Sermons from Outside the Walls- 2

He Called Our Mother a Dog

June 5, 2018

If a sermon does nothing but make you feel good, why bother with it?

Nobody goes to a gym to sit in an easy chair, open a beer, and smoke a cigar while watching the big screen TV. No! If they want a return on their monthly fees, they want to sweat and be out of breath for an hour, then go home sore. They want to lose weight, or tone muscle, or increase the capacities of their cardiovascular system and that doesn’t happen by osmosis or being pampered. It happens with hard work- being intentionally uncomfortable for awhile, so that you can live stronger and healthier for more years than you might have lived otherwise.

The same with learning about your place in the kingdom of God. And, time out: while we’re at it, right now, let’s put that word “kingdom” aside for the rest of this series. “Kingdom” is a word which is loaded, after 20 centuries of military maneuvers, royal trappings of royal weddings, and seven seasons of “Game of Thrones” with so much gold, blood, land-grabbing, and intrigue that it is misleading to a tragic degree in imagining anything Jesus intended for it to mean when he was referring to the community God wanted for humans to live within on earth.

So, from here on out, we’re going to use the word “Community.” The Community of God, as in “thy Community come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” etc. OK? “KIngdom” was only a metaphor, anyway- a word used to help humans imagine something they did not know, by comparing that something to what they did have experience with. The word “kingdom” in the year 30 would have been imagined in a very different way than we can imagine it today; therefore, let’s get it out of the way.

(If you’re stuck on thinking of Jesus as a PRINCE of Peace, like a Prince Charles or Prince Harry, remember that on Palm Sunday he came riding into Jerusalem on the back of a little three foot high donkey. In doing so, by dragging his feet on either side of that bumpy little donkey, Jesus was, if anything, demonstrating himself to be the exact opposite of anything princely, regal, or royal. He was just a guy, just like all the people, people like me and maybe like you on that road that day who were cheering his arrival even as they were thinking, “what the..?” Little did they know of the extraordinary events of the coming few days. Little did they know what Jesus would be called upon to do, or that by doing so, he would be demonstrating the extraordinary things they- we!- are also capable of doing.)

OK..now, back to learning about “your place in the Community of God.”

I’m going to point something out here that you might not like- not at first, anyway:

Jesus didn’t do what he did, say what he said, or go where he went for people like me, a gentile. In fact, for much of the time after we first meet him in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, he had his back to the gentiles. His message was for his people, the people of Israel- the Jewish people. If gentiles heard him, it was accidentally. For a Jewish man to have contact with gentiles was not a good thing by the Jewish standards of the day. By some of those standards, it was even a dirty thing to do, especially when it came to sick, dead, or female gentiles. Yikes!

And Jesus was, make no mistake about it, Jewish. A Jewish man. And he proves it right here:

Mark 7: 24-30 (Common English Bible)

24 Jesus..went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. 25 In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. 27 He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

28 But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

29 “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” 30 When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.

Jesus called the gentile immigrant woman a “dog.” Try to dress that word up or soften it a little as many biblical commentators have tried to do over the centuries and it’s still a dog. It’s what a Jewish man of the year 30 or so would have called an immigrant woman. It was a default word, an unthinking but common word, a go-to word- like we might hear the words ‘wet back,’ or ‘illegal,’ or ‘hoe,’ or worse. That kind of word. You can’t soften it, it’s too sharp, and it usually leaves a scar.

This uppity gentile Greek woman was being pushy by speaking up when she had not even been invited into the room! She didn’t know her place and, indeed, there wouldn’t have been a place for her in a roomful of Jewish men! So, when Jesus was interrupted by her, when she deliberately threw herself in front of him, Jesus was spiritually, culturally, and personally upset.

syrophoenician woman“Dog!” he says, and we can only imagine the murmured agreement from others who had just witnessed this woman.

But, the woman persists! She insisted and persisted that Jesus pay attention to her. She loved her young daughter more than she cared about her own low status, so she persisted..

And Jesus’ eyes were opened. His eyes were opened by this woman in ways that revealed to him just how big this Community of God he preached about, really was. In her speaking up to him and daring to speak back to him, he heard her desperate cry of need, and he understood that God’s love did extend beyond the Jewish people “in front” of him.

There were others with ears to hear. There were others living desperately at the edges of life who also needed to know God’s love for them. In the woman’s plea, he heard for the first time, the gentiles who had, so far, been “outside” of his community. When said to her, in surprise, “Good answer!” he was, in effect, inviting her into that community. He was inviting her to stand in front of him!

But not only her. One by one, other gentiles began to come to Jesus- and were seen now by Jesus. God’s chosen people, through the example first shown by Jesus himself, were now able to witness others besides themselves hearing Jesus, being seen by Jesus, and being accepted by Jesus as people worthy of God’s love, too. No longer would “those people”  have to pick up mere crumbs!

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is regarded by many as the holy Mother of us all. And she is worthy of the honor and love shown her- she raised a really good kid, after all! But for those of us who are of the gentile persuasion- and that includes everyone who is not Jewish- isn’t this unnamed, brash, pushy, but loved Syro-phoenician Greek woman our true mother in the faith?

gentiles2

We who were not worthy in the eyes of Jewish legalists were made worthy by invitation to join and become a part of the Community of God being gathered together by Jesus. On our part, there is room for no emotions other than humility and gratitude when we accept that invitation. There is nothing for us to brag about, or to congratulate each other about. We may lead some people within the Community, but we are not leaders of the Community.

The leader remains a man, a very Jewish man. He is an Israeli man, and our cues should always be taken from him and not from false teachers who try constantly to usurp his role or make the United States or England or any other country or culture the “shining city on a hill” Jesus referred to in his sermon on the mount.

His invitation was for the woman, and us, to stand in front of him, and then to follow him. And how close and how far are we to follow?

When Jesus was on the cross, nailed, bleeding, in pain, and suffocating, among the last persons he would have seen as his head tilted forward for the last time, were the group of gentile Roman soldiers gathered below him- the ones who had lifted him onto the cross, secured him there, threw dice for his discarded robe, and finally stuck a sword in his belly to hurry his dying. His words as he looked down on them?

“Forgive them, God, for they know not what they do.”

How far are we to follow?

That far.

David B. Weber

syrophoenician woman

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Sermons from Outside the Walls- 1

The Word of God, or..words about God?

May 29, 2018

Warning:

If you want to wake up tomorrow morning thinking exactly about your faith as you do right now.. don’t read this.
If you desire for me to speak that which will affirm what you already believe, and make you feel special for believing that way.. don’t read this.
If you want a Sunday morning pick-me-up, in preparation for a rest-of-the-week beat down, or if you are expecting a mere unpacking of scriptures to be rearranged in neat little piles of homiletic insight..don’t read this- not today, not ever.
However, if you are willing to have your carefully crafted system of spiritual understandings pulled from and added to like a pile of Jenga blocks, until they fall into a pile of disappointment and confusion, proceed. Because like a petunia forcing its way upward through an inch of newly laid asphalt, the breaking of our spiritual shell casings is what allows new Light to enter our lives, and resurrected Life to emerge.
Ready?
Because sermons are arranged best around scriptures, so shall it be with this one. These are the words of the Apostle of Jesus, Paul, who is writing an instructional letter to his disciple, Timothy. In the letter, Paul is telling Timothy how to be an advocate for the story of Jesus the Christ. Timothy is young and separating from Paul’s nearby presence in order to go into the mission field on his own. Paul reminds Timothy of what Paul has demonstrated him about being a missionary for Jesus.
But if and when instruction fails or is forgotten, Paul tells him, this (from 2Timothy 3: 16,17, Common English Bible):
Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.
The scripture Paul wrote of was the collection of Hebrew scripture: the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the prophets, the books of history and wisdom. Paul’s letters, other apostolic letters, and even the four gospels themselves had not yet been gathered together into the smells-good leather bound book we call the New Testament. When Paul says “scripture,” he’s talking about the collection of scrolls written on parchment in Hebrew- what is popularly called the Old Testament.
And he says those scriptures are “inspired by God.” The Greek words for “inspired of God” have been translated as “God-breathed” by countless preachers and teachers in the many centuries since Paul wrote this letter to Timothy. Among many Christians, it is believed that God literally breathed the words of scripture, Old and New, through the quill pens of the men whose names are attached to or mentioned within the various biblical writings.
Believing the words to have been written that way means, to those who teach this way, that the words are infallible (i.e., without error) and interchangeable. “Interchangeable” means that what is written in one part of the Bible can support, amplify, and explain what is written in another part of the Bible. That is why we often see preachers and teachers who believe this way, flipping back and forth from front to back, from one book of the Bible to another, to formulate or give credibility to their arguments. That is a practice that can be done legitimately- Jesus himself refers often to the Old Testament prophets. There are many, many other such examples of one part of the Bible’s writings supporting other parts, as well.
But there are also weak, illogical, even silly such connections made and taught. Whole denominations exist because of some of them, and doctrine has poured like a mighty river from such oddly-contrived connections, and they continue to drown the original intentions behind the individual scriptures.
a augOne example: Augustine, a “Church father” of the fourth century CE, wrestled most of his life with a very active libido. His mother convinced him that such behavior was bad, so Augustine set about finding the biblical reasons that it was bad, so that he could (hopefully) tame those urges within himself.
Sex, Augustine determined from his mother and the fact that people throughout the Bible had babies, was not evil, but the desire for it (all the time in his case) was. He dug around, and around, and found his “Aha!” discovery in what, at the time, was regarded in Christian and “pagan” circles as an obscure, and becoming more obscure book- the first book of the Torah, Genesis.
In it was the story of Adam and Eve, first man and first woman. God, Augustine determined, had created them without evil, so procreation for them, he further determined, would not/ could not possibly involve the kind of desire he fought within himself. He determined that sex, as God created it for humans, would have been something which was merely functional, like the quick, seemingly joyless couplings of birds or turtles. But Adam and Eve went against God and discovered “evil” anyway, by biting into the forbidden fruit of the Knowledge tree.
aa Gossaert_Thyssen_Adam_and_EveHaving done so, Adam’s and Eve’s “eyes were opened” exactly as the temptor devil-serpent had told them they would be opened when it was urging them to go against God and bite the fruit. And when their eyes were opened they saw something neither Adam nor Eve had ever noticed before in their days-old lives: the other person’s genitals.
From that point on, according to Augustine, sexual desire for the other entered their lives and through them, our first parents, into all subsequent generations. It was the Original Sin which has befouled humanity since that first bite, that first glance, and that first lusting.
I’m not making this up. Augustine’s conclusions (about Original Sin and much else) were institutionalized by the growing Christian church, and have been affecting every man, woman, and child in the world since then. (Think about it: what’s the first thing missionaries the world over, throughout history, sought to do when meeting and “converting” indigenous tribes and people in Africa, the Americas, Australia, and everywhere else the merchant families of Europe sent them? They made them put on clothes!)
What Augustine did is called “cherry-picking” by detractors of the infallibility argument. I cherry-picking the Bible, one picks the best cherries for the argument being made from here and from there, from that tree and this tree, and bakes them together into one pie. Add one’s own biases, misinformation, and “druthers,’ and it becomes possible, and it has been done many times, to make almost any argument bend your way through cherry-picking the (approx.) 807,000 words of the Bible, found in its (also approx.) 31,000 verses.
All that is to say this: The Bible is not God-breathed. It is not the Word of God in the sense of “God said it, I believe it, and that’s that.” It didn’t blow down on us from angelic messengers, or fall down from the heavens sealed in a Baggie© for printing into all of our various languages. God didn’t cause the Bible’s many various writers to take quills in hand, fall into trances, and become divine stenographers.
When you hear anyone preface what they’re about to say with the words, “The Bible says..” then you are hearing someone who believes a form of one of the above absurdities. The Bible doesn’t speak! But individuals and communities do speak. And the collection of what many of them have had to say about their encounters with God is the Bible.
Thus, the Bible is “inspired.” People were inspired to write down in many different ways the reactions they had during encounters they believed were with God, the stories handed down to them concerning God, the meanings of historical events in the context of God, the wisdom about God they felt was vital to be preserved and passed on, and laws which they felt would honor their God and preserve their status as “chosen of God.”
Different writers did these things in different ways. Many of the stories in Genesis and Exodus are the kinds of stories passed on for generations around campfires by and for people who cannot read or write. Poetry and song- both memory triggers- were made great use of in stories of the beginnings of all things (Genesis). The story of Adam and Eve, so misused by Augustine (IMO) was, nonetheless, one the truest stories ever told about human shame, guilt, irresponsibility, and our human proclivity to blame the “other” for our own mistakes.
Other writers collected other stories thus told about the beginnings, struggles, and ultimate triumphs of their tribes- the Hebrew tribes of Israel. The Psalms honored God through song, and dance, and musical instruments, and kept the inspiring stories of King David and others alive through time. The Song of Songs must have troubled the later Augustine to no end with its erotic stories of young people in love, which were interpreted to be exactly the kind of intensive love of God for humankind. The tough-to-read histories- Kings and Judges and Chronicles- were records of what were perceived as God’s motivating touch and presence in the establishment of Israel as the home of “God’s chosen people.” And the prophets were social activists who collectively decried the idol-worshipping and poor people neglecting which they determined Israel had become as God was set on a shelf, rather than allowed to continue to inspire, as they believe God once had been allowed to do.
And those are just Old Testament examples! Stick around in coming weeks for many others from the New Testament- the gospels and letters and that so-abused book of Revelation. Those are the stories that wind around my heart and soul and indeed inspire what I write here right now and which I hope color the shade and the light of my life. But they have have been cherry-picked, too! And there are some mouthfuls of the subsequent pies which have been baked as a result of that cherry picking which should also be spat out! Quickly and forever! (Stay tuned!)
My point in all of this, and then I’m done for this week: The forest, the lush, green, vibrant, life-teeming, and deep so deep forest has been obscured by the planting of Bradford pears, kudzu, English ivy, and other invasive weeds. Ancient and very strangely born doctrines are choking the love of God from humans wanting to respond to it, able to respond to it, but thwarted from doing so because of historical and present human egos with loudspeakers set on “too loud” from pulpits raised too high.
But we don’t have to be pawns in the ecclesiastical games of anyone. We don’t have to be afraid. Our eyes are indeed able to be opened and we can help each other to see. Invasive weeds are not easy to get rid of, but in community with others dedicated to doing so, they can be eradicated.
In the meantime, hang onto this: There is more, always more to know. The path of Knowing more winds its way through Doubt sometimes, and even Fear. But it also often bumps head on with wonderful, light drenched Surprise. When it does, just sit back and simply.. behold! And let all things become new..
David B. Weber

This is my final message at First United Methodist Church in Mesquite, TX, and also my final message as a full time pastor in the United Methodist Church. It was presented on June 11, 2017. It is longer than my “normal” message. And it is also important- to me anyway- that others know I write these messages to be spoken. Thus, fragment sentences abound.

It is specific in many parts, I’ve used some pseudonyms when it might matter, and within it is the essence of what I want people to know about themselves and God. This is my last best shot :). I like it.

Love God, Love Neighbor, Serve Your Community

Today will be a day full of hesitations. You know that, I know that. So while I am going to be specific about some memories and hopes, I am also going to be underlining it all with a larger lesson, or call it a set of ideas, that are as much for myself as they are for you.

We often feel sadness when things change, when things don’t stay the same as we had gotten used to them being. Sadness is a natural emotion- Jesus wept!- and grief itself, the grieving process we all experience, is a necessary experience, even a healing experience that carries us through difficult times and into new chapters of life.

There is a reality that we don’t talk much about, and that I think we should talk about more, and that is the reality of impermanence; the reality that has operated in the universe since Big Bang moment #1: Nothing that has shape and form is permanent. Nothing. It is all a product of what came before and part of what will come after. People, mountains, galaxies, pets, leftovers in the refrigerator; months, minutes, decades, lifetimes..they all have beginnings and ends, but they also all contain within themselves…the possibilities of transformation.

Nothing stays the same, not even for a moment. We may go rafting on the Guadalupe River one weekend when we’re young, then go back there 15 years later with little children in tow. We step into the river but rarely give a thought to the fact that this is not the same river we experienced years ago. Not a single drop of it is the same! In fact, from the moment we stepped into it just now, it has already become something new. It appears the same, but it is not.

And neither are we. Tick, tick, tick..we are older, the trees around us are oh-so-slightly larger even within a minute of time, but much larger than we remember them fifteen years before. The children with us on this rafting trip are their own little river, too, flowing toward junior high, college maybe, or families of their own.

Because nothing is permanent, the opportunities for transformation make everything to come possible. That’s the extraordinarily positive aspect of impermanence! If the white flowers on trees of springtime stayed flowers, we would never have apples. If the little girl playing in the water’s edge with a neon green plastic inner tube wasn’t, even right now,  becoming a woman, there would be no grandchildren! And on and on, play with this idea all day, because it is fun to imagine the changes that are happening around us even as we can’t see them happening!

Impermanence really is to be celebrated! There are rough spots- absolutely!- but “Behold! All things are made new.” New may be a little bit or a lot scary, but New can, with intent and hope, lead to even greater chapters of life.

Nothing stays the same. Sometimes we might have to force ourselves to say “hallelelujah” about that, but because things change, and because we can participate intentionally in that change there can be many spontaneous “hallelujahs” on the way.

Impermanence also, though, brings up another reality: This is a sunflower. So that we may categorize it, talk about it distinctly from roses or pansies, we call it that- a sunflower. But it has no real self-identity of its own. If it could talk, it might call out, “I am a sunflower!” or, if it was growing in Mexico, “Soy un girasol!”

But let’s look deeper. This flower manifested from a seed, and will one day have run it’s course, and return to the soil from which it rose.  That soil, part of which was formed eons ago at the bottom of the ocean which covered this part of Texas, part of which was our kitchen scraps become compost  three years ago, part of which are the “leavings” (we’ll call them) of tens of thousands of nematodes, roly-polys, and earthworms, and that soil- part of which are the millions of times recycled bits of exploded stars.

And that seed would not have transformed into a flower without the daily capture of photons beamed by the sun, and the movement of cold air across Canada clashing with warm air off the Gulf resulting in rain. This is literally part of the sun, just as it is part of billions years old starstuff and banana peels and coffee grounds from our kitchen, just as it is part of the Indian Ocean and Lake Erie.

We call this a sunflower, but it is a particular and unique manifestation of a cooperative collusion of  the soil, sun, rain, and a little bit of messing around in the dirt by me, made possible by seeds from the hardware store here, and the growers, packagers, and shippers of seeds..somewhere. Not to mention the trucks which brought them to the store or the oil riggers pumping oil so the truck could get here. And on and on and on and on and on..

Nothing stays the same and everything is connecting in an endless relationship to everything else.

And that is true of you and me as well. We, too, like the sunflower, like the beautiful old cedars in front here, like the Tropical milkweed in the flower beds outside and the Monarchs which will be fluttering around them in the fall, like them..we too are a God-indwelling mysterious and wonderful manifestation of soil, sun, and water.

But because we are human, with a consciousness- memory, emotions, the ability to imagine- we are connected to one another in ways that make it impossible to claim an identity that is solely our own. No matter how unique we may be, and each of us is, we are nonetheless, each of us, whole communities of people, directly related to other whole communities.

As a way of thanking, remembering, honoring all the people in all three churches I’ve been a part of, I want to describe a few members of the community that is standing and talking to you right now. Every time you’ve heard me speak, personally or from this place which I am honored to stand in, each time..you’ve heard a chorus of hundreds of people. This is my thanksgiving for these people, and the many more not named today who are part- an important part- of me.

Last Saturday, I was presented with this painting from you, painted by Lois Dandridge:

lois painting

 

The house was so full of history, built in 1880 from oak and walnut milled within a hundred yards of where the house was built. It was a part of the young life of Harvey Firestone, the tire and rubber man when he would visit his aunt and uncle’s family there, just a 2 mile walk through the woods from his own boyhood home.  And- I liked to fantasize- maybe visited by Tom Edison and Henry Ford and the poet John Burroughs when they and Firestone would go on their summer camping trips together in the teens and ‘20s.

It was Italianate in architecture which was the preferred design of wealthy people in the 1880s. The man who built it raised race horses, there was a half mile track just across the road where my brother and I and countless neighbor kids learned to drive.

Later, when our family lived there, the yard, because it was big, and because the rooms inside were big, the house was often the gathering place for family events. There were many aunts and uncles, almost 50 cousins and second cousins..and there were so many family church gatherings, painters who would set up in the field across the road to paint the house, rabbits and chickens and ducks my brother Denny and I raised, baseball and football games in front of the barn nearby..

I loved that house. When it burned down 3 years ago I wrote a lot about it, talked to you about it here. That house didn’t birth me, but the people inside and around it did, in all kinds of ways. I loved that house and that is why the painting begins there.

The path. There’s a path beyond the house. It zigs and zags. It zigs to South Dakota where I met Robbie. She and I were VISTA volunteers. Our three children were born there. And now four grandchildren have some of their roots in South Dakota, too.

It was also where we met and knew Etta, who I have talked to you about before. Etta was everyone’s grandmother, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Lakota nation, a woman who had lived through terrible tragedies during a forced federal relocation in her teens to urban Chicago, but she returned to SD, met John, a man 40 years her senior, who demonstrated the love of God to her and saved her life. Which she then spent doing for others for the rest of her life. Her unflinching willingness to serve others, others who many would run from, serves as a standard in my life I someday hope to achieve.

Another bend in the road is AA.

The wildflowers in the painting, more about that in awhile. I will tell you that this was Lois’ first attempt at bluebonnets, in honor of Inez Wallace. Lois, Inez would be pleased, and I am, too.

Do notice that there is a “beyond the church” in the painting, too!

The church represents those several churches where I have served, and been served.

The churches:

Richland/Cornerstone

As I sat down to sort through thoughts about each church, I wrote down names as quickly as they came to mind. These people formed me for the next years of ministry and life. I’m using pseudonyms, in most cases.

Sherry was a young wife, newly pregnant, when her husband was killed in a terrible auto accident. I received the call from a friend of hers, calling on her family’s behalf. I was in Arkansas at the time at my sister-in-law’s home, whose husband had died two weeks before, which was just two weeks after my own dad had died. I was already pretty deeply grieving myself but when I finally got to be with Sherry two days later, I realized I had never ever fathomed such grief as deep as hers.

She asked the question, “Why, God, why?” in all the ways it could be asked. I learned immediately and quickly from her that for some questions, maybe many questions, there are no answers, but only presence. So I stayed present, though my own heart, as were all the hearts around her, was breaking.

The Walnut House/Ability House People: Mario, Josie and Charles, Vera among others. Walnut House was a home for mentally challenged men. Ability House was a home for severely physically challenged men and women. They had been turned from attending other churches in the areas, and if I tell you why I will get angry again and I can’t today. I won’t. But the people of Richland/Cornerstone embraced them- welcomed, loved them.

Josie and Charles were both elderly, confined to wheelchairs by severe cerebral palsy, and neither could intelligibly speak. The church had volunteer chair pushers, aged 7 -70 themselves. All wheelchairs were wheeled up front, where Josie and Charles, boyfriend and girlfriend, would hold hands during church, their otherwise always moving bodies calm as they did so.

Vera would clutch her little cloth doll and holler out in happiness when we sang, even, sometimes, during songs like ‘Silent Night.’ It was the sound of angels.

Mario was a character. Friendly, enthusiastic, a loud singer of songs he couldn’t read- sometimes holding his hymnal sideways or upside down. His sponsors/friends in church were also aware that Mario was an inappropriate toucher- innocent but inappropriate. The solution was to simply or quietly trade places with those being touched. A man would sit where a woman or girl had been. He’d put his arm around Mario. People chose not to be afraid of Mario, but to love him. And they did.

There are so many more, but there is a celebration dinner after this today and I don’t want a bunch of caterers getting mad at me, so..

Jacksboro

Small towns are challenging in different ways than urban settings. First, everybody is somebody’s cousin. What happens on the east side of town will be known within seconds on the west side. Many people even have police scanners so they can know even more quickly what they believe they need to know. It is difficult for some free spirits to feel free in a town where everyone’s eyes are watching.

On the other hand, there is a magnificence in small towns that many urban dwellers will never have the chance to experience.

In 2005, Kerri died, in an auto accident. In 2008, Mitch died of a long and difficult illness in NYC where he’d moved the previous year after growing up in Jacksboro. On both occasions, I experienced why people love their little hometowns. The town literally folded itself around the families of Kerri and Mitch in their times of pain. The town carried them, shared their deep grief, served them and simply and profoundly loved them. More about those experiences later, but that happens again and again in small town America, and my God I am grateful for the eight years we were there.

Another reason, and I experienced this many times but I’m going to let Bunk tell this story. Bunk was married to our church’s long time office manager, and Bunk was cowboy through and through. A clean brushed Stetson on Sundays with a white shirt and starched jeans, and all the rest of the week a sweat-soaked straw hat and boots with real, worn spurs. When Bunk was in his truck, hauling feed or busy on one of the thousand things ranchers have to do every week, he had his three dogs in the trucks with him. Cattle dogs- they worked for Bunk but they were also his friends.

I was at his mother’s house one day, his family’s ranch just at the edge of town. As I was pulling out of her driveway, Bunk drove in, so I stopped the car, but didn’t turn off the engine, and got out to walk over to where he was to say “hi.”

Bunk was a man of not many words, but I somehow hit the right question that day. Standing by a fence, I pointed west and asked simply how far their ranch extended that way. There was a reason I was asking but it became so secondary to the story I heard that I forget what the reason was.

Bunk pointed to a hill on the horizon I could barely see. “There,” he said. But then he asked me to look part way down that hill where there were a couple mesquite trees, “just a little to the left there. That where I buried my first pony. I was nine.”

And for the next 20-25 minutes I listened to this man of few words talk about that pony, his dad’s bringing that pony home one day, how he rode with his dad and others on their horses while he was on that pony, then how the pony was injured or sick, I don’t remember..and died. There were tears in Bunk’s eyes at that point and I looked away because I didn’t want him to know I’d seen them.

And my car was still running, and it was low on gas, but I literally thought, I’d rather walk home than miss any part of this story of Bunk and his pony.

I learned something- a revelation, actually, about attachment to the land- about love for dirt and cactus and rain and grass and cattle and trees and..ponies and dads. And that this is why people do whatever they need to do to stay on their land, despite heat, droughts, rattlesnakes, low prices for beef, high prices for feed, taxes..they stay because they are in love with where they’re standing.

I wouldn’t have known about Bunk and that pony if I hadn’t been in Jacksboro. Hallelujah for him and  these people of the land.

Mesquite

I’m not going to be specific here- so don’t worry! But what a perfect place to be in America in this part of the early 21st century.

Mesquite is a microcosm of a changing America. Economically, demographically, politically, Mesquite  has changed- I know it feels rapidly- from what it was and what many hoped it always would be, to what it is still becoming.

When I told my kids six years ago that I was being sent here, they all said, in their various ways, “Uh-oh.” You already know the kind of reputation- rather, stereotype- that had formed around this part of Dallas: this was the beginning of East Texas, in many peoples’ minds. Unfairly or (let’s be honest) at least a little bit fairly, Mesquite was known as a little red around the collar. A rodeo on the west side and a dirt track on the east side were like bookends to some people’s preconceived notions of Mesquite.

What I found though, spoke a different story very loudly. You’ve been a congregation open to change. You haven’t built walls against change, you’ve opened doors to encourage it. You’re willing to try, anxious to welcome, and you’ve supported the best childcare facility in Mesquite, which is daily rainbow of languages, colors, and culture.

That’s no small thing.

And neither is the note-burning celebration that is happening after church today. Heavy debt is squashing many churches in America right now, where old debt meets new demographics. One million dollars in six years! And all I did was watch it happen under the leadership of great people leading generous, sacrificing people.

I could be leaving here as many pastors have had to leave churches because the doors behind them were being shut by red ink. That would be an awful thing to have to do. But it’s also a circumstance I will never have to wake up at night regretting.

Thank you for that! And I get to see someone coming to lead here as pastor who is exactly the right person for this time in FUMC’s first years of a second sesquicentennial. Pastor Tom brings a skill set and familiarity with Mesquite that is unmatched in the history of Methodist pastors in Mesquite.

He is not me, and for that I say “Hallelujah!” Tom is exactly the right person for right now.

Wound through all of these names, events, churches, and communities is a “scarlet thread” as Dr. Criswell at downtown First Baptist used to call it. It’s the “tie that binds,” as the hymn names it.

But those are things, descriptive metaphors for something which will never be satisfactorily described. I choose to think of that which connects us, forms us, melts us, molds us, shapes us as something a 14th century Christian mystic called the “Cloud of Unknowing.” He talked about it it as the “hidden longing for love offered by pure Spirit.”

The Spirit is often defined for us by others, or by creedal statements. But words actually detract from it I think. Anything we say about Spirit leaves much unsaid, unable to be said. The writer, who was anonymous, called it the Cloud of Unknowing, because it always begs for further study, more exploration. It kindles our curiosity, it helps realize the enormity and depth of the message and demonstration of that message that Jesus lived and died for:

God (the Spirit) is love.

God is love.

We can never get to a complete answer of what that means. But when we respond in whatever way we respond, however the invitation comes to us..when we respond to Jesus saying, “Follow me,” we begin to get glimpses of what “God is love” really means, how it affects the world and people around us, and how it can transform our lives.

It nebulous, and sometimes hard to see clear and defined edges of this God-love reality. It is like a cloud, a cloud that encompasses everything, while still being mysterious, unable to be known fully. The Cloud of Unknowing..that’s God’s love.

But, accept that invitation of Jesus, and you begin to see evidence of it wherever you are. Sometimes it comes at you in rapidfire so overwhelmingly that you must retreat or be overwhelmed. Sometimes you have to search for it, but it can always, always, be found. Because God is love, and we are in that cloud and, if we can look beyond those important but limiting doctrines and creeds , we can live lives amazed all the time in God’s presence.

Sometimes it’s easy to see. I would be standing in the pulpit in Garland, and look down and see Charles and Josie, their bodies calm as they held on to each other, hand in hand, wheelchairs side by side. And just because love is easy to see sometimes does not make it any less profound.

I experienced that love in Sherry’s painful, most painful questions, “Why did God let this happen?” Because love isn’t only about hearts and flowers; love- God’s love- is often about having the courage of love to say out loud the ragged, jagged things we must say, must ask, but too often stifle.

I experienced that God-love, after the memorial services of Kerri and Mitch- young, loved and lovely people, in 2005 and 2008, when I was intercepted both times by a local pastor who I probably disagree with on almost every point of Christian theology, who somehow knew to come to that part of the church building where I would go to be alone, and said he just needed to cry with someone. And I immediately knew that he knew that I did too. So we did.

 I said it was a cloud of unknowing, and it is, but I found myself so often immersed in that God-love in ways I had never before experienced in the pastures and lakesides at Jacksboro. I would sit at my “outside office” there which was a concrete picnic table on a bluff beside the beautiful Jacksboro lake and watch vultures teaching their chicken-sized chicks how to fly, or see four/five lb. bass break the surface of the lake in a silver comma as they were attracted by a fluttering above them and grabbed low-flying dragon flies.

That bond that permeates all of Creation- instinctual and dramatic. That attraction is also a foundational characteristic of God- Love causes Creation to be.

And the wildflowers there- the painted prairies of spring and summer. Yellows first and then the blues, bluebonnets and bluebells, then the firewheels and winecups and primroses. Then yellows again, sunflowers, Mexican hats, profuse, thick, acres and acres of them. Untended by any human, sometimes the seeds lay idle for years waiting for just the right amounts of April rains and May sun. Then there would be an overnight explosion of magentas and reds, purple thistles and white daisies, pink bee balm and all colors of milkweed.

Beyond the flowers, acres and acres of saw grass, prairie grass, green oceans in the summer and amber waves in the fall.

Beauty reveals that God-love too. Jesus saw it..in the flowers, the birds, the fig trees, and the morning sky.

Those are all forms of life that loudly affirm that inter-relatedness of all things. The vultures, the fish, the dragonflies. The thistles, the grass, the summer storms..I knew why St.Francis wrote of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Mother Earth. Because those are relationships, relationships we are as dependent on as the mother and father who birthed us. Relationship, attraction, love. God is love, and it is beautiful.

Within the Cloud of Unknowing, within the mysterious, binding, encompassing love of God in all of its physical, natural, and human forms, we- the human part of that whole God-Imaged equation- have an extraordinary role to play: we are to be co-creators with God of the kingdom of heaven on earth. We acknowledge that responsibility every time we pray “May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s part of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray because that role of being God’s hands, heart, and love on earth was the role Jesus was called to call us to. He not only calls us to that role of being fully human, but then he showed how to do it.

 

  1. You  do it by going to the the lepers and touching them. You make your feet move to where your God-loving heart has already told you you need to be. You move toward the pain of others.
  2. You co-create with God by being willing to do whatever it takes- money, time, convenience- to make something else in God’s creation better. You give whatever you can, do whatever you can, sacrifice however you can because the one who invited you into this kingdom gave, did, and sacrificed everything. And..
  3. You build the kingdom of God with- WITH- other people. You make casseroles, you serve meals, you have the grace to let others serve you. You eat with sinners, you go fishing with friends, you put on a feast and invite everybody in town, and when you run out of wine it doesn’t matter, because when you gather in the name of Jesus, the best is always what comes last.

To paraphrase John Wesley, who was condensing everything he could say about following Jesus:

Where there is need, do good, all you can. Do all the good you can. Where there is evil, resist. Resist. Big evil, little evil, doesn’t matter. Resist.

My final advice:

 

  1. Watch for the “little Christs”- Yogi with green beans, teachers reaching into their own purses and pockets for kids who have no purses or pockets, people going down to Florence Black elementary to read with kids in the language of love and hope. Follow those little Christs on the way to Jesus.
  2. Be aware of Beauty. Learn to paint bluebonnets. Go the Dallas Museum of Art, or the Kimball..what great collections they have. Give your mind to the moon once a month or so. And don’t just look at these things, “Consider them,” Jesus said. Linger. Capture the sun in all the places you can, around your yard. Plant trees in the shade of which you will never rest.
  3. Encourage. Encourage each other. Not with platitudes, but with real hope. Encourage strangers with compliments they’re not expecting but maybe need that day more than they need food or water. Encourage those with whom you disagree- there is always common-ground. Let it be your personal quest to find it. Encourage children, young people. You remember those adults who encouraged you, and they will, too.

Now, finally, this. My favorite scripture, my favorite 2 verses of the Bible, Rev 22:1,2-

22 ‘Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’

The scripture is itself like a painting, a metaphor for the the Godness, the goodness around us. The river is flowing, always flowing, with new life, new possibilities, new hope.

As the Bible began with a Tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil- our human consciousness- the Bible now ends with a Tree: Christ- our human hope. That tree straddles the river, it is the beginning and end of our individual and collective journeys on this planet, and it is common to every living being on this planet.

And it bears fruit. Many different kinds of fruit, too, because that fruit is us- we are God’s forgiveness, grace, and acceptance on earth, we are the invitation and welcome of Jesus the Christ, and we are the courage and the compassion of the Spirit living our lives in community with others.

As the leaves fall from the tree, and all leaves eventually do, they are our legacy, our lasting mark on all that comes after us. The river of life carries our legacy into oceans of the future, waters of life from which other generations will drink the Living Waters.

To the communities of my journey- Columbiana, Ohio, the people of South Dakota, especially the Sisseton Wahpeton, the brothers and sisters in the Texas Dept. of Corrections..to the people of Cornerstone, Jacksboro, and to you here today, Mesquite, I say ‘Thank you,’ and

I love you.

But way way way more than that..

God loves you.

Amen

 

 

Love God, Love Neighbor, Serve Your Community

Earth Day

Good is the earth, it suits us! Like the global grape

it hangs, dear God, in the blue air and sways in the gale,

nibbled by all the birds and spirits of the four winds.

Come, let’s start nibbling too and so refresh our minds!

from the Prologue to ‘The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel’ by Nikos Kazantzakis

***

Kazantzakis’s description of the planet was a prescient one, written fourteen years before the first full-view of Earth was taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 in 1972 during a mission to the moon:

earth

Good it is and, upon seeing it, our human response to the word “home” was to be forever altered. Home did resemble a grape, hanging in gravitational sway, fragile but moving in perfect and perpetual harmony with gravitational “winds” through wide arcs around the Sun, within a galaxy of a million suns, and all of it within a billion-galaxied universe.

In a glance, we were able to see- even when we could not yet say how we knew or why- that there was more, much more, to our definition of the ground we walked upon or the place within which that patch of familiar ground was contained. There was more,  much more, with which we would need to come to a collective language of respect and regard for this home we shared with birds, fish, elm trees, mountain streams, polar bears, cacti, wasps, bacteria, volcanoes, clouds,  and each other.

What Kazantzakis imagined in metaphor, we could now barely begin to perceive in reality. Even as we have come to terms of increased understanding of what we did not could not yet know in 1972, the exponential revelation of more questions becomes the only true and beckoning destination toward which we can journey. We will never arrive at a place where we can say, with finality, “Now, we know.”

Kazantzakis, in the prologue to his ‘Modern Odyssey,’ was inviting the reader on a 33,333 line poetic journey- a new look at the ancient and epic story of Ulysses.  It is an historical, mythological, and spiritual story, as all classical stories are. History is no more a collection of mere facts, than mythology is only a series of imagined fantasies.

Our Earth is not merely a random collection of soil, water, air, and fire; nor must it be regarded only as the material manifestation of a god’s or goddess’s human-focused dreams. It is neither. It is both.

It is a place upon which birds nibble and volcanoes become continents. It is a place where the spirits of the winds are the voice of God and where creation is born of destruction. It is the place where plagues decimate whole species and where shepherds lie refreshed in green pastures beside still waters. So,

let’s start nibbling too and so refresh our minds!

Earthdance

A photograph of this morning from the shore of Tulum on the Yucatan peninsula, on the Caribbean Sea. (captured by Kathryn Bagwell)

Bagwell Tulum MX

Stillpoint..that point in a dance where the dancer pauses. In that stillness, all that has come before in the dance is beheld by those privileged to see. Yet- simultaneously- the moment bursts with the promise of what will be. It is a point which cannot be contained in time; it is past, present, and future in a single breath of the dancer.

The moment passes immediately but it is enough. The clouds roll in tandem with the movement of the tide as both are guided by the Moon’s sweeping caress, toward landfall and the dissipation of their various and many forms. Yet nothing is lost. The water is still water, even as it raised upward, molecule by molecule by the rising and warming Sun into the clouds which are gestating the births of raindrops.

The Mayans, who first looked out on this great sea with the wonder of sentient beings, knew the cosmic dance before them as sexual, life-giving. The intimacy of the Sky with the Sea is what brought forth life. It was life that teemed within the Mother herself, and life which was poured onto the land by the Father. All that dwelled on the Earth- the people, the animals, the mangroves and trees, the grasses- all of life was a part of the continuing story of a creation that was at times both terrifying and beautiful.

But here, now, the transparent greens and turquoise blues are lifted in a crescendo against the gray promise of morning’s Light and a pink/magenta Sunrise. Silent thunder rolls across the eternal stage and pelicans begin their flights just above the waves, the clouds open in rippled separation, the Earth exhales in a warm western wind, and..Stillpoint.

And the Dance begins again.

 

 

The true shape of your face..

TILICHO LAKE by David Whyte

In this high place
it is as simple as this,
leave everything you know behind.

Step toward the cold surface,
say the old prayer of rough love
and open both arms.

Those who come with empty hands
will stare into the lake astonished,
there, in the cold light
reflecting pure snow

the true shape of your own face

tilicho lake

Tilicho Lake is located in the mountains of Nepal. Over three miles above sea level, it is one of the highest lakes on Earth; thus, one of the most difficult to access. The poet David Whyte uses it here as a metaphor for that place of transformation of which we all are aware, but may not be consciously able to either express or explain the necessity of our finding it.

That shared longing is for the place where we are able to begin to move from the adolescence of our lives to becoming an adult. Without that transformative place of passage, it is possible to be an adolescent trapped in an adult’s body, endlessly seeking to find a role to play, a way to sate the the hormonal beast within, and unable to discover the exact questions which will further the journey that the body and mind are capable of travelling.

We all need to find Tillicho Lake for ourselves. It need not be high in the Himalayas, or in what others may call a sacred place. It does not have to be a far away, difficult to physically access place, and it almost certainly will not be a place one can buy a ticket for with the promise that the maturation of the soul will occur.

It will almost always be “happened upon” as it was with David Whyte. He travelled there, wanting to see a place of great beauty about which he had heard and read. But, upon seeing it, he became a part of the lake. He opened his arms to everything new that he was experiencing, and in turn was astonished as the lake opened its arms to him as well. It became his new face, part of the permanent shape of his soul.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in his Journal in 1857 of a dream in which he revisited a mountain he’d climbed years before: “What distinguishes that summit above the earthy line, is that it is unhandled, awful, grand. It can never become familiar; you are lost the moment you set foot there. You know no path, but wander, thrilled, over the bare and pathless rock, as if it were solidified air and cloud.” He is remembering the mountain, probably Mount Katahdin, described  in his book The Maine Woods, as a metaphysical place- a place where his mental and spiritual selves meet in transforming ways.

For Jesus, that sacred place happened during forty days among the rocks and crevices of the Jericho hills hard against the Jordan River. He left behind who he had been, and who he could have been, then opened his arms in astonishment  to his experience of the purest of Light.

It is there. If a person can remember that place, that time, even in a dream, then they have almost certainly experienced it a number of times since. It became a part of them, a mark on their being that has almost certainly been emotionally and spiritually enabling in the movement into their adult selves.

If neither the memory nor the dream seem to be there, I believe they will be, and soon, if one acknowledges the need for them.  Expectation and willingness are the insurance that the place will be discovered. There will be no need of its affirmation from an outside source. Tilicho Lake, Mount Katahdin, the banks of the Jordan: those places have been attracted toward the seeker even as the seeker has been attracted toward them.

It might also be the southeast corner of the neighborhood park, or the sight of a ginkgo tree in autumn as it becomes fluttering gold. Or the remembered blue wall of a childhood home where you first lost yourself in fixation and wonder.

Empty your hands, raise your arms in a rough prayer, and behold..

 

 

Connections

“There is another way to conceive of our life in God, but it requires a different worldview— not a clockwork universe in which individuals function as discrete springs and gears, but one that looks more like a luminous web, in which the whole is far more than the parts. In this universe, there is no such thing as an individual apart from his or her relationships. Every interaction— between people and people, between people and things, between things and things— changes the face of history. Life on earth cannot be reduced to four sure-fire rules. It is an ever-unfolding mystery that defies precise prediction. Meanwhile, in this universe, there is no such thing as ‘parts.’ The whole is the fundamental unity of reality.”1.

Our connections, each with the Other, each with all things here and there, past and present, are easily ignored or overlooked. The connections are too big to see, too small, too normal to examine objectively  or too extraordinary to regard as having anything at all to do with us. That we (me and you: our bodies, our hair and tongues and the rest of our physical beings) are somehow in the same ballpark as the planet Pluto, and both we and Pluto are players in the expansion of the universe and the gravitational warps of time, was not much more for most of us than a paragraph in a 12th grade science textbook.

Now, since last July, we’ve got photographs from Pluto. Not OF Pluto, but FROM Pluto.

Look closely enough through a microscope at the neurological connections in our brains and beyond to our toes and the patterns of ebb and flow look like nothing so much as satellite views of the Euphrates River Valley or the Mississippi Delta. And now we know those similarities of appearance are the antithesis of coincidence but a direct result of gravity’s dance with oceans and planetary orbits.

That we are all composed of starstuff was awesome news to most of us forty years ago, but now (thank you, Carl Sagan) it is the kind of truth that we must intentionally stifle lest we begin to destroy carefully crafted and “valuable” political/economic/cultural barriers between ourselves and ________ (fill in the name of another group of humans of your choice here).

We chew sunshine when we eat lettuce (or any green leaf), drink of the Arctic Ocean when eat at Whataburgers (or the Neiman-Marcus Tea Room), and breathe in (at an alarmingly high rate) the SAME atoms of oxygen breathed by pteradactyls, Alexander the Great, Jack the Ripper, and that jerk down the street with the always-barking dog. We humans and toadstools share 42% of a DNA template!

And on and on and on, ad infinitum..(literally).

The Connections are real. Between you and me and everything and everyone else pastpresentfuture, world without end, amen.

The gospel writer John described Jesus as the Word made Flesh. We know stuff that John didn’t know, though, and therefore couldn’t describe. It expands, widens, and deepens my , understanding and fascination with the Christ to know him as the Word made Flesh but also as the Word made starstuff in ALL of its forms: mountains, meteorites, quasars, synaptic receptors, lava, ice flows, bacteria, soil and..

Everything else: and it is all luminous. It is all filled with Light..

(amen, again)

1.Barbara Brown Taylor, “Physics and Faith: The Luminous Web,” Christian Century, June 2 1999, 612.