Sunday, May 27, 2018

Trinity Sunday - Welcoming Strangers Into Relationship

In the name of the Trinitarian God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I welcome you. You are welcome, with all of the things that make you uniquely you, with all the things that make you different from me, with the events and the influences in your life that have shaped you to be the person you are in this moment. You are welcome, just as you are, especially as you are, into the divine community that is rooted in and encircled by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, a community that is built on mutual relationship, that renews us every day.

Today is Trinity Sunday, where we focus on this God of ours whom we call Three-in-One and One-in-Three and has been the subject of much theological debate for almost two thousand years. So we’re not going to cover everything in the next ten-plus minutes. But if there is something about today that I do hope you remember, it’s that “welcoming strangers into relationship” is probably the most important thing about the Trinity that you need to know. “Welcoming strangers into relationship.” This is what the Trinity is about, and it’s how we are meant to experience God.
So, first and foremost, God is relationship. We say God is love, and so we can also say that God is relationship. God is the relationship of our Creator, whom we traditionally call the Father, with the Son, whom we know as Jesus Christ, and with the Holy Spirit. Got that? God is the relationship that exists between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You can’t separate one of them from the other two, and call that single one God, because if God is relationship there’s no relationship with just one person. There must be others. One-in-Three.

At the same time, you can’t have a relationship where the others are the same as you. The Father is not the same as the Son, and the Son is not the same as the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the same as the Father. Each in their own way is unique from the others, different or strange to the others. And that’s why we say that God is Three-in-One - because the one relationship is made up of three, kind of like one braid is made up of three strands. A strand by itself isn’t a braid, and a braid isn’t a braid with only two strands. The one braid itself is made up of three strands, but it’s one braid. One-in-Three and Three-in-One.

But of course we’re talking about the living God, and not about an object like a braid. And that’s really important because the living God is communal relationship, relationships as it exists in community, which means that it’s dynamic and always-changing and always-growing. God is a relationship that is built on each person––Father, Son, and Spirit––being different from one another––strange to one another––but always equal and always open. And this difference, or strangeness, together with this equality and this openness is what makes this divine relationship so life-giving. New life only comes into being when something or someone allows itself to be changed by coming into contact with that which is strange. There is no new life if there is no strangeness and no openness. There is no new life if there is no change.

The early church Elders described this three-in-one, life-renewing divine relationship with the word perichoresis, which means dancing around. They envisioned the Trinity as a three-person dance, with each weaving in and around the other, creating a beautiful circular dance that goes on forever. But the problem with this idea of perichoresis or even just this idea of God as three-in-one relationship is that it seems kind of independent from us. What does the Trinitarian God have to do with us? It’s not that we’re selfish, it’s just that it’s hard to care about the Trinity when it seems completely self-sufficient without us. The Trinitarian God seems to have its dance partners - what does it need us for? And why should we care about its dance?

Well, there’s a reason that I began by welcoming you to the divine community that is rooted in and encircled by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that’s because in the middle of this perichoretic dance of the Trinity––in the circling and interweaving of divine relationship––is a space. There’s always a space in the middle of a circle dance, and this space is divinely purposed. That is, God has deliberately left a space in the heart of the dance, in order to welcome in those who are different. Just as God comes to live in our hearts, God welcomes us to live in the heart of the Trinitarian relationship.

And this is profound for two reasons. The first is that this welcome is extended to us because we are different from God. We are not divine. We are human. We are as strange to God as God is to us. But God wants our strangeness. God chooses us for our strangeness. God invites us into the heart of God because we are different, not in spite of it. God welcomes all of our different differences because, through all of these combined differences, God creates new life. 

And, in God’s welcoming of us into God’s heart, God becomes open to us. We often think that it’s us becoming open to God, but it’s so much more than that. The relationship of openness that exists in the Trinity is extended to us. We become open to God and God becomes open to us. God welcomes us to experience renewal in God and, dare I say, to renew God. This is what it means to say that our God is communal relationship. Our Bible has many examples of God being moved––changed––by the experiences of God’s people. That is what is to be in relationship–to be open to and to be changed by the ones with whom we’re in relationship. This is what God welcomes us to when God welcomes us to live in the heart of the Trinitarian relationship.

When we live in the heart of this Trinitarian God––in this relationship built on welcoming difference and being open to those who are strange to us––we are renewed. We receive new life, and we experience the glory of God. In our our first reading, we heard the words from Isaiah that we repeat in our Communion liturgy, “Holy, holy, holy Lord ... the whole earth is full of [your] glory.” (adapted from Isaiah 6:3). Did you notice that it’s the earth that is full of God’s glory? God’s glory is down here, amongst us, in our relationships with one another, as we live our day-to-day lives in the heart of God. Down here is where the Trinitarian relationship, the essence of God, is felt most fully. In our relationships, as we echo and repeat what God has done for us, as we welcome strangers into our hearts, and we open ourselves to them, to be changed by them, and to be renewed through them. In these things down here on earth, we experience God’s glory most fully.

In the church, this happens in Holy Communion and in Baptism. In Baptism, and today in the baptism of this dear one, we stand alongside God in welcoming new strangers into the heart of God and into our midst. Babies in particular are strangers to us, even if we know their parents, because babies are their own people, but we don’t know who they are yet. And so we welcome them as strangers––as God welcomed us––knowing that as they join us in the heart of the Trinitarian dance, that we are open to them and they are open to us. We rejoice as the Holy Spirit ushers strangers into our midst in Baptism because we know that in their joining us, and in us joining them, in the heart of God, we are all renewed.

So what does this all mean? I said that the most important thing to remember today about the Trinity is “welcoming strangers into relationship.” To live as a Christian, to experience the fullness of God’s glory, today, and every Sunday, and indeed every day, we are called to welcome strangers into relationship with us. As the Trinitarian God has sought us out to draw us in and be changed by us, we are called to seek out those who are strange to us––whether they’re strange because they look different from us, or dress different, or have had a different upbringing, or have different ideas or even different beliefs. We are called to seek out strangers and to welcome them into our lives––into our hearts. To be open to them and their strangeness, to see our strangeness through their eyes, and to allow ourselves to be changed by them. To receive new life through them. We are called to say to strangers what I said to you at the beginning: In the name of the Trinitarian God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I welcome you. You are welcome, with all of the things that make you uniquely you, with all the things that make you different from me, with the events and the influences in your life that have shaped you to be the person you are in this moment. You are welcome, just as you are, especially as you are, into the divine community that is rooted in and encircled by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, a community that is built on mutual relationship, that renews us every day. 

As God welcomes you, may you welcome others, until we are all together in relationship in the heart of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Pentecost 2018 - The Disruptive Spirit of God

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Ah, the Spirit of Truth. I think we are dearly wishing for this Spirit these days. Certainly in our secular world, as we are bombarded by accusations of Fake News, as we hear conflicting accounts of current affairs, as we watch events unfold before our eyes and wonder how much of it is engineered and manipulated to elicit certain beliefs. There are times when we yearn for Jesus to send that Spirit of Truth to blow through the world and blow away everything that is fake. We yearn for the Spirit to speak truth to power.

And not just in the world. In the church, too. We don’t talk about it as much, but we’re short on truth in the church, as well. We are not as forthcoming and honest about our history as we like to think we are, particularly when it involves the institution-sanctioned persecution of others. We hide or overlook the messy stories of our past, particularly when they involve clergy abuse. We have a tendency to silence those whom God sends to be truth-speakers in our midst, particularly when their words point out our inconsistencies or hypocrisies and call us to change.

And yet, in the church, too, we yearn for Jesus to send the Holy Spirit. We cry out for renewal, for freedom from bondage, for new life. Despite our fears and misgivings about what might happen, we do, deep down in our souls, crave this Spirit of Truth, who is also the Spirit of renewal, and freedom, and new life. We know, as Jesus says in John, chapter 8, that “the truth will set [us] free.” The Holy Spirit, the bringer of truth, will set the body of Christ free. And so we cry out, “Come, Holy Spirit!”

Actually, it’s more like we whisper, “Come, Holy Spirit.” For one thing, European or Scandinavian-descended Lutherans aren’t really a shouting-in-church kind of people. For another, the Holy Spirit coming is, well, overwhelming. Although we talk about the Spirit of Gentleness, and the Spirit of Tenderness, and the Spirit of Peace and Serenity, just as often when the Holy Spirit comes, it comes as the Spirit of Disruption. The Spirit of Unsettledness. The Spirit of Change. Because these are the things that Truth does. Truth disrupts the hold that the Fake has over us. Truth unsettles the systems of power that keep some down and lift others up, and it unsettles those who are caught in those systems. Truth brings about change––to us, and to the world.

We see this disrupting Spirit in our Pentecost Story. The story in Acts is full of disruption. It begins with a “violent wind.” This is not a light, refreshing, Mediterranean breeze. This is a blast of wind, that rushes in, whips the dust off the floor into our eyes, scatters our neatly arranged piles of paper out the window, slams the doors, blows our carefully tidied hair, and expectations, into tangles and disarray! The Holy Spirit begins the Pentecost story with the kind of wind that starts tornados, and hurricanes––ready to disrupt!

And then, this Holy Spirit comes to rest, as a tongue or flicker of fire, on each person in the room. Now don’t be fooled––the disruptive movement of the Spirit has not calmed down. We might look at the candle flame on the altar and think, oh, that’s not so bad. I mean yeah, it’s fire, but what’s one little flame? Well, in the Roman Empire, the coins, like they do now, had a picture of the ruler on them––the Roman Emperor. And the Roman Emperor claimed for himself the status of divinity. The Roman Imperial Cult established that the Emperor was, literally, a god. And to symbolize that divinity, the coins showed a flame over his head. The flame over his head was a marker of his divinely-ordained, never-to-be-challenged, never-to-be-disrupted authority. The claim that the apostles had flames over each of their heads was no whisper, no calm, flickering single flame. It was, to Jews back then, a clear shout of truth to power––a powerful protest against the Roman Imperial Cult that demanded worship of the Emperor and that was, in effect, a cult of death. The Holy Spirit was there to disrupt the religious institution. Not of Jerusalem, but of Rome. Not to shine on it with a gentle glow but, with all those combined tongues of fire, to burn it down.

And then there’s the disruption of Spirit-blessed diversity. That’s what it is when the Holy Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak in other languages, so that in the immense, international crowd gathered for the Temple festival, “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” Spirit-blessed diversity. To the outside ear, it sounded like chaos, cacophony, unintelligible babble. (It was, actually, the very reversal of Babel.) But to God, and to those blessed by the Spirit, it was the Spirit’s disruption of sameness, sounding a loud and lively harmony of voices. 

Now this disruption is all well and good when it happens somewhere else, some time very long ago. From our comfortable present, we admire those disruptive moments in history that have brought us to today, because we have benefitted from the disruption of Pentecost. We have benefitted when God has sent and empowered truth-speakers in our midst in the past. The church word for them is “prophets,” and if we like the truth they spoke, and if we’ve benefitted from their holy disruption, we’ll use that word. Luther was a prophet. He spoke the truth of God’s grace to the power of the exploitative church. He spoke the truth of our equality in baptism to the power of the hierarchy. Martin Luther King Jr., named after that first Luther, was another prophet. Blessed by the Holy Spirit, he spoke truth to the powers of racism and white supremacy. 

But if we don’t like the disruption these Spirit-empowered people are bringing, ah, then we call them something else. If we don’t benefit from the changes they’re calling for, if we find that we are the ones who are being brought down, that we are the ones who are being unsettled, then we use other words for them––“heretics,” or, prominent in the news these days, “protestors,” or “activists,” and if we really don’t like the truth they’re speaking, “troublemakers.” Only the word we use isn’t so polite. Martin Luther was a prophet to us Lutherans who like what he said. He was a heretic to those who didn’t. To those whose positions were disrupted, and unsettled, and changed, to those who were enjoying the systems of fake power, he was a “troublemaker.” Martin Luther King, Jr., was a prophet to those of us who believe in racial justice. He was also labelled a possible traitor to the country by those who didn’t like his message. Again, to those who were enjoying the systems of fake power, he was a “troublemaker.” 

But we know that these two prophets, along with others in our past, were empowered by the Holy Spirit. The changes that they brought were disruptive, but they were avenues for new life. God used them to bring our dry bones to life. And so even now, when the church has found itself too often on the wrong side of power and we find ourselves calling more and more prophets “troublemakers,” we still yearn, deep in our hearts, for God to act. And so we begin, albeit in whispers, to call the Spirit.

Ah, and God hears our whispers. And God sends the Holy Spirit. Indeed, God has never stopped sending the Spirit to us. As Luther says in the Small Catechism, in his explanation to the Third Article of the Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit” means that “the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.” The Holy Spirit is daily at work in our midst, keeping us in the true faith. Through the Holy Spirit, God keeps the church in truth. As disruptive as that might be for us, God does it because it brings us new life. God does it through our sons and our daughters. God does it through our young people, and our old people. God does it through those who are slaves to the systems and yearning to break free. God gives them voices to speak the truth that God loves all without exception, that diversity is a gift from God for our benefit. To speak the truth that power is meant to make us all equal, to be used to overcome inequity and poverty and oppression. To speak the truth that we are created to give life to the whole earth, not just to a privileged few. That when one suffers, we all suffer, and when one lives, we all live. To speak the truth that God is the one who brings the dry bones to life, and that God empowers us to do the same.

And this truth is disruptive. When the Holy Spirit speaks through these people, through these prophets, it seems as if the heavens are splitting apart and the earth is coming to pieces. It seems as if the light has darkened and the mood has turned red. It seems as if chaos and disruption are all around us. And only after that, only after these things, only after Truth has spoken to power and put power in its place does God’s great and glorious day come to pass.

The liturgical colour for Pentecost is red. It’s the colour of fire, the colour of blood, it’s often considered the colour of anger. It’s a peculiar choice––it’s definitely not a softly affirming colour, like pink, or light blue. It’s not gentle on the eyes, or calming. It’s a strong colour. A disruptive colour. It’s perfect for this way that the Holy Spirit––the Spirit of Truth––is present among us. This red is a reminder to us of the way that God calls us, as individuals and as the church, to be in the world––as disruptive truth-speakers. God calls us, and God empowers us, through the Holy Spirit––the Lord, the Giver of Life, the Spirit of Truth. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[N.B. I am deeply grateful to the June 2016 students of Introduction to Spirit and Community at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary who developed this idea of the Holy Spirit as disruptive.]

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Easter 7, 2018 - God and Mothers

Well, today is Mother’s Day, and no doubt you’ve seen the cards thanking mothers for all the sacrifices they’ve made, for their boundless love, for the hugs and kisses they’ve shared, for all the work they’ve done for their families. You’ve probably seen the commercials on TV and heard them on the radio - “This Mother’s Day, show her you care, buy her...” whatever they’re selling - jewelry, a camera, a drill from Home Depot (that’s my favourite) - the list is endless. And of course, you’ve noticed the flowers and balloons in the store, covered with hearts, saying Happy Mother’s Day.
Even the church takes part in this celebration of mothers, although it’s not a specifically Christian holiday. Churches proclaim mothers to be God’s angels and saints - the epitome of selflessness, role models of self-sacrifice. Luther himself called motherhood the highest vocation and calling for women - a proclamation that was revolutionary at that time because, in his time, motherhood was seen as a punishment for Eve’s transgression in the garden of Eden and nowhere near as valued as any of the “actual” vocations that men fulfilled. Since then, in the church, Mother’s Day has been a time to talk about the holiness of all mothers––about Mary, Jesus’ mother, who bravely answered God’s call to carry the Saviour in her womb and then to give him up to die; about Sarah, the wife of Abraham and the mother of Isaac, who carried Isaac in her old age and fulfilled God’s promise of making Abraham the father of generations of the covenant. We hear about Leah and Rachel, about Hannah who wept in the Temple because she couldn’t have a child, about the two mothers in King Solomon’s court––one who couldn’t cope with the loss of her baby and the other who would rather give hers up than watch it die. We heard Jesus’ words last Sunday, words that God has given us, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I loved you,” and it seems a natural step to connect this to mothers. Who else but a mother could love this way? A mother’s love is the closest many of us get to God’s love for us.

I’ll tell you a secret about mothers and Mother’s Day, though. And maybe this changes the longer you’ve been a mother, and maybe not all mothers feel this way, but this has been my experience. Mother’s Day, as lovely as it is to get cards and flowers and a break from cooking and to hear about other mothers in the Bible, also makes mothers feel a little bit... guilty. Or inadequate. Or maybe a bit ashamed. You see, mothers never feel that we’re doing as good a job as others seem to think we are. Mothers tend to walk around with this pervasive sense of guilt that we are not the mothers we wish we were. We hear about how wonderful other moms are, and we hear God’s commandment to love our children as God loves us, and we know that we don’t. The most common feeling that mothers share is guilt––over things done and left undone––and the burden of the consequences of that. For example: 
  • We’re too hard on our children and they’re going to rebel against us.
  • We’re too soft on our children and they’re going to think they’re entitled to everything.
  • We don’t protect our children enough and they’re going to be hurt by someone or something.
  • We’re overprotective of our children and they’re not going to know how to handle the world.
  • We don’t give them enough independence and they’re not going to be able to handle real responsibility.
  • We try to make them too independent and they won’t be able to form close relationships with anyone.
  • We treat them in ways they don’t deserve.
  • We don’t treat them the way they do deserve.
  • We don’t spend enough time with our children. 
  • We don’t spend enough time for ourselves. 
  • We don’t give them enough. 
  • We give them too much. 
  • We don’t do enough of this. 
  • We do too much of that..

The list goes on, and so does the guilt

Working mothers, stay-at-home mothers, student mothers, single mothers, married mothers––we come to this day with mixed feelings because we know that we have never been able to love and mother our children the way we wish we could: perfectly, as Jesus loves us, as God commands us. All mothers, no matter how well-intentioned (and, truthfully, there are some mothers who have not been well-intentioned), no matter how many sacrifices we have made (and there are always sacrifices), know that we fall short, and on Mother’s Day, this feeling lurks persistently at the back of our minds. We are never always and fully the mothers the cards say we are. We all have had our periods of anger, and impatience, and annoyance, and negligence. We have all fallen short of the perfect love God commands from us.

Well, today is Mother’s Day, and so I say specifically to those of you who mother, “As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.” Now, we may smile a bit, but I am serious. Mothers do not hear very often that we are forgiven for falling short as mothers. And so I proclaim to you who mother that the forgiveness that is granted to all Christians through Christ is also granted to you. To you mothers specifically. You are forgiven for all of the mistakes you have made as you mother. You are forgiven for the things that you have done and left undone. You are forgiven for not loving your children as yourselves. You are forgiven for being too strict and for not being strict enough. You are forgiven for not protecting your children from harm and for being overprotective. You are forgiven for not giving them enough and for giving them too much. God forgives you.

God forgives you and God loves you. Even more than we find ways to forgive and love our own children, despite their failings and mistakes, despite the hurt they have caused us, God forgives and loves us, despite our failings and mistakes and the hurt we have caused. It isn’t that God doesn’t see the ways we have failed - it is that God has seen them, and God, who loves our children even more than we do, forgives us and loves us, too, because we are also God’s children.

I have one last good word to share with you today. As mothers, we always hope that our children will not be hurt by the mistakes we have made. We hope that our children will be able to move past the ways in which our mothering has held them back. The last good word that I want to share with you is that God makes this happen. We have heard over the last few weeks of this Easter season, that God makes the branches bear more fruit, and causes fruit to grow that will last. God gives to those who mother the responsibility of watering and feeding and caring for the seeds that we have been given, and more often than not, we don’t get it right. Mothers are human. But God works through and beyond our own efforts, or lack thereof, and loves them in ways that we can’t, sending the Holy Spirit where we have fallen short, and being more committed to them than we possibly could. As mothers, this is our salvation - that God takes better care of our children than we do, and that despite our mistakes, despite our inability to live up to the Hallmark cards’ description of us and despite our failure to love our children as God loves us, God loves our children, God loves us, and God forgives us. Thanks be to God. Happy Mother’s Day. Amen.