God is a Relationship

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Whatever else we want to say about God, we can at least say this:

God is all about relationships.

We can see that in the natural universe:

The relationship between our planet and our star is so finely tuned. If the earth were just a little closer to or farther out from the sun, or if it was just tilted a little more on its axis, life as we know it would be impossible.

The biosphere is so delicately balanced, the extinction of just a few species from the food chain can upset an entire ecosystem. A pastor friend tells me that, if bees continue to disappear (as they have been doing), we humans have only two years of life left.

We humans can share a special relationship with each other, when two people can come together in a special, intimate way that actually creates life.

We can see that God is all about relationships by looking at our Scriptures as well.

We can see it in today’s gospel: in the relationship between Christ and St. John the Baptist.

In the very first sentence of this reading, we see that Christ takes the initiative:

“Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan”

And then the text says that John, after a brief conversation, gives his consent. This is very important because real relationships can only exist where consent is freely offered between two parties.

After that, the baptism takes place and something amazing happens:

“just as [Jesus] came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him”

I take this to mean that Christ could see into eternity, into the heart of everything; he could see how it all hangs together. And in that vision, Jesus sees the Spirit descend upon him like a dove and hears a voice say, “This is my Son, the beloved”.

Note the three figures in this vision: First, there is Jesus, the Son of God. Then there is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. Finally, there is the voice (presumably God the Father), saying, “This is my Son”. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is the first place in Scripture where the Holy Trinity appears.

For Christians, the Trinity is our core concept of God. The word itself never appears in Scripture (that was worked out a few centuries later by the Church Fathers and Mothers), but here is where we see the three persons together for the first time. We believe in one God who is three Persons. Not three Gods, not one God known in three ways, but one God in three Persons. The relationship between John and Christ actually opens a window, through which we can see the relational, Triune nature of God.

I know this sounds rather abstract, but let me bring it down to earth: God is a relationship. As St. John the Beloved put it in his first epistle, “God is love”. Relationships matter to God because God is a relationship. God is love itself.

This is good news for us in this world, where our relationships are in such trouble. Our broken relationships, at the personal and political levels, are often characterized by exploitation, manipulation, oppression, poverty, and violence.

There is nothing new about this. We can see it plainly on the news and in many of our families. It didn’t begin with Twitter, or the internet, or television, or the 1960s, or the sexual revolution. It began all the way back at the beginning, when our relational God created us to be in relationship with God and each other. But we withheld our consent. We broke relationship with God, and soon our relationships with each other began to break down as well.

But God never broke relationship with us. God came among us in the person of Jesus Christ to redeem the world and restore us to right relationship with God and each other.

That is why the Church today, as Christ’s Body on earth, calls Christians to tend to our relationships with family, neighbors, strangers, and even enemies. We are called to live the truth that relationships matter because God is a relationship.

God is love. This is why Jesus sums up all the commandments of the Bible in a single word: Love. Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. Likewise, St. Paul writes, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).

St. John again:

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16)

In other words, where there is love, there is God.

Whenever we swallow our pride and say “I’m sorry” to the spouse we’ve been fighting with, that is an act of worship to God. Whenever we are at a restaurant, and the waiter comes by with a refill, and we look up to meet that person’s eyes and say “thank you”, that is an act of worship. Whenever we march for justice and listen to the voices of the poor and oppressed, that is an act of worship.

Whenever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, or visit the sick and incarcerated, we are not just serving our neighbors, but Christ himself. Christ was very explicit about this:

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

God is a relationship, therefore relationships matter. God is love, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. This is the truth that Christ and St. John the Baptist are driving home to us, through their relationship, in today’s gospel.

May we be the Christians who honor our relationship with God by honoring our relationships with each other in the world.

Longing to See You

“8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” – Romans 1:8-12

These words from St. Paul reflect his pastoral heart. The apostle says to his parish, “I am longing to see you”.

At the center of the pastoral vocation is a deep longing. It is a longing to be in relationship: to bear witness to the presence and activity of Christ in the people with whom I do ministry.

When people ask to see me, they often say at the end of our meeting, “I’m sorry to have taken up so much of your time.” I want to say back, “Are you kidding me?! This is the best part of my job! If I could just do this all day, I would.”

The pastor’s first job is to be in relationship with God’s people: not to be “professionally religious”, not to solve their problems, not to entertain them, not to teach theology or correct bad behavior, and certainly not to maintain buildings and manage institutions. All of the above are important and necessary parts of ordained ministry, but they are not the heart of the pastoral vocation. The heart is the relationship: the “longing to see you” that Paul wrote about.

To be sure, there is an exchange of something that happens in this relationship: Paul says that he wants to “share some spiritual gift” in order to “strengthen” his people. But he goes on to say that the exchange is a two-way street: “that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” Every relationship is a matter of simultaneous giving and taking. All of us are constantly being both filled and emptied by love in the relational network of the Trinity, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17).

As Christians, we believe that we are saved by a relationship. The Incarnation is a relationship in which God “takes on flesh” and “moves into the neighborhood”, as Eugene Peterson put it. Jesus Christ is Emmanuel: “God with us.” Each Sunday, we further celebrate the Real Presence of Christ in our celebration of the Eucharist. By faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ into our very selves.

If we, as Christians, truly want to bear witness to the saving activity of our Incarnate Deity, then our action must mirror God’s in its relational nature. We must follow that deep, inner longing to be with one another in the flesh, as God is with us. When our fellow human beings come to believe that they are loved, that they are not alone, then can we say that we have truly done our job as witnesses of our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is the longing to be in relationship that brought God from heaven to earth in the person of Jesus Christ; it is that same longing that fuels the pastoral vocation. It is the longing to be in relationship that draws the Church together in covenant community; it is that same longing that sends us out into the world as witnesses of the Gospel.

“I saw the person before I saw his or her poverty. And I realized that the person who is hungry, abandoned or in need is first of all a heart who needs to find another heart; someone who will listen, understand and love. People who are poor and discouraged need to hear someone say to them, “I love you. I have confidence in you. You are beautiful. You can give life to others.” This helps them find confidence in themselves, new strength, new hope. The poor do not need to hear a lot of words, not even pious words. They may need people who will do things for them. Above all they need friendship: friends who love them and are willing to do things with them. This will help them grow and develop both humanly and spiritually.” – Jean Vanier

To the Next Level

Mark 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

We’ve got a doozy of a gospel reading this week.  I call it one of our “damage control” passages because you almost want to apologize for it while you’re reading it.  I’m mean seriously: we have a rating system for movies, why not come up with one for the Bible?  The parable of the Good Samaritan would probably be rated PG-13 for mild violence.  The book of Judges would definitely be rated R for all the extreme blood n’ guts.  The Song of Solomon would be… um… well, let’s just say it would only be shown in “select theaters”.  Of course, the big problem I can see with that idea is that I can’t think of any sections of the Bible that would merit a G rating.

If I had to give today’s passage from Mark’s gospel a rating, I think I would have to go with either PG-13 or R because of ‘thematic material’.  This is one of those passages that are intended for ‘mature audiences only’.  Taking Jesus’ teachings about divorce at face-value can be dangerous, especially if you don’t have all the necessary background information at hand.

Unfortunately, Christians have been taking this passage at face-value and applying it indiscriminately for centuries.  This has led to a lot of people being hurt by or excluded from the church during one of those times in life when they needed fellowship, guidance, and support more than ever.  So, with that in mind, I’m going to begin this morning by stating very clearly what you’re not going to hear from me, today or ever, on the dual-subject of marriage and divorce.

First of all, I’m not going to tell you that, if you get a divorce, you’re going to hell.  I don’t believe that.  It’s not how I roll.  To borrow a hip-hop phrase from the early 90s: “Homie don’t play dat.”  Second, I’m not going to tell you that, if you get a divorce, you should be banned from receiving communion or serving the church in an ordained capacity as an elder, deacon, or pastor.  There was a time in Presbyterian history when that was the case.  In fact, it’s still the case in some denominations.  But we in this church developed an awareness during the last hundred years or so that life is complicated and so are relationships.  Our ancestors realized that an effective, Christ-like ministry is one that recognizes life’s complexities and leads with grace rather than judgment.  Third, I’m not going to tell you that, if you get a divorce, you can never begin another relationship or get remarried and expect that relationship to be healthy and blessed by God.  The God I believe in is the God of Plan B and second chances.  If that wasn’t who I believed God to be, then I wouldn’t (I couldn’t) be standing in this pulpit today.

Now, there are preachers out there who will tell you differently from what I just told you.  They would look at today’s gospel reading and say, “You see?  The Bible says right here that divorce is a sin and you can’t go against that without going against Jesus, so you might as well just tear it up and admit that you’re not a real Christian!”  If you’ve been told that before, even by a member of the clergy, I want you to know that you’ve been lied to.  Let me show you how.

First of all, we have to begin with the definition of that theologically load term: sin.  “Divorce is a sin,” or so they say.  The word sin, when used in this way, usually refers to a specific behavior or set of behaviors that supposedly angers God because it violates one of the moral rules laid out in the Bible.  The implication is that these behaviors (and only these behaviors) can be defined as sinful, therefore those who live their lives according to this list of rules are on God’s nice list while other people (i.e. most of us) are on God’s naughty list.

One of the most convenient things about this definition of sin is that those who talk about it in this way are often able to emphasize the so-called “sins” being committed by other people rather than their own.  Whenever you ask these folks about what’s wrong with the world, they can always answer: “It’s those people!  It’s those sinners!”

The list of sins identified is usually pretty limited in scope.  For example, people in our culture tend to spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on sins related to “the pelvic issues”: divorce, abortion, homosexuality, pornography, adultery, teen pregnancy, etc.  North Americans are fascinated by sex, although we don’t want to admit it.  You can find sermons and political ad campaigns on these sex-related topics all over the internet.  But think about this: when was the last time you heard a sermon on greed or gluttony?  When is the last time you heard about a church-sponsored, multi-million dollar, anti-gluttony lobbying campaign?  Celebrity sex-tapes make lots of money, but who would ever pay cash to download a video of Paris Hilton eating a bag of pork rinds?  We’re just not interested in that.  As a culture, we’re obsessed with sex.  We really want to know all about who is doing what with whom, even though sex itself is just as natural and just as prone to disorder as our appetite for food.  But people in this society tend to fixate on these “pelvic issues” because those “sins” are less socially acceptable than other behaviors.

I call this tendency in people “The Jerry Springer Phenomenon” (although I could probably also call it “The Jersey Shore Phenomenon”).  Jerry Springer and Jersey Shore are TV shows that people watch in order to feel better about themselves.  No matter how dysfunctional one’s life currently is, chances are that it’s not nearly as messed up as the people on the Jerry Springer Show.  It’s a convenient way to feel self-righteous and superior to other people.

Whenever Jesus encountered that kind of attitude, he called it hypocrisy.  He would often butt heads with a religious group known as the Pharisees.  These folks, like so many fans of Jersey Shore and the Jerry Springer Show, had a very precise definition of the word sin that they applied to people outside their religious in-group.  They were the guardians of morality and family values in their culture.  They were upstanding citizens who attended worship regularly and knew the Bible inside and out.  If anyone had a trustworthy definition of the word sin, it was them.

These Pharisees approached Jesus with a question on the topic of divorce.  Rather than genuinely seeking advice from Jesus, they just wanted to put him on the spot and figure out whether his definition of the word sin was as accurate and comprehensive as theirs.  But Jesus, as usual, is onto this little game of theirs and isn’t having any of it.  He takes their question and raises it “to the next level”, so to speak.

Let me show you what I mean:

The Pharisees come to Jesus with a question about the legality of divorce.  Jesus reframes the question by placing it within the much larger context of human and divine relationships.  He immediately starts talking about the story of Adam and Eve in the Torah.  He talks about who God is and what God is doing.  He takes this conversation about the technicalities of human relationships and turns it into a conversation about the meaning of human relationships.

Jesus is arguing here that the Pharisees, with their very precise and thought-out conception of morality, have essentially missed the point.  They thought they had this question of divorce already figured out.  They thought they already had all the right answers, but Jesus shows them that they haven’t even begun to ask the right questions.

Their definition of the word sin left them feeling pretty self-righteous and superior.  It allowed them to place the blame for all the world’s problems on the shoulders of “those other people” whose lives did not conform to socially acceptable norms.  But then Jesus comes along and hits them right between the eyes with some hard truth.  Even though all their legal ducks were in a row, he told them, they were still not free from the bondage of sin.  Jesus was working with a far broader and deeper definition of the word sin than the Pharisees were.

The word sin, I think, has surprisingly little to do with legal requirements and moral laws.  I think it has a whole lot to do with the quality of our relationships.  Sin is a tendency that exists within all of us, regardless of moral, legal, or religious status.  We all have an inner drive toward selfishness.  Therefore, none of us has any right to feel morally or spiritually superior to anyone else, no matter how socially unacceptable or dysfunctional others’ lives may appear to be.

When we try to identify the presence of sin in our relationships, it’s not enough to simply label some behaviors as “sins” while others are “okay”.  Even the most apparently righteous actions can be tainted with sin.  Just look at the Pharisees and you’ll see what I mean.  If you look at what they were doing from a legal standpoint, they came away looking squeaky clean all the time.  But if you look at how they were doing what they did, their self-righteous and judgmental hypocrisy becomes clear.  They came to Jesus with a loaded question about a legal contract but left with even bigger questions about the nature of human relationships.

With this broader and deeper understanding of sin in mind, I would like to revisit that initial question: is divorce a sin?  To begin with, I would have to say no, because that question assumes a very limited and narrow definition of the word sin that I doesn’t apply to the real world, where that kind of question is usually used to shame and exclude the very people who need friendship and support the most.

If, on the other hand, one were to ask me whether I think divorce is a product of human sinfulness (i.e. our inner tendency toward selfishness), then I would have to say yes, divorce can be and often is sinful, but even that depends on the relationship.  To give one extreme example: I can’t think of anyone who would dare to pass judgment on a mother who ends her marriage to an abusive partner in order to protect the safety of her children.  To be sure, human brokenness and sinfulness are involved in the situation itself, but we would have no right to pass judgment on that mother or accuse her of “committing a sin” just so we can feel morally superior to her.  That would be beyond cruel.

This way of defining sin has significance for all of our relationships, not just marriage and divorce.  Why don’t we take a look at the famous Ten Commandments as statements about the quality of our relationships (marital or otherwise)?

Here is a list of the last five commandments as they appear in the book of Exodus:

“You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.“

Instead of seeing these “thou shalt nots” as legal statements, let’s reframe them as questions that have to do with the quality of our relationships.  In your relationship with X…

  • Do you seek to give life to one another or suck it away?
  • Are you faithful to one another or does your heart belong to something/one else?
  • Do you willingly share your lives with one another, or do you simply take what you want from each other?
  • Do you speak the truth about to who you are to one another or do you maintain a façade for the sake of appearances?
  • Are you grateful to and for one another or are you constantly looking over your shoulder at how good everyone else has it?

As you honestly answer those questions, you’ll start to get a general sense of how healthy your relationships are or are not.  As I said before, this can be applied to all relationships, not just the ones between spouses or partners.  It works just as well for relationships between parents & children, bosses & employees, siblings, coworkers, friends, you name it.

You can even ask these questions about your relationship with yourself.  Who else do we try to hide from more?  I think there are a lot of people walking around this world right now in a state of being divorced from themselves.  They feel alone and exposed, hiding their deepest fears and covering up their insecurities, even as they’re looking into their own bathroom mirror.

At the heart of every moral question, as Jesus understands it, is a question about human relationships.  And the heart of every question about human relationships is the ultimate question about our relationship with God.

Far more important than particular legal questions about divorce is the question of human relationships, in whatever forms they may take.  We selfish and sinful people are all reaching out to connect with the whole, hoping that we will be able to discover through it the meaning of our existence.

As you go back out into the world this week, I want to encourage you to be mindful of how it is that you conduct your relationships with others.  Don’t get caught up in these squabbling debates about legalities, technicalities, and who is better than who.  Instead, do like Jesus did in today’s gospel reading and raise your own level of awareness in order to ask the harder questions about all your relationships.

May you find on that difficult journey a sustaining sense of connection and meaning in your life that draws you ever closer to the sacred source of all life: the living, loving God in whom we live, move, and have our being; the All in All from whom, through whom, and to whom all things come.

I Have Called You Friends

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian Church.

John 15:9-17

If you were to ask the average person on the street to define the term ‘God’ (as it is often used in most contemporary monotheistic religions), you would probably get an answer similar to what the late Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson used to call the God “up there.”  In his more cheeky moments, Bishop Robinson also referred to the God “up there” as “the Old Man in the Sky.”  This idea of God was taken quite literally by superstitious people during the Medieval Dark Ages.

Folks these days, while they might use language about God that describes “the Old Man in the Sky” as being “up there,” will most likely admit when pressed that God (if they believe there is a God) is neither biologically male, nor does “he” exist in a physical location that just so happens to be directly vertical in relation to the speaker’s current point of reference.  Most folks who believe in a traditional monotheistic deity these days tend to think of the God “out there” (to use Robinson’s words again).  In other words, they think of God as a singular, intangible, all-knowing, and all-powerful Supreme Being who exists independently of the created universe.  Depending on their overall outlook on life and religion, they may or may not identify this Supreme Being as benevolent or compassionate.

The attribute of God that people tend to name more than any other is omnipotence, which means “all-powerful” or “almighty.”  Have you ever paid attention to how often people begin their prayers with the words ‘Almighty God’?  We kind of take it for granted that God is almighty.  We figure that a Supreme Being can do anything that comes to mind.  This is a tremendous source of strength and comfort for those who face difficult circumstances.  It’s helpful to know that God is in control, can handle any crisis, and has a plan to work everything out for the better.  The downside to this idea is that there seems to be so much meaningless suffering in the world.  How could God possibly bring good out of it?  Philosophers and theologians have been wrestling with that question for thousands of years.  If they ever come up with a single, universally acceptable answer, I’ll be sure to let you know right away.

I find it interesting that omnipotence has taken such a central place in our ideas about God.  When you think about modern society, it kind of makes sense.  Modern people are obsessed with power.  In the last five hundred years, we’ve used the power of science and technology to accomplish things that our ancestors never dreamed of.  We’ve come to see ourselves as the masters of our own destiny.  We worship what we value, so it would be fair to say that modern people worship power.  When we try to conceive of a Supreme Being, the first thing we think of is someone who possesses unlimited power.  Thus, to the modern mind, God must be omnipotent.  It is as the philosopher Voltaire famously said: “If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.”

However, our faith in the power of power has been shaken as of late.  The twentieth century, with its two world wars, the holocaust, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, gave us reason to doubt our ability to bring about utopia through science and technology.  The current century, as young as it is, has already drawn our attention to the growing problems of global warming, international terrorism, and social stratification.  The modern era’s faith in the power of power has left us feeling empty, helpless, and alone in a sea of political propaganda and consumer advertising.

The God of modern power-lust has also presented us with certain problems.  I’ve already mentioned what philosophers call “the problem of evil.”  How can an all-powerful deity allow such horrible things to happen in the world?  Whole books have been written on that question, so I won’t get into it just now.  The problem I want to focus on is a relational one.  There is only one way to relate to a God who is primarily understood as all-powerful: servitude.  Obedience is all that matters in a power-based relationship.  This much is true, even when power is trustworthy and only exercised in the interest of our individual or common good.

This idea of God is quite popular among religious believers today.  God is an all-powerful lawgiver with a plan for the world that must be obeyed to letter, or else…

The spirituality shaped by such a theology is characterized by crime and punishment, as well as guilt and forgiveness.  Average people, uncertain of what an all-powerful Supreme Being wants of them, tend to vest the authority for moral decision-making in some tangible and supposedly infallible source like a church, a Pope, or a Bible.  This infallible source, so they say, represents the will of God to the people.  In their minds, questioning the words of the Pope or the Bible is disobedience toward God.  One must either obey or face the consequences of eternal damnation in the fiery abyss of hell.  As you can see, this is how religious fanaticism and fundamentalism are born.

So, the question I want to ask today is this: is there a way to relate to God outside of the modern obsession with power?  The answer, in my opinion, is yes.

I have already noted how the only way to relate to the omnipotent God of power is as an obedient servant.  So, with that in mind, I love how Jesus says to his disciples in today’s gospel reading, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.”

Jesus was (in)famous in his day for challenging the authority of traditional orthodox religion in order to replace it with authentic and radical relationships.  His own family called him insane, all the preachers said he was demon-possessed, and respectable folks called him a glutton, a drunkard, and “a friend of sinners.”  Those who followed him were as diverse as they were dense.  They were ancient versions of government workers with guerilla fighters, barstool brawlers with church choir soloists, adult film stars with senators’ wives.  It was an offensive and unlikely collection of people that found friendship with this remarkable person and each other.

Jesus, in his teaching and his living, replaced the God of power with the God of love.  He told his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”  He makes it clear to them that his friendship with them is not based on religious observance or moral performance.  He says to them, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”  His love for them is a free gift of grace.

Gone is the sophisticated legal system of the Torah with its 613 commandments.  Gone too are the famous tablets of the Ten Commandments.  In fact, the only commandment that Jesus leaves his disciples is the commandment of love.  “This is my commandment,” he says, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”  The only thing Jesus asks us to do with this free gift of love is pass it on.  And the end result, he says, of this extravagant love-fest is a lasting fullness of joy for eternity.

What Jesus knew on an instinctual level, and his friends learned by following him, is that God is love.  The experience of a lived compassion and affection is more than just a fleeting emotion.  It is divine.  Love, as Jesus lived and taught it, is an expression of that which is the “Ground of all Being” and the very heartbeat of reality.  Live like this, he says, and you will touch the face of God.  For Jesus, God is not some all-powerful Supreme Being who rules the universe from a golden throne behind a pearly gate on a white, puffy cloud.  The throne of God, the place from which God reigns, is much nearer to us than that.  The kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus, is within you and among us.

If you want to find God, don’t look up, look deep.  Look into your own eyes and those of your neighbors.  Honor the relationships in your life and you will automatically be following the will of God for you.  As the Christian theologian, St. Augustine, once said, “Love and do what you want.”

This is a radically different view of God than the one we get from religious fanatics, fundamentalists, and other modern folks who are obsessed with power.  According to Jesus’ experience, love (not power) is the primary attribute of God.  Everything else we might say about God must be understood in light of this first principle.  This kind of God, the one revealed in and through Jesus, is Emmanuel (i.e. “God with us”).  The life of Jesus represents a fundamental shift in the way we think about God.  Going back to serving the demanding God of power after this would be an act of sheer idolatry.

Jesus’ God of love offers us a healing balm for the wounds and ailments of power-driven modern society.  In spite of our incredible technological capacity for communication and information exchange, folks of all ages today tend to feel more isolated and lonely than ever.  We are besieged by an endless invasion of barbarians who tear us and each other apart in the effort to obtain our money and our votes.  We are horrified to discover, as Charlton Heston did at the end of the movie Soylent Green, that we are all destined to become mere consumers and products for consumption.  But Jesus shows us that there is another way.  There is more.

Jesus turns us onto the God of love and the subversive power of committed relationships.  When we, as a community, begin to learn and practice this art, we find ourselves living the life of heaven on earth: the fullness of joy forever more.  We might not be luckier, happier, or more prosperous than before, but we will have discovered the secret to living well.

I want to invite you then, whoever and wherever you are, to begin to look deeper into the relationships in your life.  Take a second (or third) look at your family, friends, and neighbors.  Take an especially good look at those you might consider your enemies.  Take a look at those strangers you pass by in public and at the store.

If you’re listening to this sermon online or on the radio, I would invite you to take a break our culture’s individualism and consumerism to come visit us on Sunday at 10:30 and start exploring these relationships with us at our church.  We don’t do it perfectly all the time, but we give it our best try.  Come and get involved.  See what love looks like in our little community of unlikely friends and ragtag disciples.  Get involved and help us look for God in these little things.  Maybe you’ll find the God of love while you’re helping Wally move chairs after the rummage sale, helping Vivien make sandwiches, or helping Rod put up the Christmas tree.  These are the places and times when heaven comes to earth and the Spirit of God takes on flesh and bone again.

These relationships are sacred.  Try to treat each person as you would treat Christ himself.  Maybe you could memorize what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40 and recite his words silently to yourself as you interact with people, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  This is the secret to living well.  This is the fullness of joy.  This is how the kingdom of heaven comes to earth.  This is how we come to recognize the sacred face of Jesus’ God of love.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)

Thoreau and Pride

H. D. Thoreau

This past Sunday afternoon, I had the honor of preaching at the interfaith worship service for PrideFest in Utica.  My chosen text was a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s famous book, Walden:

We might try our lives by a thousand simple tests; as, for instance, that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours. If I had remembered this it would have prevented some mistakes. This was not the light in which I hoed them. The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology! — I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informing as this would be.

I love Thoreau’s question, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”  For me, that question sheds light on our culture’s assumption that “truth” is primarily propositional.  We think it can be found in books.

As a book-lover, I fall particularly prone to this assumption!

Because of this, many folks who are active in working for LGBT equality tend to focus their efforts on establishing adequate education and legislation for equal rights in our public institutions.  To be sure, these are important.  We need to be putting time and effort into education and legislation.  Equality will not come without them.

However, I don’t see either education or legislation as the primary catalyst for social change.  For me, the deciding factor is relationships.  It was my close and personal encounters with LGBT friends, roommates, pastors, and colleagues that opened my mind and heart for the first time.  Only after that did I go back and reread the pages of the Bible with a new set of eyes.  Only then did I make phone calls, write letters, speak out to the media, and march with a sign outside my senator’s office.  Before education and legislation, there was relationship.

It began with people who cared about me enough to talk, listen, wait, forgive, and ultimately love me into a new way of thinking.  It was these relationships that led me to experience the miracle of “look[ing] through [an]other’s eyes for an instant”.

These relationships have carried me thus far and I believe they have the power to carry us all forward.  Let’s make every effort to “look through each other’s eyes for an instant”.  Let’s find a friend there.  Ultimately, let’s find the face of God there.

Recognizing the Time of Visitation

Easter began with an explosion of beautiful, spring weather in central New York.  I can understand how someone might want to come back from the dead for this.  Needless to say, these meteorological phenomena have me itching to spend more time with my friends on the street.

As always, our ministry at St. James Mission is bizarre enough to evade all attempts at codification and programming.  The streets have become my school of the Spirit as I try to listen for what God is doing in the marginal spaces of our community.

As always, God is doing some strange and funny new things.

As I was going to bed on Palm Sunday, I had one of those moments where the Holy Spirit walks up and smacks you in the face with a sack full of reality.  The gospel text from the Daily Lectionary was Luke 19:41-48.  Jesus stood weeping over the city of Jerusalem, prophesying that they would be crushed by enemies “because [they] did not recognize the time of [their] visitation from God.”

Even though this sounds pretty harsh (and it is), it got me thinking about the “unrecognized” ways that God might be “visiting” me.  I prayed that my eyes would be opened so that I might “recognize on this day the things that make for shalom“, as Jesus said.

Immediately, I thought of this one guy who has been annoying me for months.  Somehow, he obtained my home phone number and would call several times a day to talk my ear off about nothing-in-particular for as long as I would let him.  It had reached the point that I would groan anytime his number came up on Caller ID.  Sometimes, I wouldn’t even pick up the phone.  How hypocritical of me to prattle on like I do about solidarity with the poor and relational ministry while simultaneously refusing to engage with the one guy from the street who wants nothing more than to establish a relationship!

Even though this guy has no interest in coming to church (he says it cuts into his “prime beer-drinking time”), he goes out of his way to introduce me to his friends who could use a pastor.  Even though he doesn’t like to talk about God or spirituality, he listens intently whenever his schizophrenic roommate corners me with this week’s pressing questions regarding theological minutiae.  Even though he doesn’t approve of the fact that I hang around with “scumbags”, he took me to a crack house to meet his friend who needed help getting a cat neutered.

When his dog Teddy underwent a serious medical procedure last month, he asked me to lay hands on the dog and pray for healing.

I was invited to a barbeque at his house on Good Friday.  I got to meet his neo-Nazi friend, who has swastika tattoos on his arms.  We shared pictures of our kids, who are about the same age.

This guy is one of those relational magnets who turns his home into a house of hospitality for the very “scumbags” he claims to despise.  He claims no interest in God, yet asks his friend the priest to stop by as much as I can during the week.  When I do, he feeds me chicken wings and cheeseburgers.

It’s amazing just how much my perspective on this relationship has changed during Holy Week.  The Holy Spirit has opened my eyes to see this same relationship in a new light.  As I continue to build relationships on the street this year, I have a sense that this guy will be one of those nexus points where God chooses to gather people.  It makes me think of Levi the tax collector.  His house was full of friends when Jesus showed up to party.  This guy’s house is the same.

Whenever I’m on the street now, I make sure to stop by his house.  When the phone rings and I see that it’s his number, I’m glad to pick up.  In fact, he just called as I was writing this post…

“Recognize on this day the things that make for shalom.”

“Recognize the time of your visitation from God.”