Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Circulating Love

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 John 16:12-15
May 30, 2010 Alan Claassen

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter.
It seems like years since it’s been clear.
Until Friday.
Here came the sun!
And as George Harrison wrote so many years ago, It’s all right.

And so on Friday, Betsy and I,
as well as my father and our son, who are visiting from out of town,
went to Yosemite Valley.

As we all know, Yosemite Valley is a sacred place.
It inspires reflection, humility, joy, and gratitude.
It also inspires deep questions, such as the one I asked Betsy,
while were looking up at one the waterfalls,
water cascading over the cliff hundreds of feet above us.

I asked, “When does a river know that it is about to become a waterfall?”
To which Betsy quickly replied, “Too late!”
And then she took the question to another level by asking,
“When do the fish know, that their river is about to become a waterfall?”
We didn’t have an answer for that one.
Though I did have this image of a trout, going the edge of the cliff,

Maybe that’s why fishes mouths are so big,
it comes from years of evolutionary adapting
to going over rivers-become-waterfalls.

Yosemite Valley is a sacred place.
It inspires deep questions like that,
and humility, wonder, and awe,
and wisdom for questions like...

“What do I do when my life suddenly changes
from stream to waterfall?”
Will I become a stream again,
or has life forever changed?”

All four of us enjoyed our day in the sacred Yosemite Valley,
but unknown to the rest of my family,
I was also working.
What better place to do sermon preparation than Yosemite Valley?
Especially when we have such a passage
as the one today from Proverbs
that imagines Wisdom
by the side of God delighting,
as each moment of creation,
The seas, the fountains, the springs of water,
the heavens and the horizon
the hills and the horizon
were each born.

So as my family and I walked through Yosemite Valley,
Got baptized by the mist of the dispersed water
At the foot of Bridal Veil Falls;
Watched children play with sticks and rocks
along the bank of the river,
Saw the dogwoods in bloom,
A wedding about to begin on the beautiful grounds of the Awahnee Hotel
I was thinking about today,
Which in the church calendar year is Trinity Sunday,
The day when we are asked to contemplate the mysterious relationship
Between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
Thinking about the river,
That becomes waterfall,
That becomes river again on a new level.
Gave me a new way to think about the Trinity.

But to share with you why a waterfall made me think of the Trinity,
I need to share with you what Huston Smith,
The great teacher of Comparative Religions,
Had to say about the Trinity.

Huston Smith’s understanding of the Trinity,
Is in fact the title of today’s sermon, namely,
Circulation of love.

Huston Smith’s image of the nature of God
as described in the Trinity,
is the inseparable circulation of love,
that flows from God, to the Holy Spirit, to Jesus.

In his book, Why Religion Matters Huston Smith
writes about the nature of light as described by quantum physics,
where light can be both particle and wave,
can be in two places at once without dividing itself.

He notes
1) that being both particle and wave is outside of the normal way that we understand the realm of space and time,
AND 2) how fitting it is that light is a universal image for God.

And then Huston Smith says,
as different is the language of quantum physics
from our normal language for describing
our day-to-day existence,
so is the language of the spirit,
the language of the world’s religions,
different from the words and concepts
we use to describe our normal existence.

And both explanations are real. Are true.
Newtonian Physics is true, with limited applications,
as is quantum physics,
as is the wisdom of Proverbs,
as is the teaching of Jesus when we he said
consider the lilies of the field.

Just like space and time and energy are inseparable,
God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus are inseparable,
Not because they are special individually,
But because their relationship to one another is their essential quality.

Does this help you see why I saw an image of the Trinity
While watching a waterfall in Yosemite Valley?

Let me share with you another thought on the Trinity
that was in the back of mind as we were walking the Yosemite Valley on Friday.

This is from a book entitled The Wisdom Jesus, by Cynthia Bourgeault.
In the chapter entitled, The Path of Self-Emptying Love,
She shares this wonderful image of the Trinity.

She imagines a great waterwheel of a grain mill, with three buckets,
Going round and round,
Constantly overspilling into one another.
And as they do so, the mill turns,
and the energy of love,
Becomes manifest and accessible. (pg 71)

This intercirculation of love is reveals
God’s innermost nature
through a continuous round dance of self-emptying. (pg 72)

On the great watermill of the Trinity,
The statement, God is love, brings itself into reality.

And that reality is best understood, as always giving oneself away,
Always, letting go and letting be.

As the waterwheel turns and the buckets filled with water empty themselves,
Their water fills the bucket below them,
And the waterwheel turns.

My bucket is filled with love and I empty it into yours,
God says to creation.
Let there be light.
And it is good.

My bucket is filled with love and and I empty into yours,
Jesus says to humanity from the cross,
Let there be peace.
And it is good.

My bucket is filled with love,
The Holy Spirit says to the lost disciples,
Let there be community, and it is Good.

Do you see the Trinity in the waterfall now?
God as complete unknowable mystery is the Yosemite Valley.

God as when we name God is the river before it becomes waterfall,
High above the Valley floor.

Jesus the Christ is the complete act of trust in God,
Self-emptying love, to bring love to the valley floor.

The Holy Spirit is the water become river again,
Nourishing the meadow,
And the animals,
Providing a place of joy for the children,
And place for the fish to relax.

And do you see how this image of the Trinity also becomes for us
a way to prayer our way into an answer to the question
I asked earlier in this sermon,
“What do I do when my life suddenly changes
from stream to waterfall?”
Will I become a stream again,
or has life forever changed?”

The great novelist Alice Walker provides an answer to this question
when she describes the circulation of love this way…
“What I have noticed in my small world
is that if I praise the wild flowers growing on the hill in front of my house,
the following year they double in profusion and brilliance.
The universe responds.

What you ask of it, it gives.

I remember I used to dismiss the bumper sticker, “Pray for Peace.”
I realize now that I did not understand it,
since I did not understand prayer;
which I know now to be the active affirmation of our inseparableness from the divine.”

Prayer is a force of energy just as real as gravity, light,
or the breath of God hovering over the waters
at the beginning of creation.

Prayer is taking all of the random energy
that is everywhere and everywhen
present in the universe and focusing it one particular spot, or person.

Our concern for a person, or a nation, or a church
focuses the love of God into a particular point,
and says, let there be light.

We cannot know or direct the outcome of this loving energy focused on one place.
But we can join our love and with God’s love and keep the love circulating.

We can empty our water bucket,
Filled with love, and regret and brokenness, fear and confusion,
Trusting that we will be filled again,
Trusting that our life,
Will once again be one that nourishes others.

This is promise that Jesus offered to his disciples
that was our Gospel reading for this morning, when he said,

“I have much more to tell you,
but you can’t bear it now.
When the Spirit of truth comes,
She will guide you in all truth.” (John 16:12)

This is the faith of the water-falling, self-emptying love of God
There is a truth that we cannot now bear or understand,
But we are not alone.

The promise that Jesus offers,
Is that Wisdom will come,
That guidance will come,
And will move out of that winter that lasted too long,

That will move from that not-knowing-what-was-next that lasted too long,

That will move out of that feeling of helplessness that lasted too long and say,

Here come the sun, it’s alright.

Let the people say, it’s alright.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Love That Remains

Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010
John 20:1-18

I went looking for God this morning.

I went looking for God in the transformation of darkness into sunrise.

And cold into warmth.

I went looking for God in a plate of pancakes and eggs
and eating with friends and strangers.

I have been looking for God a lot in the past 40 plus days.

Looking for God when a small group of people sat in a circle and shared prayers
and a willingness to remember that we come from dust and stardust
and to dust and star dust we will return.

I went looking for God with a small group who ate soup together
and shared stories of meeting God in nature and
meeting God in pain and
meeting God in the act of creating and transforming mud into art.

I went looking for God in the heartbreak of Good Friday
and the grieving silence of Holy Saturday.

Ever since Lent began 46 days ago, I have been looking for God,
looking for resurrection.

The first time I experienced Easter
was during the Children’s Moment 6 weeks ago.
I said to the young ones that I went looking for God this morning.

And the clues to use in looking for God
were to find something that filled me awe, wonder, gratitude.

And I showed them a branch of a tree.
No leaves yet, no blossoms,
just the tiniest evidence of a bud,
that was weeks away from blossoming.

I said to the young ones, this is where I found God this morning.

So I asked them, “How do you think I could see God in this branch with no leaves or blossoms?”

What in this branch would make me feel awe, wonder and gratitude?

First response: Awesome in the buds knowing that they are about to become flowers.
Second response: I wonder where you found the branch?
Third response: Thankful that the tree is there in the first place.

Well, that was when I saw God again that morning.
Because that third response,
grateful that there is anything here at all,
is something that Albert Einstein said.
There I was sitting on the floor of the church on a Sunday morning surrounded by budding geniuses.

So I told them that.
I told them that I was in awe of their responses.
I told them that I wondered what they were going to blossom into.
I told them that I was grateful to be with them.

Thinking back on it, I wish I had said, you must have awesome parents.
And I felt myself get a little choked up then, thinking back on that children’s moment.

I felt myself wanting to walk out the church with them while everyone is singing.
Go now in peace, go now in peace, may the joy of love surround you, everywhere you go.

Thinking back on this moment as I was preparing
for this sermon made me realize something that I had always feared as a parent had actually happened.
My children were gone.
Not dead.
Just grown up.
They no longer run and jump on our bed in the morning to wake up Betsy and me.
They no longer run to greet us at the door when we come home.
They grew up.
And I miss their being children.

And then I wondered,
What remains constant as they grow up,
through childhood through youthhood, to adulthood?

What remains is the way that we raised them.
The love that we gave to them
The confidence, the dreams, the support,
As best as we were able to give.
As best as we are able to forgive and receive forgiveness.

And that brings me to this morning, Easter morning.
What remains after Good Friday?
What remains after Jesus is gone?

The love is what remains.

Just as the love for the child remains in the adult
So the love of Jesus, remains.

The love that Jesus shared in his teachings and healings remains.
The love remains with the disciples, the children of God.

The love remains so that we become co-creators with our children,
with our church friends, with our community,
In raising another generation of young ones who will look for God.

We can look for God…
In awe, wonder, gratitude,
In Silence, letting go, grieving
In Creativity, imagination and celebration
In Transformation, building communities of compassion.

And all the while I have been looking for God
I have to remember the one of the messages of Easter
is that we don’t recognize resurrection when it is happening.

We think we are looking at the Gardener and it is actually the messiah.

We think we that we are looking at the end of our hopes and fears of all our years and we are actually looking at the beginning of a new stage of our life journey.

We think we are looking at rejection and it turns out to be an invitation to a party we didn’t plan.

We think we are looking at failure and it is actually God’s way of getting our attention.

Wake up! Get up! Get going!

God loves us and there is nothing we can do about it.
Love, once given and received, is eternal.
Love remains. God loves us and there is nothing we can do about it.
Except for share it with others and
Keep looking for God in the morning, in the afternoon, and the evening.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Stand in Hope

Jeremiah 33:14-16 Luke 21:25-36
November 29, 2009

Do you remember those signboard cartoons, often found in the NY Times? …a man is walking down a busy street, with a signboard announcing that the end of the world is coming soon. The end is near.I remember seeing one that is a better fit for today’s scripture readings which said,

“The world is not going to come to end, you are just going to have to cope.”

Apocalyptic writings, whether found on signboards, in movies such as 2012, or in scriptures such as found in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, always have a strange mixture in them. Is this end of time scenario a good thing or a bad thing?

What exactly is coming to an end? What is about to begin? Who is in power and gets to decide?

Where is the sign of hope in writing a doomsday scenario that imagines everything that we know being destroyed?

And what in heaven’s name is it doing here, on the first Sunday of Advent? The first Sunday of the New Year? The first Sunday when begin anticipating the coming of the Christ child into the world?

That’s what we are going to explore this morning.

The Latin root of Advent is a word that means, “coming.” Advent thus means “toward the coming.” Advent is preparation for the coming of Jesus to the world—then in the past; now in the present; and … later, in the future.” (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan The Last Christmas 231)

Advent is remembering the past, so we can reframe the present, so that we can re-imagine the future.

“Advent is a reliving in the present of ancient Israel’s hope and yearning that is expressed in that favorite advent hymn that the choir sang this morning.
O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.” (The Last Christmas)

We look at so many lives today and see humanity in a time of exile, captive, mourning, lonely, longing. And in looking at the Scriptures in the Old Testament, we remember the great new insights into the nature of the divine-human connection that were born out of that suffering and we wonder what is being born now that gives us hope?

And so the first reading for the season of advent is a open-eyed and honest looking at how things are in the our world, in the world today.
Violence in our cities, escalation of war, and the realities of global warming are familiar to s all.

In the Gospel reading from Luke for this morning we have a passage is easily categorized as apocalyptic. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book, The First Christmas, refer to this as the Great Divine Clean-up. It is not that the world is coming to an end, it is that corrupt, greedy, and violent practices are unraveling and coming to an end. We hope.

As we read the Bible we see that this yearning for God to come into our lives and help us begin again has always been a part of the human consciousness. It goes back a thousand years before the birth of Jesus and continues in the hearts of many today.

“The Old Testament cycle begins with creation and ends with the renovation of the world into a commonwealth of shalom, a place of justice and peace. This is a very large promise for which the promised land of Canaan is mere foreshadowing, a sort of down payment. This enlarged promise is not just to Jews, but to everyone. Also, according to some of the most lyrical passages in the Hebrew scriptures, it includes the whole creation, the plants and animals, the seas and stars. This means that one way to see the mystery of [evolution] is to view it as an unfinished narrative, a work in progress. It can be seen as a process in which the new, the surprising, and the unexpected constantly emerge. It means we live in a world whose potential is yet to be fulfilled.” (Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith)

Mahatma Gandhi, the peaceful revolutionary, who led India to freedom from the British Empire was once asked, what he thought of Western Civilization. He replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”

It has been a good idea, which we understand, as a promise. A promise given to us by God.
We can visualize a world where peace and justice live together, where nations will beat their swords into plowshares.
We can imagine such a world
and then
we read the daily newspaper.
Or we get on-line and read the NY Times.

And we see a world that seems to be coming apart, again.

We see a world where the idea of affordable health care coverage seems like a strange idea, but the continual expensive reliance on military weapons to bring about peace makes sense.

We see a world where the greedy are rewarded with legislation in Congress that just fills their bank accounts while the unemployment rises and people are losing their homes.

We see a world where we have to wonder and pray will the nations gathering in Copenhagen agree on the sacrifices and commitments required to restore the health of the planet?

On this first Sunday in the beautiful season of Advent, the end of the world scenarios, set the context for a world in need a Savior.
It is almost like the first step of a twelve step program in Alcoholics Anonymous. We are called to admit that we are powerless over the mess that we are in. And in that honesty the potential for a new force of energy and healing is released, anticipated, prayed for, received.

If things were all going fine in the world, in our lives, why would be waiting for the Messiah?

And what does Jesus say to us today as we face this world that is so out of balance?
Jesus says, “When you see these things, do not cower in fear, for your transformation is drawing near.”

Your transformation is drawing near.
It is good to remember that the Gospel of Luke was written 10 to 15 years after the Romans had destroyed the Temple and 50 years after Jesus walked this earth. For the early Christians this destruction of the most sacred site must have seemed cataclysmic.
Luke is writing his Gospel for a people who knew suffering and were looking for something to give them hope.
Advent teaches us that in the darkest places of human oppression, the pain of hunger, and political distress that God’s reign is among us. “Do not be caught off-guard by the fear-filled tides of history,” Jesus warned.
“But be mindful, praying for strength, that you may escape the fears that roil the earth, and may stand with God” (Luke 21:36).

Earlier this month the UCC Clergy of northern California gathered at San Damiano Retreat Center in Danville. It is a beautiful retreat Franciscan Retreat Center. It is a peaceful place, with a labyrinth set in the middle of an abundant garden.

This year’s guest speaker was Diana Butler-Bass, who has written several books which give hope to mainline churches that are committed to progressive Christian values. One of her books, Christianity for the Rest of Us tells the story of moderate and progressive mainline Protestant congregations - and how they found new vitality through spiritual practices and deeper meaning by pursuing God's hope for transformation in the world.

Diana Butler-Bass is a sociologist, historian, and inspiring theologian. She sees signs of hope for churches such as ours all around the country who commit themselves to deepening the spiritual practices of compassion, hospitality, and social justice as the primary function of the church.

I mention her at this moment because she finds in this morning’s scripture passage an invitation to a spiritual practice that may deepen our experience of Advent.

She focuses on the passage, “But be mindful, praying for strength, that you may escape the fears that roil the earth, and may stand with God” (Luke 21:36).

“1. Be mindful (paying attention to what is really going on around one self's, a congregation, and society; being discerning; listening);
2. Pray for the real situation, for wisdom, for courage, for risk, the Spirit's involvement in one's actions; and
3. Standing firm by having confidence in God, your own discernment, convictions, and passions. Not to be shaken by resistance and push-back.” (Diana Butler-Bass, www.beatitudessociety.org)

This is an answer to the question posed earlier in this sermon, “Why does Advent begin with such a seemingly dark scenario?”

The signboard I referred to earlier said the world is not going to come an end, you are just going to have to cope.
The message of Advent is that we can do more than cope, we can hope.

Diana Butler-Bass has given us more than an answer, she has also given us a spiritual practice for Advent, so that we may prepare deeply for the coming of Christ into our lives.

Be mindful, pay attention to what is really going on, just notice it;
Pray, for what you see, and for what God sees;
Stand in hope, stand in trust of God’s presence in life.

Jim Wallis, has a wonderful quote that speaks to this. “Hope, in spite of the evidence, and watch the evidence change.”

Hope is a powerful force that is not based upon our best wishes or intentions, it based upon a mindful, prayerful, confident standing with God.

1600 years earlier Saint Augustine said something else that is related to the meaning of Advent, when he said, “God without us, will not; we without God, cannot.

Advent and Christmas is not about being rescued, it is about transformation based upon the teachings of compassion, extravagant hospitality and social justice.

Advent is a time of being mindful that some paths we have been on, as individuals and as societies are not working.
Advent is a time of praying that the human and the divine will work in harmony with one another.
Advent is a time of standing in hope, seeing clearly and not despairing.
Advent is a time of being a people who choose to stand and sing, even in times such as these,
Hope, peace, love, and joy to the world,
the Lord is come.
Let earth receive her King.
Let every heart prepare him room.
And heaven and nature sing.
And heaven and nature sing.
And heaven, and humanity, and nature sing.”
Stand with a signboard that says, The world is not going to come to an end, because Christ is coming into the world I choose to:
have hope,
make peace,
share love,
and be joy.

Let the people say, Amen

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Come In, Come In Whoever You Are

I Corinthians 12: 4-26
Rev. Alan Claassen November 15, 2009

Please pray with me:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (I Cor. 13: 1-3) O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, come from the grace of your love. Amen.

What a blessing it is for this church to have a storyteller, C.R., as a member of our church.
And what a blessing that C. was the liturgist for this Sunday, so that she could bring all of her storytelling skills to the reading of this morning’s scripture.

I hope to further enrich our experience of this scripture passage where the Apostle Paul compares the church to a body, where the diversity of the parts of the body enriches the work of the entire body.

Last Thursday our Bible study class completed the study called Listening to Scripture. In that class we learned six strategies for exploring the meaning of the books of the Bible for the original author and audience.
Then with that understanding, to explore the variety of meanings that the Bible has for us today.
We discovered that knowing the historical setting of the text, the literary context, and original meaning of words and phrases might provide us with a completely different meaning of a particular passage than the one we might have, just reading the verses on face value.

Last Thursday we applied this approach to a passage from the 1st Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, the same letter that Cynthia read from this morning.

What was going on in this early Christian church in Corinth that gave rise to this letter?
In this early Christian community there was a diverse mixture of peoples, theologies, cultures, levels of wealth, poverty, and social standing.
And they were being challenged by Paul to find a new unity in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
It was difficult. There was conflict. There was grace.

The Romans in 146 BCE had destroyed the city of Corinth. It was rebuilt in 44BCE as a colony to which Roman authorities sent their surplus population such as recently freed slaves, displaced peasants, and army veterans.
Corinth was a seaport, and it quickly developed into a busy hub of east-west trade in Roman Empire. Corinth was also the site of a religious community that worshipped Aphrodite.

There was a synagogue in Corinth, which Paul visited in 50 or 51CE. He met the leaders of the synagogue, including Priscilla and her husband, Aquila.

Paul stayed in Corinth for 18 months, organizing and teaching in the small house churches of Corinth. Periodically these house churches would gather as a whole assembly to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, which in the early Christian church was more like our potluck dinners than our service of Holy Communion.
The people of Corinth were greatly influenced by Hellenistic culture, which placed great emphasis on status. The fact that Priscilla’s name is most often cited before her husband’s may to point to the fact that she came from a wealthier family than Aquila, and therefore had a higher standing, even though she was a woman.
Possibly under the influence of Gnostic religions, “the Corinthian Christians attached great importance to the acquisition and display of special religious knowledge, and so tended to equate spirituality with possession of the more spectacular kinds of gifts, such as speaking in tongues, prophesying, understanding all mysteries and knowledge.”

Paul did not commend these practices.
Paul taught that as Christians, our source of wisdom is in the cross, which most people will think of as foolishness.
Speaking in tongues, knowledge of secret mysteries, and power to move mountains, all amount to nothing.
What is most important that type of love which is received as a gift from God.

This gift from God, symbolized in the cross, reminds us to lay aside all claims of status and superiority over others.
The distinctions of male and female, rich or poor, Gentile or Jew, are secondary to the true life and freedom that comes from receiving God’s love and celebrating our common humanity.

In the passage that the class studied last week, we learned that wealthy members of the community were abusing the Lord’s Supper in those large gatherings of the small house churches that I spoke of earlier.
The wealthy of the community provided much of the food that was shared at a common meal, and since they paid the bills, and often arrived at the large assembly site before the working class and hungry folk could, the wealthy thought that they could go ahead and eat, drink, and be merry before the others arrived.

For the poor folk this Lord’s Supper was literally their daily bread.
Paul had harsh words for the community members who claimed a privileged status, not just because of their selfishness, but because in denying their brother and sister a place at the table they were denying Jesus.
They had lost the purpose of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, which was to remember the self-giving love of Jesus, on behalf of humanity, on behalf of all people.
They were still caught up in lording over their neighbor instead of loving them.

That same theme is found in this morning’s scripture reading, which is found in Chapter 12.
There is no hierarchy in the Christian community. The richness of our unity as the Body of Christ is in our diversity. The foot and the elbow need one another. The heart and the head need one another. The ear and mouth need one another.

The Apostle Paul had a very difficult job in Corinth. He had to speak the truth in love to a culture that was based upon status and tell them that true knowledge, salvation and freedom, come from self-giving love.

Paul wanted to convince these early Greek, Roman, Jewish, rich and poor followers of the way of Jesus, that understanding the holy mystery of God comes from opening ones heart to the love of God and affirming that others, different than you, are also well loved.

Paul had to tell the Christians of Corinth that they had to let go of the knowledge that was handed down to them, and understand something that was radically new.
Paul had to write more than one letter to the Corinthians.

Paul, in his love for the people of Corinth knew that change is never easy, and yet, he was confident, that he could show them a still, better way. This better way is described in Chapter 13, which I will read as the Pastoral Prayer this morning.

In our final class last week, we students of the Bible were given the task of moving from asking what a text meant to the original author and audience, to asking what the passage might mean for us today. It is not there is one meaning of any text. But when we understand the original meaning of the passage, it helps us to form clearer questions for our own time and situation.
Let me share with you one application that I see in this morning’s scripture reading. Remembering that we all see through a glass dimly I do not say that this is the only way to understand the passage. But I do see a way of approaching the Open and Affirming process through the wisdom that is offered in this passage.

But first a story.

One of my favorite games as a child was hide and seek. I loved playing it as a child, as a high schooler, and I love it still. Though I can’t fit or get into the some of the hiding places I used to.

As a child I remember that magical moment at the end of a hide and seek game, when the person who is “it” has given up on finding everyone and calls out in a loud voice, “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
Or, “Ollie, Ollie Ox and free.”
And then like lost children, like successful pirates, like masterminds of small spaces, the lost who hadn’t been found came out with beaming smiles on their faces.

I wonder what would have happened to those friends of ours, hiding in that seemingly perfect hiding place, if someone hadn’t cried out to the neighborhood, to the park, to the forest, to the community, “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
Everyone may have gone to his or her comfortable homes, while those in hiding would stay stuck, wondering, is it safe to come out now?
Have they forgotten me? Is this a trap to capture me?
Have they all gone and left me here alone? When is it safe? Where is it safe to come out of hiding?
The person doesn’t know unless they hear, while still in their hiding place, “Come out, come out wherever you are.”

I believe that there are individuals and there are families waiting to hear that cry, so that they can know, before they enter the doors of this sanctuary, that they are welcome here.

We as a community are being asked to consider what it would mean to be a church that proclaims to the community something that would seem like foolishness to many. What would it mean for us to call out that we are open and affirming of all people, no matter their sexual orientation or their gender, their age, their religious perspective, their race, their economic statues, or their physical or mental abilities?

That is what the Open and Affirming process is all about. Knowing what we as a community truly believe so that we as a community can act together of one accord, one heart and mind, as we welcome new members into the life of this diverse community.

I believe that there can be for us a great benefit in an open, honest, and compassionate process of sharing information, feelings, experiences that comes from engaging the open and affirming process, regardless of the outcome.
In fact, the way that we engage one another in this process may be the most significant outcome.

I believe that there can be for us a great benefit, as a congregation, to trust one another, and to trust the Holy Spirit, as we walk this journey together.

I believe that there can be for us a great benefit, as a congregation to let go of status, and to re-examine long held beliefs that we were taught by our culture but go against the grain of the Gospel.

I believe that there can be for us a great benefit, as we listen, compassionately, to one another’s observations, feelings, needs and requests.

I believe that there can be for us a great benefit, as a congregation, to see that the love that Christ shared expanded the circle of who is included in the kin-dom of heaven, and by the grace of God, it includes us.

What we will learn together in this process, regardless of the final outcome, that no one can know at this time, can be for us a time to deepen our experience of what it means to be the Body of Christ together.
As we respect the differences of each part of the body, may we remember that the head of the body is Jesus.
May we remember to look to Jesus, who gave his life for whole body of humanity, as we learn together what the Bible says, what science says, what each part of the body is saying.
May our words, our thoughts, and our actions come from the grace of Christ’s self-giving love for all of humanity.
Let the people who stand by these words say... Amen
Resource for background material on Corinth was taken from Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Paul Achtemeier, General Editor, Harper One, 1996

Monday, October 26, 2009

We Are Who We Adore

Job 42:1-6, 10-17 Mark 10:46-52

Please pray with me:
From the cowardice that does not face the truth
From the laziness that accepts half-truths
And from the arrogance that thinks it knows the whole truth
Lord, deliver me. Amen

In Portland there is a famous bookstore that fills an entire city block. Powell’s Books. Old and new books on four floors covering every category you can imagine.
Once while checking out of Powell’s Books with another armful of books, which I hope to read some day, I saw a collection of magnets with witty sayings on them. One in particular got my attention. It simply said, “Don’t make me come down there.” God.
Today we will be completing our study of a man who got God to come down here, Job.
For any here not familiar with the Book of Job, it is a fictional narrative about a man who was inflicted with sores all over is body, who loses his wife, family, and home. He has three friends who counsel that he must have done something wrong to offend God and he should confess his sins. But Job, was a good man, so he refused to confess for something he did not do. He argues with his friends’ conventional wisdom. and through expressing his grief and his anger Job comes to have a first hand experience of God.

In my sermon two weeks ago I spoke about Job’s lament as an act of faith in God. I said that,in spite of experiencing the “heaviness” of God’s hand, in spite of wishing to vanish into darkness, Job clings to God as the One who can be reasoned with; as one who can hear whatever we have to say, whether in anger of fear or grief, as the one who can offer an answer.

When Job is finally finished with chapters and chapters of lament, and argument and self-defense and angry questions, God speaks out of the whirlwind, with a dizzying rush of questions. But the intent of God’s question are to provide Job with an insight that will go beyond the limits of Job’s previous understanding of God and life and suffering.
Two weeks ago I said that I would share with the response that God gave to Job. And true my word, here it is, in verses selected from Chapters 39-41 of Job.
Job got God to come down and this is what God, a voice in the whirlwind said,
Job, I have heard your questions. I have some of my own for you.

4‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

8‘Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?—
11 and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?

19‘Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness,

24What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?

25‘Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
26to bring rain on a land where no one lives,
on the desert, which is empty of human life,

28‘Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew?

31‘Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?

36Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,*
or given understanding to the mind?*
37Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?

Mighty heady questions, aren’t they. Can you imagine having these on a final exam?

Then God goes on to name the animals and how they are cared for. The raven, mountain goat, wild mule and ox, ostrich, horse, hawk, eagle, crocodile and hippo are each identified.

God goes on to name the great mythical sea creature Leviathan, symbol of chaos, being overtaken by order, form, and beauty. In the time and place that the book of Job was written, the majority of people believed that Leviathan was a god. But God who is speaking to Job encompasses all of life’s energies; including chaos.

When speaking of the land creature Behemoth, God says, “Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you.”

Through all of these verses lifting up the wonders and realities of creation
God is saying, “Job, I heard your question.”
As I made Behemoth, and I made you.
As I made the oceans that sometimes flood the shorelines, I made you.
As I made the great Sierra Nevada Mountain range with volcanoes and earthquakes and massive amounts of land forces meeting in one place, turning over and over, pushing higher and higher, and created Yosemite Valley, I created you.
As I made the basic elements of the universe from the intense heat of a dying supernovae, I made you.
Do you see all the beauty that is all around you? And the death and the sorrow?
Job I made the eyes that you see all of those things with.
Job I made your heart which breaks when you lose someone you love.

Job the way that life is, is exactly what it takes, to make life what it is.

"Death is the mother of beauty."(Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning)

Would you avoid death, Job?
Would you really want to create a world without it?

And then gets a little cheeky and says something like,

Next time a universe is going to be created I will remember to give you a call and let you be in charge.
In the meantime, live with this one.

Live with life, Job. As it is in this moment, live with it.
This is holy ground Job.
This is a sanctuary Job, true to life. Be true to life, Job.

You need help? There is help.
You have questions? Ask them in the right places and the right time and answers will come.
Live life, with all that you have got. With humility, compassion, gratitude and in community.

How does Job respond after hearing these words from God, describing the creation of universe?

Job says,
"I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you; I despise myself and I repent in dust in ashes." (Job 42:5-6)

Through the questioning, debating, arguing, with God, and then the listening to God, Job sees God clearly, he wants to turn around, his old self is in ashes.

He doesn’t give up, he gives in, to God.
Surrendering into God Job is ready to live life with eyes wide open.
Job no longer desires to make the world in his image.
Job is ready to go a new direction,
and give his complete attention to God’s image revealed in creation.

And how does God respond to Job now?
As God does time and time again in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament. God responds with mercy.

As in the story from the Gospel of Mark that we heard read this morning, The blind beggar calls out from the crowd, “Son of David have mercy on me.”
Jesus calls Bartimaeus.
The crowd around Bartimaeus says, “Take heart, he is calling you.”
“Take heart, he is calling you.”
God did not cause Bartimaeus’ blindness, any more that God caused the Loma Prieta earthquake. But in the way the earth is made, earthquakes happen. Blindness happens. And mercy happens.

“Jesus is “another wave of mercy, the kind of mercy that God has been doing all through the Hebrew Bible….waves and waves of mercy, because God’s mercy is given continually in the world and has made all things new.”
Here, at the end of a long journey full of healing and teaching, at the edge of what is to come – suffering, death, and resurrection – we remember that Jesus “gave his life as a continuing act of mercy.
“Mercy, is that strange transformative reach
from a center of strength
to a center of need that changes everything and makes all things new.”
(Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann).

And …”Grace is the mysterious strength
that God lends human beings
who commit themselves to the work of transformation.”
(Anthony B. Robinson Changing the Conversation)

Job learns that…
“God is not a hypothesis or a good idea, but a power in the universe who turns what was, into what will be.” (Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann).

Bartimaeus believes that mercy is passing by and calls out. The crowd says, “Take heart, he is calling you. Mercy is calling you.”
Bartimaeus is brought before Jesus who asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Bartimaeus is responsible for asking for what he needs.
Jesus does not presume to know.
Jesus does not fix what he believes needs fixing, Jesus asks Bartimaeus to name it.

Bartimaeus replies to Jesus, “Teacher, let me see again.”
And his sight is restored.
Just as Job, who had been operating only on a hearsay understanding of God, now sees God.
God, let me see again.
Lord, have mercy on me.

Job and Bartimaeus were surrounded by friends who told them to be quiet.
But Job and Bartimaeus knew their need, they called out, and they received mercy.

“Those who received mercy are formed into a new community.
That would be us, in the church, a community of people who have received mercy and now have the opportunity, the responsibility, the call, to extend mercy to all of God’s children in need.” (Breuggeman)

Job got God to come down.
And God got Job to look around
to see that our love of God and compassion for our neighbor eases the suffering the world and restores the balance that we need to move with grace and mercy.

Bartimaeus got Jesus to stop.
And Jesus got Bartimaeus
to trust that his giving into Jesus would enable him to see the road that leads to healing.

I invite us, one and all, to take whatever burden we are carrying, for ourselves, for our community, or for our world, and take a good look around at the world, as it is. And ask God all the questions that you want to, wait for an answer, receive the new insight in humility, and then trust that mercy and grace will surely follow you all of your days.

And then do whatever you can to continue to build and grow this transforming community of faith where God’s love echoes through us to all creation.
Let the people say,

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Strength That Empowers Us

Psalm 19 Mark 5: 24-34
March 15, 2009
Rev Alan Claassen

Did you know that going to church is good for your health? Faculty at Duke University did a study and they found that:
1) People who attend church regularly are hospitalized less often than people who never or rarely participate in church services
2) People who pray and read the Bible have lower blood pressure
3) People who attend religious services have stronger immune systems than their less religious counterparts.
So it’s healthy to come to church. Research proves it.
And there’s no Waiting Room.
So if you are looking to improve your health this morning, you’ve come to the right place.
The Gospel reading this morning tells of a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. “A long succession of physicians had treated her, and treated her badly, taking all her money and leaving her worse off than before…” (The Message, Eugene Peterson)
“She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in crowd and touched his cloak.”
Unlike Bartimaeus in our scripture reading from two weeks ago,
the blind beggar who called out from the crowd,
“Jesus, Son of David have mercy,”
this woman, whose name we do not know,
“moved toward Jesus silently, secretively, and in shame.
She had reason for her silence. As a bleeding person, she was considered by the orthodox to be unclean, contaminated, and untouchable.
For twelve years she had not been embraced or touched, even by her family.
As she walked down the street, people carefully moved aside, …” (Miracle, pg39 Wuellner)
Flora Wuellner, in her book, Miracle, sees in this woman a pain deeper than the chronic illness and loss of resources, namely, loneliness and a sense of shame. “It is hard not to internalize what others think of us. [The woman] probably thought of herself as unworthy and unclean.
How could she possibly believe that Jesus would deliberately touch her or encourage her to touch him?
If others saw her touching Jesus, they would consider him contaminated also, unfit to do God’s work until he had been purified. Jesus was on his way to the dying daughter of Jairus, an important man in the community.
If by her touch [the woman] prevented this, she would be blamed. She might be cast out of the community altogether.
Hers was a silent cry for a secret healing—a quick, shamed, touch on the outer garment. She hoped no one would notice, especially not Jesus.” (Miracle, pg 40, Wuellner)

This connection between the woman’s faith inspired by belief in Jesus fascinates me. When the woman reaches out to touch Jesus, he feels the spirit go out our him, he calls out who touched me, he sees the woman, hears her story, and says,
“Your faith has made you well.”
There are two active participants in this story, Jesus, a man who completely embodied the life-giving love of God and a woman who completely embodied desire for healing and faith that just the cloak of Jesus could heal her.

And even though I can only humbly approach this story at that level of mystery and grace, not really being able to understand it, I want to remember it.
I want us to remember for those in moments in our lives of not knowing where to turn.
When our own power is gone, when we feel like all eyes upon us a critical,
when we feel like everything in our lives is telling us to withdraw within ourselves
we have available to us the invitation to reach out to another source of power, the healing presence of God.
In that moment our prayer may simply be:
God, please send me guidance,
the open heart to receive it
and the courage to act upon it.

We may only be given the courage to move silently in the direction of silence. There are many good things that begin in silence. But don’t be surprised when healing comes and the light shines on the darkness. And don’t surprised in how good that will feel.

When the woman is brought out of her closet of shame by Jesus asking, “Who touched my cloak, the woman identifies herself. She became visible to the entire community.
The invisible takes center stage.
What will happen?
Her hemorrhaging has already been healed.
Then Jesus to woman, “Your faith has made you well.”
In that pronouncement she is restored with her community. She is different than she was. She is healed. She is no longer the untouchable that she was before. She is no longer to be seen.
She no longer assumes that she will be greeted with judgmental stares or rejection.
She receives more than just the healing of her illness; she is also reunited with her community.
Jesus restores her health and announces to the community that she is well.
This connection between healing and community is the one that I find compelling.
Because for a moment I take seriously the statement that we make about ourselves that we, the church, are the body of Christ.
I ask myself how we can live our lives as a faith community that would encourage someone to reach out to us in hopes of healing, friendship, and affirmation.

The woman who had been suffering physically and emotionally for twelve years needed more than bodily healing.
“She needed also to hear Jesus tell her openly,
in front of everyone,
that she was a worthy, faithful person.

[Jesus] called her daughter. Only in this particular story does Jesus refer to a woman as daughter. How deeply she must have needed that word of intimacy and respect. With his tenderness and peace, Jesus gave her not only bodily healing but also a deeper healing of her heart and spirit.

The community members need to see and to hear that God’s love excluded no one. They needed to learn that compassionate mercy matters for more than rules. They needed to hear that it is not God’s will that for anyone to remain sick, drained, lonely, uncomforted.

As Jesus challenged the ancient cruel laws he was revealing to them, to us, what God’s kin-dom really is.” (Miracle, pg 45, Wuellner)

This year, for this church’s observance of Lent, many of us wrote on pieces of cloth, the places in our own lives that are in need of healing, body, mind, and spirit. Those pieces of cloth, which we touched, our draped around the cross.
We touch the outer garment of Jesus’ cloak, and we wrap our places of need, brokenness, and separation, around the cross trusting that this is a place of healing, of strength beyond our own and yet within our reach.
What shall we reach out for?
The Holy Healing Spirit that was in Jesus and through Jesus for that woman who touched his cloak, is still within reach.
Somehow, in ways that no one can explain, we are able to touch the garment of the risen Christ, just as that woman touched the robe Jesus was wearing.
To make this seeming impossibility more real for us, Jesus gave us each other in this community of faith.
We bring ourselves, as we are, and as we want to become to this sacred place. We ask to be guided on the level path.
We asked to overcome fear and judgment and give ourselves to love. We are given an opportunity to be with Christ Jesus who knows our goodness and wants us to step forward, in love, for whatever life brings us next.

I said at the beginning of the sermon that church is good for your health.
Well rather than telling you take two aspirin and stay in bed,
I am going to give you one prayer and a way to remember it.
Say these words while doing the corresponding action:
God, please send me guidance, (Make eyeglasses over eyes)
the open heart to receive it (Place hands over heart, then open)
and the courage to act upon it. (Quickly extend hands directly forward)

Let the people, who love mercy and seek justice say,


The Message, The New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs, Eugene Peterson, Navpress, Colorado Springs

Miracle, When Christ Touches Our Deepest Need, Flora Slosson Wuellner, Upper Room Books, Nashville

We Are Who We Entrust

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 Mark 10:17-31
Rev. Alan Claassen October 11, 2009

We are in our second week of our Annual Stewardship Campaign. This year’s campaign is a little unusual as it based on a song and a dance, the Hokey Pokey. The focus line of the song that is the key to the campaign is, Put Your Whole Selves In.
You begin the dance by warming up slowly: right hand, shake it all about, left hand, shake it all about, right and left leg, front side, back side, warming up slowly until you are ready to put our whole self in, shake it all about, and then turn it all around.
What if the Hokey Pokey is what it is all about? What if the journey of our lives is to see, that each moment of our lives, tears and joys, successes and failures, is always turning us around until we see what it is really all about?
Like whirling dervishes we are spun around and around by the circumstances and choices of our lives.

What keeps us from getting dizzy and falling down?

On each Sunday of this five week Stewardship campaign we are focusing on one way in which we live and grow together as a community of faith. We began last week with the word connecting.
Today’s focus is on Learning.

And I want to suggest to you that what keeps from getting dizzy and falling down with all the twists and turns of life is Wisdom.
And I want to suggest to you this morning that the Book of Job is an excellent source of Wisdom, even though today’s passage, taken out of context, might make you doubt that claim.

In our adult Bible study, Listening to Scriptures, we are learning that knowing the context of the author of a book helps us understand the text so much better. We are learning to ask such questions as,
“When was this book written?”
“What, if anything, do we know about the author or authors of the book of the Bible that we are reading?”
“What do we know about the community that the author was writing to?”
“What literary form is being used? Is this passage history, myth, poetry, parable, part of a worship service or ceremony?”

Bob gave us some context for the reading from Job this morning. I want to add a little more to what Bob said, because I love the Book of Job.

So some context. When was the Book of Job written?
During the time of Jewish exile. In the 6th century before Christ the great ancient civilization of Babylon was rising and it swallowed up Israel. As a means for controlling this province the victorious army took all the significant leaders of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem to Babylon.
And the exiled leaders were treated well. They were allowed to live together, and worship together.
But these 50 years of exile was a very challenging time. They had equated their connection with God in relation to the promised land.
Now that they were in exile, where did that leave them in relation to God? Had God abandoned them? Could they maintain the covenant while living in a strange land? Were the gods of the Babylonians more powerful than their God? Many questions came up for the Jewish people at this time. That is the historical context for the Book of Job.

What is the literary form of the Book Job? Two answers to this question.
“There is a body of literature in the Hebrew Bible that stands apart. It is often referred to as “wisdom literature,” and has little to do with Israel’s distinctive sacred history or the prophets’ call for return to the covenant. Books like Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and the Psalms fit here. And because it raises philosophical questions of God’s justice, … so does the Book of Job.” (pg 95, Understanding the Bible, John A. Buehrens)
Wisdom literature both advises us on what it takes to live the good life, as well as questioning the assumptions of our best made plans and formulas.
The Book of Job calls into question the assumption that if you do the right thing you will be rewarded, and the corollary, if your life is going miserably, then you must have done something wrong to deserve punishment.
The Book of Job, was asking the question that the Judean exiles must have wondered, “What did I do, what did my innocent children do, to deserve this?” Centuries later this question is still being asked and Rabbi Harold Kushner is famous for addressing this question in his popular book,
“Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?”

Which brings me to the second answer to the question, “What is the literary form of the Book of Job?” The particular passage that was read today is a lament.

“Lament is one of the most important, and often most neglected, forms of prayer in Hebrew Scriptures. Nearly one third of the Psalms are laments. The responses of Job to his three self-righteous friends are laments.

“Laments are protests and complaints raised in times of need or crisis, whether of individuals or community. One reason for their neglect comes in the manner the laments address God. These are not polite, soothing words, rendered in timid submission to God. The emotions are on the surface and God is sometimes depicted, as in Job 23, with images that are not easy to hear.
“God’s hand is heavy… the Almighty has terrified me.”
“Psalm 22 begins with some of the most devastating words of any lament, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Laments cut across the grain of culture and religion, that doesn’t want to hear distressing things. Those who raise laments are counseled, as Job was by his friends, to stop saying such words.

“The fault must be yours Job. Be quiet.”
Taken out of its historical and literary context, this lament of Job may appear to be a denial of faith or avoidance of relationship with God.

But quietness in this case is not faith. Lament is faith.
Because it keeps the dialogue with God alive.
Lament does not throw hands up in the air and walk away unheard.
Lament hangs on to God, pleading and protesting in hope of a response to the need or crisis that overwhelms.
In spite of experiencing the “heaviness” of God’s hand, in spite of wishing to vanish into darkness, Job clings to God as the One who can be reasoned with; as the one who can offer an answer.

And though he could not have known it at the time of his lamentations, God is going to provide Job with an answer that will bring an abiding connection with eternal life, no matter what the outward appearances, wealth or poverty are.

And that leads to the one of the most characteristic and surprising elements of lament in Hebrew Scriptures. Once the protests have been sounded, once the rawness of the complaint has been laid open, lament typically ends in trust and in hope of God’s action.
And there also comes a deeper sense of wisdom, of understanding the limits of one’s previous understanding of the situation at hand. A new insight is awakened in our heart of hearts.
What comes of Job’s lament? We will discuss that in two weeks. Of course, if you can’t wait that long for the answer, you can always read the Book of Job.

Or hear this words from a man of great faith who endured great suffering, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Let us remember that there is a great benign power in the universe whose name is God, and God is able to make a way out of now way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming a better people. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.”

Though not as noble or historic I hear a similar faithfulness in the words of Jack Williams, a songwriter from South Carolina, who wrote a song of lament in remembrance of the disappeared cotton fields that he remembered as a young boy.
Cotton, high cotton. The more I see the less I know.
The well runs deeper than the bucket goes.
Swing high, swing low. High cotton.

The well runs deeper than the bucket goes.
The well runs deeper than our lamentations, our limitations, our mistakes, our anger. Even though we may be at the end of our rope that doesn’t mean that the well is empty. We may just need a longer rope, a deeper understanding. Wisdom.
The way to learn what you need to get your bucket deeper into the well is to put your whole self into your community that centers itself in God’s unconditional love.

As with the lawyer who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies, keep the commandments and care for the poor with everything that you’ve got.

Today’s word is learning. What part of your life is asking a question that this community of faith might be able to answer? What wisdom do we seem to have a grasp on here that we believe would benefit our community?
Our beliefs are initially informed by what we are taught and we thank God for our teachers. But we are transformed by our experiences. Wisdom comes from being shaken up, turned around, and then hearing, from the whirlwind, God calling our name, saying,
“You are my beloved. I have been by your side all the time. Let me show you something you seem to have missed that is front of your eyes.”
And in sharing with one another, our deepest questions in ways that are honest, open, and safe, we will uncover the wisdom that we have been entrusted with, by the grace of God.
And that my friends, is what it’s all about.

Let the people say, Amen.