10-1-17 ser Under Whose Authority?

We need to set our assigned reading into context this morning. Just before this passage in Matthew, right before it, Jesus has entered Jerusalem and goes straight to the temple, where he is enraged by the money changers in the temple courtyard. He turns over the tables, scattering their money and challenging their authority, their place in the order of things. That’s when the religious authorities in this passage ironically begin to challenge Jesus’s authority. Listen.

Matthew 21:23-32 When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’  Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.  Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’  And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’  But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’  So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’  And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

‘What do you think?  A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’  He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.  The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.  Which of the two did the will of his father?’  They said, ‘The first.’  Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.’

Let’s take a moment in silence – maybe confessional silence-  to reflect on when we have said ‘no’ or when we have said ‘yes’ and not followed through on our word.

October 1, 2017

Under Whose Authority?

Who are you? What right to you have to tell me what to do? I am not one who obeys authority automatically. I used to walk my dog every day in the cemetery near our house, walking right past the signs that said, “No dogs.” Later they changed the sign to say, “Dogs have to be on a leash.” and I would walk my sweet innocent dog, who would never hurt anybody without a leash. I know I drove some people crazy, disobeying the rules. I did change my ways later, but only after many years.

I am willing to break rules to make a point. I usually have a good reason in my own mind. I spoke last week about some of how I came to be so arrogant in my rule-breaking. The Vietnam War broke something in me about trusting authority. Sometimes that rule-breaking is simply arrogant self-righteousness. I don’t admit it often, but my refusal to walk my dog on a leash for those years might have been one of those times. There were others I will not enumerate today.

Three years ago this week I started a sermon series that helped me understand how differently people think about authority and loyalty. I had read a book called The Righteous Mind which argued that conservative and liberal folks have trouble understanding each other because they have some basically different values. They value different things. Jonathan Haidt, who wrote the book, claimed that conservative folks value caring, fairness, authority, loyalty, freedom or liberty, and sanctity – all about the same. Progressive or liberal folks tend to value caring or compassion the most, and fairness and liberty a lot, but authority, loyalty, and sanctity or religious purity, not so much.

It makes it really hard to talk to each other when you don’t value the same things and you’re not even acknowledging it. Even when we read scripture, we may find different things important. So maybe when I read this passage from Matthew, it’s my liberal bias that makes me think that Jesus’ civil disobedience right before this passage is highly significant. When Jesus turns over the tables in the courtyard of the temple, you can just hear the Pharisees snorting and crying, “Who does he think he is? What right does he have to disrupt normal business at our temple. Who gave him the right?”

So they ask him, “Who gave you the authority to do what you’re doing?” It was a tricky question for Jesus, a trap that could get him in trouble. If he claims his own authority, if he says I know what’s right here, he admits to having no backing from a legitimate recognized authority, and institutional or culturally recognized authority. If he says I’m acting on God’s authority, they will claim he is blaspheming and violating their jurisdiction as leaders in God’s sanctuary.

He’s trapped, so he doesn’t answer the question. He turns it around on them – asking them a question of similar complexity about John the Baptist. He asks whether they think John the Baptist’s authority comes from God or from humans. Because John (and Jesus) are so popular, the Pharisees will get in trouble with the people if they don’t recognize his divine connection and if they do acknowledge that connection with God, they undermine their own authority.

See, authority is a tricky thing like that. Jesus goes on to tell a story about a child who says no to her father, but then goes and does what was requested, versus a child who says yes, but doesn’t do what was requested. Talk is just not adequate. In the end, we are going to follow the one who does the right thing, whether the words are right or not, even if superficially it looks like disobedience. Jesus is challenging the authority of the religious leaders who look good, but are allowing the temple to be used by people our to make a buck for themselves.

Sometimes we make a similar mistake – valuing status, niceness, formal education, or saying what we want to hear – over people with real integrity, people who may not sound as good, but who are living out their values, may not be as nice, or have the status or the education, but who are working to make a real difference in the world.

In the recent controversy over black athletes kneeling during the national anthem, I can’t help but hear my father being disgusted, “Who do they think they are? Why don’t they just do what they’re supposed to do and respect the flag? I just want to watch football, not this despicable spectacle. They need to just do their jobs, like they’re supposed to do.”

Progressive/liberal folks who don’t place as high a value on authority and patriotism and loyalty may dismiss those who criticize the athletes. Dismissing values which hold us together and are so deeply held can be really problematic. Sometimes there’s a good reason to not walk your dog in a cemetery, whether you know it or not.

Other folks who lean more conservative may dismiss the athletes themselves as unqualified to speak, or messing in an area that is not their expertise, creating unnecessary turmoil and grief and disrespect. Dismissing their concerns and values will also be a problem.

 

As I meditated on this dilemma the last few days, I finally felt like I had to ask the real authority. In our passage for this morning, Jesus asks the Pharisees, the good United Methodists of his day, to recognize prostitutes and tax collectors, the despised people, the last and the least, as being valued by God as much as anybody. So I asked Jesus, where are you? Are you on the field, kneeling with the athletes or are you with the folks who are upset at how divisive they are being?

And Jesus said, you don’t see what’s going on do you? I’m with the people of Puerto Rico who have lost their houses this week. I’m with the mother in Texas whose child is having nightmares about the water that came into their house. I’m with the girl in Mexico City whose home was destroyed by an earthquake. And yes, I’m with the little guy whose older brother was killed by police who is still wondering what he’s going to be when he grows up. I’m with the mother who lost a son who is beside herself with grief and anger. I’m walking beside the athletes, holding their hand and the hand of the child they represent. I’m walking with the fans who care about their community and are sending flood buckets and lanterns and supplies to help folks in hurricanes and earthquakes and floods

One friend of mine suggested that the real message the athletes are trying to get across may be getting lost because of the transgression of these other values. The message also is getting attention of course, but he suggested that instead of kneeling during the National Anthem, the athletes might walk into the stadium holding the hand of a child whose father or brother or sister was killed unjustly in police violence.

 

As we come to the table this morning we might notice what really pulls us together is the caring we have for each other, especially in the face of adversity. When folks in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean faced the wrath of the hurricanes, we don’t ask which state or which country or what race their from – we dig in and do what we can to help. That’s our bottom line common values coming to the fore. When folks in Puerto Rico – US citizens – were hit by Hurricane Maria this week, UMCOR, the Red Cross, and the church will be there.

Our communion offering will go for the World Communion scholarship fund, which we support on this Sunday each year, but I am again asking us to dig deep and give extra for relief for folks dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. On this World Communion Sunday, we eat this meal with people all around the world and God is especially with those whose churches are no longer standing, those are doing jobs that make people hate them, the woman who couldn’t figure out a way to feed her family except by selling her body, the little boy whose brother was killed by the police, the mother struggling to be seen as intelligent by folks who only speak one language and only value a certain kind of education. We come to this table with all of these and more, all of God’s children to say we are all one body, one people in God’s love.

 

Offering

Communion Hymn 620 One Bread, One Body

A Watershed Experience 9-24-17

Genesis 8:20–22; 9:12–17 Noah built an altar to YHWH, and choosing from every clean animal and every clean bird, offered burnt offerings on it. YHWH smelled the sweet fragrance and said, “Never again will I curse the earth because of  humankind, since the evil their hearts contrive begins from infancy.  Never again will I strike down every living thing as I have done. So long as the earth lasts, sowing and reaping, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease. 9:12-17 God said, “Here is the sign of the covenant between me and you and every living  creature for ageless generations. I set my bow in the clouds, and it will be a sign of the covenant between and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, my bow will appear in the clouds. Then I will remember the covenant that is between me and you and every kind of living creature, and never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all flesh. Whenever my bow appears in the clouds I will see it, and remember everlasting covenant between God and every living creature on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all living things on the earth.”

Rivers and water throughout the Bible are signs of fertility and abundance. In Genesis, the destructive waters have receded and promises never again to destroy the earth. Light refracts through water in the sky and becomes a rainbow, which God uses as a sign of this covenant, a covenant to use non-violent ways to reach humanity from now on. Bookending the Bible, we now turn to Revelation for the final image of a river – the river which is a model for river that runs through the middle of the city. Listen.

Revelation 22:1–5  The angel then showed me the river of life-giving water, clear as crystal, which issued from the throne of God and of the Lamb and it flowed down the middle of the streets.  On either side of the river grew the trees of life which produce fruit twelve times a year, once each month, their leaves serve as medicine to heal the nations. There will no longer be any curse. The throne of the Almighty and of the Lamb will be there, and God’s subjects will serve faithfully. They will see the Most High face to face, and bear God’s name on their foreheads. Night will be no more. They will need no light from lamps or the sun, for our God will give them light, and they will reign forever.

Let’s reflect on watershed experiences in our lives, when God moved and we moved a new direction.

September 24, 2017

Celebration of Creation: River Sunday A Watershed Experience

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed sign is an unassuming, if lovely, sign by the side of the road as you go out of town. Sometimes you may notice it. Once you get used to it, you don’t even think about it. It says “Entering the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.” It means you are leaving the Delaware River watershed, right? Do you think about it when you go by?

For some reason the sign gets my imagination going, as I think about all the water on this side of the ridge shifting directions and flowing toward the Chesapeake Bay when a mile back and for many miles beyond that, all the water was going into the Delaware River. It helps me to think a little bigger about the beauty of God’s creation. As we celebrate River Sunday today, let’s imagine the rain from this place seeping down into the water table and moving toward the Delaware Bay.

When we say, “It was a watershed experience” or a “watershed moment,” we are unconsciously putting ourselves in that place on that ridge – thinking about the place where everything shifts directions, that crucial moment or experience which changes everything, from which something will have to go one way or another way.

Our reading from Genesis this morning that Pastor Joanne read describes a watershed experience that God had in the ancient imagination and in many traditions. It is the beloved and scary story of the flood, and Noah’s building of an ark. It’s the story of the first endangered species act, where Noah gathers two of every endangered animal and saves them in the ark. We read it today as we continue to pray for those in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, St. Maarten’s, and other Caribbean Islands struggling to recover from the flooding and winds that have engulfed and sometimes destroyed their homes.

We read the story and reflect on God’s promise with the rainbow sign, never to use violence to destroy the world again, never to annihilate humanity with the waters of a flood. You can imagine how comforting this story was and it to people facing a storm or a flood – to know that God way back then had had a watershed experience, had promised never again to destroy everything. We joke about it every time we get a big storm, with a little bit of that old anxiety, a little reminder to each other that the rainbow is a sign of an unshakable covenant God made with all of creation.

 

I watched the Vietnam War, Ken Burns & Lynn Novick documentary this week. The show continues tonight and the next 4 nights on PBS. It is very well done, very powerful. Tom Curtiss and I have been talking about it, remembering the Vietnam War as a watershed experience in our lives and in the life of our country.

Tom is just a couple years older than I am and he enlisted in 1968 and went to Vietnam in 1970. I applied for conscientious objector status in 1971, but my draft number was high enough that I didn’t have to face what I would do if I wasn’t granted that status. Either of us will talk to you for a few hours if you have the time to listen, about how the war changed us and changed our country.

In particular, we have been appalled all over again, as we watch the show and realize how our government lied to us about a war that could not be won, and continually extended it, costing countless US and Vietnamese lives, only because it would have cost President Kennedy or Johnson or Nixon politically to admit defeat. Along with the Watergate burglaries that led to Nixon resigning, our country could never again have the same trust for our leaders that those of us in that generation were taught to have growing up. It was definitely a watershed event for our country. After we crossed that ridge, the waters of public opinion began to flow a different direction. We still have some lessons to learn about what is possible through the instruments of war and violence – and what is not.

 

We are at another watershed in our country and in our world. We are in the midst of another watershed experience. It may be the same one, in fact. We just are getting a little clearer about who we can trust and who we can’t. We know because of the Vietnam War and the experiences around it that war is not going to move our world forward, and that we can’t trust lying politicians who try to move us toward war. We can’t trust corporations with their small-minded interests to lead us toward a whole world. We can’t trust Amazon or Facebook or Google or Bill Gates. They have their own interests. We can’t expect FOX news, or MSNBC, or CNN to show us where to go because they all are beholden to the corporations & the advertisers. The Holy Spirit leads us to understand at this watershed moment that, with 7.5 billion humans now on the planet at the same time, our future is either nonviolent or there is no future at all.

The Bible ends with the Book of Revelation which tells us who to trust with another story, a vision of the end of time, of Jesus coming back to restore the whole of creation. This passage inspired our river of fabric down the center of our church as it says “The angel then showed me the river of life-giving water, clear as crystal, which issued from the throne of God and of the Lamb and it flowed down the middle of the streets. “

Revelation portrays the destruction of the empire of Rome and the triumph of God’s reign, the triumph of the people of God. “On either side of the river grew the trees of life which produce fruit twelve times a year, once each month, their leaves serve as medicine to heal the nations. There will no longer be any curse.”

The fruit tree in the middle of the garden is the tree that God first put into the Garden of Eden. God told the first people not to eat of that tree. But the vision of Revelation is that prescription has been lifted. Now the tree is a tree of healing. No one will be without healthcare or medicine no matter what their income. The tree of life serves as medicine to heal the nations. War will be no more. Sickness will be no more.

Life is renewed for all and health is restored to all. It is this vision that we sing about in the old African American spiritual, “Down by the Riverside.”

 

Gonna lay down my burden, down by the riverside…

Gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside, down by the riverside and study war no more. I ain’t gonna study war no more, ain’t gonna study war no more, ain’t gonna study war no more…

Gonna follow the Prince of Peace, down by the riverside. Gonna lay down my burden.

Wilderness Sunday 9-17-17

I dreamed last night that I got lost and I woke up remembering my childhood hero, Davy Crockett. Yes, I had one of those coonskin hats and sang, “Davy Crocket, King of the Wild Frontier.” I remembered the story about Davy Crockett. Someone asked him if he’d ever been lost and he thought about it. “Nope” he said. “I’ve been a mite bewildered a few times…”

Bewildered – the word connects with wilderness. Our country loves wilderness. The myth of wilderness and draw of wilderness is part of the promise and dream of our founding. (Of course, there were already people living in that supposed wilderness, that we have exploited and that’s part of the story too.

My sermon this morning for Wilderness Sunday reflects on two types of relationship with wilderness – the first being the Joel-type relationship with the scary, destructive kind of plague of locust caused wilderness that warns humans to beware and to keep our distance. The second type of wilderness is the wilderness which Jesus enters in this passage from Matthew -the wilderness which is difficult, but still somehow a place of God’s redemptive power. In this passage the wilderness is called the desert, which is the same thing.

Matthew 3: 13-4:2 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jorden to be baptized by John. John tried to dissuade Jesus, saying, “I should be baptized by you, and yet you come to me!” But Jesus replied, “Leave it this way for now.  We must do this to completely fulfill God’s justice.”  So John reluctantly agreed. Immediately after Jesus had been baptized and was coming up out of the water, the sky suddenly opened up and Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and hovering over him. With that, a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Own, my Beloved, on whom my favor rests,.” Then Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit, to be tempted by the Devil. After fasting for forty days and forty nights, Jesus was hungry.

September 17, 2017

Season of Creation: Wilderness Sunday

At the end of my vacation two weeks ago, Cathy and I spent the weekend in Marion, Massachusetts. We were there to attend the wedding of my godson’s brother. It was a beautiful weekend and a beautiful wedding. We stayed at an airB&B near the beach. Saturday morning we took a walk out to see the beach. There was a sign at the edge of the parking lot which described an ongoing project between the beach and the large, indulgent houses at that edge of the town.

The sign said that the large marsh area in front of the sign was being allowed to return to a natural marsh in order to have a natural way to deal with storms and even with sewage. The land was becoming a barrier for storms and a recovery area for the land. It was becoming a wilderness, a redemptive, healing wilderness.

 

I have a personal story about the Joel kind of wilderness too. A personal connection to a tragedy makes it so much closer. As I have told you, the new tenant in my house, Ivy Defoe, is from the Dutch side of St. Maarten’s, the Caribbean Island that was absolutely destroyed by Hurricane Irma. As she comes and goes from her work at the University, I have heard her stories about her parents and her two sisters – mostly about the lack of news. I find myself trying to imagine what it would be like to spend 4 or 5 hours in a wooden house being blown from around you by 185 mile per hour winds. I literally can’t imagine. The wilderness that has been left behind, 80% of houses destroyed, is inconceivable.

 

Today we confess that we are detached from both of these kinds of wilderness – the one which God creates to be redemptive and healing, and the one which our inattention, greed and over consumption has made a full-out hazard to big parts of God’s creation. The warming of the waters in the Caribbean and the Gulf, and warmer air holding more water vapor, has led to these oversized hurricanes that scientist keep calling 1 in 500 or 1000 year storms.

(How can we call them 1 in 500 years when they are happening every few years? The flooding that happened in Houston is a 1 in 500 year flood. That doesn’t mean a similar flood won’t happen in a few years. The designation 1 in 500 year flood is used primarily for insurance purposes and indicates the possibility, the chances that particular areas will get flooded in one particular year. Usually, insurance companies require people within a 1 in 100 year flood plain to have flood insurance. But 1 in 500 year floods in Houston and Florida are happening more often because of warmer seas and warmer skies.)

The rain from Hurricane Harvey was the biggest recorded storm in the contiguous United States, but the resulting disastrous flooding was the product of rampant real estate speculation, political corruption, a warming environment, and a toxic blend of fossil fuel addiction and denial that the climate is indeed warming. When water absorbing natural terrain is replaced by cent and asphalt, water becomes ‘runoff.’ Rather than sinking into the ground like it does in that marsh area in Massachusetts or through the bricks that have replaced concrete sidewalks in my neighborhood, the water moves horizontally toward rivers, streams and the Gulf of Mexico. Losing wetlands around the airport in Philadelphia or near the shores in coastal cities make the resulting flooding much worse.

 

In the Bible, wilderness events are a somewhat common, if extraordinary occurrence. The Hebrew people following Moses wander in the desert wilderness for 40 years, until the whole generation of people whose mentality is stuck in Egyptian slavery die off and the people are ready to create a new life in a promised fertile land. Joel and other prophets invoke the image of a plague of locusts destroying the land, killing the promise of the temple as it is destroyed or threatened by foreign empires.

John the Baptist, the quintessential wilderness prophet who thought that locusts make a yummy dinner, calls people into the wilderness to be baptized in the Jordan River. Jesus, in our passage for this morning, is led into that desert wilderness by the Spirit of God after his baptism. In Mark, an earlier account, talks about the Spirit “driving” Jesus into the wilderness for a 40 day sojourn. The 40 days is clearly meant to recall the 40 years of the Hebrew people living in the wilderness.

Like the Hebrew people, Jesus uses this time in the wilderness to become renewed and energized for a new time. The wilderness is a place where he confronts his demons and faces the temptations of Satan. The challenge of the wilderness absorbs negative energy and allows for spiritual growth as Jesus takes on the mantle of his ministry.

 

God is present with us in the wilderness, whatever wilderness we face. Whatever desert deficits we are dealing with, divine life-giving energy is with us. We can face the truth about the ways in which our lifestyles are contributing to the warming of the air and the warming of the water. We can use those insights to encourage our society toward more renewable and sustainable sources of energy, an impetus toward returning land to its wilderness state.

You know how when you go past a woodland area on a hot day, you can feel the cool air? You can actually feel the difference in the temperature? Woods and wilderness help to stabilize the temperatures and make up for the concrete and asphalt wilderness that heats things up. Planting trees may feel like a drop in the bucket, but our trees and our gardens help to counter the paving of paradise.

St. Luke (through our lay leader Fred Vivino) has purchased two trees to plant on the front lawn of our church this month – one in honor of Betsy Monahan who gave a large bequest to the church in her will this year, and the other tree to recognize the 20 year anniversary of my ministry in Bryn Mawr. I’m encouraging the trustees to also consider purchasing solar panels to provide a renewable, sustainable source electricity for the next generation of ministry in this place.

The Bible shows us the ways wilderness areas are a blessing, even when they are sometimes scary or foreboding. Our holy texts encourage us to take care of the wild, as we do when we set aside areas for national parks and conservation areas. We need to make wilderness experience and renewable accessible to all God’s people, whether we live in rural, urban or suburban areas.

Responsive hymn  No. 2059      I Am Your Mother

Why We Call God YHWH 9-10-17

Genesis 2:4b-22 “At the time when [pause, G-D] YHWH made the heavens and the earth, there was still no wild bush on the earth nor had any wild plant sprung up, for [pause, LORD] YHWH had not yet sent rain to the earth, and there was no human being to till the soil. Instead, a flow of water would well up from the ground and irrigate the soil. So  [pause, Adonai] YHWH fashioned an earth creature out of the clay of the earth, and blew in its nostrils the breath of life. And the earth creature became a living being.  [pause, Jehovah] YHWH planted a garden to the east, in Eden—“Land of Pleasure”—and placed in it the earth creature that had been made.  Then  [pause, Shhhh] YHWH caused every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat, to spring from the soil.  In the center of the garden was the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” … Then  [pause, YHWH] YHWH took the earth creature and settled it in the garden of Eden so that it might cultivate and care for the land  [pause, the LORD] YHWH commanded the earth creature, “You may eat as much as you like from any of the trees of the garden— except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  You must not eat from that tree, for on the day you eat from that tree, that is the day you will die—yes, die.” Then  [pause, the great I AM] YHWH said, “It is not good for the earth creature to be alone.  I will make a fitting companion for it.” So from the soil  [pause, the Creator] YHWH formed all the various wild beasts and all the birds of the air, and brought them to the earth creature to be named.  Whatever the earth creature called each one, that became its name. The earth creature gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals. But none of them proved to be a fitting companion, so,[pause,  the Breath of God] YHWH made the earth creature fall into a deep sleep, and while it slept, God divided the earth creature in two, then closed u the flesh from its side. [pause,  the LORD God] YHWH then fashioned the two halves into male and female, and presented them to one another.

I thank Bob Jeffcoat for the question that led to this morning’s sermon. Bob is one of our newest members. When he was liturgist this summer, he wondered why we use the four letter word YHWH in our first reading many weeks. It’s an important question, and I could talk about it for more than one sermon. But I won’t. I hope today’s will begin to answer the question.

Acts 17:22-28  Then Paul stood up before the council of the Areopagus and delivered this address:  “Citizens of Athens, I note that in every respect you are scrupulously religious. As I walked about looking at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, “To an Unknown God.”  Now what you are worshiping in ignorance I intend to make known to you. For the God who made the world and all that is in it, the Sovereign of heaven and earth, doesn’t live in sanctuaries made by human hands, and it isn’t served by humans, as if in need of anything.  No!  God is the One who gives everyone life, breath—everything. From one person God created all of humankind to inhabit the entire earth, and set the time for each nation to exist and the exact place where each nation should dwell. God did this so that human beings would seek, reach out for, and perhaps find the One who is not really far from any of us—.the One in whom we live and move and have our being.  As one of your poets has put it, ‘We too are God’s children.’

Let’s reflect on our God who is known and God who is unknown, as children of God.

September 10, 2017

Why We Call God YHWH 

You may very well wonder why we would take time to talk about the name of God today, on our first Sunday back after the vacation, with so many big concerns in the world – dangerous hurricanes hitting and threatening so many people, concerns for young immigrants, and plenty to talk about in relation to God the Creator of the Land.

Moreover, you might think that using the four letter word for God, YHWH, is kind of silly, or pretentious, or a mystery. Why make things more confusing than they already are? Why not just read the Bible the way it was written, by good ol’ King James?

Well, of course the King James version of the Bible is just the most revered and earliest widely available English translation of the Bible. They had to make a decision about how to translate the Hebrew word YHWH, and they chose the word “LORD.” They kept it in capital letters so it has the advantage of being another 4 letter word, and encouraging reverence and even submission to God.

YHWH was the ancient word used as the personal name for God by the Hebrew people. The name was kind of proprietary. And we can see arguments in the Bible about whose God was greater and whose God was real, with the Hebrew people insisting that their God was the only one and true God of the everyone and everything.

The word was written without vowels – which is the case with most Hebrew words, but this word was never printed with vowels and never spoken aloud, so we don’t really know how to say it. Jews will use a different word and never try to pronounce it. If they ever did put vowels into the word, they would use vowels for the word Adonai, which means lord or master, and would be said in place of YHWH.

Biblical scholars think that the Hebrew word most likely was pronounced ‘Yahweh’ in ancient times, or something like that. Jehovah was also a popular way to say the word, starting in the 16th century, and it is still used in some Bibles and in some hymns, as we will sing later in the service.

The Bible we started to use in our service a year or two ago, is the Inclusive Language Bible, which tries to shift some of the translations of Hebrew words to more gender neutral language. So the Hebrew word sometimes translated “mankind” instead gets translated “humankind.” God is not called ‘he’ or ‘him,’ but understood as not being human and relating equally to men and to women.

When it came to YHWH, the translators decided to use the original Hebrew rather than to try to translate it. The word Lord, they felt was a hierarchical and masculine word that didn’t adequately portray what the original Hebrew conveys. When we read it out loud as Yahweh, we don’t convey the word adequately either of course. We could, as we did today, say Lord, or Adonai, or Creator God, and do just as well. But leaving the four letters, an unpronounceable word, portrays the mystery and the awesome character of the divine.

The word recalls what God wants to be called. Moses on the mountain asks God what name he should use, who he should say spoke to him. and God tells Moses to use the name, “I AM who I am.” Richard Rohr says that if you read it without the vowels, it would sound most like a human breath.  YHWH. He reflects on it, saying that this name of God is the first sound that a human child ever makes, and the last sound that a human makes before he or she dies. YHWH.

 

In the end, using the four letter word YHWH may indeed remind us that we are being pretentious when we say the name of God, when we approach the divine and imagine that we know God’s name. The word encourages imagination and awe in our approach to God, rather than familiarity or submission.

In my personal prayers, I most often use the word God rather than YHWH. (There’s another Hebrew word translated God – Elohim, which we could talk about another time.) There are lots of other names for God, and our liturgists may decide to use some of them rather than to try to pronounce the unpronounceable. After all, Jewish and Catholic leaders both discourage their people from trying to pronounce YHWH.

Still, in my own prayers, my personal meditation, when I do think of God through the unpronounceable word, I feel myself grounded in mystery, grounded in my own breath. When I find myself distressed by Hurricane Irma destroying the childhood home of my new tenant, Ivy Dafoe, I find it comforting to breath and to know God’s name in my breath. When I pray to this God of mystery and creativity, I feel myself grounded in the one in whom I live and move and have my being. When we pray to God as the unpronounceable breath, we are hearing the God of our True Self, our deepest ground of being, who we are and who we always have been, the True Self at the core of our being, who we are and who we are becoming.  We already are what we are seeking, and we hear that when we connect with this true name of God, the deep truth of God who is Love, who casts out all fear. When we pray to God as Creator of the land, Creator of the water, Creator of humanity, we feel a holy connection in that name, and feel ourselves standing on holy ground.

Responsive hymn: We are Standing on Holy Ground

Walking on Water 8-13-17

I find though, that I have to change what I’m talking about today because of the events in Charlottesburg, VA. I wish we didn’t have to, but we just have to address these things today. Listen for the word of the Living God for you today from Matthew.

Matthew 14:22-33 Jesus insisted that the disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side. Having sent the crowds away, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray, remaining there alone as night fell. meanwhile the boat, already a thousand yards from shore, was being tossed about in the waves which had been raised by the fierce winds. At about three in the morning. Jesus came walking toward them, on the lake When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water. they were terrified.  “It is a ghost!” they said, and in their fear they began to cry out. Jesus hastened to reassure them:  “Don’t worry, it’s me!  Don’t be afraid!” Peter spoke u and said, “If it is really you, tell me to come to you across the water.” :”come!” Jesus said. So Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus

But when he saw how strong the wind was, he became frightened.  He began to sink, and cried out, “Save me!” Jesus immediately stretched out his hand and caught Peter.  “You have so little faith!” Jesus said to him.  ”Why did you doubt?” Once they had climbed into the boat, the wind died down.  Those who were in the boat showed great reverence, declaring to Jesus, “You are indeed God’s Own!’

Let’s reflect for a moment on times when we have doubted God’s presence with us, and when and how we have found that connection again.

August 13, 2017

Walking on Water

“When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea, thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.”

The news yesterday of a woman being killed by a car driven into a crowd by a white supremacist terrorist shook me yesterday, and has shaken all of us, I dare to say. I had been invited to go down to Charlottesville a week or so ago, to stand vigil with other clergy against what people were starting to sense was going to be a dangerous gathering of hate groups, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists. One friend said, “If you wonder what you would have done during the Civil Rights movement, notice what you are doing now.”

I knew I couldn’t go down there, but I do have some mixed feelings of desire to do something, fear about doing something, fear about what is happening in our country, and concern for the best way to respond. So let me take a few minutes this morning to give some preliminary thoughts at the end of a stormy and scary weekend.

First let me address directly the problem with President Trump’s response to the calamity. He made a statement condemning in the ‘strongest possible terms’ the violence on all sides. That would be ok if the violence was being initiated by all kinds of people, and if it was specific about the ways in which the violence is being initiated.

Notice how a similar statement from the United Methodist Church sounds fairly similar to President Trump’s statement, but has a quite different impact, “The United Methodist Church condemns in the strongest terms racism, white supremacy and violence.” Social Principles 162 A  That statement can also challenge the violence which is being used to respond to violence, but you first have to be clear where the violence is coming from.

And I don’t think you can be really clear about where the violence originates if you’re first goal is to gain political points. I don’t mention President Trump’s weak response this morning to imply that if we got rid of one person or a few people, this problem would be solved. That would be seriously naive. We are confused when we divide everybody into right and left, us and them. We don’t solve things by dividing everybody right and left. It’s only when we get clear about right and wrong.

The truth is that all of us are caught in the storm of white supremacy, even if we are unaware of it. If we are pointing fingers at someone else and not noticing how our own lives are complicit in the systematic ways in which people of color are oppressed, then we are part of the problem. Let me put it even more pointedly than that – as Dr. William Barber puts it,, our country has a heart problem. White racism has been all tangled up in the way our country operates from the very beginning, and it’s not just a few people, it’s all of us taking part in that original sin.

I know that’s a pretty strong way to put it, but I don’t think we can cover this over. It’s a spiritual problem in our country, not a political problem. It requires soul work.

 

So let’s turn to the Gospel and see how the Word of the Living God gives us some help today. The story we read from Matthew today, of course is the story of Jesus walking on water to save the disciples who are scared to death because of a storm. Jesus had gone off by himself to pray and sent them on ahead. As they are scared they are going to capsize, Jesus catches up with them about three in the morning – walking across the water.

That scares them even more. They think he’s a ghost. Jesus has to reassure them, “Chill out guys. It’s just me. Don’t get even more scared!” At that, Peter, (and this only happens in the gospel of Matthew) decides to test the situation, and, still unsure it seems if it’s Jesus, says, “If it’s really you, tell you to come out there with you.”

Jesus chuckles, “Sure, go ahead and try it.” And Peter gets out of the boat, takes a few steps and starts to sink. Jesus has to grab him and save him, still chuckling about his daring and his incomplete faith.

 

I read a poem this week that I was going to use for my growing older sermon, that I think is still relevant to this passage and this message. It is by William Stafford and called “The Way It Is.” It’s how we came up with the idea of throwing the string around this morning.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

 

As I was reading that poem and thinking about our reading today, I imagined Jesus saving Peter not just by grabbing him, but by throwing him a rope – the thread if you will. “You don’t ever let go of the thread.” Why? Because you can’t. Love has you. Love is you. Love, and your deep need for love, recognizes Love itself. Remember that you already are what you are seeking.

We get confused in the storms of our lives, we so easily get scared to death in the turbulence of our seas. We think that we are lost when we see the storms of racism and violence, and it’s even more scary when we realize that we are in the storm, as much as we try to avoid it.

God bless Peter who steps out of the boat. The key to faith and fullness of life in Christ is to trust the thread, to trust the connection to the Living God, to step out in the storms of life, to leave the comfort and security of our carefully protected boat, to head into the troubled waters of this chaotic world to proclaim the love of the Living God, trusting in God’s community of love, trusting in the thread that connects us all. You don’t ever let go of the thread – because you can’t. The thread is always there, connecting all of us to the love of God, even if we are unaware of it.

I saw several colleagues on the news down in Virginia yesterday, stepping into the middle of the storm – confident of the thread that connects them to God’s love, confident that their peaceful spirit would make a difference somehow as a few confused people spew hatred and violence, knowing that they had to be there, knowing they had to witness to the thread that connects us all.

 

Responsive Hymn 512      Stand By Me