Sermon 8/6/2017 “Transfigurational discernment”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Luke 9:28-36
Day: The Transfiguration

“Transfigurational discernment”

Raphael, The Transfiguration, c. 1520, via Wiki [Public Domain]

Discernment was so easy when Jesus was physically present with us on Earth. Apparently. For Jesus. He prayed, and his face shone, and his clothes took on a radiant glow. Wouldn’t that be great for us? We could pray, “God, tell me what you want me to do. Should I take the new job offer or just retire?” And our whole person would light up to reveal which choice to make.

As if!

Of course, being set aglow, in transfigurational discernment as Jesus was in today’s gospel lesson, might be a disadvantage for us if we didn’t WANT to have God’s will made crystal clear. “Really, God? Take the new job? I was all ready to retire. But maybe I’m just standing in direct sunlight instead of all lit up. Let me move over here a little more.” <laughing>

So what was Jesus up to on his quest of transfigurational discernment? Jesus needed to plan his “departure,” as our lesson says, “which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” This word “departure,” as used here, is actually the word “exodus.”

We know what “exodus” is. Exodus is “escape from slavery in Egypt and entry into a new place that God has promised to give us.” That’s the great part. Some … change … is required to accomplish exodus, though.

If you remember the original Exodus, the one that began to define the Israelites as a people, there were (um) inducements for Pharaoh to let them go. There was standing up to power. There were plagues. There was packing on a massive scale—deciding what to take and what to leave behind. There was fear. There was time in the wilderness, and then there was murmuring. Lots of murmuring. For example, the people asked God, “Did you send us out of Egypt to DIE here in the wilderness? Why didn’t you zip us right over to our new place? And oh by the way, God, the food you are giving us each day is lousy. We were better off as slaves!”

To which God said, “Didn’t you cry to me in Egypt that you’d rather die trying to reach a new place than to wither away in the old one? Didn’t you know that discernment leads to a new place, and change is required to get there?”

That was the original Exodus, when a whole tribe of depressed and discouraged people were transfigured onto God’s hands and feet and heart. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus wasn’t about to be picked up by a spaceship in Jerusalem—his coming exodus by crucifixion wasn’t going to be easy. So, he went to the mountain to pray. And he took three disciples with him. Because, you know, and I know, that exoduses are marginally easier to contemplate if we are not alone.

So here were Peter, James, and John on the mountain top with Jesus. Jesus was dazzlingly brilliant, bathed in the glow of God’s approval, the light making crystal clear what God needed Jesus to accomplish: exodus. Confront power in Jerusalem, come what might. Leave the comfort of home and adjust to a new reality. Accomplish Mission Earth, the mission that God gave Christ Jesus to accomplish here among us, and make his escape from this life.

Even Jesus didn’t figure out how to make HIS exodus alone. He consulted two experts: Moses and Elijah. Whatever else these two represented, Moses was a powerful symbol of Israel’s past redemption, and Elijah was a powerful symbol of Israel’s future redemption.

WHAT? I’ll bet that’s not what you expected me to say. You’re all scripture savvy, so you probably expected me to tell you that, according to prophecy, Moses and Elijah were to return before the Messiah came. And here they were! And here the Messiah was! I would have told you that, but you already knew that Jesus’ Transfiguration was fulfillment of that particular Messianic prophecy.

So instead I’ll tell you what else links Moses and Elijah and Jesus: redemption. By leading Israel’s first exodus, Moses knew a thing or two about what would motivate people to leave their comfort zones in response to God’s call. And Elijah is the prophet, according to Malachi 4:5-6, who knew what would cause people to renew their covenant with God.

Because we know what Christ Jesus accomplished on his Earth Mission, we know that Jesus was a vital connection between past and future redemption of all people. To give Moses’ work lasting meaning and to give Elijah’s work opportunity to come to fruition, Jesus had a vital mission to perform. And Jesus accomplished HIS redemption mission, beginning right here on this mountain. Jesus accepted his life’s work of redemption and God strengthened him to accomplish that mission. That’s what I call transfigurational discernment, figuring out what our God-given purpose is in life, and being strengthened to carry out that purpose so that we can make our personal exodus into the next phase of our life.

So, what is OUR mission? I trust that you have or will discern your individual mission before the day your personal exodus arrives. I am always happy to accompany you in that discernment so that, at the end of YOUR Mission Earth you will know you accomplished what you were given life here to do.

Maybe Moses and Elijah would be available to US here at Church of the Resurrection for transfigurational discernment consultation. But I don’t think so. First, WE are not the Messiah. And second, the voice from heaven told us who to consult: “[Jesus] is God’s Chosen—listen to him.”

I do not expect that our coming journey to carry out our affordable housing mission will be easy or unanimous. But you can be sure that the experience will change us as a congregation, change us for the better, in miraculous ways. It already has! We can be sure that, if we have discerned correctly, God will continue to provide all that is needed to accomplish the mission given us to do, transfiguring us in surprising ways (and undoubtedly all of our neighbors, as well).

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Sermon 7/16/2017 “A new generation”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Genesis 25:19-24
Day: Proper 10, Year A

“A new generation”

Matthias Stomer, Esau verkauft Jacob das Erstgeburtsrecht oder Das Linsengericht, 17th century, via Wiki [Public Domain]

Today’s Old Testament lesson is about a new generation—the second generation—of the covenant God made with human-kind. And doesn’t this “new generation” lesson sound familiar? Haven’t we heard this story line somewhere before? Recently? Maybe not these exact people, but the story line?

Isaac, the patriarch of the second covenant generation, like his father before him, was married to a relative. His father Abraham had married his half-sister Sarah. Isaac had married his cousin Rebekah, the granddaughter of his father’s brother. (Technically, his first cousin once removed.)

Like his father, Isaac loved his wife. We heard this in last Sunday’s lesson. And like his parents’ marriage, Isaac’s and Rebekah’s was absent of children for a long time. Our lesson today says that Rebekah was “barren.” (The Bible always blamed the woman for being childless.)

Isaac and Rebekah were married 19 years before Rebekah became pregnant. The explanation given is that Isaac “prayed to the Lord,” in an ongoing sense. So, like his father Abraham, Isaac was a man who worshiped the one true God, had a relationship with and was faithful to the God of the Covenant.

But, unlike his father, Isaac is something of a blank slate, so to speak. We can project onto Isaac whatever we wish to emphasize. The Bible and even the Koran call Isaac “righteous.” On the other hand, I once heard a sermon warning people of the dysfunction that would happen in their families if men were as low-key as Isaac and their wives as dominant as Rebekah. The dysfunction being warned against was that the boys who hunted would lose out to boys who cooked.

Make no mistake, though, Rebekah WAS the main actor in this story. If the Lord had visited Rebekah and Isaac under the Oaks at Mamre—as he had visited Abraham and Sarah—Rebekah is the one who would have been running around arranging hospitality for the strangers while her husband lingered in his tent. That’s MY theory, anyway. And Rebekah wouldn’t have laughed, either. If the Lord or an angel of the Lord had told Rebekah that she, 20 years barren, would have children, she would have moved heaven and earth to get pregnant. Invented in vitro 4,000 years ago, whatever was needed!

And this new covenant generational surely would have learned from the first generation’s mistakes. Both the Bible and the Koran tell of a warm, continuing relationship between the half-brothers Ishmael and Isaac. But Ish had been banished and was the patriarch of another people. Rebekah would not have wanted Isaac to have fathered a son by someone else to compete with the child the Lord had promised to give Isaac. If we know anything at all about Rebekah, surely we can safely guess THAT!

But did you notice that both Rebekah and Isaac had a relationship with God? Isaac prayed to the Lord and Rebekah “inquired of the Lord.” And God responded. Gave Rebekah everything Isaac had asked for, everything SHE had asked for, and then some. Not just one child, but twins.

And then God tested Rebekah with a statement of future fact: One will be strong. But the other will have power. And God’s favor would be with the younger.

You KNOW this story: Rebekah had twins. The older was red and hairy. They named him Esau, meaning “rough and hairy.” The younger, Jacob’s name means “heel holder” because he apparently tried to climb over Esau to get out first. But because of God’s prophecy to Rebekah, this is one time when being born second was actually better than having been born first.

And sure enough, the seconds-older Esau turned out to be the more powerful of the two, a man’s man, the son Dad loved best. But Jake was more of a Momma’s boy. And in this way Rebekah and Isaac failed THEIR children, as surely as the first generation of the covenant had failed theirs before them.

Now I know you will ask, “Didn’t GOD himself favor one of Isaac’s sons over the other?” I’ll bet some of you could even point to verses throughout the Bible where God declared that he HATED Esau.

We don’t like the idea that God has favorites. In the opening verses of the book of Malachi for instance, when the Lord said, “I have loved you,” the prophet dared to question God by pointing out that Esau was Jacob’s brother. In other words, “If you REALLY love us, God, why didn’t you love Esau as much as you loved Jacob?” God’s answer was something like, “I choose whom I choose.”

We would like to find a logical reason, though, to explain God’s preference, God’s choice. That’s when we notice that the people, the nation, that Esau became the father of was called Edom, a small nation neighboring Israel to the south whose name means “red” and also “still,” as in “not singing the praises of the Lord.” And we notice that Esau married two Hittite women and nowhere is reported as “praying to the Lord.”

All of that came later, though. In today’s lesson we just get the beginning of the story. We see that Jacob is sneaky and in our human way of thinking we wonder why God has chosen him—before he was even born—to be the one through whom God’s promise to us would descend. Jacob’s fixation on the prize: the birthright (and later the blessing) tell us that Jacob knew what was really valuable in a way that his brother Esau did not. What Jacob had to learn at this point was to seek the giver of the prize, not just the prize itself.

As for Esau, we have our evaluation backwards, really. God knew before Esau was even born what he would choose in his life, that he would live for the moment. Esau chose neither what was of true value, a relationship with the prize-giver, the author of life itself.

What about us? Apparently WE know what’s truly valuable in life, but will the next new generation? God keeps overturning the expected order of things. He works through those who are barren. He gives the birthright to surprising people who don’t deserve God’s favor and reminds us when we object that God isn’t bound by our sense of logic and fairness.

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Sermon 7/2/2017 “Tested!”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Genesis 2:1-14
Day: Proper 8, Year A

“Tested!”

Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I am going to say a word, and the moment I say the word I want you to recall a time in your life that this word brings to your mind.[1] Are you ready? The word is “tested.” Tested! Do you remember when you were tested, when you were tempted to do something wrong?

I see a student taking an important exam and blanking on the answers. But it’s a “take home exam…” Tested!

I see a person who is struggling to pay her bills, while eyeing her mother’s assets, for which she is the guardian. Tested!

I see a Virginian with political aspirations who called the institution of slavery an “abominable crime,” a young man who then inherited enough slaves to make his Monticello plantation profitable and fund his run for office. Tested!

Will you look back in time even further to another time of testing, an even more serious kind of testing? The person who is being tested is Abraham. God had promised Abraham that he would be the Father of Many Nations. God had made this promise to Abraham and his wife Sarah when they were already far too old to have children. But now Abraham has not just one child—not just one son—but two.

The oldest child, Ishmael, Abraham had fathered with Hagar, his wife’s maid, because it had seemed like God’s promise would NEVER come to pass. Having a child with Hagar had been his wife’s idea, so it wasn’t as if Abraham and Hagar had snuck around behind Sarah’s back. In fact, there was a law then, a custom that said an oldest son of a man and his wife’s maid would be heir, just as if he were the couple’s own child. But then Sarah got pregnant too and his second son Isaac had been born.

Talk about tested! All Abraham had heard from his wife after Isaac was born had been jealousy—so much jealousy that finally Abraham had agreed to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham had thought that this would have been the end of the mess, but NO. Now God was testing Abraham. God had said to him, “Take your son, your ONLY son Isaac, whom you LOVE, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…”

I want you to notice the fine print here. God did NOT say “sacrifice Isaac,” he said to “offer him” as a sacrifice. You and I know how the story ends, but Abraham doesn’t seem to be aware of this nuance—or does he? However, something that Abraham definitely would have been aware of was that God was being ironic.

Imagine that you are Abraham. You know that Isaac isn’t your only son—he’s not even your oldest. You know that Isaac isn’t even your *best* son—Isaac’s sickly and slow and strangely passive; a mama’s boy, really.[2] And you’re already feeling guilty about sending Ishmael away. And then God not only reminds you of this situation, God instructs you to sacrifice your only remaining son, to kill your only remaining offspring. Tested!

Perhaps if Abraham hadn’t been feeling so guilty he might have argued with God. After all, Abraham had had some practice in arguing with God when God’s plans hadn’t sounded so, well, ethical. Remember the time when God had decided to destroy two entire cities and everyone in them?[3] Abraham had dared to ask God then, “Would you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” Yes, Abraham had had some practice arguing with God. But he didn’t argue with God this time, did he? Tested!

What could be more unethical or unfathomable than being asked to murder another person? I know that you know that the locals in the land at that time sacrificed their eldest sons to appease their gods. But Abraham was a righteous man who knew that God would not condone murder. Make no mistake about today’s lesson: what God seemed to instruct Abraham to do is wrong now and would have been wrong then.

The thing that has made this story so highly debated for thousands of years is that it so accurately defines being tested. Abraham was asked to murder his son, an act which is so clearly wrong by God’s and by human standards. Yet God himself seemed to have told Abraham to do this great wrong.

Here’s what Abraham did. He set out for Mount Moriah the next day with Isaac and fire wood and two servants. Then, when they arrived at the foot of the mountain, Abraham told the servants to wait, that he and Isaac would be right back.

We don’t hear Abraham’s thought process during this time. We don’t know whether Abraham has worked out that God doesn’t intend for him to actually kill his son. We don’t know whether Abraham finally owned up to the fact that Isaac was not the child that he had expected, and accepted him for the gift that he truly was. What we do know is that after Abraham laid Isaac and the wood upon the altar and was ready to sacrifice Isaac, THAT’S when an angel restrained Abraham’s hand.

We remember Abraham to this day for his faithfulness to God for being willing to sacrifice Isaac. What we don’t so readily remember is that there is one child too many in this story, one child too many because Abraham and Sarah did not wait upon the Lord to fulfill his promise. We assume that the subject of Abraham’s testing is whether to kill Isaac, but in the end the outcome of the test is that Abraham had to choose one or the other: the child of God’s promise—as unlikely as Isaac seemed for the role—or the child of Abraham’s own plan.

In the end God made Abraham the Father of Many Nations as he had promised, and he did so through BOTH of Abraham’s sons. Ishmael became the father of Islam, and Isaac became the father of Judaism. It I wonder if Abraham realized just how—with this test—both Abraham and God were redeeming Abraham’s past unfaithfulness in pre-empting God’s plan?

There are many interpretations of this lesson to ponder. I can’t help but think of our very own Church of the Resurrection. I hope that, having been willing to sacrifice our beloved church building completely to comply with what we believe is God’s desire for us to build affordable housing, that we have passed our test. It’s hard for us to tell, though, from our vantage point. For instance, did you know that the very spot where God spared Abraham’s son Isaac is where his own son Christ Jesus was later crucified?[4] I suggest you take your scripture insert home and ponder THAT this week.

On a more pragmatic level, the today’s lesson challenges us, when we are being tested, to look BACK on our desires—to look back before moving forward in blind faith when we think we understand what God is instructing us to do. This examination of our own desires is especially important when we think we hear God telling us to do something that is wrong. Because GOD never wants us to do something wrong.

Today’s Old Testament lesson shows us that God can redeem our poor choices, if we let him and if we are faithful. Today’s lesson also teaches us that our own attempts to speed up God’s plans, our own attempts to provide for ourselves instead of relying on God’s provision, don’t turn out the way that we anticipate. But if in the end we are faithful, God can take a seemingly broken promise and mend the situation, to the extent that we pass God’s test.

[1] I take as my inspiration for the format of this sermon the sermon on Gal. 1:11-24 by the great preacher Fred. B. Craddock entitled “Praying Through Clenched Teeth,” as published in How to Preach a Parable by Eugene L. Lowry, pp. 142-173.

[2] Herbert W. Hain, “Prologue,” in Mishael Caspi, Take Now Thy Son: The Motif of the Aqedah (Binding) in Literature, Vol. 5 (North Richland Hills, Tex.: BIBAL Press, 2001), argues persuasively that Isaac likely had serious congenital disabilities. Concerning Isaac’s age here, Hain says that Flavius Josephus thought that he was 25 and Talmudic sources say he was 37.

[3] See the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18.

[4] 2 Chronicles 3:1 identifies the location of Isaac’s would-be sacrifice as the place where Solomon later built the temple to the Lord. Mount Moriah is just to the west of the Mount of Olives, and there is some archaeological evidence to suggest that the place where Jesus was crucified was atop Mount Moriah.

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Sermon 6/18/2017 “God keeps God’s promises”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection:
Text: Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7
Day: Proper 6, Year A

“God keeps God’s promises”

As lengthy as our first lesson today is, this story of the Lord visiting Abraham at Mamre leaves out the things that are most important to the story. Clearly our lectionary assumes you will remember that, at age 75, God had told Abraham to leave Haran and set out on a journey to (literally) only-God-knew-where. And God had told Abraham that he would be the father of many nations with descendants too many to count. And here are Abraham and his only wife Sarah—still childless 24 years later—at Mamre, which surely you will know is where both Abraham and Sarah will eventually be buried after buying a plot of land there among the Jebusites, the Amorites, and the Hittites. Abraham and Sarah have traipsed all OVER Palestine, with not a child to call their own, and not a nation to call their own.

Given all this unstated information, we have to wonder, as Sarah clearly wonders: “Does God keep God’s promises, or not?”

You and I know the answer to this question, don’t we? At least in theory? We are, after all, not the ones who are 89 and 99 years old, ready for the grave. We are, after all, not the ones who are childless, with no legacy that we can perceive. We are, after all, convinced that the God is absolutely faithful and that our descendants will be too numerous to number. Like Abraham, WE are convinced that “God keeps God’s promises.” Aren’t we?

SARAH’s the skeptic here, isn’t she? And maybe we can understand Sarah’s pain. Logically speaking, we know, like Sarah knew, that as a post-menopausal woman, she wasn’t likely to be birth mother of the children God had promised. We know how the story turns out, like Sarah knew her husband, so we know that Abraham would begin to try to “help” God keep God’s promise. Sarah knew, like we know, that very soon Abraham would stop waiting for God to fulfill his promise and father Ishmael with Sarah’s handmaid Hagar. Did you notice that in reaching for a totally happy ending to report, our lesson today left THAT part of the story out, too?

So maybe we can forgive Sarah for remaining in her tent when the Lord came to call. Yes, we know that women didn’t get to eat with men back then. But would Sarah have left her bed of bitterness for the Lord himself?

Even Abraham didn’t recognize the three visitors for who they were, at first. But did you notice how hard Abraham worked at showing them hospitality? He ran to meet them. He ran to get Sarah busy making bread. He ran to the herd, picked out a fatted calf, and ran to get a servant to slaughter and cook the calf. Then he ran some more and milked a goat and made cheese and scooped up the bread and meat and milk served the strangers lunch. I once saw a biblical storyteller enact this lesson and I was exhausted when she was done.

Did you notice that the strangers knew too much? One called Sarah by name and said that Sarah would have a child that year. That’s when Sarah, who had been listening from her tent, laughed. Not a laugh of joy, you understand, but a bitter laugh.

I’ve laughed Sarah’s bitter laugh; haven’t you?

“Where ARE you, God, while our world gets crazier and crazier? You’ve promised us life. Can’t you see that we are DYING here?”

No, actually that’s a theoretical bitter laugh. In times past my bitter laugh was: “You’ve called me to be a priest. And you’ve called me to live, work, and worship in Virginia, where I cannot be a priest. You do know, don’t you Lord, that there is a much friendlier diocese just over there on the other side of the Potomac River?”

Sarah’s bitter laugh was because she could not bear the child God had promised to give her. But if Sarah hadn’t been post-menopausal and—did you catch this in our scripture reading today—no longer having sex with Abraham, then HOW would we know that this was GOD keeping God’s promise and not just a coincidence?

So what does a 4,000-year-old story of a barren woman with bitter laugh giving birth have to do with us? Besides the reality that we—each of us here and a very large percentage of the people on our planet—count Abraham and Sarah as our ancestors?

We, I contend, are a childless people. Maybe you’ve noticed that Church of the Resurrection doesn’t have children. Oh, we have a few, who we treasure, individually and collectively. And we thank you, their parents, for letting us grandparent them. But by and large, children are hidden away here during worship, while we have spent decades in search of the “holy grail” of children.

“If only we had more children…” we used to say.

This is a guilt-free Sunday, by the way. My goal is NOT to heap guilt on you. Quite the contrary. I want to give you great praise. You’ve been faithful; you’ve done your part. I give thanks that we have stopped trying to “help” God give us what we think we need to ensure our survival and let God worry about that. I give thanks that we rely on God’s promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you…”

I know that you will quote Theresa of Avilla to me, “God has no hands but ours.” Or you’ll quote our mission statement and tell me that our hands are to accomplish God’s work in our community. Both are true. But we need to ensure that the work we give our hands to do really is God’s work and not our own.

When we “help” God by not waiting for God to act, we forget that God keeps God’s promises and begin to think that instead, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” And once we began to think and act on THAT particular heresy, before long we would be shooting those we disagree with, not just shooting them but killing them in the so-called Name of the Lord.

Shifting gears a bit, before we eat Bubba Burgers today and drink root beer in honor of our dads, I want to tell you that the three visitors who ate Abraham’s food under the oak tree at Mamre (those very same visitors) have been at Resurrection recently. Those very three look a lot younger today; they appear as middle school students who live in apartments in Newport Village with their families (who don’t attend church). They just showed up one Sunday last month after I tried to “help” God. I don’t know whether they will continue to attend, as they have for the past several weeks. I hope so. They remind us to treat all strangers as if they were the Lord himself. Because today’s lesson reminds us that God shows up in our world whenever and wherever God wants, in surprising ways, in ways we don’t always recognize at first, but often in the form of a stranger.

Today’s lesson also assures me that God keeps God’s promises. Not on my timetable and not with my “help,” but in abundant and improbable ways.

What promises are you waiting for God to fulfill?

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Sermon 6/11/2017 “The nature of God”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection:
Text: Canticle 13
Day: Trinity Sunday, Year A

“The nature of God”

Do you remember being asked—maybe in grade school—whether a tree falling all alone in a forest makes a sound? I was one of those insufferable students who was so very sure that I knew the “correct” answer. Worse, I was sure that my logical answer was the ONLY correct answer.

Of course, there is no answer to the “fallen tree” question that makes logical sense. Turns out, though, that since I was in grade school, physicists have learned that reality changes—at least on a subatomic level—depending on whether reality is being observed. Logic can be variable. Factor THAT into your “fallen tree” answer. The sound I hear is “ut oh!”

Maybe you’re wondering, “What do fallen trees and observation-dependent reality have to do with US, here, TODAY? This is Trinity Sunday, when you are supposed to be explaining the nature of God to us. You know:

  • There is one (and only one) God.
  • But God is three persons.
  • And each person is fully God.

“We’re waiting,” I suspect you are thinking, “for you to forget physics and explain how God could be both one and three all at the same time.”

And I say, “There, right there. Do you hear that lonely tree screaming?” And when you look at me like I have lost my marbles, I ask, “Have you experienced God? What was the God you experienced like? Father, Son, or Holy Spirit?”

A famous preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon, “Three Hands Clapping,” insists that thinking about the nature of God acts like a koan. A koan is a paradoxical question asked of Buddhist monks-in-training to free them from dependence on logic. Apparently, the path to enlightenment requires Buddhists to be less certain that logic provides all the answers. Apparently, Christians should consider this, as well, if Jesus’ parables are any indication. Ms. Taylor suggests that much of Jesus’ teaching, as well as the doctrine of the Trinity, work in exactly the same way as a koan. Or it would, if we thought about Jesus’ individual teachings more than once a year.

None of us—no one—knows the nature of God logically. The only way we know God is through our experiences of God. Of course, we can pool our experiences of God through the ages and agree that God is this or that, or God is like this or that. There are branches of theology that keep track of what we’ve agreed that God is like. But be warned: God is God—free to be whatever God chooses to be, depending on who’s looking, depending on their relationship with God.

Once we are free of logic, we perceive what’s at the heart of God’s nature: God’s unconditional love for us and the desire to be in relationship with us as they are with each other. When we experience God-the-Father or God-the-Son or God-the-Holy Spirit, all three are dancing a dance of love. They exist in relationship with each other, in perfect harmony, giving and receiving love, love abundant for all of creation.

God-the-Father and God-the-Son and God-the-Holy Spirit are not aspects of each other, not three parts of one thing. They are not, for instance, like the fruit and the seed and the core or an apple, and not like water, ice, and steam. Sure, we use these metaphors to teach children about the Trinity. If you want a metaphor, maybe a better one would be three distinctly different notes, played together in God-chords of love.

And here’s why we should care what God is like. God shows us how we should be also. This is what God wishes for us, that we all be one, as they are one.

You know already how very difficult we humans find being one with each other. Until we follow the example of Christ Jesus and ask the Father for the help of the Spirit that Jesus sent to dwell within us to guide us and help us into oneness.

See, here’s a perfectly good, yet illogical answer to the “fallen tree” question: the tree is never alone. God is one with the tree, just as God is one with us, so you and I are one with the tree, if we could perceive it.

I suspect that many of you would prefer a more logical explanation of how God could be simultaneously one God, yet three distinct persons. So before I quit, I have two more metaphors for us to consider.

The first, “quantum entanglement,” is currently a very hot topic of study and debate in physics. Quantum entanglement is where separate particles act as if they were one entity, even when the individual particles are very far apart physically. The quantum state of such particles are identical, and therefore cannot be described independently of the others. In other words, if you know the quantum state of one of the entangled particles, that is the state of all the others.

Quantum entanglement is an example of something in our world acting like the Trinity seems to function. Maybe physicists should call it “divine entanglement.”

That was for you left-brained people. Here’s my last metaphor about the nature of God for right-brained folks. This one comes from hearing the rap song “Nobody” from DJ Quik’s album, “The Book of David.” A part of the chorus goes like this:

I don’t need nobody, I don’t want nobody,
I don’t care about nobody, I just care about me.

This song is about coming to terms with the pain of a romantic break-up by shutting everyone out—the antithesis of the divine Trinity. God’s love is so abundant that the one God does not contain all the love. Instead, that love is shared among three persons of the one God and thrown out into all of creation, inviting us to dance forever with God in this love. Unlike this song.

The person I heard rapping this song added at the end of the chorus line, “I just care about me: ME, MYSELF, AND I.” A turn of phrase. We use this phrase all the time to emphasize “just me.” And the way we emphasize JUST ME the most is to make ourselves THREE: “me, myself, and I.” Where, do you suppose, do we get THAT inclination?

 

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Sermon 5/21/2017 “Sharing our hope”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection:
Text: Acts 17:22-31
Day: 6Easter, Year A

“Sharing our hope”

In our first lesson today we hear the story of the apostle Paul sharing our hope in Christ Jesus in Athens in Greece. This was not typical behavior for Paul. Usually he liked to visit the synagogue wherever he went and ram Jesus down their throats. But this was early in Paul’s career as an apostle, or witness for Christ.

So far, Paul had been to Thessalonica, where they had run him and his missionary companions out of town. So they had gone to Beroea in Macedonia (modern day Aleppo), where things had gone much better, at least until Jews from Thessalonica had followed him there and made trouble for him. So Paul had gone to Athens alone, where he was in our lesson today.

A few verses before today’s reading we learn that “while Paul was waiting for [his missionary companions] to join him in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the [Judaizers], and also in the market place every day with those who happened to be there.” (Acts 17:16-17)

We also read there that Paul debated with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers there while he waited. Very generally speaking, Epicureans thought that we should grab all the pleasures that life has to offer, while Stoics thought that a good life involves abstinence. In fact, Paul used Stoicism to refute Epicureanism, and Epicureanism to refute Stoicism. From this we understand that Paul was quite an accomplished debater.

So Paul was hauled off to the Areopagus, the hill west of the Acropolis, to explain HIS philosophy of life. This site was both where the Areopagus Court met and where philosophical exchange occurred. Therefore we can’t tell from what Acts says whether Paul was hauled off to explain himself to the court or taken there to philosophize on a larger stage just because Athenians loved philosophy and debate.

Let’s pause right here a moment. Our SECOND reading today, from the First letter of Peter, tells us to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

This is exactly what Paul did. Because here is the hope that was within Paul: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. (Sound familiar?) This is a good hope, a positive expectation, because when Christ Jesus comes again he will take those who believe in him to be with him forever

If Paul had been in the synagogue in Athens, he could have proclaimed his hope in this way and all would have understood him exactly, even if they disagreed that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Messiah, and even if they ran him out of THIS town, also!

But there on that hill in Athens, Paul was surrounded by a people whose culture and world view and way of life was vastly alien to his. Paul was surrounded by people who didn’t even know about the one-true-living God, much less about his son Jesus the Christ. Paul had to figure out on the spot how to translate the hope that was in him to reach a people so deficient of hope they didn’t even know they were bankrupt.

Have you ever met someone like that? I call this people who are “looking for God in all the wrong places.” You know, those who spend their lives chasing money, or fogging their brains with drugs or alcohol or food, or trying to stave off the ravages of time through physical fitness, not to mention those who seek power or perfection or fame … merely shop themselves into oblivion. Where do you place your hope?

The Athenians had a temple to every conceivable God, except the one true living God. They had a temple for the moon god, the sun god, the fertility god, the … you get the idea. Except Paul astutely noticed they even had a temple dedicated to “the unknown god” because they didn’t want to inadvertently, through their ignorance, leave any deity out.

So Paul appropriated that unknown God. He revealed God’s identity to the Athenians and told them about the God who created heaven and earth, about the God who so loved the world that he sent his only son to be one with us.

The results of Paul’s evangelism are immaterial. Results are up to God, not us. We are only responsible for giving an accounting of the hope that is in us, with gentleness and reverence. We are NOT responsible for how our sharing is received. But if you must know, some who heard Paul speak became Christ-followers, including a man named Dionysius, and a woman named Damaris.

Two early Church sources say that ONE of the thirty members of the Areopagus Court, Dionysius, became the bishop of the Athenian church, and that his wife was Damaris, although there is no solid evidence supporting these claims. However, what happened in Athens that day was all God at work—Holy Spirit in action; results are not up to us. We just have to be ready to give an account of the hope that is within us, with gentleness and reverence.

You do have hope in God, don’t you, hope in Christ Jesus? Our hope doesn’t come from church. God is stripping that away from us. We can’t stay inside waiting for God-seekers to wander in. This is OUR refueling station, where we top off on hope and learn how to share our hope out there in the world in a way that those out there can understand.

Make no mistake; people always seek God, even if they don’t come to church to do so. As Saint Augustine said of God and of humankind, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

We are all searching for our source, in one way of another, the place from where we came so that we might find ultimate rest there. Because you come here to church, I’m assuming that you get something you need here, that you get something vital. But we are not selling church! The hope that is in us is Christ Jesus. And not a dead Jesus who happened to be a great teacher, either. The hope that is in us is this: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

As Christians, as the church, in every age our task is to clearly share that we know the one who is being sought.

We have a ministry to those in our community who are hungry. When people come here seeking physical food we know how to tell them about receiving the food we have to satisfy their physical hunger.

People all around us are spiritually hungry also. And we have a great supply of spiritual food. How shall we share our hope?

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Sermon 6/4/2017 “Experiencing Pentecost”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection:
Text: Acts 2:1-21
Day: Day of Pentecost

“Experiencing Pentecost”

Maybe you have experienced Pentecost, an event when the concrete “reality” that can obscure God at work in our lives is ripped away. Maybe you have experienced Pentecost, when you met your spouse for the first time, or when your child was born, or right here at Church of the Resurrection. I’ll never forget my friend Andrew’s ordination, which happened to be at a church very near here. Andrew was so aglow with the spirit of Christ that a young attendee insisted that Andrew floated, not walked, out of the church that day. And you know, I think the child was right. Andrew’s joy, and the responding joy of the whole community, literally lifted him up.

Pentecost: a time when the concrete “reality that can obscure God at work in our lives is ripped away. The Holy Spirit is God’s agent of Pentecost. Some call the Holy Spirit “God on the move.” But God is always on the move. And the Holy Spirit is what inspires us to act on behalf of God, gives us the idea and motivates us into action.

Those who witnessed that first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit whooshed through the room in which the disciples were gathered, didn’t know what was going on. Our Acts lesson says they were “amazed and perplexed” to hear words spoken in one language understood by everyone from all over the world, each in their own language.

Are the words magic?” That’s, in essence, what the people who heard them asked. The nice people. Those who weren’t so nice sneered, our lesson says, and assumed that Jesus’ disciples had been nipping the Pentecost wine as they celebrated the first of the wheat harvest.

At this point Peter—the very ROCK on whom Jesus had said he would build his church—answered the confused crowd of observers. “No,” he said, “we aren’t drunk but just filled with the Holy Spirit, as the prophet Joel said would happen when the end of the world is near.”

Let’s think for a minute about Peter’s answer. Jesus’ disciples must have FELT like the end of the world was near. The Messiah had come. He had been murdered. He had risen from the dead (depending on which gospel account you read). And now he had gone away.  This didn’t sound good for all humanity, even if the Messiah had said at every point during his departure, “Peace: I’m leaving you peace. I’m giving you my peace.” Jesus’ disciples felt like they were living in the “end times,” so was it any wonder, he said, that the people were doing things that had been foretold of the end times? So in one sense Peter’s answer to the people was true.

But did Peter give the BEST answer? If he had been faithful to Christ Jesus’ farewell teaching, he might better have said, “Jesus told us that he would ask the Father to take some of his spirit that he had given to Moses (Numbers 11:25), and some of his own God-spirit, and give those who are his disciples a helper—an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth—to live within us forever. The world cannot accept him, because it doesn’t see or know him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be in you.” (John 14:15-17)

I often get to be with people who are looking behind what we call “reality” and deciding whether to participate in God at work in our world. In other words, I get to be with people all the time who are deciding whether to experience Pentecost themselves, or just sneer at it.

I vividly remember the Holy Spirit DANCING here during an anthem, on more than one occasion, running around gathering up all those musical notes and combining them in a new way, a fantastic way, so that all the singers seem to have one voice. Ask any member of our choir when they are all back in town from our Shrine Mont retreat weekend. They are good, musically speaking, but they will tell you that there are times when the Holy Spirit shows up and takes over, making them sound even better than they actually are, reminding us that we are one and that God is very much with us here.

The Holy Spirit definitely was with us here when you welcomed me officially as your Rector. Remember THAT worship service? My brother Dan rocked the house on the organ and our spirits rejoiced and united as one in worshiping God.

I’ll bet that you have your OWN Pentecost story to share, or you would if only you knew how to recognize a Pentecost moment. <P> I use three “tests” about Pentecost:

1) A near-impossible task;
2) Improbable agents (often with broken lives); and
3) The breath of God blowing a new reality into being, a reality filled with hope and joy.

You can use these three tests (*) as I tell you a couple more Pentecost stories. Real people. Elsewhere. Their permission to share their stories:

Dave was a lawyer; well, he HAD been a lawyer. He had been running around real hard trying to keep his life together, trying to keep people from finding out about the booze. His wife left him. Took the kids. He drank more. Lost his job. Lost his home. Then he found an “upper room” in a church, more as a place to be warm and get free coffee than anything else. But somehow—Pentecost, he says—the compulsion to drink left him.

Tracy was a teenager. Funny. Smart. Kind. Beautiful—except for her teeth; she needed braces. Did I mention poor? Tracy wanted to be an engineer, but couldn’t figure out how to pay for college. Suddenly she had braces and a scholarship. Just like that. She told me, with the light shining through her eyes, that Pentecost had come. I also knew both the dentist and the oil heiress in the congregation, and that same light was shining in their eyes, also. Pentecost!

I have personally experienced Pentecost. The occasion was the eve of the 2003 General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the one which ended up consenting to the consecration of the Diocese of New Hampshire’s choice of Gene Robinson (a partnered gay man) as its Bishop. Lenore and I were in the Minneapolis cathedral on the opening night of the convention. The cathedral was crammed full to overflowing with people. There were people everywhere: sitting on the floor in the aisles, in the chancel area, in the choir loft, and even out on the lawn. The acolytes waved “spirit banners” over everyone’s head. Spirit banners are streamers—representing tongues of flame—attached to the end of a long flexible pole. There was a “whoosh” that tore through the building, from one corner to the other. We could feel it go by, filling us all with hope and pure joy.

I’ll never forget the sermon, though, which was this: “God is who God is, God does what God does, and God calls who God calls.” Silly me; at the time I thought that the preacher was talking about Bishop Robinson, never dreaming that she meant me.

I haven’t been the same since. For the past 14 years I have been caught up in the whoosh of the Holy Spirit from that fly-by. Carted off to the seminary. At my age!? That’s the thing about the Holy Spirit. You never know where you will end up. God is ALWAYS calling us and carting us off to do new, improbable things.

I wonder about us. Tear down our church and build affordable housing? Whoosh! All will be well.

I wonder about you. Are you here today BECAUSE you have experienced the breath of the Holy Spirit blowing a new reality into your broken life? Or, did you bring your broken life and old tired body here to wait for the Wind? Either way, you are in a good place, a place where many have experienced Pentecost.

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