Living waters

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —

Once upon a time there were two young fish swimming along together in the ocean. They passed an older fish who called out to them, “How’s the water, boys?” The two young fish kept swimming and looked at each other. “Huh?” said one of them. And the other one replied, “What the heck is WATER?”

Water is all around us every day, it’s all inside of us…it’s easy to become unaware of water. To take it for granted. That’s one reason we celebrate water from so many different places today, gathered together in this big baptismal bowl.

But back when we were little tiny babies inside our mothers, our first sensations were of the floating in the water of her womb. We heard the watery whoosh of her heartbeat. The gurgle of her tummy after she ate her dinner. As we grow, our body continues to be mostly water. Even our brain is 80% water and rests in a watery cushion that protects it from getting jostled around too much inside our skull. Our planet Earth is covered with a lot of water, so much so we should probably call it Planet Water instead of Planet Earth! Astronauts have looked back at Earth from space and told us it looks like a blue marble hanging in the sky. And scientists tell us that a long time ago, our ancestors actually lived and breathed in the water….Only recently, 375 million years ago, did they evolve and grow arms and legs and were able to crawl up on dry land.

When Jesus walked around on Earth, about 2,000 years ago, he showed up in a place that didn’t have a lot of water. It is different than Minnesota; in the Middle East they don’t have 10,000 lakes like we do, and rivers and streams that flow big and wide through every season. The land where Jesus lived is dry and deserty. During his time, water was mostly found in springs that came up out of the ground, wells that people would dig—the water was mostly underground. People would save it in cisterns and big stone jars. But the tastiest, freshest water was water that was moving, flowing, which they all called “living water.” Did you notice in the Bible passage that Jesus talks about “living water?” “Out of the believer’s heart will flow streams of living water.” That sounds kind of strange. What can this mean?

Jesus said this about himself in the middle of a big festival at the Temple in Jerusalem. It was a celebration of the fall harvest of fruits and vegetables, and people came from all around to go to the Temple and thank God. They would remember how God provided for them, both food and water, when they fled slavery in Egypt and wandered for years in the desert before finally arriving at their new home in Israel. Musicians, people singing, processions with flaming torches. Very exciting. The Temple priests, their ministers, would go to a special pool of water in the city and fill big gold pitchers with fresh water. They would bring these back into the Temple and pour them into huge silver bowls, saying prayers thanking God for the water that brought the harvest, and asking that God’s spirit would pour down on them. In the middle of all this worship hoopla and commotion, Jesus cries out: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink!” Huh? What did he say? Isn’t that the preacher guy from Nazareth?” Jesus continued, “And out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water!” The work translated “heart” actually refers to a person’s belly, their gut. “Out of my follower’s gut, the seat of emotions in our Jewish culture,” Jesus is saying, “will flow rivers of living water!” What on earth could this mean?

I’ve been reading a neat book recently written by a marine biologist named Wallace Nicols, and it is all about water. He is famous for helping revive sea turtle populations down in western Mexico. But more recently he has been talking to brain scientists about how being around water affects how our brain works and how we feel. He calls his book “Blue Mind.” The author says that often we run around with our brain all fired up with stress. All these chemicals called hormones get released in us and we are ready to fight or run away. Just like our ancestors long ago when faced with a mountain lion! The author calls this our Red Mind. When our brain acts that way it can help us get out of immediate danger. But let’s face it, most of the time we’re not stressed about a mountain line. We’re stressed about traffic or a church argument or our jobs or difficult homework or our pesky little brother. The problem with being in Red Brain Mode is that it can get pretty exhausting and we often don’t make good decisions about what to do next.

The author says we need a lot of time in Blue Brain mode, and water is just the thing to help us. Jesus spoke of himself as “living water” – what is the connection here? It seems that part of how our brains have developed over the years to solve big problems and be really creative has been because of our contact with water. And that water may be the most important thing in nature that helps us stay connected to the natural world. Water has long been a symbol in many world religions for a source of blessing, for the presence of the divine. Jesus seemed to understand this intuitively, and he uses this festival ritual of pouring water on the altar as an opportunity to talk about God’s presence pouring into us…and pouring out to others.

Water can sometimes be scary—crashing wave knocks you over, pool water goes up your nose. The waters of a flood or storm can be dangerous. But brain scientists are reminding us that we need a number of things from water besides drinking it: Why is the ocean so beautiful to look at on a sunny day? We need to see the color blue of water because they have found looking at blue soothes us and inspires confidence. Why do I sleep better if I hear a river rushing over rocks or the sounds of waves crashing on the shore? We need to hear water as it moves rhythmically, because this moves our brain into a relaxed state. Watching fish swim in an aquarium or fish bowl, watching sunlight dance on top of the water or along the bottom of a pool….Brain scientists say all of these experiences rest us, calm us, bring us an increase in our happiness and sense of well-being. I don’t know about you, but I make much better decisions when I feel rested and calm. If I’m paying attention, I also feel more open to God, not as tight and well defended as I struggle on my own to fix my life and those around me!

Jesus said that “out of the believer’s heart will flow streams of living water.”  He said out of your heart, your gut, the center of your being, will flow positive emotions and sustained attention. Maybe he meant if we lean into our partnership with him and his teachings, amazing things will flow into us and out of us. Love, respect, peacefulness. All the things our world needs more of.

Being near water, touching water, being in water is something most of do every day. How might we be more intentional about these connections? Indians from the Yakima Nation in Washington State live along the Columbia River, and have long known the power of water in their lives. When they wake up they take a sip of water. When they go to sleep at night that is that last thing they do: take another sip of water and say of prayer of thanks for this gift.

I have started to do this simple practice, morning and night. I take a sip of water and thank God for water. I imagine God pouring the spirit of the living Jesus Christ into my own heart center, and I imagine that living water flowing out in love and compassion to others. A small sip here. A small sip there. Maybe you would like to try that as a daily practice with spiritual intent. What other simple water rituals might become part of something you do each day and affirm the presence of this “living water” of God’s spirit in your life? Are there paintings or photographs on your walls at home of water, the ocean, lakes or rivers? Bless yourself with water as you wash in the morning or before bed. Turn on the tap and feel the rush over your hands. Imagine God’s loving spirit pouring living waters into your heart, you pouring living waters of hope and love out to others.

Out of our hearts, out of our very centers, shall flow rivers of living water! May it be so. Amen.

Considering scripture’s promises

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —

We had a major collision on our streets yesterday, right here in our own Falcon Heights backyard. As hundreds of people marched toward the Minnesota State Fair Grounds under the banner of Black Lives Matter, no vehicles were reported damaged and no one was physically harmed. But it was a collision nevertheless: a collision of expectations about a Saturday at the State Fair. Was it to be a day for accessible and happy visits to the beloved State Fair? Or was it an opportunity to call attention to painful realities that plague black communities, to raise awareness of race issues ranging from policing to alleged disparity at the Fair regarding minority vendors or patrons? Could it be a day for both? I would suggest that it was also a clash of experiences and histories about race, and of perspectives and opinions on where we are as a community when it comes to racial justice. As I read the Facebook postings about this event, both Friday night and through the day on Saturday, I wondered: How might all these expectations coexist in some inconvenient and discomforting way that might develop greater empathy, deeper conviction about fighting racial injustice? The Bible tells us God’s priority is with the poor and the oppressed; God’s plan for humankind is justice and peace. Were these priorities at odds yesterday? Where was God in all this, I have found myself asking.

I have come to realize that, all too often, I just don’t want my personal peace disturbed. I find I don’t want someone else to inconvenience my day with the facts about the tough realities that are happening outside of my immediate perceptions. Please don’t inconvenience me with your request for spare change, or with one of those cardboard signs asking for help! And for goodness sake, don’t stop traffic with another one of those 4.5 minute die-ins where everyone lies in the road in memory of the 4.5 hours that Michael Brown lay dead on the street in Ferguson! A part of me is reluctant to face that there have been more deaths since then of people of color in police custody or that systemic racism just isn’t going away. It is difficult it is to hear about all kinds of things these days, isn’t it? My imagination gets overloaded, exhausted; I get compassion fatigue. It’s difficult to hear about yet another Syrian refugee being interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio. Because it hurts to listen, I’m not sure how to respond, and I feel powerless and frustrated. And sometimes I begin to feel hopeless that God’s promises of a whole new world of justice and peace might be even possible. Was yesterday’s march on the Fairgrounds disorienting and irritating for some of us because it was yet another reminder of promises broken among us? Promises of peace, justice, equality and freedom for all?

In so many ways, we Christians are people of the “not yet.” Over and over we are challenged to lift up dreams and visions of God’s promises being fulfilled, in a world where they are not…yet. This is not easy when there is such rancor and divisiveness over how to fix what is wrong and hurtful in our communities. The vitriol and the death threats sent to the Facebook page of Black Lives Matter Twin Cities these last few days has been chilling. We claim we are people of the promises of God. Are we naïve or prescient when we speak of God’s promised actions? Are we stuck in wishful thinking or prophetic about a possible new world order?

Through the Sundays of August, our congregation has been exploring and testifying to ways God has touched our lives. We have used the different parts of the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, which is addressed to God and celebrates God’s deeds among us. It was written not as a creed to test faith, but as a testimony to our denomination’s founders’ experience of God. We have added these hangings each Sunday, lifting up the words in our midst. The Statement is included in the Falcon Heights Church Constitution as the basis of the “common purpose, faith and covenant” of this church. Today, we have reached the last portion, which is about the promises God has made to all who trust God. Promises described over and over in our holy scripture.

But who says these things are promised to us, we might ask. Written in the Bible? Well, excuse me….but so what? For many people the phrase “the Bible says so” just doesn’t carry the weight it once did. A passage like this one from the Book of Jeremiah, where the Hebrew prophet extols the wonder and beauty of God’s law, God’s holy word, sounds strange to us. The writer talks of finding God’s words and eating them! They become a joy to him and the delight of his heart. The Rev. Dr. Roger Shinn, who taught Christian social ethics at Union Theological Seminary, was part of the crafting of this Statement of Faith in the late 1950s. He wrote that it’s natural for us to “wonder how men and women of the Bible knew and verified God’s promises.” We want to be able to “trust but verify” a promise, as former President Reagan used to say to his negotiating partners in the Soviet Union. You and I have a post-Enlightenment, scientific perspective on things, and we want quantifiable, verifiable truth! But Roger Shinn challenges us: “Surely they (people in Biblical times) reflected upon their experience as intensely as we do on ours. But when they talked of God’s promises, they were less inhibited in their imagination than we….they took their visions and dreams more seriously than we.” (From the Rev. Michael W. Lowry, https://pastoralponderings.wordpress.com/tag/ucc-statement-of-faith/.)

Let’s read today’s portion of the Statement of Faith together, which is addressed to God, as printed on the front of our service bulletin. I invite you to try the words on as you read them, even if this isn’t your inclination or your faith tradition. See how they sound in your head as you speak the words; listen to the words flow around you as others speak. Let’s read together:

You promise to all who trust you
forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace,
courage in the struggle for justice and peace,
your presence in trial and rejoicing,
and eternal life in your realm which has no end.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you. Amen.

As we consider this portion, what’s your own understanding about trusting God? Does it mean you have to try really hard to literally believe each and every Bible story and teaching? But in this portion, the words are not, “You promise to all who believe in you.” It says trust. I find this helpful. Some days I’m not quite sure what I actually believe about Jesus’ resurrection, what happened, how or if. But I can tell you, I have come to trust the reality of resurrection in my life, in the life of others, in communities. I’m learning to trust in this idea of new life coming out of death; I lean into it. For me, it’s an act of leaning into the possibility of resurrection, of transformation, and not thinking a thought or forcing a belief about something that defies modern-day physics.

What’s your dream about forgiveness? Can you trust it as a process? What’s your hope about being loved and accepted in spite of your mistakes and the ways you have hurt people or stepped away from responsibility?  What’s your vision of God’s fullness of grace being extended to you… openly, steadily, quietly, powerfully?

Do you imagine, do you dream, of having more courage? What would that look like in your life? Do you yearn to better understand black experience in this country but feel confused and hopeless about where to start? As a white person grappling with my part in the struggle for racial justice and peace, I have to be accountable for my part in systemic racism. Since I heard that she spoke at the Annual Meeting of our Minnesota Conference of the UCC in June, I have wanted to read Jennifer Harvey’s book Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation. She is a young white American Baptist minister and professor of religion at Drake University in Iowa. I have a vision of reading that book with some of you, to continue the conversation on race that some of you started with me last winter. Do you share this vision? Shall we explore her work together?

Sometimes I really have to stretch my imagination to sense this biblical promise of God’s presence in trial and rejoicing that the Statement claims. I literally have to picture it in my mind’s eye, sense it in my body, speak it in my head. Biblical people were way better at this than most of us. As I soak in scripture I learn how to sense God’s presence better. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work,” we just read from the second letter to Timothy, 3:16. Myself, I long to be taught; I know I need some loving reproof. I hope to be more proficient and equipped to do good work on God’s behalf. I yearn to embrace eternal life in this moment, to live abundant life with each breath I take, and when breath leaves me in the mystery of death. I imagine you do, too.

I invite you to join me in stretching our imaginations this fall. Let’s dream some dreams and share our visions about the promises of God being fulfilled in our midst. Let’s read and talk together about our hopes for a more racially just society. Let’s imagine what our roles as followers of Jesus might be in making these promises come true.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you, O God. Amen.

Our call as church

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —

A big part of an interim period between settled pastors is reimagining “What are we doing here?” What’s the “why” behind being here at church in worship on a Sunday morning, when you could be communing with God in nature, mowing the lawn, reading the paper, sleeping in, getting a jump on your work week, or having a family brunch together? Today’s portion of the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith pulls us into the thick of this question, in this era when the institution of the church is rapidly changing. You might notice that the two scripture passages that were just read do not even mention the word “church.” This is not a word you hear coming out of Jesus’ mouth, as he stays focused on calling people to discipleship, a radical way of being in the world. “Spread the message and cast out demons….get on with it,” he tells his inner circle of followers. Spread the message about what? Cast out what?

The piece from the early missionary Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth doesn’t talk about “church” in this instance either. Instead, Paul rattles on about how they no longer regard other people from a “human point of view,” but now as being new creatures in Christ. They are to be part of a “ministry of reconciliation.”  Messaging, casting out evil, reconciling. But wait, what about the August food drive and the stewardship campaign and fall clean-up day and youth group mission projects and choir rehearsal and the September newsletter?  What is church to be about in the 21st century?

One of you handed me a local newspaper clipping during after-worship coffee hour last Sunday that has me wondering about the purpose of church. I looked down and read the by-line: “Want sustained happiness? Try religion” – a copy of a recent Washington Post article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey. When I first started hearing “happiness studies” and “positive psychology” research a decade or more ago, I felt a bit irritated. As a Christian, is it my life goal to be happy? Jesus spoke about coming so that people could have “abundant life.” I don’t think God particularly likes it when I am suffering, but is happiness God’s goal for me? Was it Jesus’ goal to be happy himself or make other people happy? While I have appreciated how much of this happiness research has identified particularly actions we can take in our lives to be more joy-filled, instead of just passively waiting for circumstances to make us happy, something always irked me a bit about the whole venture.

Since we are looking at the part of the UCC Statement of Faith that talks about the church this week, this particular newspaper clip about church involvement re-engaged me in this whole happiness debate. How does this idea of “going to church to be more happy” resonate with what our Statement of Faith actually says about being “called into the church?” The article described recent research by the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands. Researchers considered four areas of social participation that can lead to “sustained happiness.” Volunteering with a charity; taking educational classes; participating in a religious organization; participating in a political or community organization. Conclusion? “The secret to sustained happiness lies in participation in religion.” It didn’t specify which religion, or what “participation” might look like. Important to note also that this was a study of 9,000 Europeans over the age of 50. How might the results be different for the 20-40-somethings among us? For teenagers? Also interesting was the researchers’ finding that “benefits could be outweighed by other negative impacts of volunteering, such as stress.” Don’t we know it!  Sadly enough, participating and volunteering in the life of a church can be stressful, it can be hurtful, it can challenge rather than support your sense of connection with God. You have experienced this in this congregation, and we continue to be faced with unresolved hurts, resentments, frustrations, and lack of accountability… not just in recent events but going back decades. This is not unusual in congregations, but we are finding it is problematic to this church moving forward into the future God plans for you.

One final piece from this European research. The newspaper article concludes: “Researchers noted that it is unclear whether the benefits of participating in a religious organization are connected to being in the religious community, or to the faith itself.” These two aspects of being the church are closely intertwined: being part of a congregation and experiencing/believing/trusting the faith. But the researchers are on to something, and that distinction between the two might help us as we consider this fourth portion of the UCC Statement of Faith today about the church.

Let’s read this portion about the church together, as it is printed on the front page of your service bulletin. As I have for the last several Sundays, I urge you again to join in even if you are uncertain as to whether or not you actually agree with every piece of this. Hear yourself voice it; listen to the voices around you; try it on:

You call us into your church
to accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
to be your servants in the service of others,
to proclaim the gospel to all the world
and resist the powers of evil,
to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table,
to join him in his passion and victory.

Like the rest of the Statement, each section testifies to the deeds of God: from calling the world into being, to Jesus Christ sharing our common lot and conquering sin and death, to bestowing the Holy Spirit upon us. In this section, God is described as calling us. Calling us into something, the church, in order to… in order for us to do some things. This is the section where we become deed-doers. Where we become partners with this God, Eternal Spirit.

Anthony Robinson, the UCC minister and author who works with congregations in times of transition, has written about a shift in our deed-doing in church. In “What Has Theology Got to Do with It,” he describes how “the central challenge facing many congregations today is to shift their dominant paradigm from being cultures of membership to cultures of discipleship.” Churches have come to reflect a wider culture that encourages us to be consumers of goods and services. Church decisions are driven by individual preferences, and for some people, if they don’t like what’s going on, they withhold giving or simply disappear. Robinson states that the point of church is not membership, but discipleship. “The church exists to form and sustain individuals and a people who are followers of Jesus Christ…the church does more than meets customers’ needs…the church redefines our true needs…the church transforms people according to the life and pattern revealed by God in Jesus Christ and unites them with others who are committed to this way of life.” (p. 162-163) Perhaps church is supposed to be a place where we makes mistakes, hurt one another, and are uniquely encouraged and supported in the forgiveness and reconciliation process. Could church be a safe place where we could learn to do this? Not silencing the hurts and frustrations and making nice to one another, but bravely and compassionately engaging in a ministry of reconciliation? Could this lead to true happiness?

My hunch is that the happiness, not just a fleeting feeling but a sense of contentment and fulfillment, is not just about membership in a like-minded, polite religious group. Our statement speaks of discipleship entailing both the “cost and joy” as we do things that will change us. Serving others, not just helping people because they need it, but because we need to do it; we are transformed in the serving. Speaking truth to power, daring to name and resist the powers of evil in our day that invariably will seem “political” because it has to do with life in the polis, in community. Our choices and actions in the world affect the whole of our being together as the wider community; it’s all political! And this discipleship changes us to speak up and work for justice. Coming together to share at the baptismal font and around Christ’s table. Reconciling with one another so we can do that coming together with integrity and hope. Because it transforms us into more whole and joy-filled people.

I find this to be the most challenging section of the Statement of Faith. It pushes me, holds be accountable. It has the potential to stir deep happiness and satisfaction within us. What does it stir in you? Let’s begin talking together about why God calls us into the church. Join me after worship in the sofa area of the Gathering Room, and let’s keep talking into the fall. What do you each believe about what it means to be “church”? Amen.

2015 sermon archive

2015 sermons by the Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis:

1-4-15 As Bearers of Light

1-11-15 God’s Beloved

1-18-15 New Occasions, New Duties

1-25-15 Fish Stories of Invitation

2-1-15 Jesus’ New Teaching

2-8-15 History Sunday

2-15-15 Listening to Jesus

2-22-15 What is Most Tempting

3-1-15 Listening to the Heart’s Yearning

3-8-15 A Forgiving Heart

3-15-15 This Call to Re-Wire

3-22-15 To Lose and to Gain

3-29-15 This Journey With Jesus

4-5-2015 Easter-The Power of Empty

4-12-15 Passing on God’s Peace

4-19-15 The Good Shepherd

4-26-15 The Body of Christ

5-3-15 Abide In Me

5-10-15 The Obedience of Love

5-17-15 Reflections on the David and Goliath Story

5-31-15 Trinity Overflow

6-7-15 Reflections on Valuing Community

6-21-15 Reflections on Valuing Inclusivity

6-28-15 Reflections on the Value of Spirituality

7-26-15 A World Thick with God

8-2-15 God-a Concept or a Connection

8-9-15 Jesus Christ-Who is This Jesus

8-16-15 This Transforming Power

8-23-15 Our call as church 

8-30-15 Considering scripture’s promises 

9-13-15 Living waters 

9-20-15 Treasures and generosity 

11-8-15 What does giving do?