Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Killer the Seal: Acts of Thecla and Being a Creative Compelling Witness

This is Killer, the stuffed animal seal puppet. You might wonder, why is sweet little guy named Killer.  We will get to that eventually, I promise. First, however, we need to think for a bit about the kind of document that the Acts of the Apostles is.  Outside of the biblical canon, there are Acts of Barnabas, Acts of Thomas, Acts of Rebecca and even Acts of Andrew.  Starting a title with Acts is sort of like putting the document into a section of the bookstore.  If you want a cookbook, go to the cookbooks. For the literary category of Acts, there really isn’t a premade placard for that.  You have to imagine a section somewhere between a spiritual superhero comic book and a telenovela.

The intention in Acts-type document is to invite readers and listeners into a creative and compelling story that inspires heroic faith and teaches virtuous living. We tell fairytales today, fairytales like the Little Mermaid, not because a singing evil octopus is expected, but to help us know that we can resist and defeat evil in whatever form it arrives. Acts-type stories are not told under any illusion of being verifiably 100% accurate, while at the same time they are also deeply and passionately true.

For example, let me tell you about the Acts of Thecla. Thecla is a young woman of means in what we know now as Turkey. One night sitting in her window,  she overhears St. Paul proclaiming the Good News in a home below.  She is so moved by this witness that she goes to him and declares her intention to abandon her fiance and her family and follow him sharing the good news of Jesus. When she returns home to tell her Mother about her change of faith, there is weeping and wailing and her family turning her into the authorities. After more time with Paul and run-ins with the Empire, Thecla ends up in prison and eventually is stripped of her clothing and tied to a post in the Coliseum, to face the public shame of a horrible death.  It is a terrifying moment, but her faith is so strident, and her virtue so self-evident that the wild dog which bounds in to devour her, it snuggles with her.  And the lion who runs toward this tasty treat, simply bows down and licks her toes.

Somehow during this trial in the Coliseum, she is unbound from the stake and Thecla goes running toward the exit. On her way to safety, she sees a pool full of aquatic beasts, and led by the Spirit she leaps in and baptizes herself in the pool of killer seals!  Thecla makes it out of the Coliseum and is reunited with Paul and his companions.  Sometime later she encounters her mother, who had thought she was dead, and after a time of reconciliation and proclamation, her cruel mother comes to believe and follow Jesus as the Christ.  See what I mean by spiritual comic book crossed with a telenovela?

Acts stories are fast-moving adventures, full of danger and amazing grace and extraordinary moments.  Lots of ancient leaders last days are told as Ascensions.  Good men who rose up into the clouds is a classic metaphor for telling that final chapter of the esteemed.  The idea that Jesus is giving up on gravity,  and now soaring past Jupiter  (people have done the calculations) is very much not the point, and contrary to physics.  The Ascension is about letting go of Jesus’ earthly mission and handing it over to you and me. It is a way to say he is no longer here in the same way, but he is still with us.  I think of it as he has been reabsorbed by God’s transcendent life, while in the same breath God gives us the Spirit to empower our part in the holy mission right here, right now.

The Ascension is a life-giving adventure that leads us beyond the everyday and into a deeper and broader reality that is beyond our limited senses.  The ancients knew it was both fantasy and true, maybe we can too.  We will soon baptize young Leo, and I promise there are no ravenous beasts in the font.  We will welcome him into a Jesus movement and a home in God that is life-giving and also surrounded by fierce challenges at every turn.  We will promise to support him in his life in Christ. How exactly will we do that?  What is Jesus calling us to let go of?  What are the lions and pools of killer seals that threaten and defeat us?

When I was in seminary my closest buddies and I would declare dress up days.  One time I decided to go as Thecla.  I had these pale flesh tone leggings and a flesh tone shirt.  I painted a few bloody scars on my face and arms. And I searched the neighborhood for a stuffed seal,  who I of course named Killer. We had been assigned the Acts of Thecla in our core classes at least twice.  Apparently, my classmates didn’t read as much as I did, because all day long I had to tell her story again and again.  I went to classes and meals and probably chapel in that costume, and it wasn’t until dinner time when spouse of our NT professor looked at me in my allusion to naked costume and fake scars and Killer seal puppet and said with joy,  ‘Thecla’!

My seminary was ecumenical, and that meant that I took classes with Baptists and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Jesuits.  One woman I told the story to was a Presbyterian acquaintance named Lucy.  She asked about the costume, and I told her about Thecla and introduced her to Killer.  And she laughed.  Years later when she and I had become friends, and she had been ordained an Episcopal priest she recalled that encounter to me. Lucy told me it was the day she decided that not all Episcopalians were as frozen, flat and boring as she thought and that maybe there was a place for her here.  I was a creative and compelling witness, but I still had to tell the story with my voice.  As self-evident as I thought it was, I still had to use my words to proclaim.

The intention of the Acts of the Apostles is to offer gifts of ways to be a creative and compelling witness in confusing and desperate times.  A vision of the many ways to proclaim Jesus Christ, who lived and loved and died and rose again and ascended into heaven.  Acts shares with us that this same Jesus who has ascended is also breathing and acting in you and me, right here, right now in a way that no timeline can explain. Acts wants to help you dive into the apostolic life, wants you to immerse yourself in the proclamation,  and dare to strive for God’s reign, no matter what.

It is rather like a spiritual comic book to help the church know it has holy superpowers.  It is rather like a romantic adventure to help you believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  There may be shades of the fantastic and the silly, but behind the adventure, there are real life or death moments where real people dare to choose Christ, who dare to step up to cruelty and hate in his name.  In the Ascension, Jesus has entrusted us with his mission. The big question today is, how will you act?

Let us pray.
May  we venture safely through every trial,
May our heart be daring, 
May our courage be steadfast,
And may our intention be deeply with you.
Holy Trinity, One God, 
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
World without end. 

May 28, 2017
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington

Names have been changed to protect the laughing.

Origin Stories Dancing: Saloons, Trinity and Good Starts

After the beginning began but before our beginning began, during the last ice age a glacial outburst from the northeast deposited meters and meters of precious soil in rolling dunes and it was good.  A long long time later a group of people settled in the middle of the many creeks below the mountains that are described as blue.  They called it Walla Walla. And it was good.  Later more people came from the east across the rivers and plains and mountains of this continent.  A town grew up in this valley. They are fruitful with their orchards and vineyards and educators, and it is good.

Origin stories matter to us deeply. They trace the mysteries of where we might have come from, but we examine them and tell them because we are trying to understand where we are right now and what comes next. Origin stories are rarely really about the beginning.  When we are in the middle of the story of our lives:  we are there in that story. Families and careers and surprises.  Bravely striving,  sometimes stumbling, and hopefully evolving for the common good.How it all began is a story that many people only explore when they have the time or need to do so.  Amongst people I know and love, I watch as they research genealogy when the children have left the house when there is more time to be still and wonder.  

There has never been an ‘on the scene’  ‘live report’ version of the creation of the universe.  It defies logic on an epic scale.  In days gone by, they told the story in one way.  Today we continue in that wondering by sifting through evidence and data and sharing theories.  We tell the tale of how the beginning began through telescopes and microscopes and Mars Rovers.  In our first reading, today are the opening sentences of the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Today we heard an older way of asking who we are and where we are going.

The first creation story of Genesis is a story we may have heard so often as to barely hear it anymore. Plus with some of the modern ludicrous things said about this story we might have become good at tuning it out.  But it doesn’t have to be that way. The best that scholars can tell this story doesn’t start at the start of the life of the people who heard it and told it.  It comes to be in words and parchment at a time when they were just figuring out who they were, where God is, and how they were to move and live and be as God’s people in the whole wide world.  

Like so many other core parts of the Hebrew scriptures, this origin story seems to be most shaped by the experience of the Exile.  Yet in that moment of brutality and death and destruction, this recitation doesn’t declare that all began in the terrible and ever will be terrible.  It offers instead a beginning of placid calm, it hears the whispers of a vision of a caring wise wind brooding like a mother hen over the raw materials.  This text celebrates each tiny facet in an intricate and crucial balance of pattern and sound.   All quietly but clearly stating that even in pain we dwell in a wonderful and beloved world. This rhythmic wondering at what happened before the beginning began doesn’t do so just to do so, but looks and wonders and tells as a way of digging deep into the hope of a more just future and concludes that we can be good just as the creation is good.  

You may or may not know the St. Paul’s origin story begins in a time of messy sojourning.  The unpaved roads and commotion of the wild west.  I imagine it very much like the set of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.  Horses and wagons, dirt everywhere, the hard moments where you have to give up on trying to make life just like it was where you were with the paved roads and what not.  Here where you are you have to make good things work with what you have right now.  

If I remember the St. Paul’s story correctly, the motivation isn’t told as deeply holy or spiritual. It wasn’t the holy woman coming through and saying ah, this is a holy place, let us set up an altar and worship here.  The way I remember the story, there were some fellas in a saloon  deciding that in the midst of the messiness there should be an Episcopal church. Allegedly the first meetings were in that same saloon, where there was fussing about the improperness of the tobacco stains on the wall, and the practical if also gross solution. (They 'painted' the whole wall with tobacco spit.)

A saloon on the frontier was about many things, some less virtuous than others. But it was certainly about resting, eating, and friendship. A place to tell stories, to be refreshed,  and dream dreams.  This is a good origin story for St. Paul’s.  It is good because it means that in our deepest roots are not set apart from everyday life and that our deepest pattern is a mission of fellowship, feeding and lay leadership.  In the beginning, we began in a wild west saloon, and it was good.  

The profile committee and Vestry is deep in its work telling our story about who we are now, who we have been and who you are called to be next.  There is anxiety in this moment, both inside and outside these walls.  I don’t know if we are in the crisis point of Exilic vulnerability. Sometimes that sense of the doomed seems for certain, moments when I repeat to myself to be brave, hold fast, keep speaking the truth even when I want to hide.  Other times, I know that sense of rest and sabbath, I see the skies are blue and the temperatures pleasant and the cherries are ready!  

It is a three part dance, a both and an and,  and a something else less quantifiable.  Which is rather like that mystery of the Holy Trinity.  I could flood your ears with explanations of the doctrines about substances and essences. People fought and died for those formulations, so in their memory perhaps I should, but luckily for you I will not.Because as valuable as the complexities are, the basics are about as much as most of us need to know God.  After all the point of the Trinity is not to know about God but to know God.  So let’s just review the basics.

You have the big G God who creates it all, who seems to be way out there and way in deep. And there is Jesus of Nazareth, God born as a person in a certain time that we can find on a calendar and a place we can find on a map, who is somehow the very image of the big G God, who somehow is my friend and companion through the Spirit.  So then there is the Spirit of God who moves us and comforts us and fills us with the most sacred breath and is close at hand and is the same as the way out there and the fella back then.  Beyond that is a whole lot of mystery
that maybe words can never express, like no words can ever really describe what it was like before the beginning began.  Yet here it is.

And so to is the experience of the sacred Trinity,  hat somehow we know God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit in their concreteness and their unknowingness. It can make absolutely no sense and at the same time for me, God makes no sense without it.  I am grateful for the Trinity, for its formulations and its weirdness, for its expansiveness and its inclusiveness. For its stillness and its perpetual motion. There are ways in which we are much like those ancestors in faith who crafted and shared these first sentences of Genesis. People who were wondering about where we come from to try and place some shape around where we are going.
I invite you to keep thinking about that frontier beginning, knowing that somehow, someway, you are right there with them sitting at that saloon bench start. There is freedom in the messiness of finding ourselves there with them in the wild west. There is energy in letting go of old things so you can discover the new things God has in store for you.

What friends are telling truths and which strangers are dreaming God’s dreams? How can remembering ourselves as saloon guests lead us into continuing to be the Jesus movement, and the Jesus mambo and the Jesus MASH unit in the Walla Walla valley today? For me the greatest gift of the Holy Trinity is that I don’t have to have all the answers, but that I am invited into a relationship with the past and the present and the days to come. It is a gift that we experience the triune God as dancing and dwelling and breathing with us in our history and in our now and in our future. And it can be very very very good.

Let us pray.
Gentle us, Holy One, into an unclenched moment,
a deep breath, a letting go of heavy expectations,
of shriveling anxieties, of dead certainties, that,
softened by the silence, surrounded by the light,
and open to the mystery, we may be found by wholeness,
upheld by the unfathomable, entranced by the simple,
and filled with the joy that is you.
In the name of the Holy Trinity,One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, World without end. Amen  

(prayer by Ted Loder)

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington