The following “poem” is rough and raw because its just stream of consciousness poetry in the moment… but a Holy week poem for this year:
Dots, Connecting and Colliding
A shared lament with a friend rooted in her experience of Christian disdain for her Jewishness…
A quick text conversation about ministry where narratives of a sovereign God make no sense…
A call of tears and laughter; pretending we can say “have a good day” knowing it’s not possible…
Another call to one where all their concern is not for self but others… but the self needs care…
A process of renewal set on tracks and ready to roll when a disastrous but temporary halt is called…
Efforts at vulnerability mistook for weakness because real is so unexpected it’s unappreciated…
Planning a service that is about the unplanned…
Conveying the overwhelming power of a moment… to friends who fell asleep…
Holy Week is so good at being Holy Week.
It’s only been 4 days… that cannot all have happened in a mere four days… right?
And we really haven’t even gotten to the “good” parts yet.
Here we are: Thursday. This is where all will start to unravel.
When a God-plan unravels… are we left with God at the end of it?
Or did we perhaps overstate from the beginning the idea of plan… and the idea of God?
We presumed far too much in the way of knowledge about how this was all supposed to work.
We were busy agreeing that this must be what it was supposed to be to see what it really is.
We love it when a plan comes together. Because so many of them don’t.
Painfully. Anxiously. Frustrating to a point of maddeningly so. Plans unravel.
All our plans.
And we look to find one whose plans don’t as if aspiring to lofty unattainable perfect will help.
We look to connect our unraveled self to “the well put together” as if it all rubs off on us.
And we try not to notice when it does… because its tarnished and not all that real after all.
Perfection is that way… it simply isn’t and cannot be.
But does the weaver of life do in response to the cycle of non-being???
The weaver of life chooses real over desirable.
The weaver of life sets about to unravel pretentions.
Disabuses perfection of its power.
Shatters its own lofty achievements.
The weaver dashes desirable to hell… and pulls the real up out of it.
Because lateral love is better than condescending ideals and hierarchical worship.
And still… we struggle to replicate it. Because the desirable is just so… desirable.
And the weaver is moved to greater and greater depths to show the beauty of loving what’s is
Really broken. Really pained. Really longing.
But always too: really loved. really worth giving up all the perfects for.
really worthy in all our unraveled quandry
That’s a story we all should all show up to… every week, but at least, in its own Holy week…
Damn…. maybe that was always the plan after all… eh, let’s not pretend to know. And bask instead in the knowing… no great love than this…
- What is your pain telling you?
- What does the pain of your neighbors tell you as well?
- Do you have people with whom you can share your pain?
- Are you hearing the cries of friends, your neighbors, and the “other”?
- Are we resolved to change the sources of our pain?
- Are we resolved to change the ways we inflict pain?
Hang with me for a moment… there is a point to this and perhaps worthiness hanging around for…
Early today I posted a sermon from 10 years ago. That sermon was posted today because it tells my sister Sally’s story with rare disease and today is rare disease day… and that sermon has become probably my most memorable sermon for the way that story preaches. But that sermon was never about Sally. And I think that’s important. Let me tell you that story of how that sermon came to be…
You see. I fell in love with the Book of Daniel. Such a weird little book. So misunderstood and underutilized. We know of Lion’s dens and giant bunnies (thanks Veggie Tales)… we know of the “writing on the wall” and the fiery furnaces… and then we know very little because it gets really weird. like really weird. So we stop tracking.
That’s where Sally came in… you see Daniel 12 comes up in the lectionary for the Reign of Christ which loves apocalyptic texts… it came up one day while I was assigned to preach and I gravitated to it because I had just fallen in love with Daniel in a class and part of my struggle when I came to it to preach it was: how do we understand these texts? How do we preach a text born out of religious persecution at the culmination of generations of oppression? How do you preach that to…. mostly affluent Americans?
That is when I realized that we do know futility, the death of hope, and need for resilient love… I knew it as well… I knew it in my sister’s story (and today I would say in the stories of several of my family members who might continue to wonder… what did we do to deserve this and how do we surviving it???). So I told Sally’s story.. or a small portion of it. Not to tell her story but to tell OUR story. As Frederick Buechler says in his book Telling Secrets, “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours…it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”
In 2008 (wow that was like forever ago and yet just yesterday) I began a Doctor of Ministry. I wanted a single course of study but ended up in a place where that wasn’t easy to manage. I wanted to make the whole thing be about discipleship… and what was I to do in the modern world of membership while telling a biblical story of discipleship. So each semester I picked a course to come at that subject from that courses particular lens. And in 2009 I took a class that was translating the book fo Daniel. I had no idea what I got myself in for…. and it was amazing….. holy… and transformative.
For a 2 week period I was in a class with only 4 students and one professor where we spent all day, every day, translating the Book of Daniel from start to finish. Hebrew and Aramaic (the book uses both) we spend all day given English voice to this ancient Hebrew texts and debating nuance and defending point of view and intent and modern equavalence. And in that process I fell in love with the Book of Daniel. I fell in love with apocalyptic literature. I fell in love with something I had previously labeled weird, un-understandable, and without pedagogical value. I fell in love with it as I, day after day, spent hours of intimacy looking into its inner self and finding out how to give it voice.
I will never loose that love. I will not always understand it well. I will not always get it right. I will not always remember fully what I learned and came to knew… bu the love I have for it will never let me go.
And I think in that there is something very preaching about the power of intimacy. The power of interpretation. The power of learning to give personal voice to a personal story that was previously stranger to you. And the transformations and close-knit-ness that results.
And that’s also a fitting message for this Rare Disease Day. Seek to come to know it intimately.. and it will change your life. Not in all good ways… but in memorable ways, transformative ways, empowering ways. And you will never be the same.
Thanks be to God.
It is the last day of 2018… so I guess I need to get this written. 2018 is a bit of blur to me. It has felt like a year in which all the important things in our immediate family went well… kids are healthy, school and music and sports are going well, the parents are appropriately exhausted, and there is no reason to believe that it won’t continue that way into 2019.
Warren keeps very busy because he loves keeping his options open: soccer, cross-country, track, oboe, saxophone, piano, science bowl, and honor society… and he does it all well… from what I can tell. Even family-oriented, responsible 13 year old boys are hard to get much out of… in Warren language the word ok means about 23,641 different things.
Elizabeth is finding her own way. She has come to a time of learning to opt out of things that aren’t exciting to her that she used to do because she followed in her brother’s footsteps. She is also a lot like having a 25 year living in the house when it comes to her desire to run a household… she is Caroline to a t (if the name Caroline had a t in it). What defines her this year uniquely? She spends hours and hours every week out on the hammock swing listening to music on her ipod. That girl was born to swim and fly… and she only visits the land now and then.
Meredith… Mere-Mere… or most properly: The Mere. She is who she has always been which is a strong willed and yet tender and caring individual. The Mountain Goat is her spirit animal. She excels at school… and being different than anyone else. I think that is her life goal. To never travel a trail… but to always make her own with flair and agility (and when that won’t work.. to simply bust on through).
Danielle is joy to everyone… except maybe her immediate family. But I wish I could capture the sheer joy with which she does everything… and I’d give my life to make sure she doesn’t lose that. She is a Valkyrie on the soccer field, an amazing helper in the kitchen, a smotherer (with love) of dogs, and can take forever to put to bed because she has to first tuck in 20 some dolls and stuffed animals for whom she has made their own beds out of pieces of cloth and cardboard.
Like I said… we’re good. But…
The flip side is it feels like all the little things went horrible or were way more a time suck than they should have been in this last year… last 3 years actually. I joke.. but my house and yard are literally falling apart. My neighbors are annoyed because there is now a wire stretched across the road to get us internet (which Caroline requires for work) because the line under the road is dead and they don’t want to dig it up for just our house. And that’s just one example that seems to define so much of our life from a functional aspect.
Work feels like swimming upstream and uphill for both Caroline and me… I don’t think either of us really admit that because we love our jobs… but its been a year in which that work felt… a lot like work. We can point to things that we wish we could fix but cannot… and we live in frustration about our own futility. It’s hard to sit idle around people in pain, or systems that are broken, but… what do you do when there is nothing that can be done? Which gets me to the swirling maelstrom that is the world around us. I feel very strongly that many of the justice issues of our day have hit devastating roadblocks that make me question the reality of many of my primary values: connectedness, love, and the “common good”. I find it hard to wake up in the morning in a good mood… and yet personally we have nothing to complain about because we are all good.
This has been 2018. I’m really not sad to put it behind me. But just as I’m sure my kids will have another great 2019… I don’t imagine the shadows of these ills will be a thing of the past either. So… what does one resolve to do in the face of this… how do we find that energy to continue to pursue hope, love, and justice?
I found my wisdom just in time from the strangest of sources. The movie Aquaman. Without spoiling the plot in the movie a husband who has been separated from his wife spends every morning at sunrise walking out to the end of the dock in the ocean to wait for the day his wife joins him there as promised. Every day he walks out there… and every day he stands alone… waiting for the beloved who doesn’t show. Every day. And yet he keeps walking out there. And I realized something. Every day my dock is full. It is abundantly full. Maybe its not as many people as I’d like. Maybe some of them come bearing more weight and baggage than I’d like. But my dock is full. Friends, family, coworkers. And they are out there for us, each and every day. And that is enough. All the other things… all those little things. They aren’t what I will remember in twenty years. And maybe sooner than later I will learn to not let them bug me even now. But what matters the most is that my dock is full with people who share my values and together we will not give up on hope. We will continue to pursue justice with love, and more than a little joy along the journey.
So here is what I hope to leave you all with as we make this transition from 2018 to 2019. Who is it that you wish to join you on your dock when you walk out there each day? Who powers up your day so that morning is brimming with more hope than despair? And on whose dock are you showing up?
So many of you made appearances in so many ways on the Kukla dock this last year. We thank you for it. We are grateful for the constant reminder that together we shall overcome all things… or, at the least, survive them. And its you – sharing in the journey of us – that gives us peace. So a happy send off to 2018… and 2019? Bring it on.
This morning I wore a Darth Vader shirt to work.
I always have to rationalize my clothing choices.
I picked it because it’s light-weight-cozy and its a rainy morning.
I picked it because I will go home and change soon anyway.
But… I rationalized it by saying, “I’ll give the Empire its morning… because with the night comes rebellion.”
And then it hit me: Vader is Herod.
Herod was born and raised a Jew. By family link he was royalty.. but a client kingdom of a powerful and distant Empire. When Herod’s life is crumbling around him in desperation he seeks the aid of the Empire… and they name him a King. Borrowing Imperial power, casting off / betraying his original wife (whom he eventually had executed) and children to make a political marriage, Herod returns to secure the rule of Jerusalem and begin the Herodian Dynasty.
Herod then becomes known for his grand building projects, a polarizing personality, and by general historical consensus a despotic and tyrannical rule with the use of Imperial power to create a police state to suppress his own people and their criticisms of his rule.
Herod will respond to the word of a potential child of rebellion with fear and lies – and set his whole kingdom on edge to see what this means… and it would mean the slaughtering of countless children to protect his power even from unsubstantiated rumor. He forced a whole kingdom to bear the same sacrifices he had made in his own life for the propagation of his personal power and the Empire he represented with iconic visage.
Yes. Herod gets the morning… but the night will still be his undoing – he will be his own undoing – because that is how rule by fear works. It necessarily destroys you from within even as it inspires the very hope that will outlast you. The trappings of Empire are grand, and the human toll of their oppression is real and heartbreaking. Let me not downplay either one. But let us also not pretend that inside the hard shell of their exterior power lies anything but a very fragile and pathetic man. Nothing there is worthy of worship. Let us not pretend that any Empire – as impressive as they look and as powerful as they feel – was good news to the common person, the inside stranger, or the outsider.
I will repeat what I said yesterday… all the Goliaths the world has ever produced have failed to bring us any closer to the Community of God.
The way to Empire is never a way to peace and wholeness. So tonight… what we celebrate is not the birth of a king… that language was only ever helpful as the language of the Empire to understand the threat to its power on its terms. But what we celebrate is the birth of a way freed from kings. We don’t play on their terms… if we do they win again. So we let it go. We look to a child to show us a new way. The child who is not-king. The child who is friend. The child who is not, and will not be, co-opted by Imperial terminology… even the language of Messiah (which is ultimately a term of religious empire) to lead us in the foolishness of the gospel. The foolishness of vulnerability, openness, and humility. The way of not-kings that will grant us peace.
And that we, as a people, have not yet figured out how to make this way work in scale does not mean it doesn’t work. It means that it is… not-yet.
So the Empire gets the morning… but the sunset is coming, and it will birth a new day.
So this sermon ended up long as I tried to walk the line of it being too much about me but also the vulnerability that connects because we all have these same thoughts and struggles and I think the willingness to admit that out loud is relationally important.
Video to this text can be found here (they are slightly different but basically the same).
If you had been here…none of this would have happened.
Jesus… if you could just have been here… if you had cared enough to be here… none of this would have happened.
That had to have been hard to here. Jesus, who loved him greatly, has a lot of places to be, and ministry to do. And this friend, in hurt and grief, looks at Jesus – who had been doing that ministry elsewhere – and says, “If you had just cared enough to be here, none of this would have happened.”
And Jesus probably agreed.
Earlier this week on Tuesday I woke up with this disquieted and discomfortable (yes I know the word is uncomfortable but this word makes grammar people uncomfortable so it better speaks to my sensibilities at the moment) sense of self. Have you ever woken up and just felt wrong? Not healthy wrong, but your sense of self is wrong. I don’t know if I am making any difference in the world. I do not know if I’m getting any of the things done that I want to accomplish. At any given time, I don’t know if I’m where I need to be to keep “all of this from happening.” I don’t even need Martha to look at me and tell me that… the reflection in my mirror is saying it: if you had just cared, Andrew… none of this would have happened.
This isn’t the only time we become aware of Jesus’ failings. When Luke tells the story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown he recounts that when Elijah saved the widow’s child in Sidon there were many languishing in famine and dying but Elijah was only sent to, and saved, one of them. ‘I may work miracles, but I don’t raise all the dead.’ Even when we reach the end of this story we are reflecting on today there is only one Lazarus that is raised from the dead… so many other people that Jesus… failed (?)… stay dead. Jesus understands what it is like to have to choose places and people to be present to in his powerful personhood. And he knows what it is to look in the mirror knowing that for thousands and millions of others, “if I had just been there… none of this would have happened.”
For six years I have been the pastor of this church. I think every pastor knows when they come into a new call that they are not going to grow the church. But every pastor secretly thinks that they could…. And that they will. I woke up on Tuesday morning feeling disquieted for many reasons. One of those was because on Monday night doing our responsibility in caring ways the Session removed 38 people from membership. People who had really removed themselves from membership years ago. It took our membership number down to 302 people. Now, Andrew in a good moment knows that number means very little. But Andrew in a bad moment, when he looks into the mirror and thinks about where he could have been and what he could have done to keep “all this” from happening, says to himself, “wow, when I came here it was a 375 member church, and then it was a 350 member church… and then 325… and then 302. And it’s just not what I thought would happen 6 years later…. Does anything that I do matter?”
(Don’t worry about me… that was, as I said, a discomfortable moment… a self-doubt moment.)
I went on Tuesday afternoon (part of my role as the President of the Board of CATCH, housing homeless families, is to serve on the Executive Personnel team) and met with executive staff members and we had lunch to assess our ministry at CATCH. CATCH does great work towards the goal of ending homelessness. But it feels as if there are more people experiencing homelessness this year than last year. Did we fail? Did we succeed? With more money coming in because we have done good and trustworthy work… we served not a single person more than the year before… did we fail? Are we making a difference if the problem we are trying to solve that IS solvable seems to be getting worse before our very eyes? Does what we do matter?
I work with an interfaith group and we talk about and practice being there for each other, the things that unite us as spiritual communities are as many as those that divide us, and we CAN focus on what unites us. But as you come together as an interfaith community in the wake of 11 people being killed in a Synagogue as the gunman declares that he wants to kill all the Jews… when the same things happen in Christian churches, and mosques, and people of color because far too many of us are driven to kill that which we disagree with than defend each other… it makes me wonder if what we do matters. Or am I in all the wrong places at all the wrong times.
I think that is what was going on when I woke up on Tuesday feeling all discomfortable. It wasn’t simply about fatigue or a poor nights sleep. It was futility. And I feel that sense of walking uphill. Trying to swim upstream. The fact that we are called to be a light in the darkness, but the darkness seems to be winning. Wouldn’t it be easier if I decided I really don’t care? If I went on about my life and focus on me and my enjoyment: eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
I think it would be easier. But it wouldn’t be true. And it wouldn’t be good.
And the end of the day, when I am not in the “that mood” I remember that a hundred families aren’t experiencing homelessness because CATCH is out there working uphill. I remember that for every 11 people shot the vastly greater majority gather around the world in solidarity for people they don’t even know – but they love – to remind each other that one person does not define our country or world by their hate. And whether my ego thinks that ministry over six years would lead to 450 members and not 302… it is wonderful to be here with you. And find people who empower me and remind me why it is I do what I do.
Bonnie Lind, who is here today from Portland where she moved a couple of years ago, gave me one of my favorite stories to hold onto for my life. We had a session meeting to change worship times and styles… remember that? And the motion changed in the meeting to an idea I honestly didn’t like and didn’t think would work. And I kind of freaked out after the meeting and I had just closed on my house and was completing my first year here and I called up Bonnie Lind who was the chair of Personnel at the time and I said, “The church is going to die this summer! And I just bought a house!” And she said something to me like, “Andrew this church has been here for 135 years… you are not good enough to kill it.” Ok, she didn’t say it quite that way, but she reminded me that I’m not alone, and that is not simply about whether or not I show up – in fact, my showing up is almost the least important – because there are all manner of leaders here who will and do show up. And we will work through this together… to keep all this from happening, or to keep all this from being worse than it would be without us. She put me at ease.
A couple of years after that the Personnel Committee had turned over completely and was made up of several of you who I won’t name right now – really I won’t – and the whole committee at that time was about as different politically from me as any four people we could have chosen at that time could possibly be. And I had done something that caused some community consternation with the church on an issue in which none of those four people agreed with me. And I confessed to them… ok, I did this thing, and it may blow up around us. And you know what? Not even one of them said, “Andrew what were you thinking?” They said they didn’t agree with me, but they respected my right to say and do what I did and moved right on to what we needed to do to protect the church. And in that moment, I realized that they, and I, would charge hell with a bucket of water for each other even though they are wrong about all their political opinions.
Because it’s not just me that has to show up. In fact, I do a pretty poor job of it… alone. I am grateful I am not alone… to keep all this from happening.
Yesterday we hosted a small conference and a Presbytery meeting. And I never really agreed to host the conference… it just sort of happened. Hosting a Presbytery meeting, which is our obligation, turned into to hosting a Friday night and all Saturday event almost 3 times larger than what we thought we had signed up to host. I regularly think about our church as one that is wrestling above our weight class. We are a church that holds ourselves to a higher standard, a church hitting goals that churches with 302 members don’t usually even attempt. And about 18 of you all came out to help us host. And let me tell you that you didn’t meet a normal standard of hosting, you didn’t meet a 302 member church standard or the high standards I try to hold us too… you met the Kingdom of God standards for radical hospitality all throughout the weekend, and I was so overly proud to serve this church at that moment. It was just a meal and meeting… but it was the hospitality work of keeping the light on and being a home and holding back the darkness – even if it was only for seven hours.
Jesus wept…. that his friend died. Jesus wept that he wasn’t there. Jesus wept that he knew that no matter that he was the very son of God he would still fail people’s expectations of him. Jesus wept that as much heart as he might have… every single one of us are finite beings who can only do so much. Jesus wept… and it’s powerful.
And then Jesus looked into the tomb in all his power and said, “Lazarus, come out.” And he did.
What the hell do we do with that?
Because wouldn’t that be awesome if we could do that?!?!?! Talk about your All Saints Sunday…we could really whip up some members. We could get the 4,000 past members of the church and we wouldn’t have pews enough for them.
What do I do with this scripture ending…. Because I can’t, we can’t, do that… Or can I? Can we?
Jesus says, “Unbind him.” That is way more important to him than the ‘Lazaraus, come out’. Sure, I don’t have the power of God to raise Lazarus from the dead, but Jesus then gave me a role in the story. Unbind him so he can live. And there are people all around us who are living their lives bound by oppression, bound by finiteness, bound by depression, bound by societal structures that don’t offer them the same opportunities they offer me… bound by so many things. To which Jesus cannot go to all them, and be there for all of them, Jesus said it himself. And so, Jesus found us and told us to unbind them so they can live.
There are people in our world who are targets of hate, there are minorities denied rights, vulnerable left unprotected, unrepresented, and targets of hate. And it’s our role to go to them and help unbind them that they can live.
A friend of my working in law enforcement reminds me that in a country that has great consternation about how our country polices itself there are some good men and women working hard by their presence to unbind life from death and they are having to do it with our scorn and hatred and so they are killing themselves literally and figuratively. Our job is to go to them and in solidarity unbind them so that they can unbind others so that those others can unbind us so that we can live. And that? That we can do. And that has value, and worth.
So, whether you look in the mirror and tell yourselves you are not doing enough, or avoid the mirror so you don’t have to hear your own inner dialogue, “thank you.” For in every moment you have been there for me, or for someone in your pew, or a stranger you didn’t even know even in a small forgettable act you unbound them and enacted the power of Jesus to give them life. And there is no better calling them that.
Unbind them, that they may live. This is the word of our Lord, thanks be to God.
Today I am feeling a sense of despair, futility, and failure. There are so many people hurting in the world. And while I understand its impossible to be “there” for everyone… I feel like I am there for less and less people in less significant ways each day than the day before…
I feel like I’m probably not alone in feeling that… but I don’t know that there is a way to change that… and thus the sense of despair.
As I reflect on that I’m drawn to the Apostle Paul’s words from jail in the beginning of his letter to the Philippians. “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you…”
I don’t know what in the world Paul is actually talking about but I think… I think perhaps he felt that dying was easy and living was hard. But living well, living good… living as light in a dark world was so important that it was worth the struggle. Worth the struggle, perhaps (I add), even if you cannot tell if you are actually making any headway at all…. even if it seems all you are doing is putting up sandbags before rising waters. Because a slight flood is way better than total devastation… even if it still feels like a failure because you did not actually beat the waters.
In this world in which it seems the powers of selfishness, greed, and enmity are winning… I refuse to go quietly into that night. I may not succeed at all in ending that darkness. In fact I know without doubt that I will not. But – following in the footsteps of greater guides than me – I will not let the light I seek to reflect into the world, insufficient as it feels, go out. Its not enough…. but its still worth it.
I love you all… apparently or not I’m fighting for you and trying to stand with you, and I’m seeking to create whatever dry solid ground I can… and together: we will keep the light on.
The term ex nihilo is a Latin term for “out of nothing”. Its most notably used in conversations about creation as the claim that God created out of nothing, one that is core to Christian theology. God pre-exists creation and everything that is… is from God. The claim was something that for years I would have taken as a given of my own theological framework. It was. And it is no longer.
Pastoral life has cracked and fractured many of the givens of my theological framework. I have a mind that loves systematic thought. I love Philosophy. I love the task of Systematic Theology, and of articulating clear doctrinal understandings of the world, of God, and of the relationship between God and all things. But as my love of narrative grew, a Scriptural theology that embraces the messiness of life began to not only appeal more to me… but fracture previous foundations – I know longer saw “realness” to the clean clear lines of doctrine. My vocational life places me (gifts me) in people’s confidence where I hear and see their constant struggles and the angst-ridden existential task of meaning-making in their stories and this, again, makes me continually question, restrain, and flat out toss out many of the “right answers” I thought I knew.
The Bible has a fair amount of creation theology. It goes far beyond Genesis 1 and 2 – the twin creation stories we all typically conflate into one and call it the THE creation story. John begins his Gospel with a creation story. Hebrews and Revelation both give strong creation claims of creation ex-nihilo. Psalms and Proverbs both speak to creation and its unfolding. There is creation theology throughout our scriptures – we can hardly point to one story and there is no single authoritative voice to a single absolute theological understanding of how it all came to be. John’s Gospel is, in my opinion, is the strongest “ex nihilo” argument. Its hard to argue with “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3)
It’s a captivating claim. And I’m not saying there isn’t truth in it. In my world of mystery and limited knowledge and resistance to claiming to understand ultimate things, I have plenty of space to hold two truths together. And I certainly have no need to disabuse anyone else of their foundations. But I think the cracks are helpful… because life filters through them. Because that is how life works – it comes out of other things far more than it does out of nothing.
Years ago, I was at a Discipleship conference that was being run simultaneously to a conference on New Church Development. I remember at a break I was talking to one of the new church development pastors and I made some very ignorant comment like “it must be nice to start a new church and get to work with a blank slate. No old culture you need to change but getting to begin things fresh and new.”
He quickly smashed that fiction. My thoughts that new church development was creation ex nihilo couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, he said, what you have is no agreement at all on what the slate should be. Everyone comes with their baggage from other churches, everyone comes with their own vision for what this new thing should be… there is no “out of nothing” but rather “out of many somethings”. And a culture still needs to grow and be nourished and directed and pruned… and it still has a mind (and minds) of its own.
I hold on to that comment. I have fallen back on that wisdom time and again because it reveals deep truth to me. Our lives don’t need someone that can create out of nothing. I think that way lies the foundations of an oppressive imperial theology that wants to cut it all down and sculpt the world in its own image. That creation story endorses Missional imperialism. We bring the blueprint for how it is supposed to be, and you have nothing to offer us. Let’s make, or imagine, a nothing from which we can create that which is good. The story of creation ex nihilo horrifies more than claims me.
My life is messy. My tomorrow seems less than palatable on many fronts than my today. A thousand tiny neglected threads making the canvas of my life seemingly unravel before me. In the midst of that story, how powerful for me to hear and remember and take comfort in these words:
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
How many times does this feel like our reality? Our lives have become formless void… we are living in a darkness from which its hard to imagine hope. Chaos seems to reign, and the wildness of that life puts our own lives at threat. Hurricane. Forest fire. A cresting river. These are all signs of abundant life – too abundant for you and for me. Literally and figuratively we know what it is live in the darkness of the deep where the forces at play in the world are about to blow apart our lives. Chaff in the wind.
But God’s spirit is blowing over us too: we are not alone.
“Then God said, “Let there be light’”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from darkness.”
In this creation story, we are not only ‘not alone’ but God is in our corner. God is coaxing up from the abundant powers of this world a sustainable abode for life. God has “heard us in our distress” and rises to answer with creative activity. Light, air, boundaried shores of much more static dry land… each in their turn is coaxed out of what already-is to create something good… something more livable, more productive, more unanticipated expectation filled with hope. And no.. it is not ex nihilo nor even a solo project. God continually invites creation, the beasts, and then us to help in the task of creating. This is a group project – from the beginning, a group project about letting life emerge and discerning (separating out / naming and claiming) what is good.
And for this reason and many more, I find a theology of creation ex nihilo no longer helpful for me. I’m not saying God cannot and did not do such a thing – who am I to claim such knowledge as all of that – but what I’m saying is that it is far more powerful in my life to attend to the witnessed claim that God continues to create from our messiness. A story of God’s desire, participation, and power to work with creation, with the somethings that we already have that feel.. tattered, torn, and absent of hope. God did this, and God does this still.
God able to work with my baggage… and call it good? That’s a powerful story I need to hear. Every. Day.
You are God’s creation friend… you are your creation. You are the creation of a thousand lives that have formed you in ways good and bad and everything in between. But never forget… through all that tosses you about – you are not alone. God is in your corner. And God is coaxing up from the world of possibilities a place for you to feel… home. Safe. Loved. Partnered. Important… Good.
Thanks be to God.
“There is no Death in God”
Isaiah 11:1-9 Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24
By Rev. Dr. Andrew Kukla
at First Presbyterian Church, Boise, ID
July 1, 2018
(the following sermon can also be viewed on YouTube by clicking this link here.)
We go from a very familiar text of “and a little child shall lead them” and “the lion shall lay down with the lamb” to this next text that I would bet almost none of you out there even know exists. For sure you won’t find this in your pew Bible. This comes from The Wisdom of Solomon. It’s in the Apocrypha which is part of the Catholic Bible but considered deuterocanonical. Duetero meaning second, so it literally means the 2nd canon. It’s not scripture… but it’s the next closest thing.
The historian in me wants to tell you a little about where this is coming from so a bit of prelude to the reading. When the Jews lived in diaspora, that is scattered from Israel throughout the Greek-speaking world, they circulated a Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. It was added to it in circulation. The Catholic Church used the Septuagint in the formation of the Latin Vulgate and considers those added books to be the secondary canon and includes them in their Bibles in what we Protestants call the Apocrypha. Protestant church stuck to the Masoretic text and the official Jewish canon in the Hebrew Bible. So we do not have, as second canon, such books as Bel and the Dragon, 1st and 2nd Maccabees, and Susanna. And of course, the Wisdom of Solomon – or just Wisdom, from which we are reading today.
When Wisdom of Solomon came us an alternate reading in the lectionary I thought, “why not?” And in a moment, I think you will understand exactly why it came up to me, but before we go there a little more background. This was probably written between 100 BCE – 50 BCE… it was among the diaspora Jews, it was written to a Greek world with very good Greek rhetoric to Greek-speaking Jews reminding them not to lose their Jewishness in this very Greek world. Remember even Rome’s philosophy is Greek. Greeks were the culture people and the language of the intellectual. Rome was the great bureaucracy, but even Rome is Hellenized and part of the Greek roots of Western Civilization. So, the author is writing about the value of staying true to the “wisdom of Solomon”, or the wisdom of their Jewish heritage, and not losing that to the Hellenized culture in which they live. In that backdrop we read this, from chapters 1 and 2:
Because God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal.
For God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.
–Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24
This is… a word akin to the Lord’s? Thanks be to God.
I mean, I don’t know what I’m supposed to say there – they don’t teach you that in seminary when you are reading something we don’t claim to be canonical. That’ll have to do… a word akin to the Lord’s.
How does the Holy Spirit work?
We Presbyterians are not known for being Holy Spirit people. We get skeptical of the Holy Spirit. We like reason and rational thought. We like science. We are academic theologians… and we wear our clergy robes to reflect that. So, what do we do with the Holy Spirit?
I remember when I first came here sitting with one of our members with coffee and he told me, “Andrew, I like going to church. And I like coming here. But I don’t go in for all that miracle stuff.” He is a doctor, a scientist of a sort, and he was on board with me so long as I don’t get too mystical. And for the most part, and most of the time, I would probably stay in line with that thought. But for today – I just can’t avoid it.
The Holy Spirit is tying things together beyond my knowledge. Carol just sang Amazing Grace for us. For weeks upon weeks upon months, Carol was asking me to find a Sunday where she could sing that piece and it would be tied into what I was preaching. And for weeks upon week upon months, Andrew didn’t do that… and she just picked a date. But it’s the right date – the Holy Spirit picked this date.
If you looked ahead at the Affirmation of Faith, and who doesn’t look ahead at worship to see how long worship will go over…so, when you looked at it, you saw it and thought, “Oh no… Andrew put this one in again. We did this last week too, and it didn’t work then so why does he have us doing it again?” I used it last week because I thought it worked well with a nuance of the relationship between David and Saul but then I cut that part out of my sermon, so it didn’t relate at all.
But this week as I caught up in this idea of death not being a part of God’s will and purpose… and how awesome and fitting that the Affirmation of Faith speaks about the commandment not to murder as really about a commandment not to pursue vengeance and anger and the various emotions that lead to murder. The Holy Spirit wanted me to keep that Affirmation of Faith even though I may have thought it was me that chose it.
If that freaks you out… I’m okay with that. Because it freaks me out too.
The Wisdom of Solomon, which says some weird things that make me understand why it’s not in our Bible… also has put this very profound and important thought on my heart this week: that God has created everything for life, not death. Everything. For life. Not death.
So God wills death… for nothing. And if there is a more radical biblical strain of thought… I’m not sure what it is. Even the biblical text struggles to keep that strain prevalent… that God does not will death for anything God created. God desires death… for no-one… for no-thing.
I grew up in Wheaton, Illinois. Most of you already know that… some of you have been to Wheaton. Wheaton is the home to a strong evangelical Christian college. And that feeds the culture of my hometown and one of the interesting things I have noted from that is that many of high school friends have – in rejecting that strict evangelical backdrop – rejected Christianity as a whole. More than Christianity… they rejected God. (Christianity and God not actually being synonymous.)
I was talking with one of my friends a couple years ago and she said she doesn’t believe in God because she doesn’t want God controlling her life… but her second and bigger issue (and certainly she is tapped into general complaint far bigger than her) is that God doesn’t kill bad people before they can harm good people. Now for me, this is a fascinating argument. You want freedom from God in your life… but you want God to control other people, so they don’t do bad things. And… that doesn’t work.
That’s the rub. We are all sure we are good… so we can be given full and free will. But other people? They aren’t trustworthy, so control and stop them.
I always want to be a father of daughters… which is good because I have three of them. And I remember this moment when Elizabeth was young (before the other two were born) and we were at a playground. And in the space of a moment I lived an entire lifetime – this happens to most parents I believe –an entire lifetime as if Elizabeth had been kidnapped when through my head. And I could hear, literally hear, her screaming voice on the wind crying out for me and wondering why her dad doesn’t come and rescue her. Look, I’m crying now recalling this and it never even happened. But I could feel like it was deeply true and if felt like I was living that horrible helpless despairing reality… and then I had this weird epiphany. God is the creator of all that is… all life is from and of God. So, when any life is lost to God, God is hearing that voice on the wind crying, “rescue me. save me. Please! Where are you God that you haven’t helped me?”
Anytime we bring harm to anyone God is hearing voices on the wind. People we cannot even stand… are still voices on the wind. People who appear anathema to God are STILL voices God hears on the wind saying, “rescue me… rescue me.” And God’s heart breaks for them… because they are God’s.. and God wills no death for anything that has life.
Last night. Violence erupted close to home. 9 people, 6 children, stabbed by a madman out of the night. Their safety and celebration robbed and violated in an act that echoed violence that erupts and has erupted in our world time and again, over and over and over. Voices on the wind for us… and for God.
The trained philosopher reacts to that moment by naming that people who want to close our borders or build high walls are making a very rational argument. My philosophy professors in college always urged that in a debate we had to frame our opponents’ argument as they would make it. Not the strawman argument. Not hyperbole and a one-dimensional argument that is easy to refute. But granting them the same nuance and complexity we give ourselves. So I force myself to acknowledge that while I disagree with them on what is good and right to do, the person who wants to close down the border, build high walls, keep outsiders… outside, is make the more rational and logical argument.
It’s just not a biblical argument.
It is right to want to seek out safety. What should Jesus have done on this night? (point to the set communion table) What should Jesus have done when he knew they were coming for him? He should have run away… he should have locked the door. He certainly shouldn’t tell Peter… put away your sword.
We are called, not to a rational way of life, but to a way of life that acknowledges that everyone and everything was created by God for life. And that means that we are willing to put ourselves in jeopardy to foster life. We put to rest violence and vengeance, we put rest hard-heartedness, we put to rest the idea that we seek safety at all cost.
I fail to do that. I lock my door at night. And I would tell you if someone off the street asks for a ride you should not put them in your car and drive them somewhere. I literally failed to be “the good Samaritan” all the time in service to my own safety. But when I make that argument I know that I’m failing my biblical calling. And somehow, we are called into that tension. We are called to recognize that we are all, everything is all, God’s. We either live for everyone, or we live against them. And when we live against them… we live against God.
And I cannot do that…
But love the idea of it. I need the idea of it.
I could not imagine what it is to hear the voices of millions of your children on the wind calling for help… but you cannot help them, because your other children don’t want them to be helped.
There is no death in God… even though we wish it. And we do, we wish that God would deal death to those we see as opposed to God – those who ARE opposed to God…. but death is not of God. And God wills no death for God’s creation. God is radical, eternal, steadfast love. God is life. We are not saved so much by the cross – a death – but the resurrection, a life. And that life is stronger than death… and choosing to die in order to promote life… is the better part.
I cannot live that… without you… helping me to do that. And the Holy Spirit helping to empower us all by lacing up these fragments like Amazing Grace and the weird Wisdom of Solomon and last nights horrific violence on our doorstep. And tying them up in a single loving knot. And saying its all related. It is all of me. Love it. Love me.
This is the word of our Lord, thanks be to God.
There is a thing we call the Prosperity Gospel. You know it, maybe not by that name, but you know it. It’s a brand of Christianity that sells the idea that if you do the right things, pray the right way, and worship God… you will be rewarded with material success… you will “prosper”. The Prosperity Gospel arose out of the ashes of WWII as an off-shoot of the revival movements, but truly came to fame with the Televangelists of the 1980s who were really good at having very white teeth, good hair, and telling people what they were hoping to hear. And this tradition is alive and well in many guises of American religious culture today.
You have seen the story recently of a gentleman down south asking the supporters of his ministry to fund a new 54M dollar private jet to replace the third one they bought that their ministries have worn out preaching the gospel. And I’m imagining that he will succeed one way or the other… because we buy-in for prosperity.
Peter Rollins, a favorite theologian, once remarked that we talk about the downturn of Christianity in the 21st century. But that is a misnomer. Christianity is still a billion dollar a year best-selling business. At least… a certain type of Christianity is the type that gives people what they want and tells them what they want to hear. They want a faith of absolute certainties given them from a strong righteous exemplary leader who promises them that faith is rewarded with material blessings and hard-working, Bible-believing, God-fearing people will become financially successful and live “blessed lives”.
That idea? That idea can still fill football stadiums.
So, what’s the problem with that? Jesus for one. And today? Paul for another.
In fact, the problem is actual bible reading Christianity.
Look closely with me at this description of our Christian lives from (slightly paraphrased) Paul’s letter to Corinth (2 Corinthians 4:6-12):
We are afflicted in every way… just short of being crushed;
Perplexed… but not driven all the way to despair;
Persecuted… but not left to rot alone;
struck down… but not out for the count;
always tangibly carrying in ourselves the death of Jesus,
so that the abundant life of Jesus may be visible in through us.
Paul makes this out to be of divine purpose… because God has chosen not to put God’s power in the strong and mighty – the palpably prospering – but in earthenware vessels, in that which markedly common and easily broken. Mainly? Us.
God did this literally in the incarnation as God revealed God’s self in the fully human (and very fragile infant) Jesus… God did this literally in turning Paul’s zeal to destroy the church into a passion for spreading it. God continues to do this – literally – as God uses us to share God’s power and vitality in the world. Not through our strength, but in fact, through our fragility… our struggles… our doubts. God provides perseverance, not prosperity. The gospel is not about overwhelming might – but persistent grit. A light that won’t go out… but plenty of darkness it has to shine through.
This becomes, for Paul, more than simply a promise of gritty faith, but nothing less than the call to be willing to let our fragility be seen. That we are willing to let God’s light shine forth from our brokenness… our failures… our struggles… our weakness… our doubt.
I mean its bad enough God won’t take that all away. God wants us to show people how messed up we are?? This is not filling football stadiums. It’s not marketable… it’s a not a growth strategy. This is foolishness.
But that’s how God has always worked… from Abraham to Moses… from Rahab to David facing Goliath…. From Jesus to fisherman disciples… God has always chosen the least and the lost not simply as the people to be saved (though surely we are all that)… but as the LEADERS of God’s saving power through the Gospel. God’s transforming, gritty, freedom-granting gospel isn’t stored in mighty vaults and thick safes – or even 54 million dollar jets – its stored.. in us! Its made known through us. We house the very power of God and it spills out daily from the cracks in clay lives.
And while it’s easy to point fingers at TV evangelists and jet-strutting millionaires… this is also very much contrary to how we want to live. We still want to put on our Sunday best. We put on our Sunday best because then you don’t know that I didn’t make my bed this morning… and that at my house if you go around the side yard, out of the sight lines of the street, my grass goes from being 3 inches long to 13 inches… you don’t know that yesterday I took a two-hour nap in the afternoon so my kids didn’t end up getting to go to the park like they wanted. If I put on my Sunday best I can cover up all that and I’m not perplexed, crushed, afflicted… barely keeping my head above water. I look good. And that is how we want to be seen by each other.
We preachers struggle mightily with this… we get caught in the trap of believing you need us to have it all together! We are contractually obligated to be solid in our faith. We imagine that our strength is necessary to keep other people strong. Strong and unshaken. We too are scared to model fragility. And we excuse ourselves that struggle by claiming our leadership requires it. We hide behind robes and liturgical furniture… and the office they represent, to keep from leading out of the very fragility Paul calls us to model.
So what would it this kind of leadership from fragility look like? How do we take this kind of fragility from being a nice concept to something we can actually do???
I heard a great example of this during the past week. I attended a training on how to work with children when someone they know is dying or very sick. The trainer who works in family counseling told us not to “teach the kids” how to respond.
You need to work with the kids by modeling how to respond. So you might say to the kids, ‘I keep getting emotional and find myself crying and I don’t even know why? Why do I keep crying? And I thought about it and realized its because I’m sad about what is happening with my dad and I don’t know if he is going to be ok.’ You don’t tell them how to respond, but lead with your fragility that gives them permission to be fragile as well.
And that, friends, is the gospel at work. Strength through vulnerability. Because when we are all fragile together we are very beautiful, and become very strong, and we can change the world. One fragile risk after another, thanks be to God.
This post is an abridged version of a sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho on June 3, 2018. A video of the full sermon can be viewed here.