Attention Church Shoppers:  If you are ready to settle down, we’d love to be your church home. In the header of a church bulletin I recently discovered this slogan, and I’m not sure I’d like to duplicate that sentiment here.  Instead I’d like to propose four unsettling words from today’s text:  AFTER… DESTROY… EGYPT… OUT.    

But before we review these dynamic words, let me linger on the last one.  “Out” is a colloquialism in everyday speech.  If we want to describe what we’re doing for New Years, or what we’d like to do with friends—chances are we’ve said, “We’re going out.”   Where I grew up, near Philadelphia, if we wanted to signal the other junior high kids that two people had become romantically linked, we said, “They’re going out.”   So, in just those two expressions, we have the theme of outdoor adventure right next to the theme of committed relationships.  The journey out, you see, may hold both of these ideas in dramatic tension.   

But let’s explore the other words in Matthew 2:13–15… 

The first word is “after” and relates to the post-holiday stupor suffered by many of us.  Think of it.  Just as the magi arrived on the scene, offering their gifts, they left again and that’s an experience that we have every Christmas.  Magical people come with gifts.  And those same people with gifts go away, and we are left to clean up the wrappings and to assemble the parts on the floor.  

Another association that we have with the word “After” is the amazing concept of post-modernity.  Believe it or not, you and I live and die in a post-modern world, which means that we now realize salvation is slightly more than a mouse-click away.  Neither more technology, nor more information, will make us whole.  The possibility of wholeness only occurs after we realize that we haven’t yet arrived. 

 In the 1967 film known as The Graduate, Mister McGuire approaches Benjamin Braddock with a secret message.  All the friends of the Braddocks are there to celebrate Ben’s graduation from college, but none of them really understands how depressed he is.  “I guess I’m little concerned about my future,” he tells the assembled suburbanites.  They all raise their glasses and continue with the party, and that’s when Mister McGuire grabs the scholar by the shoulder and says, “Ben, just one word…  Are you listening, Benjamin?” 

“Yes sir,” comes the meek reply. 

“Plastics,” says the jovial friend of the family. 

“Exactly how do you mean that?” 

“There’s a bright future in plastics,” says Mister McGuire.   And yet, somehow, in the world after graduation, Benjamin doubts it’s the future he’s searching for.   And that brings us to the second word. 

The second word is “destroy.”  In verse 8 of Matthew 2, Herod’s stated purpose had been to pay the Anointed Child homage.   The proxy king of Judah had actually commissioned the magi to seek him so that he too might worship.  By verse 13, however, we see where that style of worship leads.  The angel uses the word “destroy,” and today we’ve been given fair warning.   

 Not every pre-packaged birthday party for Jesus is healthy for Christ.  Some are deadly.  Think back to the early, early days of Willow Creek.  Willow Creek Community Church is a seek-sensitive megachurch in the West Barrington suburbs of Chicago, and since 1975 it has provided an awesome atmosphere for people to experience the story of Jesus in an entertaining style.  The only problem, according to some early staffers, is that there were “dead bodies” everywhere.  Not literally, of course, but in terms of marriages, personal habits and working relationships, the program pioneers of Willow Creek would kill themselves week in and week out.   And why?  Well, the thinking in the late 1970’s and 80’s had been that there was a correlation between the number of programs that a church hosted and the spiritual maturity of its members.  At a recent Leadership Summit, however, Hybels admits “we made a mistake…”  Every attempt to seek Christ vicariously for another person leads to that angelic warning:  Herod seeks the child to destroy him. And that takes us to the third word in Matthew 2:13—15:  “Egypt.”

Egypt, of course, is a geographical place name, referring to the northwest corner of the African continent.  But it’s interesting to note that in first century Egypt a vibrant and alternative community of Jews had settled.   This community, it seems, provided Joseph and Mary with a safe haven for the duration of Herod’s reign, until his death.  And this kind of interim, communal destination also represents what we have going on today. 

 Latah Valley, among other communities, provides us with the time and the space and the relationships which nurture faith in Jesus.   We require this safe haven for a portion of our journey, but it can’t become the whole journey.  In his book, Intuitive Leadership, Tim Keel talks about the formative few months he had becoming involved in University of Kansas college ministry.   Ichthus had very little staff and even less money.  What the group of students did have, however, was an hour of prayer four mornings a week, once a month Friday Night Worship and a set of safe, hospitable relationships that would not and could not last forever.    

That’s Egypt, and it leads us to the fourth word in the text, which is “out.”  “Out of Egypt” is a phrase that would have been readily recognized by Matthew’s Jewish readers.  Centuries earlier the prophet Hosea had scribbled it down as a prefacing Israel’s failures.  Hosea 11:1, to be exact, says “when Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”   The sad news is that verse two depicts Israel’s repeated reluctance to fully break away from Egyptian power and influence.  Instead of leaving Pharoah’s system of slavery behind, and exploring new ways of being faithful on the journey, Israel would return to what they already knew.  Jeremiah, chapters 42 through 44, depicts how the people of Jerusalem abandoned the threatened city and went to settle amid the strongholds of Pharoah because they didn’t want to face up to Babylon.   

Jeremiah 44:13—14 declares,

 “I will punish those who live in the land of Egypt, as I have punished Jerusalem, with the sword, with famine and with pestilence, so that none of the remnant of Judah who have come to settle in the land of Egypt shall escape…” 

So, essentially, we have to admit that Egypt is no place to hide.  Egypt is always there.  It’s a part of the past; it’s where we’ve been before.   But with Jesus, as the embodiment of Israel’s hopes and dreams, the scripture is fulfilled.  He comes out of Egypt.  He doesn’t live and grow up in a private little hothouse of faith, where things are tame and predictable.  Jesus comes out to live off the raw and wild nutrients which God provides in the world out there.     

Are you ready for the journey out?  Maybe not.  Maybe, you’re still reeling about that plastic future of postmodernity.  Maybe you would rather send someone else to venture out for you and then bring it back in a neatly polished program.  Maybe you’re nostalgic for Egypt and the glory days of growing up in faith.  Finding yourself in any one of those places is okay.   But what would be a tragedy is to stay at any one of those places for too long.  In 2008, what we might think of fearful and worrisome may simply be the last leg of the journey and it goes out. Amen.     

According to the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, there is an inner pilgrimage which corresponds to that journey that we take outwardly.   He warns that if people attempt to take the journey of faith without reflection and without contrition, the sad results will include despair and domination over others which will also culminate in despair.  And so, let me emphasize—just as there is a journey together (in face to face conversation)—and just as there is a journey from that place of your personal encounter with God’s grace—and just as there is a journey to the world with a new list of places and people to which we’ve been called—there is also a journey in, which includes random thoughts, chaotic feelings, déjà vu, dreams and essentially those impulses that we pick up intuitively. 

On Christmas Eve, the journey in becomes our focus because of the biblical text.   Matthew 1:18—25 depicts a reluctant fiancée.  Think about it.  Joseph is haunted with second thoughts.  How could he marry this poor peasant girl now?   Outwardly it would be the most shameful thing he could do.  How could he raise a child that he had not helped to conceive?   Outwardly, in that social context, an unwed pregnancy would be the most humiliating scenario.   And yet, inwardly, as Joseph lets down his conscious and conscientious resolve, dreams overtake him.  And into those dreams, an angel of the Lord whispers.

 “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.   She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 20,21).  

Frederick Bueckner tells the story about staying overnight at a friend’s home.  The friend had actually just passed away about a month earlier and in the guest room Bueckner dosed off to sleep.  He dreamed and in the dream his friend approached the bedside and stood as some kind of luminous shadow.  He spoke of the goodness of life and gratitude.  And just as he turned to go, Bueckner spoke up.  He said, “How do I know that you’re real?”   The friend plucked a thread from his sweater and let it slip from his fingers.  The next morning, Bueckner said that he was discussing at the breakfast table, when the wife said that she had packed that red sweater away weeks ago.  Bueckner returned to the guestroom and there in the middle of the floor lay a small strand of wool.  It was red. 

You see, the point that Bueckner tries to make with that story isn’t that we should believe in ghosts, but that our dreams are part of the journey.  Dreams contribute some crucial information—the rawest of raw data—from which we might draw conclusions about life, death and everything in between.  

A few weeks ago, I made reference to Sheila Larson, who had been interviewed for the book Habits of the Heart.  Sheila is famous for saying that she believes in “just her own little voice,” in Sheilaism.   But I want to make clear:  Sheilaism is not what we’re talking about tonight.  The journey in must correspond to some tangible thread of our outward experience with other people. 

The journey in will not simply regurgitate what we already think.  On the contrary, the journey in will put us in contact with people like Mary in Galilee, people who will alter and challenge and change the very thoughts we think and the very image we have of God. In the Spokesman Review Editorial Page for December 6, two frustrated residents wrote the paper about the school district’s omission of Christmas on the official calendar.  One person wondered why people were getting so worked up.  He wrote:  “What if I don’t want my child exposed to the judgmental, aggressive and almost obsessive behavior that religious people subject all of us non-religious people to?”   By contrast, adjacent to this paragraph, another person said, “I pray that those responsible will remedy their ‘mistake’ quickly.  It would be a pity if God were so absent-minded as to mistakenly omit certain people from his very important list, the Book of Life.”     

So there we have it.  Two passionate people who think that they are right, and who then resolved and planned to let us know…  The Journey of Faith will collide with contentious people all the time.   But I wonder what their dreams are like.   I wonder what would happen if people who are so quick to make rational arguments and to express their opinions, would slip off to that realm where dreams come and angels whisper.  I wonder. 

Do you wonder tonight?   

Tonight, we’re not here to argue about the culture wars.  But we are here to acknowledge the dreams of people like Joseph, dreams through which the possibility of God tiptoes into our waking hours. In James Loder’s book, The Transforming Moment, we have a brief glimpse of a woman, named Willa.   She has been placed in an institution and none of the specialists have been able to get through to her.  Something happened in her life; she had been traumatized and paralyzed with fear and then just broke down.   She didn’t utter a word for months, and then one night, there came a whisper in the silence.  The whisper said, “The silence is not empty; there’s purpose for your life.”   That night Willa slept well, and awoke ready to talk, ready to show herself as a capable woman.  She eventually convinced the doctors of her health and she says that she’s found the source of that whisper in the night.   She says that she found it by going in and going in. 

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son they shall name him ‘Emmanuel,’ which means God is with us.” 

You see, the cool thing about Willa and Mary and even Joseph is that they’re willing and hopeful enough to ignore all the extraneous stuff that swirls around us.  They ignore the controversies and the sentimentalism and the cacophony of Christmas jingles long enough to hear the news, news which comes to us in silence, and then they name that news Jesus because he will save the people from their sins.   Amen.

Here is a list.  And we don’t need to check it twice.  The list includes those specific places to which the angel Gabriel had been sent.  The list also includes the specific people to whom this messenger from God had been sent.   And I’d like to make a big deal this morning about that prepositional word, TO.  Luke says, the list goes like this:

  • To a town in Galilee called Nazareth;
  • To a virgin named Mary;
  • To the family of that virgin’s fiancée, Joseph; and
  • Consequently to what’s known as the “house” or “lineage” of David.

Now, I’m not sure how we’re feeling about angels in 2007, but even if you’d rather leave that part of the tale to Hallmark, even if you’re not especially disposed to believe in spiritual emissaries from God who are dispatched to the middle of no-where, even if this whole sequence seems like a giant fairy tale—we must admit the list has merit.  The list involves historic, earth-bound geography and historic biological and social processes.  The list bears some weight. 

And to that extent this list from the Bible resembles a list that we may have seen around the house recently.   Do you remember that list? You know what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the list that’s crumpled up in a ball on the floor, the list of the things that you had to do before Christmas.  And I’m talking about the list of New Year’s Resolutions which are right around the corner.   I’m talking about life lists, major decisions.   Things we’d like to accomplish before we die.  Things that we feel as if we’ve been born to finish. 

Once upon a time, I was going through some of my mother’s things—old photo albums and high school yearbooks.  She and my father had dated on and off in school, and I thought it was fun to peruse the ancient script of the Sharon Hill class of 1948.  Anyway, what I found, nestled between faculty and prom pictures, was a list.  A list of first and middle names—two girls and two boys.   And coincidentally, they were the names of my two brothers and two sisters.  Weird, huh?  Then, of course, it dawned on me.  My mother had dreamed about giving birth, and these were the names that she had imagined at least two years before getting married.  Now the list made total sense to me.   But one problem remained:  I was the fifth child, and yet my mother had failed to scribble my name in her book of life.  Wow!  Talk about your existential moment!   To this day, my mother has no explanation except to say, oooppps!     

You see, it’s awkward to admit this, but what if the most significant decisions in our lives aren’t included on the list that we’ve made?  What if the most significant decisions are made for us—as in the angel Gabriel informing Mary that she’s been favored, that the Lord is with her.   Well, exactly how is the Lord with her?  Ah, by making her pregnant with a child that she does not even get to name herself?   

Take a glance at the angelic verbs beginning in verse 31.  

You will conceive in your womb…  You will name him Jesus…  He will be great…  He will be called Son of the Most High…  The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David…  He will reign…  Of his kingdom there will be no end.

 Do any of those things sound like items that Mary might like to check off the list herself?  No, not exactly.  What they sound like are things that are going to happen whether she wants them to or not.   The only question, I think she’s pondering in verse 29 and that she finally says yes to in verse 38 is whether she wants to be intimately involved with these future events. 

Hudson Taylor had been a missionary to China for over fifty years when a crisis developed over the laying of a small section of sewer pipe in one of the inland villages.  The story is that someone had asked a pessimistic question about the future of the Christian faith among the Chinese, and if this sanitation upgrade would be really necessary.  Taylor responded by saying that he just wanted to lay the pipe from here to there, and before his death in 1905, he not only laid that pipe but prayerfully recruited and trained hundreds of missionaries for the rugged and most remote regions of east Asia.  More importantly he trusted and equipped the Chinese people to tell the story of Jesus to one another so that when the communist party deported all foreign missionaries after World War II, it didn’t matter.  Taylor had laid the pipe from here to there. 

Mary, of course, understands what that kind of faith journey is all about.  It’s not about the whole abstract and overwhelming future hanging by an umbilical cord.  That kind of responsibility would be too much for anybody, let alone a teenage peasant girl.

 But, you see, it is about accepting the decisions which God has made for you and for me incrementally.  I love quote of Mary in response to all of these announcements.  She says in verse 34, “How can this be…?”  Think about that.  You might be impressed with how this young woman might be able to even ask this question.  The angel has just blasted her with a montage of expressions like “Son of the Most High God,” “the throne of David,” “the house of Jacob” and that’s not to mention “the kingdom” without end.   All this and Mary’s question is basically about the biology of getting pregnant when she hasn’t slept with anyone.    I mean, I’m sure that Mary had that experience on her list.  She had probably had a list that read something like, 1.  Get engaged to Joseph; 2.  Get married to Joseph; and 3.  Get impregnated by Joseph.   But now, you see, that list of Mary’s life-events is all out of whack.  Now with the angel’s announcement, item #2 may be ruined.  And item #1 may be reversed.  Where in the world would this new list of decisions lead her?  Where will it lead us? 

Tom Long tells this story about a high-powered executive who had a list.  His list involved  “temporarily dropping prices below the level of profitability in order to starve a smaller competitor out of the market.  Then, with the market to himself, prices and profits could rise.  The fact that the competitor was a struggling family-owned business, not really a major factor in the market, but the sole livelihood of a family with three small children, was known to the executive.  The plan was technically legal, though, and all competitors are fair game, since business, after all, is business” (p. 21).  

So, just prior to the implementation of this list, something unexpected happened.  The business executive received a phone call about a death in his extended family, his cousin.  He wasn’t especially close to the cousin, but something compelled him to go and he made the effort to re-shuffle some of the items on his list.   He flew home and eventually found his seat in the middle of a familiar cemetery where many of his relatives had been buried.  During the service, he looked over at the words, etched on the stone of his grandmother’s grave marker.  They were from the Book of Proverbs and read like this:  “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” 

“The teaching of kindness…”   The business executive glared at that message as if it had been sent directly to him.   And right then and there he knew his old list of corporate take-overs and making money would have to be scrapped.  And on his return-trip, back to work, business wasn’t business anymore.  And he re-arranged his schedule according to the message he had been given.

Friends in Christ—Latah Valley Presbyterian Church is venturing into the future.  The same kingdom without end, the reign of God’s justice and peace, is where we are bound to go.  But here is a place and a time when we receive messages that aren’t always included on our to-do list.  And these messages, if taken to heart, may allow us the freedom of living life more fully.   Amen. 

We talked last week about the journey of faith and how that adventure includes lots of conversation.  That conversation, I want to emphasize, takes place between us and God, but also among those who are physically here, face to face.  And yet, during that exchange of ideas and feelings there is one question that invariably comes up:  Where are you from?  One’s place of origin can be an awkward thing to share because geography and genealogy can each disrupt conversation almost before it gets in full swing.    

This is why, for example, Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity movies has such a hard time maintaining relationships.  It’s not simply that he has a knack for killing people and causing chaos.  It’s that the government whitewashed his memory; he’s not from anywhere in particular.  No place is home.  Similarly, if you enjoy the Frank Capra films better, It’s A Wonderful Life depicts George Bailey as the would-be world traveler who, because of family commitments, has to stay home in Bedford Falls.  George, played by Jimmy Stewart, covers up for his Uncle Billy who lost $8,000 from Mr. Potter.  Because of the resulting scandal, he prays that he’d never been born.  An angel grants the wish and George finds himself in Pottersville.  The dynamics of his hometown are dramatically changed, and when he goes to his mother’s house, she’s cold and bitter and won’t let George inside.  Because he’s never been born he’s not from there. 

You see, where we’re from is no ordinary query.  It cuts to the core of identity and sometimes reminds us of things we’d rather forget.

Here’s some background on today’s passage in John 1:6-18.  Unlike the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), today’s story begins with a poetic homage to the accounts of creation we have in Genesis.  And so, rather than telling us where Jesus is from (as Mark does) beginning with his baptism, John’s Gospel starts further back.  Rather than telling us about shepherds, angels, swaddling clothes, mangers and Bethlehem (like Luke and Matthew do) John’s Gospel harkens way, way back to the dawn of time and space itself.  Where is Jesus from?  Is he really from Nazareth?  Is he really from Galilee?  Does Egypt even compare with Jesus’ original neighborhood?  “In the beginning was the Word”—which is the Logos, or the organizing idea of the whole creation.  Before anything came into being, prior to something emerging from nothing, there was singular thought in the mind of God.  And not only a thought but a passion to communicate that thought.  There was an effusive urge to be in relationship, to share God’s own abundant life.  Moreover, John’s gospel is quick to connect the dots:  Jesus of Nazareth, the child born into a Palestinian Jewish family around 4 BCE, is the incarnation of that divine and relational Word of God.   

Wow!  That’s pretty heavy duty.  But what does that cosmic way of telling us where Jesus is from have to do with where we’re from?  I have had a lot of people tell me that if you haven’t been born at Deaconess, at Sacred Heart or at Holy Family, the conversations bog down.  They say the fact that that they didn’t attend school at Ferris or LC makes a huge difference in the hospitality they receive.  And I wonder if that’s really true.  Are we really FROM Spokane, or FROM the Northwest?  Is this where we’re FROM, or is this where we’ve been sent?   And if that’s true, let’s start over.  Let’s start over together from a more cosmic location. 

When Sheryl and I first met, she knew that I had been born around the Philadelphia area and would make fun of my Philly accent.  At Princeton I learned to lose the accent but it comes back once in a while.  Here’s a little nursery rhyme that my mother told me from back east:  Thirty purple birds sitting on a fence, chirping and a burping and eating dirty worms, when along came Murt with his skirt named Burt who worked in a shirt factory in Jersey; when he saw those thirty purple birds chirping and a burping and eating dirty worms boy was he perturbed. You see, that’s a dead give away, isn’t it?  Now you know a little bit about my identity.  You know a little bit about my socio-economic background, but you don’t know everything about where I’m from in Christ.  And that, of course, is where the journey begins.   In the old Warner Bros. cartoons, Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig once hosted an episode of This Is A Life?  The idea was to explain the origins of Bugs Bunny, to see why he ate carrots, said “what’s up, Doc?” and talked like he was from Brooklyn.  Anyway, in the interview they do of Bugs, he starts at the beginning.  He runs us through the animation of volcanoes erupting, mountains forming, oceans churning and then he focuses in on a pool of slimy water.  “In dat pool,” he says, “two tiny ameba!  The start of whife!”  

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find it fascinating that Warner Bros. and much of Hollywood continues to go there.  Think about it.  In the Academy Award winning film, Adaptation, we have the same thing.  Whenever we tell the story of a person or a relationship we have to decide where to start.  Susan Orlean, in the movie, talks about the miracle of evolution—how things adapt and change over millions of years.  But at the end of the film she says something striking about herself.  She says, “I want to be new, like a little baby.” “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”   What does that mean in terms of where we really come from?   “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace…” 

You see, what I want to suggest to you this morning is that we come from God’s fullness.  We come from Grace.  We come from Gift.  The journey of faith that we’re on together doesn’t lead to our private and individual forgiveness.  It starts there.  We are precious.  We are good.  And to the extent that we have forgotten where we come from, we are forgiven and can launch out on the journey again.   “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”  

Could that be our story too?  You and I are not the light, but we’ve come from God to testify to the light.  

In the Broadway production of Les Miserables, Jean Valjean escapes from prison; he then tries to steal the golden candle holders from the priest who takes him in.  The priest offers them instead as a gift; he offers forgiveness.  And that becomes the place from which Jean Valjean starts over.  His life is turned upside down.  He becomes the mayor of a small village, takes care of poor workers and a sick woman, named Fantine.  But then, there’s this moment of truth in which the police track down another man and assume that it’s the escaped convict, number 24601.  Valjean recognizes that as his number; it’s been tattooed to his arm.  He’s the one M’sieur Javert is looking for, which prompts this song of profound self-reflection:

“Who am I? 

Can I condemn this man to slavery? 

Pretend I do not see his agony? 

This innocent who bears my face

Who goes to judgment in my place? 

Who am I? 

Can I conceal myself for evermore? 

Pretend I’m not the man I was before? 

And must my name until I die

Be no more than an alibi?

Must I lie?

How can I ever face my fellow men?

How can I ever face myself again?

My soul belongs to God, I know

I made that bargain long ago

He gave me hope when hope was gone

He gave me strength to journey on.

Who am I?  Who am I?

I’m Jean Valjean!

  

You see, as we begin this new congregation, my hope is that everyone here will have that kind of heart-felt conversation.  That’s where we start.  That’s not where we’re headed.  That’s not where we’re going.  The place from which we all hail in Christ is grace upon grace…

Anne Lamott, in her book, Traveling Mercies, writes this:  

“After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone.   The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there; of course, there wasn’t.   But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.  I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this… This experience spooked me badly but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood.  But then everywhere I  went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in.  But I knew what would happen:  you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it  stays forever…

And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hung over that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape…  

I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, ‘I quit.’  I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right.  You can come in.’”

The fact is, the whole time that we imagine ourselves on a spiritual quest, trying to figure things out, God in the person of Jesus Christ, travels a great distance to meet us.   God is on a journey from the dawn of time and the moment of creation.   And believe it or not, the Spirit of God stands at the threshold of this public school building and invites us to go with him.  

“He was in the world and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

Listen!  The journey of Latah Valley Presbyterian Church begins there and then.  It begins here and now.  The very moment that you say, “Alright, you can come in”—that’s when it all starts.   And from here there’s no telling where God will send us.  Amen.

It couldn’t have been more than a few miles.  I looked on a map of the first century Judean countryside and of Jerusalem around the time of John the Baptist, and the journey over rugged terrain all the way to the river Jordan was probably like going from Moran Prairie to Spangle.   It was only about 15 to 20 miles.  And yet, my guess is that the conversation made that short jaunt seem like the journey of a lifetime.  Are you ready for that kind of conversation today?

   

Let me tell you what I think we’re used to.   A few years ago I sat at a Starbucks, drinking my coffee and reading a nice book, and into the franchise come two woman, friends apparently who hadn’t seen one another in a long time.   I can’t help overhearing the initial moments of their conversation as they each wait in line for their drink.  But then one of the women gets a call on her cell phone.  She talks on the cell phone, ambidextrously pays for her latte and sits down on one of the comfortable chairs.  The other woman completes her transaction and takes the seat opposite her friend.  She sips her cup and waits patiently, looking out the window, and then her cell phone rings.  So, as I gaze over the top of my book jacket, this is what I see:  two good friends who have come together for a face to face conversation; but sadly each of them is talking to someone else miles and miles away.   Then, after the phone calls, the friends say something like, “Well, I’m so glad that we took this time…”  And they gather up their belongings and go their separate ways.   This, I’m afraid, is the type of conversation that we’re used to.

 

 

Even in church.   In the church (and by the way, the word for church comes from the Greek, Ekklesia, meaning Called Out Ones), we often come together for coffee, for programs, for Christmas music and religious decorations.   But frequently the deep and heartfelt conversations that we are meant to have are left out.  Why?  If this journey in any way resembles the effort of those people who went out to the Jordan River, it ought to be overflowing with eye contact and face to face discussion the likes of which we can’t get anywhere else.  It ought to gush with emotion.  It ought to ripple with laughter.  It ought to overflow with tears.  It ought to wash away every thought that we ever had of being alone.   Church, you see, ought to be that kind of a journey, the journey of all journeys, the journey towards God, which we are wise to take together.

  

And yet, let’s be honest.  If you and I are going to have a conversation as we embark on this trip, honesty is crucial.  And quite honestly, I want to tell you that one of my earliest encounters with the institutional church was not very pleasant.  It happened in a Roman Catholic Church, but it could have been a Protestant Church and it could have been Unitarian Church or a Mormon Church.  And it took place, while I vacationed with a friend’s family, during the summer.  There we were, in the pews.  And the time came for us to file up the aisle and toward the priest in the front of the sanctuary.  The priest held in his hand a wafer.  And to each person, who approached him, he said something. 

I tried to observe the ritual from a distance.  I tried to read the priest’s lips and to anticipate what would be required of me without appearing to be such an outsider.  At this point I should mention that I was twelve years old and infatuated with the girl one step behind me.  Anyway, after a long, scary journey up the center of the church, in the midst of all these zombie-like parishioners, I could finally hear what the man in the elaborate black and purple robe had been saying.  He repeated a simple phrase, “The Body of Christ.”  That I understood.  And yet, I still didn’t know my response.  What were the magic words?   How could I get that coveted wafer from the hand of that authority figure into my mouth?  Well, time ran out.  I stood seemingly alone in front of this imposing figure who announced the incantation, “The Body of Christ.”  I remained nervously silent, hoping not to incriminate myself.  But this guy wouldn’t budge with the wafer.  He said it again.  I nodded.  And again he said the words, to which I responded, finally, “Amen!” 

The priest then looked at me curiously:  “Are you Catholic?”   

“No.”  

“God bless you,”  he replied, and with a wave of his hocus-pocus hand, he offered me the consolation prize. 

  

“God bless you?!”  I thought to myself, turning away and walking back to my seat.  “God bless you?!  I didn’t sneeze…  What about the wafer?  What about the body of Christ?  What about that girl one step behind me who overheard every word and who saw me make a religious idiot out of myself?”        

You see, no one ought to make that trip alone.  No one.  The journey that any of us make in God’s direction needs to be collaborative and conversational.  It needs to be something we do together.  And yet, what happens?   What happens to generations of men, women and children who go out, expecting an encounter with God, only to meet a perfunctory blessing?

“Sheilaism” is the name given to a particular religion in the book Habits of the Heart.  One of the authors of that book, Robert Bellah, claims to have interviewed a wide range of people who at one time came out to church.   Sheila Larson came and left, and when asked about believing in God she claimed that she believed “just her own little voice,” Sheilaism.   

So, here’s where things become treacherous.  If we’re really curious about the journey towards God, do we stick with the perfunctory blessing dispensed by the institutional church, or do we go with the private inner-dialogue of people like Sheila?   Faced with the awkwardness of that dilemma we’ve made church in Sheila’s image.

 

 

That is, we’ve marketed the church as a kind of Starbucks with thousands upon thousands of individuals attending worship, but all of them talking on their own private lines.  Consumer-oriented congregations have no other choice than to present God as a kind of smorgasbord-buffet.  Customers can pick and choose according to likes, wants, wishes and whims.  

And in response to this social trend, the blogger for LivePreacher.com, Gordon Atkinson, writes: 

“Let me guess.  You’re looking for a cool church, filled with authentic Christians who aren’t judgmental but also have convictions, and are hip and classic in just the right mixture.   A church where people forgive each other, love children and worship in meaningful ways…  Here are some tips to help you in your search:   TIP #1—you won’t find that church.  TIP #2—let’s talk about my first tip again.  As I said, you won’t find the church you’re looking for.   Go ahead and grieve.  You’ll have to make do with a silly bunch of dreamers and children, prone to mistakes, blunders and misjudgments.  TIP #3—find some people you can hang with—people you can trust.  Be patient.  You’ll change them and they’ll change you.  You’ll meet somewhere in the middle…”

Now I’m not sure of what brings each of you here this morning.  Some are curious.  Some are skeptical.  Some are mildly amused.  Some are cautiously supportive.  And some are already seriously committed to the journey of Latah Valley Presbyterian Church.   But the only thing that I can tell you is that no one is going to get exactly what he or she wants.  We’re going to meet somewhere in the middle.  We’re like the folks that go out to the river Jordan and want John the Baptist to splash them and dunk them in the water.  The text says that they came from the whole countryside of Judea AND from the city of Jerusalem.   All of them came, from diverse social and economic situations, from a wide range of family and religious backgrounds, but they had one thing in common.  They all began the journey by “confessing their sins.”

 Another phrase that we might use for that starting point is MUTUAL HUMILITY.   MUTUAL HUMILITY in the face of “the one who is more powerful than I…” (v. 7).  MUTUAL HUMILITY in the face of the one who “will baptize…with the Holy Spirit” (v. 8).  That’s where we start.    Not long ago I traveled to India and during one leg of the journey we had to make the transition from a train to a taxi.  There were three of us:  Gabriel Massey, our interpreter and guide, Jim DiRaddo, the evangelist and me, the protégé.  Anyway, as we exited the train with our luggage, we were approached by a wave of competing taxi drivers.  One of them immediately started negotiating with Gabriel while another one asked if he could carry my bag…  That should have been my first clue.   Once we made it through the maze of vendors and other travelers to the parking lot, the two taxi drivers began bickering with one another.  I shouted to Gabriel over the fray but he appeared to be overwhelmed.  Jim stood in stunned silence as a few bystanders gathered around the argument that soon turned into a physical assault.  Meanwhile, there had been a third driver, standing meekly off to the side.   And as the brawl erupted, with police arriving on the scene, this humble man asked if we would like to go with him.   We said Yes, and quickly got inside his vehicle.  He apologized for what had happened and, with the horn honking, we parted the angry mob like Moses parted the Red Sea.     

Now, I’m relaying this tale to illustrate what may be happening as the institutional church heads into a time of transition.    We may in fact have a lot of congregations all trying to grab our luggage, all trying to promote the comforts of their own style of travel.   But, my friends, the journey together, towards God, always begins in MUTUAL HUMILITY.   And it’s a rough way to go. Latah Valley Presbyterian Church today steps out in faith.   Today we worship together for the very first time.  But we also do something remarkable.  Today we open the conversation to all comers and all goers.   Amen. 

1 Day of Pregnant Silence

December 8, 2007

Dear Friends In Christ:

As I recall, being pregnant and being silent are not synonymous. 

When my wife, Sheryl, gave birth to Ian in December of 1991 and to Philip in May of 1994, she didn’t hesitate to express herself:  “Please rub my back…”  And then, with a little ornery attitude:  “Okay, you can stop rubbing my back now!”  Get the picture.   Bringing a new life into the world stretches and strains one’s body and one’s relationships; it’s painful.   And yet, in the if-I-had-it-to-do-over-again words of Erma Bombeck:  “Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy, I’d have cherished every moment and realized that the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.”

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I’d like to leave off that exuberant insight, however, to describe how weird it is for all of us (even us non-motherly types) to swim around in this womb of space and time.  To do that, of course, I will have to refer to moments metaphorically (as I’ve already done with the word, “womb”).  No mature adult actually remembers the first conscious moment that she or he emerged from the birth canal, and likewise, none of the individual churches in the New Testament rehearse and wax nostalgic about their origins.  For example, neither the Gospels, nor the Book of Acts, nor Paul’s Letters offer detailed accounts of where and exactly when the early Christians gathered in Antioch or in Asia Minor.  Acts 11:26 does indicate something about the first time that the disciples of Jesus were called “Christians,” but that was how this fledgling community had been designated by others.  Similarly the seven congregations who are mentioned in the Revelation to John (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea) are each defined by their active and enduring witness to Christ and not the date of their first service of worship.  And so, that bit of exegesis leads us back to the metaphor of pregnancy.

What will take place on Sunday, December 9, at approximately 10 a.m. (PST) is not necessarily the birth of a new organization (with committees, programs and the peculiar smell of institutional viability).  That’s exciting and worth noting in the minutes of the Presbytery meeting.  But our ultimate and cosmic identity, in connection with the pregnancy comparison, is “the groaning in labor pains” that the apostle Paul mentions in Romans 8:22.  In other words, Latah Valley Presbyterian Church will not be much of anything if we fail to express that mysterious in-breaking kingdom of God for which the whole creation now waits with bated breath.  We are one moment in the midst of millennia through which the Spirit sighs.  That’s all.  Someone is Crowning.  The Vulnerability of God is growing stronger.  The Foolishness of God is growing wiser.  And if all our aches and pains don’t finally point to that growth and that movement in the world, attendance at worship will be for naught.   

Come, come, come Lord Jesus! 

And yet, before you arrive in all your glorious fullness, give us one day of pregnant silence!

3 Days Of Laughing & Crying

December 6, 2007

Dear Friends In Christ:

Monty Python and The Holy Grail…  Nacho Libre…  A scene in each of these motion pictures makes me laugh out loud uncontrollably. 

In the Python spoof of the medieval legend, for example, it’s the one in which the father (played by Michael Palin)  wants his son to get married to a young woman with acres of prime real estate.  One of the knights receives a message and races to the rescue of the stereotypical damsel in distress.  He charges the castle, wielding his sword indiscriminately and in the commotion slays a large part of the wedding party.  “Let’s not argue and bicker about who killed who,” says Michael Palin when tempers begin to flare.  “This is supposed to be a happy occasion…”   I laugh at that farcical line partly because of the unreality of it.  Of course, there’s a reason to be upset and angry.  If loved ones are maimed or murdered, you would expect that some members of some families would feel something akin to rage. 

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And yet, that’s where the humor packs a surprising punch;  we can actually recognize the manipulative plea to put on a happy face!   It happens often in real life families all the time! 

By contrast, in the slap stick film, Jack Black assumes the persona of an orphan who grows up in a Mexican monastery.  Ignacio has no family except for the other brothers and the younger children who come to live in the dormitories.  He ends up becoming the cook for the institution, which involves securing bags of stale tortilla chips from the locals in the village.  The scene that cracks me up is the moment when Ignacio makes friends with his nemesis, Esqueleto.  “The skeleton” (in translation) had previously competed with the Jack Black character over the scarcity of chips on the street, but eventually they join forces and enter a wrestling tournament for the prize money.  Their subsequent losing streak is difficult for Ignacio to understand until he discovers that his amigo has not been baptized and that he “believes in science.”  Before a pivotal match, Ignacio says, “I’m worried about your salvation and stuff,” and then forcefully dunks Esqueleto’s face into a bowl of cold water…   I laugh at that series of events because of the overt use of religion to get back on the winning track.   We’ve seen it many times (but without the comedic effect) in church, in politics and in pious relationships everywhere.

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But, you see, what happens when we can’t laugh at ourselves in those scenarios?   If we can’t recognize the ways in which we reduce and misuse the message of “salvation and stuff,” I’m not sure if we’ve truly repented of the worst kind of pride and arrogance!

Over the next three days, there will be lots of occasions to laugh aloud and to poke fun at those things that are most serious and most sacred.  That’s as it should be.  Still, if we have failed to shed honest tears over war, violence, hatred, prejudice, poverty and our capitulation in those tragedies, I wonder if we can feel anything appropriately at all.   On Sunday, December 9th, get ready to howl and to giggle.   But let’s be clear.   Latah Valley Presbyterian won’t be laughing at the “least of these” (Matthew 25:45) at their expense.  We’ll be telling jokes about ourselves and our sad witness to Christ Jesus in the world. 

It’s a good thing that God has a sense of humor.

Peace,

Scott Kinder-Pyle

In between last Sunday’s “Trial Run” worship celebration at Moran Prairie Elementary School and this Sunday’s Inaugural Worship Celebration–my thoughts race and my emotions run high.   I have helped to create a new congregation before, and yet Spokane is a different animal.  For one thing, the lines between the Christian sub-culture and the strident individualism seem more pronounced in this region of the Northwest.  The other thing that I’ve noticed over the last twelve months is how reticent many middle-class mainliners are about mixing with people of different income levels and ethnicities.  I contend that, in terms of the give-and-take of theological ideas, many of the long-term residents here lag about a decade behind other arenas of discussion around the country. 

Of course, what all this may mean for starting Latah Valley up in December remains murky at best.   It may be that there are a contigent of folks just waiting to break through the modernist categories of liberal/conservative… traditional/contemporary…  fundamentalist/progressive…  Somewhere lurking in the cul-de-sac’s of the South Hill there may be a smattering of misfits who are frustrated with business as usual and church as usual. 

I have been impressed with a few of the phone calls that I’ve received.  Almost immediately I can tell if someone is hostile to Latah Valley’s birth and apprehensive about the postcard that has been received in the mail.   Someone named Cynthia seemed nervous about the congregation meeting at the school.  I assured her that we rented the facility on Sunday morning just as other organizations (secular) may pay the requisite fees and rent as well.  She thanked me for the “information,” but didn’t appear disposed to attend worship.   Another caller demanded to be taken off the mailing list because she already attended another church.  The abrupt tone of her voice did not coincide with her stated wish–to save us money in postage.  I had the distinct impression that she didn’t want to be reminded about worship anywhere at anytime. 

And so, between rehearsal and the real deal, we go.   I am going.  Other postmodern pioneers are going too.  The real deal, to which I refer, is not necessarily the first worship on December 9, 2007.  Rather, it is the mysterious presence of One who continually questions us and pulls the rug out from under our preconceived notions of God.   Latah Valley will be on the right track when we are free to meander off the track that we think is orthodox and right.   We will meander like the creek which runs through golf courses and housing developments.  We will flood and flow, twist and turn, carrying the sediment of our days all the way to the ancient ocean.

Peace!!!