Being Living Vessels for God

When your eyes are tired / the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone / no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark / where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure / you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb / tonight.
The night will give you a horizon / further than you can see.
You must learn one thing. / The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds / except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.

        —“Sweet Darkness”  by David Whyte

Inevitably, each of us faces ups and downs in our lives.  There are times when we may feel like we are on top of world.  We see blessings everywhere we look. The world seems drenched in light and love and possibility.  And then there are times when it’s hard to see beyond the pain of this very moment.  The world feels weighted and heavy—like our own hearts.  And it’s hard to move one foot in front of the other for fear or anxiety or stress.  We all face these times.  And these feelings are mirrored in the liturgical seasons of Epiphany and Lent.  Epiphany brings us the dazzling light of awakening and recognition of the Divine all around us.  And Lent sends us wandering in the wilderness of uncertainty and painful confusion.

But more than uncertainty and confusion, Lent is meant to prepare us.  As we wrestle with our own questions, insecurities, and doubts, it is a season that seeks to strengthen us, reassure us, and teach us what it means to live in God’s abiding presence and how to become living vessels for God.  In a world where there is so much heartache, Lent sends us on a journey toward joy and purpose.

As we gather together during this Lenten season, we will explore the theme Living Vessels for God.  We will talk about what brings us alive.  And we will imagine together what Living Vessels for God might mean and look like.  I certainly look forward to spending this time with you.

See you in church,

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

From Johan 3:1-10

We have all been influenced—in one way or another—by another person of faith.  I would say there’s a good chance that is why you are sitting here this morning. . . .  Each one of our lives has been shaped by the light and goodwill and faith of another.  Big or small.  Over a long period of time or in a single moment.  I imagine, we can each name a person and a lesson that person taught us that continues to give our lives deeper meaning and purpose. 
Am I right?  Alright.  Well, that’s the sermon for this morning. . . .
Laity Sunday is a time when we specifically recognize and acknowledge the ministry of all people in our congregations.  We celebrate the priesthood of all believers.  We lift up and commend the faithful work of lay people—people who have vocations other than ministry but perform ministry nevertheless! . . .
It is the common work we share—as clergy and laity—that has the potential to make a difference in our world.  None of us can do it alone. 

But together, we have the potential to move mountains . . . to restore the ozone, to extend justice to all God’s children, to beat all swords into plowshares. 
In other words, we have the potential to be prophets of a new future—not a future with the same old staleness of the tired and oppressive status quo, but a future in which truly, all things can be made new.
“We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. . . .  We plant the seeds that one day will grow.  We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.  We lay foundations that will need further development.  We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. . . .  We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.  We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.  We are prophets of a future not our own.” 
Like the prophets of old—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah—we are prophets of a future not our own—as Romero reminds us.  Our responsibility is bigger than us.  It is much greater than anything we can achieve for ourselves.  It transcends us, surpasses us, outlives us. . . . 
This church, for example.  Over a hundred years ago, faithful people laid the foundations for this church here in Vallejo.  They sensed a need and hoped to fill it.  But even they did not—could not—hold the entire vision.  They were called to set a ministry in motion, and they did.  We are called to continue and increase this ministry’s momentum and then, to entrust it to those who will follow us.  The future certainly matters to us.  We are concerned, and we care.  And we chart a course, and live into it with love.  But we are prophets of a future not our own.
Jonah was, too.  And he didn’t like that much.  You remember the story of Jonah.  Reluctant prophet.  Belly of the whale.  Goes where God sends him—to the hated Assyrians living in that stronghold of world power, the arrogant Assyrian superpower Nineveh.  And as God told him to do, Jonah cries out against Nineveh.  The city is doomed.  The people there have been found guilty of the sin of violence, and God is going to destroy the entire city and its inhabitants. His message does not invite any particular response from the inhabitants of Nineveh.  It is presented as a done deal.  There is no reason to expect that there is any possibility of escape for Nineveh.  At least that is the way Jonah sees it.  Nineveh is set to be destroyed.

But Jonah is a prophet of a future not his own.

The king of Nineveh and his people see the situation differently.  Perhaps necessity breeds innovation. . . .  They are daring, imaginative, and inventive in moving beyond the prophetic word Jonah delivers, and they respond with powerful expressions of repentance.  Here, the people of Nineveh come to terms with the deepest and most meaningful purposes of God.  And they believe God.  They repent of their violence and publicly display their remorse.  It was not asked or required of them. They just did it.

The king is unwilling to accept the threatening message of destruction as God’s last word, and perhaps in desperation, proposes a daring alternative theological possibility:  “Who knows?  God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”  The king of Nineveh places his hope in the possibility that human action can impinge on God and cause God to relent, change, turn away from anger, and alter the terrible decree of destruction.  This proposal presents a God that is not a closed principle of fate, an uncaring tyrant, an unmalleable, unreachable automaton.  Instead, here is a God that is living, impressionable, still creating, co-creating with us, who exercises the freedom to change and repent and create something new.

And indeed, this living, impressionable, co-creating God responds graciously to the people of Nineveh.  The people repent.  And God repents.  The city is spared.  Jonah, of course, is frustrated and angry that God did not carry out God’s side of the bargain, and his work seemed to be in vain.  But none of the work of ministry is “judgment according to us”. . . .  We are prophets of a future not our own.

God’s coming into the world may feel disruptive to our comfortable ordering of things.  There is a reorientation of life that is required—occupational, economic, and social.  We are asked to do things differently and to re-prioritize, to re-imagine and to see things more clearly.  There are more possibilities than we might have ever thought.  Even the hated Nineveh can learn to live differently.  All things can be made new.  Social relations can be reordered.  Public power can be put to use for the common good.  Violence can be quelled.  Peace and justice can find a strong foothold.  If Nineveh can do it, surely we can, too.  We are prophets of a future not our own.

On January 15, just a little over a week ago, The African American Presidents and Deans of Theological Schools in the United States issued an Open Letter and Call to Action to all Presidents and Deans of Theological School in the United States in light of the current state of social justice in the United States.  It is relevant to us for a number of reasons:  These are presidents and deans of schools that provide leadership for our churches; Charisse Gillette—LTS; elders are having ongoing conversation about race and justice and how our church can live into its calling to be an anti-racist, pro-reconciling church. . . . We are prophets of a future not our own.

“From a manger in Bethlehem, a Bantustan in Soweto, a bus in Montgomery, a freedom Summer in Mississippi, a bridge in Selma, a street in Ferguson, a doorway and shots fired in Detroit, a Moral Monday in Raleigh, an assault in an elevator in Atlantic City, an office building in Colorado Springs, a market in Paris, a wall in Palestine, a pilgrimage to the shrine of Rincon and a restoration of ties between Cuba and the United States on December 17th, the kidnapping and assault of young school-aged girls and the reported killing of 2000 women, children and men in Nigeria, a new generation of dream defenders, a transgender teen's suicide note, to our abuse of the environment—God sends a sign—a Kairos moment.  The racial climate in the United States, and the respect for our common humanity everywhere, is clearly in decline.

“How can Americans acquiesce, remain silent, passive and neutral as African-American men and women are slain in the streets of Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and beyond?

“How can people of conscience be still when African-Americans quake with fear to walk without harm in their own cities and towns? How can we remain docile when leaders of our nation, especially the United States Congress abdicate their civic and moral responsibility to set a tone of civility and humanity?

“How can we abide a justice system, which is neither blind nor equitable? How can we suffer a justice system that victimizes African Americans and Latinos by jailing them disproportionately?

“How can we sit idly by while our children are slaughtered in the streets without provocation?

“How can we as United States citizens claim that we are ‘created equal’ and that we are committed to ‘freedom and justice for all’ while injustice is rampant in the land?

“How can we continue with business as usual in our theological schools in the midst of so many egregious injustices?

“We believe that citizens of good conscience must arise and call our nation to assess and address the rising tide of injustice throughout our legal and criminal justice systems. There must be restraint to those who shoot, kill, and maim innocent young men and women in the streets of our nation. And so . . .

“We call upon the leaders of our nation to reaffirm the founding principles of this nation: liberty and justice for all.

“We call on all freedom loving Americans to reaffirm a commitment to "the beloved community," where the freedom and rights of all are respected and protected.

“We call on the United States Congress to set a civil and moral tone in the way they respect our twice-elected president.

“We call on leaders on the national and local levels to join citizens of good will to reject practices, legal and adjure, which mar the American dream of liberty and justice for all.

“We call on our churches and every house of faith to challenge their members and communities to live out an inclusive commitment to love God, self, the neighbor-enemy, and creation across any and all boundaries that would dehumanize, alienate, and separate.

“We call on all Americans of good conscience who gather across the country to speak out for liberty and justice for all... always.

“We invite our colleagues to arise from the embers of silence and speak up and speak out as the prophet of old, "let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream" (Amos 5:24).”

This letter is prophetic and challenging.   It calls us to repentance and action.  It calls us to lay groundwork for a new future—not a future with the same old staleness of the tired and oppressive status quo, but a future in which, truly, all things can be made new.  As we move boldly toward this new future, what will our ministry look like?  How will we shape it?  How will it matter? What is the future we want to lay the groundwork for?  What kind of church—what kind of beacon of light—do we want to create and pass along to this community?  After all, we are all ministers.  We are part of the priesthood of all believers.  And we are prophets of a future not our own.