“…The Holy Spirit…The Communion of Saints…”

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.

God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.

That’s the creed a church in Atlanta used to say weekly. Let’s get there, and if you like, you can say it with me at the end of this time. 

Grace and I sent our daughter off to college last year, several states away. What a weird year to send your kid out into the world, right? 

I mean, we’re really proud of her. She finished her year, got good grades, made friends, learned things about herself and her interests, on and on. We’re really proud of her. But what a weird year to be sent out into the world on your own for the first time. You’re told make new friends, have adventures, you’re in the prime of your life, but also, don’t hang out indoors, don’t leave campus, don’t touch anyone, wear a mask or two.

You’re told you’re here for the most powerful learning experiences you can imagine, to find your passions, find a career, learn to make a difference in the world. And that’ll happen somehow by taking classes online from your closet-sized room where you sit with your computer and your thoughts, all by yourself

It was a pretty lonely and scary year to be a brand new young adult.

It was a pretty lonely and scary year to be a lot of us. I spent a lot of time on the phone this past year, more time on the phone than ever in my life, or at least ever since I was a teenager. And I heard a lot of stories about fear and loneliness. 

Even with the governor. A few of us from GBIO, our interfaith justice organizing group, had a call with the governor to advocate for some justice and mercy measures during the pandemic. But as people of faith, we started out by asking him how he was doing and how we could pray for him. He was clearly under a lot of stress and pressure at the time, and it struck us how lonely his work had become, how he missed the handshakes and hugs and human contact that are big parts of his life in regular times. Even one of the richest, most powerful people in our state gets lonely and scared during a pandemic. 

Some of us discovered during the pandemic that with the help of God and friends, we can face hard times and do well. We found we had each other and we were not alone. 

But some of us found that we were a lot more alone than we wanted to be. And maybe we wonder what to do about that. 

And some of us are realizing that it’s not easy to shake off our fears. There’s plenty of scary news, COVID and otherwise, that’s still part of our lives – private and public – and we wonder how we can be less afraid. If we can be less afraid.

Today I want to explore a little how a person of faith can be connected and feel less alone and maybe even a little less afraid. 

I’ve been teaching through the Apostles’ Creed this summer, one of the shortest and oldest summaries of the Christian faith. And I’ve had my reasons for doing this, as I’ve talked about – as I’ve both affirmed and quibbled with the language of this creed, trying to suggest ways to bring it up to date with our science and experiences and faith and doubt we have in our era.

But with today’s section, I want to just enjoy the holy resources it points us to to be less afraid and less alone in the world. 

So I’ll read the parts of the creed I’ve taught the past six weeks I’ve preached and then today’s section as well.

I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, 

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, 

Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,

Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Dead and Buried. He descended into hell.

On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints…

So this part of the creed has this holy, holy, holy trifecta. Holy Spirit, holy church, communion of saints, which literally just means holy people. Same root. I believe in holy spirit, holy church, holy people. What does that sound like to you? 

Holy means beautiful and different and awesome all bound together. It’s what we sense or experience that evokes wonder – like the power of the waves at the seashore, or the intimacy of sex with a beloved partner, or the sense you have if you believe in God that there is a spirit of perfect love and wisdom that knows our name and smiles at the thought of us. 

Wholly holy…

My daughter and I have been watching the new Aretha Franklin series from National Geographic and listening to a voice like hers, or hearing Cynthia Erivo, the actress cover her songs, I mean the unworldly power and soul of a voice like that doing its thing, that’s holy.

The creed invites us to believe that God’s presence with us, God’s spirit, is holy. And that the ways God is with us, the means of God’s presence are holy too. In particular, the ways we are here for each other, the universal church that gathers in the name of Jesus, the communion of people who love Jesus, scattered across place and time, that’s holy too. 

There’s an irony for some of us in that many of us have seen versions of the Christian church or experienced versions of Christian community that have been anything but holy – that have been hollow or empty or shaming or dysfunctional or abusive – not the kind of stuff that fills us with beauty and wonder and awe and love at all. 

I think of Aretha Franklin’s life herself – a woman born into a family and a faith full of love and liberation and beauty and strength. But also a family and a faith that was scrapping for survival and that was abusive and hypocritical too.

Not wholly holy. 

So perhaps the creed isn’t telling us the whole story of how it always is but calling us to possibility –to the way things can be or should be. Maybe it’s inviting us to look for the ways God can be with us through God’s church and God’s people, to believe in and lean into the ways we can be less scared and less alone, and more whole, in this community and in this faith. 

This week, this hope reminded me of a little beginning in one of the New Testament’s little letters. Most of the letters in the New Testament are written to communities of faith, but this one called II Timothy is written to a person of faith, to a very young pastor of a community. And the beginning has these words. 

II Timothy 1:3-7 (Common English Bible)

3 I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night.

4 When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness.

5 I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you.

6 Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands.

7 God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.

The writer is telling Timothy to remember God is with you, through many means. Timothy’s been sad, and like most leaders, he’s probably been lonely sometimes. There is mention of tears. Like most young leaders, most leaders period to be real, he’s been scared sometimes. There’s mention of this “spirit that is timid or afraid” that Timothy wants to find his way past. 

But the writer – we’ll go with the tradition for a moment, and call him Paul – Paul tells Timothy God is within you. God is in you. And God’s gift to you isn’t money or status or any other kind of stuff, it’s just all that is holy God. It’s the internal love and dynamism of God within you, and it’s the self-control, the self-leadership that can empower. 

Paul doesn’t just tell Timothy to stop crying and stop being timid and buck up and be strong. And he doesn’t tell his mentee to just have more faith in this God who is with him by God’s Holy Spirit. 

What he does do is remind a young leader that God’s presence is there through many means and that God’s presence invites noticing. Faith in God doesn’t just occur, it needs some paying attention and tending and reviving; it needs leaning into. 

Thankfully, there are many means by which this faith in God with us can be stirred. 

Here are just a few of the means Paul mentions for knowing God’s loving, empowering presence. 

There are the holy ancestors. Paul writes this letter of encouragement not just by himself but in the faith and the strength of ancestors who preceded him. And he encourages Timothy not just as a solitary person alone in the world, but as a young person whose mother and grandmother were people of love and faith.

Timothy’s line probably wasn’t all goodness and light to him, just like our families and ancestors aren’t either. Maybe Timothy’s dad was absent, physically or emotionally. Maybe his brother was mean, maybe his sister did him wrong, maybe his other grandmother was cruel. But he has ancestors, as do Paul, maybe biological, maybe unrelated by people of his faith or his culture or his community who preceded them and whose strength and love and faith is gifted to them across generations. Holy ancestors are means of God’s loving, empowering presence to us all.

There are the holy prayers. Paul prays for Timothy, his mentee, whenever he thinks of him. And that’s a means of loving encouragement. None of us know precisely how prayer works, but when we become part of a church, people start praying for us. I know this because I pray for you all when I think of you. Often very short prayers, but pastors do this, pray for people whose names and lives greet us in memories and meetings and emails and texts. And I co-lead two community groups in this church and just about every week we meet, just about each person is prayed for by name. And God’s listening, and we’re listening, and this is another way we know God’s loving, empowering presence to us all. 

There are holy, vulnerable and authentic relationships. Paul and Timothy know each other well enough, they’ve been real enough, trustworthy and safe enough with each other that tears have been shed in one another’s presence, and they know the names of each other’s family. In our emotionally distant, shut down culture, how many men are open enough, close enough that they’ve cried in each other’s presence. In our transitory world, who knows the names of our family? Whose family names do we know? Holy friendship, that just offers non-judgmental presence, safety, encouragement, openness, this is a big way we get less alone in the world. 

There is the holy spirit of God within us Paul says Timothy, don’t forget. It’s there. And there are holy memories. The memory of people who you love and who love you. The memories of key moments where God seemed real and good, like for Timothy, that time Paul put his hands on his shoulders in front of the little church and commissioned him to lead with love and humility and wisdom and faithfulness. 

Our lives are full of troubles and fears and lonely corners of the life that aren’t quite the ones we want. All that’s real. But we have memories too, memories of experiences that told us we’d be OK, and we are seen and loved and we are not alone. And these holy memories are means of knowing how holy God sees and loves us. 

And there is lastly the holiness of reunion. Paul says

I long to see you. I long to see you.

The longing to see the one we cannot see was real to us all this past year and a half. And sometimes the longing is all we’ve got, and longing can be holy too, even the wanting of togetherness can make us feel a little less alone and a little more alive.

But then there’s the leaning in when it’s possible too, the leaning into togetherness. The premade decision to keep showing up for your neighbors or your friends or your church community group, because in the keep showing up, you know you’ll be a holy encouragement to someone else, and in the keeping showing up, you’ll put in the time that lets others start to be holy encouragement to you too. 

Now let me say again, in all these things I’m talking about – in ancestors, in families, in faith traditions, in churches and memories and prayers and togetherness, there can be so much that is not holy. That keeps distance, that judges, that shames, that uses, that leaves one another empty and emptied and cold and sometimes even more scared and more alone than we were in the first place.

Most of the best things in life, when they lack love and kindness and safety, can be some of the worst things too. That’s real. The means by which we can know God is with us, and be left feeling more love and power internally, only work when we’re safe and kind and lean into non judgemental, loving presence. That’s just a truth of life. 

But with these things, church can be holy, and knowing we are part of a communion of holy people – imperfect, messy, authentic, beautiful, loving, wise, encouraging people, both living and dead, can make us feel God is with us, and help us feel less scared and less alone. 

As people of faith, that have some kind of connection to this church – whether it’s your community, or you’re passing through, or you’re checking it out and figuring out how involved or uninvolved or involved you want to be –  this is the best possibility of this place, or some other place like it. 

The holy church, and holy communion of people helping make present and real an experience of the holy, loving God. 

How do we lean in? How do we give and receive this experience? How do we practice the RADICAL RELATIONALITY of this faith in Jesus? 

How can we experience belonging and mattering? Community, shared purpose, accountability and transformation – personally and socially? 

How can we be a communion of saints to one another?

Let me highlight, underscore again, three of the ways.

One is through our own memory and attention. Many of the things we’ve talked about today are things we can remember and pay attention to or that we can forget, ignore, take for granted, or miss. Last week, in the spiritual practice I led in our in-person service, we practiced the examen prayer, the first half of which is to notice where we’ve found life in the past day and to express gratitude. I’ve been doing this more or less daily, or at least intending to, for 3 or 4 years. It’s changed me.

For the second time in my life, I’m doing this #100daysofgratitude thing on my Instagram and Facebook. Noticing each day and sharing it publicly a person or memory or experience I’m grateful for, remembering and paying attention to ancestors and people who love me and I love, and delights and learning experiences and everything that is holy, holy, holy and reminds me I’m not alone and God is good. 

I don’t do this because I’m a naturally grateful person. Kind of the opposite. I’m not a naturally grateful and attentive person. I have to lean into this intentionally. 

But doing so gets me in touch with the truth that I’m loved by God and that through the communion of saints and the holy church, Holy Spirit is with me, inviting me to hope and joy and greater life. This makes me a less resentful person, a less anxious person, a more content person. And that feels good to me. 

That’s personal. You can do that first one by yourself. The next two need other people. They need the whole communion of saints. 

We practice the radical relationality of this faith through authentic togetherness. There’s no other way. Faith in a loving God, experience of a Spirit who is with you is not a solo sport but a team sport. That’s the cheesiest line ever, but it’s also true. 

To be less alone and less scared and to have the goodness of all the holy, holy, holy, we need each other. Saturday mornings, I gather with 5, 10, 15 or you just about every week. We study the Bible, and have a really interesting time of that, but beforehand, we hear how we’re finding life or how our lives could be better and we offer listening ears and supportive prayers. People keep it pretty real, and I always end feeling more connected and less alone.

I do this other places too – in a Thursday night group, with a couple pastor buddies I meet up with every 2 weeks, and a couple Grace and I talk to on the phone a lot. And then I live with 4 other people too, at least parts of the year now.

But as we found during pandemic, living with other people is no guarantee that those relationships will be means to be less scared and alone and get the beauty and power and strength of love in your life. It all depends, doesn’t it? It depends on whether we can show up for one another with that non-judgmental presence, safety, encouragement, and openness. In my household, we’re all still a mixed bag on this front. 

So we each try our best. I try to be a more curious, attentive, nonjudgemental person. The kind of person it would be safer to cry around, the kind of person someone would long to be with when we’re apart. I pray for help from God in this. My housemates, in my case family, have their own stories in this too, which are up to them, and I think we all mostly try our best. But me, I only control me, right, just like all of us? And that helps this thing along too.

Lastly, I believe that to get the holy, holy, holy community that helps us know the power and fellowship of a holy God, we need to hang in with a tradition. 

We need living people we aren’t related to or wouldn’t naturally just meet as friends. 

We need people much older than us and much younger than us, which faith communities are unusually good at helping us connect with, if we’re willing.

We need dead people – memories of our own ancestors, sure, but also the best wisdom of traditions that span back centuries and more. 

We need rituals and worship and songs and prayers and scriptures that help us think about and experience the transcendent source of life, truth, beauty, and love.

In my case, I firmly believe that I need the teaching and practice and life and ongoing living presence of Jesus Christ, who shows us what God looks like and offers us guidance toward abundant life. 

It’s hard to invent a whole religion. It’s hard to get all these things without hanging in with a tradition and a faith and a faith community – even if it’s got sore spots that need healing and broken spots that need mending and wrong things and outdated things that need updating and righting. 

This is obviously very much the mission of Reservoir Church –  to walk faithfully in the ancient faith tradition of the God revealed in Jesus Christ and to keep innovating and involving and growing so that faith can guide and serve 21st century people who believe in making a more just and loving world. 

Our tradition keeps doing simple and beautiful things, like this old creed we’re exploring this summer that invites us to lean in toward holy God through holy church and holy people. And like this new creed we started with, penned by Dr. Kathi Martin, a queer, Black, disabled minister who founded the God, Self, Neighbor community in Atlanta. 

It goes like this again:

God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.

Say it with me if you like.

God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

“…Ascended into Heaven…”

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

1980 years ago or so, a homeless son of a carpenter, an itinerant Jewish rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth was crucified as an enemy of the Roman state. And ever since the world hasn’t stopped talking about him. 

Here we are today, one of millions of churches in the world, doing the same.

This is strange, isn’t it? 

Why are we doing this, so many centuries later? Where has Jesus been all this time, and what has he been doing? Inside and outside of the Christan faith, this question of where Jesus went, what he’s been up to, and why it matters has been confusing.

So it’s the one we’re going to talk about today.

We’re six weeks deep today into this little nine-week summer preaching project of mine, to preach through the Apostles Creed, a 4th century, short summary of the Christian faith. I wrote about this on our blog last week.

But my goal has been to teach some of the central beliefs of faith in the God known to us through Jesus Christ, so that this faith can continue to ground and inspire us and promote wholeness, love, justice, and flourishing. Along the way, I’m also acknowledging many ways that the version of historic Christianity we’ve inherited hasn’t always served the purposes of a liberating, life-giving God, so here and there I’m suggesting ways to engage with this faith that help it align with good things the Spirit of God can be doing among us today. 

This week, we take a big chunk of the creed that talks about what happened to Jesus after he died and what he’s been up to since then. Let’s read, first the lines from the past five weeks and then this week’s. 

I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, 

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, 

Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,

Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Dead and Buried. He descended into hell.

On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

The creed says Jesus lives again and remains alive. It says not only did Jesus rise from the dead, but he went to be where God lives, which we sometimes call heaven. And what is Jesus doing there? Well, at least in part, Jesus is sitting next to God’s throne, maybe with a big boy chair of his own, and that’s the spot where he’s judging us all – the dead and the living, or maybe he’s getting ready to come to judge us all, making plans, as it were. 

What might all this mean? How does it square with science and with our experience? And how can this idea inspire liberating, life-giving faith?

Let me tell you where I’m going with this, and then we’ll go there together. 

We’re going to take the resurrection part of this – how did Jesus come back to life – later. The final line of the creed, resurrection of the body, will also be my final sermon this summer, in a month or so. So we’ll talk then about what the gospels have to say about Jesus’ return to life, some ways we can think about that, and how that can inspire hope both in our current lives and beyond our death as well. 

For today, I’m just going to say I believe, along with almost all followers of Jesus these past couple thousand years, that death wasn’t the end of Jesus, and that he is still alive.

What we’ll focus on today is the “what has he been up to” side of things. Where is Jesus, what is he doing, and what does it mean that he is a judge? 

I think it means that Jesus is inviting all creation (you and me included) to participate as fully as possible in the Beloved Community, what he calls the kingdom, or the kindom, of God. Jesus is receiving, experiencing, all that happens in creation. He is assessing it, evaluating it, and then luring everyone who will collaborate to see ourselves, one another, and all creation as God sees it and embrace the next best possibility for wholeness, love, beauty, and justice. 

Let’s ask how Chrisitans historically thought Jesus was doing this.

And then talk about a way we can embrace this that squares a little better with our modern world.

So historically, Christians and a lot of other ancient people believed in a 3-tiered universe. That we and plants and animals and all that live on earth, that there’s a realm of the dead beneath the earth, and that way up high, above where the birds fly, is the heavens, where God and other spiritual beings live. 

Now telescopes, and satellites, and the ability to drill deep holes in the earth and all that – science – has changed the way we see the universe.

But the early followers of Jesus, when they believed Jesus ascended into heaven, what they thought was that literally. After Jesus rose, at some point, he floated up into the sky back to God’s throne, maybe a few miles up or so. Probably this throne was somewhere above Jerusalem, because God had always been really active in that part of the earth. And eventually, likely soon, Jesus would hop off the throne and come back to finish setting things right on earth.

The details of this obviously don’t sit too well with science any more. We’re also not sure what it means that Jesus would be judging the living and the dead from a heavenly throne, or coming back to earth to do that judgement. Centuries of bad theology and bad poetry and bad movies has given us the idea that some day, when we least expect it, God is going to swoop back onto earth in human form for some serious butt-kicking of all the evil people, living and dead. 

Which has always been exciting for the non-evil people and kind of scary for everyone who wonders which side of things they’re on. 

So there are ways of imagining Jesus living and reigning with God that don’t make a lot of sense to us. And there are ways of conceiving of Jesus as a judge that don’t seem to bear good fruit either. But what if this language in the creed was a pre-scientific way to conceptualize what is still true – that there is an ongoing life of Christ, who is engaged redemptively with you and me and the rest of this world, living and dead? I think this is the case. 

Let’s listen to something Jesus said that Jesus would be up to after the end of his time on earth.

John 16:12-13, 7-8 (Common English Bible)

12 “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now.

13 However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth. He won’t speak on his own, but will say whatever he hears and will proclaim to you what is to come.

So Jesus says, I will still be with you, but in a different way, through a spirit of truth, who will guide you. Just earlier, Jesus said this about the same spirit and guidance. 

7 I assure you that it is better for you that I go away. If I don’t go away, the Companion won’t come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.

8 When he comes, he will show the world it was wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment.

Here Jesus gives the Spirit of Truth a name, the Companion. The Companion is one of many translations of this Greek word Paraclete – the one who comes alongside, the one Christians have normally called the Holy Spirit. Paraclete is a companion, an accompanier, a helper. Paraclete is able to speak for God. And Paraclete assesses us and highlights where we’ve been wrong, so we can know the truth and find our way. 

There are types of judgement Jesus resists: casting someone aside, viewing any person or group of people as beyond God’s loving care or worthy of our approach.

But here he says, when I go, the Spirit God sends to speak for me, the Companion will assess you and will guide you into truth.

This is a picture of judgement. 

Not long ago one of my kids was acting weird, avoiding something they had to do, being pretty irresponsible about it, complaining and creating distractions, probably lying too, best as I could tell. 

So what did I do? 

I brought down the hammer, right? 

No, of course not. 

If you love your kids, you don’t go around thinking of new ways to punish them. No, depending on their age, their habits, their past behavior, your relationship, the situation, and a million other things, you try to intervene in ways that will help them see the truth about themselves and their world, and move toward wholeness, love, goodness, and flourishing.

In this case, we realized my kid was avoiding something they were really scared of, and we could figure out how to address that and to encourage courage, not avoidance.

Jesus says God’s at least as good a parent as any of us are, so why would we think that God’s judgments would be more arbitrary and violent than ours. 

When you look at someone and say: This is my child, the one that I love, a lot of things come off the table. 

I got this line from a theologian named Tripp Fuller, who’s one of the people who influenced this series. It’s true.

God’s judgment isn’t about punishment and rewards. It’s about maintaining a communicative relationship in which God is always inviting us to see the truth and to move toward wholeness, love, justice, and flourishing. 

We need this kind of judgement. We need the Spirit of Truth, the Companion, to encourage us and also to show us when we’re wrong. 

Parents, educators, athletes, all of us really, know that growth only comes with honest assessment. 

We don’t know where Jesus is right now, like physically. It’s probably the wrong question to ask. Jesus remembers his only embodied experience as the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, but past his time on earth a couple of thousand years ago, he is surely now Spirit, as God has always been. 

But as Spirit, I think this is what Jesus is doing – receiving the experience of all creation, paying attention to it all, taking it in, feeling, reacting, assessing its value, and then through the Spirit of Truth, the Companion who comes alongside, communicating to all creation God’s next invitation toward wholeness, love, justice, and flourishing. 

Let me share two examples in my life of how this has been happening, how I’ve experienced Jesus’ assessing judgment and guidance, for the living and the dead.

The first is me in relationship with my long dead Aunt Ethel. My great Aunt Ethel lived a small, sad life. There are a lot of holes in what I know, but she was born in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, grew up, fell in love, had that love spurned. At some point, she developed severe mental illness, or at least was perceived to have.

Things got worse and worse, until she was institutionalized for quite some time. Residential mental health care in the mid-1900s was ran the whole gamut from humane people doing their best to pretty awful. I’m not sure of all of what happened, but I know my grandfather kept visiting, kept supporting her best he could, and eventually helped get her out into transition housing and work. And in my childhood, during that era, I would see her on holidays. She was the one visibly cognitively and mentally impaired person in my early childhood, and I mostly remember how often she would say: this is beautiful. So beautiful. You’re beautiful.

I don’t think anyone in my family would report that I was close to her or that she meant a lot to me. When she died when I was a teenager, neither me nor most others in my family traveled to her funeral, and we didn’t talk about her often after that either. 

But in the past decade, I’ve thought about her a lot more. Wondered about her back story, treasured her freedom and her sense of beauty in her later years. Appreciated her positive, loving vibe. Wished I had been closer. 

Thinking about her makes me more sensitive, more loving, more compassionate. Toward mental illness, toward cognitive limitations, toward rough lives. My memories of Aunt Ethel today shape me into a more curious and compassionate person toward myself and many others. I feel like she’s a part of me now, in a way that she never was when I was younger and she was still alive.

What’s going on here?

Well, my Aunt Ethel is dead. And childhood me is in a sense dead as well. Both my past and Aunt Ethel’s whole time on earth are part of the dead. We’re both gone, can’t be re-experienced or changed. But we – my Aunt and my past self – are both valued and assessed by God. We are both remembered, we both matter. We both still influence God. When I remember my younger self (less curious, less compassionate) and when I remember my Aunt Ethel, and all she saw as beautiful – I am shaped by the past, shaped by what’s dead. And I think this is happening because Jesus, through the Companion Spirit of Truth, keeps bringing this to my consciousness, keeps shaping the present and future me through Jesus’ value and memory and assessment of the dead. 

Everything and everyone that has ever been matters to God. No one and nothing is unseen, unloved, and unimportant. We all influence God. We all are part of what God assesses and part of the future possibilities that God shapes for us all. 

Here’s another story, among the living this time.

Last week, at the start of the week, I was stressed out and unfocused. I had way too many things and way too many problems on my mind. I had also had a couple of conflicts that didn’t resolve very well. In one of them, someone I respect had told me I had acted poorly and this was part of a pattern that hurt them. 

Two things happened. I had a call scheduled Monday with a person I’m honest with and is good at listening, and sometimes telling me the truth. Before that call, I had an instinct to sit alone in a quiet room for 15 minutes. While I did that, the Bible verse

Be still and know that I am God

came to mind, and I tried to sit there and meditate on that verse, just be still and know that God is God. Then I had my call, and shared how I was doing, and at one point, my friend wondered – hey, with all that’s going on, have you considered just sitting quietly and remembering the verse,

Be still and know that I am God. 

I laughed, told my friend what had happened right before the call, and then we sat together on the phone for a few minutes, silently, remembering that verse.

The next day, I was going about my business and the thought came to me, in that conflict the person was right. I was hurt. And what came to mind were a couple of things I could do next to not just say I was sorry, but to show I was sorry, and to begin to shift and make amends. I told God I would do this and asked for help, and so far it’s gone pretty well.

What was happening there? 

I think God was present in the Spirit of Truth, the Companion, to help me see the truth about myself and my world. And to guide me toward wholeness, love, justice, and flourishing.

The Christian words for what happened were judgement, confession, repentance, and restoration.

Not punishment/judgment, but judgement as assessment – Spirit of God nudging me to see the truth.

No priest was involved, but I told God and a friend and myself and a person I’d hurt the truth.

And then, with the help of God and friends, a path toward something better emerged, and in this case, I tried to take it, and that made all the difference. 

Friends, in little ways like this and in much bigger ways too, this is what I think Jesus is doing. 

Receiving all the world’s experiences, big and small, living and dead, feeling them, assessing their value, and then nudging us to know the truth, and offering to us ideas and pathways and options for the most loving, just, whole path forward for us all.

99% of this happens beneath our consciousness, but faith in a living, life-giving communicative God tells us it’s happening all the time still.

What we can do by faith is cooperate: we can trust God is still with us, and values and assesses all people and things, living and dead. We can trust that God is even more loving and wise than the most loving and wise parent in how God does that. 

And we can seek to know the truth about ourselves and the world, welcoming what seems most true from wherever it comes. And then with the help of God and friends, we can confess – we can tell the truth – and we can say yes with courage and grace to the most loving, just, whole, and flourishing paths forward in all things. This is God’s good will for us, and a path toward our joy and life. 

May it be. 

“…Suffered under Pontius Pilate…”

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

A week and a half ago, a troubled man stabbed a local rabbi named Schlomo Noginski eight times. This occurred in front of a Jewish synagogue in Brighton, where a day camp with dozens of children was underway. But for the quick evasive actions of this rabbi, and a fast response from others, many more could have been hurt, and Rabbi Schlomo could have been killed. The prosecution is just beginning, but early signs are that this was a hate crime, targeted against a Jewish clergy member and his community. 

Last Friday, I stood on the lawn in Brighton Center in gentle rain with a few hundred others at a rally held the day after the stabbing. I try to show up to my friends in Boston’s interfaith community in these moments. Any attack on humanity is an affront to God. And an attack based on race, religion, creed, gender, sexual orientation – is an attack on love, and an attack on the dignity of humanity and the joy of human diversity, all of us made in God’s image. So often too people with my identities – white, male, Christian, minister, have been the perpetrators of violent hate crimes or have supported ideologies that fueled them or overlooked them. So I get a reverend collar out to show up in grief and prayer and solidarity when I can.

The vigil went kind of how I expected, in that I heard respected Jewish leaders call for justice and respect, I saw Boston’s political and law enforcement leaders show up in support, and said hi to friends and acquaintances of various walks of life who were there as well. But what I didn’t expect was how much love and light I’d encounter, and how much the words and actions of local Jewish leaders would encourage my life and faith, and specifically how much these events would illuminate and magnify my understanding of some of what God’s presence in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ means to me. 

And that’s what I’d like to share today.

This summer, I’m preaching my way through the Apostles Creed, a short, 4th century statement of the Christian faith. Line by line, we’re appreciating the ways this creed helps anchor faith, hope, and love for today’s follower of Jesus. But we’re also noticing ways the language has not entirely been serving the liberating, life-giving purposes of God. And we’re talking about how people have reinterpreted these words in light of what God is doing among us today. Because this is how religion in general, and faith in Jesus, in particular works. It remains rooted in its original historical events and sources, while it also evolves as people and culture do, with the Spirit of God accompanying us in an ever-changing world. 

Let me review the lines of the creed we’ve looked at the past four weeks, and read this weeks’ line as well. 

I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, 

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, 

Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,

Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Dead and Buried. He descended into hell.

This week we examine these words about Jesus: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Dead and Buried. He descended into hell.

There are a lot of directions to go in with this line. We could talk about some of the big theological, spiritual meanings of what happened in the death of Christ on the cross. But we’ll get another chance to do that in August, when I preach on the line “forgiveness of sins” and talk about the cross and our needs for forgiveness and forgiving-ness – the various ways Jesus’ death empowers liberation, healing, justice, and wholeness. 

We could also talk about questions of the afterlife, what some think it means that Jesus descended into hell upon his death, like reaching out to dead people, as a fellow dead person, offering the love and grace of God, even beyond the grave. Along with many other Christians, I think God still does this in Christ – that God keeps loving and luring people’s minds or consciousness, even after we die, because I hope our consciousness continues past death, and I hope to be in relationship with a loving and beautiful God for eternity, and I hope that for everyone too, as I believe God does.

But, I feel led to go in a different direction today. To ask how as people who fear, as people who get sick, as people who live in communities in violence, as people who face loss and death and grief, how Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, and descent into hell speaks to us. 

I have four powerful, practical benefits I would like to share with you. Here they are:

Practical Benefit #1

Jesus embraced shame and losing, so we’d change how we see and experience shame or losing.

I live in part of Greater Boston where Rabbi Schlomo and many other very Orthodox Jews live. They stand out still in their dress, their customs. They uphold centuries of tradition that have included misunderstanding and persecution, and sometimes violence. But not only do they scorn they shame they face but they defy it, and joyfully so. Joyful defiance seems to characterize Rabbi Schlomo and what I saw of his community last week – a refusal to back down, an insistence on the safety and respect they deserve, and a refusal to be less visibly and devotedly Jewish, no matter what happens. They are willing to ignore the shame heaped upon them by some, for the sake of the joy of their faith and tradition. 

Dynamics of honor and shame dominated most ancient cultures, as they dominate many cultures still. Historians and Bible scholars such as our own Dr. James Jumper have written extensively about this. Were someone to be seen naked publicly for instance, it would be the shame of that that would sting more than the loss of privacy. The same with loss, punishment, condemnation – whatever harm these might do on their own, the shame accrued to a person and a community who suffered these was the worst. 

Roman rulers really got, which is why they adopted crucifixions to punish enemies of the state – the victims were stripped naked, tortured, hung up publicly to die not only to make them suffer, but to shame them publicly – to mark them as outcasts – as humiliated, losing, victims. 

When we look for this in the New Testament, we see this as part of Jesus’ experience of crucifixion and death. For instance, in the letter to the Hebrews, where it says:

Hebrews 12:1-2 (Common English Bible)

1 So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up,

2 and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.

Jesus – in being stripped, mocked, beaten, tortured, and killed before his mother, his friends, his students, the public – didn’t just suffer and die, he was shamed, he was branded a criminal and a loser. Jesus endured this willingly, for the sake of the joy of what he was showing us of God, how he was loving us, and what he hoped would come. 

Bible scholar Pete Enns says that of everything that the New Testament has to say, of every thing in the record of the life of Jesus, this is far and away the most unique – that Jesus and his followers don’t in any way try to reduce or hide the enormity of Jesus’ shame and loss. They center the whole story on this. They take a kind of pride in just how much Jesus was shamed and suffered. The creed centers this line. 

There are only three names in the creed – Jesus, his mother Mary, and the Roman governor Pilate who executed Jesus. It tells us that in Jesus, God suffered in history. A corrupt, colonizing politician takes pride is sticking it to a shamed, losing victim, whose name is Jesus. 

What’s happening here is that Jesus and his followers and the faith we inherit today is upending honor/shame dynamics. It’s reversing what we have always been taught about winners and losers. 

This matters historically. We’ve always heard that history is written by the winners, and so it is. But in Jesus we see a God who loses, and ever since, we’ve begun to see a change in historical attitude toward the scapegoated, the attacked, the shamed, and those who lose.

When we side with victims, we do so because of Christ. When we root for underdogs, we’re shaped by the legacy of Jesus in history. And when we follow the great Black theologian James Cone in seeing that Black Christianity has been the most faithful Christian expression in this country’s history, we side with Jesus, who hung – as Cone says – on a Roman lynching tree.

This matters morally and in terms of dignity and human rights. Jurgen Moltmann, author of the powerful book The Crucified God, wrote

“There is no ‘outside the gate’ with God, if God himself is the one who died outside the gate on Golgatha for those who are outside.”

When we or people like us have been scapegoated, shamed and shunned, we can know Jesus sides with us. There is no outside the gate with God. And when we or people like us have been the scapegoaters, the shamers, and the shunners, Jesus calls us to shame in our supposed honor, and calls us to repent for our offense to God. 

And this reversal of honor and shame dynamics matters relationally, in our own hearts and esteems and lives. Perhaps like me you are raising teenagers or preteens, or perhaps you are a teen or preteen or remember those years, and how defined they can be by shame and losing, or honor and winning. Which dates you did or didn’t get, how liked you are on instagram or in person, whether you’re the teaser or the teased, where you stand in the so-very-visible pecking order of life.

Perhaps you’re a grown up, where these things are a little more subtle, but still – our weight, our height, our appearance, our education, our income, our abilities or disabilities… there is still so much winning and losing in so many ways. Jesus’ shame tells those of us who face shame and who lose that God is not judgeting us alongside the shamers or the winners. God is with us, enduring this shame and loss, telling us that God sees differently. 

Practical Benefit #2

God invites us to join Jesus in embracing – not denying – our feelings.

My Jewish therapist and I quote Jesus a lot. We’re always talking about how the truth will set you free. And usually, we’re not talking about the truth of facts, but the truth of our experience, the courage to notice and feel and name our emotions, whatever they are. And by our emotions, I mean my emotions, which I grew up to not notice or feel, but to avoid and judge.

It’s so powerful to stop doing this. Liberating things happen when I notice my feelings – when I admit that I’m sad or angry or afraid or resentful, even when I wish I wasn’t. This isn’t surprising, or it shouldn’t be. Psychologist Carl Rogers famously said

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change.” 

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change. 

It’s true. 

Jesus was always emotionally available, to others and to himself. The shortest verse in the Bible:

John 11:35 (New Revised Standard Version)

35 Jesus began to weep.

A lot of translations give it two words: Jesus wept. I like this newer translation that nuances the verb tense – began to wept. Because it makes it seem like Jesus still weeps, at least some times. It mirrors God’s ongoing emotional life, God

“the great companion, the co-sufferer, the one who understands.” 

God feels what God feels, freely.

God feels what you and I feel too, gladly.

And God wants us to feel our own feelings too. When I say: the truth will set you free, my therapist is fond of quoting Gloria Steinem’s addendum to that, saying:

yeah, but first it will piss you off! 

That’s true too. It’s hard to be present to our feelings, but God wants to help us with that, because God accepts us as we are, and God knows that we accept how we are too, we’re more free, and where we need it, we’re more likely to have power to change as well. 

Practical Benefit #3

Jesus dares us to act, and to act in love when we’re most afraid.

Have you been afraid this year? Who hasn’t been? Some of us have suffered personally during pandemic. All of us have had body counts in the backdrop of our lives, as sickness numbers and death counts have filled the news. It’s not the first time that’s happened. Me, I was born in 1973, when they were just wrapping up doing that around American deaths in Vietnam. 

We all know that whether it’s from COVID-22 or -23 or the next pandemic or war, we’ll face this again at some point. 

But we’re not made for habitual, long-term fear. Fear’s a great alert, an activator for our caution and preparedness, but over time, our fight or flight or freeze instincts become habit.

And fear starts to become demonic. It lies to us. It exaggerates. It numbs us. It gets us stuck in reactive paralysis or cycles of panic and anger we just can’t sustain and that eat away from our lives – figuratively and literally. 

At the vigil last week, one of Rabbi Schlomo’s colleagues spoke. He reported on Rabbi Schlomo’s wellness and recovery, how despite eight stab wounds, his life was spared and his health prognosis was great. 

And then he reminded us all what the scriptures teach, Christian to be sure, but also Jewish – that love overcomes evil, that light drives out darkness. And he exhorted us all that for each of the rabbi’s eight wounds, we should all endeavor to do eight deeds of great kindness. His community has also determined this year to welcome eight students into the rabbinate as well, one new rabbi for each wound.

It’s beautiful. I was moved. To call for justice, strength, and love in the wake of tragedy. It’s what our country should have done 20 years ago in the wake of 9/11. We were hell bent on vengeance instead, and 20 years later, many thousands of lost lives and billions of lost dollars later, we’re finally leaving Afghanistan, having got some vengeance, but no real justice, strength, or healing. 

This is path Jesus has for people and communities of all sizes as much as nations, though – to act, and to act in love when we’re most afraid. It’s what Jesus did – pressing forward toward a loving mission in the face of fear and shame. And it’s how the letter to the Hebrews calls us to imitate Jesus as well. 

Moltmann in The Crucified God wrote way back in 1973 that at its worst, Christian religion has an identity that is anxious, inward-looking, and has fearful rigidity. It’s gotten so much worse since then. 

But at its best, when we identify with suffering Jesus of the cross, God can spur

“creative love for (even) what is considered different, alien, and ugly.”

In this the world finds its healing, and in this we find our personal and collective liberation. 

Friends, what does your pandemic liberation look like? How will your life no longer be dominated by fear, but by action, and specifically, by creating action in love, no matter what the future holds? 

Whatever answer we have to this question, it will lead us toward redemption and freedom, my friends. 

Lastly, the fourth point I have no time for today:

Practical Benefit #4

Jesus dares us to look for God where we think God is not.

Faith the God revealed in Christ is faith in a God who has known forsakenness, who has in that sense descended into the hell of lonely, abandoned suffering and death. That means that in every hell on earth, God is no longer absent, but Jesus is there, inside the hell, with the forsaken. 

There is no hell, no abyss, no rock bottom beyond God’s power to accompany and save. Our rock bottom is actually a really great place to find God and our path toward healing. 

Jesus said once:

Matthew 25:35-36 (Common English Bible)

35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

It’s not just a metaphor. Jesus dares us to look for God where we think God is not. Because that’s actually where God is most likely to be. 

In every forsaken place – yours and others – look for the helpers, as Mr. Rogers told us. God is there. Look for the possibility of change and redemption. God is shaping that space. Look for the love and presence and possibility of God. God is most assuredly there.


“…Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit…”

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

This summer, I’m preaching my way through the Apostles Creed, a really, really old, short statement of the Christian faith. Line by line, we’re appreciating the ways this creed helps anchor faith, hope, and love for today’s follower of Jesus. But we’re also noticing ways the language has not entirely been serving the liberating, life-giving purposes of God. And we’re talking about how people have reinterpreted these words in light of what God is doing among us today.

And today, in our fourth week in this series, we get to early Christians’ origin story about Jesus – where did he come from? What made him special? And what does this mean for us?

We love origin stories, don’t we? 

All the superhero movies have back stories, because we wonder, how did these weird and strange and marvelous people become who they are? For instance, the movie Black Widow opens this week, and Black Widow has a backstory. Like a lot of Marvel heroes, a Cold War-era back story. She’s Natasha Romanoff, a Soviet-era Russian orphan, trained by her adoptive father and the KGB to be a master assassin for the Soviets, until she meets a friend of Captain America, defects to the U.S., and joins SHIELD, to use her powers for good. Rah, rah America – happy 4th of July, by the way. 

We like origin stories, even for regular people. My family tells origins stories about me that try to explain how I became the weird and strange and marvelous person that I am. Stories about how much of a rush I was in to be born, almost being born in car on the way to the hospital on a Sunday morning like this, stories about me being hyper all the time, stories about me being accident prone, stories about me persuading a fellow preschooler about the wrong names for animals. Like all origin stories, I have some doubts that the ones my family tells are 100% factual. They’ve been embellished over time – details added, subtracted here and there. But these stories have stayed around because they’re good stories and they say something about me my family wants to say.

I wonder what childhood origin stories you’ve been told. I wonder what they say about you and whether or not you think that’s true. 

Well, today we look at the origin story that the early Christian creed gives for Jesus. This is it:

I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, 

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, 

Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary

Conceived by the Holy Spirit – that could mean a lot of things. That the Spirit of God was involved in Jesus’ conception. That the beginning of his life was a kind of miracle that God longed to see into being. On these terms, I think all of us were conceived by the Holy Spirit. Moms and Dads, or even two moms and a donor dad, may or may not have dreamed us into being, we may or may not have been planned by the people involved. But God delights in the process of becoming for every human, and so I think it’s fair to say the Holy Spirit is delightfully engaged in all conception. 

But the creed continues to put a finer point on Jesus’ Holy Spirit conception to say he was born of the Virgin Mary. The virgin Mary. Woah, that’s different! 

You don’t hear a lot about virgin conceptions. My daughter loved the show Jane the Virgin, which was about just this kind of thing. Jane becomes a mother, even though she’s a virgin, because of an accidental insemination at her gynecologist’s office. And that’s a shocker, as you may imagine. 

But with Mary, mother of Jesus, the claim is even wilder. That Mary got pregnant without any kind of male DNA. Just the Holy Spirit. Now, even the mention of DNA is anachronistic, as the Biblical writers and the fathers and mothers of the faith knew nothing about DNA or sperm and eggs or any real science, but they did observe how children were conventionally produced, and they were like: Jesus was special, because his origin story was different. 

It’s hard for a modern person to believe. We may wonder why this is in the creed, how it got there, what it means, and how important it is. Well, the writers of the creed got the idea from two of the four gospels. Here’s one of them.

Luke 1:26-38 (Common English Bible) 

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,

27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.

33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.

37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Mary herself, an engaged but apparently still virgin teenager, is very confused by this plan of God that comes to her in a dream or vision. This pregnancy seems impossible to her, but she believes that like her cousin’s unlikely pregnancy, hers will happen too. And we end the story with Mary’s consent, because God – like all good people – doesn’t do anything with us, sexually or otherwise, without willing, enthusiastic consent. 

There’s some complexity in Jesus’ origin, lineage, and back story, even in Luke, because while Luke says this is a virgin conception involving just Mary and the Holy Spirit within, he also makes a great deal of the patriarchal lineage of Jesus from his father Joseph, a descendant of the great king of Israel, David, himself a descendant of the first great humans on earth. 

The gospel of Matthew tells a similar backstory for Jesus, a surprised virgin Mary, a miraculous conception of Jesus, and a lineage back to David through his father. 

Now today, I want to talk about whether it makes sense to read this version of Jesus’ back-story literally or not, and I want to talk about how it matters a lot in some ways what we do with this back story, and how in other ways, how it doesn’t really matter at all. 

First, let me start with the four best arguments for taking the virgin birth backstory of Jesus literally. I’ll be quick on these, because I think this side of the sermon is better known

  1. Matthew and Luke tell the story this way. They both say Mary was a virgin, that both Mary and Joseph are shocked by her pregnancy, as if it couldn’t be possible. So reason 1 for literal virgin conception – the Bible tells me so, at least it seems to.
  2. This world is a weird place. Science has documented all kinds of very strange and unexpected things, and many people of faith in God have testimonies to very unusual and surprising things, seemingly impossible things, we think God has done. By this account, a young woman’s pregnancy with no man and no donor is perhaps a marvelous, miraculous possibility. Weird things happen.
  3. Jesus is really special. Jesus’ followers became convinced that he was a human like no other human, that he uniquely revealed and represented God to us. Followers of Jesus’ experience of just how special he was launched what became the largest, most powerful, most enduring, highest impact faith movement in human history. With all that being true about Jesus, who’s to say his origins weren’t miraculously different or special? 
  4. And my fourth and last reason, for taking Jesus’ mom’s virgin conception story literally is that if you do, well, most of the world is with you, or claims to be. Most Chrisitans and most Muslims, who together represent a little more than half the world’s population, take this part of Jesus’ origin story literally – that part of what makes Jesus special is that his conception occured like no other humans has, ever. 

I was quick on these reasons for taking Jesus’ miraculous conception story literally because they’re well known and they boil down to two things: a couple parts of the Bible say it, and God and Jesus are so special, that why can’t God’s involvement in the origin of the life of Jesus be different and special too.

Now, I’d like to share three arguments for why one would not take this part of Jesus’ origin story literally. I’m trying to persuade you of either side here, but my guess is these arguments are a little less familiar to many of us, and they open up some interesting and helpful things. So here they are, arguments for a metaphorical, non-literal, more poetic reading of this part of Jesus’ back story. 

One is that most of the Bible knows nothing about this. The other two gospels, Mark and John, have different back stories about Jesus – no mention of a virgin conception at all. The writers of all the letters of the New Testament also have a lot to say about Jesus but absolutely nothing to say about special circumstances around his conception, and nothing to say about his childhood at all, in fact. Even Mattew and Luke, the two gospel writers that mention this virgin conception, never bring it up again when Jesus grows up. Which is kind of weird. You’d think that would be a really big deal, like something you’d put in your social media profiles, like the one person who didn’t half way start out as sperm. That would be special, a thing worth mentioning. 

Here’s why I think this is worth noticing. If you have a hard time believing in a virgin conception of Jesus, that’s fine. Most of the New Testament doesn’t believe in it or if it does, it doesn’t care. If the Bible has different things to say on something, that sometimes helps us know it’s not central, or it’s OK to disagree on it, as Christians do. You can keep growing and evolving in your faith, keep becoming a Christian, as I’m saying in this series, regardless of what you think about this line in the creed and these two stories in Matthew and Luke. 

Lots of people read this creed and wonder at a literal miracle they see in these words, but lots also read this creed and think the whole “virgin Mary” line is saying something different… which we’ll get to in a second. But the point is that there is room for difference of opinion in this faith. It’s an old and deep and wide faith. Just as there is room for difference of opinion in this church.

I get it, but still I hate it, when people leave the faith, or even when they leave their church, because they’re like well, there’s this thing the Bible says, or there’s this thing my pastor said, that I don’t agree with. I mean, I’m the pastor of my own church, and I’ve said things before that I don’t agree with anymore. That’s OK. 

Now I’m not talking about when a community persistently says or does things that make you unsafe or unwelcome; that’s different, and sometimes there are reasons to leave communities where you can not flourish. By all means. But this faith, it’s old and big and wide, and whatever reservations or questions or beliefs you hold today, there is likely room for you.

Second, the literal reading of this part of Jesus’ back story just might miss the most important thing the gospel writers are saying. Sometimes the writers of the Bible write historical facts, best as they know them. But sometimes they’re doing something we might call theopoetics – God-poetry, saying things in poetry and symbol and metaphor that are too rich and deep to capture literally. 

In this case, Matthew and Luke are both telling infant back stories about Jesus to try to establish from the start just how important and special he is. Matthew – to a Jewish audience – is saying Jesus is like the Great King David, Part II, but even better. He gets there by quoting a line from the Old Testament’s chronicles of kings about a great leader born to a young woman, but by the writing of the gospels, that word young woman had been translated – mis-translated really – as virgin. And Luke – to a Gentile or non-Jewish audience – is saying Jesus is the real version of what Rome claims Caesar, the Emperor is – our hope for peace, the savior of the world, our good and trustworthy leader given by God.

Turns out that virgin conception stories were part of how ancient writers told stories about people they wanted to say were really important. When Romans talked about the founders of their civilizations or their great emperors, they called them children of the gods; sometimes there were stories of miraculous conceptions to virgins. It was a common ancient way of telling the origin story of a larger than life, really important person.

Literal or not, Matthew and Luke were both saying – in the language of their times and culture – that Jesus was this kind of person and more: heroic, important, significant, world-shaping, someone worth listening to, emulating, and following. Whether or not you believe in a literal virgin conception, that’s the real point of these stories. 

And three, my final argument for not taking this part of Jesus’ origin story literally is that having a faith that jives with science doesn’t make for a less powerful, but a more powerful, faith!

Here’s what I mean:

If God breaks the universe’s laws of science now and then to get God’s will done, that sounds really encouraging, doesn’t it? God can do anything – suspend gravity, stop the earth from rotating, prolong life way beyond the normal limits of cellular biology, make a human from only one set of chromosomes. That sounds really exciting, like it opens up a world of miraculous possibilities for God, and maybe for us too.

Here’s the thing, though. If God can and does break the universe’s metaphysical principles now and then to get stuff done, it raises a lot of thorny questions, like: why doesn’t God do this more often? You know, halt earthquakes and tidal waves mid-disaster, break into human psyches and get them to stop doing whatever evil thing they were about to do, spontaneously grow food in famished nations? A God who unilaterally can break the laws of nature whenever God wants could be a lot more useful to us than God is.

Also, if Jesus was conceived unlike every other human who ever lived, then it puts a bit of a strain on the notion that he was a human like us, in every way, except without sinning. Some of the early church fathers kind of liked the idea of the virgin conception because they thought pretty much all sex was inherently shameful and sinful. So a Jesus conceived without any sex involved was another mark in his favor, another sign that he was not just human, but a sinless incarnation of God in the flesh.

But there are ways of believing Jesus fully incarnates God, that Jesus fully represents God to creation, without hating on human sexuality and without tossing science aside. 

In a way, a God who is all-present and always working by the Spirit, and who moves forward God’s purposes without randomly intervening against what we know of science is a more powerful, not a less powerful, God, and one that’s easier for us to believe in as well. A faith that jives with science is more often than not a better thing for us all, not a worse thing.

Alright, I expect I’ve opened up as many questions as I’ve answered today. As you may have guessed, I’m kind of inclined toward the non-literal reading of this part of the creed and the two short passages from Matthew and Luke. It helps me make more sense of the rest of the New Testament. It helps me focus in on the important part of Jesus’ back story, not an anti-sex or freak of nature narrative, but one of a human and a leader and a savior unlike any other pretenders. And it helps me love and trust the God revealed in Jesus Christ, a human like us, but one who helps us see and know a beautiful, living, life-giving God who works within and through the laws of God’s universe, not through very occasionally breaking those laws. 

Regardless, though, I hold my inclinations humbly, like a good Reservoir member, with humility being one of our core values. And whatever your convictions or doubts are about the origin story of Jesus or anything else, I encourage you to hold that humbly as well.

Either way, though, this line in the creed, and the stories from which it comes invite us to take Jesus seriously, as a unique and important human leader who in powerful, unique ways lived in perfect partnership with God. And it invites us to pay attention to Jesus’ human mother Mary, who herself willingly co-created Jesus, and who lives by and invests herself in the hope that God is with us, that her baby Jesus is great, Son of the Most High, full of the Holy Spirit. We’re invited to pay attention to the what Jesus and Jesus’ mother Mary live by and invest themselves in, that there is a growing rule of God, a growing kin-dom, a growing beloved community of Jesus, in which we’ll all find our justice, our healing, our belovedness, and our peace, of which there will be no end. 

That’s where Jesus’ back story leads us to, not mainly to focus on the spectacle of how Jesus is different from us, but to invite us into hope and faith that God is with us, and that Jesus’ story of God’s beloved community can and will become our story too.

“…and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…”

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

So this summer, I’m preaching my way through the Apostles Creed, a really, really old, short statement of the Christian faith. Line by line, we’re appreciating the ways this creed helps anchor faith, hope, and love for today’s follower of Jesus. But we’re also noticing ways the language has not entirely been serving the liberating, life-giving purposes of God. And we’re talking about how people have reinterpreted these words in light of what God is doing among us today.

Now much of the Apostles Creed, like all Christian creeds, tries to answer the question: Who is Jesus? Why does he matter? And what does he do, for God and for us? This week, the creed’s first phrase about Jesus.

I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.

What’s this line trying to say? What’s it searching for?

It says Jesus is the Christ, Greek for the Hebrew title the Messiah, the one anointed with oil, God’s king, God’s messenger, God’s leader, God’s human ambassador. And then, “only Son our Lord.” The creed is saying Jesus has a special relationship to God, that Jesus uniquely represents God, that Jesus tells us the truth about God – not just with words but with Jesus’ whole life. And it says Jesus is our leader too.

Jesus as unique, Jesus representing God to us, Jesus our leader. This is all very important and helpful.

But these words say more than this. And they’ve been problematic in how they’ve been amplified.

When the creed says Jesus is God’s only son, it focuses not on how Jesus is like us, but on how Jesus is different from us. Like if you’re Jesus, you’re really tight with God, God really loves you, and all the rest of us, we’re kind of second tier, second rate children. I don’t think that’s helpful or true.

And the Lord part has gone worse. The early Christian creeds outside the Bible were either written or finalized in the fourth century, just when the Roman Empire was establishing Christianity as its official religion. And suddenly, a faith centered on a Jewish man who’s been executed by the Empire was now the religion of the Empire. And Jesus was remade in the image of this empire’s rulers. Jesus, who was a humble Galilean man, who taught love of neighbors and children and enemy becomes a mighty King who rules by the sword, a Lord who demands worship and obedience, or else.

It’s like Jesus went from this:

This is a statue of Jesus that adorns a tomb right down the street in the Catholic cemetery of North Cambridge. It’s small. It’s human, even weak – fingers crumbling, a leg lost to vandalism.

This Jesus is very human – about our size, dying as we will, suffering as we suffer. I’m not sure who the two people are here with Jesus, but this Jesus is not above us, alone; he’s with us, among us. He can be hurt and harmed, but he still commands our attention.

But in his transformation to exalted Lord, he becomes this:

This is a statue of Jesus on a mountaintop in Brazil, just aside Rio de Janeiro. I think it’s the most famous statue of Jesus in the whole world. It’s on a mountaintop near the sea, it’s beautiful. One of the wonders of the world. And I think Jesus’ open arms are meant to communicate welcome and peace. Still, though, this Jesus, so big, so powerful, looking down over the city with his unblinking eyes, reminds me of the Christ the Lord of the Western project, where Brazil and the land I’m sitting on, and really most of the land and peoples of the world were colonized by supposedly Christian nations.

This Christ, mighty, powerful, demanded worship, demanded submission, demanded conversion. Which Christ looks more like Jesus?

There’s a great line from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:

‘When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers…The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly. In the official formulation of the religion, it has assumed the trivial form of the mere attribution to the Jews that they cherished a misconception about their Messiah. But the deeper idolatry, of fashioning God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.’

Fashioning God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers. The Galilean Jesus transformed to a conquering Lord by Cesar’s lawyers.

When we’re baptized into a faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, which faith are we baptized into?

To worship a Master Lord Jesus, with dominant power over the world, a power that compels our worship and obedience?

Or to follow a Brother Friend Jesus, in relationship with the world, with a presence and wisdom that compels our loving response?

Let’s listen something Jesus had to say on this:

John 15:12-15 

12 This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.

13 No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.

14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.

15 I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you.

I don’t call you servants. I don’t call you servants. I call you friends.

What kind of leader was Jesus? What kind of leader is Jesus to us still?

Last week I wasn’t with you all because I was finishing up a few days in the AMC’s Mountain Leadership School. I was with some other hikers learning how to safely lead people on multi-day backpacking trips in the wilderness.

And the way they do this is send you out backpacking with a group of strangers, while your leader constantly and elaborately pranks you all. Except the pranks are so good, you have no idea.

One morning we came across a big guy we’d never seen before sitting off to the side of the trail. He looked dazed and hurt, and we were miles from a road or cell phone signal. And we spent about half an hour trying to figure out what was wrong with him and what we were going to do about it before we finally realized that he was acting and that actually he was going to be our co-leader for the rest of the trip.

Yeah, we faced fake injuries, fake lost hikers, fake lost medicines, along with some actual injuries and actual problems as well. And in every crisis during the trip, the leader of the day had to figure out how to help our team rally toward a solution.

It was pretty stressful but pretty fun too.

And not surprisingly, we learned that leaders who try to dominate and direct – who remain distant, aloof, but tell people what to do are not very effective. People don’t like them, don’t trust them, don’t respond to them.

Effective leaders were able to share what they knew but also draw upon the mind of the whole group. Effective leaders helped the person in crisis, sometimes sacrificially. We carried other people’s packs, tended to injuries real and made up. But the effective leaders also mobilized the whole group’s love and service, which is always greater than any one persons.

Jesus, in his last days with his closest students, tells them that he’s always been like this too.

He points to his own model, laying down his life for his friends. And he not only commands, but inspires them to do the same. Love one another as I have loved you. He’s clear about their relationship too. They may call him “Lord” sometimes because he is their leader. But they are not his servants. They are friends, because they share everything. He’s not aloof, he hasn’t held anything back.

Jesus was trying then to mobilize his followers to live like he did: attentive to God, whole-hearted in love, and generously present to the people around you. I think God is still trying to mobilize followers of Jesus to live like this.

Jesus shows us the way to God and the way to life well. Jesus is our leader. But he’s not the kind of leader that kings and emperors and bosses and tyrants have tried to be.

I wonder what history would have been like, what Christianity in the modern world would have become if instead of saying “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,” the creed had been written to say, “I believe in Jesus Christ God’s firstborn son, our brother, our leader, our friend.”

I think it would have made a world of difference. I think it could make a world of difference still.

Let me mention quickly three consequences we’ve born from a faith that says Jesus is “Jesus Christ our only Son our Lord”? And then three reversals we could make by believing in Jesus Christ God’s firstborn Son our leader, brother, and friend.

The three problems. Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord gave us the doctrine of Discovery. This was the 15th century culmination of a series of Papal decrees that said Christians could seize land and enslave peoples wherever that weren’t Christians. It gave Christian cover, in the name of Jesus, to every European land grab from non-Christian peoples throughout the earth. And it gave Christian justification, in the name of Lord Jesus, to wars against Muslims, to genocide of native peoples, to enslavement of African peoples, because the Lord reigned over the earth through his Christian subjects.

Damn, if this isn’t the most tragic, wicked thing. Saying God has given Christian kings sway to rule over the whole earth in God’s name, saying – as this doctrine did, that “the name of our Savior be carried into these regions”, by any means necessary.

How did we get from

Love one another as I have loved you… no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for others, to set aside one’s own interests for the other’s welfare

to this colonial doctrine of discovery?

This weekend on Juneteenth, we celebrate every step in the undoing of this evil, anti-Christ distortion of the gospel. We celebrate the news of emancipation of African descendants in the South in 1866, and we celebrate every effort toward good news liberation of Black Americans and of all peoples. May it be.

More briefly, two more problems we’ve inherited through a distant, domineering image of Lord Jesus.

One is the prosperity gospel, and the other is the inaccessibility of God, the turning of Jesus into a moral stranger.

The prosperity gospel is the belief that God intends health and wealth for all faithful followers of Jesus, and that with enough faith, a constant stream of health and wealth are ours to claim and enjoy.

I was helping prepare a couple for marriage a number of years ago, and we were discussing their vows, including the traditional phrase many of them have, saying to your partner that you will love them faithfully, “for richer or poorer.” And one of them was like, I’m not sure we can use that phrase.

And I asked: why not? And he said, well, in the churches my family is accustomed to, they wouldn’t say “for richer or poorer.” They’d say “for richer or richer.”

And I was like really, why? And he explained that on your wedding day, you’d want to exercise faith that God would only lead you into greater and greater wealth together, never economic hardships.

I thought wow, how lovely if that works out for you, but that is not how faith works. Faithful people get poor. Faithful people lose sometimes. Faithful people get sick, and one day or another every faithful person dies. These are just facts.

But the superstitious faith of a dominant Jesus has tried to tell people otherwise. A really common form of Christianity throughout this country and throughout the whole world tells people that when they are baptized into faith in Christ, they are baptized onto the winning team, if they will only agree and believe. In our own church’s past, people used to sometimes imply that if you were sick and just had enough faith, just had enough people praying for you, God would make you well.

And that’s just not true. This faith in a powerful, mighty Jesus our Lord who doesn’t sound much like Jesus of Nazareth, though, has birthed the doctrine of discovery. It’s brought us the prosperity gospel. And it’s given us Christians who – as a friend of our church used to say – worship Jesus but do not follow him.

Jesus couldn’t stand this kind of thing, even in his lifetime. There was a time people tried to make him king by force, the Gospel said, and he got out of there as quickly as he could. We can worship Jesus, see in Jesus the light and wisdom and love of God. But if Jesus had a choice, he’d rather be followed than worshipped.

What does it look like to do this? What does it look like to be baptized into the kindom of God, into God’s beloved community?

What would happen instead if our faith said Jesus is “Jesus Christ God’s firstborn Son, our Friend, Brother, and Leader?” 

We never would have had a doctrine of discovery, but a doctrine of liberation, committed to loving mutuality and kinship with all people.

We would never had a prosperity gospel, manipulating people with promises of health and wealth. We’d have a good news in all things gospel, promising us God’s love and power and presence in all things.

And we wouldn’t know Jesus of the gospels as a moral stranger, as someone whose teachings we neither recognize nor live. Instead, we’d see Jesus pointing the way to God for us, the God who is our great companion, the God who is our friend who understands.

Friends, just last week, I cried it out with God again, not the first time this past year either. I was meditating on a picture of Jesus on the cross, which was just so sad, and I was thinking of what it means to celebrate a holiday like Juneteenth in a country that still has not reckoned with our history, and thinking of a broken relationship in my life that I’m longing to make whole, and I thought, dang, this year has seen so much sadness for us all.

And I was grateful that in Jesus, I have a brother, a leader, who calls me friend because he’s told me all he knows, given me everything he has. I felt God with me, a companion in all things, reminding me that I’m loved and understood, and reminding me of the creative, hopeful possibilities God has in front of me. And that’s taking me into today a happy, hopeful man.

Friends, Jesus is not a Lord that bosses us around, tempting us to remake ourselves in this image, people who use our power to enrich ourselves at others’ expense. This is a lie of our Christian past.

Jesus is a loving leader – whose life and teachings show us what God is like and liberate us into a more loving, vibrant life. And Jesus shows us that God is near and close to us, a loving, hopeful, and creative presence who never gives up on us and always understands.


“…in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth”

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

Let me tell you about another recent pandemic moment. Our adult daughter has mostly been out of our home the past nine months. She has come back home for the summer, and the other day she looked at me the other day and said “Dad, you seem old now.”

Part of me was offended, of course.

But part of me was like: dang straight, I am. This year has aged me. And here our daughter is, with a little time away, seeing her parent as he is. As I am.

Dad, you seem old now. 

I used to teach literature to teenagers, and we often read coming of age books together – stories about adolescents growing up. One of the features of these stories are the moments when kids see adults, and their parents in particular, for who they are, not just who the kid in them always wanted them to be. 

I vividly remember the time I first saw my dad cry – not just crying a tear of sadness, but stooped over, distressed, helpless. I only knew part of the reason that was happening. I learned more later. But I never saw my dad the same way again. He was smaller, more fragile than I’d imagined.

Sometimes it goes the other way. I know just a little bit about this fabulously wealthy business executive from the Middle East. One time he was telling me about what happened upon the occasion of his father’s funeral. He always knew his father was an influential, generous man. But upon his father’s death, he was given access to the stories and records of the communities and causes and people that his father supported. And the scope and the impact were larger than he’d ever dreamed, by many magnitudes.

This discovery gave him his life’s mission, to carry on this family legacy of service, generosity, and impact. To be a son his father would be proud of. His father was larger, more wonderful than he’d ever imagined. 

As we grow as people of faith, we have these same kinds of experiences with God. We realize things we thought were true of God are likely not true. Or it goes in the other direction – we have ideas or experiences that make us wonder if God is better or more beautiful than we’d previously imagined God to be.

Regardless, as we go through life, if we think about God at all, our thoughts aren’t going to be static, unchanging. We’re going to keep wondering: What is God like? What is the main thing that is true about God? 

What is God like as a parent? What does it mean that God does or doesn’t have power? That God is a creator? 

Today we’re going to engage these very questions. What is most true of God? And what kind of parenthood, power, and creativity does God have?

When I preach this summer, I’m going to be walking us through one of the very oldest Christian creeds called The Apostles Creed – interpreting and reinterpreting it for the times we live in, with the questions and experiences we have today. 

In the first four centuries of the Christian tradition, the Bible was compiled. Pastors and bishops and councils also tried to write a few short summaries of the core content of the Christian faith, and ever since, most Christians have believed what’s said in these creeds. But they weren’t ever perfect; the writers of these creeds had their own political and spiritual agendas and issues they were working out as they wrote. And Christians, even as they’ve believed these creeds, have been continually reinterpreting just what they mean as well. 

All faith, including Christian faith, is like this. It evolves and adapts along with humanity. From my perspective, God’s totally cool with this as well. God is ultimately the author of life, and all of life – including religion and faith – is always changing. That’s just how it works. 

So here I am this summer, enjoying the chance to share with you how I engage with this creed and what it says about my faith and hopefully helping you do the same. 

The first line of the creed is:

I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth

Last week we talked about what we mean when we say “I believe” or “we believe” and this week we talk about the main thing the creed says about God, that God is “the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” 

First, that word “Father.” 

Let’s listen to how Jesus talks about God. From where Jesus’ students asked him to teach them how to pray:

Luke 11:2a 

Jesus told them, “When you pray, say:


Father. Jesus said more words than this, of course. He taught them a short prayer to say, but not just one word: Father. But he did start with that word.

Jesus called God “Father” over and over and over, while talking to God in prayer, while talking about God. Now Jesus didn’t speak English, so he didn’t actually call God “Father”. He called God “Abba,” the Aramaic word that meant both Dad and Father – intimate and personal but also kinda formal. 

Jesus mostly called God “Abba.” 

Let’s talk for a minute about the good and the bad of what’s come to us in Jesus calling God Abba.

First, the good.

Even though Jesus couldn’t see God, just like us, Jesus considered God accessible and close, like a parent. And Jesus liked to teach what kind of parent, what kind of Abba God is, the most loving and generous parent you can imagine, even if that’s not what your parents were like. 

Jesus also taught that God creates all things and that God has vision for who and what God created, that God has particular kinds of hopes and goals for us. Jesus taught that God has some power to help us get there too. Jesus’ Abba gives gifts and welcomes people into relationship and community and guides people toward safer, healthier lives, and encourages, even demands really, most just and more kind ways of living. 

In the Christian tradition, these things Jesus taught about Abba God have often been expressed by words like there are in this creed –

“Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”

But let’s talk for a minute about where this has gone off the rails entirely, about the bad in what’s come to us through these words. 

First and most obviously, it’s led people to imagine that God has a penis. I mean, maybe not literally, but for centuries, the Christian imagination has conceived of God as the most powerful man on earth, but more. 

And so Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth has led us to picture the most powerful of powerful men

This hasn’t gone well. It turned God in our minds into an aloof, controlling, sometimes violent monarch. Not emotional, able to get and do whatever he wants, violently punishing the wicked and rewarding the just. God as a cosmic king or warlord. 

And then men raised in this faith are shaped in this image, as emotionally distant, controlling, sometimes violent husbands and fathers. And then that image of aloof, controlling human fatherhood further shapes our image of God. 

Vicious cycle. 

This fantasy of God as aloof but mighty monarch is behind so much of what has been bad in our faith. It has justified the actions of bad human powers and basically created the problem of Evil, which has driven so many people from the faith. 

Is that what God is like? Is that the God Jesus called Abba? Is that the God we’re required to worship and follow today?


We’ve often talked about how God is neither male nor female, and how speaking of God, and praying to God, and singing to God as both Father and Mother can enrich our relationship with God. But let’s also talk about that word “Almighty” for a moment. 

You see it in the Old Testament in English Bibles in a number of places. For instance, at the start of this famous psalm:

Psalm 91:1-2 (New Standard Revised Version)

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,

    who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,[a]

 will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;

    my God, in whom I trust.”

That word Almighty makes it sound like God can do everything – it seems pretty straightforward. God can protect us and make sure nothing ever bad happens to us. But wait, do any of us believe what this psalm seems to promise on those terms? That if we trust God, God will protect us from bad things? This kind of imagination of God’s power has weakened the faith of so many of us and driven lots of others away from the faith entirely.

When I talk to people who have walked away from faith in God, or wonder how much faith they have left, the top two reasons by far I hear are the bad things Christians do and have done, and this problem of evil. If God is so loving and so powerful – if God is Almighty, why do bad things happen to good people? 

Let’s revisit that word Almighty again and ask if that’s what it’s really saying – that God can just control whatever God wants, whenever God wants. 

You’ll notice in many of your Bibles a little footnote next to that word in the Old Testament. I left it on your last slide. And that footnote is because “Almighty” is translating a Hebrew name of God, El Shaddai. 

Here’s another translation of the start of Psalm 91 that keeps it.

Psalm 91:1-2 (Common English Bible) 

You who sit down in the High God’s presence,

    spend the night in Shaddai’s shadow,

Say this: “God, you’re my refuge.

    I trust in you and I’m safe!”

It’s clearer now – this God isn’t a warlord, this God is a home. El Shaddai is left untranslated here, because it’s such an old name. One of its possible literal meanings is God of the mountain refuge: safety, a hiding place, a place and a person to go to when you’re scared and looking for help. 

And that gets at the other possible literal meaning. God of the mountain refuge, or possibly, God of the breast. Yeah, a woman’s breast. God of my comfort, God of the nurturing protection of the mother’s bosom. 

That’s different, isn’t it? Imagine if the Christian creeds had said:

I believe in God the Father and the Safe Hiding Place, who Makes all Things.


I believe in God the Mother with the Comforting Breast, who Creates all Things.

How different would the history of our faith look?

This is a better picture of the power of God. Not a yet more powerful human king of emperor or warlord or CEO. Not an aloof controlling, violent, ruler. But a nurturing God, a loving one who is always there, and who creates and acts in collaboration, through persuasion, not dominance.

You can find both of these images in the Bible – the violent, controlling God, and the nurturing, safe, persuasive God. The Bible is a long collection of writings, compiled over hundreds of years, with a lot of complexity.

But the follower of Jesus, who centers faith in the God who is known in Christ, needs to ask: what does Jesus show us about God? Who is the God Jesus calls “Abba”?

Let’s turn back to Jesus one more time.

Luke 12:28-32 

28 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith!

29 Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying.

30 All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them.

31 Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.

32 “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom.

Jesus invites us to worship and believe in the God Jesus called “Abba” – not exclusively male – that was never the point. But God as a loving parent, a nurturer and creative maker, God whose power is found in loving persuasion and wisdom, not violent control. 

I’m reading only the end of this passage in Luke. But if you read the whole thing, you see:

  • Jesus’ Abba is the God who knows you and loves you, who understands your needs.
  • Jesus’ Abba is a God who is safe. Unlike the nations and rulers of this earth, you can trust this God.
  • Jesus’ Abba is God who is creative – who makes beautiful things on this earth. 
  • Jesus’ Abba is God who has vision for our lives and vision for our world – this Kingdom, this kindom, this Beloved Community Jesus is longing for us to see into being together with God. 
  • And Jesus’ Abba is powerful, but not push-people-around, override-wills and get things done with or without us kind of powerful. No, Jesus’ Abba requires our collaboration to act. Jesus’ Abba never has power over anyone, but power with us. 

We get this with human parents. The one who gets their way through manipulation, bossiness, control, or force – that’s a violent parent, that’s a loud parent, but that’s a bad parent, and not a very powerful one.

Whereas the parent who can guide children into abundant life through persuasion, with the children acting on their own agency as well, that’s a wise parent, a good parent, and a powerful parent as well.

So it is with God. 

How would Christian history be different if Christians had believed in, loved and worshipped a Mother/Father, creative God, whose power is through loving persuasion? Not an aloof monarch, whose power is through violent force?

How would your life be different if you believed in, worshipped, and loved a Mother/Father, creative God, whose power is through loving persuasion? Not an aloof monarch, whose power is through violent force?

We would know this God loves you, is safe, and only wants your welfare, and the welfare of all of creation for that matter. And you could call this God God and Father, and Dad and Mom, and anything else that helps you envision one who knows and loves and nurtures you.

We would know this God as a nurturing Maker, who loves everything God has made, who engages tenderly with all of creation, co-creating beauty and love and justice with all or creation. And we would welcome our role as co-creators and co-preservers with God, treasuring God’s sacred presence in creation, and treating it all with care. 

And we would know that God has wisdom and vision for us all but isn’t going to steer anyone of us, not the whole family, nor the earth toward God’s good against our will. God is luring and persuading us toward the good, but not controlling us. And we’d ask how we in our little lives can cooperate with God’s beautiful vision for us all.

It’s fun to keep finding out what God is really like. Letting go of childish, incomplete, inadequate ideas, and replacing them with better, truer, more beautiful conceptions of God. It can be hard to learn and change, but it can be really good too. In your life, may you continue toward faith in a truer, more beautiful God.

And God, give us eyes to see and hearts and minds to know what it means that you are a loving parent, uncontrolling power, and endlessly creative Maker God. Amen.


I Believe

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

For this week’s Spiritual Practice, led by Trecia Reavis, click HERE.

During the past fourteen months, most of us worried more than normal. Many of us stayed home longer than we’d ever done, skipped showers for impressive runs, wore the same outfits days on end, gained a little weight and all kinds of other pandemic accomplishments. I did all that too – high five! Some of us also found a hobby or went back to one. I know people who baked a lot of bread. My wife gave herself over to indoor plant growing at a whole new level. Me, I did something less practical than this – I started an online doctoral program in theology and ministry. 

And my advisor was part of this project that intrigued me, where they went through one of the oldest Christian creeds line by line, talking about how it is they still engage the faith of these nearly two millennia old words in ways that make sense to them and are empowering and life-giving in the age we live in today. They did this with one of the shortest and most famous creeds called The Apostles’ Creed. And they called the series Becoming Christian. 

Now if you’re thinking: who would want to become a Christian these days? Well, you’re not alone. The reputation of Christians (at least in this country) is at a well-deserved low point. So if you identify as a Christian, great. If you don’t, that’s great too. I identify as a Christian because I think there’s a ton of good in this faith and in this tradition that’s worth making the most of, despite all the bad stuff that’s gotten mixed in there. But I can understand why others wouldn’t want to. You do you, really.

But they didn’t call the series Becoming Christian to get anyone to convert, but to highlight the process of becoming. Like anything in life that matters, a Christian isn’t something that you are, like it’s a certificate you put on your wall for this thing you did once or a stage you’ve reached. Life and relationships and beliefs and experiences are dynamic, right? We’re always in motion, we’re always changing, still becoming. The Christian faith is dynamic, something that has been changing and evolving for 2,000 years, and so a person being a Christian is also something we can be becoming, or not, and they explored how they connected to this process now.

Well, as soon as I heard this, I thought: I want to do something like this at Reservoir. We’ve always wanted to live a Christian faith that would be viable and interesting and helpful for people who believe what science has to say, who aren’t going to subscribe to ideas and beliefs that seem out of touch with the modern world. But given how many of us have changed our minds about things we believe or aren’t sure of what we believe about God, it seemed like it could be helpful to talk through this old Christian creed ourselves, and see how we can relate to historic Christian faith in ways that inspire and liberate us. 

So this summer, when Lydia or Ivy or anyone else speaks, they’ll speak however they are led to, but when I preach throughout the summer, I’m going to talk us through the Apostles’ Creed, referencing texts from the Bible as well as the contemporary dynamics and questions and tensions with our faith. I’ll share what some different people think here and there as well as how I make sense of and live into this creed.

I’ve called the series “Becoming Christian: (Re)Interpreting the Apostles Creed and the Christian Faith for Our Times.”

And we’re going to start today with the first phrase of the creed – just two words – “I believe”. And we’ll do that through four lines about belief and faith from the gospel of Mark . 

Here’s the first:

Mark 1:15

“Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”

In Mark, Jesus’ first public words, or the words that Mark thinks best capture what Jesus had to say a lot were these: Change your hearts and lives, and trust the good news. That’s a modern translation. A little more literally the words were: repent and believe.

At the heart of what Jesus had to say to people was: be open to change, and believe. But when he said that he wasn’t talking about particular information they should believe. Like sign this document. Agree with these facts. No, when he said believe, he meant Belief is trust.

Like trust that Jesus can help you know God. Trust that Jesus can show us what God is like and what God is doing. Trust that Jesus and Jesus’ God have good news worth engaging with. Belief as trust. 

Think about some of the things you used to believe were true.

I used to think that elephants were called “odies” – I insisted upon that fact. I have a child who once said, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a frog.” When I taught high schoolers, I remember this very skinny 15-year old kid who’d never played organized sports told me with a straight face, “I’m going to play football in the NFL.” And what do you say? I thought: good luck with that. 

We change our minds about what we believe all the time. That’s normal. We grow up. And even as adults, we keep growing up. We have new experiences. We learn new things. 

And when it comes to what we think about God or the big questions about what matters most in life, the same thing is true. 

There’s not much that I think about God that I haven’t changed my mind about twice. And even now as a doctoral student in theology, there’s so much about faith that my most honest answer would be: Who am I to say? I don’t know. 

It’s alright to hold lightly the facts and opinions and information which we believe. 

Over the past several years, though, I’ve learned that this can be really hard within the domain of religion. A few years ago, Grace and I went to a conference with a couple of friends. It was a place for people who were aware they were deconstructing their Christian faith – questioning what they’d been taught, changing their beliefs. And I thought: hey, I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things I was taught. And I’m a pastor of a church where a lot of people are doing that too. I’ll go to this thing and find my people.

But what struck me was not how much I related to what was happening there, but how much anxiety people had about the whole experience. And I don’t mean that critically – like it was their fault for being tense. A lot of folks had been given these really intense and even threatening messages about what information and opinions they had better believe. 

I met this one person in her 20s, who when I asked her how she ended up at this conference, she told me that didn’t believe in hell anymore. And by hell, she meant an awful place God would send people to suffer forever if they didn’t believe the right things about God or live it out in the right way. And her grandma had told her something like: if you don’t believe in hell, then that’s where God’s sending you. 

Which is maybe this awful thing to say to your grandchild, but kind of ironic too. Like God’s going to send to this place that you do not believe exists. Like, what do you do with that? 

And as I met people not just at this conference but amongst my friends, here in this church, with experiences like this, with just enormous tension if they question their beliefs, I feel really sad for one. 

And I think this isn’t what Jesus called people to at all either. In fact, the core of his message was to change your mind and believe. And not just as a one time thing, but as a way of moving forward with God. Be open and try to trust me. Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news.

So maybe the first thing we can say when we say “I believe” is not at all about an anxious relationship to facts, opinions, and theories. No, belief is about trust. It’s about who you listen to, and where you go for good news. Jesus says:

belief is trust. It’s trusting that I can show you what God is like, and I can show you good news. 

For me, this is how I can be a pastor even while my faith continues to evolve and grow. Because saying “I believe” isn’t saying “I know I’m right” or “I’m never allowed to change my mind.” It’s saying I’m continuing to trust Jesus and I’m more likely to trust people and ideas that sound like and look like Jesus. 

Belief is trust.

Secondly, belief is shared.

One of the early stories in Mark is about four people who take their friend who can not walk to Jesus for help, and Jesus speaks to their friend’s physical condition but also to the state of his soul. And in that story, we get this:

Mark 2:5 

5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven!”

I love how Jesus is moved by their faith, by the hope and love of their friends. Faith isn’t a solo experience, it’s a team sport. Which is why sometimes the creed begins “I believe” but just as often, it is read, “We believe.”

Belief is shared. It’s not just about what I think or who I trust. It’s to whom and to what I am connected. It’s about the community and the tradition to  whom I am aligned. 

Early in my experience of following Jesus, I would have told you my belief was a personal decision I’d made about God. I read the Bible and prayed on my own regularly before I had any rich experience of faith community. 

But even then, I look back and see that I thought God loved me and was worth my attention because people I had loved and trusted had told me so or had shown me that was so. It was people who loved Jesus who taught me what forgiveness looks like, what accepting myself looks like, and who keep drawing me back to my best self and my boldest hopes. 

In saying we believe in the God revealed in Christ, we’re not saying we’re proud of everything in the Christian tradition, a lot of which – past and present – is absolute trash. We’re not even saying we believe in everything we hear at our own local church.

But we are saying that the Jesus tradition is one we want to be connected to, and that the teaching of Jesus is one to which we want to be aligned. 

We’re saying we want to be aligned with the good news that we matter to God – that God has decided to never be God without us. We’re saying we want to be connected to a faith that says all people are God’s children, and that God’s children are beautiful, inherently dignified, and loved no matter what we do or who we are. We’re saying that to want to be accountable to a faith that teaches that judgement and pride are toxic and that loving our neighbor and loving our enemy is the height of holiness and the path to joy for us all. 

Participation in a Christian community and tradition and set of commitments shouldn’t mean we need to sign off a bunch of content we say we believe – this church doesn’t require that and I don’t think God does either. But it does say we’d like to share in a community that’s welcoming and learning and practicing the good news of Jesus. 

So belief is trust. And belief is shared. You ready for two more? (Ha, I’m going to assume yes, since I can’t hear you.) Belief is also openness. 

One time while Jesus was out in a fishing boat, crossing a lake with his students, Jesus slept while a storm got worse and worse. After they woke him up, he stood up in the boat, spoke some words, and the water calmed. No matter how many times they told the story, no matter how weird it seemed, they all remembered it exactly like this.

And they remembered too that Jesus turned to them and asked:

Mark 4:40 

Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

I don’t think Jesus is yelling. He calmed a storm, he doesn’t want to start another one. I think he’s really wondering:

what is there to fear? Can’t you remember that there is more in this world than you see or understand? Haven’t you learned that with the help of God and friends, you will have enough? You’ll be alright.

Philosophers and theologians talk a lot about the disenchanted world we live in, how before modernity – the age of reason, all our scientific discoveries which continue to teach us about the size of the universe and how to invent these vaccines that make us so very happy right now – before all that, the whole universe seemed enchanted, magical. God and angels and demons and spirits were responsible for everything we didn’t understand. 

Now that we can explain so much more, some of us have reduced the universe, reduced the world to only that which we can measure and apprehend with our senses. A disenchanted world seems to squeeze out God and to render faith useless or quaint. 

But there are more and more scientists and philosophers and theologians who are like: wait, this doesn’t entirely make sense either. Because there are a lot of things that we can’t measure and apprehend with our senses that are really important to us – things like cause and effect, and the mathematical precision by which so much in the universe operates, and the nature of our consciousness, and the behavior of subatomic particles, and the beautiful and remarkable directions evolution has taken. There’s a whole talk here for another day, but there is still so much more than we can seek or understand. 

There are a lot of bad arguments for the existence of God but a pretty good one is the nearly universal human experience of what we might call the holy – something or someone outside of ourselves that is beautiful or powerful or loving or true beyond our explanation.

Belief is an open mind to who and what is behind this. And belief in the God revealed in Christ is the openness that this God isn’t just a far-off force but is with us all and the rest of creation, intimately and near. Belief is an openness that this same God loves us and is wooing us toward all the very best possibilities. Belief tells us that even with this God, our plans may fail, life will disappoint us in some ways, and we may suffer horribly, but we’ll never be alone and never be outside God’s loving attention and care. 

A number of you have asked me what I did during my month off. And I’ve mostly given boring answers. Like I took walks, and hung out with my family, and read some books, and mostly didn’t do all that much at all. And this is all true. But another answer is that I talked with God about not being in control of my life, and accepting the freedom of that’s just the way it is. 

Like most people in middle age, I’ve come into awareness of what I love and am proud of in my life, but also into awareness of some of my own limitations and sorrows – many of which I tell you about, a few of which I hold more privately. I’ve found that what God is doing in all this awareness and acceptance is inviting me to make peace with not being in control and asking me: Steve, why are you afraid? 

I heard an interview recently with Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman. He was talking about what he calls System 1 thinking – which is fast, intuitive, and unreflective. It’s shaped by our character and genetics and experience and the stories we believe and all that. And then there is System 2 thinking, which is slow and deliberate, shaped by active use of logic and choice at all. And Kahneman makes the point that we exaggerate the importance of our System 2 thinking, when a lot of this thinking we do is really just justification and defense of where our emotions and instinct and intuition take us. 

That seems true to me, and so I’ve wondered if part of faith is taking these beliefs that we hold in our Stage 2 thinking – like we believe that God is with us, and we believe that God is good, and we believe that with the help of God and friends, there will be enough and we’ll be OK, even when we’re not in control, and we believe that more love is the answer and all that. And faith is welcoming habits and prayer and hope that all this will become System 1 for us, that it’ll become more and more our habit and intuition in the world – to be people of faith, hope, and love.

Belief is this kind of openness to God, and a lot of what I did the other month was hope and pray and tell myself and God that I want more of that. Perhaps you do too. 

And lastly, and briefly, belief changes. 

One of the most moving stories in Mark is this time a parent was desperate for Jesus’ help with his kid. Jesus asked about the man’s faith and the this:

Mark 9:24 

24 At that the boy’s father cried out, “I have faith; help my lack of faith!”

I have a little faith, but not a lot. Can you help?

That was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for God and it can be good enough for us. 

There’s no set amount of faith you need to have to believe in God with a community. Belief is trust. It’s shared. It’s openness. And it changes. Belief can lessen and deepen, shrink and grow. Belief isn’t about arriving at a particular level or knowledge base or degree of certainty. It’s about engagement and staying engaged. It’s dynamic, not static. It’s not about a thing you have, but a relationship you’re in.

My invitation for you this summer friends, as you navigate this stage of pandemic or post-pandemic life, is to let your faith be open, let it deepen, grow and find its roots and expression in your life. We’ll be here to find the way together. 

Next week, we’ll talk about the first thing the creed says about God – the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth – and how that’s the best and worst stuff we can say about God, depending on what we mean.

Let’s pray.