Sunday, August 24, 2008

Who do you say God is?

Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

I remember a time in my early twenties when I was really confused about God. Not like I am today, in a good way, I think – which I will talk about in a few minutes, but in a way that at the time made God very different than something deeply inside of me could completely recognize.

I started a practice then that continues today – I would have these long conversations with God, often sitting on a beach late at night, wondering why God would not appear, walk on water towards me, or do something to answer the “other” questions that were so perplexing in my life.

Just for an instant, I wanted God to show Godself – send one of those angels or another messenger. I wanted proof, even though I wouldn’t have admitted it. And, I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but more then and once in a while even now – I want something more than faith. You know, a simple appearance would do just fine.

After a while it all became too much to hold together. Yes, being gay had a lot to do with it. But I have talked with many who had debates with God and church, at the time used synonymously.

As I saw more and more what these restrictive teachings were doing to me and others, I wanted to shake everyone out of their mass acceptance of a God that punishes and separates. And, if you were not a male Caucasian in most religions of the time, you were separated from. Your role was often seen as one of sacrifice, accepting the burdens of your gender and race or condition, and conform – or leave.

It’s not that I wasn’t willing to accept my share of burden or sacrifice – it was just that I found that no degree of such servanthood seemed to make my life better. Shouldn’t it be better if I was sacrificing, conforming, accepting my burden?!

Well, it wasn’t and, in fact, attempts at imposed conformity nearly destroyed me, as it had many others to one degree or another, sometimes to the most extreme of degrees.

You know, I really wanted to believe – believe it all, from Moses to miracles. But I just couldn’t. And when I sought out answers from friendly and approachable leaders in the church, they would say with a wink and a nod – “just live according to your conscience and you’ll be fine.”

To tell you the truth, that messed me up even more. If you’re telling me God accepted and loved me as I was, then let’s tell everyone. That’s the Good News! Aren’t we supposed to be spreading the Good News?! Where’s the fairness, love, or justice in just a few of us knowing, when others are suffering from a lack of knowing?

Truthfully, It just kept getting worse and made less and less sense to me. Confusion led to near-despair, and ultimately – simply as an act of survival at some primal spiritual level – I left the church.

No indictment or indignation, I just needed to breathe. If God didn’t understand that, then it didn’t make any difference anyway.

I refer to the years that followed as my “desert time,” a place I sometimes revisit. I wasn’t there for forty years, but over nearly a decade I found solace and God in that place that somehow became a living setting of all that had been written and the one sanctuary of all creation. It was a wanderer’s place, with encounters of others on the same path along the way – but in many ways a personal and solitary place. I have to admit, there are times when nothing helps like sand between the toes.

Later, I discover that my so-called “maladjustment” to conditions was a good thing.

If we tilt Paul a little on the side for a different view, it may just be that he was talking about some of these same things. From this morning’s readings:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Is Paul saying, perhaps, that the living sacrifice requires sometimes that we give up what is comfortable, assured, even promised for certain behaviors?

And the conformity that he cautions embracing are echoed in the words of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he, too, cautions about the immense pressures for cultural conformity (including the church in one’s culture) a, “condition[ing] our minds and feet to move to the rhythmic drumbeat of the status quo.”

I have to tell you that the status quo drives me crazy. The last thing I want to become is “status quo,” and yet we can’t function without some things falling into this category of expectation and dependability. Again, I rely on Dr. King for the insight for which my words fall short:

“There are some things in our world to which men [sic] of goodwill must be maladjusted. I confess that I never intend to become adjusted to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination, to the moral degeneracy of religious bigotry and the corroding effects of narrow sectarianism, to economic conditions that deprive men [sic] of work and food, and to the insanities of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.” - Dr. King’s Sermon Transformed Nonconformist January 1966

Or as Dan Cleneden says, “Christian non-conformity, in other words, has a specific direction.”

I think Paul would have understood this, even used the language. Paul is an exhorter, calling people to a new way of living – yes, to a new justice, to a renewed sense of the God of Israel, the God of the Shema Yisrael that would never have accepted anything less than hospitality for the stranger, a fundamental tenet of justice that is the root of love – or the other way around, if you prefer.

It should be noted that such reform ideas are incredibly powerful, and, as such – are met with strong resistance by those who prefer the status quo that favors one group (their group) over another.

Looking at my own life, if I were to draw a picture of it as a sphere, it would be constrained by my own human conditions, my shortcomings, and lack of patience, tolerance, love, and understanding – all those things that are held in place by the deep gravity of fear. And around that sphere there is another ring, like a ring of Saturn. The ring represents the growth away from self toward the other, forged by the struggles and the mistakes I have made and the kindness of others, and the grace of God. It is that edge, just a few millimeters from the surface of the sphere that has made and continues to make a difference in my life that gives it meaning. Much of that distance, for me, has been transversed in the desert.

And still, there are no “final answers” to the Big Question. Who is God?

I use the language of my tradition to talk about God, but every word is inherently limited, every word but a pointer to what cannot be described. The closest I get is “a presence that I know that guides me,” the same presence that I have heard about, witnessed in others, and read about throughout the Bible and other works.

It’s much easier for me to answer, “Where is God?” Everywhere.

So, let’s enter for a moment into the “God is Everywhere” place and consider Matthew’s writings that Sue read for us this morning. First, let’s remember that Matthew’s writing is tending toward the high Christology of John, that is, his purpose is to secure Jesus as the Messiah in the eschatological sense of Judaism, not just as an anointed one, such as a prophet.

A look at Gospel Parallels shows just how Matthew has enhanced this passage from what was most likely a Markan original (written around 65-70CE), relying as well on the Lost Gospel of Q.

This reading in Matthew falls between the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, the feeding of the masses, and what follows in 16:21-28, the foreshadowing of the Passion of Jesus, in which Jesus rebukes Peter:

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
So, what is going on at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say the Son of Man [this child of God] is?

In the last few weeks, we spoke about Jesus growing into his ministry, learning more about his call. Any leader, spiritual or otherwise, listens to those around them for feedback, insight, criticism.

“What do people say, Peter?” “What do you say?”

Matthew adds several lines here not in the other gospels, but setting those aside for a minute or two, one wonders if Jesus thought to himself upon hearing the answers, “What is going on here? Could this be true? Is this what all these things have meant, what this journey is about? Is this that longing inside that refuses to go away, the absolute certainty I have about how things need to be changed and what is wrong and how everything has become so confusing and wrong from what God could ever have meant it to be? How has this tradition of Moses and Abraham been so turned on its head? Have I been called to do this, to set my face to Jerusalem based on this knowing that it is what I am supposed to do? Are these people calling me the messiah speaking to me from God, the Father, the Mother? What is going on?

Oh, my God.
And when Jesus tells Peter not to say a word, maybe Jesus is just looking for some time to get to the desert or the mountaintop, to give this more thought and prayer. “Quiet, Peter. Keep this to yourself. I need some time to understand what this means and what God is calling me to do.”

God, who are you?

And then, in the next passages, when Jesus know that there is danger and violence ahead that he needs to walk into, he rebukes Peter’s contradiction by telling him in the terms of the day to “Be quiet and don’t try to tempt me away from what I must do.”

Jesus came to know, I believe, what he was called to do. More and more he is renewed in ways that raise him as a Messiah and for many as the Messiah.

Today, for me, this is the Jesus that sustains me – maybe you, too. It is the Jesus who came to know God perhaps as no other ever had, and in ways beyond my understanding, Jesus has become one with God and the Spirit. It is this “presence of God and Jesus and the Spirit” that is now everywhere for me, and I can’t explain it any more, perhaps, than the Muslim, the Jew, the Native American, or believers in any tradition find their way to the God -- who I believe is One, beyond all the questions.

In the end, I know God in the feeble way I have tried to describe God. Considering that the struggle for God has been with us since creation I think I am not alone. And in the struggle and this place I have come to know God as a presence, yes – beyond all understanding and right here at my fingertips.

And, in the end, the peace and mystery come together out of a place of silence, which is also a place of grace. Perhaps no poet expresses this better than Rainer Maria Rilka:

From The Sonnets of Orpheus
First Part 1

A tree ascended there. Oh pure transcendence!
Oh Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed. Yet even in that silence
a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared

Creatures of stillness crowded from the bright
unbound forest, out of their lairs and nests;
and it was not from any dullness, not from fear,
that they were so quiet in themselves,

but from just listening. Bellow, roar, shriek
seemed small inside their hearts.
And where there had been at most a makeshift hut to receive the music,

a shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing,
with an entryway that shuddered in the wind—
you built a temple deep inside their hearing.

May that temple of grace and silence deep inside your hearing guide you well for the work you are called to do and the gifts you have been given to share. Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Rockin' the Boat

Rockin’ the Boat
©2008 Ray Bagnuolo

Readings: Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Seven Trillion Electron Volts or about enough energy to power a flashlight for – maybe – seven millionths of a second.

Small, we’re talking small here, but that’s what happens when you start looking at things closely. Small numbers, times many occurrences, make huge differences.

In this case, seven trillion electron volts is the amount of energy that is expended when two protons, traveling in opposite directions at near the speed of light come into direct contact. In that miniscule degree of a second, energy and particles are emitted that very nearly approach what happened at the moment of the Big Bang – only multiplied beyond consideration by all the protons present doing the same thing.

It is expected that on September 10, in a tunnel some 300 feet below Switzerland and France, scientists and engineers will guide those protons at one another, attempting to reverse nature and travel backwards in time to millionths of a second after the Big Bang when these collisions were exploding everywhere.

The circular tunnel is called The Large Hadron Collider of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). With a diameter 5.3 miles and a circumference of 16.8 miles, it will indeed accelerate and force these protons into direct contact at close to 186,000 mps (the speed of light). When that happens, conditions will occur that are believed will replicate those surrounding the Big Bang, some time 14 billion years ago, producing particles and elements rarely – if ever seen today.

At a cost of $8 billion and 14 years to build it, the Large Hadron Collider is a collaborative effort that is something of a scientific United Nations. Thousands of people, hundreds of institutes, and dozens of countries have contributed to engineer and build the tunnel and the two quite incredible “detectors” that will sit on opposite sides of the ring and through which the path of the protons and the residuals of their impact will be recorded and data disseminated for evaluation.

One of the detectors is called the Compact Muon Solenoid – weighing in a 12,500 tons, 48 feet high, and 75 feet long.

The other is dubbed Atlas – at 7,000 tons, 72 feet high, and 150 feet in length – it is the smaller of the two.

As I mentioned, when these protons collide, the energy releases/creates a new set of particles from the collision: hadrons, such as photons, protons, neutrons, pions, kaons, hadrons – and the most elusive of all- muouns

All this is being done in an effort, among other things, to find the missing piece – the “Higgs boson” as it is called that will hopefully explain the vagaries, the discrepancies in the Standard Model of the Universe, which says there are 12 basic particles of matter, four particles of energy, and the missing element – the Higgs boson..

It’s the search for the holy grail, so to speak, the discovery or discoveries that may lead to a single unified theory of the universe, the String Theory, which “ties” everything together – explains it all.

The outcome of the experiment may also prove that everything we (and the scientists) thought is flawed a little, seriously flawed, somewhere in between, or totally wrong.

Yet, these men and women, these nations and their resources are willing to take the risk, to enter into the unknown and all the trepidation that it sometimes brings with it – because, well, they can not do otherwise. It is their call. And it has grown on the hearts, and minds, and built and mounting on the shoulders of all those who have gone before them. In a very real way, they are being pushed by discoveries of the past as well as called by what is beyond.

And, isn’t this true of everything about us? All of us?

In each of our own sacred lives, each of the calls that we have been given, the talents and sought after talents that are in our genes to use or to find, as we are pushed by the energy of each unfolding generation to more than we know? To more than we see? To what calls us from beyond and within? Sometimes we find what we expected, but most of the time – we could never have planned the outcome. Still we move always into the unknown.

And, like the scientists going deeper and deeper into the smallest and smallest parts of what is to seek their answers, aren’t we more and more realizing that the answers we need and desire are inside of who we are, – available to us if we are willing to gather up the energy, time, and persistence needed to seek them out?

It was this I had in mind when I chose Romans from this morning’s selection of lectionary readings. Paul’s terrific when he tells his readers that they (and we) need to move on from this concept of God that is a descending and ascending God, the First or Old Testament notions of a three-tiered universe: the dead and underworld below, the canopy and water above, and the earth between the two, a model that worked to explain the science and theology of the times, which were for the most part were one. It made sense based on what they knew. Even when Jacob wrestled with the angel in our recent readings, the angel descended and ascended – for how else would an angel arrive and depart? Paul is nearly saying that, in reality, it wasn’t all that important how the angel arrived or was engaged by Jacob – just that it did arrive, was engaged, and changed Jacob to Israel, changed his walk as a result of his injured hip, reoriented the direction of a people and a nation to unfold again, in new ways for what was ahead. Just what Jesus does for each of us in our lives.

Just as it may be future scientists will change or redefine previously held positions following the outcome of the work with the Hadron Collider, here is Paul, years after Jesus’ crucifixion, building on all he knew before, all that was happening, and on his own unfolding energized conversion, suddenly saying something like:

“Hey, don’t get sidetracked with this “up and down” stuff – this stuff about who will ascend into heaven or who will descend into that abyss below, rising from the dead

up and down, down and up – that was fine for before, before we knew – but now we know -

It doesn’t matter,” he might have continued.

“Do you want to be justified in the eyes of God?
Do you want to know the energy and love of walking humbly with your God and being of service to others in your witness?

Then: confess – share – with others what it is that is in your hearts. That’s where you know Jesus and God. That’s where it’s at! Tell others. Tell them what you know, what you have discovered through Jesus Christ. Share with the world that you will find the answer you seek – by knowing Jesus as well, and you will discover, as we did – that we are all a part of the creation that has been touched by the same God, the God that sees no distinction between Jew and Greek. There are no longer any differences between us, once we know God, for the same God is the God of all!”

But Paul is not done; he goes further:

“And how will those who have never heard of such things to know them?”

And here is, I think, one of the most wonderful lines of Scripture in all of its verses. He replies to his own question by saying:

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

How beautiful, and wonderful, and amazing for those who have not known God to discover God at the hands an feet of those who carry the message – not up or down, but to one another, from one another, touching one another from a deep place of knowing God and inviting others in, as well as being invited in…amazing!

In other words, we are expected, if you read the Scripture in this way, we are expected to grow – as we go – in the presence of the Holy Spirit. We are expected to travel into new and un-chartered places, with the assurance that we are, indeed, blessed, justified, cared for, and guided. That we will be taken care of, always.

Can you feel the excitement of the oppressed of the times hearing such a message? Talk about energy!

Paul as much as tells generations, here and elsewhere in his writings, that when we collide with the ancient explanations of the past, we should expect sparks to fly and new directions to emerge, just like the particles and matter at the instant of light-speed contact. Expect the chaos and unknown and even the risk – and go forward and know that you will be just fine.

Matthew wraps it up for us with what might be the missing theological Higgs boson, placing it right before our eyes in the life and teachings of Jesus. See, Jesus is the string that goes beyond his times, through Paul’s, right on to today. We see Paul change and quite certain that he is right, and he is in many ways for his times – in his context, but Jesus travels even beyond him. Jesus’ message reaches out from the past to this moment. In our context. Telling us, too, be prepared –EXPECT - the boat to be rocked, in fact – rock it yourself, when needed – and fear not – for I will always be with you.

We know from the past readings that Jesus sent the disciples out on the boat, ahead of him. It must have been a busy and difficult time for Jesus. John the Baptist has been beheaded, Jesus has barely had time to get away, to be at peace and quiet – to grieve, recharge, think, and pray. Masses of people follow him; he and the disciples have just participated in the feeding of the multitudes in another magnificent example of the power of God unleashed in the heart that produces new levels of sharing and compassion, the likes of which had not been seen before. Energy? You bet!

So, seeking a bit of solitude, Jesus sends the disciples ahead – choosing to remain back and go of into prayer and meditation. And when the storm rises and the winds blow; when the water laps into the boat as the cold and wet set in; the fear of being overturned and lost takes thrusts its powerful and mighty hold on the disciples.

And then Jesus comes to the shore.

Is the first act of Jesus, returning to the shore, seeing the storm, knowing the tempest that is ravaging the hearts of the disciples with uncertainty and lack of direction – to calm the waters like we smooth out a sheet or a blanket?


Nope! Instead he just steps out onto the water like it was dry land on a sunny day and approaches them. And one of them, Peter, knowing inside of him for a fleeting moment, more than he knew a moment before, feeling something inside him coming together in ways that built upon all he had heard and seen with Jesus, says, “I can do this”…and he steps out onto the water!”

Caught up in that presence of God and Jesus and the exuberant awakening of his faith – he steps out and says, “Oh, my God…look at this, I am walking on water” and then, maybe just as quickly says, “Oh my God, I’m walking on water, I can’t walk on water, what am I doing, Oh, my God!” and he starts to sink.

And Jesus pulls him back up, enters the boat with him, and calms the waters – not by his command, but by his presence.

I wonder, later, how much Peter wished he had not given up or that he had “more” to keep going.

. I wonder how much he beat himself up for wondering why he just couldn’t get that faith that moved mountains.

I wonder how much Jesus loved him more for stepping out in the first place, sensing like a parent with a child taking their first steps – Peter’s steps into a real and growing faith movement.

I wonder if the miracle of what the disciples did as they moved through their time with Jesus, wasn’t in fact a miracle for Jesus, for him to see the growing edge of faith and belief in his message that was moving these men and women in ways they could never have imagined, and for which even Jesus might have wondered if they ever would have the idea.

Yet, as the disciples believed and acted on their beliefs, as they rocked the boats or were no longer afraid of the storms, as they unleashed the energy of their growing faith, I’ll bet Jesus more than once shook his head in wonder and with a smile, saying to himself, “It’s a miracle!”

I’ll bet Jesus says the same thing, each time we, in our own time, say, “No!” to what should not be and step out on faith, love, and compassion to change and right things. “A miracle, just a miracle! Look at them go! Woo-hoo!”

So, as we leave here, today, let’s think about how God is with us and how we are called in these days, in the best tradition of being disciples in our day, as the disciples were in theirs. Let us trust deeply in the God we know and who reveals God's self to us today and with no boundaries or limitations! Let us remember, too, that we are the growing edge of all those who have gone before us, charged with the energy and promise – even if unsure of the future.

Let the hadrons, the protons, the neutrons, and the Higgs boson fly, and take us where they will.

Let the energy of the Spirit from deep inside guide us with one another...

And, when needed – in times like now, in so many ways

Rock that boat –

For Jesus and the Bible tell us so.

Reference Note: NYT Science

Day by day, dear Lord of youThree things I pray:
To see you more clearly,To love you more dearly,To follow you more nearly,Day by day.

- St. Richard of Chichester