Sunday, May 26, 2024

May 26, 2024 - Solemnity of the Holy Trinity - Nicodemus and the Trinity, What Are We Talking About?

This was posted in this week's Creator Connection regarding the Holy Trinity for Sunday's worship:

When we say God is the triune God, we are saying something about who God is beyond, before, and after the universe: that there is community within God.  When we pray to God as Jesus prayed to his Abba (an everyday, intimate parental address), the Spirit prays within us, creating between us and God the same relationship Jesus has with the one who sent him.

This post's assertions about the Trinity works better than the most. The more often cited "natural world" examples of egg and butterfly commonly used as explanations of the triune God don't get to the heart of the matter for me. Yet how do we imagine this Trinity - a God who is beyond, before and after the universe? How can a "community within God" truly integrate into our being?

To meditate on these questions this week I began with a Lectio Divina reading of the Acts from last week. Traditionally, there are four steps to Lectio Divina: read; meditate; pray; and contemplate. Reading the lectionary passage from Acts was inspiring. Prayer and contemplation naturally followed.

In Creator's Lectio practice, we often isolate a standout word or phrase that personally "shimmers" for us. That leads to followup discussions of why. For the Pentecost story, the word that stood out for me was bewildered. And this week's Gospel reading left me empathetic to Nicodemus' bewilderment. I felt all these interactions and events went beyond my present apprehension.  What I prayed reflected my inability to take these truths into my being. I thought about something I had once read which commented on the wisdom of Jesus.

Serene light shining in the ground of my being,
draw me to yourself.
Draw me past the snares of the senses,
out of the mazes of the mind,
Free me from symbols, from words
that I may discover the signified:
the word unspoken in the darkness
that veils the ground of my being.

This Byzantine Hymn served as my prayer to understand God's triune nature at this moment. I imagine it also could have become a prayer for Nicodemus, judging by his interaction with Jesus. Although Nicodemus was not wrong in what he asked Jesus, he was not right either. 

Jesus’ response to Nicodemus  does cut straight to the heart of the matter. No one can see God’s reign without being born again/from above (the Greek word another means both “again” and “from above,” and both senses are important here). Unless Nicodemus allows God to change his whole way of being in the world, he will be unable to perceive God at work. 

And ultimately, Nicodemus did see that world with new eyes.  He became a follower of Christ and played another central part in Christ's story. Together with Joseph of Arimathaea, he took down and embalmed the body of Jesus. He became bold in his faith, rather than being cautiously cloaked in darkness and fear.   

I'm afraid I am over and over caught in that caution. I indulge in too many restless, reasoned reveries about what should be done rather than offering reckless responses to God's call (like Jesus made traveling the road to Jerusalem). Kierkegaard once wrote that faith is a "reception of revelation", a "happy passion that overcomes offense", and "a passionate appropriation of an objective uncertainty". He thought of faith as "a leap and a striving" and, more specifically, that it is "a striving pathos that goes against reason". 

I agree with Kierkegaard, but will add that I find his "leap" must be plural. This past Saturday marked the four year anniversary of George Floyd's death. Creator demonstrated sympathy with protesters when they marched in Happy Valley. Frequently it is hard to engage with a struggle for justice but there was a passion to be bold in overcoming an obvious injustice four years ago. Yet resting on any past laurels seems wrong.  

Sunday Worship Service Setting - Now The Feast

Matt led the congregation on this Trinity Sunday celebration in an energetic We Are the Church as our Gathering Song. More visitors than usual worshiped with us today. I appreciated the enthusiasm they brought to the service together with our regular worshipers.

Pastor Emillie gave a beautiful Children's Sermon that physically demonstrated how the Holy Spirit can support us through times of trouble. She used a cloth dipped in water to talk about how we can absorb and get weighed down by the adversities around us. I delighted in her introducing the Holy Spirit as a shield against the stresses we often encounter in life. This can be a shield that can keep us faithful.

During Announcements, the congregation sang an impromptu request - God Bless America.  This was in recognition of this Memorial Day weekend where military member s who died while serving in U.S. forces in any current or previous war are honored. Personally on Friday my family went to Willamette National Cemetery in remembrance pf my father and his service in World War II.  

I know I was in past congregations where this song was sung at worship. Today my thoughts went to Nicodemus who saw the world around him with new eyes. The Gospel often teaches in unexpected ways. I reflected on last week's celebration of Pentecost. We took steps towards diversity and inclusion that were filled with joy for so many. Granted there were unaccustomed steps for many of us as we departed from Creator's traditions. At the same time those steps were made possible last Sunday in ways unimaginable this time last year. 

Today I saw a long road that we could walk to journey to a truer reality of welcome at Creator.  We may need to reinvent our perceptions; to be open to change, expand our imaginations, and appeal to each other's better natures. As I looked around at everyone gathered in our sanctuary for this particular worship, I heard this patriotic song from my past with new ears and a changed perspective.   

Today's service and Pastor Emillie's sermon articulated and agitated what the Creator Connection sparked throughout the week. She preached that our understanding of the Trinity, while inspiring deep faith, is vague. Nicodemus' questions are still our own, all relevant and real. 

I valued the music and lyrics of the Hymn of the Day, which was Come Join the Dance of Trinity. This was a response that did not require a complete knowledge of the Holy Spirit. It was an invitation to  everyone to learn and join in that dance.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

May 19, 2024 - Pentecost - Living Our Future in Plural

Each Pentecost Creator celebrates the transformative power of the Holy Spirit shown in the birth of the Christian community in Jerusalem

This year that means we are expanding and allowing ourselves in that dream space of future possibilities. Our mortgage will be fully paid in January which means more choice and capacity for ministry. We look forward to further staking out the promise declared years ago in Creator's Ministry Site Profile. We truly are a pioneering people.

Last week congregational summer cottage meetings were announced. This Sunday's service included an Affirmation of Baptism as new members at Creator were welcomed. Many languages were spoken, sung and learned throughout this Pentecost service. They served as gentle reminders of how wide our arms must stretch to fully embrace our neighbors and the diversity we seek.

Last year we looked forward to Pastor Emillie's arrival and remembered then that Pentecost was once primarily a harvest festival where far-flung people gathered together to rejoice in God-given abundance. Pentecost also commemorates the giving of the Torah to Moses. Creator also remembered through last year's sermon how the story elements in Acts echo the origin story in Genesis. Both emphasize wind (on the face of the water in the beginning) and breath (God breathing life into us).

Sunday Worship Service Setting - Glocal Music Selections

At today's service Lenia served as Assisting Minister and, besides giving the normal parts of the service associated with that role, opened the service with a Spanish greeting. Pastor Emillie shared this day's Reflection with a youth who belongs to the SE Portland Youth Collective. Jenny gave her passionate reflection on the impact of impending decisions regarding the Wichita Center and its importance to the Youth Collective and the local community. 

After all, Pentecost isn't simply a remembrance of the birthday of the church. There were no balloons or birthday cake served at worship. Rather the service shimmered as new communities at Creator were forged. One was a community of familiar faces. Our new members, who officially joined Creator today, have already been active. They have been both volunteers and leading members in the congregation. 

The other new community was animated by a similar fire and wind described in the first Pentecost. There was a glimpse of a wider world community through what were unfamiliar languages and rhythms for us. Partly this was planned, and partly more mysterious. What was enacted in the sanctuary triggered this mystery. 

Often the account in Acts is overwhelming with its spectacle of wind and miracle of language. Or perhaps the miracle of Pentecost is dwarfed by its close juxtaposition with the miracle of the resurrection. For whatever reason, examining why this day is recognized as the birthday of the church was something I have rarely questioned. 

Certainly there were disciples, followers and individuals baptized before Pentecost but something unique happened at this gathering. Something I'll call the knowledge of living a new life "in plural". What we would now call being part of the body of Christ. When Jesus was human this life was not possible in the same way. What follows shortly after today's reading was a mass baptism of many of those who were assembled. They were the first Christian converts. At the heart of the church is an embrace of our mutual life. Lloyd, Creator's current council president, emphasized this at the congregational meeting held after the service.

Much of the music we sang captured this as well. In particular there were the words and music of the Sanctus You Are Holy:

You are holy, you are whole.
You are always ever more than we ever understand.
You are always at hand.

Defining what is an individual's identity and effort and what is collective identity becomes interestingly blurred in this promise of new life in Christ. 

Rosie read beautifully this morning the Acts account of all those who were gathered at that first Pentecost. These were mostly people inhabiting lands under foreign occupation and that one detail is instructive. In contrast to the history that later happened, the first church crowd clearly stood against the recognition of empirical power as a supreme good. 

And yet, since this power is always present, what is the next step for today's church? Can our future be prophesied? Are there more visions for us to see? Are there more dreams for us to dream?

The last song in the service rang out a loud response. We are marching in the light of God, confident that God continues to breathe through all of us with those much needed visions and dreams.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

May 12, 2024 - Seventh Sunday of Easter - The Because / Therefore or The If / Then Paradigm


Sunday Worship Service Setting - Now The Feast

Pastor John Beck presided as our visiting pastor. His sermon was partly a Mother's Day recognition and he focused on the Gospel text for the Ascension (officially May 9th this year) Luke 24:44-53.  

He recognized how celebration of mothers were easy for some and not so easy for others. 

I have never been comfortable with the Ascension. I fancied it to be a supernatural reason to explain what happened to Jesus' body. Imagining Ascension as a physical event is awkward and questions naturally arise. Is the physical body of Jesus really going to heaven as physical as earth? Do I have faith in that kind of heaven? I shied away from contemplating the Ascension, from picturing Jesus as depicted below, and from all those uncomfortable questions.

Years ago Pastor Amanda Llewellyn presented in a podcast a different and powerful view of the Ascension's importance to us in today's world. After the Ascension God's mission, that Jesus continued in the world, moved from a resurrected one to a collective and mutually accountable body of Christ.

She pointed out the Ascension tends to be downplayed because it is far easier for people to "star gaze". A new insight for me that rung true. We like our stars and prefer looking to one savior rather than looking to the body of Christ as it exists today to bring about the kingdom of God.

This was uncomfortable in another way. I recognized myself at the end as mostly being a star gazer. My vision of the Ascension, as just described, attests to my star gazing. My mind's eye attempted to look only to the physical body of Jesus in the sky and not to the body of Christ on earth.

A strong message in Pastor John's sermon fit in nicely with this idea and summarized the Lutheran theology that you do not get to heaven due to your own efforts and good works. He preached how often we think if we are good, or do something or avoid temptation then it will lead to something better spiritually. He gave another paradigm which he had the congregation to repeat, that I will modify with the translation of the First Nations Version of the New Testament:

The Great Spirit loves this world of human beings so deeply he gave us his Son—the only Son who fully represents him. All who trust in him and his way will not come to a bad end, but will have the life of the world to come that never fades—full of beauty and harmony. Creator did not send his Son to decide against the people of this world, but to set them free from the worthless ways of the world.

John 3:16-17

Because God loves the world therefore we will have the life of the world to come that never fades—full of beauty and harmony.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

May 5, 2024 - Sixth Sunday of Easter - Remain in My Love... Love One Another

"Remain in my love... This I command you: love one another."

John 15:9-17

"Something's happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear."

Buffalo Springfield, For What It's Worth 

This week's Gospel completes a call heard in John's Farewell Discourse which was started last week. It also adds another layer to the Gospel lesson the week before where Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd.

Recently I was asked a few times, in different circumstances by different people, why I attend church worship services rather faithfully. I believe a careful reading of this John passage may provide me clues on how to answer that question. 

For example, Jesus says here "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." At first glance, an immediate, obvious meaning was caught in my Shōgun and the Good Shepherd blog entry. It revolves around a physical, end-of-life moment or decision. I don't think I am alone in this understanding. I wrote, "Yes, the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. It is a noble gesture but it also leaves the sheep without a primary defender against their predators and the elements. How a threat is stopped when the shepherd is dead remains unresolved."

Yet something is happening that is not clear. Jesus did not say, "No one has greater love than this, to die for one's friends." Laying down one's life may also involve sacrificing personal ambitions, providing unwavering emotional support, defending one's friends against injustice, and standing up for their rights. It might involve being a reliable, trusting friend or taking risks on their behalf. It may involve making tough choices that prioritize their well-being over your own.

Quoting the Pope today, "A true friend never abandons you, even when you make mistakes. They correct you, perhaps scold you, but they forgive you and do not leave you. In this Gospel Jesus tells us that this is exactly what we are to Him: friends."

In essence, "laying down one's life for one's friends" is about selflessness, sacrifice, and putting the needs of others above your own, whether that involves physical sacrifice, emotional support, or other forms of assistance and care. Thought of in this way it can be seen more as a life-long commitment and responsibility. Keeping the commandments you hold dear may involve something like that end-of-life decision but it may also be how you choose to live throughout your life, remaining in love in complete joy as best you can while bearing the fruit that will last. 

Sunday Worship Service Setting - Now The Feast

Pastor Emillie sermon highlighted examples of Christians who exemplified physical and emotional support for those they encountered in their lives. She praised the love of the church who supported Pastor and her family when they first came to the United States. This church is St. Mark's By The Narrows in Tacoma.

She next preached about how a woman who fled Rwanda was able to come back and forgive the man who killed her family because she followed Jesus' commandment. Pastor Emillie also cited the families of the Emanuel 9, who were killed by a member of an ELCA congregation.

 In 2019 the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, adopted a resolution designating June 17 as a commemoration of the martyrdom of the Emanuel 9—the nine people shot and killed on June 17, 2015 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

Hearing Pastor Emillie commend those family members for forgiving the killer packed an emotional note, particularly after the Rwanda example. Pastor Emillie asserted that John's Farewell Discourse provided a spiritual nourishment and reminder to the disciples of how Jesus emptied himself in his love for others.

It would become essential in their lives after Christ and may it be the same for us.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

April 28, 2024 - Fifth Sunday of Easter - Abide In Me

"I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit."

Pastor Emillie's sermon was about the Gospel reminding us of belonging.  Jesus followers are rooted in God. She quoted Paul in Colossians who wrote "Our lives are hidden with Christ in God, our source and hope."   

In the Children's Sermon she gave great examples of flowers and fruits when they are cut off from the vine how they lose their vitality; they find it hard to remain with productivity and purpose. Jesus words here remind us that apart from Christ, we can do nothing of lasting significance. Our strength, our purpose, our very life flows from our connection to him.

The next two Sundays of Easter take us into the middle of the Farewell Discourse in John’s Gospel. Chapter 13 narrates the “sign” that sets in motion the hour and Jesus’ farewell. The Farewell Discourse begins at 14:1, interpreting both the foot washing and the events to come, for Jesus and for his disciples.

Like the good shepherd of last week’s text, this week’s image of the vine is another extended metaphor, which also borrows from and adapts Old Testament imagery for Israel.

We bear fruit not by squeezing it out of ourselves but because we are extensions of the vine, pruned by the gardener-God who wants us to be fruitful and to be drawn into the unity of the Father and Son. God’s love, presence, and pruning are gifts. But we do choose the abiding place of our soul. If we want to bear Jesus’ fruit, then we choose to abide in him, which we will learn in John 15:9 means to abide in his love.

Pastor Emillie joked that the congregation certainly knows by now she is not a skilled farmer. She has had experience with pruning and she told a pruning story about getting chrysanthemums from Walmart
every spring and throwing them away every fall because they looked dead. Then she learned about pruning an found there was more possible life if plants are pruned correctly.

She preached that as we remain in Christ, we are called to bear fruit – fruit that brings glory to God and
blesses those around us. This fruit may take many forms – acts of kindness, words of encouragement, deeds of justice and mercy – but it is always marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

She concluded by encouraging us abide together in Christ who gives us the fruit of the vine.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

April 21, 2024 - Fourth Sunday of Easter - Shōgun and the Good Shepherd

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."

John 10:11-18

"Flowers are only flowers because they fall"


This will not be short; my apologies. It’s one of those weeks where I was compelled to take stock after another memorable service and sermon. 

To begin with for nine weeks now my family has watched and appreciated episodes of the new Hulu "Shōgun" miniseries.

"Shōgun" is one of James Clavell's historical novel set in the early 17th century and follows the adventures of an English sailor named John Blackthorne, who is shipwrecked in Japan. Among the languages he knows he speaks Portuguese.

Blackthorne becomes embroiled in the complex and treacherous political intrigues of feudal Japan during a time when the country was ruled by powerful warlords known as "daimyo". The title of Shogun is given to the military dictator that unites the factions.

The samurai Lord Toranaga vyes for power against other ambitious daimyo. The novel explores themes of cultural clash, honor, loyalty, and the clash between East and West. The novel delves into the personal struggles and growth of its characters as they confront the challenges of their time.

Several episodes of this series began to hint at “Crimson Sky,” This appeared to be a secret battle plan for an all-out assault on a medieval castle which might determine who finally rules Japan in this period. “Crimson Sky” is also the title of this week's penultimate episode of the 10-episode mini-series, And, according to the genre of this kind of historical drama, a massive battle for control can often be the climatic event.

Instead this week's episode was a riveting look at a woman, Mariko, who has served throughout the series as Toranaga's translator of Portuguese between he and Blackthorne. Her family of Samurai nobility became Christian through interaction with Jesuit priests from Portugal. In this part of the story she is moved into character tests under extreme circumstances, channeling her lifetime of pain (her father and family are viewed as being traitors) into one final incandescent act of strength and sacrifice. Obviously this episode did not contain an expected battle of massive armies that the title may have promised. Here there’s just one woman, her mind and soul stretched to their limit by the overlapping dictates of her faith, her family, her society, and her own heart, pulling herself together for one final defiant act. In death, she finds a purpose she felt she lacked in life. It is both a triumph and a tragedy.

Jesus' words in this week's Gospel and Shōgun illuminate the underlying messages in each. What 17th century Japanese culture and Christianity calls for within us both stirs many thoughts and emotions and moves our human hearts to the divine. Laying down your life for the ones you love due to duty or destiny simultaneously agonize and inspire us, each giving life deeper meanings.

Mariko faces death in different ways in the episode. First is her choice to fight soldiers who threaten to kill her for acting out of honor and duty. She fights them with others until this combat is obviously shown to be fruitless.  Dishonored she next chooses to die by her own hands. She wants to commit to an act of seppuku, which was the honorable, ritual suicide by disembowelment. This was reserved for men of the samurai class in feudal Japan. Being Christian by faith and she worries that suicide is seen as a mortal sin within the Catholic church. However she is not deterred by this concern. 

Finally she chooses to protect others from a hostile bomb blast set by her enemies. She deliberately puts her body between those she loves and the impending blast to protect them from feeling its full force. So her decision to be a martyr comes into play. Heartbreaking, noble choices coming one after another. This story is based on a historical woman and her actions and choices changed the history of Japan.

And while I ponder this, two passages from scripture haunt me. The last verse of this Gospel "For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father." is one of those passages. The other is the Lord's Prayer, "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." The passages turn my spirit from an overwhelming fear of death to devotion.

Sunday Worship Service Setting - African American Liturgy

The service centered around the subject of the "Good Shepherd" passage in the Gospel. Pastor Emillie's sermon focused on a rather deep paradox of the sheep / shepherd metaphor. She talked about a discussion she had about the meaning of the metaphor where a colleague of hers. The talk centered on what is characteristically assumed of sheep - namely that they blindly follow their shepherd. This bothered Pastor Emillie. Should Jesus be blindly followed? 

She went on to elaborate that sheep follow the voice of their shepherd because a relationship of trust has been developed when the shepherd takes care of their wants and needs. Does that mitigate this blind following? Perhaps it is persuasive enough to make that kind of following understandable or acceptable. Personally I think the primary attribute of sheep is their predominant nature to flock together rather than "blindly" following.

However, the language describing the Good Shepherd is not really as reassuring or comfortable for the sheep as it would first appear to be. Yes, the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A noble gesture but it also leaves the sheep without a primary defender against their predators and the elements. How a threat is stopped when the shepherd is dead remains unresolved. Whether it is a hired hand who abandoned the flock or the shepherd who has died for them, a continuing, inherent menace to the sheep remains.

Reflecting on inherent menace to the sheep through the Shōgun and the Good Shepherd lens highlights another principle may regarding the danger to the sheep. Obviously this could be a less important a factor as the love that prompts the laying down of one's life for another. 

This is eloquently expressed in the poem Shōgun attributes to being written Mariko. This offers a poetic insight into the novel and this part of Jesus' teaching to his disciples. This also both calls me out and calls me here and now into another perspective and the visibility of all this which illuminates a fault line in my soul.  

To save the sheep, the followers of Jesus may also feel the call to model Good Shepherd behavior themselves. This is a more subversive, disruptive message than is normally heard in these words. Currently, to me,  there are different levels - different speeds - that Christians are asked to live their lives. Perhaps this is as it always has been. A shepherd like Jesus is not always needed, but in the Gospel Jesus' desire is that some of his followers to be more than sheep needing protection appears evident. 

Today the Shōgun and the Good Shepherd and Pastor's sermon invited a deeper spiritual journey and understanding than I initially anticipated, including unexpected complexities.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

April 14, 2024 - Third Sunday of Easter - The Road to Crucifixion and Jesus' First Appearance in the Passover Supper Room

Our recent Sunday worship Gospel readings reveal that the road Jesus takes to Jerusalem together with his invitation to table fellowship connect not only with each other but can connect with us. The Bible connects them with the detailed descriptions of sharing Jesus' entry into the city, the last Passover meal, in Jesus' encounter with disciples on their way to Emmaus, in his appearance to the disciples after the resurrection and on the Sea of Galilee.

How did all these connect then and how do they connect us now? 

There is a terrible weight involved in following Jesus' destination to Jerusalem and the destiny he fulfills in going there as we remember Holy Week. The disciples also came to understand this when he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem."

And what should we expect when we believe God loves us and promises to stand with us? Since many stories, particularly of Jesus appearances, involve the sharing of food surely there is a promise of being nourished and sustained by God as our destiny is fulfilled.  We shouldn't necessarily expect to be relieved of any 'terrible weight' regarding the 'road' we travel. Following rarely leads to any expected entitlement but hopefully to service.

Sunday Worship Service Setting - African American Liturgy

Together with Matt and Luka Tini and I sang the African American liturgy. There is almost always an infectious energy that takes hold of the congregation when they are singing this liturgy and today was no exception.

People were going out of their way to greet others today. The connecting I was contemplating this week was made real this morning. Pastor Emillie gave a great Children's Sermon which Logan really seemed to appreciate where she talked about all the efforts man has made to reach the heavens and illustrated it with a single sheet of paper. She started off by folding it into triangular shape representing and building. She then folded it to be an airplane. Then she tore it into the shape of a rocket, none of which could reach God or heaven. Then, finally, she made the last tears that turned it into the shape of a cross which she gave to Logan.

Immense joy and feeling of community was evident today.  

May 26, 2024 - Solemnity of the Holy Trinity - Nicodemus and the Trinity, What Are We Talking About?

This was posted in this week's Creator Connection regarding the Holy Trinity for Sunday's worship : When we say God is the triune G...