Sunday, May 21, 2017

Learning to Listen in the Liminal




Sometimes when we don’t know what to do, when we’re face to face with mystery, or something unknown, vast, greater than ourselves, we clean.  When we’re expecting a baby, we nest, when the Titanic is going down, we rearrange the deck chairs, when that dissertation or thesis is looming, we refinish the basement. 
Turning to details, to tasks and duties gives us comfort.  
Creating societies and structures, being effective and logical, gives a kind of security and order to our worlds.

The whole book of Acts is a hilarious back and forth between wild Holy Spirit encounters of pulling people out of their security and comfort to things they’ve never done before in ways they’ve never done them, things that might involve fire and strange languages, prophecy, miracles, public speaking and touching strangers, and then tidying up, figuring out logistics and details, creating order and structure, assigning KP duty.

In fact, most of Paul’s letters throughout the rest of the New Testament are people figuring out the nitty-gritty of how to be church, with the piddly details of messy human beings seeking order, and Paul continually calling them back to this cosmic, big-picture mystery that has transformed the entire earth and claimed them individually for a life that transcends death. And also, quit fighting at dinner, you guys.

But I love this story because of that. Before anything else starts to happen, they must replace Judas to round out the 12 apostles. It only makes sense. Getting a 12th Apostle nailed down feels like the pressing job at the moment. Very imperative.
So they pick between these two people, Joseph, aka, Barsabbas, aka Justus, on the one hand, and Matthias on the other. It’s down to these two because both of them have been around from the beginning, and they want someone who can witness to the resurrection with them.
Jesus didn’t tell them to replace Judas; they came up with that one all on their own. Because what else should they do after they see dead and risen Jesus float off into heaven right after telling them to wait for some kind of “baptism of the Holy Spirit?”

There is a move coming here, Pentecost is around the corner, when they will, as biblical scholars like to say, go from being disciples to being apostles. In other words, they will are in the midst of shifting their identity from followers to sent ones.

But right now they are in the in-between.  The not yet. The liminal space. 
And oh, how God loves liminility! It’s the 9-month pregnancy of the thing!  It’s the Sabbath shift! This pocket of space in-between is so important that God likes to use it a lot.  The Israelites in the wilderness, Jesus in the wilderness, for that matter, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Ruth, Esther, Moses’ stint as a shepherd, the Apostle Paul – knocked down, his sight taken from him, at the mercy of those he came to kill while he waits to find out what God will do next…

Liminal space - on the threshold of change becomes a kind of waiting, like Advent or Lent, or being engaged or in hospice, or unemployed, widowed, or released from prison, adjusting to some new reality that is coming but you haven’t figured out what it will mean or how to live in it yet -
these times are God’s rich soil in us where something dies and something new is born, when most of what you knew before gets taken away, and what is coming has not yet come, when you are stuck in the awkward middle, trying to figure out how to stay still and move at the same time. 

In these times we are redefined, life is redefined. 
Tectonic plates are shifting, and we feel suspended – what can we expect? 
Or do, Or hope for? 
How do we just be?

And now imagine this - not since the garden, as in, the very beginning of it all, or since Noah, perhaps, has there ever been a time in all the human living and God-following throughout countless centuries, when the people did not have a flesh and blood mouthpiece for the divine – someone right there in front of them telling them what to do, what to believe, how to act.  God had a representative, a priest or prophet or judge or king. Rabbis and teachers interpreted scripture – talked to God on the people’s behalf, and to the people on God’s behalf. They made sense of things, told the people what it all meant. 

And Jesus had fit into this model for these disciples.  
When God came and walked among them in the flesh, they followed him as students to a rabbi, disciples of a beloved teacher.
But when the teacher is killed everything crumbles. 
And then it all crumbles again in an even bigger and more impossible way when he doesn’t stay dead.  Now they are disciples of a resurrected God-with-us who has thrown the definitions of life and death up in the air; now heaven and earth are kind of mixed up, and all bets are completely off. So they have about 40 days of getting used to that, except now he’s leaving again. So, now, they are followers of… what, exactly? 

So they stand, stunned and staring up into heaven after Jesus, and what are we supposed to do again?
So God gives them a gentle nudge in the form of two figures in white.
“Hey, you, men of Galilee? What do you think you’re looking at, standing there with your mouths open? Go back where you came from and wait like he told you to…”

So they do. 
Only now, there is no one between them and God. 
No rabbi to follow, no teacher to listen to, no mouthpiece or ambassador. 
Nobody is telling them how this is supposed to go, what they are supposed to do, or believe, or do.
They are on their own, but also clearly not, somehow.
They are witnesses, they remind themselves: we are witnesses now. This is the only thing they know so far – we are called to tell each other and whoever else will listen, about what we’ve experienced. And beyond that, they’ve got no idea what else is next.
So they tidy! They organize. Fix a problem; mend a structure. We’ve got to fill the empty session seat! 
But since Jesus had picked the rest of them, how would they know how to pick Judas’ replacement? 

So they do it in a really unique way. 
They don’t take resumes or ask the two to make campaign speeches. They don’t vote or argue for their favorite candidate.  There are no Roberts Rules of Order here. They figured out a way to let God choose. 

Here we see the very first, baby steps into trusting God in a new way that comes to be called Church, or Christianity:  Jesus is between us and God, breaking down that barrier and opening up that relationship, drawing us right into connection to God. We can’t see Jesus, but he’s there, somehow bringing us right up close to God. So we are going to try to listen to God. All by ourselves without someone doing it for us; we are going to ask God to lead us.

So they choose the 12th apostle by saying, Lord, you know everyone’s hearts. You know who would be best for this. Show us who it should be.
And then they draw straws. They literally cut a piece of hay or break a stick shorter than another, pray to God to guide them, and then draw straws. 
The Lord will show us, they trust, and then they go with it. 
Matthais it is, then!

Because of this story, today there are some traditions that do this when they choose leaders- for example, I’ve heard of a Mennonite practice of placing certificates in a few hymnals, shuffling them, and then those who select the hymnals with the the certificates in them are appointed to leadership.  It isn’t meant to be a game of chance, a random gamble; it is meant to take human error out of it and leave the decision up to God.  
It’s a way of listening to God.

There are lots of ways of listening to God – maybe as many as there are people in the world- and as the church became the church, and spread throughout the world, more and more ways of listening to God as Christians come to be practiced.  But right here at the beginning, in this in-between time, before the Holy Spirit has come and the preaching has started, but after Jesus has died and risen and left them, these people took their job as witnesses seriously.  They sought, even in the midst of a lot of unknown, they sought as faithfully as possible, to follow this God who was calling them, Them! Ordinary, regular old them! – to lead, to witness, to tell others what they’ve experienced of Jesus, to speak for God to the people and to the people for God. 

And they sought, as faithfully as they could figure out how, to live in this new, unknown, upside down reality they find themselves in, where God’s voice really speaks, and God’s hand really acts, and life and death and limits and boundaries do not hinder God’s plans, and you  - you! - are part of this great big thing you are just barely starting to get your mind around.

We believe we are in a liminal state right now, like, humanity is, all of us, suspended in an already, but not yet. Christ has come, Christ has died and risen; Christ will come again. 
We wait for the day when the promises of all things returned to God and life as it was meant to be – the triumph of love and life over destruction and death – when that is fully realized.  We wait in this time when we know it is coming, because Christ has broken the bonds of death, but we often stand gazing up into heaven with our mouths open, not quite sure what we’re supposed to do in the meantime.
The space between. Where life leaks in from the future, and hope is hidden but real, when the Kingdom of God has come and is here, but we miss it so much of the time because it is not all in all yet.
And in this in-between time, where we are not face to face with God, we still say God’s hand really acts and God’s voice really speaks and our lives really are part of God’s plans that cannot be stopped or hindered by life and death and limits and boundaries. So how, then, do we listen?

This summer we are going to practice some ways of listening to God.  In our worship we are going to gather and try out different ways of praying, of listening to God, of connecting to God, ways that someone thought up and tried out a long time ago and generations of Jesus-followers have been doing ever since.  And we are also going to talk about how, in our own lives, we find ways of listening to God that make sense for us – things that help us hear from God, see Jesus in the world, share in ministry with others, draw us closer to God, in the transcendent things and the practical, ordinary things.

Sometimes I think we tell ourselves we should have this down, somehow; or that church or faith should go a certain way and we are messing up if it doesn’t look that way for us.

But remember, these first witnesses began “in joy, still doubting and disbelieving.” 
They let themselves be in the awkwardness and the newness, in the bumbling and the trying. 
They told each other when they saw Jesus. 
They sat in the discomfort of waiting for God, embracing the liminal and all its mysterious promptings and newness. 
And they trusted God to lead – even in the very practical tasks and details, even more than they trusted themselves.

We aren’t supposed to do faith right or perfectly; Jesus already brings us right up close to God.  We are supposed to live right where we are, in whatever in-betweens we may find ourselves, to seek God’s direction and to listen, in whatever ways we might learn, or try out for the first time, or fall back on again and again. 


And in the midst of both the great spiritual mysteries, the life-changing encounters that draw us up and out of ourselves, and the everyday, organizing tasks, structures and details that ground us, together we get to practice trusting God, however that might look for us today, and tomorrow, this moment and the next.  
And if in doubt about how, we’ll do like they did, and try to get out of the way.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

To watch together for God




Yesterday at a party, and I was standing in the kitchen, asking my sister if someone I had just seen outside was a new friend she’d been telling me about, and while the question was half way out of my mouth, the person walked in, and I felt busted, and ended up awkwardly cutting off my sentence and introducing myself instead.  I had acted like she wasn’t there and suddenly she was, and everything changed. 
That’s kind of what happened in this scene. While they were talking about Jesus, he showed up among them.
You guys, they’d been saying, he’s really alive! We were walking to Emmaus and this stranger started talking to us, and he turned out to be Jesus! Were not our hearts burning within us while spoke?
And when we invited him back for dinner and he broke the bread, suddenly our eyes were opened and we recognized him!

Without a cell phone to call back and say, “You’ll never believe what just happened!,” instead they hit the road that same night and had raced back to where they’d come from, and they were just now sharing these stories in the wee hours with the rest of them, who, it turned out, had stories of their own, and suddenly, Jesus himself stood among them.

And they were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost.

It doesn’t matter how much we may believe with our head that God is real, that Jesus is here, that God can intervene, or speak to us, or do something that turns our life around, we have no rubric for this sort of thing. So often, when it happens, we are astonished, startled, terrified even.

In fact, all the most profound realities of life are this way- knowing you are about to have a child is night and day different from someone placing a tiny screaming stranger in your arms.
We all know in our heads we will one day die, but dying itself? No matter how much we try to prepare, we will be utterly unqualified, and yet we will do it anyway.
All the things that call us to our true selves as children of God, that strip away illusion, the things like love, transformation, forgiveness – we are not prepared for them, no matter how much we think we may be, they surprise us. Like waking from a dream, when they come they make life feel altogether new and different.

And now, here is Jesus. The one they saw die. The one they buried and began to grieve. He is back. But he’s also different. Like, how you might be different if death can’t kill you.  Different in a way that isn’t bound by time and space – he keeps appearing and disappearing where he will. He is unrecognizable at first, and yet, it’s him.
So they are aghast, and can’t seem to move past it, even seeing his hands and side, and touching him, and they still can't absorb it.  
Here, he finally says, when the staring gets to be too much, Do you have anything to eat? And they get him some fish and he eats it in front of them. And they watch, until it starts to feel a little normal, and then they begin settle into the new new, at least enough to sit and listen to him talk to them like he used to before he died.

And when he does, he opens up the scriptures to them.
He starts way back and tells how it all fits together, how God’s unfolding story of love and hope begins way at the beginning, and weaves through their history, the kings and the prophets and the judges, how all of it was part of the same trajectory – God made it all for love and call us to love, and how God came into this world, to set us free from everything that keeps us hostage, and how God with us walked among them, shared this life with them, and now, right now, near the platter of fish bones, as the lamp is burning low, and the sun is just peeking up the horizon, is sitting with them. 

And he talks about repentance – remember that word? How it means changing your mind, letting go your way of seeing things and picking up God’s way? – that this invitation is to be extended to all the world, beginning right here, among these people who have done that just moments ago and even still now are in the midst of it.
And forgiveness of sins – freedom from all that keeps us captive to the injuries we commit against ourselves and others, all that separates us from God and each other, release to live for God and for others - this is the message that they will soon be carrying to everyone, everywhere, starting right here where they are, in this very place.

And then, before he leads them to a mountaintop and disappears, Jesus gives them a new identity, a calling. You, he says, you are witnesses. Your role is that of a witness.

Witnesses testify to what they have seen or experienced. 
Witnesses don’t become witnesses because they believe or can recite back something specific.  
A witness isn’t skilled worker with training, or a stellar student with perfect test scores; a witness doesn’t prove their abilities or worth in order they become one.
Witnesses are not directors. 
They aren’t tour guides or teachers; they aren’t trying to decide where things will go or how they should turn out, or make anyone else decide anything either.  
They don’t interpret things or turn them into lessons. 
They simply experience something, and then tell about it. 
That’s what witnesses do.
These people, in their joy, disbelieving and still wondering, were witnesses.

And what these witnesses had to share, so far, was that Jesus came among them. Ate some fish. Told them about the scriptures. Disappeared from their sight. The same Jesus they had seen teach and heal and suffer and die. That’s what they have to tell.

That’s what they tell each other; every time they get together, they witness to what they’ve experienced, what they felt when they heard him call them by name, what they thought when they realized it was him standing among them, what happened inside them when their eyes were opened and they recognized him, or how their hearts were burning within them, or what they heard when he unpacked the scriptures and told how it all fit together.
They witness.

And the act of witnessing to each other opens up the space between them where Jesus can encounter them all over again. It’s the place the Holy Spirit likes to hang out. Between us.

There is no such thing yet as church. There are no Christians.
There isn’t a bible – just the beginning of one –the Hebrew Scriptures we call the Old Testament. They studied and learned and knew the same scriptures we hold here before us. Except the parts that weren’t written yet because they were happening to them right then, so that we can read about it now, so that we can witness the witnesses witnessing the witnesses.
Because, you know where this is going, right?

We are witnesses too.

We are witnesses to the God who is witnessed through this book. I
f you want to see who God is, look at Jesus, and if you want to see who Jesus is, look in this book. And here he is, sitting with his friends, showing them how this whole story fits together.

The Holy Spirit meets us we read together what they read; this is our family scrapbook of meaning, filled with letters, laws, poetry and prose, music and metaphors, heartbroken lament and frustrated complaints, euphoric praise and joyful celebration, retellings of the lives of the leaders and the losers in both gripping and boring ways, describing the ongoing struggles of a people to be faithful, and the ongoing faithfulness of a God that never wavers – it all witnesses to this one big thing God is doing, has always been doing, and will never stop doing: This most real and true thing about love and repentance, forgiveness and new life, belonging, healing and hope.

You and I are part of that story. 
As witnesses, we are called to pay attention. 
To notice and share about where we see Jesus.  
And not unlike these disciples, we might not recognize him at first, sometimes not until we hear him call us by name.   
And sometimes we will know him in the breaking of the bread- as we share meals with each other side by side in our humanity, or we will know he was there, talking to us, when our hearts burn within us and we say to each other, wait, back there when that was happening, did you feel it too?   
And like all those who saw the risen Christ in the flesh, just when we seem to grasp hold of him he vanishes; he’s elusive, Jesus can’t be captured and owned. 
He comes and goes as he pleases.

But instead of giving up, we keep witnessing, and practicing being witnesses. 
So we have to get together with each other and tell our stories.  
And in a few weeks when we hear how church starts, we'll notice that it starts just like that, because that’s actually exactly what church is – people breaking bread together and telling stories of how they see Jesus, and looking at scripture together at the words of the witnesses who’ve gone before, and trusting that through these words God will speak to us right now.

This is not about believing something with your head and getting others to think the same way. 
This is about trusting something with your life and telling what that feels like.

And trust is that kind of thing that you only learn by doing. 
You put one foot tentatively out, maybe with wonder and disbelief, even, and then you start to lean some weight on it until you can step out with the other foot and stand, and then the next, and soon you look back and see how much trusting you’ve done and how far you’ve come. 
And you witness about that too, Hey look! I trust! Look how much trusting I’ve done!  And people can celebrate with you and share about their own trusting that might help you to trust even more, until you’re a bunch of witnesses whose lives are part of this one big thing God is doing, every day part of it, people who are learning to watch for, each moment, where is God going to show up next.  And when we have trouble trusting, we share that too, God is there too, and others trust for us, and that’s also what it means to be witnesses. 

We are going to give the kids new bibles in a few minutes. 
And we will tell them we trust God to speak to us through these words. 
That is, we act like God will, and we lean in and expect it to happen, and the trust grows from there. The Holy Spirit, we will tell them, uses these words to teach us, challenge us, encourage us.  And because this bible shows us who Jesus is, it helps us see Jesus in our own lives and in the world around us. 
These bibles show us God is love, forgiveness is real, life is hard, people are always messing up and hurting each other, and God keeps on loving us. 
They witness to us, so that we can witness too.

And the wonderful thing about the bible is that because God is not a ghost relic of a past devout era, or an imaginary notion of comfort or authority, not an idea to believe in, or a concept to learn about, but because God is real, beyond the cosmos and here in our own lives, right now, that means that you might open your bible and God will use it to tell you what you need to hear right now. God will speak right to you through words that have spoken to people for centuries. 
And if right now you are sad or scared, and at another time in your life you feel confused and lost, or hopeful and peaceful, God may use the very same verses and tell you something new through it, speak right into your situation, in a different way than the last time you read it. 
And the person sitting next to you? They may have something altogether different happening in their life, and God might talk to them through the same scripture, exactly what they need to hear, which may be different than what you’ve heard!
This is why we do faith in community. We are in this together. Our lives are witnesses to each other. We read the bible together because we learn from each other and we witness God in each other’s lives –sometimes more quickly than in our own.

So by giving the kids bibles, we are saying to them, Your story is part of God’s story, and it is part of our story. Together we will watch for God in the world and in each other’s lives. We will share our insights and our experiences. We will pray for each other and trust that our lives are part of the one big thing God is doing.

Like those first witnesses long ago, we come here with each other to be called back to our true selves as children of God, to have illusions stripped away, to be reawakened to love, forgiveness, transformation and the other truest things in life, to share our experiences and encounters, and to feel overwhelmed and astonished sometimes, as the new normal sets in and we begin to recognize Jesus, in that space where the Holy Spirit likes to hang out, between us.  
And I promise that, from time to time, when we’re not expecting it, we too will find that while we are talking about Jesus, he shows up right here among us.  

Amen.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Liturgies of Life and Death



“IN LIFE AND IN DEATH, WE BELONG TO GOD…” 

We are called to share life with each other, so on a Wednesday evening a few weeks ago and one year and three days after we laid hands on Marty and commissioned him to a ministry of dying, we anointed Marty once again, and told him his baptism will soon be complete. 

The sanctuary gradually filled up with church members, Marty’s family and his “bar friends,” most of whom sat together on one side of the sanctuary, like it was a wedding. I told the crowd we were here to tell stories, to celebrate Marty’s life and assert our presence with him as he moved closer to his death, and to affirm that in life and in death, he belongs to God.

And then service opened with his favorite song, What a wonderful world, and as our musician sang out in a clear, sweet voice, I felt the lump in my chest work its way up to my face and I began to cry. I looked at the rows of bar friends across from me also crying - these strangers, church members and me, this whole room full of people, brought together by our love for Marty and our fear that we were maybe not going to make it through this thing.  
But I’ve learned that something incredible happens in these experiences of confronting life and death and sticking with the discomfort. It’s excruciating, but it only lasts a moment. Once we go through the death moment together we come out the other side a little bit invincible, a little bit able to face whatever all this is with joy and gratitude and sadness and love and most astounding of all, without fear.  
So we all stuck with it and stayed put, crying into our kleenex and not leaving.  And just as it has each time in a moment like this (like in Joanne’s service years ago), we made it through to the other side.

I rose to walked to the podium. I pointed out table near the door with the pile of markers and signs that said, “Marty is…” and the clothesline strung across the front of the sanctuary, reaching from one side of the room to the other, and I said,  “As Marty prepares to join the cloud of witnesses, we here today get to witness to him his impact on our lives.  Each one of us who wishes to share, will take turns holding up our sign and answering the question, “Marty is…” and then sharing whatever story or memory of Marty that we wish.”

And I went first, “Marty is… surprising.” I told people one of my favorite moments of the whole year was hearing Marty’s life story, and then I invited people to raise their hands if they had: Scuba-dived the wrecks in the Great Lakes? Been a well-known astrologer? Been Buddhist? (I got a couple hands there), Wikkin?  Been a private detective?  Trained as an acupuncturist?  Lived for a couple of years in Columbia? Every time, Marty’s hand went up, and I watched people laugh in delight as this man we all love claimed his wild and wonderful life, his mystery and hidden depth, before our eyes. 

Then, person after person stood and came to the center and shared.  And I watched his bar friends, some of whom were decidedly not church people, and his church friends, some of whom were decidedly not bar people, bound together in our love for Marty, opened up in our view of him, deepened in our gratitude for him, and witnessing to the incredible impact of a single life that ripples through us and beyond. 

Marty is… Kind. Brave. Gentle. A gift. A friend. Hopeful. Loving. Welcoming. 
Children shared. Friends from kindergarten shared. People who hadn't planned to share shared.  We glimpsed into seasons of his life before many of us knew him - Marty the hippy, Marty the one they were sure was an FBI agent, Marty who loves espresso martinis and holds the bartender accountable to making a good one.  Marty who told me long ago that he believes we are here to take care of each other, and who is teaching us in this moment how to do that by letting us take care of him. 
                 
I preached to this group, but mostly to Marty. A short message. 
Do not be afraid. 
Life and love are where you come from and they are where you are going. 
We will walk with you to the point where you go on alone.  And you go on with Christ.  
You have shaped us all so much; our lives, our world, has forever been altered by your presence.  
You have embodied your life message well.  
We love you.  

And we gathered around him - those of us who are praying people - and laid our hands on him and prayed for him.  And then we all left the sanctuary and filled the Gathering Room where Marty’s favorite foods awaited us: Lasagna, salad, garlic bread from Buca, with dozens of cherry pies and apple cobblers made by friends lining the counter.  
The room was filled with laughter and ease, warmth and care, gentle conversation surrounding us all like music.  Many of Marty's friends came up to me to thank me and to tell me they were pondering other stories, or they had ideas for ways to bless him, or they were so thankful for this special evening.  The subtext of it all was, We are his people and we’re in this together now.

The days are getting harder. Moments are more frightening, more poignant, more sad, more awake. 
And still, he said to me this week, "I said I would share it with you, and I intend to keep my promise."
And we said we'd walk this road with you, Marty, and we intend to keep our promise too.
Thank you for letting us share this journey with you, Marty.
Thank you.

Learning to Listen in the Liminal

Acts 1 Sometimes when we don’t know what to do, when we’re face to face with mystery, or something unknown, vast, greater than ou...