Salvation as a Journey, Not Only a Destination (Easter 6A)

Bible study at The Branches – the center of our partnership with St. Barnabas in Rio Grande - ends each week with a brief service of Night Prayer or Compline. Typically we use the service found in the Book of Common Prayer, but last Monday, we instead used a service adapted from John McQuiston’s Prayerbook for the 21st Century – a book that is unique for its use of images, images that are grounded in panentheism. Pan – everything; en – in; and theos – God. In other words, panentheism means “everything in God” (this is not the same as pantheism whose adherents claim that everything is God). Marcus Borg, always able to boil complex matters into something more palatable describes panentheism as “God is all around us and within us, and we are within God. . . . God as ‘beyond’ and God as ‘right here.’ God is more than the world. . . Yet God is present in the world.”[1] So what are some of these panentheistic images for God? God as Intimate Father, as Mother, as Wisdom, as the Divine Presence, or God as Journey Companion – the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day – images that welcome us into relationship with God.[2]

What makes panentheism so compelling? Well, in the first place, its most common alternative in the church is supernatural theism – a theology firmly rooted in expressions that imply God is wholly Other, a being “elsewhere, out there and not here” - always beyond reach who (almost magically) enters the cosmos momentarily from time to time.[3] Panentheism, on the other hand, allows for a more intimate relationship with God speaking as it does of a God who is right here, right now, among us and with us while, at the same time, acknowledging that God is, of course, completely other. God is not one of us – God is the source of all being, intimately connected with us for we and everything around us is in God.

Today’s Gospel lesson strikes me as a great example of panentheistic theology. Jesus tells the disciples, “You know [the Father], because he abides with you, and he will be in you. . . . I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you.”[4] This is not a description of some future point of arrival – I recognize that Christ is the Savior, my Savior, and, I wait for the day of salvation. Salvation understood this way follows the first definition found in The Oxford English Dictionary: “the saving of the soul; the deliverance from sin and its consequences, and admission to eternal bliss.”[5] No, when Jesus says, “he abides with you, and he will be in you”, Jesus seems to be talking about a journey – not a single point in some yet to be determined future. I need to say very clearly that I am not saying there is no afterlife. What I am saying is that I can know with certainty very little about that after life and I struggle to accept a notion of God that says my time on this earth – no matter how short or how long – is simply a time of waiting for “real life.” No, I am clear that this life, the one you and I are living right here and right now, is “real life” – or at least a portion thereof - and it is a life that is imbued with meaning and purpose by the God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”[6] What does this mean? In the first place, it means that salvation is not just an event that happens on some last day, presumably after we have died. Acts of God’s saving grace can and do happen in the here and now. Our salvation is a journey and we are called to be active participants in that journey.

Marcus Borg in The God We Never Knew writes about several ways people have experienced God in the here and now. The first category of experiencing God in the here and now is what Borg calls “ecstatic experiences.” These include visions, mystical experiences, near-death experiences, and dreams. In each of these, the person reports that the experience is

“’more’ than the visible world of our ordinary consciousness. . . the experiences have a noetic quality to them – that is, people who have them consistently say that they involve knowing (and not simply a feeling). They involve a vivid experiential sense of seeing or encountering or becoming aware of another layer or kind of reality.”[7]

Biblical examples of such experiences include Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, the many visions recorded by the prophets.[8] But such ecstatic experiences are not limited to Biblical times and, indeed, many persons – 50% of Americans according to one study – report having had at least one ecstatic experience in which they became more aware of “an alternate reality, the numinous, the sacred, a world of spirit.”[9]

Another category of experiencing God in the here and now – and one which you hear me speak of more frequently – is a simple awareness of God’s presence or, as Borg calls it, “the dailiness of God:”[10] A young child exchanging a freshly picked marigold for the communion host at the altar rail – demonstrating in that small gesture more about her understanding of thankfulness and self-offering at the Eucharist than most adults – including those with seminary training - can ever understand or a sense of clarity about an important decision that seems unmistakably to have come directly from God.

While the first type of experience – the ecstatic – may seem to be beyond the reach of many of us (though I suspect we might be surprised how openness to these experiences can, in and of itself, be a precursor to having such an experience), this second type of experience – simple awareness of the dailiness of God - is available to us all. One of the ways we do this is through our weekly worship together. At the very least, the liturgy is designed to enable us to experience the presence of the living God through word, through sacrament, through song, through community – through the engagement of our senses. At its best, the weekly liturgy shared in community helps us to open our hearts and our minds to God’s presence throughout the week. Seen in this way, our time together is like a practice session for living in the world and living in God at one and the same time.

But for most of us, once a week practice is just not going to cut it. Unlike the ancient Israelites whose very culture was steeped in the belief that God was active at all times and in all instances, making it impossible to think of God not acting through the course of history, we have access to a world of many cultures, steeped in religious pluralism, and in a country that continues to struggle with its own identity as it pertains to the separation of church and state. For these reasons, we have to be deliberate in our efforts to experience God at work in our lives; we need to strip off the cultural baggage of eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear, and minds that do not understand.[11]

There is a website based in the UK called Rejesus which offers a version of daily prayer that provides an interactive approach to the daily office. I have begun incorporating some of its liturgy into the noonday prayer service offered at The Branches on Wednesdays.[12] One aspect of the liturgy which I particularly like is the beginning prayer which invites us to focus our thoughts and attention on God and our life by asking us to think about our situation or mood through a series of questions. Questions like “What can you be thankful for?” And “What dreams and hopes can you share with Jesus?” encourage us to think intentionally about God’s presence in all aspects of our daily life. And, when exercises like this are practiced regularly, they can open our hearts to an experience of God – to a journey with God - in the here and the now wherever “here” is and whenever “now” is. Where is God in your journey?

[1] Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith, (San Francisco: Harper, 1997), 32-3.

[2] Borg, 73-75.

[3] Borg, 33, 46.

[4] John 14:17b, 20.

[5] In Borg, 156.

[6][6] Acts 17: 27-28.

[7] Borg, 37-8.

[8] Borg, 38.

[9] Borg, 38, 52 (note 23).

[10] Borg, 39.

[11] Mark 8:18.

[12] Rejesus accessed online on April 22, 2008.


Horton and Stephen

I've often read this story of Stephen and "assumed" that the reader is supposed to identify with Stephen. . .but I was struck this week by the possibility that we are not the Stephens of the story but rather, those who would throw the first stones.

On Sunday, I am going to try to make a connection between Horton's ability to hear the Who's down in Who-ville and Stephen's ability (openness) to seeing the hand of God at work. Both Horton and Stephen share what they have - not the gift of sight or the gift of hearing, but the object to which those gifts point - the glory of God (well, the glory of the Who's - a bit of a stretch here) - even while they are being persecuted in the hopes that the others' eyes and ears will be open to the greater truth they wish to reveal. Horton Hears a Who provides us with an alternate ending to the stoning of Stephen. Not because we can change history but because we can change ourselves.

Now, as an aside --- the 1970 MGM cartoon version of Horton Hears a Who is much better (IMHO) than the current cinematic version with the voices of Jim Carey et. al. Better quality, truer to the text, and a lot less expensive (available at most public libraries as opposed to the $24.50 we spent for 2 of us to see Horton, eat popcorn and share a soda).


Without Notes

More and more, I have been preaching without notes (something I was absolutely 100% certain - and I said so many times in seminary - that I would never do). Turns out (a) I enjoy it and (b) my parishioners seem to prefer it. Huh! Go figure! I guess John A. Dally was right. . . not a surprise (his being right).

Part of what has allowed me to risk being vulnerable in this way is the love I have for my congregation and the joy I have in being with them on Sunday mornings. I suspect when/if I go to another congregation, I'll be back to a text - at least for a while. I also know that there will be occasions when I'll want that text in front of me (sometimes my thinking just gets too convoluted for even me to keep it organized in my head!).

Anyhow, that leaves me pondering. . . what do I do with my blog? Suggestions anyone?


Going Out with Indescribable and Glorious Joy!

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church
Easter 2A (March 30, 2008)

Diana Butler Bass, a Senior Fellow at the Cathedral College of the Washington National Cathedral in DC published a book in 2004 called The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church. In it, Butler Bass builds on the work of Brooks Holifield and provides a description, in broad strokes, of the history of American congregations from 1607 to the present. So, for example, from 1607-1789 the American religions landscape and the American civic landscape were largely synonymous. One entered the church by virtue of being born. In other words, you were, by birth, both a citizen of the town and a member of the town-square church. After the Revolutionary War, the landscape changed a bit as the church became viewed as a Voluntary Association – multiple denominational churches competed for members by focusing on personal salvation and personal piety. In the late 19th century, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the church was viewed largely as a civic organization with the parish hall replacing the sanctuary as the focal point for the gathered community. These “social congregations” as they are dubbed by Holifield and Butler Bass, remained the norm until the post-World War II period when churches began to market their programs and worship services to specific groups of individuals. This is the period in which the non-denominational and mega-churches began to emerge and to flourish. It is also the first time that religious persons – in large numbers –could meaningfully be described as “shopping for a church” as they left the denomination of their birth in search of a better fit for their interests or needs. Congregations of this period are referred to as “participatory congregations.”

Holifield’s description of congregations stops here, but Butler Bass contends that today’s church – the church which has been emerging since the 1990s - is entering a new age –an age that is and will continue to be shaped by the postmodern replacement of the enlightenment’s notion of verifiable truths with an embrace of diversity, ambiguity, and contradiction. Unfortunately, those churches, writes Butler Bass, that “continue to be controlled by the worldviews of either social or participatory churchgoing . . . will experience conflict and decline” because the worldviews which support these structures “are passing and becoming increasingly less culturally tenable.”[1]

I wanted to quote just a bit of today’s reading from I Peter here, but I have to confess, I simply couldn’t find a piece to leave out. This is amazing stuff:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith - being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”[2]

Does this sound like a social club? Like an invitation to join what Butler Bass refers to as “the religious equivalent of Rotary or the Chamber of Commerce”? Hardly! This is an invitation to experience new birth – a new birth “into a living hope, an inheritance, that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading.”[3] And isn’t that what our celebration of Easter is all about? It is not about celebrating our acceptance into a club whose only requirements for membership are an ability to pledge 10% of our income and a willingness to show up on Sunday mornings for an hour of worship that requires little from us beyond an occasional amen and a nod in the middle of the pastor’s sermon to make him or her think you are listening! Indescribable and glorious Easter joy begs for intentional participation and authentic practice.

In today’s gospel we hear that the disciples have locked the door for fear of the Jews. And yet, despite this locked door, Jesus enters the room, stands with his disciples, and greets them: “Peace be with you.” Though the disciples wanted to protect themselves – to close their doors against those outside – Jesus came in, passing through the locked door, breaking down the physical boundary. Throughout his life, Jesus demonstrated his willingness to break through boundaries – boundaries of purity and of righteousness, boundaries of gender roles and status – and now, even after his resurrection, Jesus continues to demonstrate the importance of breaking through boundaries – this time, by passing through a locked door.

When being religious means little more than going to church on Sundays, we have become like those early disciples. We have locked the doors of our faith. The world continues to change outside the doors – but we are afraid to go out because we are no longer confident that our religious claims are relevant outside these four walls. Or maybe we are afraid to go out because we fear that doing so will somehow change what we do on this side of the door. But the bottom line is this. Jesus came to go out into the world. After greeting the disciples, he tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He sends them out – out of the locked room, out into the world filled with their fears. In the same way, Jesus calls us out. We are a sent people. We are called to do more than provide the best worship experiences inside these doors. We are called to do more than provide the best Sunday School for our children inside these doors. And we are called to do more than invite people into our building to participate in our programs. No! We are called to move outside of these walls – to march out these doors – and engage the community and the world that exist just on the other side.

People in our community are asking questions, seeking deep meaning; but the church has become only one of the myriad places they go in search of the answers. More and more people tell us they are “spiritual not religious” – a clear sign that something the church is offering is no longer relevant to the lives of many people. For these persons, self-help books, the latest health trends, or another mocha latte offer a quick spiritual fix. But, what these quick fixes do not offer – and those of us inside the doors of the church know this to be true – is the permanence and depth of the Gospel. What these quick fixes cannot do is provide new birth into a living hope, into an inheritance, that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading.

You and I have already received the promise of new birth, the promise of the Gospel. But for those outside who are seeking, those who are out there asking questions, who will bring them within sight of this Good News? This is a question for us all. Who will bring them within sight of this Good News? Let us open wide the doors of this church and accept Christ’s invitation to go outside rejoicing with an indescribable and glorious joy!

[1] Diana Butler Bass, The Practicing Congregation: Imagining A New Old Church, (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2004), pp. 15-20.
[2] I Peter 1:3-9.
[3] Butler Bass, pp. 61-2.