29 May 2012

Come, Creator Spirit! Come!

Ezekiel 37: 1-14 & John 15: 26-27, 16:4b-14

Pentecost/ 27th May 2012

“Come from the four winds, O breath, [O spirit], and breathe upon these slain that they may live.”  When we think of the Holy Spirit, we think of wind and flame and breath. When I think of Pentecost, I think of wind and flame and breath.  And we think of life.

There’s something about this verse that took me back to a special Pentecost four years ago when I was on sabbatical.  I was spending several days at Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery situated deep in the canyon of the Chama River, in the high desert near Ghost Ranch, about an hour north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It takes about an hour to drive the ten miles to get there from the main road because you’re driving on clay and gravel at 10 mph.  It’s extremely remote and desolate and stunningly beautiful.  I planned to be there exactly at that time, hoping that worship on Pentecost there would be especially moving.  It was a powerful, memorable service as the monks sang the ancient 9th century plainsong prayer, Veni, Creator Spiritus.  Come, Creator Spirit.[1]  (You might have heard the story on NPR this morning about the monks of Christ in the Desert talk about the release of a new album of Gregorian chant.[2])  But it was over the weekend that the intensity, power, the full force of Pentecost became real as the four winds, ferocious and fierce, blew through the canyon all day Saturday into Sunday.  And then Pentecost morning I awoke with an extraordinary sense of a presence – but more about that another time.

            Today, we have a text from Ezekiel that’s all about wind, breath, spirit – the ruach of God.   In Hebrew, the same word, ruach, is used for wind, breath, spirit, and mind.  And here in Ezekiel it’s used interchangeably.  It’s also the same word used in Genesis to describe the divine spirit, breath, wind that moved over the chaos and void and the waters just before God spoke said, “Let there be light.”  As in Genesis, this ruach does something, it causes something to be, it calls things into being, it moves and influences, it shapes and forms, it creates.  That’s what the ruach of God always does and that’s exactly what the prophet Ezekiel wants Israel to know.

            This is a remarkable story – gruesome and gothic, evocative.  The valley of dry bones – very dry, Ezekiel says – represents the people Israel who have abandoned hope in God, given up on the thought that they will ever see home again, they are exiles in Babylon who think their best days are behind them, back in Israel.  They are exiles stuck in the moment, cut off from the future; they are as good as dead.  They are dead – dead bones, dry bones, very dry bones, implying that they’ve been dead for a very long time. Their imaginations are dead because they can’t imagine any other future for them.

            “Very dry” means there’s no life left in them.  It also means that whatever future “dem bones” are going to have it won’t be the result of anything they can do.[3]  They can’t do anything.  They have nothing left.  They’re dead.  “Very dry” prepares us to see that what God is about to do here is nothing short of revolutionary and radical.  In fact, this is one of the earliest accounts in Israel’s imagination of something akin to the notion of resurrection – of death yielding life through the power of the Spirit of God.

            God commands Ezekiel to prophesy – preach – to the bones, preach to death, preach to nothingness, to hopelessness.  Command death to listen and know,  “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am God.”  Preach to the bones.  Preach till they begin to shake and rattle and stir with life.  And as he preached the bones began to rattle and shake and move together, bone connecting to bone.  And as he preached with the divine speech soon the sinew of flesh covered the bones, and then skin, and then, as it was at the beginning when God breathed God’s ruach into the flesh of humanity, they came to life. And they stood on their feet – a vast multitude of people.

            “…and you shall live; and you shall know that I am God.”  And you shall live. And you shall live.  You shall come to life.  That’s God’s message to Ezekiel, that’s the Word of the Lord, it’s also the gospel.  Isn’t this what Jesus came to teach us?  Isn’t this what he came to show us?  Isn’t this what he came to give us and give us – life! You shall live.  While this story anticipates Jesus’ resurrection, Ezekiel isn’t talking here about an afterlife.  He’s talking about the recreation for creation, the granting of new life for this life, the promise of a return home to Israel, the creation of a future in this life.  Jesus promised the same thing.  “I have come that you have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).  That is, meaningful life, a life of depth and purpose.  Jesus said that he would send an advocate, someone to help us, someone to lead us and teach us.  The one who said, “I am the way, I am truth, I am life” (John 14:6), now says the Spirit will come upon us and help us glorify the work of Christ, “because he will take what is mine,” Jesus said,” and declare it to you” (John 16:15).  Christ’s life brings us to life through the power of the Spirit who is deep at work in us – right now.

            “And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live,… I, the LORD, have spoken and will act.”

            One of the major currents running through the Bible, one of the primary messages we’re given is that God is the God of life, who grants life, sustains life, encourages life, and struggles, even wrestles with everything in the universe and the dark caverns of the soul that wages a war against life, and restores life and resurrects life, especially in those situations when all hope is lost; just when death thinks it has finally triumphed, life has the last word.  This is the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection – this is the core of the Christian gospel and the Jewish gospel because it’s God’s gospel to us.  And on this day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, we’re really saying that the power of God expressed in Ezekiel’s sermon is directly related to Jesus’ many sermons is directly related to this sermon and any and every sermon, whenever the divine speech breathes through us and resurrecting power of God brings us up out from our graves, then we have evidence that the Spirit of God is among us with power and with fire.  And nothing can stand in the way of God’s life.

            God calls us out from our graves.  You know what they are – all the places that no longer yield life.  God calls us to life.  God grants us a future.  The Spirit is at work in the world, working in and with the dead bones, working even in death in order for it to yield life.  No thing, no one, no circumstance or situation is beyond hope when God is involved.

            This means that if God is at work in a person’s life, he or she is never without hope.  This means that if God is at work in the Church, the church is never without hope.  This means that if God is at work in the world, the world is never without hope. The God who is life, yields life.

            In my home church on Pentecost we always had a birthday cake during fellowship hour.  Pentecost is often viewed as the birthday of the Church.  The Spirit is associated with the forming of the Church.  While it’s probably correct to say the Church existed before Pentecost, it’s important for us to realize that in order for the Church to be the Church, in order for the Church to remain the Church, in order for the Church to become what God needs the Church to become, it cannot do any of the above without the life-giving breath of the Spirit.  You might say, well, given the state of the Church these days – membership decline, denominational factionalism, young people giving up on the Church, abuse, exclusionary practices, the list is long – that the Spirit has been kind of absent.  There are some who are giving up on the Church, walking away from the Presbyterian Church. But how does one give up on what God can do?  How does one walk away from what God can do?

            Maybe we are dry bones, and maybe getting drier.  But God has a habit of breathing new life into dead bones.  Maybe it will take realizing how dry we have become for us to realize that the future of this church or any church is not dependent upon the gifts and skills of the preacher or the choir or the leadership or all the members of the congregation combined.  The future is granted and guaranteed by the one who offers us life.  It’s the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ who can take our dry bones and breathe new life into them.  God wants us to live, God wants us to thrive, to grow, to flourish – not necessarily in numbers, but to grow in depth, grow in faithfulness, grow in commitment, in trust, in courage, in service, in faith.  This is what the Church has always needed.  And we fail and will fail and end up faithless when we rely upon our own wills, resources, agendas, and fears. It’s not about us. The Church is not about us. It doesn’t exist to extend our egos or meet all our needs.  We’re called into being by the Spirit, formed into a people, into the beloved community of God’s people to do the work of God.  To say we believe in Jesus means that we open ourselves up to the Spirit who wants to take us where we need to go. And this happens when we’re open to Spirit moving through us and working on us and even surprising us.

            The Spirit loves to surprise us, like this.  You’ll remember that on Good Friday this year we had a three-hour prayer vigil here in the sanctuary.  People signed up for fifteen-minute intervals from noon until 3:00 p.m.  I wanted to be at the church just before noon to light the single pillar candle that was placed in front of the cross on the Communion table, but I was running late. I knew someone was in the sanctuary praying and I didn’t want to be a distraction. So I entered through one of the doors behind the pulpit.  I walked down the steps with the box of matches, struck a match, lit the candle, and then walked out.  It was Keith Glennan who was there first on that Friday. I didn’t say hello to him because I didn’t want to disturb him, but I did notice that he was looking at me in an odd, even startled sort of way.  What I didn’t know was that at that moment he was been praying with his iPod on, with eyes open looking at the cross, listening to a Taizé piece with these words:  “Holy Spirit, come to us.  Kindle in us the fire of your love.” He was a little stunned when I walked in, struck the match, and lit the candle, and left.  Synchronicity?  Holy Spirit?  Surprised. There’s always more going around us and in us than meets the eye. There’s always more going around us and in us than meets the eye.

            So let us pray with the Church, Veni, Creator Spiritus. Come, Creator Spirit. Come.  Call us to life, breathe new life within us, create us and recreate us all for God’s glory.  Alleluia!  Amen.

[1]The hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus is attributed to Rabanus Maurus (c.780-856) in the ninth century. The full text may be found here: http://www.preces-latinae.org/thesaurus/Hymni/VeniCreator.html.  Here is a recording of the plainsong chant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnfv1LUMaBA&feature=topics.  The text was used in the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) majestic and immensely moving Eight Symphony (1910).
[3] “Dem bones” is allusion to the African-American spiritual written by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) based on Ezekiel 37.

22 May 2012

Let There Be...

Genesis 1: 1-5, 24-2:4b & John 1: 1-15

7th Sunday of Easter/ 20th May 2012

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth….” We know these words by heart.  In our day, they’re often used (or abused) by those who insist that the Bible is making a scientific claim, justifying Creationism over Evolution.  Unfortunately, the creation story has been sucked into the science vs. religion debate (which is really a false debate, science it not at odds with religion), thus distorting what is actually going on here in the opening verses of Genesis and the Bible. 

            So, what is going on here?  It’s important to lift up that there is not one creation story in Genesis, but two, composed by two different authors, hundreds of years apart. The first account is found between Genesis 1:1 through 2:4a.  The second account begins with Genesis 2:4b through 2:24.  A good Bible translation will make this plain.  The second story is actually the older of the two, written in the 7th to 6th century BC, by an author (s) scholars call the Yahwist, because of the word used for God, Yahweh.  The first story, the one that opens Genesis emerged later, during Israel’s exile in Babylon and after their return home, in the 6th to 5th centuries BC.  It’s known as the Priestly, due, in part, to the tradition’s concern for worship and ritual; the Priestly tradition is identified by the use of particular Hebrew names for God, such as Elohim and El Shaddai.  The Priestly author composed his text in response and reaction to the prevailing myths and religions of the Babylon and Mesopotamia.

            What I’m saying here isn’t radical; there’s nothing new about it.  Biblical scholars have been teaching this in universities and seminaries, first in Germany, since the late 19th century.[1] While Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was making revolutionary claims in On the Origin of Species, in 1859, biblical scholars and historians were making revolutionary discoveries about how the Bible was written.  It was in direct response to advances in the world of science and scholarship that Fundamentalism emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century; fundamentalism was a conservative reaction to progress in knowledge and continues to plague the advancement of the Gospel.  Fundamentalism is always a conservative reaction to progress.

            Considerable damage has been done to the hearing and reading of this text by turning the opening creation stories into science.  These stories were never written to offer scientific proof for a theory of origins.  They were written, however, to make a theological claim about the nature and purpose of God.  And this was especially so for the Priestly tradition, the tradition behind the first creation story, because this story deliberately confronts the creation myths of the Babylonians.  The Priestly writer insists that the earth was not the result of a struggle between the gods, as one myth claimed, nor was it born from a cosmic egg, or from primordial matter.[2]  Instead, the Priestly tradition offers us an entirely different image of God; it imagines an entirely different story of creation, a story that tells us something profound and amazing about how they came to conceive of God.  It’s all contained in this first verse:  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth….” It’s so obvious; yet, it’s easy to miss.

            The earth is the result of God’s free choice to create; it’s an act of God’s will.  The very first image of God we’re given in the Bible is a God who acts, who chooses, who has a will, who without compulsion and in freedom, acts, chooses, wills the earth into being; everything is the result of God’s creative activity.   “God and God’s creation are bound together in a distinctive and delicate way.  This is the presupposition for everything that follows in the Bible.”  Walter Brueggemann claims, “It is the deepest premise from which good new is possible.  God and [God’s] creation are bound together by the powerful, gracious movement of God towards that creation.”  God wills to be in relationship with the earth.  God is bound to creation and the “connection cannot be nullified.”[3]  And the point here is not whether all of this was done in six or six billion days – that entirely misses the point.  The point here is that we’re given an image of God known chiefly as a creator. 

            Now, what’s so radical or unusual about this?  The image of God here is unique among the religions of the world because behind the word creator is the Hebrew word bara’.  In the Priestly Writings this verb bara’ is used exclusively as a term for the divine bringing forth, for which there is no human analogy.  This verb refers to a kind of creation that only God can do, beyond the power of human will and action.  “The word means a bringing forth in the sphere of history, nature and spirit, through which something comes into existence which was not there previously.”[4]  It has a very specific meaning. 

            Bara’ is never used to describe the creation of something out of something else.  While humans being are creative, technically, theologically speaking we are creative with what’s been given to us, we don’t create anything, that is bring something into existence out of nothing. When God creates, God creates something out of nothing.  Theologians refer to this as creatio ex nihilo, God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing, because there was nothing before creation. [5] This is what’s being imagined in the opening sentence of Genesis.  When God creates it is always something new, never before seen or experienced.  When the psalmist says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10),” the Hebrew here is bara’.  Something radically new is coming into existence, which is not the result of human effort or will.

            The word bara’, to create, is used in connection with creation, the universe as a whole, in verse 1.  Then a related word is introduced, ‘asah,’ which means, “to make.”  The “making” begins in verse 2: forming, shaping creation from what God created.  Technically speaking, only God can create out of nothing.[6]  Following after the pattern of God, humans make, we manufacture, shape, construct, produce, assemble, and form what God has given us and in this sense we are creative.  We creatively, imaginatively engage with what’s been given to us by the Creator and when we do this we come to understand, in part, what it means to be created in the image of God.  We are the product of God’s creative imagination; endowed with this image we are then invited, called, and even freed to use our imagination, to use our creativity, to help form and reform a world that reflects God’s intention for creation – this created world that God tells us over and over again is good, given in love.

            And note the way God’s creativity causes things to be.  God says the word, “Let there be…” and it was… and it came into being.  The divine Word creates.  The same idea is picked up in the opening verses of John’s gospel, intentionally modeled on Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was with God” (John 1: 1).  The first Christians came to see the Divine Creative Word enfleshed, that is, embodied in Jesus Christ.  He is the One who, like God, creates and calls into being something new.  “Behold, I make all things new,” Jesus says in Revelation (21:5). 

            Let there be.... Can you hear, even feel the dynamism, the movement in the Divine Speech? 
            Let there be… 
            God speaks and things come into being.
            God speaks and things happen.
            God speaks and people are formed. 
            Let there be…

            God is the one who calls people, things, and new worlds into existence.  God doesn’t just create and then step away.  God creates by “letting-be,” God makes room for something to exist.  There is an old Jewish tradition that God creates by stepping back, as it were, and in the space vacated by God’s presence, something new is invited to come into being, something other than Godself.[7]  And then, remarkably, God doesn’t seek to control it, but trusts the goodness of creation and lets it evolve. God gives it, gives us the freedom to be, to flourish, to grow, even – and this is one of the most remarkable aspects of this creation story – we are even given the freedom to reject the Creator. 

            In “letting-be” God forms and lets go in order for the creation to fulfill its purpose, to evolve and change and blossom and grow and yield and bear fruit.  God doesn’t control, but creates the occasion, the setting, the space for growth; God grants creation freedom, risks freedom for the sake of growth, and then watches and waits for the further unfolding of creation before God’s eyes.  For us to be endowed with the image of God means that we too are given the means to create spaces, settings – such as the Church, this is what the Church can be and become! – places that allow further growth, creativity, freedom for others, for the world. 

            Can you sense the grace expressed in this image of God the Creator?  “The grace of God is that the creature whom [God] has caused to be, [God] now lets be.”[8]  And in “letting-be” we make and form and create in our own way.  In letting-be, we grow and flourish and bear fruit. 

            But we have to be honest here and acknowledge that it’s not that easy.  As any artist knows, there’s probably more that blocks creativity in us than fosters it.  There is a force in us and in the world that hinders growth, which resists evolution and change, which hampers our desire to “let-be.”  Sometimes we’re not very good at “letting-be.” Sometimes, actually, whether consciously or unconsciously, unintentionally or sometimes very intentionally, we try to stop being, stop growth, stop flourishing in ourselves or in others, thwarting any effort to grow, impeding change, and standing in the way of what God is creating in the world.   What we’re talking about here is really how the Bible describes sin.  It’s one way to think about sin.  Sin is the opposite of creation; it’s anti-creation.  Sin wants to undo creation.  It wants to breakdown that which is trying to be formed.  It blocks the forces working for growth; it negates the ongoing creative life of God.  It hinders flourishing.  Sin doesn’t bear fruit.  The early theologian, Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395), writing from the fourth century, was even more explicit, “Sin happens whenever we refuse to keep growing.”[9]

            Grace. Love. Forgiveness. Resurrection. New Life. These are the many ways scripture makes the point that while sin is real and serious, it never has the last word. We were not created to sin, but for something more.   God’s grace, love, forgiveness, resurrection, new life are the ways the Bible tells us that this is what it means to be authentically human.  We were created with lives free to reflect the image of God, free to grow, to thrive, and to flourish, all for God’s glory!

            And there’s nothing in scripture to suggest that this isn’t the way God as Creator still relates to the creation, to you and to me.  In love, in grace, in trust, God is continually calling people and families and churches and things and new worlds into being, changing lives, resurrecting everything that is dead, creating new possibilities of hope and healing and wholeness in people, with the help of the Holy Spirit, allowing people and churches to grow and flourish and bear fruit.

            The Jewish Talmud says, “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’”[10]  That’s another way of saying, “Let be.  Let be.”  What if we imagined the Holy Spirit whispering in our ears, saying to us, “Grow, grow.”  What if this is what God is saying to us all the time?  Grow.  Grow.  BeLet be.  Let be.  Flourish.  Become.  With every whisper, with every word spoken and heard, the Holy Spirit calls us into existence, making and remaking, forming and reforming, creating and recreating our lives. And all this is good – very good.

[1] The German biblical scholar and orientalist Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) first put forth the multiple-author hypothesis in 1878 with the publication of Geschichte Israels (English translation:  Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel).  Although the source hypothesis has been challenged, it is still the primary methodology used in the study of the Pentateuch.
[2] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation:  A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 72ff.
[3] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1982), 28.
[4] Moltmann, 73.
[5] Moltmann, 74-75ff.
[6] Moltmann, 73.
[7] This idea, zimzum in Hebrew, was developed by the Kabbalist (Jewish mystic), Isaac Luria (1534-1572).  Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991) makes creative use of this idea in his novels, especially The Slave.  God is one who “hides his face.”  The Kabbalistic doctrine of divine self-limitation has found a place in Christian theology in Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), J. G. Hamann (1730-1788), Friedrich Oetinger (1702-1787), F. W. J. Schelling (1775-1854), Emil Brunner (1889-1966) and others.  See also Moltmann, 87-88.
[8] Brueggemann, 28.
[9] Cited in Richard Rohr, Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass, 2011), 51.
[10] Cited in Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way:  A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (New York:  Putnam’s Sons, 1992), 3. Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:  “Creativity is God’s gift to us.  Using our creativity is our gift back to God.” 

10 May 2012

The Eyes of Experience

Job 42: 1-6 (Mark 10: 46-52)

Preached at the 852th Gathering of Baltimore Presbytery

Second Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD, 10th May 2012

Somewhere along the way I wish scribes had etched in the text of Job, right here at the start of chapter 42, in big, bold letters:  STOP: SILENCE. The mystics tell us that all wisdom flows from silence and leads to silence.  We have to be quiet long enough for wisdom to appear – which is challenging for Presbyterians since we’re a wordy bunch.  The book of Job is all about wisdom; which means silence can’t be far away.  Silence would be helpful here; instead we find a seamless transition from chapter 41 to these extraordinary verses of 42.

            What’s in 41?  The culmination of Yahweh’s wild sermons out of the whirlwind, Yahweh’s answer to Job’s unyielding demand for an explanation regarding his suffering.  Earlier, Yahweh says to Job:  “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.  Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me if you have understanding” (Job 28: 2-4).  Yahweh cross-examines Job with question after question.  The Voice graciously shakes Job’s foundation, shatters everything he assumed – regarding himself, his neighbors, his precarious hold on reality, his place in the universe, even his image of the God he thought he knew.  On and on Yahweh graciously assaults his sensibilities and reason, questions everything Job thought he knew about everything.  And then Yahweh stops at the end of 41.  It’s here in this liminal space before 42, that we need silence: hold your tongue, listen, behold.  I can imagine Job speechless, breathless, gasping for air, in shock.  Before him out of the whirlwind is the Voice of the Unameable One, the Holy of Holies, this mysterium tremendum et fascinans, this mystery that fascinates even as it overwhelms.[1] What do you say in such moments?  What would you say? What is there to say?

            Then…out of the silence, with humbled conviction born of experience, Job begins to speak.  Here’s the theological nerve center of the entire book; it’s wild and electric like the voice of God.  Job says, “I know you can do all things and nothing you wish is impossible.”  Then recalling Yahweh’s earlier question from the whirlwind, Job asks himself, “Who is this whose ignorant words cover my design with darkness?”  Who, indeed?  Wrestling with the truth unfolding before him, Job says, “I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite.”  Another word from Yahweh comes to mind, “Listen and I will speak:  I will question you, please, instruct me.”  And then Job finally gets it and says: “I had heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore, I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.”[2] From silence to silence.

It’s easy to miss the significance of Job’s confession here.  Many turn to Job searching for reasons why the innocent suffer. We come away never fully satisfied with the response.  But there’s another way to view Job. Centuries ago, it was William Blake (1757-1827) who offered a different perspective that’s worth considering.  Blake spent a lot of time with Job’s story, eventually producing those marvelous engravings of scenes from the story.  For Blake, the text is less about the suffering question than it is about transformation.[3]  It’s about the change, the metanoia that occurs when we come to the limits of our knowing and find ourselves confronted by the face of the living God. 

You see, prior to the whirlwind, Job’s moral universe was clearly intact, with clear definitions of right and wrong; individuals received either reward or punishment for their actions with God as judge.   “Job’s [initial] case against God assumes not that the system is wrong …but that God has failed to govern the created order justly.” Job questions God’s justice.[4]  Job, however, is questioned by God and discovers the system is not what he thought it was, there’s more going on around him than meets the eye. 

Exhausted, desperate, Job hits a theological wall.  He discovers that the religious view of his community, his friends, his tradition – all the things he learned in “Sabbath school” – are not equal to the existential challenge facing him. His faith perspective is insufficient and cannot speak to the complexity of his experience, this man who has been to hell and back, who has seen into the face of the void, losing family, friends, the flesh on his bones, full of sores and grieving in ashes asking, Why?  Why?  Why?  His trauma calls into question everything.  He arrives at a point where his understanding of God can no longer yield meaning in the face of such tragedy.  While Job never gives up on God, although his wife said, just curse God and die (Job 2:9) and his friends weren’t much help either, in the end he had to give up his old understanding of God and God’s justice, in order to experience something new.  He couldn’t do that alone.

At one point or many we all hit that theological wall when we realize that our perspectives are far too narrow and limited and we’re called (or forced) to yield to a wider frame of knowing.  The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) said poetry “purg[es] the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”[5]   Something of the same is occurring when we “see” God.  The “film of familiarity” is wiped away; we see something new.  Job faces the inadequacy of his former ways of seeing the world. His experience of God then yields a wider, more comprehensive view of reality, of justice, of God.  It’s the gracious reframing of his world, his self, even the God he thought he knew for something far more profound and expansive. The vision changes everything.

I believe it’s still possible for us to have visions – even Presbyterians – a moment or many moments over a lifetime of extraordinary insight, numinous, religious experiences of significant power and terror and even beauty, when the Holy helps us see what we could not see before, giving us new “spectacles,” as Calvin (1509-1564) would have said, which allow us to see more clearly in the “theatre” of God’s glory.[6]

To see; that’s the critical point.  “I had heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes see you.”  More than hearing about God, Job sees God for himself. He discovered the inadequacy of a faith that comes only by hearsay, passed on, received passively.  It’s been said, “The person who hungers and thirsts after justice is not satisfied with a menu.  It is not enough for [one] to hope or believe or know that there is absolute justice in the universe: [one] must taste and see it.”[7]  Surely, Job heard all about God, about what God was like, he lived assured in that world until everything fell apart.  What he graciously received in the end was not the inherited faith of family or tradition or the pious platitudes of well-meaning friends, but something that came through his own existential encounter with the Living God, a journey that only he could take, yielding a wisdom learned not from a distance, but from, through, and within his gut, his heart.  It was something of God that couldn’t be taught, it had to be evoked, encountered, experienced. 

In the Reformed tradition, talk about personal experience makes us uneasy. We have this ongoing tension between the authority of revelation – that is, God’s truth, wisdom, and grace that comes “down” from above as it were – and the authority of human experience. The Reformed tradition privileges revelation over experience; maybe because it’s safer. Experience can be messy, making us feel “out of order” – and we all know how much we love to feel out of order!  Now, I know this is tricky, complicated theological ground.  We are right to be skeptical of anything that smacks of individualism or subjectivism.  Yet, I fear we’re losing touch with the individual, the personal.  Every experience is not of God. Every voice we hear is not of God.  Several years ago I received in the mail a seven-page, single-space letter from someone claiming to be, “The ONLY True Prophet of God,” writing to tell me the “Truth about Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Homosexuals, and Dinosaurs.”  Yet, there are people in and outside the church who are not sure they can trust their experience. There are folks in the church who have had profound religious experiences, but never say a word about them.  There are people who want to share what they are learning, like Job, through their encounters with God and want to be faithful to it.

I’m particularly sensitive around this issue. In my Middler year at Princeton Seminary, I took a class on Calvin. I wrote my final paper on the opening sentence of the Institutes (1559), “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts:  the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (I.1.1)” Calvin goes on to say, determining “which precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. (I.1.1.)”  Knowledge, meaning existential apprehension, of ourselves leads to a knowledge of God and from knowledge of God we turn to a true knowledge of ourselves.[8]  Well, I was in a state of existential shock when I opened the envelope with my final in it and saw the red-penciled grade:  D-.  I had pretty good grades at seminary, but was struggling in this class (along with others, I might add), with a C+ going into the final.  So, yes, this means I have a D+ on my transcript from Princeton Seminary in Calvin. What presbytery would ever ordain me?  – I thought my life as a Presbyterian was over!  What doctoral program would ever admit me?  The professor said I didn’t place sufficient emphasis on revelation in the knowledge of God.  Personal knowledge alone is incapable of knowing God.  (It wasn’t a D paper; I decided not to fight it.) 

It was humbling, to say the least.  Revelation now plays a significant role in my theology!  But after twenty-two years, I’m still not convinced it’s that simple.  My own journey has brought me back to this again and again. How we apprehend anything in this mysterious universe is far more complicated than Calvin ever could have imagined.   Stacy Johnson in his book on Calvin, says, “knowledge of God and knowledge of self are intimately linked.”[9] A true knowledge of ourselves means being clear about who we are and aren’t, what we can and cannot know.  But our experience still has to count for something  — doesn’t it? — all that our hearts know, what we know deep in our souls, all of our losses, our traumas, our sufferings, our relationships, our gifts, our personalities, all get caught up in the mix in what we know of God and how we know God. Augustine (354-430) asserted, “To know myself is to know you,” O God.[10]  Yes, theology isn’t biography, but we can’t disconnect them, we can’t discount the value of human experience.  For what else do we have except our experience, limited as it is? 
Sometimes experience of God is prior to dogmatic formulation, experience grounds conviction.  In one of her letters, Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) wisely wrote, "Conviction without experience makes for harshness."[11] We run the risk of becoming exceptionally harsh in emphasizing conviction and ignoring, if not silencing the experience of many sisters and brothers who want to tell us something of Christ's love and what the Spirit is doing in their lives. I’ve found that far too many people fail to honor their experience. I have, regrettably, far too many times discounted the value of mine.  Instead, maybe, just maybe we’re called to value our experience, anticipate an experience of God and refuse to fit it unquestioningly into traditional teaching about God, called to be “open to new possibilities and surprises even in the sphere of their core convictions, [people] who above all cry out with integrity before God and resist all attempts to misinterpret, marginalize, or stifle that cry.”[12]
All this was true for the depth psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961).  Jung came from a long line of Reformed pastors.  His father was a Swiss Reformed pastor near Basel, but he did not find any life in his father’s faith.  Jung was told his First Communion would be a great experience.  Instead  — nothing. “For me it was an absence of God and no religion,” he said. “Church was a place to which I no longer could go.  There was no life there, but death.”  Yet, early in his life he had profound encounters of the Holy that forever changed the course of his life; even though they overwhelmed and scared him, he knew there was power to heal in them, they offered hope, and he spent the rest of his life trying to be faithful to those experiences – despite considerable resistance.  He said they were moments of an immediate, “direct living God…,” the God that his father lacked and could not give him.  As Jung put it, “God alone was real – annihilating fire and an indescribable grace.”[13] Annihilating fire; indescribable grace.  I love that.

Job’s story says: this is what it’s like to encounter the living God, to know God, not know about God.  Not someone else’s encounter, not someone else’s story, not someone else’s experience, not a dead tradition, but a living faith.  It looks something like this: a life-changing, frame-bending experience of earth shattering significance, radical insight, insight of cosmic proportion that comes over, around, in, through, and to us and opens our eyes – our eyes, not someone’s else’s eyes – and allows us to see reality transfigured and transformed;[14] to see a new world which despite all the pain and suffering and sorrow of our lives still has the capacity to yield meaning; an experience of the Living God that grounds all of our theological claims and creeds, that sets our hearts on fire and fires our imaginations, that sends us down new roads, wherever the Lord wants to take us, following him, like Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 52), with eyes that now can see.

Prayer:  Holy One, give us more to see; give us ever more to see.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Image:  William Blake, "Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind," Plate XIII, "Illustrations of the Book of Job" [1823].

[1]This is Rudolph Otto’s (1869-1937) well-known characteristic of the Holy, in The Idea of the Holy, trans. John H.    Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 13-30.
[2]Stephen Mitchell’s translation, The Book of Job, trans. and with an introduction by Stephen Mitchell (HarperPerennial, 1992), 88.
[3] See Mitchell’s helpful essay on the meaning of Job, xxix.
[4] David C. Hester, Job (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), A Defense of Poetry (182), cited in Paul Bishop, Jung’s Answer to Job: An Answer (Brunner-Routledge, 2002), 50.
[5]A Defense of Poetry (182), cited in Paul Bishop, Jung’s Answer to Job: An Answer (Brunner-Routledge, 2002), 50.
[6]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1.6.1; 1.14.1); Commentary on Psalm 104:31, cited by William J. Bouswma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988), 135.
[7]Mitchell, xxvii.
[8]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill; trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia:  The Westminster Press, 1960), 1n., 36.  On this seeming ambiguity in the relation between divine knowledge and self-knowledge, see Serene Jones, “An Apology for Divine Wisdom,” in Calvin and the Rhetoric of Piety (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 87-120.
[9] William Stacy Johnson, John Calvin:  Reformer for the 21st Century (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 51.
[10] Viderim me, viderim te, quoted by St. Teresa of Ávila [1515-1582], The Interior Castle, The Complete Works of St. Teresa, vol.2, trans. and ed. E. Ellison Peers (London:  Sheed & Ward, 1957).
[11] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being:  Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Selected and Edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York:  Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1995), 97.
[12] These are the words of Cambridge theologian, David Ford, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 129.
[13]  C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Recorded and Edited by Aniela Jaffé; trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York:  Vintage Books, 1973), 57, 73.  C. G. Jung, The Red Book (Liber Novus), ed. Sonu Shamdasani, preface by Ulrich Hoerni, trans. by Mark Kyburz, John Peck, Sonu Shamdasani.  (New York:  W. W. Norton & Co, 2009).  See Shamdasani’s Introduction, 194.
[14] These thoughts are inspired by the writings of James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment, second edition (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1989).  See also Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder:  Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).

08 May 2012

Branching Out

John 15: 1-12

Fifth Sunday of Easter/ 6th May 2012/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

For the last two weeks on Thursday mornings, about thirty folks have been studying the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas was discovered in 1945, in Egypt, along the Nile River, although fragments of it were first unearthed in the late 1890s.  Scholars have known about this text since the third century, but no one had ever seen a complete copy until 1945.  It’s unlike the Gospels we have in the New Testament in that it has no narrative.  It’s a collection of sayings, teachings of Jesus that date back very early, possibly before Mark’s Gospel, to around 50 AD.  Of the 114 sayings in the Gospel, we’ve read the first 39 thus far, and I would say close to 80% are directly related – sometimes exactly – to what we have Jesus saying in the New Testament.  Thomas provides a window into the early church and helps us to see what stands behind Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

            Like last week, the Common Lectionary has us in the world of John and his community.  And like last week, we can hear something of Thomas echoed in John.  As we’ve seen over the last two weeks, in Thomas we have Jesus stressing the importance of knowing who we are and whose we where, of identifying and claiming the Source of our being, and remaining connected to that Source.  To remain connected to the Source means to be at rest, to trust.  Resting however is connected to action.  To rest in God then allows us to act, to move – to love.  Similarly, we have Jesus saying in Thomas, at Logion 50, “If you are questioned, ‘But what is the sign of the Source within you?” say, “It is movement and it is rest.”[1]  The reverse is also true; it is rest and movement.  Both-and.  At the same time.  The world of Thomas is non-dual.  It eschews either-or thinking.  It’s relational.

            We find something of the same teaching here in John 15, in this well-known text.  Read within the light of Thomas, we begin to see what might have been missed before in our hearing of the text:

You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.  Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

            Can you hear it?  Not either-or, but both-and.  Movement and rest; rest and movement.  If we rest, abide in him, we will bear fruit; we can only bear fruit if we rest, abide in him.  And we are called to be disciples in order to know the joy that comes with being able to rest in God, but also to be able to bear fruit, to branch out, to create, to flourish, to grow.  They’re related.  We cannot do one without the other. 

            But the metaphor says something even more profound – and maybe disturbing, or difficult to hear or even bear.  “I am the vine,” Jesus says.  “You are the branches.”  What’s so disturbing about this?  Think about it.  It makes the claim that for every follower, every disciple: Jesus is in you and you are in Jesus.

            Perhaps you’ll object:  “You can’t talk about union with God, it blurs the distinction between the Creator and creation.  You have to keep a distance.  Set us apart.  Don’t confuse the categories.  Human is human; the divine is divine. God is holy; I’m the opposite of holy.”

            But that’s what Jesus is saying here.  You might want to take it up with him.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  They’re all connected.  The branches are not separate from the vine but one with it.  If you cut off the branch, you won’t have a branch, a branch of the vine, for it loses its life. A branch is a branch of something. “A branch is a branch insofar as it is one with the vine.  From the branch’s perspective it is all vine.”[2]  The vine is the Source, yet it’s tough to tell where the vine ends and the branch begins, for it’s the same life pouring through it.

            What Jesus is really lifting up here is a transformation of consciousness, which happens when we discover that by virtue of his word – which has already cleansed us – we are, right now, abiding, existing, participating in the being and light and love of God.  It’s pouring through us even as we are living in it.  Whether we want to accept it or not, this is the way things are.

            If the vine-branch metaphor isn’t working for you, think of a sponge in the ocean floor.  The sponge looks without and sees ocean; it looks within and sees ocean. The sponge is immersed in what at the same time flows through it.[3]  Both-and; the ocean permeates it all.

            We can thank the long, often overlooked witness of Christian mystics, whose writings over centuries caught this vision of what Jesus was saying here.  The Spanish mystic, John of the Cross (1542-1591) – known for the phrase “the dark night of the soul,” a man who journeyed in the darkness and discover there an inextinguishable light – said, “It seems to [the soul] that the entire universe is a sea of love in which it is engulfed, for, conscious of the living point or center of love within itself, it is unable to catch sight of the boundaries of this love.”[4] 

            When life is lived from “the center” or “the Source,” all life is shot through with the glory of God, there are no boundaries of love, no place beyond which there is not love. And we don’t lose our distinctiveness as branches in this love; we actually come to realize what it means to be a branch of the vine.  Martin Laird, a contemporary scholar of Christian mysticism, is very helpful here in making clear the point of all of this:  “the more we realize we are one with God the more we become ourselves, just as we are, just as we were created to be.  The Creator is outpouring love, the creation, the love outpoured.”[5]

            This, too, is rest and movement.  Rooted in the Source, we branch out, which is really the purpose of the vine, to extend branches, to grow, to flourish, to create.  Isn’t this what Jesus himself showed us, isn’t this what he offers us, isn’t this the way that he showed us?  “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (Jn. 15:11).

             What Jesus seems to be saying here is that any perceived absence from God, if we feel absent, is illusion.  If we’re the branches, then the vine is here too.  God is closer to us than our breath. We exist in God and God exists in us.  Our ability to grow, to bear fruit, to branch out – individually, inter-personally, even as a church – is directly related to our awareness that we are existing in the Source of God, already.  For apart from him, we can do nothing, would be nothing, would not be.  Apart from him there is no growth, because he is growth.  Apart from him there is no life, because he is life. 

            What an enormous difference we can have in the world if we more fully lived this way, with this awareness.  We might better see God’s presence in the world and within us, especially in difficult times.  We might have a better sense of what God is calling us toward, both individually and as a church. Sometimes the relationship involves a pruning of the branches in order to allow further growth, but that’s a whole other sermon.

            Is our relationship with God allowing further sprouting and branching out and fruit-bearing?  What is the yield in our life?  Where’s the evidence of it?  Perhaps we might come to see that reality and the people of the world are far more connected to us than we ever suspected.  We might be given new eyes.  That’s how the great German mystic Meister Eckhart (c.1260-c.1327) famously put it: “The eye with which I see God is exactly the same eye with which God sees me.  My eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowledge and one love.”[6]  (It’s worth re-reading this several times to fully fathom what’s being said here.)

            It’s not surprising that Jesus took the fruit of the vine, grapes, used for the making of wine, and lifted up the fruit of the cup as a profound symbol.  It’s worth noting here that we Protestants have an ambiguous relationship with symbols.  Nothing is “just a symbol,” for symbols (when they’re really acting as symbols) have power; they have power because they point to and participate in a deeper power that stands behind the symbol. Jesus gives us the cup as symbol to point us to this deeper truth: that through him, in him, like him, we are connected to God.  Isn’t this what Communion means – union?  More than a memorial meal, this is a meal of participation in the gracious presence of God in the present moment.  Jesus gives us this meal to remind us, to show, and to help us grasp that individually and together (both-and, at the same time) we are united with him – we abide in him and he abides in us.  And the same Lord calls us to grow, to branch out, to bear fruit – fruit that is worthy of God’s name, worthy of God’s grace.  May it be so.

[1] Lynn Baumann, trans. The Gospel of Thomas:  Wisdom of the Twin (Ashland, OR:  White Cloud Press, 2004), 108.  See also Logion 40, “Yeshua says:  A grapevine was planted away from its Source where it remains unprotected.  It will be torn out by its roots and destroyed.” (88).
[2] Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2006), 17.  I am heavily indebted to Laird’s insights here in this remarkable, thoughtful, wise, indeed beautiful book.
[3] Laird, 17.
[4] St. John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, II, 10, cited in Laird, 17.
[5] Laird, 17.
[6] Meister Eckhart, Sermon 16, in Meister Eckhart:  Selected Writings, cited in Laird, 18.