Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Starting Here // The Cosmos and the Cosmonauts


sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 10/27/2013
video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand
podcast here: http://feeds.feedburner.com/VineyardChurchOfMilan
or via iTunes here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/vineyard-church-of-milan/id562567379


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

3And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

Genesis 1:1-3

As we said last week, Genesis 1&2 are trying to do what the best poems are always trying to do:

arrest our assumptive plodding along,

wrest our attentions from the numbing distractions of this world,

and draw us into beauty and truth that can transform us at the deepest levels, quickening our hearts and minds to re-enter the world

invigorated by our encounter with it.

Tragically, Genesis 1&2 have for many become, instead, a stumbling block. Either for those against whom it is wielded as a weapon in a contentious debate about origins, or for those who for one reason or another have developed callouses against its subversive power. Our goal is to create breathing room for Genesis to speak to us afresh the life-giving words it’s long been longing to speak. Words that waken us to a world alive with wonder, mystery, and purpose.

A quick review:


Genesis 1&2 are telling the story of God entering into creative relationship with existing chaos and bringing order and purpose to it, dividing it up and giving it function. Genesis 1&2 are about functional creation, not material. They are about God creating an ordered system and creating function and functionaries within it. They are about God giving purpose and function to functionless things that seemingly already have begun to exist, at least from a material perspective.

Just before the beginning, Genesis asserts, the world was disordered and functionless. It was welter and waste, formless and void, darkness over the deep. The breath of a creator unlike any ever imagined by human beings hovered over the chaos, like an eagle over her hungry, needy chicks.

This creator, in our Jesus-informed and nature-revealed understanding, is a community of Love, the universe’s first universe, an organized relational system, giving and receiving, and out of that unceasing exchange, ever-creating.


The chaos, at beginning’s advent, frothed and foamed, disconnected at the heart of itself, if it could even be said to have a self. It was, like all chaos, enslaved to its own purposelessness. Powerless.


Until the creator.

Until Elohim spoke.

What kind of word?

A command? Yes.

An invitation? Yes, that too.

A word of loving, life-giving authority, language that bid order into being.


Let there be.

Let there be light.

And the chaos heard.

It received the voice of love deep into itself.

And with that, the formerly order-less, shadowy darkness became a womb.

A womb that gave birth to light.

Light that God calls “Day,” interestingly, rather than “light” - because what God has created here is nothing less than the basis for the function of time.

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.


From that day forward, the creative community of divine Love continued their creating.

Let there be.

Let there be.

Let there be.

And in fits and starts, mostly graceful and good, there was.

First there was every doing and then every doer.


On day two he creates – brings into functional existence – all that is necessary for the function of weather.


Time. Weather. And now on day three, the basis of food. Three days, and all the functions we need for life have been established.

[Not quite convinced? Consider the creator’s promise in Genesis 8:22, after the flood of Noah’s time - which is, of course, a return to chaos and disorder, followed by re:freshed creation:


As long as the earth endures,

seedtime and harvest,

Cold and heat,

Summer and winter,

Day and night

Will never cease


Food, weather, and time in reverse order, never to cease. An affirmation of the goodness of God who has made the world for our benefit.]


And then on days four and five God creates the functionaries to accomplish their tasks and to fill the spaces he has made for functioning - the lights in the heavens to mark the times and seasons, the plants, fish, birds, animals…


And finally, the freest and most functional of the creation, humanity itself.

And God created the human in his image,

in the image of God He created him,

male and female he created them.

Human beings are creatures who not only fill the earth, but they also fulfill a function in relation to the rest of creation (to subdue and rule), in relation to God (image-bearers) and in relation to each other (male and female).

And this story isn’t just a bedtime story to help us fall asleep at night, comforted by a pleasant picture of our beginnings, to satisfy our curiosity. No, it has some very important things to say to us about who God is, and who we are, and what our lives are all about. It tells us where we started and where we are going. It is, most of all, a daytime story. A story for the work of our lives.


Last week we said it’s a good news story, because it says that God created the world not to exploit us and use us, but rather he created it for our benefit. And that he is a God who made us free and all of creation shares in our freedom. Because he is a God of love, and love only exists in the context of freedom. And so his creating tools are invitation and blessing, tools that allow him to remain vulnerable before his creation, in the service of his ultimate purpose, which is Love.

And now onto the new.


4 things today:

1. The Cosmos as Temple. Genesis 1 is describing the creation of the cosmos as the inauguration of a Temple.

2. The Cosmonauts as Priests and Image-bearers. Human beings have a particular role as image-bearers to represent Elohim throughout the earth.

3. Life as a Work-in-Progress. Our function is established, but our functioning is a journey, a road stretched out before us.

4. God-Connection as Essential for Life. Connection to God is required to come alive.


ONE: Cosmos as Temple

Genesis 1 & 2 aren’t hiding the fact that they are describing God making a Temple in which he can dwell. Our first clue that Genesis 1 is describing the inauguration of a temple is the fact that it takes 7 days. Inauguration rituals were common in the ancient world, and they always take 7 days. If you read the account of the inauguration of Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings or 2 Chronicles, you’ll see a 7 day dedication followed by a 7 day feast. Also, it is a well-known temple inauguration image in the ancient world to have gardens situated next to sacred spaces, with fertile waters flowing from the deity to bring abundance to the earth. Which of course is what we have with the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2.


In Genesis, God is making the chaotic cosmos into his temple. In the ancient world, temples weren’t so much gathering places for worship (although they did have that function) as they were places for the deity to have a center for his rule. It’s his home, but more importantly it’s his headquarters, not unlike the White House here in America. The earth is like God’s holy of holies, the specific sacred space where his presence is most profoundly felt.

The parallels to the cosmic temple of Genesis are all over the descriptions of the tabernacle and the temple in the Old Testament.

The outer courtyard has the water basin – the sea

And bronze pillars – the pillars of the earth

In the antechamber (further in) were the menorah - the celestial bodies of day 4 in Genesis; and the bread of the presence represented food provided by God.

A veil separated the heavens from the earth – the place of God’s dwelling from the place of human habitation.


Listen to Isaiah 66:

This is what the Lord says:

“Heaven is my throne,

And the earth is my footstool.

Where is the house you will build for me?

Where will my resting place be?

Has not my hand made all these things,

And so they came into being?”

declares the Lord.

This idea of the cosmos as God’s Temple is a big deal for at least two reasons.

One, it tells us a lot about what God is up to in the world today. And it tells us what our job is, as well.


The Sabbath, for example, in Genesis, was not a peaceful reward for hard work. As if God had done all this work of making everything and was exhausted and ready to chill for a while. No, for the ancients, the idea of rest wasn’t about taking a break and kicking back to watch a football game as much as it was about what comes after a crisis. After a crisis, one could get on with the normal routines and business of life. The Sabbath is the climax – everything is set in place, and now it’s time for the grand opening, the deity is ready to rule.

So when Genesis says that on the 7th day, God rested, it’s saying he had finished his creation work – the labor of creating his temple, his headquarters, getting it functional – and he was now taking up residence in his throne room, the earth, in order to get on with the business of reigning. It’s not relaxation, it’s true engagement. I like how Emily Swan of the Ann Arbor Vineyard describes it: engagement without obstacles.

God, in other words, isn’t a watchmaker God – wind things up and let them go. And he isn’t just keeping an eye on everything to make sure no one screws things up, as we sometimes imagine. No, he’s got his sleeves rolled up, a smile on his face, and a kingdom to rule over and provide for.


TWO: Cosmonauts as Priests and Image-bearers

So what’s our role? Well, we are two things in this story. We are the priests in his cosmic temple. And we are his image-bearers. We are taking care of the business of his temple, carrying out his rule and reign, his emissaries to the far corners of creation. This is why we are commanded to go forth and multiply – Elohim’s influence, his care and his provision, his rule and his reign are to be creatively and faithfully exercised throughout his dwelling place. Love wants to bring order and function to every corner of the earth. The naming of the animals represents the beginning of this task.

Thus the importance of Jesus telling us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. In ancient Mesopotamia, kings would conquer new land, and set up statues in their image to mark the extent of their kingdoms. This is how Genesis describes human beings, as image-bearers. In the ancient world, defacing the image of the king was an act of treason, warranting exile or death penalty. Which means dehumanizing human beings is an act of treason against the King whose image we bear. Anything less than loving other human beings de-humanizes them. It’s an act of treason to hate, to exploit, to use, to disdain, to shame, to do anything that doesn’t hold another image-bearer in high honor, to do anything that violates their freedom as an emissary and priest of God.


THREE: Life as a Work-in-Progress

Did you read Genesis 1 & 2 this week? Perhaps you noticed that God sees each of his creatures, and saw that they were “good.” All of them, that is, except human beings. This is suspicious isn’t it?

Here’s what’s going on with that. “Good” in Genesis doesn’t mean morally good or pure. Good means “functioning properly.” Like when you get a used car, and you might say, “the brakes are good, tires are good, engine’s good, but the shocks need some work.” We human beings, Genesis is telling us, are on a journey. We aren’t yet good (as in fully functional), since we, like God, have freedom to determine if we will take up the function for which we were created. It is a dance with him; God is a gentleman, a respecter of our personhood and our freedom. The enemy, of course, who shows up in Genesis 3, is always a violator of our personhood and our freedom.

The question for us is the same question posed to Jesus, and that Jesus poses to us. What will we do with our freedom? Will we, in fear, put our trust in the one who violates our freedom and promises that we can be gods instead of priests and image-bearers? Or will we, in love, put our trust in the one who made the world for our benefit, and who made us to join him in the life of Love? (this is, in part, what the two trees are all about…)

Our lives can be a cooperation with God, or a resistance. And as we go, so will go the whole of creation. How much suffering in our selves, in our brothers and sisters, in the other creatures, in 0the planet itself has come from our resistance? How much joy might come from our cooperation?

Romans puts it this way:


For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

Romans 8:19-20

Jesus answered God, of course, with the first wholehearted, wholebodied, wholeminded, wholesouled YES in humanity’s history, which is why he is called our high priest, and the image of the invisible God. And it’s why he calls us to follow him, in the loving obedience that restores our humanity, causing us to be priesthood of believers, and allow us to be re-faced as image-bearers, working together to favor, count, and connect those who have been de-faced through disfavor, discounting, and disconnection.

There is space and mercy for this journey, because God has given us freedom to learn what to do with our freedom, space to grow up as it were; but at the same time, the stakes for our response to his invitations, his vulnerably presented commands are no less than cosmic.


FOUR: God-Connection as Essential for Life

Finally, Genesis 2 shows us that connection to God is required for us image-bearers to come alive.

7Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

The earth may be the holy of holies, and God may have made us as priests and image-bearers, but without God’s breath, without him coming near and us receiving him within ourselves, we are as functional as dust.

But when the earth and the divine are connected, something happens.

This is why Jesus poured out his Holy Spirit on Pentecost. His wind, his breath, waiting to be inhaled.

Breath comes in and the world looks different. Power is released. A new creation begins.

Do you want in on all of this, this task, this purpose, this journey to new creation? Then ask for God to come near and breathe in you.

The message of Genesis is that we need.

And we have.

The two always together in this world Elohim has made.

We need light, and God provides it.

We need food, and God provides it.

We need breath, and God provides it.

No, there is never a question about our needs and God’s provision. Not since the beginning of time itself.

There is only the question of God’s Love and our response. He is vulnerable before us, waiting. Will we be vulnerable before him, and come to him for life?


Practical Suggestions:

1. Take a walk. Notice everything you see that is functional and ordered, and consider how it came to be that way out of whatever chaos or disorder it originated in. The beauty of nature, trees, plants, clouds, etc. Homes and business and yards and roads. Also notice whatever you might see that is dysfunctional, or disordered and consider what led to it being in that state. Broken down, abandoned cars. Neglected homes. Pollution, trash, etc. Reflect on the role of cooperation (or not) with the creator in both states of being. Reflect on that which is ordered and functional in your life, and what is not, and what the role of cooperation with the creator has led to both states of being.

2. Repent for any acts of treason against the creator. Any ways you have de-faced an image bearer. You can do that right now, here, up front this morning if you’d like. Consider making it right with that image-bearer in the future, to the best of your ability. (Remember, re-creation always begins with vulnerable words and blessing.)

3. Invite a divine to dust connection in your life, to breathe life and power and new perspective into your life.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Starting Here // Creative Vulnerability


sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 10/20/2013

video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand
podcast here: http://feeds.feedburner.com/VineyardChurchOfMilan
or via iTunes here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/vineyard-church-of-milan/id562567379


Everything starts with a poem. With rhythm and the melody of breath and tongue and voice.


When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, first day.

Genesis 1:1-3 (Translation by Robert Alter)

This is an extraordinary poem, the first chapter of beginnings. No need to remember all this, but just notice some remarkable rhythms built into the writing (Thanks to Rob Bell for his summary of these in “Everything is Spiritual”)…


Elohim is the first word for God.

Elohim bara – God creates

ruah Elohim – spirit or breath of God, hovering

Elohim amar – God speaks

In the first three lines, already there is a community of creativity suggested in Elohim. Creator, Spirit, Word. Three in oneness, perhaps?


Create / Bara shows up in 3 places – the heavens and the earth, the living creatures, and human kind. The last time it is used, it repeats 3 times.

The first verse is seven Hebrew words.

The second is fourteen.

Earth appears twenty-one times, seven times three.

The seventh paragraph has thirty five words, another multiple of seven.

God / Elohim? Thirty five times.

“It was so…” – seven times.

“And God saw…” – seven times.

“Made…” – ten times, seven plus three.

“According to their kinds…” – ten times.

“And God said…” – ten times. Three times in reference to people. Seven times in reference to creatures.

“Let there be…” – ten times as well. Three times referring to things in the heavens and seven times things on earth.


Do you think the writer knew what he was doing? Do you think he knew what he was trying to convey through this epic poetic narrative?

Of that, there can be no doubt.

Maybe the better question is this:

Do we know what he was doing?

And can we hear what he is trying to say to us?

It is not uncommon in Christian circles to treat Genesis, chapters 1 & 2, as historical narrative. As if it is telling us a story about a sequence of historical events, so that we get the chronological facts straight in our heads. And from there we wield it as a weapon in a misguided culture war, arguing the merits of young earth creationism, or intelligent design, or whatever, over and against evolutionary theory.

That’s not what Genesis 1&2 are about.

The questions we ask of it when we come to it looking for ammunition are not the questions it’s answering.

No. Genesis 1&2 are trying to do what the best poems are always trying to do:

arrest our assumptive plodding along,

wrest our attentions from the numbing distractions of this world,

and draw us into beauty and truth that can transform us at the deepest levels, quickening our hearts and minds to re-enter the world

invigorated by our encounter with it.


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

3And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

Genesis 1:1-3

Genesis is about something more, something more important, more profound, than the creation of matter. We’re going to explore what that something is this week and next. What is Genesis saying to us? What does it have to teach us? How might we respond to it?

If you aren’t a Jesus follower, perhaps part of the reason you’ve been hesitant to more seriously consider the merits of faith is the expectation that to do so would require you to accept some perspectives on the origins of the creation of matter and earth and human life that seem, at best, silly to you, and at worst, contentiously ignorant. I hope you’ll discover in Genesis 1&2 a way of seeing where we started and where we might be going that opens the door to a whole new future for you, one with more hope and anticipation and goodness than you ever expected.

If you are a Jesus follower, perhaps you’ve never let these ancient, foundational words carry the Spirit’s breath to the remotest parts of your soul that have long needed a fresh breeze to blow. Maybe because they’ve been a tool in your hand instead of a tool in God’s. Or maybe because they’ve been something of a source of confusion or even embarrassment to you, and so you’ve kept them just out of view as often as possible. Or maybe simply because you’re busy, and it’s always felt like there were more fertile fields to plough for wisdom and help with your day to day life than Genesis 1&2. My hope for you – whoever you are – is that you’ll discover in Genesis 1&2 a way of seeing where we started and where we might be going that opens the door wider to God’s good purpose for you, a purpose you can embrace with renewed faith, courage, enthusiasm and creativity.

Let’s begin with an academic word:


Ontology // (n) the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations.

There are different ways of understanding what it means to be or exist.


Material ontology is the ontology we are most familiar with. Things exist because they take up space, because they are particular arrangements of matter. I know this building exists because it takes up space, displaces other physical things, I can see it, touch it, interact with it with my physical body. Something exists by virtue of its physical properties.


But there is another, even more important kind or way of being, existing, and that is functional ontology. Things don’t fully exist until they are functional, until they can do something. In fact, until something is integrated into a working, ordered system, it does not really exist according to functional ontology. Something exists by virtue of it having a function in an ordered system.

Think about a school. Its creation involves a lot more than its material creation. Sure, you have to build the building. But you also need teachers and curriculum and furniture and administrators. And it’s not really a school until there are students attending it and learning things. Because it doesn’t fully exist as a school until it is functioning as a school. There is an eerie scene in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” in which the main character walks through a school building that has been vacant for years, because no children have been born in the world for a whole generation. It was less a school and more a haunted house. In fact, if someone is creating a new school, the building of the facilities might be the least significant part of the school’s creation.

We could think about the church this way too. Does the church exist because it has a building and pews and Bibles and even members? Or does it exist when it starts being the church? When it starts doing what churches are supposed to do?


Genesis 1&2 are about functional creation, not material. They are about God creating an ordered system, and creating function and functionaries within it. They are about God giving purpose and function to functionless things that seemingly already have begun to exist, at least from a material perspective. It starts with “welter and waste”, “formless and void,” “darkness over the deep,” the suggestion of things which are already present when God begins to create (bara) the heavens and the earth.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s my perspective that the material of the universe does in fact have owe its origins to God’s creativity and power. God is personally responsible for the matter, the stuff, of the universe. And at some point along the way, he must have made it ex nihilo, out of nothing, as the saying goes. It’s just that that’s not what this epic poetic narrative is telling the story of.

Genesis 1&2 is telling the story of God entering into creative relationship with existing chaos and bringing order and purpose to it, dividing it up and giving it function.

John Walton, a professor at Wheaton College, says:


“In the ancient world, what was most crucial and significant to their understanding of existence was the way that the parts of the cosmos functioned, not their material status.”


I’d highly recommend Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis One” for anyone interested in the scholarship behind this understanding, but for our purposes, suffice it to say that bara – the word used for create here in Genesis, and throughout the Old Testament – and the words used for create by all the people of the ancient Near East are nearly always used to suggest functional creation, not material.

In other words, Genesis is about God methodically forming something out of the chaotic, orderless cosmos; something like a school or a church. We’ll talk next week about what it actually was that God was creating in Genesis when he began to bring form and function to the formless void, light to the darkness.


This, not incidentally, is why there are two separate orders of creation in Genesis one and Genesis two. (In Genesis 1, human beings come last, male and female together; in Genesis 2, the male human comes before the plants and the animals, and the female human later). If bara is about material creation, we have a serious problem here. But if it’s about functional creation, it simply shows the author (or authors) telling two different stories about different aspects of the functioning and purpose of the world, of how everything is integrated and working together. For example, in Genesis 1, extraordinary freedom is given to human beings in order that they might fulfil their purpose as image-bearers of the creator God. Freedom is a badge of distinction. In Genesis 2, we see that that same freedom might actually be the source of trouble for us, revealing the dangerous downside of using our freedom for a purpose other than image-bearing.

Ok, so that’s some basic groundwork – functional creation, not material – but what is Genesis 1&2 actually saying?


Some really, really important things, actually. Maybe most importantly, that the world and us and God have a purpose unlike any ever conceived before in human history. You might say, in fact, that Genesis 1&2 are good news.


The Sumerians, the Egyptians, and the Babylonians all had creation accounts with remarkable parallels to the Genesis account. The stories started in chaos and moved to order (see Leon Kass’ “The Beginning of Wisdom”) . In some of those accounts, the gods arose out of the chaos, procreated, and their offspring became the lesser gods. Harvest gods, river gods, fertility gods, etc. The Babylonian creation accounts show the gods going to war with chaos (a chaos storm monster, in fact – depicted behind me) and conquering it. All of these stories leave the world as a place inhabited by spiritual beings who had made the world for their own benefit. These gods had needs, and human beings existed – were created – to help fulfil these needs.


So along comes Genesis into the same part of the world, but telling a very different story.

There’s only one God, not lots of them. And he is way more powerful than they are.

Imagine you were an ancient person, with a primitive understanding of the natural world. It’s easy to see why the sun would be highly revered. It gives light to see. It marks the time. It’s crucial for vegetation, and therefore, our food. So much essential to our lives depends on the sun, so the sun gods were of course among the most powerful in the ancient Near East.

But in Genesis, the world has light, time, and vegetation before the sun is even created. Before we need the sun, we need God.

And speaking of needs, God’s creativity has different motivations than those other gods. He doesn’t have needs, he’s not selfish, he’s not like those other gods who made human beings just to serve their own needs and whims. In Genesis, God made the world with our benefit in mind, not just his. In the first chapter, just after the climax, when God has made people, he shows them the vegetation and says to them, look, I’ve have given all this to you, and to these animals for food.

Not only did the God of Genesis not make his creatures to exploit them, he actually blesses his creatures, first the sea creatures and birds, and then human beings.

This is a far cry from the other gods who use sex or violence to bring order to the chaos. The kingdom of the God of Genesis is not a product of sex or violence. Genesis’ God goes about bringing order and functionality to the chaos in the most extraordinary way.


He does it through invitation / command and blessing. Both of which are, at root, acts of vulnerability.

In a non-Genesis created world, to be vulnerable is to be in terror of violation and scarcity. The whole idea of vulnerability is terrifying in the world of the other stories, because those gods have needs and humanity is there to be used by them. And those gods create through sex and violence, which, of course, is the means by which all the most vulnerable in our world are violated and exploited.

Because broken sexuality and violence always involve taking, not giving. They are violation of freedom, of sovereignty, of selfhood.

But in Genesis, vulnerability is a completely different story. Vulnerability opens the door to communion with a God whose only needs are the needs of one who loves, the need to celebrate and create and join in true intimacy (which is always non-violent intimacy) – that which comes from invitation and response.


Let there be.

Let there be light.

Let there be an expanse.

Let the earth sprout.

And on and on.

Let there be is a vulnerable statement – will the creation respond? This is why I called it invitation / command. Yes, God is commanding. But he is commanding a creation which he has imbued with freedom, it seems, at its very core. Humanity is the freest of the free, his image-bearers. But even the basic building blocks of matter itself seem to have some measure of freedom, science is discovering. And to command someone/something which is free is to keep open the possibility that the answer will be “no.” (interestingly, only the light responds perfectly…)

And that’s why his commands are also invitations. God is vulnerable before us. We – and all of creation, at some level – can say no. All true obedience in this universe, it seems, is based on love and love alone. Because the one that loves God, obeys God freely, out of that love and the trust it gives birth to.

Of course, creation does say yes. Light is. The expanse is. The earth sprouts. And so forth.

And then his commands come to us, in our freedom. We know what we did with his commands at first. And we know what a vulnerable place that put Elohim in, having to become a vulnerable human being like us, and suffer, and die in order to live out the loving obedience we did not chose for ourselves, so that we could be set free from the slavery we used our freedom to enter into.

And blessing too, God’s other creative tool, has vulnerability at its core. The word for blessing in Hebrew, barak, is also translated as kneeling. Because to bless is to make oneself vulnerable before the other. It is giving one’s favor to another as a gift. Will it be received? Will the freest of God’s creation receive his blessing? Will we receive him as he gives himself to us in blessing?


The image of the breath of God hovering over the waters is powerful. The word for hover is used elsewhere for an eagle, hovering over a nest of chicks hungry to be fed, needing protection. This is where creation begins. Chaos like a child in distress, God like a parent longing to bring provision and protection.


What an extraordinary world Genesis reveals! One that the most powerful being in the universe makes himself vulnerable towards, inviting it into the love out of which it is created, offering us all that we need to thrive.

In this world, we see ourselves, the freest of the free, invited ourselves to trust this good God who has made the world for our benefit. We see a world in which we are meant to cooperate with, and participate in, love through acts of courageous vulnerability, a world designed to be the canvas upon which such acts function as a cooperation with, and participation in the creativity of, the divine artist, Elohim.

Think about what this says to us about our purpose as image-bearers. Are we bringing functionality to the chaos of people’s lives? To schools, to workplaces, to healthcare systems, to businesses, to families? Are we using the tools of Elohim, invitation and blessing? Or are we using the tools of Marduk and others, violating the vulnerable for our gain wherever we find them?

More on all of this next week. But for now,


Practical Suggestions:

1. Read Genesis 1&2 imaginatively. Read Genesis 1 & 2 again (or for the first time), imagining at each point creation having the option to resist or cooperate. Place yourself in the scene as the one choosing on behalf of creation. At the end of chapter 2, imagine yourself as the man and his wife, naked and not ashamed and note what kind of world it is, and what kind of God you see that God is, and what kind of person you are, in that scene. Then choose your answer to this question: Would you give your life to be part of a new creation that restores that reality?

2. Enter some chaos with invitation and blessing, and see if God joins you in bringing about some new creation. Or if you feel the pain of rejection God ultimately experienced in Genesis 3. And if so, ask yourself if you’d have the courage to do it again. And again. And again.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Courageous Embrace // Thunder Thighs


sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 10/13/2013

video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand
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or via iTunes here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/vineyard-church-of-milan/id562567379

Nicknames. Fig Leaves. Bare Feet.

Belonging. Shame. Vulnerability.


My mom’s sister, Aunt Pat, called me Thunder Thighs when I was a kid. Yeah, I know. It was because I loved to play soccer and could kick the ball a long ways. When I hear it in my mind, recalling her saying it to me, it still makes me feel like I’m at home. Like I belonged with her. I can feel the pride in that nickname. Thunder Thighs. I can feel the humor in the teasing. You know you belong when you can be teased and you feel the humor of it, don’t you? The teaser loves you, knows you, gets you. It’s good to be gotten. Maybe one of the best things ever, in human experience. Someone who’s good at teasing teases in such a way that the teasing peels the layers of your mask off, gently showing you that they see you, the you that’s under all the masks, and saying that they love you. We all long for that feeling. The feeling of belonging. Thunder Thighs.


Shame is the feeling we hate the most in this world. It’s like a searing hot wave. If it doesn’t pass quickly, it’s like a black hole in an empty room we didn’t know was inside of us, squeezing, choking, violent. We want to run from it. Cover it up. Numb it.

I was athletic in middle school, always an early round pick in the gym class draft. But I ran a little bit pigeon-toed. Just enough that another kid, the coolest kid, noticed it and imitated it. Everyone would laugh. I would too, but just to cover my shame. Mask it. Because I felt like I was flawed. And that eventually, I’d be rejected. Not picked. Left off the team. Whenever I was alone, I’d try to run with my toes straight forward. Trying to fix myself, force my body to get it right. Not so I could play any better. But just so I wouldn’t feel that shame. That was low-level, bush-league shame, for a confident, well-loved, all-things-considered secure kid, “Thunder Thighs” for heaven’s sake, and it’s still stuck in my memory.

Shame sucks. Shame and its demonic offspring have wreaked havoc in our world and in our lives.

And no fig leaf has ever succeeded in covering it adequately. Not perfectionism. Not foreboding joy. Not busyness. Not drugs. Not shallow, promiscuous intimacy. Not cynicism, criticism, coolness, or cruelty. All fig leaves fail, leaving us flailing in shame.

And then there’s Vulnerability. How you terrify us! And yet, you are the way forward.


Chariots of Fire has long been a favorite movie of mine. Not until I began to understand shame and vulnerability did I understand why. Chariots of Fire tells the story of two athletes, two runners. One, Abrams, runs to cover his shame. He is driven to be the best, to secure his belonging by giving no one any reason to reject him. He runs with power and precision and incredible discipline. And yet his prowess on the track is his shield; it keeps anyone from knowing the pain and vulnerability at his core. The other, Eric, runs, because when he runs he feels God’s pleasure. He comes alive. His arms wheel about crazily, his face turned up. He embraces his vulnerability. He doesn’t hide his weaknesses. He doesn’t run with bare feet, but he might as well, because he is as vulnerable as a human being can be when he runs.

We see Abrams’ pain, and we understand it, because it’s ours. We long for him to know freedom, but there is a tragedy in him. It is our tragedy. Human beings trapped by shame, running ourselves into the ground to be free of it, and finding only empty success, becoming people we don’t really want to be along the way.

We see Eric’s joy, and we long for it, wishing we had the courage to be as he is, wondering if it’s really possible, could it really work that way. It is the comedy we want to play a role in. Thinking, I could never imagine letting myself be seen that way, letting myself be myself that way, flaws and all, but oh, how freeing it might be if I could!


So we’ve spent these last weeks talking about nicknames, fig leaves, and bare feet, about belonging, shame and vulnerability. And we’ve seen how Jesus points the way to the embrace of vulnerability as the way of salvation.

About how vulnerability is subversive like the gospel is subversive.

And we’ve seen how the best social science research backs up the witness of scripture on this score. God is a God of love, and love and vulnerability go hand in hand. The only way to life is an embrace of our vulnerability, and acknowledgement that all of us our needy people who find our belonging secured not by performance or merit, but by grace.

We’ve seen that we live in a world dripping with Grace, where the great lie is that there isn’t enough, but the good news is that God has entered our vulnerability and apprehension of scarcity with his generous, loving, multiplying presence and from this moment on, you + Jesus always = enough.

So shame can die a shameful death as we pick up our crosses and follow Jesus into the death that leads to resurrection life, the life God enjoys, the life of the heavens come down to meet us even here and now.


Today we finish our exploration by considering how we can create environments where shame can be defanged, and where vulnerability can be embraced. Families, certainly. Workplaces. Teams. Neighborhoods. Classrooms. Wherever we have influence. And most of all, churches. Starting here.


Let’s look at the famous story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. The story is told in John’s good news account, chapter 8. John 7 sets the scene though, so we’ll start there.


Jesus is in Jerusalem for a festival, but he’s there secretly because there are people there who want to kill him. It’s a huge festival – one of the three biggest feast days in Israel. It’s called the Feast of the Tabernacles (or Sukkot), and it lasts for 8 days. (Most recent celebration was in September.) It recalls the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness after the Hebrews are released from slavery in Egypt but before they enter the Promised Land of Canaan. Small booths, temporary structures, are made as a way of remembering how the Israelites lived as nomads in the wilderness, and people would sleep in them, entertain in them throughout the 8 days.

The Jewish people believed that when the messiah came (messiah simply means “anointed one” - the one who would liberate them from Roman occupation), streams of water would flow from the Temple in Jerusalem and fill the valleys around it, much like in the prophet Ezekiel’s vision. It’s a picture of the River of Life. And so for generations, every morning of this 8-day Feast a priest would leave the temple at dawn with a procession of people. They would go to the Pool of Siloam, which was just excavated in east Jerusalem in 2004. It was huge, the size of two football fields. There the priest would take a golden pitcher and fill it from the pool. The people would return to the temple where trumpets sounded three times. The priests would walk around the altar seven times, then go up a ramp at the side of the altar, raise the pitcher and pour out the water onto the altar. Then another priest would pour out wine on the opposite side of the altar, with the wine symbolizing the grape harvest. Once the water and wine were poured and Psalm 118 was read, the people would shout, “Lift your hands!” People looking back on a good harvest from God and looking ahead to the coming of the hoped-for messiah.

You can imagine this ceremony taking place - the pouring of the water and the wine onto the altar – when the Gospel of John tells us that, “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this He meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” (John 7:37-39a) That took some courageous vulnerability, didn’t it?

No surprise, it causes a stir. People understood that Jesus was claiming to take the place of the temple; he’s reorienting their expectations about the temple around himself. You believe water will flow from this temple, but I’m telling you it will flow from me.

And it turns out that most of the people who hear Jesus are impressed by him, not upset. Which makes Jesus’ enemies furious, as you can imagine…

We pick up the story the next morning, after his enemies, some of the Pharisees, have had a night to plot against him.


2At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

Let’s notice a few things.

One, Jesus isn’t afraid of conflict. He goes right back to the temple, even though he knows some powerful people are upset with him. This is a mark of the courageously vulnerable. The thought that he might be rejected – even killed – because someone doesn’t agree with him doesn’t scare him off from doing what he’s there to do: teaching the people.

Secondly, the Pharisees wait until a crowd has gathered to pull off the little stunt they’ve planned overnight. They want to make Jesus look as foolish as possible in front of as many people as possible. They want to shame him so that he’ll stop his blasphemy, and they want to discredit him so people stop listening to him.

Here’s their plan (and we’ll look at the details of it in a moment): they wanted to make it look like Jesus either doesn’t understand Jewish law or that Jesus disregards the law when it doesn’t suit him. Either way, it would compromise his authority as a spiritual teacher, and completely undermine any claims of being a messiah.

Make no mistake; this is in all likelihood not a coincidence that they have this woman caught in adultery to present at this moment; it’s a stunt designed to put Jesus in a no-win situation. How do Pharisees catch someone in the act of adultery? Were they lurking outside bedroom windows all night long? Some have suggested she was just a vulnerable woman they rounded up to play the part (I’m not convinced of that, given Jesus’ last statement to the woman, but it’s an intriguing idea). Not to mention the fact that if they did somehow actually happen to stumble upon a couple in the act of adultery, where’s the man? Jewish law dictated that both of them would be stoned. Were the Pharisees themselves disregarding part of the law? That at least tells us this wasn’t about the integrity of the Law, but about publicly humiliating Jesus. And on top of all of that, they don’t use the woman’s name. She doesn’t matter to them; she’s just there to be used by them.


To understand the Pharisee’s plot, it helps to understand the physical setting. Jesus is in this large courtyard, under the shadow of a fortress built by Herod the Great when he re-built the Temple. Roman soldiers were stationed there, patrolling the walkways and the walls overlooking the courtyard. They are a presence in this story.

Now back to the Pharisees and their plot…


“Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

The Pharisees used this question as a trap, because they thought Jesus would only have two choices, both of them bad.

Stone her. Although this might prove Jesus knew the law and was willing to enforce it, it would have caused a commotion and resulted in Jesus’ arrest, because the Romans wouldn’t allow the Jewish people to put anyone to death.


Let her go; there are soldiers watching. This would have looked like cowardice, as if he were willing to compromise the law to protect his own safety. What kind of messiah would that be?

But Jesus has other ideas.


But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.

Why write in the dirt?

In Jewish law, the day after a major feast (Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles) is considered a Sabbath, whether or not it falls on a Saturday. No one can do any work on a Sabbath day. Rabbis considered writing – even many today – be work. However, writing in dirt wasn’t considered work because it didn’t create a permanent mark.

So by writing in the dirt, Jesus proves that he knows his stuff, all the way down to the smallest detail. It’s like that scene in the Princess Bride when Inigo Montoya switches the sword to his right hand and says, I too am not left handed.


Also, he’s echoing a passage from the prophet Jeremiah, turning his writing into a symbolic action. “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.” (Jeremiah 17:13) By writing in the dust, it’s like Jesus is making a commentary on shame. You’re trying to shame this vulnerable woman, and shame me as well. But be careful – it’s not our belonging that is threatened by your actions; it’s yours.

That’s pretty awesome, I think. But we’re only just now getting to the good stuff.


7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.


9At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Here’s what’s happening. Jesus is leveling the playing field, which creates breathing room for the vulnerable, and chokes off shame’s power.

Remember, shame survives as a controlling influence as long as we try to insulate ourselves from our vulnerability. Because the only way out of shame is through it.

Shame wants us to run from vulnerability. So as long as we can pretend we aren’t vulnerable, or comfort ourselves that others are more vulnerable than we are, we don’t have to feel the awful pain of shame and we don’t have to confront our vulnerability and neediness, our flaws and difficulties.

But life is found on the other side of vulnerability. It’s found when we can embrace a God who enters our vulnerability with us, receiving his love and grace. It’s found when we can embrace ourselves in our vulnerability, with kindness and compassion. It’s found when we can embrace each other, flaws and all, with radical hospitality. It’s found when we can embrace vulnerability as the way to life.

When Jesus stands, it’s a way of saying that the judgment of the Law is that the woman be stoned. Jesus knows the Law.

But when Jesus says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” he is placing all of them, together with the woman, under the same Law. Each person as vulnerable to the judgment of the law as the other.

When he stoops down again, he is placing himself under the judgment of the law with them, joining them.

All of them, oldest to youngest, most righteous to least righteous, vulnerable to the judgment of the law.

And by inviting them to put their names and faces to the execution of the law, he is reminding them that all of them are equally vulnerable, along with him, to the Roman soldiers. Because if they start the stoning, they are the ones who will be arrested and jailed.

Jesus isn’t making them vulnerable. He’s just shining light on the vulnerability we all share that they’ve been pretending they could avoid. God is the God of reality. Any attempt to live in a fantasy separates us from him and cuts us off from his life.

It’s the older ones who see it first. There’s something about getting older that brings one’s vulnerability – epitomized in our mortality – to light. And the younger ones follow.

Jesus doesn’t gloat, he doesn’t stare, he doesn’t sing that “Nah nah, nah nah nah nah, hey hey hey, Goodbye” song. He knows what a holy and terrible thing it is to be confronted with one’s vulnerability. The Pharisees are looking foolish now, but he is merciful and gentle with them, even though they were not that way themselves.

But instead he stays with the most vulnerable one in the story, the accused woman, so that she will not be alone in her vulnerability and shame.

This is how we create environments that create breathing room for the courageous embrace of vulnerability and choke off shame’s power. We level the playing field with one another in our pursuit of God.


We are all equally vulnerable to the judgment of the Law, and equally dependent on God’s lovingkindness, his Grace towards us.

We are all equally vulnerable to the brokenness of this world and brokenness of our old creation selves, and equally in need of God’s help and power and Holy Spirit.

This knowledge is what frees us to be real in relationship with one another. Martin Buber says: “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”

This is why leaders are servants.

Why pastors are members of the church, first and foremost.

This is why we are centered-set in our approach to what it means to be insiders.

This is why everyone gets to play.

This is why everything we’ve been given is ours to steward for the sake of God’s kingdom, and nothing is ours for our benefit alone. Because stewardship is an embrace of vulnerability, but claiming for our exclusive ownership is an attempt to distance ourselves from it.

This is why ministry to the poor and vulnerable is such a privilege and treasure.

Because it’s only working right when we realize we give out of our own fundamental neediness and vulnerability, not out of our wealth and strength.

This is why it’s OK to fail and learn.

It’s OK to not know the answer.

It’s OK to need help.

It’s OK to give it a shot. To take a risk.

It’s OK to disagree and talk about it.

Even if you disagree about what feel like are really, really important questions.

It’s OK to admit it. Whatever it is.

It’s OK if it’s difficult for you when others seem to find it easy.

It’s OK to have needs and say them out loud.

It’s OK to say how you feel. It’s OK to feel.

It’s OK to ask what you can do better next time.

It’s OK to ask for feedback.

It’s OK to take responsibility.

It’s OK to apologize.

It’s OK to say thank you.

It’s OK to say your aunt called you Thunder Thighs when you were a kid.

Just don’t any of you dare repeat it.


Sort of.

No, really.

Yes, really.


Practical Suggestions:

1. Do performance reviews sitting on the same side of the table.

2. Let your face light up when a person (especially a kid) walks in the room.

3. Allow your child to not do great at something. An assignment. A competition. A performance. Help them redefine their goal from excelling to gain approval to showing up for the sake of courage.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.…

—Theodore Roosevelt