Monday, June 27, 2016

Sphere of Love: Paul, Chaos and Trusting the Design

Would you do it? No seatbelts or airbags.  Would you be placed in a sphere whose engineering in beyond our understanding.  A created thing the design of which came to earth in pages and pages of digital text. The message was an invitation embedded in a booming tone from the sky.  They heard it, they stepped up, they followed the directions, they built the machine.  Would you climb into this alien sphere, trusting that they, this incomprehensible other, would you trust that they have a purpose and a meaning that is life-giving?  Would you walk into it,  believing you would travel by a wormhole?  A wormhole is a theoretical concept, for which we have no objective proof of.
Source:deviant art lucina_brera_3-d5ykuar

In Paul’s day the Mediterranean was an awkward mess of trade routes and Imperial frameworks.  A time of angst and need where the old ways were exalted but didn’t seem to work well anymore.  The earliest phases of the primordial Church were birthed in this unbounded chaos.  Little churches in far flung places we cannot even find anymore.  Paul had been there in Galatia, proclaimed that our One true God, revealed to Abraham and to Moses and their children, God has done something new in Christ Jesus. The hundreds of rules of the Jewish practice, they were all drawn into one body, one promise…Love with a capital L. 

Paul is writing to communities.  No letter he writes is intended for one single person.  The list of brokenness is a design for disaster that rips apart the fragile connections that are the difference between a crowd and a church.  Paul started these churches, invited them into the way of Jesus, a free way that has fulfilled the law because if we really truly love all as God loves us, we don’t need any other instructions.  But the reign of God isn’t fully here yet, this living in love has never been a well-organized religion.  The flesh that Paul keeps referring to isn’t really a body thing, it is not ‘carne’.  It is an ancient expression that refers to what I might call the twisted imagination of our hearts.  The ways in which we want an easier route, a tastier route, a way of self-satisfaction before self-emptying.  

It is this twisted inclination,  that makes it crucial that we have structures that guard against behaviors that harm a community, and that we offer the expectations we do have.  I expect generosity, daring, leaning into discomfort, trying new things, asking real questions.  We always dwell in this tension between holding a hand while you learn to walk, and walking into the gift of freedom.

An alternative approach, something firmer to grab onto, has come to the churches in Galatia.  It has come with a group, I will call them the Observers, they believe in the Christian proclamation, but they also believe that those who follow Jesus should observe most of the Jewish purity laws.  This isn’t an illogical notion, and it has repeated itself again and again in Christian history.  Some forms of biblical literalism are not that different from these Observers in Galatia.  What we have here in this reading is the heart of Paul’s rebuttal of these Observers. 

Now Paul was creative and persuasive, however he was not a scholar of Greek.  One commentary suggests that the opening sentence of today’s epistle selection ‘is so messy and awkwardly written as to be nearly incomprehensible.’  So the translation is process is just as chaotic as the churches it was sent to. 

If you so desire, I invite you to a bit of clarification in today’s lesson.  I have sent out little blue notes with an expanded version that might bring us more trust in this structure of Love that Paul insists on.  We will start with summed up, which is better translated as fulfilled.  Jesus isn’t the Cliff notes, he isn’t a sum total.  Jesus fills the covenant with his own life, his own beautiful words and gift of healing grace.  Where it says commandment,  lets use the greek word in the letter, logosThe Logos of God became flesh and dwelled among us.  And word/logos in this sense means promise.   A holy promise of Love that we are invited into.  If we keep going ‘shall’ is a bit gentle.  Let's amp it up with the greek meaning, choosing to use WILL in all capital letters.  It is a prophecy, it is an invitation into something that is going to happen.  You can walk this way.  

Now the letter is a work of craft and ideas ebb and flow, so if we move ahead we find the word Live, the plain transliteration is the same as the root of the word pedestrian.  Walk.  It is a moving word, a going somewhere, stepping into freedom idea.  Our favorite office assistant is about to walk.  She can stand on her own, and I call to her, knowing that she will walk.  It is going to happen.  Which is the anticipatory and positive sense of this reading…which we should read together.  ‘For the whole law is fulfilled with Christ’s life and the way is an inviting promise that you WILL walk in love; loving your neighbor as yourself, you are capable and it will happen, it will happen with God the Spirit’s help.’

In the movie Contact,  humanity receives a signal from deep space, a signal in the form of three-dimensional texts, which offer plans to build a machine.  A machine which will somehow, invite a person from our planet to theirs.  The engineers who build this most expensive project in human history, they trust the unknown civilization enough to build a gigantic and complicated machine whose function they do not understand.  They trust the all of the plans, until they get to the actual vehicle.  Human engineering really likes safety nets.  We wear helmets on our bicycles and have airbags in our cars.  That spherical vessel, as it is given these designs don’t have any type of restraint for the passenger.  None.   Just a sphere. 

So the engineers add a seat with a harness.  They bolt it onto this smooth elegant sphere.  As the journey proceeds it this chair, this extra contraption that has been attached  into the transmitted design, it nearly ends the mission.  The seat rattled the passenger fiercely until she released the harness and floated freely and safely.   Likewise, the Observers desire to attach old designs to the way of Christ, it is wholly unnecessary.  The design as transmitted is all we need.  No breathing apparatus or seatbelts are needed, but a headlamp won’t hurt.  

The gift is enough if we can only trust its sufficiency.  Trust that this one life is strong enough to carry us, Trust that this one elegant sphere comes from wisdom far greater than ours.  Christ’s self-emptying Love is our sphere. It can keep us safe, take us deeper and farther than we can ask or imagine.  How will I lean into the fear and enter into his gift? How will I not overthink and over engineer?   Trust that this one SHAPE is strong enough to carry us, trust that this one elegant sphere comes from wisdom far greater than ours.  Trust that it can lead us through the chaos we cannot comprehend, if we only follow the design.  L   O   V   E. 

St. Paul's Walla Walla
June 26, 2016

A homilists note, the recorded sermon is different from this text, as in on Sunday morning I realized during the Gospel reading that I didn't have the most current revision downloaded!  The text here is a mashup of what I wanted to share and what I actually said.  Oh well.  Paul isn't the only one with transmission problems.