Revised Standard Version.  Elijah hears earthquakes and winds and fire and yet God is not found in these forces.  Rather, God is found in the silence that follows.

Over the past few years I have found that contemplative prayer is hard sell.  Many people are uncomfortable with silence.  Even more are uncomfortable with having to encounter their own thought processes, the winds and earthquakes that are rattling around in our own minds and come out to play especially when we try to be calm.  This kind of prayer is a hard sell because you have that mental storm, what the Buddhists call “monkey mind” and then the leader says, “Do it every day for a few weeks and it starts to get easier.”  Do it for few a months and you start seeing things change in your life.  Do it for a few years and you are calmer and more focused.  You have fewer knee-jerk responses.  You are less likely to get pulled into someone else’s panic.   But it is a slow and steady discipline, not a quick fix and slow and steady disciplines are a hard sell in any department.

It is the power of learning simply to be with God.  This is the place where imminence, that sense of God being immediately available, intersects with transcendence, that sense that God is far beyond you and mysterious.  I remember when I was high school one of my jobs as a junior camp counselor was to put the campfire out after the campers had gone up to get ready for bed.  And sometimes I just liked to sit and watch the fire.  Often I had other people with me and we would sit for a few minutes and just stare as the fire burned down, as the flames descended into red, hot coals, a dull orange light illuminating our faces.  You wouldn’t get too close because it was too hot, even dangerous.  And yet there was something so comforting about sitting in the firelight, sitting in silence and listening for the language of pops and hisses, the constant sound of exhalation as steam and smoke rise from burning wood.  In those moments there was no need to speak; words were disruptive.  There was no need to comment, just the joy of all your attention focused on that light in the darkness.

                When we can simply be with God, it has the power to change things in our lives.  When we can simply be with God, we can break down the barriers between sacred and common.  We discover that there are no places and no times that are truly holier than any other, because the fullness of God is constant and everywhere.  There may be places and times where we pay more attention, but there is no place and no time where the transcendent God is not immediately available.  A common theme that you find in the great contemplative Christian authors throughout history is that all creation is sacred space and all time is sacred time.
Last week I talked a little bit about miracle stories and the difference between how we approach them today and how the original audience might have approached them.  So when we hear about Jesus walking on water, our post-Enlightenment minds ask, “How did that happen?  What was the trick?”  A first-century Christian was more apt to ask, “What does it mean to walk on water?

There are some strong symbols at work here.  In the ancient Hebrew mind, the sea was a symbol of chaos.  As far as we can tell, most people did not swim.  It’s not that there was a prohibition against swimming , it just isn’t talked about very much, the miracle is that Israelites cross places on dry land.  Most fishing  boats did not get out of sight of land, because the sea was the unknown, a place that swallowed ships and sailors.  Think back to Genesis before God said anything on day one, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters.”  Before God speaks, it is chaos and chaos looks like being in the middle of the ocean, far from land in the midst of stormy weather.  That’s what the disciples were experiencing in their boat and Jesus comes walking in on top of it all, untouched and unconcerned by chaos.  That’s what it means to walk on water, not avoiding the chaos but walking safely through it.  Peter starts to get it right, takes a few steps but then looks at the chaos and gets pulled in.

What does that mean in your own lives?  Over the summer, people have told me about things going on.  We have had health crises in our congregation.  Some of you have talked to me about personal struggles in your lives.  Some of you have simply had lives disrupted by visiting grandchildren who are wonderful and beautiful and a source of great chaos.  On the international scene we have a president talking about fire and fury such as the world has never seen and North Korea threatening American territory. 

And Jesus comes to us walking on top of it all.  He doesn’t dismiss the chaos, he just doesn’t give it much attention.  Jesus comes walking to us as calm in the midst of the storm.  Jesus comes walking over the chaos as a visible sign of what it means to simply be with God.  And if you think about the whole story of the life of Jesus it is a living illustration of what it means to live in the kingdom of God now and what it means to be centered in God now.

All of those things that we could lump together as a big ball of chaos can easily become the  center of our lives.  If you struggle with health issues, they can become all-encompassing.  If you struggle financially, worry can consume your days.  If you give it enough attention, watching the news and then watching pundits hash out the news can eat up hours of your life.  When we are centered in Christ, we approach these things with a different perspective.  You will still have to deal with your health problems.  You will have to deal with your financial problems.  I strongly suggest you take an occasional Sabbath from cable news, Facebook and tweets and when we are centered in Christ I think we have a better ability to simply say, “Enough.”

Now I know that not everyone is going to make silence the central part of your devotions, but I would challenge you to find a way to incorporate it.  It doesn’t have to be a long period.  If you say the Lord’s Prayer before you go to bed, take another minute to sit with it.  If your prayer is conversational, make sure to take the time to sit and listen, that you’re not hogging the whole conversational.  It can also be as simple as a deep breath when things start to feel out of control, reconnecting yourself to the constant presence of God.  Learn to simply be with God so that you can come to know the God who is with you always, who walks you through the chaos, making every moment and place of your life holy.

Monday, August 7, 2017

August 6, 2017 - Feeding of the 5000

The readings today reflect on the nature of God’s abundance.  And there has been a lot of talk about abundance in the church over the centuries in part because this is another place where the Bible uses many different images to talk about it.  We have images of physical abundance and wealth.  In Psalm 16 the author writes, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.”  We have spiritual images of abundance.  In 2nd Corinthians Paul writes, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”  Or the lesson we heard today in Isaiah, “Everyone who thirsts come to the waters…”  And you have some images that could go either way, “My cup runneth over.”
                The church has struggled with how to interpret these images.  For the most part, in the earliest church they were interpreted spiritually.  Most Christians came from the lower classes and didn’t have access to wealth and it was not a society where social class changed much.  They didn’t dream that Jesus would make them materially wealthy, just that Jesus would bless them abundantly so they could deal with the challenges of a life that was difficult and made more difficult by the threat of persecution.  They dreamed that the greatest blessing were yet to come after this life.
                But then the church became acceptable and then successful, started to accumulate land and money and power.  Priests were often from the noble classes, a profession for the younger sons of a noble family.  So why shouldn’t God be honored with the best that people had to offer?  With great cathedrals and jeweled chalices?  Why shouldn’t God’s faithful servants also have access to the finer things as a symbol of the abundant blessings of God? 
                Of course there were others who lived out a vision of spiritual abundance, some like Francis of Assisi in the 13th century who rejected wealth and embraced intentional  poverty.   Read his biography and there are three or four different stories of him taking off his clothes and giving them to somebody who needed them more.  Some like Julian of Norwich in the 14th century who spent her days as an anchoress, living a simple life of prayer in a cell attached to a congregation.   
                But as society changed; as a middle-class developed; as upward mobility improved people had to deal with this question, “What is the relationship between God and abundance, especially material abundance?”  Because Jesus doesn’t seem that crazy about it.  It is very hard to read the gospels and come up with a message that Jesus is fine with wealth.  He tells one rich man to go and sell all he has and give it to the poor, then he can come and follow.  He tells the crowds you cannot serve God and wealth.   He tells a parable of a rich man who suffers in hell and impoverished Lazarus who joins the angel Gabriel in heaven.  While one interpretation is that it is all about your attitude toward wealth (from the book of James, the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil), it really seems that Jesus has an issue with wealth itself, that wealth itself is a corruptive force in our lives of faith.
                So how have we dealt with material wealth?  Some people will say it is no issue at all, but a sign of God’s approval.  One of President Trump’s main spiritual advisors who said a prayer at his inauguration is a minister named Paula White.  She is part of the prosperity movement that believes and preaches that God gives health and material wealth to those who are faithful.  Its ministers are unapologetically wealthy with expensive homes, cars and private jets because why shouldn’t God’s faithful ministers have access to the finer things as a sign of God’s abundance?  And it makes sense that a person like President Trump, who is concerned about and impressed by wealth would seek a spiritual advisor who not only gives opulence a pass but encourages it as a sign of God’s approval.  The great industrialists of the early 20th century often looked for preachers who would tell them that their wealth was all right by God.
                Another response, and one that I think shapes more Lutheran churches, is the idea that we are just not that wealthy.  So we look at a Trump or a Gates or a Zuckerberg and say, “I’m not that wealthy.  They have so much more than I do.  They are the rich people.  I’m just average and don’t have material wealth.”  But if you compare yourself to much of the rest of the world, you are oing pretty well.  If you have things you don’t need and can afford some impulse buys, you are further ahead than most of the people Jesus preached to.  I’m not saying you are mega-wealthy or shouldn’t contribute to an IRA.  I am saying that when Jesus talks about wealth he is talking to the Trumps, Gates’ and Zuckerbergs of the world, but also to us and about us.
                It does seem that whenever Christians replace or confuse spiritual abundance with material abundance things get really skewed.  Part of the problem is that, even if you are a person who believes that God gives wealth to faithful people, there are some really unfaithful ways to get materially wealthy.  It is simply dangerous to look at a wealthy person and assume they have God’s approval because of their wealth or to look at someone in poverty and assume that they have God’s disapproval because of their poverty, but that is usually what happens with theologies of material blessing.  That’s a huge part of what Jesus was trying to correct in his ministry.  He was trying to challenge and flip that point of view saying things like, “The last will be first and the first will be last.”
                So we have the gospel lesson today where Jesus stands in the wilderness, away from security, away from the finer things, a place without gold or silver or even a roof over their heads.  A crowd meets him in that wilderness, following him to insecurity because they sense that he has something they need.  And there in the wilderness they encounter abundance in bread and fish, not fancy things but basic sustenance.  There they encounter abundance, not in wealth, but in compassion and healing. 
                Today when we hear stories of miracles, we ask rational questions like, “Did that really happen?” and “How did it happen?”  We are like spectators at a magic show who know, rationally, that magic isn’t real and there must be a trick.  We may be impressed by the trick and skill of the magician, but we know deep down it isn’t real.  A first-century person wouldn’t ask that kind of question.  They would hear a miracle story and ask, “What does that mean?”  What does it mean that Jesus feeds over 5000 people with five loaves and two fish? 

                I think it means that to know God is to live in abundance.  To know Jesus is to know God is to live in abundance.  I think it has little or nothing to do with physical or material abundance.  In fact I think it does a great disservice to the millions of faithful but materially poor Christians throughout history and in the world today to make empty promises of material wealth as a sign of one’s faith.  Rather faith is recognizing the abundance in which we already stand.  To know Jesus is to know God is to live in an abundance of hope and an abundance of love and an abundance of peace regardless of the circumstances.  To know Jesus is to know to God is to experience the abundant joy of generosity regardless of one’s means.  To know Jesus is to know God is to experience the abundant joy of the path of discipleship in spite of the fact that it is not easy path that leads to worldly success.  To know Jesus is to know God is to live in God’s abundant peace, abundant joy and abundant love.