15 June 2023

Grace and peace, part two: windows of grace

Part one (last week's post) was my April sermon as guest speaker for Spokane Friends Meeting. In May, again hosted by Spokane Friends, I continued the theme of grace on Pentecost Sunday. Here's that sermon.

Among the questions we looked at last time was how, historically, the church has handled the extravagance of God’s grace, trying to figure out how to communicate this wonderful gift of God’s unmerited favor and blessing to a needy or skeptical audience, and maybe how to manage and filter it so that we might remain dependent on a hierarchy.

Today, I’d like to try to look at it from God’s point of view, if I dared. What I mean is, history tells us that we’ve had a hard time believing all that goodness is really ours. After all, my understanding of history as a political scientist is that it’s mainly a constant tug of war between the idealists and the cynics, and even I, idealist that I am, too often find myself looking at the scene around me and becoming a bit cynical. What does God have to do to reach us and open us up to that grace that represents God’s powerful love for all that God has created?

Fermilab's Don Lincoln on cosmic background 
microwave radiation. Screenshot from source.
Sabine Hossenfelder on uses of CMBR data for
testing the Standard Model of cosmology. Source.

When I came up with the subtitle to today’s message, “windows of grace,” I really had in mind an illustration from astronomy. Maybe you’ve all heard about the phenomenon known as cosmic microwave background radiation. It’s a form of radiation that pervades the whole universe. It even has a temperature…about two or three degrees above absolute zero. If you look at an old-fashioned analog television attached to an old-fashioned antenna, pre-cable and pre-Internet, and tuned it to an empty channel, you’d see and hear what we used to call “snow.” That static was mostly interference from nearby electromagnetic pollution, static from motors, even electrical noise from beyond our planet. but if we could filter out all interference, some tiny percentage of that snow would still be there, that cosmic microwave background. And it is a remnant, an all-pervasive souvenir from the moment our universe was created, 13.8 billion years ago.

I interpret that moment as God populating the universe with God’s beloved Creation. It grew and spread all that time to the present day, when we appeared among God’s beloved creatures, including each one of us sitting here today. Even as parts of that grand opening solidified into stars and planets and carbon and creatures, God’s burst of extravagant love continues to pervade every little corner of creation, whether we choose to receive and enjoy that universal godly energy, what I call grace, or not. We humans have our little conceits—our rules, tribes, borders, uniforms, hierarchies, conventions, prejudices—but grace is gloriously indifferent to all those filters. What matters in the universal ecology of grace is whether we choose to receive it and pass it on.

I don’t know whether that residual universal presence of cosmic microwaves, originating with the very first moment of Creation, are literally an echo of God or just some kind of side-effect. I can play with that image of the analog television set as a window of grace, but it’s really just a tiny bit of evidence. God has had far more effective ways to open grace up to us, and open us up to grace, and today’s holiday of Pentecost is one of my favorite examples.

Most of you have probably heard this Pentecost story many times, often captioned as the “birth of the church.” According to Luke in the book of Acts, at the time of the Jewish Pentecost, that is, the close of the season of Passover, lots of pilgrims of all sorts of backgrounds and languages were crowded into Jerusalem. From the place where the disciples of Jesus were meeting, marked with tongues of fire, these visitors heard the Good News being preached. Each member of the audience heard it in their own language. As Luke takes up the account…

Acts 2:12-18. Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!

No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days, God says,
     I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
     your young men will see visions,
     your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
     I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
     and they will prophesy.’”

The good news of God’s love cannot be blocked by ethnic or linguistic boundaries; God made a direct way to experience God’s power and to invite this audience into community with the followers of Jesus so that they could learn to live with this power. And hundreds were added to the community and inaugurated a movement that we participate in to this very day.

As the movement spread and organized itself, with the help of that new convert Paul, they continued to experience this power, but they wondered whether raw grace was sufficient to maintain an orderly community. Even Gentiles, with no history of participation in God’s people, whose men weren’t circumcised, were being touched by the Holy Spirit and experiencing this grace. The apostles gathered for a meeting for business, and James was the clerk. As Luke continues the narrative,

Acts 15:12-20. The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:

“‘After this I will return
     and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
     and I will restore it,
that the rest of [humanity] may seek the Lord,
     even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’—
     things known from long ago.’

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.”

And, apparently, those at the meeting for business all said “approved,” and the resulting minute was sent out.

I interpret this episode as affirmation that grace was sufficient, that a structure of rules from the original community need not be imposed on top of the work of grace. It’s hard enough for us hard-headed human beings to believe that grace is really true and available directly; let’s not get in grace’s way.

When James was summing up the sense of the meeting, he referred to a prophecy from the prophet Amos, which I’ll repeat in a modern English translation from the Septuagint, the version of the Hebrew Bible that those Greek speakers would have been familiar with:

Amos 9:11-12 [context]. In that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and will rebuild the ruins of it, and will set up the parts thereof that have been broken down, and will build it up as in the ancient days: that the remnant of men, and all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called, may earnestly seek me, says the Lord who does all these things.

Maybe you remember the context here: Amos has been reading the riot act to the people of Israel, particularly to the Northern Kingdom, accusing them of the same crimes of idolatry and oppression that he has seen in the surrounding Gentile nations, and saying that God demands the same purity and the same ethical standards of all of them, Israelites and Gentiles alike. He warns Israel that the woes that will fall on those Gentiles will also fall on them. You can’t mock God.

But, according to Amos, this is not God’s final word. When the Day of the Lord comes, using a phrase that would become an important phrase for George Fox and the early Quakers, God will restore the tabernacle of David for the sake of the remnant of both Israelites and Gentiles who earnestly seek God. There will be a shrine of hope, a window of grace, even after all the mischief we humans get up to in defiance of God’s demands for purity and justice.

Doesn’t this sound like a cycle we’ve been through before? Over this past couple of years as I’ve had these chances to speak with you, we’ve revisited the story of Noah and the flood, and God’s rainbow command for us to live bountifully; we’ve considered Moses and Pharaoh and Exodus, and God making a way for the oppressed, to the point where Moses says “Wouldn’t it be great if all God’s people were prophets?” We’ve considered Ezekiel’s litany, “Then they shall know that I am the LORD.” Over and over, we as individuals or whole nations enter seasons where it seems like we either forget the presence of grace for ourselves, or withhold the message from others. It’s important to say that God’s grace doesn’t come and go in cycles. It’s our capacity to receive it and pass it on that seems so variable.

The cycle didn’t end with the Bible, of course. Aside from all the other waves of war and peace, the church has had its own struggles keeping its channels of grace clear. And in one of those eras when doctrines and territory and tradecraft seemed more important than the purity and directness of grace, George Fox and Friends, among other reform movements, rose up to take our turn at restoring that simplicity and transparency.

Here’s a final story for this morning. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, icons are considered windows of grace, or windows into grace. But even here, we humans can get a little crosswise with God’s ways.

The great icon writer, Andrei Rublyov, created an icon back in the early 1400’s, popularly called The Trinity, also known as The Hospitality of Abraham. For over three centuries, this icon was part of the iconostasis, or screen separating the main hall of the church from the area around the altar, at the Trinity Cathedral in Sergiev Posad, not far from Moscow.

This icon was deeply respected because it was closely associated with Andrei Rublyov himself, and because of its location at this important center of Orthodoxy, but for most of the years at the cathedral it was nearly covered with a metal mask that showed only the faces of the Holy Three, and it was not associated with any miracles. Traditionally, all consecrated icons are equal, in that all serve as windows of grace, but in Soviet times Rublyov’s Trinity gradually became regarded as a high point in Russian art and became enmeshed in what we sometimes call civil religion.

The icon's fragile condition required constant monitoring and ideal conditions of air purity and humidity, and because of this it has been kept in a special chamber at the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow for most of the last hundred years, and Judy and I have visited it on many occasions. Occasionally it has been allowed to make guest appearances, but only over the strong protests of conservators. So about two weeks ago Vladimir Putin ordered that the icon be returned to the Orthodox Church. After a time of display at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, it will be re-installed at Sergiev Posad.

According to much of the commentary I’ve read about this decision, this is not an assertion of grace, but of power, particularly in the context of the war in Ukraine. Every indication is that Vladimir Putin wants to go down in history as the gatherer and restorer of the Russian World in Capital Letters, and he has appropriated this symbol of faith on behalf of his campaign, even as Orthodox believers are bombing and shooting at other Orthodox believers. There is no theological support for moving this icon to its earlier home, because a consecrated copy of the icon is already at Sergiev Posad, and a consecrated copy is supposed to be equal in value to the original. Wherever the icon is located, its own message cannot be changed by a politician’s will: it is a window into the life of the Holy Three, the Creator, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and so are all those other windows God has provided us to see and receive grace.

By telling this rather sour story of an attempt to control a channel of grace, I’m not encouraging us to feel totally superior to Putin and the Kremlin. Here in the USA, Christian nationalism is yet another way some of us apparently would like to obscure the universal reach of God’s grace. How shall we respond?

Although I’m a bit cynical about moving icons about in a display of power, I’m not the least cynical about icons themselves. There’s a miniature of the Trinity icon right here behind me as I speak to you, and here’s a very simple icon that I brought back from the Soviet Union in 1975. Jesus looks straight at us, holding open the Gospel to his words, “I give you a new commandment, to love one another.”

When we understand that God’s grace is for each of us, then each of us can become transparent windows of grace, icons on legs, challenging every every idolatry, injustice, prejudice, conceit that holds us and our beloved neighbors in bondage. Let’s make our church, our community, a laboratory and incubator and beacon of grace.

(Part three.)

As I re-read that last paragraph from the sermon, I want to remind all of us that we're not all equally ready to be "icons on legs" all of the time. As I said in part one, sometimes we need to take turns holding each other in grace. And that's not even taking into account that the "on legs" metaphor obscures the reality that not all of us have the use of both legs. In any case, the most constant evidence I have for the very existence of grace is not static on a television, nor a compelling image on wood, but the love and care of my global church family.

@elenakrumgolde There are news that the unique house-museum of Pelageya (Polina) Rayko is under water now because Kahovka Dam was destroyed. This war is killing not only people and animals, but also unique art. Polina Rayko (1928 - 2004) was Ukrainian naïve painter who started painting her property at the age of 69. Her home is a national cultural monument of Ukraine. 💔 Поліна Андріївна Райко (1928 - 2004) — українська художниця-самоучка в жанрі наївного мистецтва. Не маючи художньої освіти, у 69-річному віці почала малювати. Образна система мисткині поєднувала християнську, радянську та язичницьку символіки. Розписала власний будинок, літню кухню, хвіртки, паркани і гаражні ворота, використовуючи найпростіші та найдешевші фарби — емаль ПФ, де відтворила власну біографію, свою родину, домашніх тварин, картини природи. На фарби і пензлі витрачала майже всю мізерну пенсію. Будинок Поліни Райко охороняється Законом України «Про охорону культурної спадщини». Цінність її творчості підтверджена багатьма як українськими, так і іноземними експертами. Творчість народної художниці ставлять в один ряд з мистецтвом Марії Примаченко та Катерини Білокур. #folkdesign #folkart #artbrut #naiveart #stopwar #oleshki #ukraine🇺🇦 #kahovkadam #kakhovka #kahovka #stopwar ♬ You Are Holy - Josué Novais Piano Worship

Thanks to the destruction of the Kakhovka dam in Ukraine, the extraordinary house-museum of Polina Rayko is underwater. I found out about this possible loss of an artistic treasure from a Tiktok video by Elena Krumgolde. A Guardian news article gives additional details.

Here is the first post in Beth Felker Jones's new series on "Reframing Paul on Sexual Ethics." (And she's just posted part two.)

A conversation on humble, transformative accompaniment. ('But it's incredibly tempting to say “no, this is the right way to do Quaker” and import all that cultural stuff.')

Greg Morgan: a chaplain witnesses "A Mother's Longing." My own interpretation of this blog post: the conversation he describes is a window of grace.

In a message given at Durham Friends Meeting in Maine, Doug Bennett asks, "Why are we here? And why so few?"

Why are we here at Meeting? I’ve found myself wondering. And if it seems so important that we’re here, why are there so few of us? Even more I’ve been wondering that too. Are we special? What do others know that lead them to make other choices on Sunday mornings? What are we missing that those others get? Or what are they missing?

Mark Russ on Celtic spirituality and "whiteness."

There are many positive things to be gained from an exploration of Celtic spirituality. However, as a PhD student researching theology and race, I have some observations and questions about the whiteness of Celtic spirituality to wrestle with if it is going to form a part of my faith journey.

The late Tina Turner and her post-Ike performance of "A Fool in Love."

On the screens behind Tina Turner you can see glimpses of the Shindig version of this song performed in 1964.

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