Monday, June 29, 2015

"God is With Us: Emanuel" - 6/28/2015 post-Charleston, post-gay marriage legalized, post-rebel flag taken down sermon on lament and hope

“God is With Us: Emanuel”
Sermon, Year B, Proper 8, June 28, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI 
©2015 Rev. David J. Huber

Our God is a God of life and of love. 

Our lives are often lived as well in the interruptions. Those moments that we don’t expect. Such as these two people who come to Jesus, interrupting him. We get diseases or sicknesses, have emergencies, get sidetracked, or whatever it is that might surprise us in life. 

But we can trust in God and trust in Jesus. Like the last phrase in the hymn that we just sang, “Trusting how he made her live.” Don’t know how, but trust that he did it. That’s what God is about. Life, living, grace. The God of miracles. God of holy Spirit that comes. We read on Pentecost about the Holy Spirit coming upon the people, drawing us together, and sends us in new directions doing the unusual. 

And I would say that the last couple of weeks have been very unusual weeks in our country and around the world. This has been a couple of weeks of Spirit miracles, or grace, of Jesus bringing new life in unexpected ways. Ways that show that God is with us. 

God is with us.

For me, I go back a week and a half ago to the shootings in Charleston at the church down there. I was at MADD with the kids that week, and we got the news the following morning as we woke up. When we heard the news of the senseless slaughter, we were devastated. It was heartbreaking to hear the news. More violence. It just doesn’t ever seem to end. More violence tearing our hearts in half. 

This violence driven by blind hate. Racism. Who knows what else. It is difficult to know the heart of the man who did this. It is an act of evil perpetrated by a young man, a man who I would like to think - and probably we’d all like to think - had to have been raised to know better than to think that this was appropriate, or good, or a holy, or helpful thing to do. I’d like to think that he knew better. That he was raised to know better than that. But maybe not. The racism might have been part of his upbringing, as it is for far too many. 

I’d like to think that he was a young man who was known and loved by his family and his friends. That at least he had some community of love around him. Who knows.

And I would like to think that he was surrounded by grace through all of his life, even if he didn’t see it. He wasn’t able to notice it. I’d like to think that he was loved by his teachers - they tend to be a people of unconditional love for their students no matter what they may be like. And he was, we know, a man who was shown love by the very church community that he gunned down. He was welcomed into that Bible study. Welcomed into that church. Made to feel welcome by people that, we find out later, he hated simply because of their race. Because of the color of their skin. 

He was surrounded by grace and maybe he never saw it. 

This is a man who, as President Obama said in his eulogy, that this was a man who did not understand grace even though it was being shown to him, and he living in the midst of it. The very community that lived out grace around him, Emanuel AME Church, was the target of his graceless evil. 

I think of Jesus setting the table, setting the bread and wine at the last supper with his friends, and inviting Judas to that meal as well. Inviting Judas as a friend and as someone whom Jesus loved. Except the good people of Emanuel AME Church did not know they had a Judas. They did not know to expect that their lives were going to be stolen by the person they invited into their home.

We will never know, not truly, his heart. Never really know what drove him or inspired him. There may be words said, he might even say them, but we can never truly know what is on a person’s heart or mind.

We will also never know the pain of those who love him. Those who had to hear the news of what he did, who have to live with what their son, cousin, friend did. And maybe never know if anyone does love him. 

But I will say this: and I am confident of it. This may be a challenging and difficult thing to hear, but even if he is not loved by anyone, he is certainly known and loved by God. In this church, we proclaim God’s love for all people, so let us not forget that truth. Of that I am sure, and let us not forget that truth. Known and loved by God. 

Not to excuse anything he did, or put a stamp of approval of it, or to say anything other than that it was an act of evil. But remember that he is one of God’s sons. 

As were all his innocent victims. They, too, sons and daughters of God, loved and known by God. 

Jesus said to pray for your enemies. Pray for those who do harm to you. 

And Jesus also said to pray and care for all who hurt, pray for all who cry out for justice, pray for all who demand justice, who demand dignity, who demand to be treated as equals in the eyes of the law and the Lord. Pray for all who lament. Pray for all who suffer. Pray for them, seek to relieve their oppression, their suffering, their indignity. 

The people of Emanuel represent a people who have long cried and lamented to God, and lamented to their government, to their communities. 

I find interesting that the church is called Emanuel, which you may remember from Epiphany that it means “God is with us.” Imagine naming your church Emanuel, “God is with us”. That is a proclamation of faith! Think of an oppressed people, the people in this church. They had their church burned down many years ago because of racial hate. They had their members shot because of racial hate. And over the years between the Civil War and now, their church has been shot at numerous times, the people have been harassed and oppressed and told they can’t be free. They lived through the Jim Crow years, denied access to restaurants, libraries, and schools that the white kids could go to. They spent all these years in lament and struggling, from the Civil War through Civil Rights to today - and yet they retained the audacity to call their church “God with us”. Even in all the suffering, they still are proclaiming that God is with us. We trust that God is here. We trust that God is present. And we trust this vision of God’s realm of justice and freedom. God only knows how much that church has prayed in lament over the years. That’s a church that knows Christian hope and faith. That’s a church to learn from. A good lesson for all who follow Jesus, not to give up that hope. 

I imagine over the years they have prayed, as many have prayed (and not even just that church, but anyone who suffers from illness, sickness, failing bodies, death of a child, oppression, slavery, invasion, violence…), prayers of lament wondering if God is there. I can hear the people saying, “Things aren’t any good for us, God. We’re being mistreated. My life isn’t going the way it is supposed to be going. Life is in chaos. There is violence all over. Guns are everywhere, murders on the streets, we’re being racially harassed. We are being made a mockery, God. It sure seems like you are never here to help us. Never here to protect us. Never hear to bring us to freedom. But we’re still going to call ourselves “God with us” because we have hope.”

That’s a powerful witness. We will still ourselves “God is with us” because he have hope.

Think of hope of the woman who touched Jesus’ hem in the Gospel lesson. A woman who knew that by “the rules” of her day she should not touch a man and make him unclean, a woman lamenting her health and her condition. She spent all of her money tryuing to find some healing and hasn’t found it. She is lamenting her condition in life, and she still goes ahead and touches Jesus’ cloak in hope and trust in grace - just to touch his cloak! - and found healing in that act of faith.

Or the prayer of lament we read from Lamentations. There are other places in that book that have some very heartfelt lamentations. These are a people feeling impatience with God and speaking it. Through it they remind themselves that the steadfast love of the Lord never ends. But also pray to live in the suffering and waiting. They are in a time of having to wait. Their country has been invaded and come to an end, many sent into exile. Wondering “When, God, are you going to make things right for us?” So they can say that it is good for one to wait quietly. It is good to bear the yoke in youth. It is good to sit in alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it. It is good to put one’s mouth in the dust. Because the Lord will not reject forever. For the Lord does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.

We also read David’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. Even though Saul had been trying to kill David for years. Saul was the first king of Israel. David laments his death, and laments the death of his best friend Jonathan. 

There is great power in lament. To speak to God that which has wounded our hearts, wounded our souls. 

To unload all the garbage on God, and to give it to God. I think that we don’t lament enough. That could be a good spiritual discipline for us to get into. Some are good at it and do it. The African American church. Churches of the poor and oppressed can be good at lamenting. But I think our middle class midwestern comfortable white lives make it difficult to lament, or cause us to bristle at the idea of lamenting. Makes us feel down or depressed, and we don’t want that. Even though I know we’re already down and depressed - so let’s be honest about it! Let’s offer it to God. God, there is too much violence! There is too much poverty! We are waiting for your realm, make it happen already!!

Speak it in prayer to God instead of pretending we don’t feel that way.

The Psalms are filled with lament! Lamentations filled with it, other places in the Bible are prayers of lament, of people rising up to ask, “When, God, when? When are things going to get better? When will my life improve? When will our lives improve? When will this community be brought to a place of justice and freedom?!” 

But, I don’t know, seems we are afraid of it. Advertise you’re having a service of lament, and watch the attendance drop 90%. 

And so instead of embracing the spiritual exercise and disciple of lamenting - an honest prayerful response of pain to the God of love - we just sit around and piss and moan about stuff not being as good a it used to be, or should be, or that everyone else is wrong and blah blah blah. And there’s a big difference between complaining with your friends and lamenting to God. Lamenting respects the sovereignty of God and invites God into the conversation and the solution, trusting “God with us”, Emanuel. The other denies God’s goodness, God’s hope, God’s love, and God’s presence, because God isn’t brought into it. 

To lament is to say “You aren’t doing enough, God, but we trust that you can and we are pleading with you to do it. Do it, God.” It’s an admission that God is the one to rely one. Complaining we do with our peers. Lamenting we do with or to the people who are in power, or the God who is in power. 

But those on the bottom - our African American brothers and sisters, our LGBT brothers and sisters, our brothers and sisters who have suffered too long from lack of healthcare, those suffering from climate change, they have all known about lamenting, crying for justice, demanding to be treated as equals, as full human beings with full human rights.

I started this sermon off by saying that these past weeks have been crazy. By God, miracles of miracles, when all seemed so dark after the shootings in Charleston, when I was losing hope, the rainbow arc of the universe lit up this week and continued its trajectory toward justice.

Within days of the shooting, people were demanding the Confederate flag be taken down from the capitol building of South Carolina. That it be taken down from other government places. 

That’s not a new request. People have been protesting that flag, and other Confederate symbols, for decades, even generations. But no one in power really listened, no one heard the laments. Like Pharaoh in Moses’ time, their hearts were hardened. 

And then a miracle… a lot of those hardened hearts suddenly softened. A dialogue that has refused to happen for 150 years began, and, in some places, saw some results almost immediately! The governor of SC asked that the flag be taken down. The governor of Virginia called for all license plates with the flag on them be returned, and that no more plates will be made with the flag on it. Other states have taken their flags down. The state of Mississippi, which has the battle flag in the corner of their state flag, has started the conversation of needing to redesign their flag to remove it. WalMart, Amazon, eBay, Target ,and other stores have stopped carrying any merchandise with Confederate symbols on it. 

Something I thought I’d never see in my lifetime finally happened and found some resolution so quickly. The conversation has started. That’s a moment of grace. The Spirit at work.

This is an amazing, amazing step forward. I am still blown away by it. We have a long, long way to go to find a resolution and a change of our hardened hearts in race matters… but this is significant.

Then we had the Supreme Court decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, so that the basic human right of access to healthcare continues to be granted to our poor brothers and sisters. Another lament heard. Another act of grace. A prayer answered. 

The Pope came out with an encyclical calling the climate change crisis as a moral issue, not just a political or scientific issue, but a moral issue because it affects the poor. It affects all of us, really, because it affects the earth, but it has a proportional effect on the poor. That’s pretty big news. We’ve been saying that in the UCC for decades, but the Pope has a far bigger worldwide audience than we’ll ever have.

And Friday, our Supreme Court offered another move toward a more just society with their ruling that our Constitution guarantees that gay couples also have a right to be legally married. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see that in my lifetime. Three or four years ago that wasn’t even a possibility. 

Grace has abounded this week. That’s the power of lament. The power of grace. And even in the last months, the dialogue about a $15 minimum wage has suddenly gained traction, and attraction, across the whole nation from the politicians to the people. 

Grace has abounded this week. Not everywhere. There is still violence. There were still mass killings, things blowing up. We are not perfect yet. We still have homeless people. Our street ministry has been extremely busy, giving hundreds of hours every month listening and responding to the laments of the poor. And it needs your support, by the way. Seriously lacking in funds, gas cards, food cards. 

We still have people who can’t afford their health insurance. Still have a huge workforce that is woefully underpaid and underserved with sick days, or sick leave to take care of a child or parents, or maternal and paternal leave… Still have violence, wars, racism, homophobia. And while we mourned and grieved the past ten days over the nine people murdered in Charleston, 300 or so other Americans were murdered with guns in this country. At least three African churches have been burned down this week, one each in SC, NC, and GA. 

We have a long way to go, but this was a week of grace. 

Many prayers were answered. Many laments were relieved with a response of justice and love. 

A week of laments being answered by acts of grace. 

And maybe the greatest act of grace we’ve seen in the last week and a half is when the families of the murdered victims were in the court talking to the man that killed their family members. All of them responded to him with grace. The grace that he didn’t know, that he perhaps had not experienced before. Maybe he didn’t understand their act, but I hope he did. They responded with grace by offering words of forgiveness. Not words of hate, punishment, or retribution. They confronted evil with the love of grace. They understand the power of God’s grace.

Those blind to their racism have had their eyes opened by grace to see the racism and oppression that is in their symbols, and are willing to let them go. 

Those in the LGBT community who have been lost to the full dignity and rights that should be inherent for all citizens have found their way to freedom. 

The planet that has cried out, lamented in fear, is finding shield and protection in the growing voices of the faithful who want to protect and preserve it (and thereby protect ourselves).

This has been a week of grace.

One of the verses of Amazing Grace says:

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come, 
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.

There is a balm in Gilead, and it is called grace. God’s love. God’s unmerited, unearned love. 

The faithful who have gone before us, and the faithful who are around us, have taught us about grace, about the power of trusting in that grace, trusting in God, trusting in God’s grace and love, and they have shown us the power of living in that grace. 

I pray that we all follow their way. 

They help to give me confidence to say that the Good News of Jesus Christ is Emanuel: GOD IS WITH US.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Who Are Your Mother and Your Brothers? Sermon for June 7, 2015.

On June 7, we read the Gospel of Mark passage in which a crowd is around Jesus, but Jesus' mother and brothers (yes, Jesus had brothers! And quite likely he had a sister or two, as well) want to see him. Some of the crowd tell him this, to which he responds "Who are my mother and brothers? Those who do my will."

I explore his answer in this Sunday's sermon, and ask it of myself and of the congregation.

I don't normally include in my posted sermons the material that I left out, but I thought you might find it interesting to see what I had written that didn't make it to the final preached version (mostly due to time constraints - it was just tooooo long). But there is some good stuff in what I cut out. The deleted texts are contained with square brackets and is colored red, like this: [the text I didn't use]. Please note that the texts I did not use I also did not bother to proofread, so they might be pretty sloppy or ugly.

In the end, I leave the question with the people in the congregation: "Who are your mother and brothers and sisters?"

Who are yours? How do you answer this question? Please answer in the comment section below.

“Who Are Your Mother and Your Brothers?”
Sermon, Year B, Proper 5, June 7, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2015 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Mark 3:20-35

“Who are my mother and father, who are my brother and sister,” Jesus asks. He asks it in an open-ended way. He doesn’t offer his answer right away. He lets it hang there for a moment, waiting for people to answer to think of their answer. Waiting for us to think and formulate an answer. Who are my brothers and mother, my father and sisters? Then he answers, “Those who do the will of God.” He looks at the people around him and says, “All these people.” He looks at them and says, “You are my brothers and sisters, mother and father.”

That sounds like an invitation. To say that the family Jesus is talking about is an open group. As long as you want to be part of it, you are part of it.

Sounds like an invitation.

You can’t invite someone to become biologically related to you. Though maybe some day; we are doing some interesting things with genetics. But at this point you can’t. But you can invite them into your family. You can still invite them into your family.

This is an invitation to a new way of thinking about family that Jesus was offering to the people around him. One based not on biology, tribalism, or nationalism, but based simply on one’s inclusion in the group. Whoever you are. Whether one was rich or poor, tax collector or priest, leper or perfectly healthy, Roman or Greek or Hebrew, male or female…. Jesus says, if you are my follower, if you do the will of God, you are my brother or sister, my mother or father. You are part of my family.

Jesus is extending the boundaries of what we think of as family. Extending it to include all of humanity. Anyone who wants to be in it, though I suppose there is room for a person to choose not to be in it. Not by chance of biology, but by the decision to see others as part of the family. To invite anyone and everyone to be part of the family.

That’s some powerful mojo there. The power of this invitation. The power of inclusion.

Everyone gets to be in the family.

Or another way to look it, a better way to look at it, is not to say that everyone gets to be in the family, but everyone is already in the family, and Jesus is merely asking if we are willing to see that, and believe it, and live that way. A way that sees that all of humanity is part of the family. The family of God. Which is a different kind of family than we are used to.

I like to say that we are all part of two different families, perhaps even more, but at least two. There is the biological family that we are born into, or the family we are adopted into as a child or baby, which is immediate enough to be like a biological family. That kind of family is just luck of the draw. You have no choice, other than the person you choose as a spouse, you have no choice in the family you are born or adopted into. You have no choice who your relatives are, or who else is in it. Pure luck of the draw. Some people win, some people lose, most are somewhere in the middle. So we have our birth or adopted family that we no control over.

Then there is the family that we build around us through our lives. This is the family that we create for ourselves around us. The people that we pick up over the years. Our friends, our mentors, our confidants. The people we hold close to us.

That’s the family we get to choose We are born or adopted into a family, and we have a family that we build around us.

That’s one thing Jesus is doing here in his ministry. He is going around bringing people in. He is going beyond the immediate biological relation. He is saying that it is not just about who my immediate family, but that we are all family. We are all part of God’s family. Jesus is building a new family. Or, not building a new family, but helping people to recognize that this is a family they are already in simply by being human. Just by existing.

A family that reaches beyond the boundary of genetics to encompass all the of people of the world. The people at the time did not have an understanding of genetics, not like we do. But we have done a lot of genetic research, and we know that Jesus is up to something even more subversive than we might have thought. Because we know now that all humanity is genetically related. We are not separate from one another. No tribe is separate from another, or nation separate from another. We are all genetically related. So there is a subversive trick of Jesus here, saying that we really are all one family, so let us recognize it.

“You say family is important, and I say to you that we are all family.” Everyone.

The people come to Jesus to say, “Your mother and brothers and sisters want to see you, Jesus.”  He basically responds, “My family is anyone who sees humanity as I do. My brothers and mother, sisters and father, are anyone who sees that we are all one family. A family to which all are welcome because they are already part of it. Everyone is important, and the only criterion for entry is that we exist. To know that you are loved. Or to pursue that thought.

[We can imagine Jesus asking, “Why have you so narrowly defined who my family is? Have you not been paying attention? My family is everyone who follows my will. My family is anyone who sees humanity as I do - that we are all one family, into which everyone is welcome, everyone is important, and the only criteria for entry is not that you be a certain biological profile, but that you are here.”]

That’s what the church is supposed to be! A people who see that we are all related. All one family on this world. Church should be the place that anyone who wants to follow that vision of what the church stands for: that it is for all people. For anyone who wants to experience the divine. Anyone who wants or needs to be touched by grace. Anyone who wants to walk through the doors.

[It is invitational; and invitation that is inclusive, non-tribal, non-nationalistic.]

To be invited to join to that vision of what the Church ought to be. A vision in which all of God’s people are offered dignity, a place for fellowship, a chance to be the best version of the person that God made them, made us, to be, and a place from which we are so inspired by Jesus’ message of love that we make the world a more loving place. Keep extending that definition of who is in God’s family.

[Extending it by following Jesus’ radical and revolutionary way that places love above apathy, hope above fear, grace above punishment, justice above greed and convenient excuses, mercy and sacrifice above complainging “Oooh, that’s too difficult” or “It’s going to cost me too much” or “It will take me out of my comfort zone” or “We’ve never done it that way before.”

Well, truth is, almost everything that Jesus did was stuff that we’ve never done before. And unfortunately, it seems a lot of it is still stuff that we’ve never done before.]

It’s so easy, and so comfortable, to fall back to the tribalist nature, the biological family nature, to want to circle our wagons and just focus on ourselves, forgetting about the rest of the world.

But focusing on ourselves comes with two problems: 1) it’s exactly contrary of what Jesus taught and told us to do, to be outward looking and not inward looking; and 2) it’s also the path to death. It is too insular. You can’t survive looking always and only within.

Some like to say that family comes first, meaning the immediate biological family. But Jesus is saying, “No, it doesn’t.” Now, there are some things that we must be responsible to our family, but Jesus is saying, “look beyond what you think of as family. Enlarge that metaphor.” Follow the metaphor that comes from the Gospel of love that sees all people as part of the family. There is a greater family, Jesus is saying, and that is the family that includes our neighbors. It includes everyone, so move beyond circling the wagons and instead open them up. Be the opposite of a circle, whatever that is. I don’t know what the opposite of a circle might be, but do the opposite of circling the wagons. Something that encompasses all people.

[In another place in the Gospels Jesus says that he has come to pit father against son, mother against daughter. I don’t think he was saying that he wants to foment so much discord within the biological families that everyone comes to hate one another. That makes an uncomfortable family Christmas.]

Living that idea takes risk. It means taking a risk that you, or you and the people around you doing the inviting, might change. Welcoming people requires a willingness to change. But it is important enough that taking that risk is worth it. Welcoming people into the church is a big part of that. To welcome them in. But also as we are outside of these walls to continue that sense of hospitality. To continue to see people as our neighbors, as part of our family, that we are all related and in it together.

[That’s the danger of opening one’s door, if one opens it genuinely and honestly. We do like to open the door and welcome the folks who come, and invite them to be part of the community, but it is an invitation that too often comes with “We will welcome you openly as long as you act like us, speak our language, follow our directions, and don’t do anything that might upset the status quo that we all find so comforting.” 

It’s like creating a restaurant. You make the advertisements, “Come to our restaurant!” Then folks show up, and ask what’s on the menu, and you say “We’re serving green Jell-O with shredded carrots, celery, and mayonnaise, just like we have for the last 50 or 500 years!” To which the greater portion of the population is saying, “But we find that unpalatable.” ]

I think of some of the people who are outside the church. As we know, that number has been growing and growing over the years. I think, though, that most people are searching for something in their lives. Some sense of the Divine, something beyond themselves, something more spiritual for their lives. People who might love to be part of a church community, part of a congregation and its fellowship.

They look at the church and they see the potential. They hear Jesus’ words and they think about what those words mean, and see what the church could be if it followed those words about fellowship and feeding one another.

Then they look through the windows and see [some beautiful things that they desire: the fellowship of sitting around a table and sharing a meal with people who are diverse and interesting. But when they go in, they’re told they can’t be at the table unless they eat the Jell-O and don’t try to change the menu or even change the recipe. They see us, they see the beautiful gift we could offer the world, fellowship and feeding one another, then they watch us mistake the Jell-O for the message; they experience us mistake the seating arrangement for the Gospel; and they walk away. Instead of seeing us live up to the good things they know we can do, they see] us mistake the way we do things for the message that we are supposed to be sharing. They see us get caught up in the way we want to do things, instead of what we’re supposed to do. They see us spread the table of Communion and then watch as we worry more about who is on the invitation list or whose names are on the placecards than we care about the message of the communion table, about what it means to feed and to serve.

Or we say, “You have to be exactly like us to be welcome here.” People are looking for fellowship. Looking for a place to sit around the table and share with one another. To be together with people not like them, from diverse backgrounds and ideologies. But we often miss that. Maybe not as much at Plymouth, but we do, and the Church worldwide the past 50, 60, 70 years have not been as good as we should be being invitational and seeing the whole human family as welcome in the church, and welcome around the table.

[They love the idea of fellowship. They love the idea of coming around a table to share. But we have decided that what is most important is not the meaning or the process of the table, but the stuff we put on it. And not even the stuff itself per se, in a way that says “So long as something is there to serve, we’re good to go!” but our concern becomes that “the stuff” is only one thing, and one thing only: the Jell-O. 

The invitational church says “Please come in, join us, enjoy what we have to offer you - enjoy our Jell-O - but also, please share your recipes with us! Mingle your recipe collection with ours! We are made better, and conform more to God’s vision, when we all share and eat from one another’s recipes.”

That’s one of the downsides of hymnals. They can have great music in them, but they can also become “This is our music. This is our only music. If it is not in here, it’s not worth singing. We are not going to leave the safety of this recipe collection.” But there is so much more music out there! Thank God for Lynn, too bad she isn’t here to hear this, but she has brought us and taught us music from so many traditions, and styles, and other sources. You might not realize it, but in her time with us, I estimate you have learned 100 or so new Christian songs. Probably more. I know some of you might think you don’t much music, or know music well, or sing well, but you have a repertoire of church music that probably exceeds 99% of the churches in the world.]

The invitational church is the church that sees mother and brother and sister and father all over the place, in all of the people that we meet. That’s the kind of church that invites people in to the table, and says, “There is always room for another chair. Always room for one more.” But not even that a chair can be made available, but that it has always been set for you. “Please come and sit and enjoy.”

Jesus asks, “Who is my family?” The answer being, “Whoever is seated at this table!” as he looks at the people around him. Whoever is here, whoever is seated at the table. But there is also this radical world altering caveat that Jesus adds to that. It is, yes, whoever is here. But also, my family is whoever is not yet at my table. All those who are waiting for an invitation. All those waiting to be told that they are welcome. All those that are waiting for someone to take their hand, to invite them, and bring them.

That means everyone who is here, and everyone who is not here yet.

We are all family. I think that’s some of the power of Communion, of coming together to celebrate around the bread and the wine. To be fed and nourished. There is power in communion in that Jesus invites us and feeds. But also that we are serving one another. There is power in that. That communion is not just an individualist action. It is not just me being fed by God. Not just me receiving the bread and wine from God. No, it is a communal act of serving one another and reminding us through the power of that ritual, of passing around the bread and the cup, reminding us in that act that our primary duty is to serve. To serve one another. To serve God’s world. To replicate, outside these walls, that action of serving. Saying that all are welcome.

Which is why we have an open table here. We don’t think anyone ought to be denied access to God’s family. No one ought to be denied access to the family’s supper table. All people are welcome. This table, this Communion table here is for celebration. Just as families might gather at a holiday around your own table at home, this is the table of the church, where the family of God comes together to celebrate our fellowship, our friendships, our mutual love for one another. It is a table for celebration. And it can’t be a celebration when some are intentionally excluded. THat’s not much of a party. It’s a sad one.

All are part of the family. It is a radical message of love to invite a stranger, because this is one of the things the church stands for and one of the most important acts we can do in the church. We do want to be out serving people. There is incredible power in serving people, as we do in our street ministry, in our quilting, and our other ministries. But it is also good to come back to the table and remember WHY we go out and serve. This is a ritual of serving one another around this table, and is the inspiration to go out. This message of love that says to a stranger, “This is your table. This is not just a table of Plymouth, or the table of the Church, this is a table for everyone. A table to which all are welcome. This is YOUR table. Jesus sets it for all of us. Jesus has a chair waiting for you, so here, come, sit. Let us serve you the bread and cup of fellowship and friendship and love. Stay as long as you need. Eat as much as you need. Come as often as you can.”

The power of the symbol of this communion table. It’s a message that says to the world, “We believe all people are loved. All people ought to be welcomed to God’s realm, God’s family. No one is excluded. No one should be pushed outside but welcome to this table to share, worldwide. Jesus has a chair waiting for everyone.”

Jesus asked that question, and let it hang in the air for a moment giving us all a chance to think about it. To think about how we are going to answer the question. What is your answer to Jesus’ question, “Who is my mother or my brothers? Who are my sisters or my father?”

That’s the question that Jesus leaves hanging in front of us. To see whether or not we will follow along where he takes the answer. Who are your mother and your brothers? Who are your sisters and your father?


[The Communion table is a table that Jesus sets for us and has entrusted to the church to celebrate and commemorate at regular intervals. This is, I think, our greatest act of worship. This is an active symbol of love: God saying, “remember this: you are all invited to this table. I have established a family table, for you to share meals together as a family, and it is open to everyone. Whoever you are, you are welcome at this table. However unwelcome you are made to feel anywhere else, let this table never be a place where any of my family are turned away for any reason.” There is incredible power in going out to feed people, the serve the hungry; but there is also ritual power, symbolic power, at this table because it is the table of the Lord. What greater act of worship can there be than to say, “yes, God, we trust your word (or “we hear your call” or “that you love all your people, so we will deny no one access to this meal!” and then look to our neighbor and say, “You are welcome here! And we expect you to be authentically you while you are here.”]

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A double-dose of heart racing polarity at the restaurant

Just had a heart-racing moment. I’m at Panera working, and a guy - dressed very appropriately in all black, including suit jacket, by the way - asks me if I am the owner of the Mustang in the parking lot. Heart drops to bottom, waiting to hear "Meteor just hit it" or "So dreadful, but I seem to have backed my tank over it" or "Man, that did a spectacular 1080 when it rolled off the cliff!" or "Must not have had any plastic - all leather, cloth, and steel? - because wow, that thing is burning CLEAN!"

I say "yes" with fear and trembling, and he asks, "Is it a 2003? I'm looking to buy a 2003 Mustang convertible. Tonight."

My heart flies to the top, thinking, "I'm gonna make a crap load of money! God just placed in front of me a man who buys cars on a whim!" Thoughts fly through my head about a guy sitting around in nouveau-riche boredom, tired of everything, who can afford to act immediately on impulses like "I want a 2003 white Mustang convertible - and I want it tonight! I'm gonna drive around until I see one I like and offer a ludicrous amount of incentive for them to part with it RIGHT NOW!" The kind of guy who might, on another night, find the beer in his cooler not stimulating his ennui so he flies his plane to Copenhagen for a fresh Tuborg on tap, demanding his staff go with him because they're the closest thing to friends he has.

Then he says, "It's also white, but with a gray top."


Heart goes back to normal. No sale. But a conversation about the car, and he was thankful.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Don't Overthink It: Trinity Means Community, sermon for May 31, 2015 Trinity Sunday

My sermon for Trinity Sunday in which I suggest that the "doctrine" of the Trinity is not as important as what it implies: the relational aspect of God; meaning that God exists as relationship with us (the humans God created!) and the rest of creation.

What does the Trinity mean to you? Or if you are not a fan of the trinity, how do you envision God, and how do you envision our role within creation? These are wonderful and fun questions to ask.

“Don’t Overthink It: The Trinity is Community”
Sermon, Year B, Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2015 Rev. David J. Huber

Focus Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17

Today is Trinity Sunday. The day that we celebrate the Trinity. It might be the only Sunday that we celebrate a doctrine and not a specific event or person. So today we celebrate the Trinity, which traditionally we call the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But we could just as easily say MOther, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or as we say in baptisms, and did in the Prayer of Confession today, we say Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God Mother of us all. As far as I know that was first used at Riverside Church in NYC, a UCC church.  
So a day to celebrate the Trinity. And I will say this: of all the ideas, thoughts, concepts, ideas of the church, the concept of a Trinity is a real doozy. It’s confusing, bizarre, and it gets argued over and has for centuries and centuries from the very early days of the Church. What does it actually mean? Or, How does the Trinity exist?

It has been the source of a lot of conflict, even today. Most Christians would say they are trinitarians, especially at the denominational/official level, but there are those in the churches who are not. Who say that God could be more than three, or less, or something else. The Unitarians reject a trinitarian idea. And everyone is on firm ground.

There is nowhere in scripture where it says that God exists as a trinity. So those who say that we should not be trinitarian because the Bible doesn’t say it are correct. But, one can read scripture, the whole narrative of the Bible and come to the idea very easily that God seems to be working in this three-in-one way. That there is a godhead and that there are three parts of it. So the trinitarian folks also have a firm ground to stand on.

So take that however you like, and know that wherever you are on the issue, there is someone in history who thinks you are wonderful for thinking the way you do. And there will be someone else who would love to call you a heretic. Wherever you are, I think you’re okay. I don’t think that this is much to worry about or put a lot of importance on. I’m not sure it is quite as important as some often try to make it out to be.

But there does appear to be that God works in several ways. God the Father, the parent, the creator, the organizer; God the Son, meaning Jesus, which is the incarnation of God as a human being on Christmas who taught and did miracles, was crucified and then raised from the dead and ascended to heaven; and God the Holy Spirit, the power of God that is breathed into us, that flows through us, that is part of us and binds us together. We talked about that last Sunday, which was Pentecost: celebration of the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples a few weeks after Jesus rose from the dead.

But as with most things when we are talking about God, our language is so limited we can never get the whole picture of God. So whatever language we use, we will fall short of the mark.

So my advice to all of you is, Don’t overthink it. Don’t worry about it too much. Some people think that the faith’s most important hinge is whether one is a Trinitarian; I don’t think so. I’m not sure it really matters ultimately, what we think of it. I think the hinge of our faith is whether we are following what Jesus told us to do. That far outweighs whatever else we might believe about the faith. Whether or not we’re following what Jesus told us to.

To then let God be God. The Trinity is convenient language, but maybe God is more. Probably God is more. Our language can’t define God. Let God be God. If God decides to come to us in a fourth form or an 8000th form, we adjust. We change our theology. I don’t think the details are worth getting caught up in because God is so much more than we can ever put in words. So let us not get stuck about the kind of box we want to put God in. We can look around and see where God is working, where God is in the world, and what God is doing.

What really matters, what I get out of the idea of a Trinity, is that God exists in a form of relationship. God is relational. God is not a solo player, but is relational. And through Jesus, through the person of Jesus, we have seen God. And through the Holy Spirit, we feel God and we have some of God’s power. We are also called together into this community by the Spirit.

Like that song we sang, We see the Lord! Through Jesus, we have seen the Lord. God manifests in many ways, including coming to us in the person Jesus. “We have seen the Lord!”

There is another way that people can see the Lord, and that is that as followers of Jesus, we are in a sense, Jesus. So if we are doing godly things, if we are following Jesus’ ways, those moments when we are faithful to being followers, people see the Lord through us.

We are the face of God for people. We don’t do it all the time. I know I don’t. Life is messy, complicated, we make mistakes and mess things up. But thank God, God works mostly through the messy stuff. If God waited until we were perfect, God would never get anything done. God needs us, we who are imperfect, to work through us. God meets us where we are so that we can be Jesus for others.

So because of our witness, the way we act, the way we treat others, they can say “We see the Lord.” Because they see the Lord working through you. If we are faithful disciples -- if we do our Jesus-following well -- people can see the Lord at work in us.

When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was sick, you visited me and prayed for me. When I was lonely, you called me. When I was down, you comforted me. When I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, you invited me to church, into your fellowship to know other people and to be loved.

God is relational.

We see that in the trinitarian language, the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A relationship, God working as three. And in the relation that Jesus showed us. God coming to us as Jesus to call us into the beloved community. He called his disciples into his circle and called them friends. And he calls us to be in relation with him, and be in relationship with God and with one another. To form a community around God’s love.

So we see that God is a relationship within the godhead. Think of it as, I don’t know, a bubble that contains the persons of God. And if you don’t get it, that’s fine. I really don’t get it, either. The whole Trinity thing is a little more abstract than my brain can really wrap itself around. So let’s all be confused together about it. But, know that there is a relationship in there.

If you were looking at the artwork before worship that was playing on the TV, artists of many centuries trying to depict the trinity in many ways. It’s a difficult concept and complicated, and many ways to look at it. I think that they are all accurate in their own way in pointing to a truth, but they are all also equally short of the mark. Our language, whether it is the language of painting or the language of words, it is insufficient to encompass the totality of God.

God is bigger than our language can ever be. Another reason to not overthink this idea. To not try to get God into too specific of a box. Don’t try to overthink the Trinity. It’s just going to hurt your brain. Make it tired, anxious. I don’t know if one can sprain one’s brain, but that might happen. Don’t overthink it. Don’t think of the specifics, just think of the importance of God in relationship within this godhead and God wanting to be in relationship with us and in relation with creation. Not the God of the Deists, that set everything in motion and then steps back to just watch it happen never interfering or being involved in our lives. No, a God of closeness! Even as our God is also this majestic, huge God, whose train the fills the temple, who can’t be encompassed in any language, transcendent beyond comprehension, this God is also intimately involved in our lives. Knows who we are, knows our names, and calls us together. Reaches out to us wanting to be in relationship with one another. To be in relationship with us.

As we are the face of God for others, we are, in a sense, the fourth part of the trinity. Wrap your mind around that one! We are the fourth part of the Trinity. Like some of the famous celebrities and musicians of the 60s and 70s who would claim, “I’m the fifth Beatle! I’m so connected to the Beatles that they think of me as the fifth Beatle.” As a way to ride along on their coattails. “I’m the fifth person in this quartet!”

We are the fourth person of the Trinity.

Or another example, a book series I like, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Very funny science fiction series of books, originally a trilogy: three books. Then later on, the author, Douglas Adams, wrote a fourth book. Being a humorist, the cover on the fourth book had “Finally, the fourth book of the trilogy!” Then he wrote a fifth book which had, “Finally, the fifth book of the trilogy!”

The Hitchhiker’s trilogy of five books (actually six books, but the last one written by someone else) is also an interesting example of the Trinity - the mystery of the Trinity - in that it has also been a radio play, a movie, a stage show, a comic book series, and a TV series, and they are all different. Same basic story, but each one different. One story, many manifestations. Like God. One being, but so many faces, so many manifestations, so much bigger than any one narrative could ever encapsulate.

Don’t overthink it!

Just remember the power of relation. That we have the power of the Spirit. We have the call to be in communion through Jesus. We have the love of the Father -- or we could say Mother, there is plenty of feminine imagery for God in the Bible. We have that image of being born from God, that we are God’s creation. We are from God.

Jesus said in the Gospel passage we read, “You must be born from above.” You must be born from above. Part of that, to be “born from above”, is to have the realization or epiphany to come to the understanding that we are all connected, and we are connected to God. To see that we are connected is part of being born from above because that is then seeing the world as God sees it. To be born from above is to see the world as God sees it. To be born from above is to follow the path that Jesus asks us to follow. To conform ourselves to Jesus’ path. To conform ourselves to this vision of what God wants for the world, is part of being born from above. Especially to follow along this vision that is at the end of that Gospel lesson, in Jesus’ words about relationship. About God wanting to be in relationship. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” You could also say, “For she gave her only son.” I don’t think there is any harm in that. God is not gendered, not really. Father, mother, whatever. “For God so loved the world.” And “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Hear what that says about relationships. This is not God casting anyone away, but trying to draw everyone, all of creation, into God in this relational way. God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

That is the Good News for today.