I’m so glad that Kaiti and Steph were able to share this morning about Soccer Nights. I’ve got to say that Soccer Nights is one of my all time favorite weeks of the year, and for a lot of the reasons we’ve been exploring in this series of love. It’s such a picture of God’s love, which we will get to a lot more of in just a minute!
But first I’d love to welcome you here in this space right now.
I’m not sure how your weeks have gone.
I’m not sure if they were pleasing, or nondescript, or particularly bad. Or a mixture of all.
I’m not sure how much you want to release, or let go of as you sit here today, or how important it is for you to hold tightly to things that you are cherishing, or that you need.
And I’m not sure why you are here.
Maybe for some of you, you can quickly detail the reasons you are here: the music, the kids’ team, the prayer, community, the amazing sermons ;).
Maybe you are here out of obligation, whether internal or external
Maybe you are here and you don’t know why—God, and faith, have been lost on you for quite some time.
Maybe you are here because there are bagels and coffee. Not a bad angle.
Maybe you are here because the love of God is felt and is easy here, and you need easy, because you are tired.
Maybe the best you can say this is morning is— “ya know what? I’m just here, let’s just leave it at that.”
And in all that I want to welcome you here and now.
We are in our 7th week of our sermon series, called Training in the Studio of Love. Next week is our last week in this series, and our pastor, Lydia, will be up to round out the series! Our series was inspired by Brian McLaren, a long-time friend and writer and pastor. He has encouraged churches to take a fresh look at perhaps one of the greatest “calls” for us—not only as followers of Jesus, but a call for us as human beings who walk this earth—the call to love. The fact that he suggests we might need a curriculum of sorts for “love”—might in some ways feel a little elemental and also pretty redundant, right? “Yes – yes – life of love, posture of love, lead with love, etc… I get it, of course.” But I think he’s hitting at something in there, and it’s also something Jesus kept showing us, too, throughout scripture. We can read that he talked and taught a LOT about love— so many of his stories and parables, and also his endless actions, demonstrated this very powerful thru-line of love. He loves the eunuch, the prostitute, the woman at the well, Zaccheus, to love himself, his prosecutors, the vile, the dirty, the cast away, right up until death.
Jesus bombards us with these pictures of love. And in some ways, I can think that we are meant to be taught something new in each setting—some new content. This is likely true to some extent, but I also think that he’s giving us that abundant picture to remind us, to invite us to see just how many opportunities we have to love in our days—reminding us that we have all the content we need, as many stories, and as much parable potential through people and earth, here and now, (as Jesus did), to love.
And yet we have the tendency to compress the greatest commandment to, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. ANDlove your neighbor as yourself,” down into bite-sized chunks. We are inclined to gather the content in our life that we deem “loveable” and strain out the that which we don’t.
I think I’ve done this unconsciously as much as consciously, as I’ve run up against rifts and division and hate that vie for my attention and heart, as much as our opportunities to love. As I do this, I succeed in augmenting where I see the image of God.
No longer is the image of God as readily found in my neighbor for example. The greatest commandment is now sliced up into short phrases. I “love my neighbor” over here in my week, I make time to love myself on this day of the week, “I love God” during this slice of my day—and it’s no longer this continuous, flowing expression of my life. The commandment has become disjointed in my lived experience.
This is why McLaren and Jesus’ age old call to love is not redundant. It is not elemental, but crucial and necessary. It is what our last few weeks of this series has hoped to call out, that to fully experience the love of God is to push against our tendency to disconnect the love of God from our lived life, and instead be reminded that love of neighbor, selfless love of self, and love of our environment are all one, and are the means to this great love. It’s a whole package deal—one that Jesus calls LIFE and perhaps what he meant when he said,
“I have come for you to have (and live), life – and have it abundantly”. Connected— to see the full stretch of my love—all throughout your lived life.
The challenge in this—and this is what I want to spend more time talking about today—is that we have to keep thinking about why this matters—why love matters. Love can become a word that loses it’s depth—it can fall into disrepair in our human landscape. We need to be deeply convinced at a feet-to-the-ground, face-to-face-neighbor level that love can be readily found in all of our spaces and offer healing and transformation to ourselves and the world.
Relying On Another’s Voice
Thinking is what will keep the love of Jesus expanding beyond the constraints of Sanctuary walls and church systems—preachers mouths and worship sets—and expanding into your much-lived places and much-filled heart, and beyond.
If we can enter into this studio of love (which I think is actually our lives), and train there, then I think we can see this as spiritual formation and growth in its purest and loveliest sense—not for our own measure, but for the measure and reforming and reshaping of the world and people around us in love. Aided by our great Christian tradition with prayer, scripture and spiritual practices, but powered by the life we actually live and experience, here and now.
A couple of years ago I made a tiny tweak in my life for a stretch of time. I stopped listening to podcasts and to some extent stopped reading any books/essays/articles/etc.
I was listening to a variety of podcasts on my way to work —mostly spiritual/faith-centric ones that offered a bunch of unique commentary/thoughts and viewpoints, of course, on a myriad of scripture and theology, and they were mostly great! But I found myself beginning to lean on these voices as a primary means of acquiring knowledge. *(Now there’s many, many ways I think it’s super helpful to integrate/compliment our own thinking with others viewpoints—it’s how we discover our blind-spots and expose our biases). But as a means to knowledge this road I was on started to X-out my own voice, my own thinking, and X-out the value of my lived experiences in life as content and knowledge.
I’d find myself in conversations or meetings saying, “well I heard so-and-so say this pithy thing on a podcast a few days ago.” Or I read this essay on “xyz theology.” And I couldn’t follow up with “and those thoughts relate to my life, in this way” or “that perspective makes me think about my neighborhood in this way.” So my words were more “statements of thoughts” just deposited in a space (but not really alive).
The detriment for me was that I had muted the convivial listening with the world and with Jesus, who I believe is always asking “Well Ivy, what do you think about that?” “why does it matter”? “Who does it affect?” And this is detrimental because “What do you think?” is an intimate question of Jesus to us, and one that is the authentic means to not only knowledge but to love.
And so I started reading poetry almost exclusively.
And after a stretch of time I bounced back, “I read again!” And I had a more refined picture that everyone and everything I encounter on this Earth is an opportunity to love God more. And that what I think of all these experiences only electrifies that love of God.
I was reminded of that season recently as I was riding in a car with a long-time friend over Christmas this year. She was talking about her own journey in her faith community, excited about the idea of forming a “women’s ministry” – and hanging in the air around the conversation was perhaps the (unspoken), larger question of just what a woman’s role in the church should be. Her faith community currently has no women on the Board, as deacons or as preachers. And it was interesting because, our conversation bounced from what her white, male Pastor thought about women in leadership, to the reality that there are a lack of women mentor’s in the community, to the seminary books that she was hearkening back to, that offered her interesting thoughts and truths to wade into her internal process of just what is a woman’s rightful place.
It was clear to me that the question, “What do you think?”, was not a comfortable question. External knowledge found in books and other’s voices was more credible.
I wish I had asked her, “What is your lived experience as a woman?” What do you notice about women who are not given platforms for their voices to be heard? Why do you think there might not be women mentor’s in your community? What do women around you who are pastors (like me in this car, with you right. now.) think? What have they experienced? How have they wrestled with what scripture says?
“What do you think?” is a bold and direct question—slices right to the heart, if we let it, as much as the head. And if we frame it as a question that helps us lift our head and look around and engage with the life next to us, it becomes not a question that rests on a separate doctrine or theology (where we might think only Jesus is found), but becomes a generative question that is born and explored from exactly where you stand – and where lo’ and behold Jesus is too.
Conceptual and Relational Belief
The interesting thing about what we think – is that it can quickly be tied into systems of belief… that can take on a life of it’s own – as well as take on our thoughts as no longer produced out of lived experience, but taken on as an immovable creed or doctrine.
Here, I think it’s helpful to talk a little bit about conceptual and relational beliefs (Spiritual Migration, McLaren 216).
Brian McLaren says that conceptual beliefs are beliefs that are often easily expressed as statements or propositions, and when expressed in a sentence, are often right alongside the word that. My long-time friend in my previous story might say, “I believe that women can not be in church leadership.” Or “I believe that the headship of a church is only represented by the male gender.” Or “I believe that hell exists” or “I believe that miracles can happen” – etc… and it’s a stake, a claim that something is real, true or in existence.
In contrast, relational beliefs are often followed by the preposition in. And they are less statements and more birthed out of a personal authenticity—lived experience that offers a confidence and sense of loyalty which permits thoughts like, “I believe in you,” “i believe in scripture,” “I believe in peace,” “I believe in my kids,” etc.
It can get complicated pretty quickly—religion or churches for example often demand statements of conceptual belief as proof of loyalty or belonging. And furthermore might offer rewards or punishments based on conceptual beliefs (acceptance or rejection—honor or shame—employment or unemployment—life or death, heaven or hell) .
This gets us into the territory of replacing conceptual beliefs as a construct over our own thinking caps. Placing a thin, invisible barrier in our minds between the beauty and the goodness and the value of the world around us, and constricting our own experience of God’s love.
Relational beliefs allow for this question, “What do you think?” In fact to some degree they are built on this, and therefore the freedom and the health that this affords an individual and a congregation if we are talking along systemic lines allow for a foundation of LOVE. It allows us to stay in the car together and see the passenger next to us, sort of speak!
Without freedom of thought, we offer and experience only an impoverished love.
Jesus invites us to love. And much of his ministry is spent trying to expand the systems of his day – beyond the conceptual beliefs that so many of the religious experts of his day rest on. At one point he says to these religious experts – “How terrible it will be for you…. You give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith. You ought to give a tenth but without forgetting about those more important matters. 24 You blind guides! You filter out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24) Oh, how I love it when Jesus talks about gnats and camels!
Here maybe we can see the conceptual beliefs for these religious experts is to uphold the belief that one should give away a tenth of their belongings to God… but it comes at the expense of a relational belief in people! Where real issues of justice, peace and faith play out.
You can’t have conceptual beliefs and X-out all the relational beliefs and say you are truly “loving” God, lest we choke on our own…
Is love present? Is love felt? In a system that erases the eye for our world, what do you think? And how do we think in this vein if we don’t engage an active, living posture to the world around us?
I think this is what Jesus keeps prompting us with – through all his provoking and quirky words, actions and relations, “Can we imagine a christianity of the future that gathers around something other than a list of conceptual beliefs?” (McLaren) – A question he posed to the religious leaders of his day – and one that he still poses to us now…
Let’s take a look at one of the most beautiful, obvious scriptures that is abundant in God’s love for us – and the world at large:
Scripture: Matthew 17:24 – 27 (NLV)
24 On their arrival in Capernaum, the tax collectors for the Temple tax came to Peter and asked him, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the Temple tax?”
25 “Of course he does,” Peter replied.
Then he went into the house to talk to Jesus about it.
But before he had a chance to speak, Jesus asked him,
“What do you think, Peter?
Do kings tax their own people or the foreigners they have conquered?”
26 “They tax the foreigners,” Peter replied.
“Well, then,” Jesus said, “the citizens are free! 27 However, we don’t want to offend them, so go down to the lake and throw in a line. Open the mouth of the first fish you catch, and you will find a coin. Take the coin and pay the tax for both of us.”
Right? Isn’t this your go-to scripture when you want to be reminded of God’s love for you? Hmmmm… taxes and fish and coins!
Let me tell you there are no pithy thoughts out on podcasts, or scholarly commentary about this coin in the fish mouth scripture.
The context here is that:
Peter has just come down from the mountain with Jesus, where he’s witnessed the transformation of Jesus. He watched as Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes turn white – and a voice from God, booming from the clouds said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him” (Peter fell on his face in awe)
It’s a pinnacle moment—confirming his loving relationship to Jesus, the human who he’s walked alongside, and linking it to the mysterious love of God.
It’s a moment for Peter, that maybe is akin to one of your more potent spiritual moments in life—where you have felt as though you are on a mountain top, so close to God and God so close to you, that that love and that experience feels almost unbelievable.
Only of course to be interrupted by the real facts of life—a phone call, a time constraint, someone tugging at you, needing something from you, or, as in Peter’s case, a tax collector.
A tax collector asking for payment to the temple in Jerusalem that most Jewish men are meant to pay for its’ upkeep.
This moment of intimacy and love of God, felt by Peter on the mountain top, likely dissipates pretty quickly.
And we see here in these verses, I believe the dynamic again of conceptual belief and relational belief on the table – with the question at hand – should Jesus and his followers have to pay this tax?
Peter’s impulsive answer is “Yes – of course my teacher pays the tax”. “I believe that all Jewish men should pay the temple tax”.
An answer that Jesus doesn’t seem to disagree with ……. but what follows in the text, I believe is a deeply powerful move, that demonstrates Jesus’ love and value of each of us – to keep THINKING. To keep thinking about the conceptual beliefs that we impulsively answer to …. And to also hold, to not overlook or x-out, the relational wonder-land of Jesus’ love in front of us….
“What do you think, Peter?” It’s an invitation I believe that is going to help Peter see that the mountaintop experience, is available in all his settings – even the most mundane and annoying.
Everyday Sacred Spaces
And the same is true for us.
At the end of the summer, I was watering in an Outdoor Classroom that I teach in – at our local school. And I was feeling mostly tired, hot and annoyed – and I was in a rush to get to an appointment. And of course out of the corner of my eye I could see an older woman, likely in her 70s, coming toward me. I tried very, very hard – in my most loving posture – to not make eye contact with her… She was pretty determined thought to get my get my attention, “Excuse me – can you help me? Excuse me! Can you help me, please?” (insert internal groan)…
I turned and saw that she was carrying a large piece of a lawnmower in her hands. As she’s walking toward me, she’s explaining that she’s trying to get the grass collection bag over the handles, but can’t quite muster the strength. <insert another internal groan>… We wrestled for the next few minutes to get the piece connected and in that short, divine window I gained a more expansive view of who God is and where God’s love can be discovered. I learned about her life, her grown kids (who 35 years ago went to this very same elementary school), how her hands use to be so much stronger, how she mows her lawn every week, how she loves watching kids walk by her house to school, how the guy on the phone from the hardware store gave her a pro-tip, a short-cut to getting this bag on the handles, which was to “turn the lawnmower bag inside out to swiftly get it on” (ummm….. great!).
If GOD’S LOVE, at its core is about connection of all things (neighbor, self, earth) – that this is what allows for our sense of belonging….then my hope is that the intersectionality of where I encounter God and where I encounter people is all the content and all the knowledge, that I need for an experience of God’s love. We are yearning and eager to be seen and known and included. And – as we keep thinking – I believe we are quick to sniff out spaces that offer a system only of conceptual beliefs.
About mid-way through my assembly of this lawnmower with this 70-year old woman, I noticed that we were putting the grass bag on completely wrong (despite the hardware store dude’s advice on the phone). But I didn’t want to stop the process and correct it. I wanted to follow this error all the way through, until we both realized it together and had to re-calibrate and start the process all over again together. I wanted more time to laugh at us struggling to make sense of the plastic snaps, and more time to hear the grunts and groans as we tugged and pulled, and more time to watch our hands together – strong and weak, old and young(ish) – create something together, even though in the end it was completely nonfunctional. I realize again and again in moments like these – on sidewalks, lawnmowers in hand, in the most inconvenient moments of life – that I can find a living, breathing sanctuary in the form of another human being, in the midst of the most expansive sanctuary – our Earth, and this is where I find – I want to keep thinking – where I go for knowledge… in these everyday, sacred spaces.
Paidrag O’ Tuama, an Irish poet says that “belonging creates and undoes us both”. …likely follows I think the same sentiment of love…. It creates and undoes us both.
Jesus wants Peter to be undone by his love… in all of life.
Peter’s quick reply to the tax collector, might have signaled to Jesus that the tendency of his thinking might veer more conceptual than relational and that a mountain-top experience could be compartmentalized in Peter’s mind as a distinct experience, under special circumstances.
It seems by Jesus’ next move, that a conceptual God is not the image that Jesus is interested in putting out in the world.
Not only does Jesus ask Peter this most loving question, “What do you think?” as a way to bridge the conceptual and the relational systems.
He then guides him a bit in how to get to thinking…, “GO OUT”, he says. “Go to the lake, go to the shore – go fishing”. A place Peter, as a fisherman knew incredibly well.
The places we know so well where we work, live and play, it seems, are teaming with not only God’s deep love, but also miracles.
Ok—let me jump to one other personal story and then circle back to flush out why I think the miracle of Peter finding the exact tax needed for both him and Jesus – in the coin in the fish’s mouth is one of the most understated miracles.
Surprised By Humanity
Swim meets are interesting events. You sit in a very, very moist and warm environment – very, very, very close to other human beings for many, many hours. You watch your own swimmer, maybe swim for a combined time in all their races, of 48 seconds. 🙂
It’s a pretty solitary experience as a spectator though – most people have their own racer they are waiting to watch and otherwise mostly disengaged for the majority of the time. Inevitably though there is a moment in a swim season – where a swimmer gets put in the wrong race, or a swimmer’s goggles fall off on the start, or for whatever reason hasn’t been trained well for the race they are in … and the result is often that this swimmer, is far, far behind the rest of the heat.
What I’ve noticed in these moments, is that somehow the collective attention of the entire arena becomes stilled and hushed, as people notice this lagging swimmer.
It’s not just the stillness in my experience… it’s then the eruptive cheering, clapping and screaming that is explosive in the space – that has pulled people’s attention out of their books or knitting.
We have NO idea who’s kid this is – or what team they are swimming for… and it doesn’t matter! Your sweaty shoulders – and this person’s sweaty shoulders – are leaping from our seats – CHEERING this kid on to their finish.. Like they have just won the Olympics.
Everyone becomes awake and alive again to what is infront of them! And I look around and think “i’m not crying – you’re are crying”.. .and then I look around and I see – “oh jeez, you are crying”… “and you are crying, too”! Etc…
What is this? What is this sensation of being swept off of my feet into goodness and beauty with 100’s of strangers, in unassuming spots and being surprised by humanity?”
Jesus I think says – “oh yeah, that’s the treasure… that’s the coin/treasure in the mouth of your EVERYDAY fishing zones”.
As we THINK, As we become awake with our hearts, and minds and souls – with lived experience as our data and content…. We start to perform the miracles of today…. BECAUSE we transform ourselves and the way we see and engage with the world around us… that it can not be merely just a place to inhabit, but instead the world around us is this living sanctuary, breathing and pulsing with Jesus’ deep love.
Sanctuaries free of walls – FULL of GOd’s love – found on pool decks and in gardens and at desks and hospital rooms, and found through the human sanctuaries in our midst at every turn.
Here disconnection and judgement crumbles.
And these ways of thinking about and experiencing God – don’t come with a risk of compromising Jesus or Scripture… It doesn’t suggest that we need to have a wholesale rejection and replacement of any prior system. Each new discovery of God – “includes or integrates its antecedents, even as it transcends or expands beyond them. When Moses is given the Ten Commandments, he doesn’t say that Abraham’s religion was wrong because he didn’t have them. And when Solomon builds an elaborate temple of stone he doesn’t say Moses’s religion was wrong b/c he only had a tent of cloth…and so on is the pattern throughout scripture… which suggests that religion should expand, evolve and learn and grow… the same is true with Jesus – right? He came not to eradicate the law – but to fulfill what came before him “ (p. 103).
God’s love takes care of all that, as we see it in its expanse—it creates and undoes at the same time.
Jesus, I believe sends Peter out to fish.. To show just this – that Jesus can still operate within the constrains of everyday life, taxation included – and with conceptual beliefs present… But his love and intimacy expands beyond systems, won’t be threatened by law – and is EVER-EXPANDED as we think, move and live our lives.
HOW DO WE DO THIS? How do we keep thinking? How do we know if we’ve stalled? Or are caught up in compliant responses?
Peter gives us the shining hint….in his move right after he answers the tax collector….as compliant and impulsive as it is – … it seems he has this relational twinge within himself.. And it says he “went into the house to talk to Jesus about it”.
That’s the bridge right there… that’s the lightning moment “Jesus I have to talk with you about something”.. IT KEEPS US CONNECTED TO THE SOURCE OF ALL LIFE.
And likely, most times he’s going to say “What do you think?”, and point us right back to our very life – but boy, oh boy, you better be ready for a miracle in the middle of it…
After these two stories I just told, it could be easy to walk away and say “wow, that was a sweet moment, with a sweet older woman – I’m so moved, I’m so grateful”. “Wow, what an incredible collective response in an ordinary setting, a swim race”. And call it a day. Maybe share it with a friend or two.
OR I could walk away from those ordinary encounters (that by the way are abundant in their opportunities)… and say “HOLY JESUS”! “HOLY, HOLY LOVE of JESUS”!
And that’s the coin in the fishes mouth, my friends – THAT”S the miracle of today. Truly.
To think – to talk to Jesus about it – and to see THAT JESUS LOVE IS IMMERSED IN EVERY. EVERY think we touch – -the earth, the people, ..
This lawnmower woman undid me. The pool moment undid me.
All of our moments have the Jesus potential to create and undo – it’s His specialty, I believe. He invites us again and again, “what do you think?-IT IS THE underlying QUESTION OF LIVING”. Roam around in that question my friends… feel joy… feel strength, feel perplexed, feel awkward, feel connectedness… feel time sharpen and slow….. But above all be prepared to FEEL Peter’s mountaintop experience of God’s love.
“What do you think?” It’s a blunt question – one that doesn’t beg for devotion, but one that drives straight to the heart……. To your true self, a question that demands authenticity. It’s a question, that I wish my friend could have asked me in the car. “Ivy what do you think about the role of women in the church?”
Maybe we could have discovered the treasure//the miracle in the midst of us.. The bridging of our conceptual and relational viewpoints..and see that Jesus is big enough to cover us both.
Maybe I might have answered, in concrete ways from my lived experience and maybe, I might have invited her to look at Scripture too, to see the Bible, not just as an “answer book”, but as a book that invites us to think and to explore the world around us – here and now.
A rich text that encourages us to deepen our moral imagination so that we can co-create a new future – in partnership with so many for this next generation! For the youth that are watching her move and think and live ….
As Jesus continues to teach us – may we strive hard to bombard this next generation with stories, parables, actions, invitations to think … of Jesus’ great powerful, mysterious and altogether wondrous love.
And may we implore our next generation to think from their own vantage points on the mighty words of Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
An Invitation to Whole-life Flourishing:
Ask yourself, “what do I think of that? What does that mean, and why does that matter?” as a regular practice of love; love of neighbor, self and God.
Spiritual Practice of the Week:
Practice the prayer, “here”.
“Here”. I’m here, God. You’re here. We are here together”.
Staying awake to God’s presence and love—which is above me, before me, behind me, beside me, beneath me and within me, as the old Celtic blessing puts it.