Sermon Transcript: 7.30.23 "the Way of Christ and the Will of God"
We all have… I hope we all have… favorite passages of Scripture. Things that stand out to us, challenge us, Comfort us. I did a funeral last week, the family story was that, tragically, a daughter, a granddaughter, had been killed in an accident and as they were going through her things, the only marking in the Bible she'd be given as a child was from the Gospel of John, 14:26 the promise of the Holy Spirit. The Advocate…the Comforter… that would be with us, that would teach us, that would remind us of all that Christ had said. That was the verse that the child had been working on and wrestling with and it became incredibly important to the family. The grandmother made extensive notes about her own funeral and wanted that passage read and that story told because we DO have an advocate, a comforter - a different translations of the Greek of that passage that highlight different aspects of the meaning of the words.
For me one of the passages that has long been highlighted in my Bible, one that both challenges and comforts me, also comes from the Gospel of John. “In the beginning…” it says… in the beginning was the word - the logos in Greek - the word was with God and the Word was God. Already this Gospel is messing with my categories. I want clean definitions. Here is this. Here ius that. But the Word… was with God… and was God. Through him all things were made and without him not one thing was made that was made. The translation from the Greek to the English is a little rough there I wrestle with the sentence syntax
All things visible and invisible… this Word of God, This reason of God, This Will of God… This voice of God. This logos… This fullness of God… moved into action… is present at the beginning!
So as we go on through the first chapter of the Gospel of John, it becomes evident that according to that author, this logos, this word, this reason, this voice, this action of God IS the person of Jesus of Nazareth! Fully human and yet representing… Re-Presenting… revealing… to us who God is. The word became flesh and dwelt among us!
it is a creation story. I have read and prayed over and wrestled with those passages since I was very small. When I was enthusiastically part of a church setting.. and when I had wandered far away. Those words, that word has been implanted within me. what does it mean for the Word of God to reveal God's self to us?
As we read the Gospel, if we take this seriously, our call is not merely to acknowledge intellectually that mystery, but to follow Jesus! To do with our human life the things Jesus does with his - that we might be more like him. One of the earliest Christian Credos - statements of belief - was that God became like us that we might be like him. Jesus came to recapitulate us - to reattach the head to the body. To heal us. To make us whole. Our call is to follow him.
Last week we had a wonderful presentation on walking together. I've known Courtney Freedom Fowler for a long time - not as close friends but as a leader of the United Methodist Church, of this conference that I am appointed through - the Great Plains conference. Courtney became our lay leader at a time when three conferences were becoming one, so three sets of traditions and understandings of the way we've always done it were getting merged into one conference and while it was overall and very smooth process, there were rough edges. You do that? Then? That’s weird!... What *we've* always done… in our way… Courtney was one of the people that stood in that gap and helped us negotiate what it meant to walk together as one conference and that merger that conference is bearing great fruit. And so I have admired her from afar for some time, that she was willing to step into that role and as I gotten to know her better and now count as a friend, I think a lot of her work in the conference came from her identity as a Msvkoke-Creek - as one who has walked together with different cultures and different understandings even within her own family. One who daily has held up the tradition of what is good *and* has been open to new insights from other understandings and other eyes. She lent us, as a conference, that wisdom of walking between worlds and between cultures and between understandings and hope – the core believe that we are all related.
When she invited us to go to the Oklahoma Indian Mission conference, she said one of the things that will happen if you show up at that conference is you will be declared a relative. You will be brought into the family, because that is something that is common to nearly every Native American theology. One of the things my culture often does is, we look at indigenous people and we make them all the same. There are, this day, hundreds of different tribal traditions and understandings and theologies - yes plural - but they do have some great commonalities and one of them is this gift they give back to us of walking together - of acknowledging the pain of the past and yet also acknowledging the joy of their ancestors and of the present. Holding those things in common and in tension and bringing them into our cultural setting today.
Declaring both what has been done wrong and working to heal it, for themselves and for our whole culture, for our whole church. Naming the wrongs that they might be redeemed, celebrating what is right because we are all related. We are all related.
We're called to walk together. I have shared several times recently how important this place Puye Mesa is to me. It is not my place, the stories that are told there are not my stories, but this is one of those for me thin places our Irish or Celtic ancestors would call them, places where we have encountered the Holy. I was privileged, with my Seminary group, to walk in this land when it wasn't readily available. Now it is it is operated as a park, you can walk up and make an appointment and they will take you up and tell you their stories - but at the time it was by Invitation only and - we were we were not made aware of this - but we were being evaluated Our Seminary group was, as we interacted with the Santa Clara Pueblo leaders. Going to Puye Mesa wasn't on our schedule outline - because the instructor didn't know for sure whether we'd be invited and depended on how we behaved and it depended on how we behave without knowing that anything depended on how we behaved - so we weren't necessarily on our best behavior. They were looking - are we open to the Spirit? Are we open to other stories and interpretations and understandings or we were we so full of ourselves that we wouldn't encounter the holy in this place? To my eternal thanksgiving we were judged worthy of walking on the land and hearing some of the stories.
and something clicked for me in that place. The silence, the cool Breeze, grandmother moon visible in a blue sky, snow on the ground but not too cold, the tracks of the animals, the beauty of creation.
The horror of how inhumane we often are to one another and yet the reality that forgiveness and healing is possible, that we can walk together in our differences. Even in our disagreements and yet we are all related. We can share stories by honoring each other's stories, by honoring each other's places.
Last week many of us had the privilege of seeing the story of the Osage people told through ballet, through the arts and they made a point of how much they appreciated the hospitality in Fort Scott and we were aware that we dwell on land that was once theirs and how meaningful it was for the different members of that group to tell the story of the Osage on Osage land something they don't often have an opportunity to do. Now the troop was made up of all sorts of different people from different backgrounds, many of the Native Americans, several of them not and yet they had dedicated a portion of their lives to learning these stories and presenting them through dance.
And one of the things I - I was asked what I enjoyed most about it and there were about four characters… there were troops of men and women and dancers and kind of woven through were some people that were not classically trained ballet dancers but they were enacting the story every bit as much and on the male side there was an older Native American gentleman that was always dressed in a suit, and his role was kind of the one that was accommodating maybe even selling out his culture - gaining the wealth and the trust and adapting to these occupiers, these foreign ways and never quite sure if he was a good guy or a bad guy but he was making choices and he was accommodating and leading the people to change their ways… and then there was a young boy who started the dance with long hair and at one very dramatic scene in the boarding school his hair is removed and he is forced to adhere to these Western values and the interplay of the two was striking to me… they never actually interacted direcly but this drama of their stories and the different responses different people have - the good and the bad of change. It was dramatic, a bit traumatic, powerful. It was humbling.
These are people who have walked through the valley these are people who have experienced mountaintops. Will sang beautifully that hymn of hope and assurance that was first sung by enslaved people who were deep in a valley of darkness. who had horrors inflicted upon them, whose very lives were bought and sold - and yet they sang. They took the enslavers Bible and the lessons that the enslavers wanted to use… slave obey your master, the book says… and they found the stories of Exodus and liberation and hope and renewal and they made it their own. That is what the Spirituals are.
The first time I ever heard that spiritual sung was in my third appointment. I was the associate pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church in Wichita, and our choir director had become the director of Arise which is African-American Renewing Interest in Spirituals Ensemble. Shawn - at the middle there Shawn - he is not African-American but he is a noted choral director in the Wichita area and he had been invited to be a part of it … and my understanding… I wasn't there when this was happening… but my understanding is there was some pushback when this ARISE group began to become multi-ethnic. “These are our songs! They can't sing our songs!” or maybe it's very important for them to sing our songs… and to understand our songs and to share our stories? Where are the boundaries? When do we need to protect our traditions and what is ours - especially - and not many of us in this room have experienced this - especially when our traditions have been co-opted without our permission.
And yet obviously the prevailing side was of making this a multi-ethnic group of singing the spirituals together. They gave a concert and I will never forget one of the founders, he was in his mid-80s by then and he stood up and he did a solo and it was that song: “There'll be peace in the Valley Someday… and from this little wiry frame came this deep booming bass voice and that song had stayed with me. A song of hope! One of the things I pondered is it doesn't say I will escape this valley and go somewhere else … although there are certainly images of a Promised Land, of Heaven - but there'll be peace IN the valley. .God is with me here and now and I will experience that peace, that fullness - different metaphors - mountain tops, valleys - One of the images from the Old Testament of the coming of the Christ is that the mountains will be lowered and the valley is raised up. It's an incredibly destructive image, especially for those of us who like hiking in the hills and the mountains - yet all the metaphors fall short. The song proclaims peace is possible in the valley - that God is with us. As we read last week, Romans 8 says: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 1For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that[h] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
We can be healed but not by ourselves but with our relations all of our relations including our Native American ancestors will tell us our Native American neighbors will tell us all of creation we are all related we are part of this one story.
We started with that familiar prayer, The Lord's Prayer. Every week we pray “thy will be done” and where do we pray thy will be done? Here! “On Earth as it is in heaven.” Here on Earth as it is heaven. We pray that God's will would be done. We pray that we would do God's will - that we would discern, that our actions would truly be Christ-like - if we hold that Jesus reveals the fullness of God - if we hold that the Word became flesh - then certainly we who call ourselves Christians should be committed to being Christ-like in the world, to walking as he walked, to serving whom he served, loving whom he loved.
To challenging those mistakes that creep, in those times when we are too certain we are doing God's Will and in fact start doing harm to one another. When we are most dangerous is when we are so certain that God is on our side - when we are so certain that God is blessing what we do - instead of our being called to do that which God blesses. If we we pray “thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven” - in the valleys and on the mountaintops - thy will be done. So as we begin this series on the Way of Christ and the Will of God, I want to unpack that a little bit
Rev. Leslie Weatherhead was a British Methodist, he had been trained in the Wesleyan tradition He served in India as a missionary and then as a pastor at Methodist churches in Manchester and Leeds, and then in 1936 he received a call to become the lead minister at City Temple Church in London which at the time was Congregationalist and over the years has become a Reformed congregation. So outside of the Methodist tradition, but with much in common, and he served there from 1936 until he retired from ministry in 1960. Which, if you're a history buff will tell you that he served there throughout World War II and particularly throughout the London Blitz. He was a pastor in London as the Nazis came to power and as the bombs fell every night on London, trying to break the will of the British people. His own church, City Temple was damaged by fire from an incendiary bomb and later rebuilt. His congregation knew the terror of these bombings and in the midst of that he gave five sermons that ultimately became the book The Will of God and the insight that Leslie Weatherhead had was that when we talk about God's will, very often we conflate different things and it becomes very confusing. He talks about the child of a friend dying and the friend comforting himself, or being comforted by others saying “it must have been God's will” and yet also saying “if the doctor had been here on time, maybe my child wouldn't have died.” So, Weatherhead asks… “would the the doctor have been fighting God's will?” Or was the doctor trying to do God's will?
We confuse ourselves, we try to comfort one another, we try to wash our hands of things but we wind up presenting God in very contradictory ways. So Weatherhead realized, in the midst of the Nazis bombings, that he had to go deeper on this. He suggested that there was an intentional will that God has - this is what God originally wants. This is what God intends, and yet as part of that intentional will, God gives us freedom. God gives us free will. We are responsible for our own actions. We are able to respond to God's gift - and God gives us the freedom to say no to that gift and when we say no, well things don't go the way God had planned and so, therefore, God has a circumstantial will. Weatherhead wrote that when we have made choices that aren't what God wanted, there are consequences. God has set things in motion, there are physical and natural laws - if someone falls out of a tall building, the law of physics doesn't get arbitrarily interrupted based on how hard they might have prayed - cancer cells divide and… yet… prayer does change things. Prayer does lead us to know God better, to know ourselves better and sometimes… miracles happen and yet Weatherhead was convinced that God isn't just arbitrarily pulling strings. That this will must be circumstantial, that given our choices, here are the best possible outcomes. Weatherhead also said that ultimately, we cannot defeat God's will - God is eternally patient and ultimately God's Will will prevail. Love will win - but God's will is waiting on us to respond, to make the right choices in the circumstances we find ourselves in, in the circumstances we create. Eventually, miraculously, when we all do that, we will ultimately get to that place that God holds for us. God's ultimate will is for good.
We will be unpacking that a lot more over the coming weeks, but I want to finish up today by thinking about God's intentional will. In the beginning… we have many creation stories in the Bible. Many cultures have different creation stories and I think it's useful to realize when we hear Genesis 1, our first creation story or the one our Hebrew ancestors put first in their writings, that's not the only one that was competing for attention in the Ancient Near East. For example, the Babylonian creation myth is incredibly violent. The gods are fighting. The Tiamat and Marduk fight, one of them slays the other and from the slain body of a God, the earth and the heavens are made. Humans are an afterthought - a mistake really and they're very annoying to the Gods…. so out of violence and inattention, humanity exists… that's a very simplified summary of a primary Babylonian creation story. Consider by contrast the claims made by our Hebrew ancestors. They, by contrast, hold a story of intention. In the beginning, a wind from God was hovering over the void - a wind - a spirit - a breath. R’uach.
God is pondering, hovering… and God speaks - a word comes forth. God says let there be light There is light let the light and the darkness be separated - day and night and what does God see in Creation? It is good. it's good - this light and this darkness - this first step of creation. It's good!
and then God says let there be a firmament - a dome - to separate the waters from the waters and then God says let the waters under the dome separate, so there's some dry land again there's these separations - there's uniqueness and increasing diversity. Let vegetation come forth, plants with seeds - let them renew themselves. Then on day four, let there be great and a lesser light set in the dome to mark the time and the seasons. the festivals. When we think of light what do we think of… ponder this: light was created back on day one. Light is already present. We tend to think of the Sun as a source of light on the earth, but light is more than the Sun. the sun is to mark our days, our hours – this story of day four is about time not light.
Day five, the creatures are called forth - of the sea - of the skies - of the land creatures of every kind and on each of these days what does God see and say it's good. This creation that God is willing, intending, calling forth… it's good! But creation isn't complete yet..
and then on the sixth day God creates humanity in God's own image. Now that doesn't mean that we look like God - I don't think God has hands and fingers like this, at least not until the Incarnation, but we reflect God's will. God's spirit. We have the ability to create. We have the ability to love. We have the ability to say no.
We are created in God's image male and female we are created in God’s image to participate with God in relationship.
and to all these distinctions and binaries like day and night – we also hear of morning and evening. These transitional periods. God sees it and it's good
and on day six God sees it with humanity created and now? It is Very good!
and then God rests.
Why do we tell this story? Why did our Hebrew ancestors tell the story this way?
Well part of it is to declare that God's creation is good. That humanity is part of God's creation. That we are all related and part of it was to illustrate that there is a cycle, a season, a rhythm of work and play and rest and if we don't adhere to that rhythm, we become dangerous to ourselves and others. The Sabbath is Holy. Rest is Holy - even God rests.
The story is powerful. The story determines a world view that rejects violence and inattention and absence of God and instead proclaims that God is with us, that God intends us. That God sees creation as good. That is God's intentional Will, according to the first story of our Bible.
(Photo of Milky Way) And where do you suppose the ancient people got that idea of a firmament - a dome in the heavens. I've said before we're so used to our light bulbs - and believe me I don't want to get rid of them, I'm a night owl. I like reading my book late at night -but because of the light pollution of our cities, we don't see creation the same way our ancestors did – as a nightly show of the Milky Way. Now scientifically, we understand a lot more than they did. We know that we are on the third planet orbiting minor star way out on the wings of this Milky Way that isn't even one of the largest galaxies in the universe. We get so determined to fight over things sometimes it's useful to remember that we're here - a speck of dust way out on the edge of a minor galaxy. There's a huge debate in Congress right now over what to release - the Air Force apparently has records of UFOs, although they're calling them something else these days - and a lot of religious chatter - well what would happen if we knew that there was alien life? For me.. nothing would change about my fiath. It wouldn't change my faith and iota – because… in the beginning was the Word and through the Word all things were made - not just my things, not just the stuff I see, but all things. Visible and invisible, here and there, near and far, in my comprehension and experience and beyond it. How God relates to others… that's not really my business - my business is to follow Christ. How God has been revealed to me. If there are other stories out there, well I'm convinced that we're all related because we were made by the same creator.
That Good Shepherd… (photo) this is Good Shepherd Church in New Zealand. It's in an intentional dark area. One of my bucket list things is to go on a photography trip to this area of the world. This Good Shepherd Church with the Milky Way hovering above it during the times and the seasons and the lights – it illustrates the smallness of humanity and yet the glory of creation that we are a part of. God is with us… and beyond us.
(slide showing enslaved person’s whip scars, the Trail of Tears and a bombed, burned out City Temple) We do such horrific things to each other. We forget that we're related. We drop bombs and we displace people. We try to break each other's will with whips and chains. We forget that we are related. We forget that we are created in the image of God. We forget that the one who reveals God to us tells a story about a farmer who plants good wheat and an enemy scatters weeds. The farmer says to his help no, no don't pull those up. Let them grow. We'll gather them in. We'll sort them out later. It's more important not to damage the wheat than it is to try and eradicate the tares or the weeds. Ultimately God's Will will prevail.
How often we take that story and we fall back into saying others are the weeds and need to be eradicated. That they don't get it. That we alone have the understanding or rights - that we need to impose our understanding on theirs, instead of hearing the story to say that all of us have weeds in us - we're not there yet but - God isn't done working with us. God will clear the field. God will burn away the chaff. God will refine us. God will make us whole. Our task is to follow God's revelation of Christ - to be as Christ-like as we possibly can and we'll find the weeds withering. We'll find ourselves dropping the stones. Find ourselves celebrating small miracles and big ones. We will be the body of Christ
and what is the body of Christ, if not intended to be broken and given away to the world that the world might know God's mercy and love and forgiveness. That the world might know that we walk not alone but with each other. That the world might know that suffering and darkness do not have the final word. That God’s Will might be done here… as it is in heaven.
I'll say next week and it may be challenging for many of us - but I don't believe God intends the cross. I believe the cross is a result of human action – and in God's circumstantial will, God uses the worst we can do to one another to reveal to us the depth of God's love the Ultimate Reality that God's love will win - that not even suffering and death can confine or limit God's will because life and light and wholeness are God's will. In the beginning and to this day. I believe that God is love. Thanks be to God. Amen!