Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Thirsty Camels" - Pentecost, 2013

Pentecost, 2013

The other day I was at a restaurant and there were two young people at the table next to me; they were holding hands and leaning across the table toward one another, so that their foreheads almost met; their eyes were locked on one another as if no one else on the planet existed; they would nod in agreement at every observation the other made; and their faces were beaming.  They were drinking in one another’s words like thirsty camels at the end of a march across the desert -- they had what I can only describe as an eagerness of understanding; this kind of Pentecost joy on their faces, as they were connecting with each other.  

You could sense that their love was fresh and there seemed to me to be a measure of relief about them, as if they had waited a long time for one another; finally that loneliness - that long aching loneliness - was over.  

You could almost read it in their faces: here is someone who understands me; finally, someone who is actually interested in me – just as much as I am interested in her.  

It’s a beautiful thing to see, this eagerness of understanding.

It’s no wonder that when we try to talk about how God appearred on the earth, we describe him as “the Word.”   Before there ever was any Bible, we say; before there was even words, or writing, or humans, we say there was the Word; as John’s Gospel says, “In the beginning was the Word,”
and by word he didn’t mean a book; he meant this sacred potential for understanding; this promise of comprehension.  It’s this thing that happens between souls, when they are leaning across a table touching foreheads; or leaning, maybe, across a universe; this Word with a capital “W”; this promise of perfect understanding and of being perfectly understood.  We long for understanding so deeply that when it comes time to talk about God living among us, we call him the Word.  He does what words do, except perfectly: He connects us to one another; and when that happens, we talk about God.

Lately I’ve been aware at how deeply we long for this Word; for this connection.  I’ve been noticing how often I find myself in a room with someone and we’re both leaning forward, foreheads almost touching, drinking in understanding.   Right now we have two beloved parishioners who have come to terms with the fact that they are dying.  You walk into the room of someone who has reached this understanding; you sit beside them and they eagerly take your hand, and your eyes lock, and it’s like entering a cave filled with treasure, overflowing with gold coins and pearls and jewels: they want you to have it.  Here is my life, they say; my precious life.  Here are all of my memories; all of my stories; my loves, my children; my hopes, my regrets, my achievements – mostly just my stories.  Take it, they say; take this treasure.  Understand it, put it in your pocket and share it with others.  

In their eyes there is in their eyes a universe of meaning that they are trying to convey.  

Whenever I visit someone in the hospital, or the nursing home, or a homeless person, or someone in prison, there is this longing for connection.  This level openness that you don’t see so much in everyday life; and people are saying things they maybe never would say if they weren’t so opened up by their circumstances; so aware of the desire to be understood, and to understand.  

Which is why I think Jesus said, in Matthew 25, if you are looking for him, go visit someone in prison; go to the poor and listen to what they have to say; go to the hospital and hold someone’s hand.  That’s where you’ll find him: the living Word.  

In the language of the church, this is what we call pastoral care.  And it’s not just something priests do.  This is something we are all called to do.  We have trained pastoral care visitors, and we would like to train more people for this ministry of presence.  And whether we are trained for it or not, whether we represent the church in this ministry or just ourselves, we are all called into that level of relationship.  As our loved ones fall into trouble, and we run to the hospital bed to be by their side, and see them reach out their hand from the hospital bed, asking for connection – we take it..  

And when we are there, foreheads tilting forward, prayers and words of love being spoken, we know that we didn’t decide to be there; we were led there – by the Spirit of that Word, we were led to that bedside.  We’re like two magnets, who once they are within a certain range of one another, an invisible force draws them together.  We call this the work of the Holy Spirit.

We do that enough times and then we begin to see every relationship in those terms: we begin to trust that Spirit more and more; we let the Spirit draw us into deeper connection with everyone in our lives – our spouse or partner, our neighbor, our children.  Suddenly life seems too short to push those relationships aside; suddenly the Spirit is drawing us into more truth telling, more intimacy, more revelation of God’s Word.

And that’s when we begin to live a Spirit-filled life.  We begin to have the conversations that some people only have on their death beds.  We decide not to wait for disease to open us up to one another – we choose to live our lives on a more authentic level.  

And that’s when the miracles start to happen – because then the Spirit takes over; the Spirit draws people of the Spirit together; the Spirit brings us into new relationships and new connections that are life-giving to us.

And that is how we find ourselves here.  

We didn’t decide to come to church; we might have thought at the time that we were making the decision but in reality we were drawn together by the Spirit.  And as we continue to open ourselves to this Spirit and this Word, we find the Spirit drawing us together in new ways
and a new kind of community begins to emerge;
a community of care;
a community of connection;
a community of mutual vulnerability and trust
and deep love;
a love that has its Source not in ourselves, but in the Spirit that flows among us; that deep well; that living water.

We all drink from that well like thirsty camels.

This is the water that Jesus was talking about in John’s gospel, as he encountered that Samaritan woman – that person so different from him – such a gulf between them, of culture, language, religion, gender, politics – and yet there they were, leaning toward one another, led by the Spirit:

"...Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

And that’s how this crazy religion was born, on this day of Pentecost so many centuries ago, when all of a sudden, just as Jesus predicted,  a disparate group of people, representing all the different nations and cultures and languages of the known world, leaned in together, made themselves vulnerable to the presence of the Holy Spirit; breathed in the Word of God, and became what we call Christians.

And in that moment, everything that separated us was overcome.  The curse from the Tower of Babel was lifted; finally our universal language was found again; finally our great long loneliness was lifted; and we became like those young lovers I saw at the restaurant; fools in love with God and one another; drinking in that universal language of love.

Pray that we will continue to let the Spirit lead us into ever deeper relationships; pray that we will continue to listen to God’s Word, spoken at the depth of our hearts; pray that we continue to seek to understand, as we are understood, with open hearts and minds.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

"What's up with the Holy Spirit?"

Easter 5, Year C
April 28, 2013

            I’ve been gone for a couple weeks; I was in Minnesota for a week to see the family, and then I attended a Strategic Planning Conference in Cincinnati with 3 other of our parishioners, where we learned how to develop a strategic plan for this congregation.  Very exciting.  More about that a little later.  And it’s good to be back.

The other day I was sitting in one of my favorite restaurants - the Chinese place on 4th Street.  It has windows that face out onto the street and a little courtyard where there are often a few homeless folks hanging out.  I was sitting there drinking tea and watching the folks come and go on the street; the waiter had just come by and put a plate of chicken and prawns in a ginger plum sauce in front of me; and as I said my prayer and prepared to eat my lunch, I watched as two elderly men - they must have been 70 years old or so - wandered into the courtyard.  They seemed to be good friends; and they looked fairly respectable, clean and sober.  I watched as they went  to the trash container and as one guy held up the lid, the other guy reached in and started rummaging around.  He pulled out a couple of empty soda cans, which he handed to his friend, who put them into a bag, and then he pulled out half a sandwich, inspected it, sniffed it, and then broke it in two and shared it with his friend. 

A few days later I was reading in the Press Democrat about how that big development project for Railroad Square had died.  It started out as a grand vision of renewal for RR Square - a $182 million project - in the words of the article, a "transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly mixed-use development that would include a food-and-wine center, a 10,000-square-foot retail center modeled after the Ferry Building in San Francisco, and low-income and market-rate housing."  The article talked about how, when the recession hit, and then politics entered in, the project got scaled back more and more, until last week all that was left was a development for low-income housing for seniors.  And so the news was that that project had just been scuttled as well.

The Press Democrat wrote an editorial about this, in which they said that it was too bad the project was terminated because "It would have provided jobs [and] an infusion of government funding in the local economy..."

I agreed with this, but I also thought it was kind of odd that nowhere in the editorial or in the news article, which was filled with quotes from politicians and business people, were any low-income seniors interviewed, or anyone representing low-income seniors.  I thought about those two elderly gentlemen, and wondered what they might have said about the lack of decent affordable housing for seniors in this area.  I thought about the women who find shelter here at the Living Room, and the folks who come here for breakfast on Sunday; I tried to do a quick estimate as to how many of them are seniors, and realized it was probably about a third to a half.  

And yet it never seemed to occur to anyone to discuss this issue from their point of view on this issue. 

It's amazing how your point of view changes depending on who you talk to. 

This morning we hear this great story about Peter in the book of Acts which is an illustration of this whole thing.  It’s a story about how he had a vision that told him it was okay to start eating non-kosher foods; and about how the disciples in Jerusalem heard about this, and they heard about how Peter had been seen eating with Gentiles - and so they called him to Jerusalem and had a little talk with him.  It's like he'd been called down to the principal's office.  

They want to know: "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?"  Because of course for “respectable” Jews at that time, even to sit down at table with Gentiles was strictly forbidden.  And so this reading is Peter's explanation as to why he did it.

This is a very small section of a much longer story - in fact, it might be the longest single story in the book of Acts, stretching from the end of Chapter 9 to the middle of Chapter 11.  It's worth reading the whole story - especially when we know that when a story is that long, it's probably pretty important to the author.  

Without going into all the details of the story, it all comes down to this wonderful moment when Peter is told by the Holy Spirit to follow these guys who come looking for him, who take him to the house of a Gentile - a centurion in fact.  When Peter walks into the house, he finds that it's filled with the centurion's family and friends - a huge assembly of people - who have gathered at the centurion's request to hear what Peter has to say.  And the second Peter walks into the room he says, basically, "Wait a minute.  I can't be here.  I'm not supposed to be hanging out with you people."

But somehow the Holy Spirit keeps him engaged in the relationship; the centurion begs him to stay and talk to them; Peter says, well, okay, I'll give them my stump sermon - which is the sermon that he's given a million times to his Jewish brothers and sisters - and to his amazement the Holy Spirit comes upon the assembly of Gentiles.  Up until that point, apparently, it never occurred to Peter that Gentiles could be seized by the same Holy Spirit that he has been dealing with.  But after that experience, he realizes that all this time, he has been the problem - he, and his religious tradition - and that never again would he accept as a given what his tradition says about clean and unclean.

It's amazing what happens when people from different walks of life start listening to and talking to one another.

It’s good to remember that – unless we come from 100% Jewish families, at some point we were all considered outsiders and unclean.  In Peter’s time, the thinking was that Gentiles could be included only if they entered the community entirely on the terms of Jewish tradition.  Circumcision, kosher dietary laws, dress, grooming, worship, all had to conform to Jewish custom.  This was simply assumed.  And then this liberating thought occurred – first to Paul, and then to Peter: hold on!  It seems that, under Jesus, all things are being made new.  It seems that under Jesus, there is a new heaven and a new earth.  No thing and no person in God's creation is unclean - "What God has made clean, you must not call profane."  

Which is why the next banner that’s gonna hang on that banner out in front of our church is the one that’s going to say, “ALL are welcome…. no exceptions!”

What I love about this is that Peter doesn't understand what is happening, but he trusts in the moment; and when they ask him to speak, he speaks his truth; and when it’s time for him to listen, he listens carefully and deeply.  And that’s when the Holy Spirit descends on them; that’s when everything they thought they knew is turned upside down; that’s when everything that we take for granted: that we are included in the kingdom of God – that’s when that idea first occurred to anyone.   The idea that God’s love extends even to us outsiders; us unclean Gentiles.  That God’s love is so vast that it extends even to us. 

Peter’s like, I don't understand this - I don't even think I approve of this - but it seems I've been led to this place and I need to be open to what God is trying to accomplish.

I know how Peter felt.  As I was going through this divorce process, I was like, “I don’t understand this; I don’t even approve of this; I don’t even think this is right.  But I can’t say No to where the Holy Spirit seems to be leading.  All I can do is to listen deeply, and speak my truth, and listen deeply, and speak my truth, and listen some more… open to wherever it is that the Holy Spirit is leading me and it’s amazing how the Holy Spirit enters into that dynamic.

So as I said, 4 of us were there in Cincinnati, in a beautiful airport hotel at the Strategic Planning Conference.  I think we all thought we’d go there, and they’d give us a little checklist of things we needed to do so that we could plan our future.  

Of course, you know what they say, if you want to make God laugh, make some plans.

But, when we got there we found out that actually what the whole thing was about was entering into sacred conversation with members of the congregation and members of the community.  

And there’s no agenda behind this, except for the idea that we’ve been hearing from a number of people in this congregation that we’ve reached this point, where either we’re going to continue to grow, in which case things have got to be done differently, or we’re going to fall back on old patterns and our membership will decline because we’re unable to incorporate new growth.  So it raises all sorts of questions about how we can learn how to do things differently, so that what we’re experiencing now is not a ceiling on our capacity for growth, but rather the floor from which we can grow further and further.  How do we accomplish that?

It seems to be all about the same thing Peter discovered this morning, which is to be listening deeply and speaking our truth.  And so this is a process that’s going to be going on for about a year, as we engage the congregation and the wider community on some of the big questions that need answered in our life together.  What are the big questions that are going to drive our life together over the next 10 years?  It will be a beautiful and revelatory discussion, I’m sure. 

Nothing new.  We’ve been doing it in this church for 2,000 years; we’ve been doing it in this congregation forever; and it’s just going to continue.  Because the Holy Spirit works that way; and that’s how we learn “What’s up” with the Holy Spirit.

So I ask your prayers on that, and continue to come to this place with open hearts and minds, and praise God for the incredible blessings of this community.  Amen.