Thursday, May 28, 2015

Holy Mysteries

Holy Trinity Sunday, Year B, May 31, 2015
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus at Night
John 3:1-17 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
 8The 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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I love a good mystery novel or tv show. I love solving the puzzle along with the detective and feeling clever. Given how popular mystery novels are and how many crime scene investigations there are on tv, I think I’m not alone in this. It’s probably part of how we’re hardwired as human beings: we want to get to the bottom of things.
But there are at least two kinds of mysteries: the kind that are solvable, like a murder mystery. And then there are the holy mysteries, things that are beyond our understanding, beyond even our imagination. We could contemplate them all day and all night for a year and still only be able to stand in awe of them.

As the book of  Proverbs remarks about mysteries in Chapter 30:  
Image result for eagle in the skyThree things are too wonderful for me;
   four I do not understand: 
19 the way of an eagle in the sky,
   the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
   and the way of a man with a maid. Proverbs 30:18-19
Yet unknowable, unsolvable mysteries draw us, for they are wonderful and awesome.

Today is a day in the church calendar that is set aside for us to ponder the mystery of the Holy Trinity. This is not a mystery of the solvable kind but rather the holy kind. Theologians, professional and amateur, have been pondering this mystery for millennia and have wondered: What is the nature of God? How can one describe or understand the Holy?

For most of us, it is impossible to describe. We catch rare glimpses, never full revelations, of the Holy One. We can say, “God is like a potter who sculpts a vessel.” Or “God is like the shepherd, who guides the sheep.” Or “God is like fire or wind or air.” There are so many ways of describing God that it can be confusing. How can God be all these things? So theologians over the centuries have tried to sort it all out, using the Trinity as the categories- so God the Creator, God the Savior or Healer, God the Guiding Spirit. 

But what difference does it make for us in our lives? What does it matter, whether God is one or two or three or whether God is just one?

The Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall
Perhaps our scriptures today help us to see why revelations of God are important. In the Isaiah text, there was great uncertainty in the political situation after the death of King Uzziah. The image of God on the throne helped Isaiah to trust that God would rule over all, no matter what political turbulence might come. In the Romans text, the people were facing persecution because they were Christian. Paul’s letter reassured them that they had been adopted into God’s family and had become co-inheritors with Christ of kinship with God. What a word of comfort for people who had become outsiders in their families, communities, and even countries and cultures. And in the gospel from John, Nicodemus, speaking for all the leaders, found himself out of his depth, with unsolvable mysteries that frustrated him.
A humorous way to think about being in the dark...
“The wind blows where it chooses,” Jesus told him. “And everyone who is born of the Spirit is the same way.”  “God’s got this one,” Jesus is telling him. “You don’t have to know it all or be in control.” What good news for any of us that think we might have to have it all figured out. God’s going to show up and love us, whether we understand God or not.

God shows up in so many and various ways because we all need to see different parts of God at different times. God solves the mysteries of our pain and sorrow and knows our every need. Then God comes to take our hand, leading us into a joyful dance of restoration and healing. God provides for us through creation, heals us through the love of Jesus, and guides us through the Holy Spirit.  

This vision of God is marvelous and beyond our understanding. With the psalmist we might ask, “Who am I that God should be mindful of me?” (Psalm 8) Yet God, the Creator, the Healer, the Guiding Spirit, cares for us all. What a mystery, what a wonder, what a joy. Amen.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Our Father, just call him George

Easter 5B, May 3, 2015
John 15:1-8 [Jesus said]I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

For the first time in my life, I am the tender of apple trees, which brings all sorts of new experiences: tent caterpillars, which are disgusting; what to do with an abundant harvest, applesauce, cider, and pies; and every spring, as a steward of the orchard, I have to figure out pruning. Pruning is not something you want to take lightly. I’ve seen the ugliest trees that were pruned back so hard, they looked stumps that would never live again. And whether it’s true or not, I fear that if I prune too hard, the tree will be shocked and I won’t get any fruit that year. But pruning is good for the tree and helps the tree put its energy into fruit instead of branches.
So this year I hired a professional.  I know my limits. Out of curiosity, I asked him how he decided which branches to cut.  First, he said, he looks for disease and anything that isn’t growing comes off.  Second, he looks for branches that are crossing another branch, interfering with the life of the other branch. And third, any branch that looks like it is going “wonky.” Even after that tutorial, I’m wouldn’t be entirely sure which branch to cut. Pruning seems rather mysterious to me.
The Red Vineyard atArles by Vincent Van Gogh
In our gospel today, John relates a parable of Jesus about connecting with God, and he uses the metaphor of vines to talk about it. The vine and the vineyard were ancient metaphors for the people of Israel in the Old Testament, so to the first hearers of the gospel, it have seemed initially to be nothing new. But Jesus takes an old metaphor and repurposes it, saying that he is the true vine, not Israel. Life will come from being connected through Jesus, not just because you were born into a particular family.
The passage is a lovely image of connection, that growth and life come from being connected to the life-source. But when it comes the part about pruning, it gets scary. Who gets cut off? We all have our days, or weeks, or years when we might feel that we are the branch withers or grows in a wonky way. We’ve all had times in life where we feel far from God, unable to tap into life in Jesus.
So what then? Do we get cut off?
In this parable, Jesus doesn’t say that he’s going to make the cuts.  He’s not even going to decide.  Jesus is the vine, but it is the Father who is the vinegrower.
Tuscan-Farmer-II---web-This is an original oil Tuscany painting by artist Christopher Clark. While visiting a farm near Florence, in the Tuscany region of Italy, the simple daily life of the farmer was quite idyllic, though still a lot of hard work.
Tuscan Farmer II by artist Christopher Clark- go see his work 
In Greek, that word is “georgos”, which doesn’t directly translate to vinegrower, by the way.  It’s more of a generic term.  It comes from two Greek words put together: ge, for earth, and ergon, for work. It means earth worker, soil tiller, farmer. Georgos is also a name, which in English is George. So an image for God in this text is the farmer, or for fun, you could call God George. God the farmer tends every acre of land, every tender shoot that springs from the earth.

At the time that the gospel of John was written, the Christian community had suffered greatly under Roman persecution. Many followers of Jesus had been cut down, and fear and doubt constantly infected various branches. John’s gospel which we heard today reminded those followers that Jesus was the way to life, that he abided with them, that he remained with them, even as he sent the Holy Spirit, the advocate and helper, into their midst.   And as the text reminds us, pruning happens, not to punish the tree or vine, but to help it grow.

I think of my pear tree. When you cut off the suckers, they come back more plentiful than ever.  You can't hold back that new growth, that new life. When you prune a tree back, it puts forth its energy even more, investing in blossom and fruit.  A good harvest of fruit leads to more seeds, and more seeds to more trees. A pruned tree bears fruit, and thus, new life, even when it might have seemed to be cut and wounded.
Celebration by John August Swanson

God the good farmer is wise about the cuts that are made. God’s wisdom in pruning is so wise that it may be beyond our understanding as human beings. And that is okay. Our job is not to be the farmer, nor the vinegrower, nor the vineyard owner. We are not even the vine. We are merely the branches. And our purpose is to stay connected to Jesus, to remain with him, just as he remains with us, and to love. For love is what Jesus came to grow. Amen.