An Evolving Faith | Longing for More

Take a moment to review your week, or the last couple of days – and reflect on where you experienced and/or witnessed the love of God?

Today, we’ll talk about just why sharing our stories and experiences of God’s love isn’t just a “nice church” exercise, but a powerful and necessary way of living. One that leads to our spiritual growth and evolution of our faith.

Piano Story

In my early years of life I would fall asleep to the music that my Mom and Dad were listening to in the kitchen – an array of Pink Floyd, James Taylor, The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. And I, like most of us, fell in love with music before I even had my own language.

So much so, that as I grew a little bit older I became relentless about getting a piano. We had no money for a piano – but my mom being resourceful somehow got us one. It was massively out of tune, and many of the keys didn’t work – but I sat at that piano teaching myself notes and how to play basic melodies for hours.

Eventually my mom and the church pianist struck a deal and I started piano lessons. We’d drive the 40 minutes to the teacher’s house – where I’d sit at a much more in tune piano, surrounded by boxes of cereal, and stacks of papers, and craft supplies, and any number of her children clinging & tugging at her – and I learned chords, and how to move chords up and down the piano to church hymns, and only church hymns.

And I remember leaving most lessons (slightly disappointed)…. longing well, for music.

It was a longing that stayed with me throughout most of my years of piano lessons. But also a longing that kept me engaged with music – in a variety of expressions – and has been critical in my own evolution.

I think this can feel true for us at times with faith, and with God. We have such a deep longing for the love of God and yet – at times – the longing and the actual experience of that longing fulfilled might have some dissonance along the way…. 

As we grow and change as people – so too does our relationship with God. Our awareness of how big God is also expands and sometimes the foundational practices of our faith – spiritual practices, prayer, our engagement with the Bible, the “teaching” we like to listen to – can feel unfulfilling and a little stilted.

And we can feel disappointment, frustration, grief . And so, I want to revisit a passage in scripture today where Jesus gives us some words that might help us not lose heart, and some words that offer us very practical ways to live our daily lives with the love of God right at the center.

Prayer: God of love and God of movement. I give thanks to you this morning that your love exists in multi-dimensions… in people, and in nature – in the expanse of the sky, and in the cracks of our pain – God help us this morning to have the power to understand, just how wide, how long, how high, and how deep your love really is. 

Scripture | Matthew 5:13-20 

Let’s read together this scripture where Jesus is talking to his disciples on a mountain side, in the gospel of Matthew.

13 – 16 “You are the salt of the earth.  But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it useful again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. You are the light of the world – like a city on a mountain, glowing in the night for all to see. Don’t hide your light under a basket! Instead, put it on a stand and let it shine for all. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.
…..and…..

17 – 20 Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to fulfill them. I assure you, until heaven and earth disappear, even the smallest detail of God’s law will remain until its purpose is achieved. So if you break the smallest commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

But I warn you – unless you obey God better than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees do, you can’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven at all.”

Salt

I love these verses about being the salt and the light of the earth.

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” 

For one – you could preach a whole series on the expanse of these metaphors – they are rich, they are relevant, and they are accessible – right – we’ve all likely encountered salt and light somewhere in our lives.  And I’ll talk a little bit about the significance of salt in a moment.

But what I also love about these four ‘salt & light’ verses in particular, is where they are situated. They are sandwiched in between the Sermon on the Mount, you know where Jesus says these fresh and different words,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – the merciful, the pure in heart, – for they will inherit the kingdom of heaven…”  

sandwiched in between that, AND this whole discussion about The Law – these long-standing, familiar words that really never had been touch and passed down for generations. Jesus and his disciples are very familiar with them- and the teachers/the experts of religious law and the Pharisees… have practiced them with strict obedience. 

So we have new things Jesus is saying – salt & light in the middle – and then the well known tradition of the Law – and it’s a “love of God sandwich” really. Because what holds all these verses together is that everyone mentioned ‘loves God.’ Jesus loves God. The disciples love God. The religious elite love God. The Pharisees llloooooove God. And they care about other people loving God too. 

Jesus says,

“but what makes this sandwich tasty is alllll these people (around and down the mountainside) – who also might have a longing for the love of God too.” 

Now Jesus has made his way to this point, traveling through Galilee – where he’s taught in synagogues (places where there’s familiarity with “religious-y” type messages). He also has been engaging with ordinary folks. Folks who have illnesses, and grief – folks who were demon-possessed, and have leprosy and seizures. People who aren’t allowed to step in a synagogue and/or people who don’t have the resources to study and learn from a religious scholar the “premiere” way of religious law. People who were poor in spirit, who were oppressed by the empire… People who were unimportant to people in power.

And so by the time we get to this scripture – there are very large crowds following and listening to the story of Jesus. Yes, from Galilee, a very Jewish area, and also the Decapolis, (these 10 towns – a very Greek area which is not Jewish, not religious, not pure, not clean, not holy), Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan.”

  • All sorts of different people, from many backgrounds – races, ethnicities, non-Christian, Christian,  and non-religious.. .are gathering… 
  • People who were curious.
  • People who were suspect.
  • People who yearned and longed – to know more about this Jesus fellow.

And we have the religious experts also watching from the periphery.

  • These people who thought they knew all there was to know of this Jesus fellow. 

 So Jesus takes a moment and gathers  with the disciples on the mountain side and says,

“listen – it’s time – the tradition is expanding.   – I’m here to fulfill the law… to stretch what has been .. to open it unto more…  it’s going to look a little different…. A little messy…  but this “Sermon on the Mount” I just gave – that’s what it will look like.  The merciful, the mourning, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the ones seeking justice, the ones persecuted… all of it – everyone together, okay? The only way to get it – is to live it.” 

It’s why I love that the Salt & Light verses are sandwiched right in the middle – because Jesus couldn’t come and say

“guess what? All of this Law is no longer relevant… and replace it with a new set of rules to obey, a new set of steps to follow to get it right. Because the heart of the Law was to live a life that “Loves God, loves our neighbor as we do ourself,”

and Jesus is seeking to fill out the heart of the law – to infuse it with a LIVING God – that invites us to enhance our engagement with the world around us – as we live.

I think Jesus knew that our human tendency is to mix up our longing for the love of God – with the love of rules and “getting it right.” We are inclined to say,

“give me the formula of how to move these chords up and down the piano – define what prayer is for me, the right way to follow scripture, rituals, the rules that help me get God “right” ….. and then I can grow!”

..meanwhile Jesus is like,

“did you see that zig-zagg-y route I just took through Galilee to the shore to talk with some fisherman, to the dusty road where I talked with the person who is unhoused, to the one fighting a chronic illness, to the one who’s trying to get an appointment with the court for justice – there’s your roadmap!”  

That’s why the sermon on the mount is so provocative because it isn’t a prescription of the steps of how.to.get.to.heaven. Of how to be holy. Of how to get God better. But it is about how we can be a gift to one another, be in relationship with one another – unto a life that is free – that is liberated.  … here and now..  

Jesus says to the disciples,

“this is your call – you are the salt of the earth.”

To “be the salt of the earth” isn’t a command – it is an invitation to a way of being in the world.

The disciples know that salt is valuable.

Salt had been a part of the religious customs of nearly every religion known to the world. It was an acceptable offering for the Greek gods. It was part of the ancient Egyptian burial rites (mummies). To the Hebrew people salt is the symbol of the covenant with God – a covenant that will never spoil. Newborn Hebrew babies were rubbed in salt as a sign of covenant. In Islam, salt seals a bargain. It is associated with wisdom and truth and witness.

And it is even more valuable because it doesn’t just enrich your life – it enriches the whole. 

Salt is essential. It forms bonds and impacts whatever it connects with.

For salt to be salt and for salt to do what salt naturally does – it has to be interspersed with other ingredients. Jesus says

“GO LIVE, be interacting, learning from, and engaging with people. All people.”

And this is how we are all blessed.

Because when a blessing is invoked – it changes the atmosphere… A blessing is a direct address given with immediacy and care. It brings us into the awareness of ourselves, the awareness of God and the awareness of other people.  It calls us to notice, to pay attention and to care for those around us. 

And so when Jesus asks,

“What good is salt if it has lost its flavor? How can we salt the world with it?”

It’s a bit of a warning to the disciples, and it’s a bit of a revealing of the posture of the religious elite and Pharisees.

Because the only way salt becomes tasteless is if you keep it in a jar on a shelf – separate.  

The religious elite and the Pharisees were veering in this direction – setting themselves apart… Engaging with the Law in a way that their longing for the love of God turned to possession, protection, and preservation.

With this posture – no one is blessed – there is no flow of blessing… only a stage for division. 

PIANO

As I progressed in my piano playing – I caught on to the pattern that my teacher was arranging these hymns by. How the chord progressions would go and I even became pretty literate in marking up my own hymnal pages –  in her coded “chord language” which was a bunch of symbols of arrows and dashes. 

And so to continue to grow to some degree – I would play around with the arrangements – I would add extra measures – I would play with the timing – I would change the key.. 

And I would come to my teacher – proud of the new expression  – and she did NOT appreciate that.
I sat through a lesson once – where a friend of mine was waiting for his lesson within earshot of me.. Where she just berated me – she had me count out loud, had me stop and repeat and do it over in the appropriate time measure…and I was in tears when I left.  I was in my later teen years at that point. It was humiliating.  It was clear to me that this style of hymn playing had one true expression in my teacher’s eyes – and I was not fulfilling it. 

And so we’d leave those lessons divided –  her: frustrated and mad – and me: crest-fallen and longing for something more.  

Early Jesus Movement – “The Way”

Throughout the history of the early church – to today – we see this dynamic at play. The love and longing for God at the center of communities – expressed in a multitude of different ways. People that are excited to be gathering and sharing with one another their experiences of the love of God.  But inevitably met with rules/systems/structures –  to keep that goodness, to bottle up that goodness.  Such rules/structures are constructed with the intent of “protecting or preserving” God.  And oftentimes they are constructed by just an elite few.

For the most part what Jesus taught seems to have been followed closely during the first several hundred years after his death and resurrection.  Even while Christians were persecuted violently by the state. Values like nonparticipation in war, simple living, inclusivity, and love of enemies seemed to be embraced and lived out. Many followers of Jesus’ teachings or “The Way” as the movement is now referred to  – lived together with people of different ethnicities and social classes rather than following classist and cultural norms.  And historian Diana Butler Bass writes, “a startling idea runs through early records of faith: Christianity seems to have succeeded because it transformed the lives of people in a chaotic world.”  A world that was dramatically changing in culture, politics, and economy. During this time, Christianity was not so much about doctrines or eternal salvation –  but more about how to live a better life here and now. (Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Desert Christianity and the Eastern Fathers of the Church,” The Mendicant, vol. 5, no. 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation: April 2015), 1.

This led to transformation and growth as people shared their lives and their stories of how the love of God impacted them. As the sprinkle of salt fell over everyone.

But even in apostle Paul’s early writing to the church of Corinth – we see him addressing quarrels and disagreements that were rising. .. Some over communion, some over what resurrection really meant for them, some over general misconduct  – and we see in

I Corinthians Paul say,

“what’s going on here?” “One of you says, “I follow Paul”;

another,

“I follow Apollos”;

another,

“I follow Cephas”;

still another,

“I follow Christ.” 

Is Christ divided?

In a different translation it asks more pointedly,

has the Messiah been chopped up into little pieces so we can each have a relic all our own?”

As the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it became harder and harder to regard the Gospel from the vantage point of those who were living and breathing a life in the margins – and easier to read the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order. Formal doctrine took the place of stories that told of essential issues of love, virtues, peace and freedom,  and prayer found in the voices of the oppressed became replaced with systematic theology  (Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 48-51; and Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 100.)

Jesus’ invitation to the disciples for faith to first be a lifestyle before it becomes a belief system – became harder to touch.  Divisions within churches and communities of faith continue to exist – and every time that happens it also divides up God – and both sides of “the divide are weaker as a result.”

If we are honest, it is scary to

“seek a way to God that is mostly unchartered and freely chosen, not inherited or dependent from others who have mapped it out beforehand.’ (Rohr)

And it can feel like that is what Jesus was asking the disciples to do in the Sermon on the Mount –  but what he said was,

“I didn’t come to abolish the law of Moses or the writing of the prophets. No, I came to fulfill them.” 

We’ve hear this message in our faith before – remember the prophet Isaiah who said

the Lord’s spirit has sent me,

to bring good news to the poor,

    to bind up the brokenhearted,

    to proclaim release for captives,

        and liberation for prisoners,

    to comfort all who mourn,

    to give them a crown in place of ashes,

    oil of joy in place of mourning,

    a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.”

Not a new message – but a new expression through me, Jesus – and through you. You, the salt. You, the light.”

Here is how we continue to change and grow – and how our religions continue to change – “transcending and including,” as Ken Wilber says, learning from old ways and opening to new.  We have the tradition and the Law – and we seek renewed expressions of Christian community and church that bear good fruit in our generation and the generations to come. And so we lean in to one another – we listen – we tell stories – and we open unto God. And we embrace freedom.

I eventually chose freedom – from my piano teacher! And as time went on, I found that I was really helped by the fundamentals of what she taught me. The familiarity of augmenting chords, and filling out simple melodies helped me accompany choirs, and follow with flexibility and awareness  – the lead of soloists. And my growth beyond her initial framework also helped me not discount other people’s musical expressions or abilities.

My husband Scott plays by ear, which to someone like me, who can only play with sheet music, can be entirely frustrating. Here, I can veer toward the judgy commentary of “well, you aren’t really trained.” However, I can suspend that – and celebrate his giftedness. And I could be really excited when my own kids started to play and their teacher chose an entirely different approach – where their homework each week was to make up their own songs and come back and play it for him!

Freedom was a little too threatening for the Pharisees – it made them worry that God was being compromised by these dirty, still-in-process, imperfect people. I mean, that’s not a very tight system – and I think the Pharisees preferred a tight system. And so different expressions of teaching, or prayer, or music that didn’t have precedent with the law – made them feel like this isn’t real – this isn’t true.. This isn’t God.

Meanwhile God is here saying –

“I don’t care if you play the same chord over and over in this hymn – or get the timing all wrong – or if you sing, “Let It Be” by the Beatles –  as long as you are talking, and sharing, and learning from one another – telling stories that illuminate and season how the love of God is encountered in your real lives, on a daily basis – unto a greater blessed whole….if that happens, we are all good. I am not compromised in the least.”

The Pharisees in response to their own fear – drew lines around what worship was, what behaviors and rituals had to be done to obey God, lines that defined what prayer was – who God was – and they clung to a structure that couldn’t give way to a living God and snuffed out any light, any longing in people seeking transformation and healing. 

The Pharisees end up losing sight of God in the maze of lines that they’d drawn to protect God.

It was too hard for the Pharisees to return to the most core intention of the Law they knew so well – to practice God’s justice, compassion, and mercy toward one another  – because it required the one thing they neglected to attend to… their hearts.  And so the Sermon on the Mount is a threat, a mess – and the Law becomes something to defend – rather than something to live out.  

You see, Jesus comes to fill out the law – to make the law relational.

“The Law is meant to refer to the ways that everything is created to be in right relationship with everything else. It reflects how we are always impacting and being impacted by everything else. Salt is valuable for the way it flavors everything around it. Light is changed by the shadow of everything that passes near it.. To say that we are salt and light is to say that we impact and are impacted by everything around us. We are exquisitely relational. And Jesus comes not to change that—not to make us inflexible and morally superior—but to show us how to live into that even more – how to open unto mutual loving relationships even more. And how this fulfills the longing we have for God (because it’s never ending and ever-changing!) (enfleshed.com)

RESERVOIR | This Summer | Speakers

At Reservoir this summer, we’ve had more guest preachers in one defined amount of time than we ever have. And for the very reasons I’ve talked about today, I have loved these Sundays so much. 

In our guest preacher guidelines we say that we 

“practice what we call centered-set culture. We say that we are Jesus-centered and fiercely dedicated to no one experiencing boundaries or barriers to moving toward Jesus. We emphasize the common humanity of all people, rather than dividing us into “Christians” and “non-Christians.” We always assume a mixed audience of longtime churchgoers and longtime not-churchgoers, so we use ordinary rather than churchy vocabulary and means of communication. We honor people’s agencies in whatever faith journey they do or don’t take – so we tell stories, we commend, and we invite, rather than relying upon commands or shame or guilt to motivate people. We also give people freedom to respond as much or as little as they like…”

We have had six guest preachers so far – and we have listened to the stories of:

Taj Smith – a Black, trans man who invited us to consider the sacredness of queer and trans folks, and to allow the words of Olivia Butler to stir us,

The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.”

We listened to the stories of Reverend Carrington Moore  – A Black pastor for Bethel AME  – who led people around this physical space, asking us

“what it is to be a follower of Jesus.”

We listened to the stories of Howard Kim – our social justice intern – a child of Korean immigrants who invited us to consider the transfigured life of Jesus – free of binaries – trans Jesus.

We listened to the story of Pastor Willie Barnett – a white cis-het pastor who spoke from personal experience of the freedom to leave faith communities when they are harming.

We listened to the story of Rose Percy – a Black Haitian graduate student, who spoke of Audre Lorde and the beautiful challenge of re-learning how to pray.

We heard Pastor Lydia speak of the valley of dry bones that housing justice work is.

And I spoke on the significance of knowing we are children of God as we fight the Goliath’s of our day.

We all spoke from our personal vantage points – different styles, different identities, different races, different social locations, queer theology, departure theology, theopoetics. And yet the common link – the common theme – among all of us – is that we all shared our experiences of the love of God. And extended the invitation to all of us to consider how the love of God can help our lives be better. 

And my, what an expansive image we gain of God, what mystifying growth and shape are given to our hearts as we hold such wisdom, truth, and witness.

As you might imagine, my story of how I experience the love of God in a hummingbird these days, is very different from how Taj Smith, as a Black trans man is experiencing God in the face of legislation that is trying to challenge his existence… but to consider both of these to be true – is the current day stretching of our faith – this is how we continue to let the ‘good news’ of Jesus enliven all of our senses, and keep longing for more of God at every turn.

It enriches our prayers, it adds new lenses to scripture. The good news, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t call us to just observe one another’s life from the periphery – we are called to engage and LIVE OUT,  a vibrant, ever-evolving faith  – by listening to, and learning from someone’s life that is not our own. This is how we EXPAND and stretch our own relationship with God. Because it will stretch us and it will disrupt us too. And this is how we embrace the greatest commandment of the law to,

‘Love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind.’

And this is good news – very, very good news my friends.

Prayer – God thank you for all the ways you are real to us. Help us to live out our real lives – with compassion, mercy, humility, and an unquenchable eagerness to love you  – knowing that you first loved us.  

 

Memory Meaning Movement

Rev. Carrington Moore, co-leader of the clergy caucus in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization with Pastor Steve, guest preaches this week for Reservoir.

Watch his message and this week’s worship and announcement by clicking on the YouTube link above.

 

Rest!

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