Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sermon: "Choreography"

This is a sermon that I preached at Metropolitan Memorial UMC on Sept 22. I also gave a slightly modified version of the same message at Crossroads that same day. That one involved actual dancing. 

The texts are Wisdom 7:22-30 and John 1:1-5, which you can read at this website if you're interested.

But why read  a sermon when you can listen to it? A podcast of it is posted on Metropolitan's website, here

Here at the Metropolitan Church, we are in the middle of a sermon series called “Dancing Partners.” The sermon series is about the Trinity, that characteristically Christian doctrine that names God as Three in One and One in Three. It’s a tough topic, one that throughout the history of Christianity has been the cause of many disputes, skirmishes, and excommunications.
            Now at Wesley Seminary, where I’m a student, we have a year-long class called Systematic Theology, in which we spend a rather significant amount of time poring over this idea of the Trinity, rehashing what voices throughout the history of the Church have said about God as Three in One, One in Three. Discussing whether this doctrine has scriptural merit. Debating gendered language and metaphor and image.
This class took up a significant percentage of my time last year, and so when Charlie asked me to preach this Sunday my mind immediately went to that class and what I had learned. That class really did help me makes sense of the Trinity, but not in the way I would have expected.
You see, last December, I sat down in my old house in Northeast DC to write my final paper for Systematic Theology. I had the requisite stack of writings next to me—mainly church fathers and some old German guys, with a few feminist and liberationist voices in there for good measure. And I stared at the computer screen and, as seminarians are wont to do, overthought the thing again and again.
My housemate, a more practically-minded guy than me, was baking bread and listening to the radio in the kitchen. I had sort of tuned the voices on the radio out, so I wasn’t really listening to what was being said, but I noticed a sudden change in the tone. I don’t know how many of you listen to NPR, but there’s this certain sort of cadence to NPR-speak that tends to have a bit of a lulling effect on me. It’s always like, “And now, with an unconventional take on a topic of interest, here’s a reporter with a quirky name.” But the voices on the radio seemed to have sort of dropped that NPR-speak, and so I started paying attention to what they were saying. And I, along with many of you, began to learn about a shooting at a school in Connecticut that most of us had never heard of before. An elementary school called Sandy Hook.
When things like the shooting at Sandy Hook—and I think it should anger us, it should disturb us, that I can say “things like Sandy Hook” and you know what I mean, that we have a whole category of events, Sandy Hooks and Virginia Techs and Columbines and Boston bombings, and now we can add DC Navy Yards, a whole backlog of senseless violent tragedies—when things like the shooting at Sandy Hook happen, my first response is always silence. I never know what to say. And I sat, as did many others, by the radio or by the computer or both, refreshing news websites, hanging on rumors and misreported details, imagining the fear of children, and feeling paralyzed.
There was, of course, nothing to be done. The time would come to talk about gun control, an important conversation to have; and to talk about mental health, also such a vitally important topic. But now was the time for shock, for silence, for not knowing what to say.
And there I sat, with a half-started Word document and a stack of theological texts. And I didn’t know what else to do. So I scrapped everything I had written and I started to write it again.
The very little that I could try to do on that day is the same very little that I can try to do this morning. And that is to try to make some sense of theology—that is, to make some sense of the way in which we talk about God—in a world where kids are targets.
To try to speak about God in a way that can make any difference in a world in which, from the suburbs of Connecticut to the mountains of Pakistan, children can be pieces in the violent games of adults.
So what I want to talk about this morning is not exactly a doctrine of the Trinity, but instead the way that God models for us and invites us into a way of being that overcomes alienation. By talking about God as a Trinity, we are talking about God’s very self being comprised of relationship, of community, of communion.
This idea is important because I think that ultimately what I see when I see the news about Sandy Hook, and the DC Navy Yard, and Syria, is alienation. It’s our ability to distance ourselves from each other, and from God, and from ourselves, and from the Creation that we are a part of.  I see the chasms that exist between us, the objectifications, that allow us to hurt each other. The isolation that allows personal darkness to fester into violence.
            This alienation is everywhere. It’s in the loneliness that stalks the halls of Sibley Hospital and American University. In the violence that we read about and see in our city and our world. In the stigmatizing of mental illness. In sexism and racism and heterosexism and all the other -isms that hold so much power in our world. In the distance we feel from our neighbors in DC. In the reality of homelessness in our city.
And then we look to God, and rather than a distant, monolithic Other, another object separated from us by a chasm, we can instead see a communal dance, an intertwining reality, the overcoming of distance.
This sermon series is called “Dancing Partners” because one of the ancient metaphors used to describe the Trinity is a dance. The Greek word is perichoresis. The word is from peri-, as in perimeter. That means “around.” And chorea, dance, from the same root as choreography. So, something like, “to encompass with dancing.” So the idea is that the mutual indwelling of the Persons of the Trinity, the way that they deeply relate to each other without losing their personal distinctions, is like a dance. There is movement. Moving closely with each other and then spinning out. Opening and closing, stepping and leaping.
It’s a dance we’re invited into. Western Christianity has gotten so used to thinking of salvation as a personal thing that we forget it’s about reconciliation, an inherently communal act. We are invited into the dance of the Trinity, invited to be reunited with God-As-Community and thus to become part of a healed and reconciled community here on earth. Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff writes, “If God means three divine Persons in eternal communion among themselves, then we must conclude that we also, sons and daughters, are called into communion. We are image and likeness of the Trinity. Hence, we are community beings.”
Don’t worry introverts. This doesn’t mean you can never be alone. In fact, it’s perfectly possible to be in a crowd and still feel alienated, still feel isolated. It just means that as we live more and more into the image of God-As-Relationship, we grow more and more aware of how deeply we are all interconnected, how we are all intertwined. How we are all dancing together.
We heard two passages of scripture today. One, if you’ve spent significant time in churches, is probably pretty familiar to you. The other is likely new. See, the second passage, the first words of the gospel of John, is often read around Christmas. It describes Jesus as the Incarnate Word, present at creation. John’s gospel goes on to tell us that this Word becomes flesh, making itself known to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a radical claim that John’s gospel makes, not found in any of the other gospels. That Jesus is not just a human being but the manifestation of God, through whom all things come into being.
Now, those of us who are comfortably ensconced in Christian circles are so used to hearing this that we forget what an outlandish idea it is. If you think about it, why anyone would choose to believe that a human being, from a particular place and a particular time, is also somehow that which brings the world into existence, is pretty hard to understand.
The first reading gives us some hints, though, about the paradigm in which the gospel of John comes into being. It’s from a book called the Wisdom of Solomon, a book that is not included in Protestant Bibles, although Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox believers count it as part of their scriptures. It’s a Jewish text, but written, as is the gospel of John, from a distinctly Greek thought-world. The text emerges not, as it purports to, from the world of King Solomon, but rather from persecuted Jewish communities living in Alexandria around the time of Jesus. In an environment of hostility and violence, the author of this text draws on the ancient Jewish archetype of Lady Wisdom--the Greek word is Sophia--to make the argument that devotion to God is more important than the wisdom and philosophy of the day.
Ok. Here’s where things get really interesting. The Jewish image of Divine Lady Wisdom is often understood as a predecessor to the Christian image of the Holy Spirit. In Eastern Orthodox theology, the Spirit is often understood as feminine, just like Wisdom in Jewish thought. In fact, later on in the book of Wisdom, in Chapter 9, Wisdom is described as God’s holy spirit. In the passage that we heard today, she’s described as “a breath of the power of God,” images of breath also being characteristic of the Christian understanding of God’s Spirit.
But notice that Wisdom is also described as the “Fashioner of All Things.”  In scriptural tradition, it was generally understood that Divine Wisdom was present with God at the beginning of creation. Does this sound familiar? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This iconic description of Christ from John’s gospel sounds an awful lot like the image of Divine Wisdom, which in turn predates the Christian image of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom is also described in this morning’s passage as “a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” This sounds incredibly similar to the description of Christ found in the first chapter of the letter to the Hebrews, in which Christ is called “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” So in describing Christ, the early Church was drawing on images of Wisdom, which in turn were the predecessor to images of the Holy Spirit.
Oh dear, have I lost you yet? All I’m really trying to say here is that, even before the early church agreed on a formal doctrine of the Trinity, it had at hand images of God that were interrelated, that—while being distinct images—moved in and out of each other. The early church already had a sense of God as a community of diversity. And these interrelated understandings of God were not closed off from humanity, a sort of distant doctrine to be pondered, but rather were intimately related to creation. In John’s gospel, all things come into being through the Word, the Word who becomes flesh in Jesus. We come to being through Christ, are creatively connected to Christ. And in the book of Wisdom, Wisdom is “penetrating through all spirits;” she “renews all things.” So here we have God—God as Creator, God as the feminine Divine Wisdom, God as Incarnate Word—intimately involved in God’s creation. Participating in our lives. Overcoming separation and alienation and choosing, instead, closeness. Relationship. Love. It is this God who we are made in the image of. One Charles Wesley hymn describes us as “transcripts of the Trinity.” We are made to reflect this communal God. We are made for intimacy.
But we wake up one morning to news of chemical attacks in Syria, and another morning to news of a shooting at Navy Yard. We move through worlds of loneliness and loss. We experience the division—including of our churches—along racial and economic and political lines. In the face of all of this, it is a radical claim to make that the world is meant, not for alienation and division, but for community and relationship.
            Part of the idea of this sermon series is to talk about Metropolitan Memorial UMC, and Wesley UMC, and Crossroads at St. Luke’s, three particular church communities that have become one church community in three separate sites. We are still working out what that means and how that all works logistically, and that’s ok. It will take some time. But what I want to point to this morning is that our task is not just a logistical one, but a theological one. We are not just working together by having one shared church council or shared ministry teams. We are working together by trying to overcome division. We are trying to create community across lines of age and race and class. And we are trying to do so, not in a way that closes us off, but in a way that opens us up to those outside of our walls—to the people of Brighter Day ministries in Southeast DC; to the people of the Washington Interfaith Network as we strive together for affordable housing in this city; to the students of American University; to our mission partners in Nicaragua and South Africa; crossing all of these separations to be in community with each other, to be dancing partners with each other.
Friends, if any of you walk out of here not too sure about the doctrine of the Trinity, that’s actually ok with me. What I hope, though, what I would count as a God-given success, is if you walk out of here feeling a sense of call into community. A call into intimacy, into relationship, by a God who, in God’s very self, overcomes the alienation and distancing that is so much a part of our broken world. Here at Metropolitan, we might begin living out this call in small ways, taking steps across small barriers. So if you haven’t worshiped at Wesley or at Crossroads, why don’t you give it a try? If you haven’t joined the Campus Ministry team over at American University for one of our monthly dinners, why not come along with us? Meet some of the folks across that surprisingly wide barrier that is Nebraska Avenue. Learn some of their stories. Take a little step to beat back the isolation that we fall so easily into.

In the face of great violence, I know it sounds like such a little step. But little steps can make up a big dance. Little steps can bring us into close step with the great divine choreography, with the dance of the Trinity. And we read, today, that “against wisdom evil does not prevail.” We read, today, that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” So let’s dance. Let’s dance in the face of gun violence, in the face of racism, in the face of international conflict, in the face of hurt and loss and pain. Sometimes it will feel like we are dancing, alone, in the dark. But God invites us in, so that we are dancing together. 
And the darkness does not overcome.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Sermon: "No, you can't."

This is something like the sermon I gave last night at the Thursday night healing service at American University. The text is Philippians 4:10-20. I had a hard time landing the plane on this one, but these things happen:

I suck at to-do lists.

I’m seriously the worst at them. First of all, I don’t think I’ve ever actually completed a to-do list in my life. I write them, and then I add to them, and most of the time I add something just to cross it off so that I feel like I’m doing something. But the list keeps getting longer.

Then, I forget to even look at my to-do lists. And then I lose them, so I have to start new ones.

Needless to say, to-do lists do not actually help me organize my life very much.

Now this is a shame, because like most of us—if not all of us—I sort of have a lot to do. And since I’m not good at to-do lists, and I sort of suck at calendars too, it’s pretty common for me to forget to do something. To forget a homework assignment, or a church gig, or a birthday. Oh gosh. Is it any of your birthdays? I’m so sorry. I’m happy you were born.

Anyway, this is all very troubling, because I—and my guess is, many of you—grew up learning that it was very important for me to Do Things. My identity is wrapped up in the things I accomplish. When people ask me about myself—this is, by the way, particularly true in DC—I tell them where I’m a student, where I work—what I do. I don’t necessarily share with them what I believe. I don’t tell them that I believe that love runs the world despite all evidence to the contrary, that Jesus is someone worth following, or even that I like cheese. I think people would just look at me sort of funny. I give them some pertinent points from my resume.

What’s more, I—and, I guess again, many of you—have grown up being taught that I can do anything that I set my mind to. We’re Millennials—sorry Mark—and so the world is at our fingertips. No Generation X cynicism for us. We can be President. Run an NGO. Start an innovative new company. And we’re going to get around to doing all that as soon as we graduate with our high GPA and our monumental list of extracurricular activities and internships.

Well, I have good news for all of us who are living with huge to-do lists. We can get everything done! We can accomplish it all! I know this to be the truth because the Bible says it, in a verse that gets posted on Facebook walls and printed on coffee mugs and bumper stickers. Right there, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, it says it—a verse that’s familiar to anyone who has a bit of immersion experience in Christian culture. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

That’s a relief, right? With Christ on your side, you can do all things. You can accomplish everything.

Here’s the thing. I’m saying this to Paul, and to you: No you can’t.

You can’t do everything.

I’m really sorry. It’s just not possible.

My to-do list is too damn long for me to get to everything and still take care of myself. If I go at this thing like I can do it all, I’m destined for a big crash. And I’ve already some of those. I don’t want another one.
So I want to take a look at this commonly quoted verse, and the passage around it, and see if we can glean some sort of truth about it that isn’t just an affirmation that our stressed-out, anxiety-packed, to-do list driven lives are the way things are supposed to be.

It’s first of all worth noting that Paul is not saying that we can do everything on our own steam. We need God in our lives—the God who empowers us and makes us whole. But we’re not so good at figuring out the practical implications of that. Does that mean that if I pray over my to-do list it will all happen? Does that mean that as a Christian I can accomplish more stuff than my non-Christian friends? The problem, of course, is that I look at my life and know that it’s just not true. My prayer or my faith doesn’t necessarily make me more productive. In fact, I hope that by the end of this sermon, you might agree with me that faith might make me less productive, at least in the sense that we usually understand it.

So, back to square one. I’m a good seminarian, so when I get stuck in a corner with a verse I head to different translations to see if I can squirrel my way out. And in fact, there’s some interesting stuff going on here in the Greek. We heard this passage tonight from the New Revised Standard Version, which is the translation we like to use over at Wesley Seminary. But the Common English Bible, the translation that we use here at Kay on Sunday nights, says this: “I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.” In Greek the key word here is is-khoo-o. It means, “to be strong,” or, “to have power.”
Now that’s something different from being able to DO all things. That’s not about getting my to-do list finally accomplished or adding another line to my resume. Enduring or having strength or power, that’s about making it through, surviving, knowing that the Spirit of Christ is with me, accompanying me, standing in solidarity with my struggles. That’s certainly a comforting thought.

But it doesn’t actually get me out of this bind I’m in with this popular verse, because the idea that we can endure all things if we have Jesus is a bit of a problem in itself. If you’ve been around in this community for a while you might remember the sermon that Mark gave last year, challenging that popular piece of Christian advice, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” I understand this sermon achieved recent Reddit fame. The problem with “I can endure all things” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” is, of course, that we know people who are not enduring all things, who in fact seem to have more than they—than we—can handle. I learned recently that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. That more than 1,000 students kill themselves annually, and that something like 1 in 10 college students have had a plan for suicide at one time or another during their time in college. Those stats keep me up at night. What do we, as a Christian community, have to offer to people who are hurting and alone, who feel like they’re drowning?

Surely something different than telling them to just lean on Christ and they can endure anything. Surely that’s not the Christian response. What about all the people who seem not to be able to endure? What do we say to them, to their families? Surely this verse from Philippians isn’t enough.

And it isn’t. It isn’t enough. Not on its own. Which is why I had us read a larger chunk of this passage, not just the verse that we like to put on coffee mugs. See, what Paul is doing here is thanking the community in Philippi for their support in a time of violence and persecution—their prayer support, yes, but also their literal material support, their financial gifts and their companionship. Paul says that he’s not thanking them because he really needs anything, but you know what, Paul? I think you’re wrong. I know, I know. We’ve had this conversation before. But you’re not always right, Paul, and I’m calling you out on this one. You did need the support that the Philippians gave you. You don’t actually think we can do this Christian journey thing on our own. I know that to be true, because the only times you write to individuals instead of communities, you are writing to the leaders of communities. All of your writing, all of your theology, happens in deeply communal contexts. I know that we need each other, that we can’t do things, that we can’t endure things, on our own. I know this from experience, but I also know because you’ve taught me that, Paul.

But even as a community, we can’t do everything. Part of coming to understand the good news about grace, about God’s gratuitous love for us, is realizing that we are limited. That this life is not about what we can accomplish, but rather about what God accomplishes in us and in the midst of our community.

This is Methodist Heritage Week, so I can’t finish this sermon without putting a little bit of Methodist founder John Wesley in here. One of the distinctive characteristics of Wesleyan theology is an idea called total sanctification, or Christian perfection. Wesley didn’t come up with this idea, but he emphasized it in his preaching and teaching. The idea is that if salvation is about more than getting to heaven when we die, if it is actually about the healing and redemption of our whole lives; if God’s grace is active in our lives, transforming us; then we can reach a state where we have been healed, transformed, freed from the brokenness and alienation of the human mess.

Now, when I first heard this idea, I hated it. It seemed to counter to everything I believed about grace. We are all a bit of a mess. We all have hurting and broken parts. None of us is perfect, and, contrary to how I have often acted, I don’t think we should try to be. So I pretty much rejected this idea of Christian perfection.

But I had the chance to take a class on United Methodist theology this summer, and I got to explore this idea more. I really have come to love it. First of all, it really shouldn’t be called “perfection.” The concept is more like “maturity” or “wholeness.” Wesley taught that we would always make mistakes, we could always get sick or fall down. But what he was talking about was growth in love. That tomorrow, by the grace of God, I can wake up and love a bit better than I did today. That God’s grace can have a real effect on me and the community that I am part of, growing us together in love.

And I love this idea. Because I think “Christian Perfection” can actually save us from the worldy perfection that so many of us are striving for. The idea that we can do it all and we can do it all correctly and that we can excel at everything that we do. That that’s the goal of our lives, to achieve and to accomplish and to do it all perfectly.

Wesley would reject that, and I think Paul would, too. I think they’d argue that growth in love trumps a growing resume. Earlier in his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes “This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. I pray that you will then be filled with the fruits of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.”

Richer in love. Aware of what really matters. Sincere. Filled with the fruits of justice, which come from God. Able to give glory and praise. And all this by the grace of God. There’s a to-do list, and one that we will not accomplish on our own.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in you all. I think God is going to do incredible things through you. I think the world will be a better place because of the amazing work that you will do. But you can’t do it all, and you shouldn’t try, and at the end of the day it’s love, not achievement, that matters.

So this semester, I’m quitting a few things. I’m dropping a class, and doing this a bit slower than I had intended. I’m backing out of a campus leadership position that a lot of people asked me to take, because it’s just not helping me grow in love to overload my schedule.  

Friends, the good news is not that you can do everything. The good news is that you don’t have to do everything. That God’s grace, not our frenzied activity, is central. That we are not alone, not isolated atomized units trying to accomplish the world, but a community bound together by God’s love.

Soon, we will gather together around this table. And we will do something so remarkably simple that it, if we think about it, sounds quite silly. We will take a small piece of bread and dip it in a bit of juice and call it a feast. And, in so doing, we will again experience what it is like to be part of a body, a community that shares life with one another. We will experience what it is like to not have to do everything, because that which is most important is being done in us and through us by a gracious God. And that, I think, is very good news indeed.