Monday, April 21, 2014

Do You See What He's Done?

On Maundy Thursday I offer individual absolution and laying on of hands. After this I also offer corporate forgiveness in the name of Christ,  not only for those who did not come forward, but for our sins as community.
This was the message later...

Do you know what he's done? What Jesus has done? Tonight we don't hear Jesus talk about Holy Communion. It's what makes the Gospel of John different. We come here on Maundy Thursday expecting to hear "do this in remembrance of me" followed by words about bread and wine. WHAT IF...instead we were given what we hear in tonight's gospel as the way of remembering that last night with the disciples? We'd be washing feet each week. You seem underwhelmed. Or maybe overwhelmed.

We'd be told to strip away all of what gives us our status, and empty ourselves of our ideas about it all. And wash each others feet. All the dirt, and the scrapes. The wounds and literally sometimes all the crap that our feet drag around. Just as true in all the places we come from as Galilee. And cleansed, loved, and forgiven. Do you know what he's done?

And it's not just about the feet. It's about the love. Servant love. That loves our unloveliness. Servant love.

Years ago our daughters were arguing over having to clean up the mess in the room they shared and at the height of the row, I heard one of them bellow, "I AM NOT YOUR SERVANT!!" Followed by stomping down the stairs to present the offending sister in hopes I would do something about it
So often, we too want to say, if we're being honest, in the middle of people and situations we encounter, "I AM NOT YOUR SERVANT!"  and do the same.

Do you know what Jesus has done?

He has not only gotten down on his hands and knees, and entered the grittiness of our humanity, he's cleaned up the mess. And he's done it for ALL, even Judas, knowing full well what is to come.

Knowing the very real fact that evil will take up residence in Judas and lead him to be someone it's hard to imagine he'd become. And it will take up residence in Peter and lead him to speak words he swore he never would.

Henri Nouwen writes that we, "People who live close together, can be great sources of sorrow for one another. When Jesus chose the 12, he chose Judas among them. He's called a traitor, literally in the Greek, 'one who hands another over to suffering.' And the truth is that there is something of the traitor in each one of us. Because each of us hands over our fellow human beings to suffering- somehow, somewhere. Mostly without intending it, or maybe even knowing it. When we are willing to confess that often we hand over those we love ( and those we are called to love) even against our own best intentions, we will be more ready to forgive those who mostly against their will, are the causes of our pain."

Because we all muddy the water.

We are called to remember- to re-live- what Jesus has done- for you, for me, for us all. To be shaped by his servanthood and to hear again the command-love each other like this.
He summons us to come and be cleansed and then draws us into a different world
of communion and community
And it can't just be about being with the ones we like.
It's also about being with the misunderstood, the betrayer and the enemy whoever we imagine them to be.

When it's all stripped away we see who we really are- all of us.

Then... we see, just how profound it is what Jesus has done

That we can't stop God's love and forgiveness. We can't stop God's commitment in Christ
To humanity at it's stinkiest and most busted places.

Do you see what Jesus has done? What Jesus does still?
Love EVERYONE like this

When Empty is Good

They go the tomb and it is empty. Empty. Things that are empty are not usually positive- the empty gastank, the empty bank account, the empty refrigerator. Empty is a place of fear, of not enough- that its not enough, or we’re not enough. Empty just by watching your faces tells me feels like doubt, or fears. They go to the tomb and hear- not here. And whether “not here” is like that voicemail message when we wanted help or that spot where someone used to be, “not here” tells of feeling alone, and of loss and sadness. Empty and not here- often means what we don’t see. The women come desperate for meaning and first encounter empty and “not here.”

But then they are rocked with something more. And encounter what happens when empty turns out to be a good thing. It’s mystifying and not fully there. They don’t get to see Jesus but they hear one thing.

But they hear he has risen and to go and tell.

And somehow it is enough

To leave the tomb and move forward instead of remaining paralyzed like the guards. No amount of words can fully capture what that glimpse and truth would mean.

They leave with that and a promise they will learn more on the way.

It’s not everything but it’s good news. And they don’t leave just with the same ration of fear and sadness, they leave with fear AND joy. Both.

Sometimes people tell us that to be a believer means that when we face the unknown or mystifying we just need to have faith.

Not so says the resurrection story.  

Having fear is not the absence of faith. Instead God sent a messenger to help us see the difference between stunned and stuck. Even when we feel like we’re moving but we’re not sure how.

Somehow some of the fear has been left behind in that tomb with the old grave clothes and yesterday.

And it’s replaced with a seed of faith and joy

That there really is new life in this story

There really is more than we see.

Because God has acted and Christ is risen and though we don’t understand all of it, we really will be given what we need on the way.

And as the story is shared, and other things are seen and heard, each who encounters will come to faith, but differently. Just like us. That somehow we see that what seems empty is good.

Recently there was another moment where empty is good- it was last Sunday when we had our first Sunday as one unified worshipping flock. And at the end of communion, the napkin the holds the bread was empty! There were enough of us here that I got the last little tiny bite. Empty! Praise God! I think that moment was one where we gathered in fear and joy and wondered if it would all be OK. And God delighted us with more to strengthen our faith together. That bread napkin was empty! And it was good.

There’s a third time that empty is good. It’s when this place is empty. When we who have been forgiven fed and filled, leave. Because the sharing of the gospel is happening out there along the way. I hope and believe and am filled with joy as I continue to see new faces here- young and old, from everywhere. And I don’t think they’re here because they suspect we have it all together. I think it’s because we are willing to share how we have encountered the good news and invite people to come and see with us on the way.

Some of you have come this day brimming with good news in your lives, and some have come hoping to hear Alleluias that maybe will start to feel true. Still others may wonder if the experience will match the greatness of expectations, or fear that you won’t pull off the perfect Easter day.

Each time we gather and share the story of Christ and share in resurrection, we share those glimpses we see on the way that strengthen us all. Those messages that allow us to look into that tomb and leave behind some of the fears.

And in place of that spot, the emptiness is filled with joy, and with faith. And that’s why I want to invite and encourage each one of you here to keep walking on the way, keep coming again to speak of things that looked empty but led to new life. Of the mysterious power and love of a God that wants to fill our empty places and replace our fears with joy.

God wants to help as us see in the way Brian McClaren has stated it-“that it is enough to faithfully and simply tell the story- of women at dawn, of men running half believing, of rolled stones and folded grave clothes. Of a supposed gardener saying the name of a crying woman, and sad walkers encountering a stranger on the road home. Of an empty tomb and overflowing hearts….(and) God comes to give us wisdom to know that the best we can do is stand in awe. Christ’s work on the cross and that empty tomb surpass all our flowers and flourishes on this day of mysterious hope beyond all words.

May we be less conscious of achieving the perfect decorations, or the finest music or wondering if our emptiness shows. May we instead be drawn more deeply into the confidence in in the Risen Christ whose presence here trumps it all.  God is a God of new life and never-ending possibility. Forgiveness and grace and love for us.

May we this day be surpassed by the simple but undeniable joy of standing together and daring to proclaim the good news- Risen Indeed! Alleluia! That death is not the last word. Violence, hate, condemnation, betrayal and failure are not the last word.

No. Each of them are left behind like rags at that tomb. And from that tomb arises Christ- Alive! For us! Forever!


Monday, March 31, 2014

Healed of our Deficiencies

On Sunday I invited the congregation to be seated for the gospel, and put down their bulletins and close their eyes so that in some way we would not use the perception eyesight gives us but to listen to gospel with insight. While their eyes were closed I read the gospel while walking around and through the worship space so that sound and closeness changed as my direction changed, and they could hear the dialogue of the man and the others more clearly. Some people had a hard time closing their eyes. It was not the kids. It was adults. Who felt insecure. But they stuck with it.
And then we opened our eyes...

A few years ago, my mother had cataract surgery. I remember back when my grandmother had it, what an ordeal it was. Now it is so much easier and the results more immediate. There was incredible joy at the thought- “I can see! Look at everything I can see now!”

However, that was quickly replaced by- “oh my, look what I can see” as my mother began to realize that in the light was revealed the things she had not been cleaning so well. And the guilt of what people who would have thought who visited-Lord, have mercy!

Very quickly the joy of the healing was replaced again by the tendency we all have to focus on deficiencies and shortcomings. The places where it is “not enough!”

This is so much a part of our lives that recently a high school student began a program called “Operation Beautiful-the Perfectly Imperfect project.” She realized that so many people look upon their deficiencies so much more than their positives. And she started a simple thing- taking Post-It notes and writing “You are beautiful” or “You are stronger than you know” and other messages and leaving them on places they would be seen like the mirror of the girls’ bathroom. Or inside the cover of books at places like Barnes and Noble. Random places where people can be reminded of who they really are.

Rather than just focus upon who they are not.

Which is where I think our readings take us today.

We hear in I Samuel of the search for a new king and Jesse’s sons being brought forth to find the chosen one. One by one they are noted for their strength, and stature and good looks- qualities we would surely think are important in a leader. And instead God chooses the youngest boy, brought in from the field probably still wearing sheep dung, and we hear that God sees beauty. Where we don’t. God’s eyes see that we are perfectly imperfect and loved by God. God’s eyes see differently. With love.

And then we come to the Gospel and what God sees. Our very long reading today begins with Jesus seeing a man. Yes, a man who is blind. But it really is first and foremost that Jesus notices a man and stops. Jesus sees a man. And wants to heal him.

And almost everything that follows in all those verses is what everyone else sees and thinks. The disciples see sin and judging- what’s wrong, what’s the deficiency? Because of course that is far more important than helping.

The religious leaders see a label. “Blind.” Despite his being in the view for a long time, they know so little about this man other than the label, that when he is not blind, he is like a stranger to them. They are so focused on his deficiency that they don’t even want to let him tell his own story. And they see lots of things they think cannot be or that they don’t know. And ones they are sure others don’t know.

Jesus sees a man who needs to be healed. And heals him. That’s it.

Everything else is about how others are so quick to return to the deficiencies. And the poor man who for his whole life has been excluded from the synagogue and can FINALLY worship there, ends up back where he started. Kicked out. Kicked out of the very life he could finally have.

And he’s separated again.

Then Jesus comes to heal him again. Jesus heals him a second time.

He sees the man and restores him. The first time he healed him of his blindness. This time he heals him of the wounds caused by the blindness of others. He gives him a place, and shows him that Jesus stands with him.

I think that Jesus coming that second time helps us see that Jesus meets us here in the places we need to be healed. Because in our lives we too have lists of deficiencies, the one we have for ourselves, and the one that is made up of the deficiencies of others. The places where we think it is “not enough!” Where we think that we are not enough, where we look at our city, or this church or our world and only see it as “not enough.” Places full of what we can’t see or cannot be. These are the lists of word, perceptions, and fears that keep our lives at the surface level only. That keep us from really living. The things that keep us from seeing ourselves as created in God’s image, and loved; from seeing others and our world in the same way.

Jesus comes and sees and wants to heal. Comes again this day to us to heal us. And again and again. To remind us that God sees with eyes of love and grace. To wash away all those deficiencies like so much mud.
To open our eyes to see the light of the world made known to us in the work of the cross. So we can let go of what we cannot see or don’t know. Because the only thing we need to know is the love of God in Jesus for us.

Let us pray- Lord, thank you for coming into our world and healing us from our blindness and the effects of the blindness of others. Thank you for seeing us with eyes of love and forgiveness. Wash away the words, perceptions and fears that we are sure cannot be or cannot change, so that all we see is the only thing we need to know- your son Jesus, the light of the world. Amen


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Listen, Remember and Live

Listen. From the very beginning God has been saying we should listen. Our brains are capable of listening to about 125 words a minute, but thinking about 1,000 to 3,000 in the same amount of time. If you search for resources on effective listening, there are 1000’s of entries because most of us are preoccupied or distracted about 75% of the time. So many choices.

Listen, Adam, Remember and live. He must’ve told Eve once she was created. Because when the serpent comes, saying- “So you really think you can’t do that? You think you’ll die?” She remembers, “That’s right, and we’re not even going to touch it.”  

No one told Adam not to touch the tree. Those brains were already thinking. “Are you sure? You don’t really believe that do you? Eat it and you’ll be like God. Then who needs God?” In a modern world, they would have gotten on the internet and Googled trees to see if what God said seemed right. When we want to go our own way, we choose who we listen to.  

Adam and Eve don’t die, but something’s different. They’re ashamed and nervous. They try to fix it. And that’s when they decide to sew together the fig leaves. And I wonder whose idea THAT was. The first generations of people hearing the story would’ve laughed hysterically. “They did what? They used fig leaves?!” Fig leaves on bare skin would have felt like sandpaper. Scratch, scratch, Hurry up before God gets here. Scratch, scratch. We don’t want to be caught, Scratch. Scratch.

Like that would work. While God is angered, God gives them real clothes.

When we humans think we’ve become like God we usually show we really cannot handle the knowledge. Sadly, our track record shows that those scratchy fig leaves are the least of it. God made us to prosper, serve and to care for- but we’d rather control and plunder and take over. Forgetting God’s promise to sustain us. The scratching leads to clawing and fighting and killing. Too many examples abound.

Lent offers time to stop and listen to God and find our way, which is about our identity and purpose. Adam and Eve received an identity and a task, assured they were provided for. But that fruit looked really good to eat, what could be wrong? And that’s how evil works. We’re most often not enticed with things that appear to be bad, but things that seem good.

There are two things at work- God testing and evil tempting. We often see them the same because we don’t want either. We want to go our own path. God’s testing stretches and encourages us. It strengthens us to trust God and to follow a framework for living. God wants to show us that we are able with God’s help to be faithful. And that God desires life for us.

At the same time however, the Tempter’s purpose is to convince us that’s a horrible idea. To try and cause us to make a mistake, to sin. God’s purpose is to strengthen faith. Satan’s purpose is to weaken it. We must always ask-what are we listening to? Will it draw us closer to God or cast us farther away?

And here’s the thing-temptation is not coercion. No one forced the first humans to eat, or Jesus to eat bread. Tempters can’t make us do things, but they can convince us to want to. They don’t take away our will, they try to change it. Usually it’s not about not knowing what to do, just wanting to do something different. And picking who we listen to.

Even worse, the choices are blurred-decisions that can be good involve the wrong timing, or have large scale consequences we might not grasp. If we do not continually listen to God’s word and remember, we lose perspective.

Worship is the key way we listen and to remember God’s words for life. Notice I did not say “church.” Deciding to go to church is like deciding to go to the mall. Coming to worship God is different.

Deciding to go to church is about whether anything really big is happening, or who we want to sit with. We can then choose to not come when it’s not tempting enough. Because we don’t need church to worship God. We can listen to the voice saying spending time with family or catching up on rest is better. After all we won’t die if we don’t come. And worship is not just an hour on Sunday, but every day of our lives.

Is the timing of our choices rooted in worshipping and serving God? Do our choices sustain our relationship or not? Will sports or travel or anything else have the power to save us, anymore than bread alone? What would it mean for us to test our own resolve to truly listen to and serve God?

After Jesus was baptized, the very first thing God says is- This is my Son- listen to him. And today if we do, we see that the core of the temptations Jesus faced, was not about whether he was the Son of God but whether he would rely upon his power in self serving ways that would lead him away from his mission. His responses stay true to his identity and mission. He remained steadfast in believing in God’s power and providing.

The core of what we face is not about whether we are children of God but whether we rely upon self serving ways or God’s power in our lives. Where are we self-serving? Where are we struggling with trust in God? Where are we angry with God for not simply acting according to our demands?

You are probably wondering where the gospel is this day. Here is the good news- 
Jesus after 40 days in the wilderness fasting surely was tempted. But shows not only his identity but his obedience, even to the cross. Knowing what he endured, and what was to come, and knowing our track record as humans, he gave his followers a prayer.

A prayer that meets us wherever wilderness is, and whatever temptation looks like. So we can listen to and remember God’s way. And strengthen our faith. Not only in Sunday worship but every day.

Martin Luther suggested we begin each day by thanking God, then saying the 10 Commandments and saying the prayer Jesus gave-the Lords Prayer. Every day- first thing- to shape the whole day. I imagine how some days, our attention would be caught by different parts of the words. Perhaps not unlike how Jesus felt in those 40 days. Practicing for when the tempter came. So he could hear God’s words more strongly than others.

I invite you on this day we have all lost an hours sleep, to close your eyes, resist sleep, and let’s listen.

“I thank you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, your Dear Son, that You have kept me this night from all harm and danger, and I pray that you would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please you. For into your hands I commend myself, my body, and soul and all things. Let your holy angel be with me that the evil one may have no power over me. Amen.”

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery

You shall have no other gods before me,

You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain,

Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,

Honor your mother and father,

You shall not kill,

You shall not commit adultery,

You shall not steal,

You shall not bear false witness,

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,

You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor

Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as in heaven

Give us this day our daily bread

And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory

Forever and ever



What if those were the first words we heard each day?

And what if every week when we saw how we did or did not reach those words, we were then here to listen, remember and be strengthened,  wherever the week had gone to hear-

This is my body given for you, this is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Remember.

This is for us.

Listen, remember, and live.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Reflections on Ashes

This year we should be feeling blessed by a “late” Lent and Easter season. Instead we have been surrounded by so much cold and damage and dirt of a season that has assaulted us that we are surely ready for the ashes of it to blow away with the next strong gust. So the new life of spring can start.

While different times in the church year can signify endings and beginnings, for me perhaps Lent is my favorite. Today we receive ashes made from the palms of last year’s Hosannas, and they are also ashes of everywhere the journey took us after Palm Sunday. A whole year of places of love, truth, patience and kindness. And places of affliction, hardship, sleepless nights and hunger.

All of it burned away to dust.

What starts out like a giant leafy palm, becomes the small amount of dust in this dish. There are actually a few palms that became our ashes. But even if we had all the palms we waived last year, there would be room in that dish.

I think it’s a concrete way of seeing that we cannot store up the praise or the glory we think we’ve achieved. We cannot hold onto that dust.

But are also reminded not to hold onto the pain of the times that we really messed up or where someone really hurt us.

Let that dust blow away.

This is my third year to work with our dust. And at a fundamental level my comfortableness with the ashes reminds me of how it all comes to this dust. You see, they don’t teach us how to make ashes in seminary.

My first year, I had little idea how to make the right ashes and I got lots of unhelpful advice like what my internship supervisor said- let the sexton do it. I fussed and fussed to get it right- not to crumbly, not too oily. I made a huge mess and ended up with far more ashes than we needed.  Enough for decades of Ash Wednesdays.

But once mixed with oil, they don’t keep. Last year’s oil is pretty nasty. In spite of all the fretting, if you do not remember those ashes, that is a grace. If you do, sorry.

My second year, there were so many things going on that I waited until the last minute. I was so preoccupied and as a result, they were not fully set- too spare for the early service. Barely a cross maker at all. If you don’t remember that, that also is a grace. And if you do, let it go.

This year, I put a little oil in the dish and dumped in the ashes and walked away. When I came back later, a couple stirs and they were ready. Which probably means there should be a whole lot less of me, and all the things I hold onto. And a whole lot more of God and God’s timing. After all, God is used to making things from dust. And making something from what feels like chaos.

These ashes remind us where we’ve been and yet invite us into a season that’s about working through the chaos. To get to what’s essential. What is not essential is burned up or blows away. Jan Richardson writes that Lent challenges us to reflect upon what we have filled our days and lives with. To see what habits and practices, possessions or ways of being have accumulated, or taken over. Where is a pattern of chaos threatening to block our seeing the presence of God?

Each scripture passage today invites us to ponder what our practices are and which ones we have given ourselves over to. And which ones God calls us to- individually and as a community. To pay close attention to the rhythms of our lives to see which practices draw us closer to God and which pull us away.

We ask God to create in us a clean heart. Lent asks- What is the state of your heart?

What has taken up residence there?

Are there habits or ways of being that you are so invested in or attached to that it is difficult to see new places God might be inviting you to move into?

Out of the good and the bad and even the ugly of a year, God is creating a new path that takes those ashes and makes a new path marked by a cross. Making beautiful things from the dust.

On this day and throughout this season may see more clearly what is treasure and may our hearts be open to the unexpected life that only God in Christ can bring. That cross-it’s the only thing that we truly need.

And because of our loving God it’s the one promise we can be sure of.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Living in Dignity

There's a word we don’t hear in our lessons today. We hear so much about love it almost just rolls past us. But one word I think we should engage is Dignity. It never appears in our lessons but I think is very much a part of what God’s law and Jesus’ teaching are about-the worth of each person God created matters to God. Dignity is a word sorely needed in our world on so many levels. Not the least of which is the notion that “Stand your ground” and “turn the other cheek” are incompatible.

Jesus is preaching and talking about loving neighbors and the crowd knows it. It’s from Leviticus-Love your neighbor as yourself. But here’s the thing- the word that is not in Leviticus-enemy. There’s no hating enemy in Leviticus. It might seem like Jesus is a little sloppy about remembering Leviticus. But I think he preaches to what he knows people have decided to believe. “Not my neighbor” means “OK to hate.”

He preaches dignity to the crowd for themselves, for those Galileans who are oppressed by the Roman rule, and for all their others. We all have “others.” The ones who are not neighbors to love.

I’m just back from the Youth Sleepover, where kids constantly question the scope of how much is really expected, questions about what each newly encountered situation demands: “ But Pastor…!” you REALLY mean I have to do THIS?” No wonder those 10 commandments became over 600 rules in Leviticus. We all ask the questions.

Today Jesus sums up God’s “yes” to our “No” about the poor, the stranger, the deaf, blind, rich, extended family, and more. All the people we encounter not those we want to. And if you think about your day and who you encounter- it’s often largely not family. If you stop and think many of us encounter and spend more time with the doctor, the store clerk, the bus driver, the food server, coworkers.  What does it mean to love and honor them? With dignity? Maybe it starts with seeing them as people in the picture as opposed subjects of McWages,  immigration limits, healthcare and more.

A little deeper, think about all the people you just cannot abide or maybe even have hurt you. Them too? One of our kids on the overnight is struggling with controlling anger. She already has a label-she has “anger management” issues. Like that ends the possibilities. She's been taught it's the response to everything that is challenging. When she gets mad she thinks nothing of “popping” the offender. But I have "anger management issues." She insists that “ I choose my attitude based upon how you treat me.” Sounds kind of like “eye for an eye.” And she can hold her anger and not let go. As I work with her to find better avenues, I shared with her the saying “holding a grudge is like letting someone live rent free in your head.” Why would any of us give that much of us to our "enemy"?

It sounds easy to talk the talk, but the real walk is so much harder. Because frankly til Jesus is done, there are no enemies. And love isn’t just about being nice, its about God’s framework as our lens. Our default says it’s not possible. Or at the least that some great models accomplish it but it’s not reality. It is easy to overlook God at the center of relationships-I am the Lord and YOUR God.

Our walking in God’s ways and also turning away from things takes God. Relationships and wisdom are not static. Not just memorized it in Sunday school. Not a simple set of brightline moments. We tend to collapse time and history in ways that take away the reality of all of the in between good and bad. Owning the journey may be one way to then recognize the importance of walking close with God in guidance. Even if it’s only in looking back that we see where we’ve been with God. 

The truth is that if we really try, being God’s people, God’s reflection is heavy duty lifting. Yet, the early Christian church’s ability to embrace this and to relieve the misery and hardship of urban life for the majority poor in cities was the major factor in growth of Christianity. Being a persistent, pervasive and reflection of Christ so that the community is seen as God's.

Even as we might cringe to hear that God will provide for the good and evil. Comprehensive, indiscriminate and undeserved kindness is God. Even in Jesus’ time Josephus noted - “it is surely madness to expect God to show the same treatment to the just and the unjust!” The struggle is timeless. And it sounds so good but it’s so hard.

This is where I think our translation of the gospel gets it wrong. We hear “be perfect.” And frankly that be perfect part is just not for real. That’s kind of a crappy translation. Looking back to Leviticus, we hear- be holy as I the Lord your God am holy. And I think it’s fair to say that related to being holy is being whole. The greater righteousness which embodies God’s empire imitates God in wholeness.

To be whole or holy takes active trust and obedience- walking with. It takes what only God can give- faith and the Spirit

Constant and comprehensive love even in the face of opposition is what we see of God across Scripture and then to the cross. And we are then empowered to be whole, doing love toward all, including those we call enemies.

To even begin takes constant discerning of what the kingdom looks like in each situation. But one writer notes, “no matter who we are the Jesus truth is this: Because I am made in the image of God, I am deserving of dignity and respect. Often Sunday School repetition has lessened the shocking impact of Jesus’ words for us today, nothing can lessen even for us, how very hard it is for us to love an enemy: how incredibly difficult it is to live this truth. But if we are to live as people of dignity, it is a skill we have to learn.”

And here is where there is another challenge. We often lift up great models of the faith- Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others. Like they are icons or super Christians. And they are almost inaccessible. Often model people of the faith are hard for us to embrace as connected to us.

So I want to share in closing two stories about everyday people in the struggle to live God’s dignity.

On the sleepover, our 12 kids got there to join about 100 kids total. We were sitting church for the opening and one of our girls turned to me and said, “Pastor, we are surrounded by a sea of whiteness. How’s this gonna be for us?” The fear of the enemy dynamic was alive for her. How will the Riveras and Figueroas, and Rosarios fit in the picture? As it turned out our 11 girls were put in a room with three girls from Bernville, a town of a few hundred that doesn’t experience our diversity. I am happy to say that in the midst of concern, the gospel was proclaimed in how everyone came together. Even if it centered around Justin Bieber as much as Jesus. That’s a story that has to continue to be lived to become working reality.

Here’s the second story, of love and dignity when it has not been reality. Philip Yancy’s book Rumours of Another World tells of South Africa, at a Truth and Reconciliation hearing after the end of apartheid. Where people tried to reconcile the injustices.

“A policeman recounted how he and other officers, had shot at point blank range an 18 year old boy, just because he was black and then burned the body to destroy the evidence. Eight years later, the men returned to the boy’s home and forced his mother to watch as they bound her husband, poured gas over him and set him on fire. The room grew quieter and quieter. And then the judge turned to the woman and asked: ’what do you want from him?’

She replied, ‘I want him to go to the place my husband was burned, and gather up the dust there so that I can give him a decent burial.’

‘He took all my family away from me, but I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to my home and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like him to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know forgiveness is real.”

Imagine the power of that wholeness.

I cannot imagine the cost to her, what her neighbors thought of her. But what dignity, healing and hope she brought through her love for her enemy, not just to herself, and not just for him, but for all who hear the story. Including us.

We don’t love our neighbors because they deserve it. We love them because God says they are our sisters, and our brothers, and because God, while we were yet sinners, loved us first.”

God calls us into this holiness, this wholeness, this love. It is hard work. But if we want to live with dignity, it is the only thing to do.

(For more on this I invite you to read "What Dignity" on the blog)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why is Jesus So Harsh?

This past week I was coming home after a full day of Bible Club, distributing grocery bags and Table Church and my neighbor was standing on his porch asking, ”Can I have communion and can you tell me the gospel reading for Sunday?” He has missed Table Church and was going to be away Sunday.  It had been a long day and frankly I was tired. My first response was to say the gospel was Matthew 5 on killing, adultery and divorce and that I didn’t have any communion at home. Yes, I know I really did say that at first.  

I’d traveled long that day. I really didn’t want to turn around and walk back to church and get the communion ready and walk back again... About one whole minute later, I popped back outside and said-“ I’ll be right back.”  I went back and got wine and wafers and as I came back, he apologized if I had gone to any trouble. But really, how many people are so focused on Jesus that they would even ask? It seemed necessary. And it was for both of us.

I set up communion in the dining room and started reading this gospel lesson from Matthew. As I read it frankly all I could imagine was someone hearing it who needed some good news and it's murder, adultery, divorce, hell fire. It’s harsh. And I almost felt like I needed to resolve it in some way. So I talked a little about how sometimes as a parent and even before that as a child there have been the “hard conversations” where the niceties get stripped away and we tell people straight up truth not only about love but owning our actions. And how all the rules we had for our kids were about showing them how to live in life and love. Our “law” wasn’t about creating a game no one could win. The words themselves might sound harsh but they have a purpose. That sounded good.

Then I pointed out that it’s easy to hone in on the sexy words of divorce or adultery or the fierce words of murder where lots of judging happens and say- well I didn’t do THAT! But Jesus is speaking about things much more broadly- the ways we are all somehow drawn into the scope of words that kill, promises broken, lives shattered ad hearts that are grieved. Not just where we are victims but actors. And you know, when Jesus puts it that way, it’s pretty hard to be judgey. We want to believe that our relativism or comparison strategies count. It stings to be reminded that none of us is who we were created to be or even wanted to be. And that sounded good too.

Well, then I suggested that the good news is there is more to the story- that though we cannot live up the law, God’s grace in the cross is the last word.  And although that’s true it kind of fell flat.

Luckily I think he wasn't listening to that. Because he was emotional and said hearing those words from Matthew were just what he needed. He had felt someone was a little insulting and sarcastic, so he had been a little salty back. Reflecting later he realized that the other person might not have understood and he needed to make it right. He wasn’t focused on “just get to the grace.” He was focused on the ethics. And it really wasn’t a terrible thing he’d said, but he looked for a time to work together with this person where they both volunteer to have a conversation to clear the air and tie up loose ends.
And then he shared that it felt good to do that. Hearing Jesus’ words about our ethics, affirmed not just what he had done but to keep doing it. Keep choosing to transform something rather than just let it go. We really do need that accountability. This is what Jesus is getting at. One scholar I know says, following Jesus means doing what Jesus says which is MORE demanding than other paths. And it is about community. Just appealing to grace won’t cut it.
And I think I played the grace card because I felt guilty about my earlier words.

We can opt for recognizing and trying to gloss over our human failure but Jesus goes to the root- our motive and attitude matter. And the justice and righteousness of which Jesus speaks- God’s transformative will-demands confronting and changing the status quo in all of us.
When we do not live this way, we are not participating in the completion of God’s purposes.
The law is not about pleasing God, it’s what’s given for our life- all of us. More than a negative goal of avoiding sin. But a positive one of discovering and following what is God’s will. The sting we feel is not that God’s being harsh, its our experiencing the potential for pain and destruction our brokenness brings and seeing our role.

All the examples Jesus gives show that destructive expressions kill. Angry thoughts, words of contempt, insults, public shaming, emotional abuse, disgrace. Choosing to demean and discard. We want to hear these are not as bad as killing. But we know in our hearts how these destroy and cause loss of life. Even when we think it’s a little thing, we are sacrificing each other in ways that harm more than we know and break our connectedness.  God calls us to keep each other focused by giving us this community.
When we are not reconciled in relationships we find life lacking. But the work of tending relationships is not convenient. The story of leaving the sacrifice imagines journeying 80 miles to do something only to turn right around and journey back the same distance and another week to participate in mending a rift. Much farther than a block. That’s how far we should go to avoid allowing bad in relationships to remain unresolved. Or risk someone feeling lost altogether.

It shows the importance of relationships to God and what Jesus shows is what God gives for us. For life. We don't find life in the comparison strategies or relativism we want to rely upon.  Even in what lots of people gravitate to- the part about divorce. Jesus is speaking to protect dignity so that no one is demeaned or cut off. In Jesus’ day marriage was a male prerogative in which destructive behaviors included victimizing women to abandoning them for things as simple a thing as spoiling a meal. Jesus proclaims that destructive behaviors undo the “One flesh-ness” of marriage. Even here, no matter how we try, none of us perfectly escapes times we undo the one body-ness of many relationships in some way.  

And living with perfection is beyond our grasp.

This is where Jesus continues to come to show us and lead us into new places and to offer forgiveness. In seeing our brokenness then we grasp the power and love of the cross. And the strength to try again to live into the ethics of the kingdom. Where we show and experience God revealed. Together. In all our thinking, speaking and living. Even the simplest words.

My neighbor didn’t need to share his experience with me- he could have kept it to himself. He shared because he had a need. But it wasn't for me to make Jesus more palatable. He  and I needed to hear Jesus say again that doing the hard work of relationships was holy and that God’s word, communion and fellowship are where continually we meet the God who promises to lead us not into temptation or the destruction of evil, but into the kingdom. My neighbor said at the end that when he is away from church too long, he can feel it. That he needs it. We all do.

And the other day he saw I was stressed and called out, “Pastor,  just remember Matthew 5. “