Reflection for May 31, 2015, Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17 

Well, I understand I missed all the excitement when the bat came to church last Sunday. I would have liked that. A bat.  I heard it all went well, and with the aid of a musician’s towel, there was a rescue and return. What fun.  What a natural invasion of this space. No better image of the wind of the spirit blowing into the room. And as the DNR reminds us, bats are our friends.

This Sunday we are not visited by a bat, but by the festival of the Trinity. The observance always comes after Pentecost, the coming of the spirit. In the Lutheran calendar it’s a reminder that the work of God in creation, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the coming of the spirit; the Trinity is now complete. And we have a full vision of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: creator, redeemer, and Sanctifier.

Or do we? The readings for the day are selected by the Common Lectionary committee because they highlight the persons and work of the Trinity.  The readings are themselves classical expressions of the faith. But the readings point as much to the mystery of God as they do to any understanding of God. Isaiah speaks to mystical experience and the mystery of God. Romans speaks to the first century issue of adoption. And the conversation of Jesus and Nicodemus reminds us to think about how God does not confirm our views, but moves us along, changing and challenging us just when we thought we understood it.

First, Isaiah is having a religious or mystical experience. During time in the temple, as the smoke of the incense and sacrifice begin to fill the temple, Isaiah has a theophany, a vision of God. As the smoke begins to float along the floor, Isaiah sees it as the hem of God’s robe. As the smoke fills the room, he hears the voices, sees the heavenly creatures, and discovers himself as part of the vision.

Now Isaiah does not have a vision of the Trinity. Isaiah’s vision of God is from a different place, place, and tradition. But Isaiah’s mystical experience reminds us that when we encounter God, or talk about God, we are in the end dealing with the mystic, the mysterious, and the visional. In the mystical experience of God, in the mystery of God, in deep religious experience, we encounter a God who is grander, greater and bigger than we had previously imagined. Meeting God is always that way, always mysterious. God is more than we expected. And then in deep religious experience there is always the sense that we are not worthy, not holy enough, not pure enough to encounter the divine. When we sense deep goodness we do not feel adequate or worthy.

And in deep mysterious experience God acts to cleanse us, and then calls us. And in the mystic experience we find ourselves hearing voices and accepting this call. The greatness of God, the feelings of failure, cleansed by the action of God, entering in a dialog with angels, and accepting a fresh responsibility: these are the elements of mystical experience. And I just wanted to say that people, even in our most scientific of ages, still have such deep encounters with God, deeply religious experiences, mystical visions and voices that call them and us to live life more deeply, fully and passionately. When your vision of God comes, whatever that is, nurture it, listen to it, and let it overpower and then empower you for a life of compassion.

But not all of us are mystical visionaries. Some of us are more practically minded. Especially American Christians, especially German Lutherans. And for those people there is the second reading today: Paul’s 8th chapter of Romans. Now Paul is talking about adoption. You can see that in the reading. And to us this may not sound like a down to earth piece of the Bible.

But adoption is not something abstract in the early church. It is very real. The ancient church cared for the poor, and was famous for caring for the ill. It was also noted for its adoption in a society in which unwanted children, especially girls, were often discarded, left on the street to die. Christians took these children in and made them part of their extended families in their household churches. In some Roman Empire urban early Christian groups, as many as half the people in the room listening to these words would have had an adopted child or would have been an adopted child. In this setting, with this audience and this ministry of care for unwanted children; when Paul starts to talk about adoption, the room would be hushed, and the spirit would be present. Adoption, practical adoption, mattered, as people looked around the room and saw so many who had joined the fellowship through this process. So what is Paul going to say about adoption?

He says that God adopts us all. And that God is our Abba, our father, not through the accident of physical birth, but by the spiritual sense of being parent and child. Anyone listening who loved by means of adoption would know instantly what Paul is talking about on a practical level. Regardless of the physical accidents of our origins, God is our spiritual Abba.  And in this spirit of adoption, we are the heirs of God’s love. We are each other’s real brothers and sisters, and Jesus is our brother.  This is Paul’s vision of God, based on the practical practice of adoption in the ancient church.

Whether we are based in the practical affairs of life in the church or the mystical experience of someone like Isaiah, the reading from John reminds us that the encounter with God drives us to something deeper, something bigger, something more challenging and grander than we expected.

In the third reading, it doesn’t matter how you were physically born. One is born anew by the Spirit. Like the wind we cannot see, the spirit moves us along the way. What we thought should be put down is really lifted up. What we sensed was rejected becomes the cornerstone. What we thought we understood becomes a mere pretext for a different understanding. What we thought was a special benefit of being a Christian is just the first act in a grand drama that involves the salvation of all people and all creation. Like the wind we cannot see, the spirit moves us along the way, never fully satisfied with the current explanations of the mystery of God, the God who comes in smoke and mist, the God who adopts us and calls us to adopt one another, and the God who blows us along life’s way.

So today, as we encounter the triune God, let us nurture the mystery. Let us rejoice in the loving spirit behind our adoption into the family of God. Let us move, as Jesus moves Nicodemus, into new ways of seeing God and each other.

Reflection for May 17, 2015, Ascension

Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53 

These are the readings for Ascension.  The festival of Ascension comes forty days after Easter, with Jesus returning to the heavens, completing his time on earth. It has been celebrated by the church for centuries. In Northern Europe, the festival comes at the height of spring. Often the day was associated with walks or processions, outside worship, and renewal of the earth and our sense of being followers of Jesus.

In recent years, the festival, always on a Thursday, has not been celebrated as much as in the past. But today, we recall the Ascension in these readings. At the height of our spring, they raise for us questions not only for our personal lives but also for Madison as we ponder how to be the people of God in our homes, neighborhoods, and city; while we seek common ground to work on complex problems together.

First, the readings remind us that endings are beginnings. Ascension is the closing story of book one (Luke) about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But it is also the first story of book two (Acts) which turns to the mission of the disciples.  Endings become beginnings. Last things bring first things. This is especially seen in the graduations that happen each spring. School ends. Another life begins. But it is also true with those endings that are not so joyous. At first we are sad. But then something new takes shape.

What endings have you faced, and what did they begin? In our city, the district attorney’s decision this week has ended a long period of wondering. There will be more attention to this. But now begins the longer and more complicated chapter of building community together in which all of us, especially our young people of all backgrounds, have a sense of the future marked by fairness. Endings bring beginnings.

As the story of the Ascension unfolds, the focus is on the farewell, the leave-taking, and the saying goodbye. Farewells are always important. Our lives are filled with them, until we come to that final farewell with someone we have loved. The story reminds us that a final farewell is also a beginning. That grief is the first step in a journey of recovery. This is true for us personally and as a city.  Grief is the first step in a journey of recovery.

And as the Ascension story unfolds, we are reminded of the importance of location, location, location. The apostles are called to begin the church in Jerusalem, in the city. The first churches are in urban centers like Jerusalem. The city is the place where the church grows. The city is important.

But also note that things start in Bethany. Bethany is just outside of Jerusalem, sort of a suburb. It is the safe-haven, base camp or sanctuary of Jesus and his followers through Holy Week. The city has always been a focus of the Christian witness, especially in times of struggle. And yet the neighborhoods around and in the city are important.

Our city is now called to start something, to begin a new chapter, to set a fresh course in rebuilding a common good. And as Bethany was part of Jerusalem, this rebuilding or common good begins in neighborhoods. These days we need urban dialog as we work on racial and policing matters together. And we all need that safe haven, that base camp or sanctuary, where we can regroup, and think things through. Think about the importance of our city and our neighborhoods.

As the Ascension story unfolds, we sense the purpose of the story is to focus no longer on Jesus but on the disciples. The story moves us to think about their calling, mission, or purpose in the name of Jesus. They are to stop looking up and begin looking around. And we are also called now to move through the stories of our month of March and move into the calling, challenge, mission, and purpose of urban life together. What is your challenge, responsibility, calling, purpose this week?

And as the Ascension story unfolds, we encounter white-robed messengers. Who are those white-robed messengers among us? Some of those who lift up the voice of God are old, some young, some wear uniforms, some walk the streets, some protest, some call for change, some call for civil calm, some are wild, and some are wise. But in all the voices, sometimes we have those white-robed messengers leading us into a future we cannot yet discern. Who this week is reminding us of our mission and our purpose and helping us along the way?

And as the Ascension story unfolds, there is a blessing, or final blessing, or legacy given by Jesus to the disciples. There is assurance that through the struggle, we will find hope and resolution. What blessings or legacies are holding us? What do we want to be our legacy as a city?

In the details of Ascension, the story unfolds. As it once called the disciples to get busy in the city, the story still calls us to move on, move through, and move into our deep purpose and mission as people of God in this city.

With Ascension we reach Luke’s conclusion of the saga of Jesus. Today we remember the completion of what was started in a Bethlehem manger, so that something new can begin; so that the world restored: one soul at a time, one neighborhood at a time, one city at a time, with peace and justice to all men and women of good will.


Reflection for May 10, 2015

Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

     Peter was preaching. And as he spoke, something came over the crowd. There was a hush, a quickening of the community, as his words found their home in the hearts of those who heard. It was the presence of the spirit of God. And sometimes it comes in preaching.

Over the last four decades, I’ve preached over 2,000 sermons. Some good. Some not so good. Some probably could have been a lot better. Most of them were not particularly memorable. Sermons are like everyday cooking for the family. You may not remember what you ate last Thursday, let alone last month or year. But you are still alive. And so it serves its purpose. Most of the time preaching is like that.

But occasionally, when the spirit decides the time is right, one starts to preach and the room becomes electric with a different energy. There is a hush, a quickening of the community, as the spirit wings the words and they find a home in the hearts of those who hear. The energy and the experience are real, and it often leaves the preacher exhausted. Occasionally, not very often, but once in awhile, that has happened in this room; not only with me, but with my predecessors. When it does, the everyday fare of preaching becomes   moving. It happens now and then even to the worst of us preachers; as the spirit descends into the room, and the crowd is transformed into the people of God. And the everyday fare becomes a feast.

Peter was preaching. And as he spoke, something came over the crowd. There was a hush, a quickening of the community, as his words found their home in the hearts of those who heard. It was the presence of the spirit of God.

When the spirit comes to the people of God it brings a new energy. We can feel it. We are ready for something. Our individual souls merge into the community’s spirit. Space and time are suspended along with our usual agenda, and we are actually moved into the presence of God. When the spirit comes it brings new energy. And that energy enlivens and enlightens us in fresh ways.

Sometimes as in Acts 10 today the spirit fills our hearts with filled with ecstasy. Yes, joy is what we feel. Real, honest, genuine joy. Laughter is the best way to translate speaking in tongues. For we live in a world that is very hard on joy, crushing it with constant information about problems big and small until our spirits are pulverized by the weight of all there is to worry about. Real, honest, genuine joy is hard, very hard to come by these days. But as the spirit descends, we sometimes feel joy. And when that does happen, just let it flow again, cleansing and renewing your tired heart. Sometimes with God our hearts are filled with ecstasy.

Sometimes as in the first two readings, when the spirit descends we realize that we have been making mountains out of mole hills, rummaging around to find all sorts of ways to exclude people, or judge them, or to insist on our own way, emphasizing our sometimes bitter differences.

But then suddenly in the spirit’s presence we are all children of God together. The differences we thought were important are insignificant in the light of God’s love.  And in this spirit we feel the closeness of others (Jew, Gentile, black, white, democrat, republican, young, old, brand new, died in the wool, gay, straight, rich or poor) rather than that which divides us. As the spirit descends we find our unity, based not on common convictions or even on common values, but on common faith in the God who loves us, all of us.

And sometimes as in the gospel reading today, when that spirit descends and fills the room, we simply bask in the light of God’s love. In the light of love we see how we share, support, and sacrifice for others, much like the love of a mother. Basking in the love of God, we are renewed in our lives, our families, our friendships, our companions, our inner hearts, our histories, and our futures. The spirit quickens our ability to love one another as God loved us.

Once upon a time in Acts 10, and occasionally yet even today with such as us, the spirit descends here in this place. And we have joy. And we come together. And we dare to love, even if it hurts. Through this week may God’s spirit give you this joy, and bring you closer to others, and kindle affection.

     A long time ago Peter was preaching. As he spoke, something came over the crowd. There was a hush, a quickening of the community, as his words found their home in the hearts of those who heard. It was the presence of the spirit of God.


Reflection for May 3, 2015

Acts 8:26-40, I John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8 

     This week from our twitter and Facebook pages, one of our tweets or posts was: as spring dawns in my own heart, I also know that for at least half the people  in God’s world, this is their autumn. For me winter is over, for half the people in the world it is just beginning.  It’s an important reminder that for all people things may be different because of where they are or what they experience. Those in the far regions of the southern hemisphere are preparing for another long winter, even as we feel spring warming our own hearts.

That same sense is found in the first reading this morning. Because most of the New Testament tells the story of the expansion of the church into Asia Minor, Greece and then further into Europe, we assume that Christianity spread from the Holy Land to the northwest until it eventually finds its way into the minds and hearts of European immigrants who brought the faith with them to America.

That is what is usually considered the main story of Christian history. But Christianity was not only moving into Europe. It was also from the very beginning moving into Africa. It was not only headed north. It was also headed south. The conversion of the Ethiopian is the one remaining New Testament fragment of that early Christian growth to the south. But there is more and more archeological and historical evidence that this expansion into Africa was every bit as strong as the movement into Europe. The Coptic Church is one of the oldest and longest church traditions in the Christian faith.

In this story of Phillip we have fragments of the Coptic tradition: a love of the Hebrew prophets, an emphasis on conversation and conversion, and the importance of baptism as initiation into the African Christian community.

Ethiopians have now been Christians for two-thousand years. Through the centuries the church in Africa has often faced persecution, as a minority faith. Still it continues to grow and thrive.  And today, as we look forward to our own spring, and as we read of Phillip and the Ethiopian; we remember the many Christians who are preparing for the coming darker, colder, wetter days of winter.

The story from Acts and the almost forgotten movement of the early church into Africa remind us that what we often perceive as the true story is determined by our location, our heritage, our situation, and our perspective. We see things from our own point of view. That is a good thing. It gives us the simple resolve we need to get things done. Yet there is often another hemisphere that comes into play, another story, told by others, that fills out the truth and helps us understand our own limitations in the world, our own part of a larger truth.

Perhaps in our public life and conversation this is more important for us now than ever. Justice in American cities is seen quite differently depending on one’s race and social background. And often, as we reflect on things, we forget that others, coming from a different way and a different perspective, with experiences we have not had, see things differently than we do.

Each one of us will have our own perspective and understanding, but the first step in community conversation and healing is realizing that others have emotions, histories, reactions, concerns, and issues that are shaped by different experiences. As we listen to one another, as we learn what happened not only in our own hemisphere but in the hemisphere of another, we grow in perspective, in faith, and in wisdom. Healing and restoring dialog then becomes a possibility.  It is not that the police are right or that protestors are right. It is the need now to create an atmosphere of appreciation for the other that matters.

Listening for the story of the other’s hemisphere.  Listening with an open heart to the story of another. This is a first step in fostering community conversation. And then I John, that second reading speaks to something more.

Now I John is a complicated piece of material. Many themes are woven together. But in this reading a couple of things instruct community conversation. The important thing in human living is to love one another. Human love is grounded in the love of God. Jesus is a window into that love. Jesus reminds us that the most important thing is to love our neighbor, those around us: listening to them and caring for them, regardless of the hemisphere in which they find themselves.  Those from the other hemisphere are to be treated with love, a tender regard, mutual affection, compassion and consolation in loss. Community conversation involves not only recognizing the world of another, but eventually embracing each other in affection so that we can work together.

A second thing with I John is that it is the love of God seen in Jesus that brings us together. Our common love of the deeper good allows us to embrace each other even if we disagree about many things. This deep goodness of love may be called a loving Spirit that enables us to move beyond pain, sorrow, resentment, and anger into a space where we can listen and learn without insisting on our own way. In today’s climate of extreme insistence on the rightness of one’s own position, this call to love, listen, and learn of one’s neighbor is critical for the well being of our community, state, and nation and all the hemispheres of our planet.

There are also a couple of things in the third reading today about the foundation of compassionate conversation and loving dialog. First is the interconnectedness of all things. That is the image of the vine. In our city: our schools, our housing, our families, our economy, our worship, our parenting, our policing, our governing are all interconnected. They form our community vine. We are bound together in all these things, just as Christians all over the world, regardless of their hemisphere are bound together in Christ.

And in that third reading, we know that in the vine of life, as we learn of other hemispheres and other points of view, as we honestly love the other, and engage in common conversation for the public good: we will need now and then to cut or prune away older patterns and ideas.  As we build a new future together, pruning and knowing how to do it well are very important while we learn more and more about being community and being the people of God together.

Others come from different places. And yet we are called to embrace each other in mutual regard: as we focus on what unites rather than divides us; as we recognize that all things are connected; as we do some revising or pruning along the way.