“Purple Power” © Laurel Dahill, 2016 Easter 6 – Year C May 1, 2016

prince purp suitI was dreaming when I wrote this. Forgive me if it goes astray. But it always delights me when seemingly disparate current events, and the scripture lessons decided upon long ago, all come together to form a unique and meaningful message. Is it coincidence? Is there a divine hand at work calling our attention to something? I don’t know, maybe. But there’s good news to be found in the conjunction of things today.

The first thread in this conjunction comes from Acts, where we find ourselves in Philippi, where Paul meets “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, and a dealer in purple cloth.” Purple cloth is kind of a big deal. The resources for purple dye are easy enough to come by but processing them is anything but easy. It’s not like other dyes. That makes purple a uniquely valuable item. It’s expensive, and only the elite in the empire get to wear it. It became a marker of royalty. When it comes to clothing the royals, purple reigns.

Lydia, the proprietor of this purple cloth business, is also kind of a big deal. She’s not like other women. That makes her uniquely valuable to us. We know that the role of women at this time rarely included business practices on the scale of international trade. More women in the Bible are unnamed than named, and only the most significant are identified on their own terms, rather than as the wife of someone. Lydia is all of these things, and likely more.

Lydia had the gift of entrepreneurship. She had the skill set to compete at a very high level with other traders and business owners. She was savvy with finances, and had a strong managerial style that afforded her the time to spend with Paul and the others. She had access to domestic resources that allowed her to open her home up to Paul and his travelling companions to stay – for a while.

This purple woman is honoured because she fully lives into all the gifts she was given. She honored God by using all those gifts. Not only does she herself prosper by being her authentic self, but so too do all the people around her. Putting her gifts to work benefits others as well. That’s important. Putting her gifts to work benefits others as well.

As I was reading the lectionary selections for today, I was struck by the coincidence of a dealer in purple with the next part of the conjunction. I’ve been listening to the Prince tribute station on the radio in my car. Prince: another purveyor of purple, if you will. I always liked Prince, and purple happens to be my favourite colour too. But to me, Prince was important for more than just his singing. His iconic use of elaborate purple outfits, and his bold expressions of himself were important to me in my formative years, as I was beginning to discover how God created me.

Prince refused to conform to fashion standards and the expectations of his industry. He expressed who he was in his own way – which was always a little eccentric to say the least. But to me he was brave. He didn’t care what other people thought. God gave him really awesome gifts and talents. He didn’t diminish them around others. Rather, he magnified them and shared them with the world. Because of his generous sharing of himself, he honoured God in his being; and he made my life better in the process.

My high school years, were probably like everybody’s high school years: there were certain types everybody was expected to fit into – the jocks, the gearheads, the nerds, the dweebs, and so forth. If you didn’t choose your box, one was chosen for you. Now, daring to step outside those modes meant unwanted attention, and I didn’t always fit neatly into any one of those modes of being. But to me, I thought if Prince can put himself that far out there, and show the world his authentic self, then I could too. In those formative years, we all needed whatever we could get to get through this thing called life.

As I listen to the tribute station, a certain song comes up from time to time: 7. 7 is Prince’s take on the Book of Revelation. His song rests on the confidence that all the bad things in the vision will fail to overcome love. The seven plagues, the seven scrolls, the seven bowls of tears, trumpets, angels, and so forth, all will fall leaving only love for all space and time. I always thought it was a cool song. But recently when I started listening more carefully to the lyrics. And haven’t we been immersed in the Book of Revelation for weeks now.

The Book of Revelation is a tricky book. It’s hard to read. The imagery in John’s vision is so bold and detailed and often disturbing, that it’s easy to get carried away with them and miss the finer points.

It seems for the past two or three years, at about this time of year, there’s been really broad advertising for a course on the Book of Revelation. I’ve seen several billboards between here and Grand Rapids advertising it. The catch lines say something about the end times, and what secrets Revelation reveals to us, and how we can hope to survive the coming armageddon. The course focuses on the imagery of systematic disasters that befall our world prior to the end of the world. One-to-one comparisons are frequently made to prove that the wars have begun, that the antichrist is among us, and that the seven seals are already being opened. For those who read this book in literal terms, Revelation is a literal script for the end of the world. That’s not the only way to read Revelation.

The excerpts that we follow highlight the places where God’s love comes through the tribulations – a perspective not unlike Prince’s read of Revelation in the song 7. We start out with the salutation, “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.” Spoiler alert. Then we read, The Lamb at the center of the throne will be the shepherd that guides us to the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. We read, “the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new; and I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.’” Whatever happens in this crazy world of ours, we can be confident that God’s love outlasts it all, and that we are included in salvation. For every plague, bowl of tears, and trumpeting angel, we are assured that God is greater. All these bad things eventually burn themselves out, while God’s love remains. This is not a read that seeks out harsh judgement and tribulation. It’s a vision of the kingdom of heaven where you can always see the sun, day or night. If the Book of Revelation were not ultimately good news, why would we be reading it in Easter?

So where does this conjunction of impressive fully enlivened people, purple, and Revelation bring us? Why to the Gospel of course! In this section of our lectionary today, we get to see ourselves interacting with Jesus. Where the Holy Spirit once came down upon the likes of Lydia and Prince and the Apostles and all those who inspire our faith journey, and energized in them the courage to live fully into all that God made them to be – now in the Gospel we get to see ourselves on the receiving end of the grace and love of God. We get to decide if we will accept the gift of courage to be fully who we are, and, if we will share that gift with those around us.

Dig if you will the picture: of a man waiting by a pool of healing water. The question isn’t: won’t somebody please let him in? The question is: why won’t he take the last couple steps to his goal? He’s waiting for others to give him permission to take what is rightfully his for the taking. Like those kids in high school: he’s been put in his place, because he didn’t make the choice to enter the pool when he had the chance. The people he’s waiting on to help him, are busy helping themselves to what is rightfully theirs. The man doesn’t realize he doesn’t need anyone to help him in. He needs the courage to take what’s his. That’s when Jesus walks in.

Jesus says, be bold. Get up! Claim what is rightfully yours, and be the full, whole, and authentic person God created you to be. Allowing others to get between you and your fullest self does nothing to honour God. We have already been given permission to be all that God wants us to be. We’ve already been through those waters – in our baptisms. But we all forget that part sometimes. Jesus gave the man at the well the push he needed, in the right direction, to become his full, authentic, and complete self so that he could accomplish all the things God created him to do. His being himself and using the gifts God gave him will be the gift that he gives others.

Throughout our lives we are each given people who push us in the right direction. Maybe it’s a person from a Bible story who exceeds expectations. Maybe it’s an inspiring figure in history. Maybe it’s a rock star that you never actually met. By their example, they show us how to be fully ourselves, to be whole and authentic and complete. We are not here to live in to the wills and whims of others who would be happier if we stayed down, grovelling, needing their sanction and approval to enter some healing water. We been through the healing water in our baptisms, and were marked as Christ’s own, marked to be unique, authentic, and bold to proclaim the good news in our very being.

Being a disciple to Jesus Christ means we live with our eyes turned toward heaven, our feet planted on the ground, and our arms open wide to the experiences of everyday living. The conjunction of all these things meets us at our hearts, the dwelling place of love for all of it. That love is what gets shared with all those around us, when we fully embody the gifts God has given us.

Each and every one of us has been created to glorify God in all that we do, and in all that we are. So be a woman who uses all her gifts to their fullest potential. Dare to trade in imperial purple. Be a man with the courage to express himself – even if it’s different than the other guys. You don’t have to be cool. When all these gifts come together in you, with reckless spiritual abandon, you can be sure that others are inspired to glorify God in their being too.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to be the good news for those around us.

Amen.

“We See What We Want to See” ©The Rev. Laurel Dahill, 2016 Palm Sunday – Year C March 20, 2016

I often go looking to other preachers for inspiration when I’m preparing my sermons. It’s helpful to me to hear how other people see things. Preparing for Palm Sunday was no exception, but something unusual was revealed to me that I hadn’t considered before.

The preachers that addressed this special service spent their time on Jesus’ procession into the city. They described it in various ways. One called it the triumphal entry. That’s a phrase that’s familiar to us. Others used illustrations to reframe the event. One said Jesus coming into Jerusalem was like the basket ball court fanfare just before the players enter for a March Madness game. The preacher described flashing lights and fireworks; loud music, and getting the spectators all hyped up to cheer on their team. Another likened the Gospel story to a political convention when the nominee for the ticket is announced. All the delegates are there with their funny hats, and their state signs bobbing up and down. There’s a balloon drop when the candidate is announced and the party goes on all night. Finally, there was the classic reference to the scene in Jesus Christ Superstar with the song Hosanna heysanna, sanna sanna ho… and before long we’re all tapping our feet to that catchy tune. In all of these sermon illustrations, the focus is on celebration. And joy. And victory.

But what if it’s not? Everybody seems to be having a good time… except for Jesus: who is the whole reason they’re all there in the first place waving palms and shouting Hosanna! Jesus isn’t joining in the festivities though. Something’s going on here, and the celebration is a cover-up for it. The Palm Sunday processional liturgy is a biblical red herring. While we’re paying attention to the obvious thing, something more important is happening out of the corner of our eyes. If we choose to turn to face it, we’ll see it; otherwise we won’t.

This is something we do all the time. Perhaps human beings are simply hard-wired to be this way: we see what we want to see. And we don’t see what we don’t want to see. In this case, we want to celebrate the triumphal entry of the King of the Jews into Jerusalem. We want to make a big show of things. Did any of the people there have a plan for what was going to happen next for their king? No. Not really. Nothing specific. There was no plan except for the one Jesus had… and that plan had nothing to do with fanfare and a ticker tape parades – or palms and cloaks, as the case may be. But Jesus’ plan was not something anyone wanted to see. So they didn’t.

Jesus has no illusions as to why he’s going to Jerusalem and what will happen there. He tells his disciples what will happen several times. He mentions it in Mark in two different chapters. He says it once in Luke, and the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus foretell the passion story three times! Matthew writes, “Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.” That to me is crystal clear. I don’t like it any more than the apostle Peter did, but if it’s worth Jesus repeating, there must be something more to it, like it or not. It demands our attention.

Peter said to Jesus, on the occasion of one these revelations, that these things cannot happen to Jesus. (That’s when Jesus responded “get behind me satan.”) If the Son of God says something’s going to happen, we can expect that God has a tremendous grace in store for us. Our job is to look beyond the present discomfort to receive that gift. But Peter doesn’t want to see it, and so he fights it.

Sometimes we don’t want to see those things that frighten us. Those things that make us uncomfortable or anxious are not things we want to invest our attention – and that’s reasonable. When we put blinders on ourselves to the people and events that challenge us, we do ourselves no favours by our willful ignorance. While there may be something distasteful vying for our attention, there’s a good chance that there’s also a grace in there waiting to be discovered. We ignore the uncomfortable things and deny ourselves the gift they offer.

With all the crowds cheering Jesus on as he made his way into the city, there was no way for him to share blessings. The crowds weren’t in a receptive place. They were in a celebratory, noise-making, don’t-rain-on-my-parade kind of place. You can’t talk to people who aren’t listening. Even the Pharisees were like, hey Jesus, do you think you could get them to tone it down a little? And Jesus was like no. There’s not going to be any peace at this point. It wasn’t until Jesus got his disciples into a quiet upper room for dinner that Jesus could finally speak a word.

Jesus said he eagerly desired to eat the Passover with his friends. There was something he really, really wanted to say to them; and he had to be really really patient until he could get his moment. Now, finally it’s here, and they are in a receptive mood to listen.

Jesus does this amazing, remarkable, extraordinary thing with the bread and wine they were eating. Something truly powerful and transformative happened at that meal. There was a grace beyond any grace they’d ever experienced. It’s a grace so powerful, that it has continued unbroken for centuries. Did the disciples ever expect something like this in the midst of the triumphal entry into the city? Could Jesus have even broached this grace while everyone was shouting Hosanna!? No way.

But in that moment, knowing he’s got the disciples in a receptive place, Jesus begins to tell the disciples about another thing that will happen – a betrayal. Let’s listen in… Luke, chapter 22, verses 23 and 24: “Then [the disciples] began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this. A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” And with that Jesus loses his audience. There’s a pledge to die with Jesus, and a promise of denial, somebody grabs two swords. It’s mayhem. Jesus says enough!

Did Jesus miscalculate? Did he not read his friends well? He had them right where he wanted them – a place where spirit world and material world seamlessly blended. And then he lost them. More accurately, they lost themselves in their own anxiety.

One of the things I often hear about is people who feel trapped in an abusive relationship. The thought of parting ways is so uncomfortable and so challenging, that they refuse to hear that good things can happen for them if they separate. So the grace of peace and serenity go unclaimed.

I also hear from people who suffer from addictions, that they enjoy their lives and friends far too much to consider for a moment that devastating things await them if they continue their current lifestyle. They love the celebration of being high, and don’t want to hear about the difficulties of sobriety, even if it brings them true health and safety. They don’t hear what they don’t want to hear.

Closer to home, it’s becoming ever clearer that the first job of the Take My Hand outreach is to get people to name the problem of suicide for what it is, and not pretend that it’s something else, or that it’s magically gone away. Suicide in our community is a problem, and there’s a grace in it, if only we allow ourselves to turn aside to see it. But we only see what we want to see. We have our work cut out for us.

Our capacity to allow our fears and anxieties overtake our receptivity to God’s spirit of grace is staggering. We are so much more ready to cling to our fears than we are to open ourselves up to grace and love. What really harms us is not our hardwired reflex for fear, but our unwillingness to allow a transformative grace to emerge from those fearful things.

The grace of God, which surpasses all understanding, is perfectly capable to moving through people and events that challenge us. It’s only when we put up a wall to shield ourselves from what we fear that we end up denying ourselves a gift that God has for us.

When was the last time you let yourself get overtaken by your own anxieties that you refused to entertain the notion that God might actually be extending grace? That’s a hard question to answer. Because you never know when or how a challenging person or event might be a vehicle for an amazing, remarkable, and extraordinary thing. You just don’t know until you quiet yourself to let listen for it. Sisters and brothers, trust in God is easier said than done.

At this point in the Passion story of Jesus, the disciples don’t yet know the magnitude of the grace that God has to offer. They have to journey through a time of difficulty and transformation of themselves before they can get to the grace that God offers. They still have to encounter difficult people and frightening events that will challenge them on many levels. We all have to.

Stay with us for the rest of the story of Holy Week. Come back on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 6:30pm to learn more about the gifts that God has for us. God is not done giving to us. We are not done being able to receive these gifts. Quiet the noise of the world and open your hearts in this most difficult of liturgical seasons to where the spirit world and material world in you blend seamlessly. There is still Good News to be had.

Ash Wednesday Sermon: “Wash the Ashes Off” ©The Rev. Laurel Dahill, 2016

If you like a good guilt trip, pack your emotional baggage because Ash Wednesday is for you. If you like the feeling of being found out for the sinful things you’ve done, today is your day. If you find that the attention you get for doing bad things fills a need within you, then I’ve got some filthy ashes over there with your name on it. If Ash Wednesday and Lent were only about the baggage we carry of not all our shortcomings, that we’re perpetual slaves to sin, we could simply take our ashes to go, and be done with it. But there’s much more to this day than indulging a gnawing sense of guilt.

There are many things for us to admit our guilt.

The whole world grieves the horrific deaths of innocents at the hands of vicious militants. We cringe at beheadings, and immolations we see in the news cycles. Meanwhile, women have been the victims of this and a host of other unspeakably brutal acts for generations, but no one seems to want to notice their cries for justice. It’s only when a male is treated in such a manner that it gets media attention and the world cries foul. According to a statement by Amnesty International, “Every year a vast number of women and young girls are mutilated, battered to death, burned alive, raped, trafficked for domestic or sexual purposes, primarily because they are female.” This is just one instance where we ought to adorn ourselves with the ashes of guilt.

In our lectionary reading from Joel, we tremble at the approach of a great and powerful army; the likes of which have never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. How many armies have used the time-tested approach of shock-and-awe to vanquish enemies, or the blitzkrieg to disorganize and confuse in order to conquer lands. All may be fair in love and war, but that doesn’t excuse our willful ignorance of the lasting effects of traumatic stress of war amongst our neighbors.

In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we hear of the injustices and cruelty inflicted upon human beings by other human beings who devalue life. Paul describes what it’s been like to change the way people think and act as followers of Jesus Christ. He frames the experience of discipleship in terms of great endurance in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger. The response of the people he was trying to reach came in the form of treating Paul and his companions as impostors; as unknown, and dying. They were punished, sorrowful, poor, and having nothing; and yet they moved deliberately forward, toward something greater. That’s important: they moved deliberately forward, toward something greater.

The people Paul ministered to are guilty of gross mistreatment of Paul and his companions. We are guilty by extension whenever we ignore the pleas of fellow disciples for justice in similar situations.

We often don’t see our own failures as well as we see the failures of others. We’re not able to see the ash marks on our own foreheads. We need others to point them out to us. There are plenty of things we ought to be ashamed of, and smudge our foreheads with the guilty dirt, but what good does that really do for us? It does plenty of good for the egos of those who enjoy looking for the faults in others. But how does it help us be better followers of Jesus Christ?

Ash Wednesday is about recognizing our shortcomings, admitting our sins, and confronting those parts of ourselves that ordinarily we would rather keep hidden from the judgmental gaze of others or our own guilt trips. Today we have the dirty parts of us pointed out for the purpose of doing something about them. That is what Lent is all about.

It isn’t really enough to walk about with a mark on our foreheads so that everyone can see that we’re Christians observing an annual day of atonement. The reality is that, however well I draw a cross on your forehead with these ashes, it will be washed off before tomorrow; and then what of it? This day is meant for bringing our shortcomings and failings before ourselves so that we can do something about them, and move to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.

Jesus warns us today in the Gospel about practicing our piety in order that others will see it. Christianity is about being in community with one another; to see and be seen; to know and be known by others. You cannot be a Christian in isolation. But on this day, you are expected to do the hard work of individual introspection. Bravely hold up before your very own eyes, those things that hinder your full participation in the Body of Christ; and then be willing to undertake an honest process to correct those failings. God already knows about your sins and failures. God was there the times you turned a blind eye to the needs of others, or chose a snarky statement over hospitality. Lent is for us to be honest with ourselves, and become better disciples in the process.

In the Gospel, Jesus gives us a path to move forward; to grow into full and complete discipleship. If you desire righteousness, follow this pattern. If you seek to know Jesus, follow this pattern. If you want to do something about the character flaws that hold you back from all the blessings and grace that God desires for you, follow this pattern.

Jesus says give. Just give. Give of your alms. Give of your time. Give up the guilt over the things you didn’t get right last time. Give up letting other people’s judgements of you control your life. Give up giving up on yourself. Take a deep breath and try again.

Jesus says pray. Pray in song when you’re driving to work and no one else can hear you. Pray like my favourite Tevya from “Fiddler on the Roof” who talks to God like he’s talking to a person standing next to him. “Dear God,” he says. “Was that necessary? Really, sometimes I think when things are too quiet up there you say to yourself, ‘let’s see what kind of mischief can I play on my friend Tevya.’” Pray honestly and often. God will hear you.

Jesus says fast. Abstain. Do not even allow those things that cause your faith to stumble to enter the domain of you. Do you drink too much? How much power do the couch and TV remote have over you? Can you go 40-days without following the presidential candidates on Facebook and Twitter? There is so much surrounding us to lure us away from the life and peace and serenity that our faith offers. Things that are quantifiable will always try to diminish the value of things not quantifiable. The abundance of faith cannot be measured on a ticker tape. Abstain from those things.

Jesus says, above all this, be transformed by all of this. Use this sacred time of Lent to create new patterns for yourself that are lasting and more life-giving that the ones before. I promise you, if you are diligent in this sacred time, you will enjoy benefits you couldn’t even imagine.

If you choose to come forward to receive the imposition of ashes, try to think of them as all the detritus that’s been keeping you from fully embracing the best life in Christ. Think of this filthy ash as all the guilt you’ve accepted, heaped upon you by yourself and others, for all your failures. Think of this gray powder as the dust you tap off your sandals as you walk away from the kind of living that’s not much of a life. Then go home, and wash it off, and start a new life, fresh and clean in the love of your Saviour.

Let us begin Lent this day as a journey without the baggage of guilt. Start anew to bring peace and justice to the world. Take the time to make a difference in the life of a stranger. Seek and serve Christ in all people. And when you fall short of the expectations of the kingdom of heaven – because you will – because nobody’s perfect – wash the ashes off, take a breath, and try again.

Let us pray the words of the Psalmist for a holy Lent: Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits. God forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities. God redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness. God satisfies you with good things, and [you will be] renewed like an eagle.

Amen.

“What’s your Geek? Who’s your Mary?” ©The Rev. Laurel Dahill, 2016 2nd Sunday After Epiphany January 17, 2016

If I may paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Corinthians… Now there are a variety of ways to geek out, but the same impulse; and there are a variety of interests, but the same creativity. The same God activates everyone’s passions. All the things we geek out about serve the common good. To some are given the ability to speak different languages; to others the passion for prayer and ministry. Some dedicate their lives to medicine, others to helping foster understanding. All these gifts are activated by the Spirit.

I heard a funny take on the beatitudes once, “Blessed are the Geeks, for they shall inherit the earth.” Heh heh, the geeks. The modern equivalent of the meek, I guess. When we think of geeks, do we not often imagine the thin, lanky kid with the thick rim glasses held together with tape at the center? The iconic geek speaks in obscure cult movie phrases. They roll their eyes at how ignorant the rest of us are. Geeks are little-tolerated by the more socially sophisticated people. In movies and TV, it’s often the geek who saves the day because they know how to break the code, or have the invention, or can piece together the clues. The geeks will inherit the earth because in the future everything will be so technologically advanced, that only the geeks will know how to reboot the system.

Geeks in real life don’t all look like the hollywood version, though. Geeks come in all sorts of varieties. Think about the geeks you know. Is there someone in your life who has an interest that you don’t necessarily share, but that their passion for that thing is inspiring to you? Among my favourite geeks are Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers on Car Talk every Saturday morning. Their automotive geekiness has helped countless mechanically disinclined people with their car troubles. Because there are those geeky enough to become astronauts, we here on the surface world have gained important research for such things as treating osteoporosis. Steve Jobs, in his garage workshop, in 1968. Enough said. Click and Clack, and astronauts, and Steve Jobs, all of these people have been given gifts by God and are thus inspired to focus and develop the things they love to do. They don’t just do these things, they do them BIG. And all the rest of us benefit from that they love to do most. Who are the people you like to think about who engage the gifts they’ve been given to the degree of geekiness? Maybe it’s an activist or adventurer, maybe a saint or scholar. Consider how their activities benefit others. Isn’t it remarkable that the people we think of in this way make what they do so well look so easy.

Our Gospel story today shows us an important moment in the life of Jesus, when he geeked out at a friend’s wedding. It seems Jesus already knew what he was capable of doing. For him, turning water into wine was probably a no-brainer. He’d already mastered that miracle a long time ago. It’s like those knitters who can take a ball of wool and tie a bunch of knots in it on some sticks and suddenly: socks! Pssh! Everyone knows how to do that! [eye roll] I’m guessing this miracle in Cana was just something Jesus could do, no big deal. If that was the case, then why did he have to make 180 gallons of wine? That’s a little much, don’t you think? When geeks do their thing, they do them real big. Could it be that the Saviour had a little geek-out moment? Regardless – what he was simply capable of doing benefitted everyone else around him. One of the important parts to the story is that Jesus activated what he loved to do – what God put him on earth to do – and the result was good news for the whole community around him. It’s like those knitters who churn out warm items for our homeless neighbors. Their knitting geekiness ends up being a huge benefit to the people around them.

One of the ways I’ve come to recognize that something is a gift of the Spirit, rather than a passing interest or hobby, is that the act of engaging with that gift gives energy to keep doing it. Eventually passing interests and hobbies get tiresome, or we lose interest, or we get bored of them. But things that we do that are gifts of the Spirit give us life. They give us energy to keep doing them. We find we can’t wait to be able to get back to doing those activities. More than that, whatever it is that we do so passionately is often something that can be turned outward for the benefit of other people. The gifts that we are given by the Spirit are meant to be shared.

We’re all geeks when it comes right down to it. If, according to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we all have been given gifts by the Spirit to do remarkable things, and we all have been given such unique gifts, then we all have it within us to geek out about something. More than that, whatever it is we geek out about, is something that can be used to benefit others, and make our community stronger and more vibrant. So, yes; indeed, blessed are the geeks. What’s your geek?

What are the things you really love to do – those things you look forward to doing again and again – those things that would break your heart if you were ever prevented from doing? What do you geek out about? Those are the things end up serving the community around you more than you can imagine. The question we are left with between Paul and Jesus, is about discerning the gifts God has given you, and how you are called to engage those gifts. Don’t be afraid to geek out about whatever it is that you love to do. Do it big. There are people around you waiting to be inspired by what energizes you. Moreover, there are neighbors who need to benefit from what God has given you. Let your inner geek shine.

It’s one thing to be a geek – and proud of it. But it’s another to admit it and engage your geekiness. We may all have it within us to do great things for our community, but sometimes we need a little encouragement, a little push in the right direction, a little permission to geek out.

The Gospel story isn’t just about Jesus. It is as much about Mary. According to the story, Jesus wouldn’t have acted if it weren’t for Mary’s encouragement. “My hour has not yet come,” he said. Mary didn’t argue with him. It’s like she didn’t even hear his protest. What she said was enough to give Jesus the encouragement he needed; the push in the right direction; that bit of permission he needed to let his inner miracle-geek shine. Jesus could have made enough wine to appease the guests or the wine steward. It sounds like they were all already a little over-indulged, so it shouldn’t have taken much wine. One stone water jar might have been enough – but all six?! Jesus went way over the top! He made way more wine than was needed. And way better wine that was expected on top of it. But it might not have happened if it weren’t for the person who encouraged him. Thanks to Mary, we have Jesus’ first miracle.

Who encourages you? It feels good to be given the all clear to be fully yourself. God puts people in our lives who help us become all that God has made us to be. We all have a Mary. Who’s your Mary?

To whom have you been a Mary? Perhaps it’s your children or your spouse that needed that… gentle push to use their gifts – or the massive shove to get them going. Either way. Don’t we all sometimes need someone to give us permission to release our inner geek. When was the last time you were Mary to a geek on the verge?

Geeks give the world an important example of how to relish in the gifts God has given all of us. What do you geek out about? What is it that you’d be happy talk about at any time? The thing that gets you fired up? In these parts it a lot about cars. Computers and the tech industry is also widespread here. There are more than a few music geeks in this parish. Even sports, and TV and movies offer ways to connect and build strong and vibrant community. Do you know the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

We all have within us the ability to geek out about something. And the ability to facilitate someone else to use the gifts that God has given them to improve the lives of countless others. The world needs you, sisters and brother. The world needs you to engage whatever it is that inspires you. Surprise the world, like Jesus did at the wedding. Let your gifts shine like God knows you can. Find someone who can give you the permission you need to be all that God has created you to be.

Ask yourself: What’s your geek? Who’s your Mary?

Be the good news.

Advent: 5am on a Loading Dock

“DIY Advent: 4am on a Loading Dock” ©The Rev. Laurel Dahill, 2015

In summer stock theatre, there’s a very small window of time to clear one show out, and put another show into the theatre. That window is typically less than 36-hours. Musicals are a staple of summer theatre, so the sets are big. Change-overs are chaotic. Carpenters are tearing down the set from the closed show and installing the new set; electricians and sound crew are pulling out cabling and moving instruments; painters are touching up seams; properties crews are putting little things everywhere, and the special effects technicians make it feel like it’s raining and there’s a stampede coming and everything is on fire, all at the same time, while the riggers are yelling “heads!” Changing from one big musical to another in 36-hours is a frantic feat of coordination. It is kind of chaotic.

At some point, round about 4am, there’s a pause. That’s when the old set is out, the new lighting and sound is in, and everyone is waiting for the paint on the floor to dry so the new set can go in. There’s nothing to do but wait. In that pre-dawn time, the crew would get to take a break on the loading dock.

For a few minutes there was stillness and quiet. Birds hadn’t woken up yet and dew was just beginning to form on the grass. We would sit together in silence and watch as the eastern sky would begin to lighten. The world was new and pure and clean. There was an inescapable promise of good things ahead. Everything was right with the world. That might have been my favourite time in the crazy busy world of summer stock theatre.

I like it when Advent feels to me like 4am on a loading dock. Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, the world feels like the chaotic hustle and bustle of a change-over. Everyone is moving about doing their thing, trying not to bump into each other; trying to make sure they get their part done; waiting for others to get their stuff done so they can get out of our way and let us finish doing our thing. And we only have a short time in which to get all these things done. Like opening night, the curtain of Christmas is going to go up, whether we’re ready or not.

But it’s not Christmas yet – even if all the stores want us to believe it is. It’s Advent. This is an entirely different season for Christians. Advent is the time of waiting, being quiet, observing the changes happening in the world around us, and being truly present with how God is speaking to us. Advent is that time when we perceive the inescapable promise ahead of us. If we’re doing Advent right, it feels like standing with fellow pilgrims on the journey of faith as the light of the world approaches.

Advent is hard to do. The world around us isn’t interested in being still and waiting on God. We’ve all got Christmas plans that need tending to: family will arrive, parties have to be planned, decorations have to be sorted, and of course there’s all those gifts that need to be gotten and wrapped. As long as we have internet shopping and 24-hr grocery stores, we don’t need to watch for the dawn, because the sun never goes down on Christmas preparations. It’s really hard to be present with Advent in the spirit in which it exists for us. But there are lots of ways to be present with God in this sacred time of year.

This is the first of a series of sermons on how to experience Advent in more fulfilling ways. We’re calling it the Do-it-yourself Advent series, because you too can do Advent in your very own home. It’s easy. For the 4-weeks of this special season, you will get four unique perspectives on the Advent experience, and a take-home instruction sheet on how you can do Advent the way each of the preachers does Advent. If you’ve ever struggled with understanding this season, or spent so much time focusing on Christmas that you miss the special gift that’s already here for you to unwrap, then this series is for you.

I do Advent by embracing the waiting. I love the hopeful anticipation. I love the quiet before the dawn. I love the tenderness of the light that grows and illumines each new, pure, and clean day. In that time I feel closest to God and the most receptive to hearing God’s voice.

The Parable of Walking on Water

Have you ever reacted to something out of fear? Like you just did something without first rationally thinking it through. Has fear ever caused you to hesitate to do something? Like you were struck dumbfounded by a moment and failed to take action? Fear makes us do funny things, or it locks us up unable to do anything. Either way, fear wins, because when we respond out of fear we either function without thought, or we cease to function at all. Our readings today give us important lessons about functioning out of our fears.

When we meet Elijah in 1 Kings we find him already camped out in a remote cave. Fear has sent him into hiding. He claims that back in Samaria, the Israelites have turned on God’s prophets. They’ve destroyed the places of worship, and have gone on a killing spree. Elijah escaped and hides out in a mountain top cave.

God goes looking for him, because Elijah is one of God’s prophets, and he’s right in the middle of a job. Wouldn’t you go looking for one of your employees if he went missing on the job site? God finds Elijah and asks him, “What are you doing here?” God sent him to the wilderness of Damascus, not to a remote mountain hide-aways.

Elijah is still rattled by his experiences back with the Israelites. He pleads, “they’re going to kill me back there!” He tries to explain that he’s been working hard for God, perhaps trying to justify his departure from his post. But the reason he’s in the cave is because he’s overcome by fear. He can’t bury that in tales previous heroic, zealous acts.

It looks like God’s intention in his next action is to demonstrate that God’s anger is more powerful, and scarier than anything Elijah might face in Samaria. You think those guys are scary, God says? I’ll give you something to be afraid of. If you’ve ever experienced a hurricane or tornado, an earthquake, or a wildfire or house fire, you can imagine how frightening God’s display must have been – and God wasn’t even in those! I think what God was trying to illustrate was that violent people can be reasoned with, but natural disasters cannot.

What happens next is almost comical. Elijah, still frightened out of his mind, tries to hide himself in his mantle. He goes out to stand before God… because, what else is he going to do? And God repeats God’s self with the same question as before. I wonder if God was hoping, after that demonstration, that Elijah would reconsider his last answer to that question. Maybe God was hoping for, “What th-? How did I get in this cave? Huh… I must have made a wrong turn as I was headed for Damascus to do prophetic work. I’ll just be in my way now.” But what happens next I can only describe as dumbfounded response. Elijah hears the question and with a thousand-yard-stare, gives the exact same answer.

Can you imagine an exasperated God throwing God’s hands up and saying, “Just go back to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you get there, just do these things.” Elijah’s was rendered so helpless by his fear – spiritually as well as physically – that this great, meteorological lesson God taught fell completely flat. Even someone as great as Elijah can fall victim to debilitating fear.

Even someone as great as the apostle Peter can fall victim to debilitating fear. In our Gospel today we have another example. We can love Peter for many reasons, not the least of which is his lack of impulse control. In this instance the fear in the narrative is clearly stated.

There’s a storm that blows in while the disciples are sailing their boat. It’s a big storm and they are frightened. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, they see a person walking on the water toward them, and they think it’s a ghost. Jesus identifies himself and tells them not to succumb to their building fear. Peter personifies the shift the disciples are trying to make to overcome their fear.

In an awe-inspiring moment, Peter is able to break the hold that fear has on him. He steps out of the boat, and he walks on water. Jesus is able to do this because he’s divine. Somehow, Peter has transcended the boundaries of mortality.

In spiritual terms water is understood as chaos. Chaos is where such things as fear are born. It was from the chaotic deep that God called the dry land into being in the Genesis creation story. The waters of chaos yielded to the Israelites during the exodus. God’s power over it was go great the water formed walls on either side so the people passed through the Red Sea on dry land. Now God once again demonstrates authority over chaos by walking on it, putting that which generates fear under his feet. Jesus is completely unaffected by its power. When Peter begins to behave like divinity, he displays for us what can happen when we become completely impervious to fear. Can you imagine how free Peter must have felt?

For a brief moment, Peter lived into the fullness of discipleship; became the apex of God-given potential; showed his fellow disciples what is possible when we deny fear it’s power over us. But then… “Lord, save me!” Peter calls out as he begins to sink.

What happens in this story for us is no less a parable than the seed sowing stories, the net and pearl of great value stories, the parables Jesus taught us just a couple weeks ago. Do not think, sisters and brothers, that Jesus teaches by way of disconnected stories, and episodic events. This is not a weekly television show with unrelated storylines. All that we read is a continuous moment that we happen to break up into bite-sized lectionary readings each Sunday. There’s a continuity in Jesus’ teachings that transcends pericopies, vignettes, and stories-within-stories.

Let’s look at “the parable of walking on the water” in the same way Jesus describes some of the other parables. The disciples are sent out to do ministry. Jesus commands them to get in the boat and sail away to parts unknown. We are each commanded by Christ to go out into the world – into the unknown – to do the work of discipleship. The disciples are us. The boat is our vehicle for ministry. The sea is the world.

A storm blows in, which requires the best of their sailing skills. The storm is all the things that make preaching the Good News difficult. What do you think those things would be? People don’t want to hear it. People try to discredit it. People call you naive or stupid for believing in something you can’t prove.

Remember that the storm is the waters of chaos, and that’s where fear comes from – the fear that causes us to hesitate to act, or to act without thinking. The storm is the power we give to being called naive and stupid, to being rejected, or disbelieved. If I asked you to go out and evangelize the people you work with, or people you meet on the street, or go door to door and share the good news of Christ, how many of you would jump up and shout, “send me!”?

Evangelism is the basic work of discipleship. It’s what we’re sent out by Jesus to do. “Evangelism” might as well be a 4-letter word the way people respond to it. Asking someone to go door-to-door to talk to people about Jesus, to strike up a conversation in the break room, or to stop a stranger on the street, makes their eyes grow large, their palms sweat, and they stammer out all the reasons why they can’t do it. My favourite expression of the fear of evangelism so far is, “I can’t. I have to take my cat to the vet.” “By this time the boat was battered with waves, for the wind was against them,” the Gospeler Matthew writes. “The disciples were terrified and they cried out in fear.”

Something remarkable happened to Peter. Something happened to him, deep in his soul. His love of Jesus became stronger than his fear of outside forces. With his eyes and heart firmly focused on Jesus, Peter suddenly becomes impervious to chaos and fear. These things no longer have power over him. So strong, centered, and focused is his being, so finely sharpened is his discipleship, that he steps out of the boat. Stepping out of the boat is transcending the artificial limitations of what’s possible according to human reason. Where last week, Peter shared in miracle-making, this week he moves beyond the need for miracles at all. But then… “Lord, save me!” Peter calls out as he sinks into the water.

Peter’s inner focus on Jesus is replaced by the outer perception of fear. The storm doesn’t make him sink into the water – he allows fear to drag him into it. Peter allows fear to disempower him, and he begins to be sucked into it’s chaos.

Can you remember a time when you were so gripped with fear that it threatened to overcome you? Can you recall a time when you believed you were about to drown in chaos? Like water, fear can cut off our oxygen supply, take away our consciousness, and leave us adrift to be carried wherever it wills. Fear doesn’t care about us. Jesus cares about us. Love cares about us – and love is stronger than fear. Can you remember a time when when your great love for someone caused you to act without thinking? Can you recall a time when your great love for someone caused you to transcend the “impossible” to make something good happen out of something bad? Peter calls out, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus pulls him from the waters of chaos, and denies fear it’s victory over his disciple. Jesus is God, and God is love, and love is stronger than fear.

Paul writes to the Romans, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Peter called, and Jesus was there to save him. Jesus never turns his back on the outstretched hand of a disciple. Whatever it is that makes you afraid to spread the good news, has power over you only if you allow it. It’s only your fear holding you back from living fully into discipleship that transcends mere ministry.

Share the good news of Jesus my sisters and brothers. Talk about him to your co-workers, to strangers on the street. Let them say you’re naive and stupid, or reject you, or refuse to believe. None of that can harm you. Paul writes, “No one who believes in [God] will be put to shame.”

We have been put on the boat of ministry, our vehicle from which we serve as Christ’s disciples. Pay attention to Jesus when he calls you to go beyond what you think your limitations are. Keep your eyes and heart on Christ when you are commanded to step out of the boat. In the parable of the walking on water, we are the disciples, but more specifically we are Peter. At some point we’ve all got to get out of the boat and walk on water. In doing so, we glorify God in our very being. Deny the power of debilitating fear that leaves us frozen in place. Don’t let yourself be rendered so helpless by fear – spiritual as well physical – that this great lesson from God falls completely flat on you. “Take heart. Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. Everyday the Lord is commanding us to get out of the boat and walk on water with him. Will you step out of the boat when you hear him call?

Judgement Call

In our first lesson today, the Lord appears to Solomon and offers to give him anything he desires. It’s quite an offer for anybody to hear. For a child to be given such an offer however; well, that’s every kid’s dream. This is better than sitting on Mall Santa’s lap with no interruptions, and the guarantee of epic loot without having to wait for Christmas morning. What would you do if God came to you and offered to grant your every wish? It would be different for us of course. All we grown-ups, with our great many years of experience and wisdom under our belts, all we who know the ways of the world and what’s best for everyone around us – yet even we might take a moment to consider this very generous offer. That’s exactly what the child Solomon does.

Solomon couches his request of God, not in his own personal interests, but for the benefit of all the people he’s about to lead. The nature of the asking falls squarely between how his father David interacted with God in the past, and how he will serve God as Israel’s leader in the future. He asks for the gift of discernment, understanding, and wise government – not simply for his own advancement, but because he lives and serves as part of a larger community of people, who exist among an even larger context of lots of other people. Solomon was able to see that far beyond himself. Is it surprising to us that a child could be so aware?

Bearing in mind that whatever you ask God to grant you will have a ripple effect on everyone else around you; so if God comes to you with this offer, what you you ask for? Could you be as wise as a child? Are you as wise as this child we read about?

We can look back at this story and smile at the endearing words of young Solomon: I’m just a kid, he pleads. I don’t even know how to come and go. He asks, do I really know good from evil? Looking around at his situation he observes, almost as a lament: there are so many people that I’m supposed to lead now. Solomon’s humility is endearing. His innocence is heartwarming. He’s like a little man-child.

Young though he may be, the Almighty God – creator of all things – ruler of the universe – has come down to this youngster to confirm, validate, affirm, and encourage his value in the divine plan. This is how God regards children. Whatever we may think of age and youth, God consistently disregards this measure as a factor of worth.

This isn’t the first time God interacts with a child in a profound way. There seems to be something about children that God appreciates perhaps more than we understand. Solomon’s father David was just a boy when God chose him to be king. He was the youngest of the seven sons of Jesse, and as such, was overlooked for having any leadership ability, or aptitude for success. Jesus became incarnate in the world as the littlest of children: an infant. Later Jesus implored the people to allow the children to come to him – not to turn our youngest away, but to allow them to also experience the abundance that God has given us.

When it comes to children and how we treat them, we must not allow ourselves to get bogged down by presupposed notions of their capabilities based solely on their age, or their assumed value in the eyes of God. It’s fun to mimic the ubiquitous old man shaking his fist and the whippersnappers who tromp through his yard. You kids get outta my garden! If kids today don’t care enough to pull their pants all the way up, how can they possibly run the country? All they do is stare at their computer screens and play those games. Say what you like, but remember who’s going to be picking our nursing homes. Also, know that children hear the things we say to and about them – even if we think they’re not listening. Our actions speak louder than our words, and whatever we might intend with our actions, the perceptions of them will be their reality. Kids will remember how they were treated by grown-ups, so let us not be surprised at how we are treated in years to come.

Recently in the news there have been troubling accounts about how children are being treated by adults. In the past few months, some 52,000 children have crossed our southern border. They’ve made the journey without the safety and security of their parents. The children are seeking asylum because of extreme violence in their home countries. 52,000 people qualifies this situation as a humanitarian crisis. That these 52,000 are minors is both shocking and heartbreaking. We ought to be deeply disturbed by this event. I wish the bad news of this story ended here, but it gets worse. There are reports that these children are greeted by hostile armed Americans. Hostile. Armed. Americans.

I don’t understand this. These are children. They’re already scared, and in a foreign land, and probably don’t know enough English to understand what’s happening to them. Have we become so weak and fearful that we must take up arms against children? Is our nation so cowardly that we must hide behind automatic weapons at the thought of little kids living in our town? Shame on us for hoarding the abundance God has given us in this land. Shame on us all for letting this continue and still call ourselves Christian. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Armed demonstrations don’t say “love” to me.

The author Rebecca Thaddeus recently commented on his situation. She writes, “Right now Jordan, a very poor country of 7 million people, is harboring 600,000 refugees from the wars in Syria and Iraq. I just saw on the news a bunch of people trying to stop 40 kids and their mothers from entering their city for temporary asylum from their drug-war torn countries in South America, and we are a country of 316 million. Are we proud of ourselves right now?” I’m not.”

It’s the disconnect that bothers me. How can we be so quick to mourn the deaths of school children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut, and yet take up arms against the children of a far worse violence when they run to us for help? Did you know that a photo of an American protester, taken in Vassar, Michigan, showed him with the same type of weapon Adam Lanza used in Newtown, slung over his shoulder?

When Jesus teaches his followers about how we are to treat those who seek a better life, and children in particular, he says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone – everyone – who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if [a] child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” Sisters and brothers, where did we learn to carry our stones in holsters when we greet children who ask, and search, and knock on our door seeking a better life? Who taught us to threaten mere children with the venom of a gun?

These children, who are these children who frighten us so deeply? They are God’s own children, no less than Solomon was. These are the faces of the boy Jesus who fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of innocent children in Nazareth. These are the same undocumented aliens that God spoke about when it was written in Leviticus 19: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

I am the child of immigrant ancestry. The first Dahills came from Ireland in the 1850s because of famine and disease in their homeland. They were too poor to afford to send the entire family across the Atlantic, so they bought passage just for the children. They came to America through Canada and gained citizenship by enlisting in the Union army to fight in the Civil War. I am here today because some ancestors of mine loved their children more than their own lives and sent them to a place where they could live. I am here because those children risked a dangerous ocean voyage to a foreign land for the hope of something better. I am the product of undocumented immigrant children. Those Central American children, risking their own dangerous journey, are my siblings. Unless you are a pure blooded Native American, they are your sisters and brothers too.

What are we to do about this influx of aliens? Shaking our fists and calling out You kids get outta my garden! is not an effective response. I am not a lawyer capable of working out all the legal nuances of this case. I am not a politician capable of working out immigration policy in this issue. I hear the words of the psalmist in the eyes of these children I see in the news: “Rescue me from those who oppress me, and I will keep your commandments. My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law.” Paul’s words to the Romans speak to where my heart is on this matter: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

We pray today for God’s children throughout the world. Let us pray today as Solomon did: for wisdom and understanding – not for how those things will benefit our own advancement, but for how we may serve a larger community of people, who exist among an even larger context of lots of other people. Could you be as wise as a child?

These children will remember how we treated them. God will too. If God offered to give you whatever you want in this moment, what would you ask for? How will we do as Jesus taught: to allow the children also to come and experience the abundance that God has given us.

In our Gospel today, Jesus gives his followers example, after example, after example of the kingdom of heaven right under their noses. Where is the kingdom of heaven right under our noses? My friends, when you find that, you’ll have found the Good News for today.

Not My Monkeys

babboonThere’s a funny phrase going around Facebook that I’ve taken a liking to. It goes like this: “Not my monkeys. Not my circus.” It seems to be a Polish saying that, in a playful way, reminds people not to get involved with things that really do not concern them. These things are usually the sort that get us fired up. We become emotionally invested in somebody else’s business, and then can’t disentangle ourselves from the drama that ensues.

It’s like the monkeys from the traveling circus have gotten loose and are running amok causing chaos all over town. Now, it’s part of my nature to want to jump into the fray when things go wrong. The temptation is there to do something – to try to restore order, to keep the monkeys from hurting themselves or others. There’s just one problem: I have no idea how to handle monkeys.

A troop of primates on a freedom spree would make a monkey out of me. Before I know it I’d be calling for help myself and contributing to the chaos rather than resolving it.

The people that know how to handle the monkeys are the circus people – where the monkeys came from. It’s up to the circus people to corral their beasts and to be responsible for their crazy-making monkeys. They’re the best ones equipped to fix the mess they’ve made – not me. The best thing I can do is stay out of the way so they can do their job. They’re not my monkeys. It’s not my circus.

How often have you found yourself running around, trying to solve other people’s crises, only to find out it’s making you crazy?! I’m willing to bet we’ve all had the experience of trying to make someone happy who simply cannot be pleased no matter what we do. It’s a no-win situation. Creative people that we are, we try to satisfy every possible need. Stubborn people that we are, we don’t know when to quit. Naïve people that we are, we often fail to remember that we are not responsible for making others happy. Trying to please everybody all the time is not your monkeys. It’s not your circus.

In our Gospel today, Jesus ran into this same kind of situation. The people around him complain that he’s not satisfying them. No one likes to be criticized. None of us wants to hear people say that our best isn’t good enough. It must have been particularly hard on Jesus to hear these put-downs when Jesus is trying to save them – he’ll soon give his very life for these same people in a last act of giving all that he has to give. “You didn’t do what we wanted you to do!” They said. They don’t seem to appreciate what he’s trying to do for them. But Jesus isn’t rattled by their harsh words. Instead, he calls out the no-win situation.

They compare Jesus to John the Baptizer. They decided John was a demon because he neither ate nor drank. How could someone call himself a man of God and not spend time sharing a meal with others like civilized people do? John isn’t good enough to have a connection to God. That’s what the people say.

Then here comes this Jesus guy. Sure he teaches and heals in the name of God, but he’s clearly a glutton and drunkard because he both eats & drinks with people – and you know what sort of people I’m talking about. How can he call himself a man of God if he goes around eating other people’s food and drinking so much wine all the time? Jesus isn’t good enough to have a connection with God. That’s what the people say.

This is a clear case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There’s no way Jesus can reason this out with them. They’ve already made up their minds that this is how things are. They’ve set the crazy-making monkeys loose and have no interest in bringing them back to their circus. They would much rather be entertained by watching Jesus try to catch them all. To their dismay – and to our great relief – Jesus doesn’t take the bait.

Jesus did what Jesus was there to do, and nothing more. He came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. He wasn’t there to live up to other people’s unreasonable expectations of him, or play their games, or to try to make everybody happy. Remember how people said they expected the Messiah to be a mighty warrior, or a great king, and how perplexed they were that he was born into poverty?

It was clear within Christ from the beginning what his goal and purpose was, and that’s where he kept his focus. Had he tried to conform to everybody else’s expectations, Jesus might never have gotten beyond the stable in Nazareth.

In our Gospel, we learn from the master what it means to exercise healthy self-differentiation. But this lesson isn’t exclusively in the Gospel. Today we get to see a range of the progression to this very healthy state of being.

In our first reading from Zechariah, we meet up with the people of God as they return from exile. One of the big reasons God’s people find themselves in exile is because they lost focus on themselves: they are God’s people; they are to be distinct among the surrounding nations; they are to maintain the integrity of the people they became when they entered the Promised Land. The Exodus was a long process of learning to understanding themselves, and God wants all that work of formation to continue.

But God’s people became wooed by all the fancy things they saw in the nations surrounding them: great armies, flashy temples, lots of bling. They saw all the trappings of others and began to think that if they didn’t have those things too, they were somehow lacking. So they began to mimic what they saw. In the process of this monkey-see-monkey-do (I say that ironically), they also took on the self-destructive tendencies that were not so apparent.

Now we pick up the story of Israel after their realization that God made them just right in the first place. They finally understood that their value was purposely unique – not lacking because it didn’t look like or act like the people all around them. Hallelujah! and thanks be to God for realizing that healthy self-differentiation is a great gift from God!

The amazing and grace-filled feat of getting to this place of self-awareness is easier said than done, however. If you’ve ever tried to assert yourself to a dominant personality, you know how hard it is. In our Epistle, we find Paul working out the difficulty of this.

Paul frames this tension as a struggle within himself. The things he wants to do, that he characterizes as desires of the flesh, are those things that his culture deemed perfectly ok. Not everything that culture says is perfectly okay really is. I’m sure you can think of lots of examples of that within our own culture. For Paul, he personalizes it to an interior struggle between what he knows God is calling him to be and do, versus what the dominant culture would prefer of him.

The interesting thing to note in this lesson is that Paul doesn’t come to a resolution about it. He remains in the lifelong tension between these two competing forces. What he concludes though, is that his relationship with God in Jesus Christ is the only reliable way of living with the tensions of life. It is by keeping the teachings of Jesus in the forefront of his thoughts and actions that he can find that delicate balance of successfully living and working with the people all around him, and maintaining the integrity of discipleship to Christ.

Paul really is speaking in very practical terms – even if it reads more like his typical round-about logic. We’re all stuck in the tension of staying true to ourselves and discerning God’s unique call for our lives, while living with the expectations of others. They’re not necessarily the same thing. The trouble comes when we confuse unreasonable expectations for reasonable ones, or think that our entering into another’s chaos can somehow fix it.

I want to underscore an important detail about this lifelong process of maintaining a healthy self-differentiation. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he writes, “I have become all things to all people.” This is one of those lines people like to throw out when they think they can successfully manage the lives of everyone around them. What we read from Romans was written some time after 1st Corinthians. So somewhere along the line Paul realized that it actually isn’t possible to be all things to all people. It isn’t possible to please everyone all the time. It was pretty arrogant of Paul to say that. Even Jesus didn’t go that far.

And that brings us back to the Gospel. We are called to imitate Jesus, as his disciples. What we learn today is how to call out no-win situations for what they are, and to avoid getting caught up in other people’s drama. Some people will never be happy no matter what you do, so do your best to not get sucked in to no-win situations that will only leave you exhausted: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It’s not possible to corral someone else’s troop of escaped monkeys, and unreasonable for others to expect you to.

We witnessed the joy of Israel when they finally learned this powerful lesson. But the difficulty of imitating Jesus in this way is affirmed by Paul. Learning to recognize your own limitations, and set healthy boundaries for reasonable expectations is not a lesson mastered once and for all. We all will spend our lifetimes re-establishing where our responsibilities end and others’ begin. The good news today is especially for those of us weary from carrying heavy burdens.

It’s not always easy to see when the Master uses humour in his teachings, but today we get a good look at it. Jesus brings a little levity to the teaching by comparing the unreasonable people to children. It’s a little bit of an insult, but more playfully drawing their attention to the boundary infraction that are the games they expect him to play. He adds a little lightness to the situation. If Jesus can get away with a gentle jab like that, surely we can make light of our burden with a playful calling out invitations to get involved with other people’s chaos: not my monkeys – not my circus. And that’s the good news.

Trinity Sunday

trinityThere’s this video (Youtube video: Lutheran Satire: Teach the Faith by Making Fun of Stuff, “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies” by Hans Fiene & Matthew Carver) that the Bible Study group watched on Tuesday that presented the conundrum of trying to describe the Trinity. In the video St. Patrick was asked to explain the Trinity in a way that was easy to understand by regular people who don’t have all the fancy education of theology school.

He begins with describing the Trinity like water. It comes in three forms: solid, liquid, and vapor. The people St. Patrick is speaking to interrupt him to call out that explanation as modalism. Modalism is a heresy from the year 381. It argues that God is not 3 distinct persons, but merely reveals himself in three different forms, similar to the way water reveals itself in three different forms but is not really distinct.

St. Patrick tries again. This time he describes the Trinity like the sun. The sun is a star, and it gives off light, and heat also. Arianism! The listeners interject. Heat & light are not the star, but creations of the star. In the 4th century, a guy named Arius tried to argue that Christ and the Holy Spirit are creations of the Father & not one in nature with him. Long story short: things didn’t go well for Arius.

St. Patrick is undaunted and tries one last time to describe the nature of the Holy Trinity. He says it’s like a three-leaf clover. You know the classic St. Patrick image, right? Well, this explanation – sentimental though it may be – qualifies as yet another heresy: Partialism. Patrick’s listeners are very quick to jump on this one. In Partialism, the heresy states that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not distinct persons of the Godhead, but are different parts of God, and each only comprises 1/3 of the divine.

Poor St. Patrick. He tried really hard to illustrate the nature of the Trinity, and all his efforts failed. Finally, out of frustration he blurts out an abbreviated version of the very academically rigorous Athanasian Creed:

[read fast] “The Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason, but only through faith as confessed in the words of the Athanasian Creed; which states that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons, nor dividing the Substance; that we are compelled by the Christian truths that each distinct person is God and Lord, and that the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, co-equal in majesty.”

It’s crystal clear now, right? That is pure orthodoxy, sisters and brothers. You just rattle that little gem off to anyone who asks, and you can’t go wrong. That Athanasius sure did have the Trinity buttoned down, didn’t he? Full disclosure, the Athanasian Creed also includes the following statement: “There are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible.” Nice safety clause Athanasius. You see what he just did there? Did you see that? That’s a 6th century version of this [shrug]. So now, 15 centuries later, I and all my colleagues are standing in our pulpits going… uh, the Trinity is like a… a three-leaf clov– no. Uh… it’s like a… [shrug]

I think, if we really did understand the Holy Trinity of God, it would be like living in a life-sized spoiler. We’d already know the outcomes of everything. What would be the point of doing anything? It would put us in an existential crisis, wouldn’t it? We would find ourselves in the dicey position of having too much power. With the confidence of divine justification, we could do whatever, whenever, to whomever, with no need to consider what collateral damage our actions might create for others.

There’s a saying from the author Anne Lamott that goes, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” If we completely understood God, it would be too easy to confuse our personal preferences with God’s will. [repeat] That would be a dangerous place to find ourselves in. History shows us time and again what humankind is capable of doing when it believes that God is on our side. As it is, we already do a thorough enough job of executing judgment on ourselves and others without the certainty of knowing if it’s exactly what God would do.

The mystery of the Holy Trinity lets God be God, and do what God does, as God wills, without our meddling. We get to worry about how we ought to live the life that God gave us. And that’s quite enough. So in the words of Athanasius… [shrug & nod].

That said, we are still left with the original conundrum of the Trinity. We confess our faith each Sunday using the Nicene Creed, which is a statement on the Trinity, so this mystery is part of who we are, our purpose for being, and is a central tenet of our faith system. Certainly we ought to be able to say something intelligent about it.

We’ve come to the conclusion that God exists as three persons, but we don’t worship a pantheon. It’s perfectly reasonable for non-Christians to ask us what we mean when we talk about God in terms of Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit. Now, no one likes to be put on the spot with such questions. Just look what happened to poor St. Patrick! We would feel much better if there was a nice tidy explanation that we could rattle off that was clear, concise, and reasonable. But the truth of the matter is: there isn’t. Better minds than ours have wrestled with the concept of the Trinity for two thousand years, and the best of the best of them ended up defaulting to the incomprehensibility of it.

If we have to describe the Holy Trinity, it’s easier to say what God *is not* than it is to say what God *is*. It’s probably more accurate too. God is not a forest. God is not a mountain. All the things we might hold up to say that God is not, may in fact contain a sliver of resemblance to the nature of what God is. God is not forest, but… Like an ancient rainforest, God the creator, stands in silent witness to the activities of humanity. God provides for our needs just as forests provide for our needs. Trees provide material resources for a variety of things. Forests are places where we can go to get away from it all and still our frantic minds. God is like this, but God is not a forest. Insert some other thing in place of forest and try to work this out for yourself. It’s a fun exercise.

God is not Plutonium. Plutonium provides a virtually endless supply of energy in the form of radiation. We can’t see this radiation, but we can feel it. We can observe its effects on other things. Its power is vast, and we like to think that we can control it. Left to its own devices however, Plutonium is out of our control. God however, is not Plutonium. This exercise is called “negative theology.”

I personally get more out of discerning God with negative theology than trying to struggle to remember positive theology. The heresies are like landmines out there. You need a good map to avoid stepping the wrong way! Ahhh… perhaps a map is a better way to understand the Trinity. A graphic illustration is worth a thousand than words. On the cover of your service bulletin I‘ve put the classic trinity symbol. You’ve probably seen this before. The Trinity may be most clearly illustrated as a triangle. A triangle is a good way to illustrate the three persons of God. God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all there. They all have equal size. They’re interrelated, but distinct. They don’t contradict each other. It’s hard to contradict, when the contradictions are part of the explanation! The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father, but the Father is God and the Son is God. Nope. No contradictions there. The irony of this is that the act of trying to understand God in a triangle graphic will have us going in circles.

But here’s the thing… This is what gets us off the hook for Trinitarian theology. There is beauty in mystery. There’s grace – even in the incomprehensibility. You see, if God were understandable, comprehensible, there’d be no need for God. If we can figure out and succinctly explain the creator of all things seen and unseen, then there’s nothing left to know; nothing more to learn. There would be no more adventures; no curiosity. Human experience ends precisely where it begins, and life would be just a matter of running out the clock of existence. Salvation would be superfluous. Grace would be incidental. And the hope of faith could be so well-calculated that it would be rendered powerless. Life would be reduced to a dull procession of inevitables.

In this divine relationship we have with God, moments of grace are experienced as surprises in our lives. We feel the hand of God when we’re not looking for it. There’s a playfulness in God’s relationship with us. There’s an exchange of joy. It doesn’t matter how it happens. The inner workings of grace and forgiveness, of salvation and redemption don’t matter. All that matters is that those things are there, and they come to us when God knows we need them the most, when we’re open to receiving them. God gives us good things from God’s own self.

All of our decipKeystone-copshering of the mystery of God doesn’t make God love us more, or elevates us higher than everything else. If anything, the backflips that Trinitarian theology requires probably gives God a good chuckle… in whatever way God does that. All the while we’re tripping over ourselves to describe and explain the Holy Trinity, I’m sure God is laughing and laughing. I bet we provide great entertainment for God. Perhaps Trinitarian theologians could be best described as the Keystone Cops of Christian theology: everything works out in the end, but we sure do complicate things on the way there. Perhaps the most important purpose for Trinitarian theology in the divine-human relationship, is to keep joy flowing from God to people, and back again.

Sisters and brothers, if you must explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and if you know nothing else about it, know this: God is love. God is good all the time. God speaks to each of us in whatever way it takes to get the message across. We don’t have to complicate the relationship for it to work. We might not understand God perfectly, but we don’t have to. And ultimately, we are all saved by the workings of some beautiful unknowable grace. And that’s the good news.

Another Chance at Life

DetroitHere’s how the story goes…

A woman is at work when a stray dog peeks in the shop door. The dog is pretty rough-looking. When the other employees try to shoo it away, it keeps coming back. Finally the woman goes over to it and realizes that the dog is more than just rough-looking. There are signs of abuse. The dog has infected wounds, fleas, a foggy eye; clearly she’s very hungry and tired. It looks like her leg had broken at one point and it didn’t heal right, so the little fella walks with a slight limp. The dog is friendly though, and refuses to be turned away.

The woman’s heart breaks at the thought of what abuse the little dog has endured. The dog follows her into break room and drinks a little water, eats a bit of her sandwich, and falls asleep in the corner for the afternoon.

After work the woman brings her to a veterinarian. The vet says the dog has been treated badly from previous owners, but she’s got a lot of love still to give, and many more years of life. The woman and the vet get her cleaned up and healthy again, and she goes home to the woman’s family. The family loves on the little dog and provides a place where she can be healthy and happy for many years.

It’s a touching story isn’t it? Does it make you want to go out and adopt a dog? Me too. But what if I told you that the dog’s name was Detroit. And that the dog is actually the city? Does that change the way you think of our fair city?

Like the dog,detroit2 our city has suffered abuse at the hands of many previous handlers. She’s bruised, and has a hard time seeing. Maybe walks with a little limp from it all. We can’t shoo her away, because she’ll always keep coming back. There’s still a lot of good in her if she’s given the chance.

Rather than look with disdain on Detroit, for all its corruption, crime, and what-have-you, what if we looked at her the same way we look at a persistent dog trying to get some life back into her again. I believe in Detroit. I believe she can be a great city with lots of love to give. I want to see her get cleaned up, bandaged, and healed so she can be a forever home again.