Friday, March 28, 2014


Sermon preached March 23, 2014

Texts: John 4:5-42

            It seems that I have a number of friends who are either turning fifty, or getting quite close.  I passed that by just a few years ago myself, and I sometimes like to think age time and age.  I was a boy in the 1960s and it is interesting to consider that the 1930s were closer in time to me then, than the 1960s are to today.  One of the gifts of growing older is that we are able to store up a lot in our memories.  One of the challenges is that sometimes we remember more about something that happened in the 1960s than something that happened yesterday.
            So here’s a blast from the past:
            “Windy” The Association
            I remember that song.  I was eight when it was a number one song in 1967 – forty seven years ago.  I think it is still a catchy song.  Who’s peekin’ out from under a stairway, calling a name that’s lighter than air?  Who’s bending down to give me a rainbow?  Everyone knows it’s Windy.
            But Windy sounds remarkably like God, God as Spirit, as blowing wind.  In his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus tells her, “God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.”
            God is Spirit.  The words that get translated Spirit are linked to the words for both breath and wind, and this is true for both Hebrew and Greek.  Frederick Buechner is right in putting together that little equation spirit=breath=life.  In the previous chapter of John’s gospel, from which we read last week, Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”  This has something to do with God as Spirit, as blowing wind.
            In this third sermon on the shades of God, I want to say three things about God as Spirit, as blowing wind, and then draw out what that may mean for us in our lives.
            God as Spirit should often be imagined as a refreshing gentle breeze.  I am going to mix my metaphors here something terrible, but I hope it will be o.k.  In the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, the discussion begins with water.  Jesus asks her for some, but then he goes off in this cryptic and mysterious direction.  “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  The woman responds by asking where Jesus intends to get this water from as he has no bucket.  Again, he responds rather mysteriously.  “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
            Jesus is saying something about God as Spirit, using water imagery.  But his remarks are translatable into wind imagery.  Water is refreshing.  It cools.  Gentle breezes refresh and cool.  God’s Spirit is like a gentle breeze in our lives, needed particularly when life feels hot and dry and parched.  Then we need a little living water.  Then we need a little gentle breeze.
            Winds, even when they are gentle, move things around.  Winds are not always gentle, and the stronger the wind, the more things get blown about.  God’s Spirit is like a blowing wind that rearranges things in our lives and in the world.  One of the most remarkable things about the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is that it happened at all.  The gospel writer includes this little explanatory note that is vitally important – “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”  Here is the way a more contemporary theologian described the situation of Jesus’ time.  “Because of the continual threat of defilement, and still more of being infected by false doctrine, association with Samaritans and Gentiles was unwelcome and taboo” (Ernst Kasemann, Jesus Means Freedom, 23).  There were also some strictures against a Jewish man conversing alone with a Jewish woman, and an encounter at a well would have been particularly fraught with tension for there are overtones of courtship in such encounters in the biblical tradition.  Recall the disciples’ reaction – “they were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.”  If Jesus is an indication of the nature of God as Spirit, as blowing wind, then this wind blows down barriers.  This Spirit is willing to shake things up.
            God as Spirit, as blowing wind also has a certain freedom, a certain unpredictability about it.  Again, the words from John 3 are helpful and instructive.  “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”  This is not to suggest that God is unreliable, only to suggest that God will blow through our lives in ways we had not imagined or predicted.
            So let me repeat an important point in this shades of God sermon series.  To better understand the shades of God, is to better understand the direction for our lives.  St. Maximus the Confessor: If we are made, as we are, in the image of God, let us become the image both of ourselves and of God (The Philokalia, II, 171)
            So what does thinking about God as Spirit and as blowing wind suggest for our lives?
            God as gentle breeze suggests our need to receive God’s Spirit, to be open to the Spirit’s work in our lives.  We all need a little refreshing breeze from time to time in our lives.  Joan Chittister speaks of the Spirit as one who “whispers us into the great quest within” (In Search of Belief, 162).  The gentle breeze of God whispers, and our task is sometimes just to listen.  In Help, Thanks, Wow Anne Lamott writes about grace as wind.  “But grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on” (47).  The gentle breeze of God is such a gift of grace.
            Anthony Robinson, a UCC pastor in Seattle, writes about a tendency in Christians in long-standing denominations to see themselves as givers only.  God brings us together in the church to do good.  He argues that this is out of balance.  A one-sided emphasis on giving and behaving as giver… can blind us to our own needs – for grace, for healing, for conversion, for God (Transforming Congregational Culture, 67).  We are strong, and have gifts to give.  We are also, in Robinson’s words: The self that is anxious and the self that is hurting; the self that is, yes, capable of giving but that also needs to receive the gifts of God and the grace of God (67)
            This Spirit of God that we welcome into our lives as a gentle breeze, also stirs things up.  In another of his books, Anthony Robinson writes, “The work of the Holy Spirit is often disruptive, challenging, and disturbing” (What’s Theology Got To Do With It?, 140)  God loves us as we are, and there are things in our lives that could and should change.  God loves the world as it is, and there are things in the world that could and should and need to change.  Spirit-filled people are open to change as the winds of the Spirit blow.  Spirit-filled people are often those working to disrupt social distinctions that are not life-giving.  We are moved to reach out to the others at the wells of life – and the other may be someone in poverty, or someone of a different background, or someone of a different racial-ethnic background, or someone of a different sexual orientation, or someone of a different religious background.  We humans have a gift for dividing.  The wind-blowing Spirit of God seems to like to blow down divisions and blow people together.
            So here’s another blast from my past.  When I was in high school, there was this guy, John Powell, whose writings could be found on multi-colored posters.  In fact his books often had pages that were like those posters.  Here is one poster saying: “The behavior of the fully human being is always unpredictable – simply because it is free” (Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am?, 81)  There is something important here for we who seek to live in the image of God as Spirit and blowing wind.  There should be in our lives a certain freedom, a certain unpredictability.  Now it is important to distinguish unpredictability from unreliability.  They are different, I think.  For followers of Jesus who tells us God is Spirit, there should be in our lives a certain spontaneity, a certain liveliness, a certain curiosity.  I appreciate the words of Pamela Cooper-White.  Images of spirit as wind, breath, life force and inspiration collide and combine to form an impression of great power and energy, space enough for air to swirl, a feeling of freedom and release (Many Voices, 91)
            God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. 
            If I were to sum up what it might mean to live into this image of ourselves and of God, I might say it is to:
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.                                 (Wendell Berry, “Manifesto”)

            Or maybe the best image is that of the dance.  The universe belongs to the dancer.  The person who does not dance does not know what is coming to pass (The Acts of John, in Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 19).  The music of God the Spirit, the blowing wind, comes to us as a gift of grace to be received then shared.  Dancing to the Spirit’s music will change us, and take us in unpredictable directions.  Still, the invitation is to dance on the winds of the Spirit.

            “Windy” The Association

Friday, March 21, 2014


Sermon preached March 16, 2014

Texts: Deuteronomy 32:8-14; Isaiah 49:13-16; Luke 13:31-35; John 3:1-17

            Those of you who came hoping for some extended commentary on the Academy Award winning film from which I appropriated the title for this morning’s sermon will be disappointed.  All I have seen of the movie “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansen, Amy Adams, and Rooney Mara are the previews.  However, I do know that at the heart of the movie is a mysterious personal presence who speaks as a female.
            Mysterious personal presence – female.  Hmm.  Let me get back to this.  First a little personal history.  Alan Watts (1915-1973), one-time Episcopal priest, later founder of the American Academy of Asian Studies and well-known teacher of Buddhism and of the relationship between Eastern and Western spiritual traditions – Alan Watts was an important teacher for me at a certain point in my spiritual journey.  When I was going through a period of curiosity and doubt, Watts’ writings, filled with gentle wisdom and humor helped keep something alive in my soul.  His writings were a doorway not only into other spiritual traditions, but also into lost dimensions of Christian spirituality.
            And it was through Alan Watts that I first heard the story about the astronaut who went far out into space and upon his return was asked whether he had been to heaven and seen God.  “Yes.”  “Well, what about God?”  “She is black.” (Watts, OM: Creative Meditations, 143)  Alan Watts was a good teacher, and his story still has something to teach us.
            God is not male.  Nor is God female.  As theologian Sallie McFague writes: God as mother does not mean that God is mother (or father).  We imagine God as both mother and father, but we realize how inadequate these or any other metaphors are to express the creative love of God, the love that gives, without calculating the return, the gift of the universe. (Models of God, 122).
            God is not male or female, but I take seriously the words of another theologian, Elizabeth Johnson.  The mystery of God transcends all images but can be spoken equally well and poorly in concepts taken from male or female reality….  In actual fact, however, male and female image simply have not been nor are they even now equivalent.  Female religious symbols of the divine are underdeveloped, peripheral, considered secondarily if at all in Christian language and the practice it continues to shape. (She Who Is, 56-57)
            God is not female or male, and we may use male or female images for God.  However, we have tended to use the male much more frequently, for many years almost exclusively.  If we are to develop ourselves more fully spiritually, if we are to grow more into our God-likeness, then we need a richer understanding of God and that includes a greater development of the feminine face of God – mysterious personal presence in a female voice.  Besides, if we are to take the Bible seriously, we cannot ignore this feminine face of God.
            Let’s take a quick tour.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night.  “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” he says to Jesus.  “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Puzzling remark.  Nicodemus tries to think this through.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  Jesus tells Nicodemus not to be astonished by his words about being born from above.  The Spirit of God gives birth.  I don’t know about you, but from all I know, it is women that give birth.
            The Song of Moses, God is praised.  The pronouns are male, but listen to some of the images.  He sustained him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste; he shielded him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye.  As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him….  He set him atop the heights of the land, and fed him with produce from the field; he nursed him with honey from the crags, with oil from flinty rock; curds from the herd, and mile from the flock, with fat of lambs and rams.  Nursing.  Again, I don’t know about you, but from all I know, it is women who nurse.
            Jesus, coming into Jerusalem speaks from the heart.  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.  Jesus, the person in whom we see the image of God most fully, Jesus comparing himself to a hen gathering her brood.  A female image.
            One of the starkest female images for God in the Bible are the words in Isaiah, words attributed to God.  Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
            Let me try and bring all this to a few succinct points.  If God can and should be described in female images, what might they say about God?
            God is a creative power, a creative love.  But God’s creativity is not simply a creativity that works with things outside of God.   God’s creativity comes from deep within God’s own self.  God’s creativity is God giving birth.
            God’s care for creation, God’s care for us is a nurturing, nursing care.
            God care for creation, God’s care for us also has a tough side, a fierce dimension.  Sallie McFague, who has written wonderfully about God as lover, mother, friend, writes this about the image of mother-God.  In the picture of God as mother, God is angry because what comes from her being and belongs to her lacks the food and other necessities to grow and flourish (Models of God, 113)  The image of God as nursing, nurturing mother needs to be supplemented by the image of God as mother fiercely defending her children and calling the world to provide for the flourishing of all.
            The point of our shades of God series is not to form us theologically.  This is not simply a cognitive exercise.  To better understand the shades of God, is to better understand the direction for our lives.  St. Maximus the Confessor: If we are made, as we are, in the image of God, let us become the image both of ourselves and of God (The Philokalia, II, 171) 
            So what does understanding the feminine shades of God mean for us, for becoming both ourselves and more God-like?
            We are to be those who creatively give birth to the good and beautiful in our lives and in our world.  I deeply appreciate Patricia Farmer’s words in her wonderful book, Embracing a Beautiful God: It is our nature to create something.  We are not just creations of God, we are cocreators with a divine Artist who continues to arrange for us new possibilities out of the colors and textures of our lives.  When we offer our creative efforts to God, we are gathering up all the scatterings of our days and arranging them into something that makes sense to us….  It is like offering to God and the world a bouquet of flowers that we’ve hidden behind our backs, something fresh that we grew and tended ourselves. (21)  We are not simply passive recipients of what happens in the world.  Empowered and embraced by God we respond to her by creatively giving birth to our lives so we can give ourselves beautifully to the world.
            There is tending and nurturing in that creative activity.  How are we nurturing and nursing the God-given strengths, gifts and talents that we have?  How are you helping you to grow in response to the nurturing activity of a mother-God?  And how are we nurturing and nursing the good and beautiful in the world.  What is good and beautiful is often small, quiet, hidden and needs our nursing and nurturing.  The world is often a desert land, a howling wilderness waste.  Empowered and embrace by God we respond to her nurturing love by nursing and nurturing the good and beautiful.
            Lest we think of mother-God as only gentle and tender, we need to be reminded that God’s gentleness is strong, and God’s tenderness is fierce.  Too many in our world lack the basic necessities to develop their gifts, and God does not play the kind of favorites among her children that our world seems to want to play.  God calls us to play fair, to watch out for the least and the left out.  Empowered and embraced by God we respond to her gentle strength and fierce tenderness by doing justice.
            God loves us, God so loves the world, like a mother.  It makes me think of a song – what doesn’t – a Paul Simon song.  My momma loves, she loves me.  She get down on her knees and hugs me.  She loves me loves me like a rock.  She rock me like the rock of ages, she love me.  She loves me, loves me, loves me.

            That’s a vital shade of God, and God inspires and empowers us to love like that, to love with a creative love working for the good of all the world.  Be loved.  Let God love you like a mother.  Love, in her name.  Amen.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Playing God

Sermon preached March 9, 2014

Texts: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

            Electronic games are quite popular and quite convenient.  We carry them around on our phones.  How many of you have ever played “Angry Birds”?  For some games you still need a game system, and if you have one, here’s a game you can play – “God’s Playing Field.”  Here is the description: You decide who lives and who dies.  If you’ve ever wanted a chance to play God, there it is.  Will you be merciful or merciless?
            When kidney dialysis first became more widely available in the early 1960s, because of the development of a Teflon shunt, decisions needed to be made about who would receive the treatment.  At the Seattle  Artificial Kidney Center at Swedish Hospital in 1961 an Admissions and Policies Committee was formed to determine who would receive hemodialysis.  The committee was a private-sector creation and consisted of seven citizens–lawyer, minister, banker, housewife, state government official, labor leader, and surgeon– all selected by the King County Medical Society.   The committee’s work became well-known through a 1962 article in Life magazine.  It became known as “the God committee.”
            Playing God.  There is something about “playing God” that we think quite objectionable.  When the work of Seattle’s “God committee” came to light, it sparked a national debate and national legislation which made kidney dialysis virtually universally available in the United States.  We did not want committees of seven “playing God.”
            There are deep roots to our concerns about playing God.  We find them early in our Scriptures, in the story in Geneis of the man and the woman in the garden.  The man is given instructions by God not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” The crafty serpent, craftier than any other wild animal, tells the woman, however, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  They eat, they do not die, they gain knowledge, but their lives are forever changed.  “The eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”
            This story is absolutely fascinating on all kinds of levels, and here’s just a couple of them.   Everyone reading this story understands that a part of being human is having some knowledge of good and evil.  To be human is to have some measure of self-understanding and self-awareness.  And the story does not dispute that there is something God-like in this.  There is something God-like in this, and there is also something uncomfortable about this ability to know, reflect, feel.  There is a sense that we are stuck with this God-likeness and it is not always easy.
            I want to push the point further.  I want to suggest that playing God is just what human life is all about.  The early Christian saint and theologian Athanasius, wrote, “God was made human that we might be made like God.”  More recently, the biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink wrote, “to incarnate God is what it means to be fully human” (The Human Being, 30)
            Finally, let me draw your attention to the longer quote on the bulletin insert.  Allen Verhey is a theological ethicist who writes in the area of bioethics.  Should human beings “play God”?  It depends, you see, on what it means to “play God.”…  If we are to “play God” as God plays God, then we have a pattern for our imitation in God’s hospitality to the poor and to the stranger, to the powerless and to the voiceless….  If we are to “play God” as God plays God, then we will work for a society where human beings – each of them, even the least of them – are treated as worthy of God’s care and affection. (“Playing God and Invoking a Perspective”)
              Playing God is just what human life is all about with one significant qualification.  We are to play God as God plays God.  One way to understand the story of Jesus’ temptation is to see it as a series of temptations to play God badly.  In the end, Jesus wants to play God in the right way.
            Jesus is famished.  There are stones and he is tempted to turn them into bread.  In the story, the temptation is real.  He might be able to do this, but he chooses not to.  We live in a world where hunger is real and solutions to hunger are not always easy.  To turn stones into bread would isolate Jesus from that world, remove him from it, would make the point of power such isolation and removal from the deep hungers of the world, not all of which are for bread.  Jesus will play God by staying engaged with this hungry world.
            Jesus is tempted to throw himself into danger, trusting that nothing will harm him, that he will not dash his foot against a stone.  Jesus refuses.  We live in a world where people get hurt, where our feet get dashed against stones.  Jesus is tempted to isolate himself from that world, to remove himself from that world, to make the point of power such isolation and removal from the hurt and pain of the world.  Jesus will play God by staying engaged with this hurting world.
            Jesus is given the opportunity to have it all, to make success and splendor the point of his life, and to get there any way he can.  He refuses.  We live in a world that often idolizes splendor and excess, where success is defined primarily in material terms and people are tempted to reach that goal any way they can, even if others are left behind.  Jesus is tempted to isolate himself from the toils and struggles of the human community, to remove himself from that world, to make the point of power such isolation and removal, to make the point of power self-aggrandizement.  Jesus will play God by staying engaged with the daily struggles of people for a better world, stay engaged with the community building a newer world.
            We are like God, knowing good and evil, being self-aware.  We cannot go back.  So how will we play God?  “To incarnate God is what it means to be fully human” (Walter Wink).  “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” (St. Irenaeus, in Gerald May, The Dark Night of the Soul, 181)  So how will we play God?
            I think Allen Verhey is right.  Play God as God plays God.  Then it matters very much how we imagine God.  Marcus Borg: How we image God shapes not only what we think God is like but also what we think the Christian life is about (The God We Never Knew, 57)  Jesus was tempted to play God as a God whose power removes God from human struggles, from human hurts, fears, hopes, dreams.  Jesus was tempted to play God as a God whose power isolates God from the world in which we live.  And aren’t we likewise tempted?  Don’t we sometimes think of God as sitting up there somewhere making decisions about who lives and who dies, sometime with more mercy than others?  Don’t we sometimes imagine God far removed, making inscrutable decisions about illness and plague and death?
How we imagine God matters.  How we view the shades of God matters, and peering into some of the shades of God is where we are going on Sunday mornings this Lent.  But for we Christians, we look to Jesus to understand God best, and to understand what it might mean to play God as God plays God.  As I said on Wednesday, the goal of all this exploring is not to construct an intellectually satisfying theology, as interesting as that can be, at least for some of us.  The goal is a transformed life.
            I need to add a cautionary note.  Inviting us to play God is not an invitation to a mono-maniacal ego trip.  Taken in the wrong way, the invitation to play God can lead one to become an insufferable bore or to a room in a psychiatric facility.  There is an important truth in the acknowledgement that we are not God, but that just means we are not God in God’s fullness.  There is something of God in each of us that needs to be tended, nurtured and allowed to grow.
            The invitation to play God as God plays God is to make God more real in our lives here and now, to make God more real in our lives even in these aching, hungry, dying bodies, to make God more real in our lives in this place and in this time – at First United Methodist Church, in Duluth, Minnesota, in the United States, in this world of 2014 with all is beauty and joy and heartache.

            The invitation to play God as God plays God is stated so well by St. Maximus the Confessor: If we are made, as we are, in the image of God, let us become the image both of ourselves and of God (The Philokalia, II, 171)  Somehow being our best selves and playing God are inextricably linked together.  We have a joyous adventure of discovery ahead exploring our lives and the shades of God.  Amen.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Fire and Rain

Sermon preached March 2, 2014

Texts: Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

            James Taylor, “Fire and Rain”
            Fire and rain, when sung by James Taylor, the words are woven into a song that is beautifully poignant.  In our Scripture readings for this morning, fire and rain and clouds, well, it is all a little strange.
            Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.  The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day [God] called to Moses out of the cloud.  Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.  Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain.
            Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James, and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone lie the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
            Clouds and fire and rain and dazzling white.  It all seems just a little odd, a little out there.  Grammatically, the stories are “out there.”  They are third person accounts.  This is what happened to those people.  I want to suggest this morning that the importance of these stories is trying to move them from the third person to the first person, from out there to in here – both individually and communally.  James Taylor sings, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.”  But this morning the question to us is posed in another song, “I wanna know, have you ever seen rain?” (John Fogerty, Credence Clearwater Revival)  In other words, what is your experience of God.
            These passages suggest that we can experience God as fire and as rain.  God as fire – God as a burning passion in our lives, a yearning for goodness, for holiness which is healthy wholeness, for a better world – more just, more peaceful, kinder, gentler.  God as fire – illuminating our hearts, souls, minds, helping us see more deeply and clearly, helping us see both the beauty of the world more clearly, and the suffering in the world more clearly.  Do you know something of this God as fire in your own life, this “fire of love in our flesh and our bones” in the words of one of our songs (“Gather Us In”).
            God as rain – God as healing rain, for rain heals – it heals the earth.  God as rain - cleansing, washing, as in the waters of baptism.  God as rain, refreshing, like a cool drink on a warm day.  Do you know something of this God as rain, as “healing rain coming down… bringing mercy” in the words of another song we sing here (“Healing Rain”).
            The first part of this week I was in Nashville.  I am part of a team appointed by the last General Conference of The United Methodist Church to explore and make recommendations about certain parts of our understanding of and processes for ordained ministry.  It is called the Ministry Study Commission.  We are working on a report and perhaps some legislation for the next General Conference.  We may suggest some helpful things to the church, but among some of us, anyway, there is a strong sense that what our denomination most needs will not come through legislation, though there are some needs there for sure, but what we most need is something deeper, something more of these experiences of God as fire and rain, as passion for the world, as healing rain.  It is not an either/or – organization or experience, but without the inner experience, without helping each other know God more deeply, the organizational stuff loses its meaning.
            A few months ago, the Church Council presented to the congregation a “Membership Covenant.”  It represents a lot of good thinking and good work.  Used well, it can be helpful to us as a church, as a community of followers of Jesus.  The covenant encourages us to think about our mutual expectations and how to live together in certain ways.  The covenant talks about loving in the spirit of Jesus.  It talks about sharing our time, money, skills and other resources.  It talks about being an intentionally welcoming community.  It encourages regular worship together.  It invites us to continue growing in our faith and suggests spiritual disciplines or practices for doing so.  It asks that we pray for our church.
            This is all really good stuff.  Underlying it all, though, is a desire for each of us to connect more deeply with God, with this God who passionately loves us and loves the world, a fire of love which we desire in our flesh and our bones, with this God who is a healing rain, coming down to heal our lives and heal the world.  While our covenant can strengthen us as a church, it also needs to help us experience this God of fire and rain more deeply, because in the end, that’s what church is about – knowing and experiencing this God so that our lives are changed, made more whole, directed to changing the world.
            Theologian Marcus Borg says that at the heart of Christianity is this connection with God.  The risen Christ journeys with us whether we know it or not.  Yet there are moments when we do become aware of his presence. (Jesus at 2000, 17).  Diana Butler Bass argues something similar. She writes that Christian worship should help “open people to experiencing… awe, wonder” (Christianity for the Rest of Us, 173).  She goes on.  Hospitality, beauty, celebration.  Awe, wonder, mystery.  Communities making merry.  For too long, mainline Protestants equated worship with thinking about God.  Now, in at least some places, their hearts – the whole capacity of being human – are learning to experience God. (178)
            I want to be clear this morning.  It matters what we do.  Moses came down out of the clouds with a lot of instructions for how to live life in response to God.  Peter, James and John still had miles to go with Jesus.  It matters that we feed the hungry, clothe the ill-clad, befriend the friendless, work to heal the sick, seek justice, pursue freedom, accompany the sorrowful.  It matters that we do these things.  It matters that we show up, like on Sunday morning, for our own good and for others.  All that matters.  Good works are… necessary to faith working through love….  Faith inevitably finds expression in the witness of faith (Schubert Ogden, The Understanding of Christian Faith, 126)

            But what sustains us when the road is rough and life is hard?  Where do we find healing along the way for our lives?  What is our “why” for doing justice, loving kindness, seeking peace and reconciliation?  We want and need to encounter this God who is fire and rain again and again and again.  That’s the invitation today.  Amen.