Sunday, May 31, 2015

Let's Dance

[Sermon from Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015]
Today is Trinity Sunday, the only principal feast of the Church that’s devoted to a theological doctrine rather than the life of Jesus and his followers.  As your three priests talked about this coming feast day and how we would manage it homiletically, Fr. Marcus looked at me and said, “Don’t we have a seminarian somewhere we could make preach that Sunday?”  It’s a notoriously awful day to draw the short straw as the preacher because, frankly, you’re set up to fail from the start.  The whole point of the Trinity as a model for understanding God is that God can’t be understood in human terms.  So, Mr. Preacher, good luck with that.
Our readings this morning do a great job of illustrating God’s incomprehensible reality.  This God is the transcendent, majestic sovereign of the universe, attended by flying serpents and towering above the holy Temple, filling the whole place with just the outer hem of a regal robe.  This God’s voice thunders, breaking the cedar trees and making the giant oak trees writhe.  And – not “but,” but “and” – this God adopts us as beloved children, the Holy Spirit joining with our own spirits in an eternal bond, giving us the love of a parent from which nothing can separate us.  And, unbelievably, that love comes to dwell among us in Jesus, spending time with everyone from criminals to doctors of the law like Nicodemus in today’s Gospel reading.  In his interview with Jesus, we hear Nicodemus, a brilliant man, mystified by the paradox that we must be born not just once but twice, not just of human parents but of God – the God who loves us deeply enough to die that we may live, defeating death so that we “may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). 
Frankly, all this makes little sense from a human perspective.  Everything about God is paradoxical.  As the theologian and church pioneer Ian Mobsby says, we know “God through mystical encounter rather than knowing God as a set of objectified facts.”1  A couple of weeks ago, Fr. Marcus was preaching about dogma and its tendency to undercut the mystery that is God; and he lamented that we often try to explain rather than encounter the divine, that we rely on prose rather than poetry to know God.  We face that temptation especially on this Sunday, when the doctrine of the Holy Trinity can quickly deteriorate into a nonsensical numbers game – “three in one and one in three” and all that.  It doesn’t usually work too well to say “I love you” with an equation.
Well, the ancient Greek theologians knew how to talk about the triune God in appropriately mysterious terms.  To describe how the three separate persons of the Trinity interrelate, they used the term perichoresis.  If you break that word down, it means distinguishable parts making up a whole, and relating to each other dynamically and in close proximity.2  OK, picture that: distinguishable parts making up a whole, and relating to each other dynamically and in close proximity. In other words, it means a dance.  As Ian Mobsby says, perichoresis tries to capture the reality that “the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer are interpenetrative, embracing and permeating each other” in a “profound sense of fellowship.”3 
Well, if that doesn’t make things immediately clear for you, try this:  Experiencing the Trinity is sort of like watching an old Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movie.  You know you’re seeing something more than simply two individuals taking predetermined steps at a predetermined pace.  It isn’t just scripted movement; it’s dancing – partners knowing where each other plans to go but making the steps new each time.  By the same token, the Holy Trinity isn’t a mathematical formula for God, some complex equation to explain everything.  The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a poem, a poem that narrates a dance. 
So, this morning, I want to preach you a poem.  You’ll find it in the bulletin this morning, and you can follow along if you’re someone who likes to see words on paper along with hearing words out loud.  Or just close your eyes and listen – whatever works best for you. 
Now, for those of you who think you don’t like poetry, please hang in there and at least give me a minute or two before you check out.  I used to think I didn’t like poetry either.  For those of us who are wired to be practically minded, people who like to get things done – we may see poetry at best as a nice diversion, or at worst as an incomprehensible jumble.  Maybe I’ll be guilty of a jumble, too, but at least hear me out.  If nothing else, it means the sermon is shorter than usual – two Sundays in a row!  That’s worth something.
Anyway, here you go, in honor of this Trinity Sunday. 

The Dance

God strode across time and space together
And said, “Let’s dance.”  Light and darkness
Split as Trinity cut a rug, planets spinning,
Cells dividing, fish swimming, bugs creeping,
Birds flying, cattle grazing.  Then God said,
“Let’s change the steps and make one more
Like Us.”  So dust and clay coalesced.  And
Whispering into Adam’s ear, God took his
Hand in theirs and said, “Dance with us.”

For no point but love, God then looked to
The lost and said, “Who will go for us?”
Maybe wandering and dancing aren’t so different
After all.  So Israel went forth on stumbling feet,
Learning steps as they took them, love on the
Hoof.  Some steps were true, God’s own;
Some they squandered, cheapened to
Base marches soaked in blood, or trampling
Those who’d fallen down, or traipsing off
In exile.  Shackles don’t allow much
Dancing; and far away, you forget the steps.
So God said, “Let’s go home, and try again.”

But the dance floor was no longer theirs, and
Foreign feet got tangled in the mix.  So
God said, “Let’s dance Redemption’s
Steps.  We’ll squirm cold in a manger,
Slice strong hands on chisels and knives,
Wander the countryside and drink with
Outcasts, high-tail it from the cops until
The time is right.  And all the while,” God said,
“We will hold you.  You have to hug a child
A hundred times for every tear she sheds.  So
We will sweep you up in open arms, even though
You nail them down.  No matter.  In morning’s
Light, we’ll dance again and welcome you

Back in our circle, too, trampling Satan down
With the Spirit’s soft shoe.”  So Redeeming God
Stepped aside as Sustainer took the lead.  This
Dance gets a little crazy sometimes – twists
And turns above the ground, fire juggling fire.
“Come on in,” Sustainer says, “the water’s
Fine” – and from baptism’s pool we emerge,
Born of water and of Spirit, bound in light embrace
That lets us improvise our steps yet never
Lets us go.  We are dancers, every one,
Called to trip the light fantastic with the
One and One and One who loves us best.
© John Spicer

1.  Mobsby, Ian.  God Unknown: The Trinity in Contemporary Spirituality and Mission.  London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2012.  27.
2.  Mobsby, 26.
3.  Mobsby, 27.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Holy Spirit's Playground

[Sermon from Pentecost Sunday, May 24, 2015.]
Here’s my holiday-weekend present to you:  A short sermon.  This morning, we’ll baptize 10 new Christians, young people and adults, which is a fabulous time-management challenge to face.  So we all get to benefit from tight preaching this morning.
First, let me say, Happy Memorial Day weekend.  Every year at this time, we honor those who’ve gone before us, traditionally visiting the cemetery to decorate the graves of those we love but see no longer.  Particularly we remember those who died having served this nation, their lives a living sacrifice and sometimes a final gift to their fellow citizens.  The flowers on the graves this Decoration Day remind us, and the world around us, that “life is changed, not ended” (BCP 382) when we die – that those we remember are continuing to live their eternal lives empowered by the same Holy Spirit that empowered the apostles and that empowers our witness to God’s love and Christ’s kingship. 
For we who are the Church, this weekend also brings a different holiday this year, one of the seven most holy days on the Church’s calendar.  Today is Pentecost – the feast 50 days from Easter and 10 days after Jesus’ ascension.  That gap between Ascension and Pentecost always puts me in the shoes of the apostles, that dubious leadership group, who had 10 long days to stare at each other and wonder, “Now what the heck do we do?”  The Book of Acts tells us they took that time to replace the traitor Judas with Matthias and that they were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (1:14).  I’ll just bet they were.  I mean, Jesus had promised the disciples he would send the “Advocate,” the “Spirit of truth” that comes from the Father, the one “who will guide you into all truth” (John 15:26;16:13), as we heard in today’s Gospel.  But my hunch is that by about day 3 or 4, the disciples were getting a little nervous about what was next for them.  By day 10, no wonder they were all in a room hiding out from everybody else.
Then came the Jewish festival of Pentecost, with faithful Jews from across the Roman world gathered in Jerusalem.  And as the disciples prayed together, that Holy Spirit literally blew into the room, literally set the disciples on fire like burning bushes with flame that did not consume, and empowered them to speak in other languages – the tongues of the people gathered there in Jerusalem and living throughout the rest of Caesar’s empire.  The disciples had been equipped and inspired to be apostles, which means those who are sent – sent to speak “about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11); sent to tell a story they themselves had lived, the story of resurrection and hope and the vanquishing of the power of sin and death.  They were sent to make God’s kingdom a living, breathing contrast to the kingdom that Caesar thought he ran.
It’s pretty crazy stuff.  For the baptismal candidates and baptismal families, about to celebrate the joy of coming into this movement known as Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church:  Did you know what you were getting yourselves into?  Violent wind rushing through the house, fire resting on you, the Holy Spirit filling you to reveal God’s deeds of power in languages you didn’t know you knew.  All this, and it’s only your first day of being a Christian.  Who knows what tomorrow may bring?
Well, I’d like to hazard a guess at what tomorrow may bring – and the next day, and the next.  It is the stunning opportunity for you to be the living, breathing, on-fire presence of God in the world God loves.  Among the many amazing realities wrapped up in the mystery of baptism is this one:  that God chooses to continue incarnating God’s presence in the world, through you.  And me.  And all of us. 
In baptism, we receive that flame and that in-Spiriting breath of God; and thus literally inspired, we can reveal the fruits of the Holy Spirit.  You’ve probably heard these before – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).  All those are great, but another fruit of the Spirit strikes me today, one you don’t find in that list but one that truly makes the kingdom of God come to life.  And that fruit of the Spirit is passion. 
From this glorious, crazy, holy holiday weekend, here’s what I hope you’ll take away:  Your passion can make all the difference.  And it doesn’t matter whether that passion seems more secular than sacred.  Maybe it’s writing poetry; maybe it’s playing golf; maybe it’s reading to children; maybe it’s throwing a great party.  Passion doesn’t have to seem particularly “holy.”  You just have to use it that way.
Memorial Day tells this story of holy passion in its own language, too.  When you think about those who’ve gone before, when you place that flower to decorate that grave, what do you remember?  Well, the person’s passion and how it made life better, how it furthered the purposes of God.  Bring to mind someone you love but see no longer:  “When I think of ________, what I remember is his or her _________.”  If it were my wife’s grandmother I was remembering, I’d fill in that blank with cinnamon rolls.  It’s not that homemade cinnamon rolls are inherently holy (though I could make an argument for that).  But with those homemade cinnamon rolls, Ann’s grandmother poured out the love of God on all kinds of people – saints and scoundrels, within her own family and beyond – regardless of whether they deserved that delicious love, or not.  Cooking for people was her passion because it was her best way to say, “I love you”; and that’s what God had sent her into the world to do.
You, too, are an apostle, sent into the world empowered by the Holy Spirit with passion for something.  Use that passion to put your own flesh and bones on the love of God.  Use it to evoke the kingdom of heaven in the corner of the world you’re given to touch.  Use it speak and enact the power of Jesus Christ in a world that still listens to Caesar all too easily.  Your passion is the Holy Spirit’s playground.  Give the Spirit legs, and let it run.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Skin in the Game

[Sermon from May 3, 2015.]
So, we're in the midst of a sermon series titled, “A Critical Conversation: Exploring the Church’s Harsh Reviews.”  And the topic today has sort of a “ripped from the headlines” feel to it, given the events of this week.  Today’s critique is this:  “Churches are either too political or too quiet about real issues.”  In some churches, you end up feeling like you’re hearing a baptized version of a political speech.  In other churches, everyone’s trying so hard not to offend that the proclamation gets watered down to Rodney King’s lament, “Can’t we all just get along?”  From my perspective, neither extreme is helpful – and especially not in a week like this one, when frightening, heartbreaking violence in Baltimore cries out for healing Good News.
You know the story – from this week, but also from too many weeks before.  A young black man dies at the hands of police.  Days of protest ensue.  After the funeral, angry people gather in the streets.  Peaceful exercise of the freedom to assemble for a redress of grievances turns into violence, burning, and looting.  Police officers are injured; people on the streets are arrested; businesses go up in flames in the neighborhoods that can least afford the devastation.  On these facts, probably most people can agree.
Now, let’s hit the “pause” button and step outside this sermon for a moment.  I can almost hear the voice of the color commentator from the booth, reporting on the action here at St. Andrew’s this morning.  “So, Jim, which direction will Fr. John go?  Will he turn this sermon political, or will he go for, ‘Can’t we all just get along?’” 
We’ve watched enough news to know there are a couple of competing narratives for incidents like this.  On one side are the commentators who see Freddie Gray’s death as the most recent in a series of events showing that, in this culture, black lives don’t matter.  This side will describe police treatment of African Americans as the voting rights of this decade, the next great arena in the struggle for freedom that’s been waged for 400 years now.  For this side, the narrative extends to the deepest issues of poor communities – failing schools, deadly violence, absent opportunity.  That’s how one side sees it.  On the other side are the commentators who see Freddie Gray’s death as another in a series of tragic but unrelated events being used by political agitators looking for a fight, as well as “thugs” looking for an excuse to loot and burn drug stores.  For this side, at least part of the narrative is honest confusion: “What do these protestors want, anyway?  We can’t know what happened to Freddie Gray until an investigation takes place.  You can’t just burn buildings and throw bricks at police because of one awful, isolated incident.”
So, which side is Fr. John going to take?  Who’s he going to alienate this morning?
Well, let me share a little of my own story with you.  I’m old enough to have begun my career at a time just before a couple of big changes took place in arenas I cared about deeply.  As a young man, I believed American democracy, aided by a free press, represented our society’s best hope.  I came out of college intending to be a journalist, and I worked briefly as a copy editor.  But I got the opportunity to get into government, working as a speech writer for John Ashcroft when he was governor of Missouri.  I could have seen myself as one of those young staffers on The West Wing, fast-walking through the halls of power to improve people’s lives.  But through my own experience in the governor’s office, and having watched the institutions of journalism and politics change drastically over the last few decades, I see little remaining of what I once believed in.  If there ever was a grand narrative of objectivity in journalism, or a grand narrative of the common good in politics, they’re gone, at least for now.  And frankly, I don’t see them coming back anytime soon.
So, since I don’t really trust either journalism or politics much, I’m hesitant to claim the narrative of “one side or the other,” which is the narrative those institutions want to sell us.  And as Fr. Marcus pointed out in a blog post earlier this week, I’m skeptical of religious folks who want to take their particular side in our racial conflict and baptize it with Gospel sound bites.  That’s especially unhelpful when the language they use undermines the one thing about which we can be certain when it comes to the Church – that church is about drawing together, not driving apart.  Church is about healing.  Church is about reconciling.  So when the proclamation of religious people divides us – whether it’s about race and violence, or about economics, or about marriage equality, or about any public policy – then church people have to ask whether we’re speaking for Christ or speaking for ourselves.  Now, I want to be careful to say that speaking about these issues can absolutely be speaking for Christ, if it aligns with the narrative of Jesus and if we approach it with humility.  Where I think we may mistranslate our risen Lord is when we presume that our particular take on the question must be his take on the question.  In my limited experience, I seem to find that just when I think I know what’s “right” in God’s eyes, God tends to sneak around and speak from the other “side,” too.
So, I’m not going to tell you what to think about Freddie Gray’s death, or the violence in Baltimore, or the travesty of Kansas City’s public schools, or the disproportionate rates of incarceration of young black men, or the occurrences of black men dying at the hands of police.  The Holy Spirit will do that work.  What I am asking you to do is to take the risk to enter the conversation and engage with people who are different from you.  I’m asking us to put some skin in the game.
Why?  Because skin in the game is God’s M.O.  Remember what we heard from the First Letter of John:  “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. …  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. …  [I]f we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (4:9-12)  Christianity is the religion of the Incarnation; and remember, that word, incarnation, shares the same root as “carnivore.”  Ours is the faith of flesh and bones.  Jesus didn’t just talk about God.  He didn’t just urge people to behave better.  He got into the mess of our world, into relationships with real, broken human beings who were different from him.  He had deep theological conversations with Samaritans, who were out of bounds for Jews.  He hung out with perpetrators of violence and oppression, tax collectors and other criminals.  And he gave himself up to die in order to defeat sin and death – for them.  In Christ, God was love itself, sent to give itself away for those who clearly didn’t deserve it any more than you and I do.  In Christ, God put skin in the game.
“Since God loved us so much,” says First John, “we also ought to love one another” the same way (4:11).  We, too, are sent.  We are sent to put our own skin in the game of reconciliation, healing divisions we see right here in our community.  To accomplish that, I don’t have a program to sell you.  I don’t have a particular piece of legislation I want you to support.  I want you to listen to the Holy Spirit leading your head and your heart and your hands to love someone on the other side of some divide.  And I want you to let that experience change you.  Maybe it’s getting to know a mom from Operation Breakthrough as part of Sister Berta’s Friendship Circles.  Maybe it’s volunteering at Southwest High School, refusing to give up on the kids of this city whose only choice is public school.  Maybe it’s having lunch with homeless and working poor people at the Free Store at Christmastime, hearing their stories and telling them yours.  Maybe it’s volunteering at Gordon Parks School or Benjamin Banneker School.  Maybe it’s not just serving lunch at the Kansas City Community Kitchen but talking and praying with people there.  Maybe it’s hearing local African American leaders speak in our undercroft about The New Jim Crow of incarceration.  Maybe it’s working with our social entrepreneur, Natasha Kirsch, as she builds a new venture to break generational poverty among real, suffering moms and kids in our city.  Here’s an idea: Maybe it’s starting a business on the east side of Troost – how about opening a decent grocery store in a food desert?  Maybe it’s simply coming to United Missionary Baptist Church with Dr. Tom and the choir and Mtr. Anne and me this Wednesday night to worship and celebrate the unity they and we share in Christ.   
My point is this:  The deepest healing will come to the divisions in our city and our nation, not through the eloquence of preachers or the arguments of talking heads or the blaming of every side for its failures and sins.  Our deepest healing will come when our hearts are transformed by being sent to love, being sent to be God’s love in the flesh.
All this is not just a good idea; it’s the promise we make every time we renew our baptismal covenant.  The presider asks, “Will you strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being?”  And we each look God in the eye and say, “I will, with God’s help.”  I don’t know about you, but I find that a very difficult promise to keep.  Because if I’m going to keep it, I have to see injustice.  And I have to be willing to “strive” – actually to do something about racism, for example, rather than throw up my hands and lament the divisions that have been with us ever since people started enslaving other people on these shores.
I will admit to you that crossing boundaries and being sent to love someone you perceive to be different – that can be scary.  Years ago, when I first heard God’s call to serve people in need, I found a time to work at the local food pantry when I could be there by all by myself, stocking shelves, never seeing a client.  It was scary when I went to the Kansas City Community Kitchen to serve lunch for the first time.  It was scary going to Haiti for the first time.  It was scary walking through the metal detectors and into Southwest High School for the first time.  It’s going to be scary preaching on Wednesday at a black Baptist church for the first time.  And you know what?  God sends us anyway, because we bear God’s love, and “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).  Not my love, which is absolutely not perfect, but the love of God.  AgapĂ©.  The love that takes flesh and dwells among us and invests itself fearlessly.
I’ll conclude with a truism:  All politics is local.  That quote is usually attributed to Tip O’Neill, former speaker of the House; but I’ll bet you anything that Jesus Christ said it first.  Because to Jesus, the point isn’t which side shouts the loudest.  To Jesus, the point isn’t winning the argument about who’s to blame.  To Jesus, the point is to love the person in front of you.  To Jesus, the point is stepping into the messiness and the beauty of that person’s world, precisely because it’s different from yours.  To Jesus, the point is having skin in the game God’s given you to play.  Because that deep investment of one faithful heart – your faithful heart – will bring more change than a hundred sermons ever could.