How do you talk about God?

How do you talk about God?

Now, some of you may be thinking: “Mike, you know we are Episcopalians? Yes? We DON’T talk about God, not if we can avoid the topic.” This has been a stereotype of our faith. Many Episcopalians are really wary about the word “evangelism.” I have heard many Episcopalians quote St. Francis, who supposedly said “preach the Gospel always. When necessary use words.” We like to think that almost never necessary to use those words.

Friends, I’m here to tell you, I think we need to talk more about God. We need to talk about God for our sake, and for the sake of our neighbors. How do you talk about God?

I hear a resonance for our time from the story of Paul in Acts:

Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and
everything in it.

Paul doesn’t go on a tirade against the Athenians, as he is sometimes wont to do. Paul chooses to speak carefully to the experience of his hearers: “your own poets intuit something of God.” Paul talks about the unknown God, the God the Athenians have already encountered. This God, Paul says, this God is who we Christians worship. Let’s talk about THIS God.

A few years ago now I went to a show at the 9:30 club, a famous concert venue in Washington, DC. The band was called Volcano Choir. You may not have heard of the group. The lead singer, Justin Vernon, once had a slightly more famous band called “Bon Iver.” You may not have heard of them either. That’s okay. You don’t need to know their music to follow the story.

Justin Vernon took the stage at the 9:30 club that night in a way that seemed familiar to me. The rest of the band arrived first, re-positioning microphones in the dark, adjusting guitar straps, then the lead singer climbed up and stood behind a lectern, a substantial lectern, a pulpit really. Vernon opened up his moleskin binder, and laid it on the pulpit desk, and touched his lips before beginning to sing.

The scene was reminiscent of what we’re doing, right here, right now. I was up in the balcony, near the stage, so I could look out not just at the musicians, but also over the faces of the crowd. The fans looked on silently, waiting, for the song to begin. Their faces were trained on the singer-come-preacher.

In a way, the crowd was very Episcopalian. At a punk show or a the crowd would probably be singing along. A hip-hop crowd might have looked more Pentecostal, dancing in the aisles. This, however, was white-boy acoustic rock. So the crowd was still, giving their full attention. Maybe they closed their eyes at a beautiful phrase, but they felt self-conscious about such an obvious display of emotion, as I said, they could have been Episcopalians. The frozen chosen.

They could have been Episcopalians, but I’m going to hazard a guess that most of the people in the 9:30 club that night WERE NOT Episcopalians. I would guess, actually, that most of them do NOT go to church on a Sunday. Some of them may have grown up in church, but I’m pretty sure this was the first time that most of the people in that room had seen someone behind a pulpit in a long time.

Now, I don’t want you to think I judge that crowd for not going to church. You might think that, as a preacher, I stood up on that balcony, looking over the fans, saying to myself: “Sinners… why are you listening to this heathen music? YOU SHOULD BE EPISCOPALIAN, DON’T YOU KNOW THAT IS THE ONE TRUE FAITH?”

No, that’s not what it at all. Almost the reverse, in fact. I found myself thinking “Look at all of those faces, transfixed by beautiful music. God is here, somehow, somewhere.” In an environment as secular as the 9:30 club, something of the beauty of the music was working on the hearts and minds of the people.

I wonder are our time and Paul’s really very different? In Athens learning, money and sophistication were on display. People came regularly to Mars Hill, the Areopagus, to hear brilliant philosophers and poets hold forth. Just beyond the Areopagus lay the agora, the marketplace of Athens, lined with columns, filled with temples, shops, and sellers, a major crossroads for Rome’s empire. With the knowledge of the world at their fingertips, with every sign of wealth, every type of food, every cosmopolitan form of worship available, did the Athenians still feel a little empty? In a competing marketplace of ideas, did they still search to name of a deeper truth?

How different are Athen’s marketplace and Delmar’s loop? How many temples, churches, and Scientology Centers can you count between Skinker and Hanley? How many yoga studios? How many Christian Science Reading Rooms? How many concert venues?

Paul speaks to the Athenians and says, “what you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Paul talks about God. He finds God even in that secular marketplace, at that unknown altar. Paul finds God present, already active, among the people. Don’t hear me say that God is not in the yoga studio. I know yogis who would say they have encountered God on the mat. Paul has no doubt, God is in Athens, God is always out there, ahead of the church. Paul does not have to bring God to the people. Paul’s work is to help them to name what God is doing, to talk about God.

And the stakes are high for Paul. The disciple is angry, angry because religion has been made mostly into a financial transaction: “God is not like gold, or silver, or a stone formed by the imagination of mortals.” Paul believes religion has been abused in Athens. He understands why people might have erected an altar to an “unknown God.” These people have a holy hunch. The gods they’ve been sold don’t merit worship. Let’s talk about the God you know is closer to you, the God who your poets claim as kin. Leave behind those transactional gods, Paul says.

In the Episcopal Church, many of us know a thing or two about abusive religion. When people ask me to describe our congregation I say: “well, maybe one third of us grew up Episcopalian.” This surprises some folks.

We Episcopalians aren’t very good about growing our own. We’re getting started on that around here, we’re going to be building up our children’s and family ministries, but historically, especially in the last 30 years, we haven’t been raising up our congregations. Only about a third of us grew up Episcopalian. Another third grew up Catholic. The final third grew up Evangelical or some other milder form of Protestant. Awhile ago our sign on Delmar said, “Refugees are welcome here.” We mean that in the literal sense, and in the figurative sense. I am glad our church is a refuge.

But being a refuge can mean it is hard to move beyond the trauma. Many of the folks who end up in Episcopal Church pews seem more sure about what they know God is NOT. If I asked you to turn to your neighbor and tell them one thing you are sure God is NOT, I bet most of you would have something to say. “God is NOT a white, bearded, man, in the sky,” many would say. “God is not a homophobe” would be popular. I’d agree with you. “God is NOT a Republican voter.” “God is NOT a Democrat” (I know there are a few of you who are sure God isn’t a Democrat. I agree with you as well.) “God is NOT an NRA member” others would say. We tend to be sure about how NOT to talk about God.

But that brings me back to my initial question. We can talk negatively, about what God is not. How do we talk about God? How do you describe God? Positively? It’s a little more difficult.

When I was a little kid, I used to get nosebleeds, awful nosebleeds. Maybe it had something to do with growing up in Denver’s dry climate, but I’d wake up sometimes in the middle of the nights, my face, and pillowcase covered in blood. I remember one particular moment, one of the many nights, after my mother came and pulled me out of bed, and sat me on the counter in the kitchen, a cold washcloth pressed against my nose. That night I remember her looking at my scared tired eyes and saying: “We’re a team. You’re going to be okay.”

My mom was just trying to calm me down, but she spoke something deeply true that night. My mother’s love and care, and her words, taught me about God. As I grew up, and learned the stories of Jesus, heard the teachings of Jesus, my mother’s teaching stayed with me. When I read words like today’s Gospel, Jesus reassuring “I will not leave you orphaned.” When I encounter Paul’s description about the God, in whom we “Live and move and have our being,” I remember that sense of safety, that sense of love. I encountered God as the abiding presence, the One who is with me, when I am lonely, scared, tired, afraid. As well when I am elated, in love, encountering beauty beyond description, God is there, always.

I offer my own description as a humble example. I am curious to know How do you talk about God?

Up there, on Mars Hill, Paul had a sense that the Athenians were groping, looking, searching for God, a god unlike the false images they were being sold. I’ve seen God out there at concerts, in yoga studios, in protests. There is a marketplace outside our door where the god who is mostly loudly proclaimed by Christians is judgmental, and angry, and at war with our culture.

How will WE talk about God? Will speak words of God’s love to those who desperately need them? Will we speak of God’s justice in the courts that are judging so many unjustly? How will we talk about God?

The Way of Jesus

Some of you saw an invitation I made this week. I invited a certain Missouri State Representative out for coffee, and to talk about Scripture. Representative Rick Brattin, from Cass County near Kansas City, stood in the Missouri House Chamber this week and said that religion makes

“a distinction between homosexuality and just being a human being.”

That’s a quote, from a Missouri legislator, on the floor of the Missouri House, and He’s making a distinction between homosexual people and human beings. I want to take this man out to coffee. I would even offer to buy. I’m fairly sure coffee wouldn’t violate any ethics rules.

I’d like to talk with him about Scripture. As a Christian, as a preacher, I’d like to ask him not to propose to speak for me. As a gay man, I’d like to ask him to stand up for my rights, and the rights of others who stand on shakier ground if Governor Greitens does not veto this bill, SB 43 which was passed by the house, the bill Mr. Brattin was “debating.” (Click hear to contact Governor Greitens to ask him to veto).

This Bill would make it harder for an employee to take an employer (or a renter to take a landlord) to court for discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, disability, age, you name it, the bill makes it harder to legally prove discrimination. The media has called this bill a “license to discriminate.” Representative Brattin’s remarks were in support of the bill and against and amendment.

So far my invitation has gone unanswered. After news of his words spread across the internet, Brattin’s public Facebook page came down. I’ve sent him an old fashioned letter as well. If any of you in the congregation have occasion to speak with the Representative, feel free to pass along my business card. I’m not exactly optimistic that he’ll take me up on my invitation, but I hope I’m wrong. We’re fellow Christians. Representative Brattin and I have different takes on Christianity. But we are fellow Christians. We understand the faith we have received differently. Since we haven’t yet met to talk about Scripture, I’m not sure about this, but I would venture to guess that we read today’s Gospel especially differently.

Jesus words today are famous: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Some Christians read those words to mean, there is no truth, there is no life, there is no way to heaven outside of Jesus. Jesus is THE way. The definite article holds sway in this form of Christianity. This Christianity intentionally involves a level of anxiety. Outside the church, there is no salvation. I know that several of you, in our pews, are recovering from this kind of Christianity. For some of you, even hearing this passage of Scripture read aloud makes you a bit nervous: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” You’d like to get up right now, see if there’s coffee out there. You’d like to disengage.

I’m going to ask you to stay put. If we avoid scriptures like today’s Gospel. If we actively skip those pages in the Bible. If we turn away when we hear Christianity used to justify discrimination, we cede our faith to the forces of misogyny, bigotry, and homophobia. We need to reclaim our faith. We need to stand up for a more inclusive vision of Christianity.

When I read stories about Jesus, I read about the Son of God who turned over tables in the temple, furious about what God’s people had allowed their religion to become. I read about a man who constantly debated the meaning of Scripture with religious teachers. I read about a young preacher who spoke with authority when he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and said:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me BECAUSE he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Today this scripture has been fulfilled your hearing.”

I am not going to let fundamentalist Christianity have the last word on Jesus, because  our world needs the Good News, not the Fake news. We need the truth. We need the life. We need Jesus.

The early followers of Jesus weren’t called “Christians” they were called, “the way.” It has a sense of movement: “the way.” Our presiding Bishop is fond of calling us “The Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.”

I find that language compelling. I hear Jesus’ words today as words of comfort. The Gospel today comes from John’s long account of the conversation at the last supper. Thomas has just asked Jesus, “How will we know the way?” in response to Jesus telling the disciples he is going to prepare a place for them. Thomas is filled with anxiety. Even though Jesus has said, “do not let your hearts be troubled,” the disciple can feel the tension of this night. Where are you going Jesus? How will we find you? Jesus says, “I am the way.”

In our church mission statement we say that Holy Communion: “is a welcoming and diverse community seeking to walk in the way of Jesus…” We chose that language specifically. Faith isn’t about a single choice. You don’t choose once to follow Christ and “poof,” your life is complete. Faith is a journey. We walk that journey step by step, day by day. There are constants: we gather week by week around the Eucharistic table. We say our prayers. We rely on the kindness of friends and strangers. But as much as there are constants, the journey is also constantly changing. The terrain shifts. Some dreams fade. Some companions leave us. What once seemed permanent and definitive turns out to be transitory. Yet we journey on.

Some of you know my friend James Croft, James the atheist. We’ve spoken together at Theology on Tap, debated the existence of God. James likes to tell me, regularly, that my version, our version, of Christianity is not the version in power. The Christianity James preaches against has long oppressed people, he tells me. I should just give up on Christianity. I once asked James if he was an evangelist for atheism. He claimed the title proudly. Yet as often as we talk, I am more and more firm in my convictions.

I won’t give up on the Christian journey, on the way of Jesus, because I believe this way has something powerful to say in our world today. We live in a world where the old certainties are wearing thin. In the twenty-first century we encounter more of the world’s diversity in a day than our grandparents may have encountered across their whole lives. We hear up to the minute news from around the world. We live next door to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Atheists, and Presbyterians. We are working to make our public spaces, including our churches, more accessible to people with disabilities.

confirmation.jpg

Yesterday, at Christ Church Cathedral, as three members of Holy Communion were confirmed or received and became “official Episcopalians,” for the first time in my ministry I heard the Bishop forego the use of gendered pronouns as someone was confirmed. We are learning to welcome the transgender community. I believe that Jesus is standing in the midst of all of this growing awareness of diversity and smiling.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus declares to the wide and diverse city of Jerusalem: “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Hold on that unlikely image a moment. Jesus casts himself as a mother bird. He longs to draw all the people to himself, but not as a scolding Father, not to stand over them and tell them how they were wrong. Jesus longs to protect, to nurture, to lead.

Today is Mother’s day, after all, and I find it compelling that Jesus chose such a feminine image for his own ministry. Jesus often defies stereotypes. Following that lead, at the end of the prayers of the people today I’ll pray a collect, a prayer for Mother’s day. This prayer pushes back against the “Halmark-ification” of Mothers’ Day, this singular image of what we hold up as “motherhood.” We’ll give thanks for all the women and men who have mothered others. We’ll pray for all of those who exhibit mothering virtues.

The prayer tries to capture the diverse experience of motherhood. Some of us delight in our relationships with our mothers. For others, the relationship is strained. Mothers day can be painful, for those whose mothers have died. Mothers day can be dreadful for women and men who have lost children, or who have lost pregnancies, or who have been frustrated in their hopes to have a baby. We’ll pray for them as well.

Happy #mothersday to all who express motherly virtues! #prayer #episcopal

A post shared by Holy Communion on Delmar (@holycommucity) on May 14, 2017 at 11:02am PDT

 

A word of advice if you know someone who is grieving on Mother’s Day, or really anytime someone is grieving. One of the worst things you can say to someone is: “God has a plan.” I know many folks who left church when someone from the leadership told them: “God has a plan.” Notice Jesus doesn’t say anything about a “plan” to his friends who are anticipating his death. There’s a subtle but important distinction. Saying to someone “God has a plan” makes it sound like God has some secret, unrevealed to the suffering. Saying, “there is a way, a way forward” that is a statement of faith, of trust. “There is a way,” invites forward movement. Jesus says “I am the way”  I am with you in the pain. I will be with you in the end. When you are ready, I will take the next steps with you.

That Jesus still has something to say in our world. Jesus stands with us in our pain, and offers us a way forward. Jesus stands in the midst of our growing diversity and longs to gather us together. Jesus stands before God’s people and declares that the oppressed should go free, the poor should be lifted up. That Jesus still speaks to me, still speaks to our world. That is a way that we can choose to follow.

As I imagine my meeting with Representative Brattin, I imagine that we would pick up coffee in a shop in Jefferson City and go for a walk. As we wander the streets of the Missouri Capitol, I’d like to talk with him about Jesus. I’d like to hear how following Jesus has helped him to become a better person, a better father, and I’d like to share my perspective as well. I’d like to tell him about all the diverse people I know, the mothers I know, the fathers, and the LGBT people who follow Jesus and find liberation in that following. I’d like to tell him about how for us, Jesus is also the way, the truth, and the life. I don’t know if he’ll accept my invitation, but if he does, I look forward to that conversation.

Easter: Evidence for Resurrection

Did you catch the setting of this morning’s Gospel? “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” While it was still dark, that’s when Mary came to the tomb. Darkness is a theme in John’s Gospel. This morning, that phrase which starts us off sets the whole tone: while it was still dark.”

The whole Gospel story is filled with fear, confusion, and a sense of dread. “Where have you laid him?” Mary asks again and again. The tone matters. The setting matters. You have to remember, this is a community in shock. Mary, Peter, James, John, and the other disciples have given up lives and livelihoods to follow Jesus. Their hope died on the cross. They’ve watched their leader be silenced by the might of Rome. We don’t need news of Resurrection when all seems right in the world.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” The work Mary goes to do isn’t glamorous. According the Luke’s Gospel she’s headed there with spices. Jesus had been hastily buried ahead of the Passover. Under the cover of darkness, hoping not to draw attention, Mary wants to try to bring some dignity to the degradation. Instead she finds an empty tomb. She panics. She weeps.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” The question has to come twice that dark morning. Lost in her grief, still under the dim light of morning, she doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. Then he says her name. The world changes. Resurrection happens while we’re feeling lost and scared. “Early on the first day of the week, when it was still dark…” Darkness, sadness, fear, these set the stage for resurrection.

Modern folks have a hard time with spiritual truths like resurrection. We hunger for facts. When I was in high school, at the urging of an Evangelical friend I read a bestselling book called “The Case for Christ.” The crime journalist Lee Strobel tried to make a case AGAINST his wife’s conversion to Christianity. He looked at the Bible, the history, talked to experts and instead he convinced himself in the truth of the Gospel. Let me be clear. I’m not recommending the book, or the movie that has apparently just come out. Each of Strobel’s chapters talks about a kind of “evidence” especially for the resurrection. “Eyewitness evidence,” “Corroborating Evidence,” “Scientific Evidence,” “The Evidence of the Missing Body…” You get the picture.

I have to tell you, I find books like this interesting, but not compelling. Every so often archeologists discover a new papyrus or tablet and the media reports the “evidence” that Jesus was not resurrected. History is important, science is critical in our day, but if you need facts to prove your thesis, you’re not talking about faith. You’re not talking about resurrection. When we try to prove faith with science, we end up in some strange places. Even if you could build a case, based on 2000 year old evidence that Jesus’ body walked out of the tomb, I couldn’t tell you that was evidence for Resurrection.

Evidence for resurrection is something else entirely because Resurrection is a spiritual truth. Resurrection means that new life springs even after tragedy. Resurrection means that even when we mess up royally, God can take the wreckage and make something new. God can bring life out of death. Love can conquer hate. Goodness can win against evil. Resurrection as a spiritual truth I do find compelling. I can live my life looking for hope in the darkest places. I can live my life watching for life to spring out of death. 

You see, I do want to talk about evidence for Resurrection this morning, but not the kind of evidence in the Case for Christ.

The New Yorker this week features a short biography of Pauli Murray, a saint of our church, but not one you’ve likely heard much about. Pauli Murray was the first black woman ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Though she came to the priesthood late in life, like Mary Magdalene before her, Pauli Murray was an early riser.

In 1940, on her way from New York to North Carolina to spend Easter with her family Murray was arrested for refusing to go to the back of a segregated bus. Pauli missed Easter that year and did her time in jail, unable to pay the fine for her disorderly conduct charge. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t quite ready to organize the bus boycotts that would begin in Montgomery when Rosa Parks followed Pauli’s lead fifteen years later.

Pauli was refused admission to the University of North Carolina because of her skin color. She was frustrated, but she used her anger to fuel her path. Instead she took other steps toward integration. Murray was the first woman to attend Howard Law School, at the time thought of as the “Black Harvard.” While she was there, she wrote a senior thesis where to defend and argument she’d had with a professor. Murray argued lawyers should stop trying to prove that the black schools were unequal. The wins were too small: one school at a time. Instead she said, make a legal challenge to the “separate” part of the “separate but equal” framework of Jim Crow. Her professor called her crazy. That same professor later used Pauli’s thesis as part of the winning argument in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case which ended legal segregation.

The New Yorker article, and the recent biography on which the it is based, both profile Murray’s struggles around sexuality and gender. Pauli was born Anna, but hated the name. She shortened her middle name “Pauline,” and used it instead. Though she always used feminine pronouns, she never felt fully comfortable with her gender. She married a man, but the marriage only lasted a weekend. Pauli had deeper romances with women. While she left these stories out of her autobiography, she left behind journals and letters that described inner work to reconcile a queer identity before the language, psychology, and society caught up with her.

Pauli was ahead of her time in many regards. I’m grateful to be part of a church that eventually found the guts to ordain her, and 25 years later to declare her a saint. If you want evidence of resurrection, I submit the life of Pauli Murray. I submit the thousands who continued to stand with faith before the world was ready. I submit the witnesses, the saints, even those who are not widely remembered. On Easter morning we proclaim the resurrection with trumpets and triumph, but new life often comes before it can be fully understood. New life comes about early, while it is still dark. (That’s why we started the service in darkness this morning). Resurrection happens when the world is not yet ready. We are always playing catchup to God’s work.

I don’t know where you are on the journey of faith this morning. We say around here, wherever you are on the journey of faith, you are welcome. Faith is a journey, and sometimes the road gets dark. Sometimes the world around can seem off-kilter. If these last months have been difficult for you, if you find yourself struggling with fear and shock, if you find yourself turning off the radio and putting down the paper out of frustration, you are well prepared for Resurrection.

God can and does make new life out of the worst of human circumstances. While all the reporting may cover bad news, there is good news today and every day. Life continues to triumph. Love continues to win. Light continues to shine, even in the darkest corners. When you look at the big picture, there is evidence for resurrection all around.