God’s Outta the Box



Click here for an audio of the sermon~09041602





King David knew where God was, at all times. He had a handle on God, specifically he had two handles, or rather poles. It made it more convenient to carry God with the army when they went to battle and when they weren’t, well they could place God in the tent of the meeting where only holy men were allowed to enter, those who were complete, whole and perfect, who were clean. It was embarrassing, to say the least, when David lost God in a battle and had to retrieve the ark from the enemy; I mean, how does one explain to God that you allowed him to be captured and carried away? Solomon, being wiser, fixed God geographically by creating a permanent home, a temple, around which all decent people for centuries would center their lives.


Remember the Samaritan woman questioning Jesus, “Our ancestors worship God on the mountain but you say God is only in the temple” She was baiting him because for centuries God was in the temple, behind the holy of holies, behind the veil. A place so sacred and dangerous that when priests would venture back there they would wear bells and a rope so that those in attendance could listen for the movement of the bells and know if God had found this man displeasing and killed him off. If so they could retrieve the body by pulling on the rope rather than risking themselves, especially if God was angry.


The Holy, the Sacred, is dangerous. It transforms and threatens and changes things. It is unpredictable and wild. The Spirit blows where it will, but mostly, we like to contain it. God in a box. God in a temple. God in a church. This wild ruach, this untamable God, is one we would really like to fix permanently in safe places, in sound theology, in proper worship. We like to tame the wildness and contain the wideness of God’s majesty. It is too overwhelming, too uncertain.


Yet we all want an experience of the divine. The language of God is written on our hearts, simply waiting for them to break so that the words may fall in. It’s the breaking that we fear even as we long for God’s word to enter us, change us, transform us. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth it will not yeild anything, and yet we hold tightly to what we have, fiercely maintaining the good that we know, that we possess and refuse to allow it to fall. Falling we are transformed, remade, broken open and something new, something really truly wonderful grows in, thrives in, the broken places which are surrendered to God, given over that they might be transformed, remade, reborn.


We have this resurrection faith and yet death and dying to what we know, what we possess frightens us. Our fear is evident in our grasping and resistince even as we must be gentle with ourselves on account of this. The holy of holies is a frightening place to be, better to enter with bells on and a safety rope firmly attached because who knows what might happen within?


When I was younger I used to tiptoe into the sanctuary when it was empty. I was convinced that God was watching, no longer distracted by the crowds of worshippers that usually filled the place, if I went in alone, it just felt too visible, too vulnerable.


During holy week we would hold an Easter vigil, from the moment the Good Friday service ended until the Easter morning service began someone would be sitting alone, in the sanctuary below the cross. Parishioners were encouraged to sign up for fifteen minute increments to insure that someone would always be there. My mom liked to sign up for the midnight hours and she would come and wake us in the dark of night and we would drive silently to the church, still half asleep. Once there, one of us would enter the sanctuary in silence, walk to the front of the church and relieve the person who was sitting there and then for fifteen long, interminable minutes, one would sit there at the base of the cross and re-member, re-embody the ones who sat beneath the cross while Christ died on it. It was a holy of holies to sit with death and loss, in silence. It was a moment of being with the horrors of torture and murder at the hands of a police state, at the request of religious leaders. It worked its way into me as I sat there in the silence. God who suffered, God who died, God who came to live with us and became vulnerable to us and who scared the powers that be so much they had to have him killed. You just can’t put that God in a box. Not a god-box, not a pine box. That God simply won’t stay put. No matter how much we want him to.


That God breaks in like sunlight at the dawn changing all our fears into easily dismissed shadows of the night. But we must not be afraid to get down on our knees and look into the tomb, look into the shadow of death itself. This is the God that flows like water into every hidden space, softening what is hard, feeding all the green and growing things and cleansing us of all impurities. This is the God who our ancestors tried to bury and who would not stay buried.


We have this resurrection faith, a faith that tells us death and loss do not have the final word and that God cannot, will not be contained, that God continues to bring new life in the most unexpected and startling ways.


This uncontainable, irreverent God invites us to kneel down in silence, in awe and wonder, and see the vastness of life springing from the seemingly dead inert places in our life. With all humility we are asked to open ourselves up to all that we do not know and to recognize that nothing we know or do can possibly contain God; that the beginning of all wisdom is to be in awe, to tremble with wonder and to let go of our attempts to put God in a box.


The writers of scripture might well have said, the beginning of wisdom is vulnerability. It is not found in the safety of what we believe we know or what we can contain or own. But rather to stand humbly and vulnerably before God and wait silently to be surprised, to be astonished. Standing in the holy of holies is risky business. It is unpredictable and uncertain. And the holy of holies shows up where it will; it moves through people’s hearts and speaks through their mouths. It whispers among the pine trees and it dances with baby goats. If we are observant and we are careful, we might find the holy of holies almost anywhere. The veil has been torn from the temple and there is no separation between us and God. In all aspects of our daily lives God waits to greet us.


Faith is not the absence of doubt nor an unquestioning certainty but the willingness to surrender and continue on our journey trusting only that God journeys with us and that as long as God goes with us, all will be well. Faith is to lay belly up on the waters of God’s love and care trusting that you will not drown in it but will be carried, will be held. It is to allow yourself to feel the warmth of sun above and the cool of the water below and trust the current which carries you on. This week President Jimmy Carter spoke about his faith journey. His astonishing witness was that he is “..perfectly at ease with whatever comes. I’m ready for anything. I’m looking forward to a new adventure.”


When we release our anxious striving and trust that God is in control and it’s OK that God is out of our control and beyond our understanding, then we too can look forward to even death as a new adventure.


Our challenge today in this church is to accept that we really don’t know if this church will survive in this form. It may. It might continue for another couple centuries just like it is, and people will say, wow, First Presbyterian has been in Jasper since the beginning! Because it will feel so long ago to them, but it may not. It’s possible that God is calling us to a new adventure, one which we may not understand right away and one which we might be inclined to resist because it feels too strange. What boxes have we placed around God, how have we attempted to define our expectations of God, and what happens if God turns up elsewhere?


We are very attached to how we do church here. It is uncertain if we will be able to continue doing so. Our faithful response is one of continuing our journey with God, not knowing how it will all turn out, but knowing for sure that God is with us.


We have this resurrection faith and we know that what often looks like dead inert matter can give rise to a rich harvest, even when we don’t expect it, even when everything seems gone, done, finished. God startles us by showing up when we are near death, when we are in exile, even when we look into the tomb.


Our psalmist speaks to us today, “How lovely are your dwelling places, Yahweh Sabaoth” for God dwells with you, and you, and you. For God dwells in startling and surprising places, filling the world with grace and light. “My whole being years and pines for the Lord’s courts.” Yes, and yes, we long for God. Our whole being aches to know that God is here with us. “My heart and my body cry out for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, the swallow a nest to place its young.” But Jesus laments the son of man has no place to lay his head. God wanders with us, among us and will not be contained. “How blessed are those who live in your house, they shall praise you continually. Blessed are those who find their strength in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” Because we too are on a journey and God alone is our strength. We ache to stand on the threshold, in that liminal space where we see God most clearly.


We praise God and we enjoy God’s dwelling places, knowing that God is always with us, and no one and nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. God is out of the box, the veil is torn from the holy of holies. God is loosed upon the world, out among us, in the most unexpected places. So let’s walk through the world looking for God, seeking God out, until God taps us on the shoulder and says, “You’re it, I mean you’re really it!” and we are invited again, to delight in God and all that God has brought into our life.


An intolerable message, a reflection on John 6

Click here for audio~09040901

Gracious God, disturb our calm, unsettle our understanding, and shake us loose from all we hold precious that we might receive you. Amen



This is intolerable language, how can anyone accept it? The shock, the outrage, it was clearly intolerable, clearly wrong. Eating flesh and drinking blood? Gross, no way! Who would say such a thing, let alone do it. Sometimes I think we have grown too used to such language; it fails to shock us as it would have shocked Jesus’ audience that day. I think that to really get a good idea of how shocking this was we need to know that kosher meats always have the blood drained out them. Blood was mysterious. It embodied life itself. No one would think of eating something that literally carried life within itself. It was unconscionable


And can we hear threads of Philippians in this, God emptying himself out, becoming less, pouring forth and allowing himself to be diminished. Can we hear the thoughts of the Syro-Phoenician woman also, if I but touch the hem of his clothing some of his power, his vitality, his being will pour forth and heal me. Can we hear the fear of loss and vulnerability that made this kenosis, this melting heart, ooey-gooey, emotional stuff feel just too scary? Kenosis being the Greek word used over and over again for the compassion Jesus has for the crowds, for the towns, for the people he meets. This way of speaking, of the pouring out, the emptying, the loss of control and vulnerability is at odds with our understanding of God the Father Almighty. God, who is in control. God who demands retribution. God who’s sovereign identity requires we make good on the debt we owe him, one which, we can never repay. This God, the one who is invulnerable, is at odds with the god we see in Jesus Christ. Who came to us as an intensely vulnerable child born in poverty to an unwed mother.


I wonder if perhaps, Jesus didn’t come in order to change God’s mind about us, about the debt we owe and need for retribution. I wonder if Jesus might have come in order to change our minds about who God is.


And I wonder if, in John’s gospel, Jesus isn’t trolling the righteous religious people of the day. Those good and upright people who have studied the scriptures long and hard, who have kept every rule and are ever so careful to maintain their scrupulous behavior. Jesus wants to shake us loose from all our rigidly held ideas of right and wrong, of correct and mistaken. I wonder if Jesus isn’t asking us to think very deeply about what really does matter and how too often we let those things which are really side issues interfere and take us off track from the truly significant and why is it we do that?


One of my internship supervising pastors took his first call in Scotland. He used to tell many tales from his time there and his deep love of the country and the people resonated through these stories. There was one story though, that brought some uncomfortable laughter. One of the oldest Presbyterian churches in the area had gotten involved in worship wars. They argued over the correct hymnal to use, the correct liturgy, the correct use of liturgical props, you all know this story, right? We’ve all seen it, which, I suspect, is why some of that laughter was a little uncomfortable when he would tell this story. This story is our story, although this church made a choice that few of us would. They decided to split the church right down the middle and so, in the middle of the sanctuary they erected a wall. Sort of like when my sister and I were little and we used to draw an imaginary line down the middle of our room. “You stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine and we’ll get along just fine.” And they did. They chose a side and they stayed on it.


The message of the cross is foolishness to those who live according to the ways of the world. It is a messed up, intolerable message. And then, Jesus tops it all off with, and take up your cross if you would follow me. Uh huh, take up a cross and die to the ways of the world. Die to the dream of making it, of maintaining your own security, of taking care of number one first. Let all that go.


Is it any wonder that we prefer to focus our attention on whether the correct colors are being used on the communion table? Or whether our liturgy is correct and proper? Dying to all that we know, to our certainty and security is frightening. And so, as we struggle to get everything right and correct, Jesus comes along and says, here is my body eat it. Go on chew it up, feel the toughness, the gritty-ness of my body and then, wash it down with my blood, for all that I am is poured out, broken up for you. There is no correct way to say that. There is no right way, no proper way, nothing in our human understanding that can make that OK. Is it any wonder that our text goes on to say, “after this many of his disciples went away and accompanied him no more.” Following Jesus is to have our certainties removed, again and again. It is to be startled into newness, thrown into vulnerability and to have all that we think we know for certain thrown into doubt and questioning.


God invites us again and again to move out of certainty and our attempts to capture God, to hold him in some contained way which falls apart again and again, and we are thrown into mystery. We are too prone to wanting to capture God, to having the correct theology and the correct responses, the correct way of living and being so that we can rest in certainty, but the God we meet in Jesus won’t let us do this. The God we meet in Jesus is one who defies our expectations over and over. He hangs out with the most unsuitable sort of people, the unclean, the dirty and morally suspect. He breaks all our rules which give us a simple and predictable life. He heals on the Sabbath, he allows unclean women to wash his feet, he chats women up at the watering hole. The righteous people must have wondered if there was anything he wouldn’t do!


A pastor once served one of those churches who solved the worship wars by holding two services, a traditional and a contemporary. Both were still compromises as there were lots of people who held very strong opinions about what proper worship was, but he did the best he could. He was really surprised and, admittedly felt a little justified, when one of his more conservative and traditional parishioners began attending the contemporary service. He approached this lady feeling just a bit smug because she had been so adamantly opposed to the contemporary service. “I see you’re attending second service now,” he said, “I guess you’re enjoying it after all.” “Oh no, Pastor,” she replied. “I hate it. But a few weeks ago you preached about how important it is to be hospitable, to meet people right where they are, and all of the young kids were going to the contemporary service and I realized I didn’t know any of them. I realized I hadn’t been very welcoming to them so I started attending that service so that I could better support them, get to know them, and be hospitable.” Instead of erecting a wall whether the physical kind or the temporal kind, that hour of separation, she crossed over to where those whom she was called to love and serve were.


The root of wisdom is awe and wonder of God. It is to engage the mystery knowing we are about to have the lid blown off our attempts to contain and limit God. We are about to be drawn into the unknown and to strange and new places, strange and new relationships, and we are asked to respond to this again and again with love, with kindness, with compassion.


I want to tell you about Syeda Ghulam Fatima. You can read about her on the Humans of New York Facebook site although Syeda lives in Pakistan. She has been shot, electrocuted, and beaten many times for her activism. She is most certainly a woman who knows what it means to take up one’s cross. In the deep rural areas of Pakistan there are brick manufacturing companies which use bonded labor. In return for a small loan an unsuspecting individual will promise to work for a while, only that while never ends. The loans are rigged and there are fees and additions such that keep these workers in debt for the rest o their lives, and when they die their debt transfers to their children. Syeda has worked tirelessly, literally putting her body between the owners and the workers. Syeda does not say that it is too much, too dangerous, too risky. She knows it is and yet she returns again and again. She pours out her life with deep compassion and love for those she would protect. She speaks truth to power and she keeps hoping that love will win, and she doesn’t stop. This is the intolerable message of the gospel, that following Jesus asks us to take up our cross and give of ourselves and all that we have and are, out of love for one another.


It would be easy for Syeda to say that these people are foolish and they got themselves into this situation, they can get themselves out. It’s really not her problem. Except that we have been called to love one another. Except that we are all a part of one another. Except that we are called to be food for the world. This is who Jesus has shown us that God is, this food for the world, this joining with those who suffer and are oppressed or cry out. Jesus has forever changed our understanding of who God is. The god we see in Jesus is not aloof, is not distant from our suffering, but is deeply vulnerable to us, has forsaken anything that would keep us separated from God’s self. This is not the angry God who demands retribution, but God who feeds us with God’s very self, standing between us and all that would harm us, all that would separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.


Knowing who holds our hand, how can we be afraid? Yet we are so often, and it is easier for us to focus on who is right, who is wrong, is this correct, or that. We nothing if not masters of distraction but the invitation is ever before us, let go of your certainties, your securities, and prepare to let God carry you into the unknown where life is renewed, where grace becomes tangible, and where the invitation to love radically is ever extended.


Perhaps Jesus did not come to convince God to let us off the hook, on a debt we could never pay, to give us another chance. Perhaps Jesus came to invite us into a new kind of relationship with God. One in which we are fed and nourished in our inner being that we too might be food for the world. May it be so.