Sunday, March 22, 2015

I Will Draw Them All


Perhaps I am just ready, beyond ready for spring. Today we hear Jesus say he must be lifted up, and to the ears of those listening they imagine he means “exalted.” Which is a word not often used in our everyday speech. But to be exalted reminds me of what we see when the winning pitcher or the MVP is lifted up and carried by teammates after the big victory. That image of baseball season seems to work well for most of us. Not just for the warm weather it imagines. Or maybe you’ve been into March Madness and the winning team hoists someone up to cut the net off the hoop. That’s the kind of lifted up people expect.

In the gospel, the Greeks have come to see Jesus. They have come on the heels of Jesus having raised Lazarus from the dead. They are drawn by the curiosity and the power of that move. For the glory, or maybe they are like people perhaps who become fans when the winning streak is on. But as far as we know, they don’t see Jesus at all. Which is ironic since carved into some old pulpits is the phrase, " Sir, we wish to see Jesus." 
Instead, Jesus, hearing of their presence says that it indicates something else- God’s broader mission beyond the people of the covenant, and that for Jesus, his time is up. By the time the Greeks have caught the message, things must move quickly.

And he says what probably confounded everyone- you want to see me now? Come see me when I am lifted up- that will draw everyone.

But of course he’s not talking about the victory exaltation- he’s talking about a bloodied, naked body on a cross on Skull Hill. Why on earth would THAT draw people? I once knew a pastor who had a life sized cross and he would have it laid across a section of the pews each week during Lent. And people refused to sit anywhere near it. Avoided it at all costs. Finally someone came and told him that that cross wrecked the beauty of the sanctuary.

Since the time of my installation, when we borrowed a processional cross from Christ Hazelton, I thought we should have a processional cross here. Frank and Barb Gaval have been working on a processional cross for this congregation. For us to use on special days like Palm Sunday, Easter and the like. But it’s not just a cross- it’s a crucifix. With Jesus lifted up. In the course of its preparation, Barb and I have talked about what a moving experience it has been and the challenge to get Jesus “right.” Some of that is about things like Jesus’ head being the right size or the draping of the arms, and proportion. But the deeper challenge has been things like deciding to make a crown of thorns, choosing the nails to nail Jesus to the cross. And the temptation to give Jesus a little more to wear than we know he was wearing. Can’t he wear a little more than one strip of cloth?

This wrestling with seeing Christ lifted up – in the flesh points up our own wrestling with what it means to imagine God’s love in the flesh in a visible body, in an explicit and heartbreaking way. And the sacrifice.

In death. Jesus followers expected a Messiah who would live forever, and the Greeks expected a victor. No one was looking for death and loss. Just as then, we abhor the notions of death and loss. Not just in imaging that death on the cross, but the concept of sacrifice. We prefer perhaps a different Jesus.

And the question for us as it was for those Greeks and the disciples is I think, which Jesus draws us here? A vision of glory or that seed willing to die for the sake of bearing much fruit?

Every believer and every pastor is tempted, you see- just like the temptation to give Jesus more clothes. Tempted to “realize the kingdom of God apart from the cross of Christ. We are tempted to win the world and draw people here with programs, agendas, food. And we excel at that those here. But perhaps maybe we think at the most basic level because the message of the cross seems by itself, ineffective, counterintuitive, even foolish.” Leading with the cross may not seem like the best idea. People want beautiful and dynamic congregations. And after all, if people see how well we care for ourselves, they will want to be a part. People want winners.

And we are dynamic and vibrant. Yet sometimes I have heard already, we are so good at it. That we communicate that we have it all figured out- and if you do not, maybe there is no place for you. Or that all our programs already so well run, that maybe there is no place for you and your energy.

All of our efforts and ideas, while not entirely bad also have the potential to draw us away from God’s simple truth- it’s not the congregation that draws people into the kingdom, but the Son of Man lifted up. For all.

Yes, we participate in programs and initiatives, and we derive immense pleasure from relationships and events. But at the heart of the reason and the center and the mission is always- God’s Son lifted up for us. This is the game changing love and light for our lives and the promise for all.  


At a certain level we communicate that every day when the lights come on at night. I am not sure how many of you have looked at it lately- we have a profoundly beautiful stained glass window. When I first came, I was not sure what the breathtakingly beautiful stained glass window with all its color and movement was depicting. Frankly, I thought it was depicting the beginning of creation. Perhaps that means I watch too much Big Bang theory.

 It was only in the daylight that I saw the crown of thorns on the outside. Then a visitor asked me about the window, and I confess I didn’t know. So I asked to know more. And learned that the window depicts Christ on the cross, looking down at his head wearing the crown of thorns. And the love and power and new creation that radiates from him. It’s not only breathtaking, it lights this part of the Valley. It shows us the breathtaking beauty of God’s love for the world that we are invited to share. It shows us the heart of God willing to risk it all and it points ever outward. Love and sacrifice.

There is blessing and challenge in this- If God’s mission is ever outward, like the light of our stained glass window showing the vibrance emanating from that crown of thorns, are we ever outwardly turned?

Do we know the needs of the Greeks in our midst, those unchurched? Those who gave up on church? Those who long for a message of good news? Do we know how to find them and meet them with the gospel? And re we ready to let our seeds die for the answer? If they come, are we who love life here prepared to lose it to draw others closer in the kingdom of the cross, even in something as simple as sharing “our seat”?

May God forgive us and then renew us with a clean heart when we realize there are moments when in truth we know that the answer we know in our hearts is “no.”

The good news is that we are saved by the Son of Man lifted up. Not left to try to earn God’s love. Whether we do well or fall short. And we are saved from the belief we have to be perfectly dynamic- Christ on the cross, revealing God’s love is sufficient. It is sufficient for our life and sufficiently good news to share. We are called first simply to believe in this grace and power and live life in faith- that the one whose desire is to draw all into the kingdom will lead ever into the future.

And then, we are called to believe that the God whose desire is always to draw all- empowers us to help others see Jesus. Let’s not let the Greeks be the example- let’s not let people fail to see Jesus.  We are approaching Holy Week- may it be a time when we invite. And maybe, let’s dare to let go of what we might be holding onto that becomes an obstacle, but believe God will bring forth fruit for us all. So look at the cross, and may we be ever drawn deeper into the heart of our Lord and life for all.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

God's Love for the whole World


Whenever our daughters fought when they were younger, there was a lot of stair stomping and door slamming. and they would fight with one another about who had the right idea, invariably, someone would stomp off with one yelling, “I’m leaving!” And the other yelling back some variation of “GO ahead! See if I care!” When I read the passage of Moses and the people in the Book of Numbers, and all of the whining and grousing of the people about the food and the water and oy! I wonder if it doesn’t go through God’s mind to just say- “Go ahead, you stiff necked people, see if I care!” And it is disturbing to imagine that God would subject them to the poisonous snakes. Although in another sense, perhaps God who has been watching over them in all their kvetching while helping them overcome obstacles may in fact just be deciding to stop holding back the snakes. Because normally those snakes would have been around. And maybe until now they have been kept at bay, but now, they are set loose. In the anger and hurt and sense of betrayal. and maybe just like perhaps we have as parents sometimes decided, let the rebellious experience what they seem determined to experience.

When Moses comes to God in prayer for the people it may even feel like a pointless prayer, as he too has been the subject of their complaining. But he prays. God still responds and tells Moses how the people can be healed and live. They are reminded what got them there to that troubled place, and what there is no place for. But the last word is what God has overcome for them. The last word is love.

When I worked as a chaplain I was paged to a modern day situation like that. A mother was in her daughter’s room in ICU, grief stricken and angry. The daughter who hadn’t been in good health for a variety of lifestyle reasons had come to live with her Mom who wanted to take care of her and help her. But because doing so often involved a clash of choices, it was often confrontational. And on a particular day, the daughter, whose whining had reached epic levels and the mother who frustration matched it, had a shouting match which ended as the daughter pronounced she was leaving and the mother shouting at her- Go ahead! And knowing that her daughter was really sick, she also said words she probably meant to keep in her head, but they came out anyway followed it up with- You can die for all I care!

Words borne as much out of grief as prediction, because the daughter seemed determined to buck all efforts to live.

Well, on a hot day, this sickly, overweight daughter, blood pressure soaring, stomped off down the street, on a hot, humid summer afternoon in the city. And it was only a matter of time before she collapsed from a combination of the heat, diabetes and toxins. She ended up in the hospital, potentially not expected to live. Near death at the hands of the modern day serpents in her life. Proof that God who gives us freedom will let us have all of the hell and poison we want if we are determined to have it. There we were.

The mother had called for a chaplain, barely able to contain her emotions. Wanting healing for her daughter, she was also wracked with sadness at having the possibility of the last words her daughter heard her say be those poisonous words. That the last moments were hearts cracked and broken and toxic.

I asked her what she would say to her daughter if she could, and it wasn’t - boy did you screw up! It was- I want to tell her that I love her and I want her to live. And in that moment, the mother glimpsed the heart of God. The heart of a God who wants us to be healed and saved. This is the love we hear of in the Gospel- that even in the midst of colossal mistakes and heartaches and sin, God sends Jesus because God loves us and wants us to live.

Just like that mother wondering why on earth her daughter rebelled so often against what was life giving, God wonders how anyone would choose another way. Rob Bell writes, “How could someone choose another way with a universe of love and joy and peace right in front of them? We see it all the time. And we choose it when we isolate ourselves, give the cold shoulder to someone who has slighted us. When we hide knives in our words and harden our hearts in defiance of what we know to be loving and good and right. That impulse lurks in all of us…if we want isolation and despair…if we want nothing to do with love, we are given that.”

And then it is easy to imagine God whose ultimate purpose is to condemn and to punish. Because somewhere in our hearts there is a crack, there is a poison and brokenness that needs to be healed.

Healing began for the mother in the hospital even as her daughter was being healed. There would be more words between them. She let go of the toxic and those cracks in her heart began to mend as we prayed- and she joined in by telling God she didn’t know who the lady was that came to the room, but she knew what God wanted her to see, what mattered and to be forgiven. To know that even though the journey would still be hard, more than anything she wanted her daughter to wake up so she could say “I love you.” As the days passed and the daughter improved, I prayed it was hopefully the start of a new story for them.

“When we crave the light, are drawn to the truth, and are desperate for grace, God gives” us what God’s heart longs to share-that Jesus was sent not to condemn but to save. Lifted up on a cross to show us both the depths of our sin uncontained and God’s victory over all that robs us of life. So we can live a new story.

God’s love in the cross creates a new relationship of uncontainable things- love, and joy and grace. In those moments when we experience it, truly, we can’t help but share it. Jesus invites us into the heart of God and a new promise. An ongoing story of new creation and healing and transforming our hearts to be closer to God’s. This is who God is, what Christ shows and accomplishes for all.

And God’s love for us is why “God continues to come, year after year, to person after person…to show us an expansive and indestructible love that’s been ours all along- every single one of us.” Even the ones we’d just as soon say “see if I care!” to. Jesus is endlessly inviting us to trust, accept, believe, embrace and experience it again and again. God comes to save- whenever we believe that, it changes everything- how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we see God.

So again this day we look at the cross, picture Christ and the new life we are given. And then keep believing that a love “as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in our hearts we think no one knows we have” is God’s love for the whole world.

 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Words for Life


For the third week in Lent, I have been focusing upon the covenants of the Old Testament with the childrens’ message. So far, we have explored Noah, and Abraham, and now this week Moses. God used Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom and God gave the 10 Commandments to Moses for the people. Because if you have been a slave with no ability to make choices and now you have freedom, what should that look like? I shared a few “commandments” of my own- “ You are your own boss. Do whatever you want, whenever you want to” and “Parents just don’t get it- ignore them when you want to” “ the one with the most toys wins” and “lies are OK if they keep you out of trouble.” The kids wisely knew those were not right. God wants us and everyone to have life that is good. God’s words for us help us remember how to treat others and how to be connected to God.  Then I shared a few more “commandments” with the rest of the congregation.

 

“Decide who is important and what is important and pay attention to those people and those things.”

“It doesn’t matter how you use God’s name-swear, tell people who God hates. Use God’s name to get what you want because God is on your side.”

“It doesn’t matter if you worship on Sunday, or any other day. Come whenever. If you have things you would rather do, go do them.”

“the main thing is to get what you want, if you want it. Figure out how to get it.”

“Lies are OK if you get what you want. It’s OK to make other people look bad if it helps you look good.”

You can find these commandments in books, or in popular culture, maybe even embroidered on a pillow. And they point up how at odds being God’s people really is. The 10 Commandments are at odds with life as we know it. It is, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, foolishness.

Add to that our perception of “the Law” as the commandments can be called. Our views of the legal system and regulations, perhaps on our mind here in tax season. And of course we have opinions about lawyers. All of those things can get added into how we hear “the Law.” Like it’s a hammer. We chafe against it.

It can be hard to remember that these are actually God’s 10 words- that’s the Hebrew. God’s 10 Words for Life. Given out of love by a God who has saved the people, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of slavery” and literally in Exodus 19, God says- I bore you up on eagle’s wings. It’s a mothering image. A loving image of a God who saves people and makes promises and provides for life. All of the covenants in some way embrace this.

From Noah, being told never again will creation be destroyed, to Abraham being promised he will be the Father of generations. Look at the stars in the sky- more numerous shall your descendants be. To Moses- I have freed you and I want you to be able to handle freedom.  That’s what the 10 words are about. Life for all.

Given by a God who we hear in Psalm 19 has created an arrangement for all of creation- setting those stars in the sky. Creating life for all- beauty and diversity and abundance. For each of us and all of us. We are connected.

In one connected relationship with God and all of creation.

And it then can seem for a moment, so simple. The  10 Commandments are not long.

But it gets complicated by all our layers of regulations and understandings. Our limits and rules.

And Jesus shows up in the temple where people are bogged down in all those layers of barriers and limits and separation. Where what had been well meaning had gotten lost.

In the system of the temple, the people brought sacrifices- if you came to seek forgiveness, you brought a sacrifice; if you came to give thanks, you brought a sacrifice. The sacrifice system was intended to tend a relationship. And so it would seem that selling animals people needed would make sense. Except that the focus had become so much about the business of the selling, the real focus got lost. And Jesus started flipping tables and clearing out those layers.

So what does that say to us today? After all, we don’t have a temple or a sacrifice system.  The sacrifice has been made in that cross for us.  For one, a reminder that we are not earning something.  One of our confirmands asked whether the 10 Commandments were really just a reward system. And people believe that. God’s 10 words for us are not about earning something. We don’t earn our salvation- that same cross made on our foreheads in baptism shows us God’s words for our life. Christ is the promise and decision for us for life already. God’s love and grace are already assured. We can live in that freedom.

We can remember that we too are not perfect in our living- but have been given God’s promise and forgiveness. In this season of Lent when we consider what it means to walk more closely with God, we can ask what in our lives needs to be cleared out that is creating barriers, or separation or is not centered in proclaiming Christ?

I have no agenda when I say this for us personally or as the church. I’m too new to even guess. It’s just a question, but it is the question. What is our focus? Why do we do what we do? What might need clearing?

Where we find our lives are centered in proclaiming Christ, may we give praise. Where they are not may we turn again to the God who claims us, forgives us and loves us enough to give us words for life.

 

 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Challenging "Possible"


(This year in the season of Lent, with our children we are focusing upon the covenants we hear of in the Old Testament between God and the people. And in Sunday and Wednesday worship we are using Faith 5 Lenten resources which break down the lessons into three themes- the first two weeks focusing upon Jesus coming to challenge. This week, the Old Testament reading from Genesis lifted up the covenant God communicated to Abram, now Abraham- the promise of generations to come through him even as he was 99 years old. An idea that makes young and old laugh even today. But we talked about how earlier God has told Abraham this would be so and took him out to look up at the night sky at the stars- and especially here in the country where there is less light pollution, the sky on a clear night is chock full of stars. We can truly get that they are impossible to count. Just like it’s hard for us to get just how much God loves us and wants to bring forth blessing. The kids took sticky metallic stars and handed them out amongst themselves and the whole congregation. And we encouraged people put them on clothing not the bulletin and to see how long that star would stay on that day even after worship. Later in worship, what a delight it was to see people of all ages coming up with stars on their shirts and sweaters- on the pin a lady was wearing, or the suspenders of a gentleman. As they came forward for communion, most tried to catch my eye to see if I saw their star. And what a joy to see the delight and life in the people as each week I call the kids forward and some run to get to the front of the church (gasp!) for our time together. It’s amazing what God makes possible!)

So today, all of our lessons are about challenging what we think is possible. Surely the covenant God was making with Abraham seemed impossible. After all, if I ask the man who today we acknowledged for celebrating a 90th birthday what he would think if tonight he was told he’s fathering a child, we can see his laugh and head shake “no!” God told Abraham this but then time passed before the conversation we see today and it had be even more improbable. How astounding to have God already have told you that your descendants will be more numerous than the stars in the night sky. The verses we skip today would tell us not only that Abraham fell face down at this, but he laughed. He and Sarah laughed! Now God comes to make this covenant- a promise to be fulfilled. And many of us know that a baby at any age brings a whole new life- both joyous and sometimes frightening. But here in this covenant with Abraham we see a whole new identity, and a new name ( father of nations) and something sacred- that life together with God is much more connected- God is not distant, but one with the people. It challenges what seems possible. And even though it seemed to be impossible, there was life beyond imagining.

As we look at the apostle Paul, and his writings, we see one who was a persecutor of Christians, who handed over, and imprisoned and oversaw the death of others. Until that dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus where his whole life changed. But at first Paul thought he knew what his mission was- to speak to his people, to the Jewish people, after all he had been one of them. But they rejected him. And he seemed stuck, but instead he learned that his true ministry was to proclaim the gospel to a whole other group of people- the Gentiles. People he thought beyond God’s plan for salvation. But with a new name, and a new identity his message began the work of the church still today- making people one. It challenges what seems possible. And even though it seemed like an impossible thing, there was ministry beyond limitations.

Today we hear Jesus has been astounding flocks of people with teaching, and healings and feeding thousands of people from what seems like nothing. And the disciples are amazed and in response to his question of “who do you say I am?” Peter has blurted out ahead of the pack- you are the Messiah! And it seems like this will usher in the age of power and glory and political might. And yet it here that Jesus responds in a way that shocked them- I will be killed and I will die and yet rise. No! Death cannot be possible! It cannot be the way this goes! It challenges what seems possible. And though it seemed impossible, there was life and salvation beyond belief.
And yet, there it is in all the lessons really- that in order for God’s possibility to be brought forth, there is a death. A death to what we are sure we know, when God’s plan seems backwards. If we use the lens of power and possibility we will fail to grasp it- we will fail to get there.

Because God is challenging what is “possible” and it is radically different- life altering. And rooted in love. A radically different love that looks at people no one is looking at, and goes places no one is thinking about and dares the impossible- Life for all.

One life for all

That is gospel for us and yet there is sacrifice. Here's why:
Recently I saw a picture that on one side shows three distinct circles for work, play and rest and then there is a line drawn from top to bottom on the one side. On the other side is a picture of a church. And it says “2 Lives.” It depicts that way sometimes we all can view things- there is my work, and my play and my rest time that takes up about 6 days and 22 hours. And then there is my other life- the hour or two I spend being “churchy.”

Then there is a second picture where the circles of work and play and rest are interconnected like a Venn diagram (you now know the extent of my math knowledge)- but there in the middle of the connection is that cross. And the caption says “one life.” Not two lives. One. God in the midst of it, creating it and active in it. God in it all, not just the official churchy part. And us in God’s world living out God’s vision.

Here’s where the stars come in. They represent what is possible in God’s eyes. Beyond our imagining for ourselves and our world. Perhaps it seems like we are sacrificing to live a “one life” existence as opposed to just compartmentalizing God. And yet there is such blessing amidst yes, challenge, in one life. Imagine the possibilities for life, ministry and mission. Imaging the scope of God’s love.

Perhaps our Lenten challenge is challenging what we think is possible.

And then taking steps closer to living One Life with the God who is inviting us into what is possible- that everything we are and do really are one life in Christ. When you look at that star, may you be reminded of God’s calling.  

 

 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Temptation of Indifference


Today I read not only the appointed lesson for the day, but went back and read chapter 1 of the Gospel of Mark, from the beginning, through verse 15.


I took us all the way back to the beginning of Mark which is really only eight verses before.  Mark is the action packed gospel- we hear it’s the beginning of the good news and the next thing you know, Jesus is at the Jordan being baptized by John. And that was the reading on my first Sunday with you. Today we hear about the baptism again as Jesus is then sent into the wilderness. And as I read the lesson I thought, “well, we’ve already heard about that baptism and we really don’t need to do that again.” And as soon as I say it though, I wonder if that is our thought about baptism. That we, already baptized have already done that. And then I think about my stole for Lent which not only has purple and black and crosses, it has that third color, the blue. That blue represents baptism and I think it’s so important, it’s in my stole.

And so we really should talk about baptism again. Mark has such intensity about Jesus’ mission and purpose. And when Jesus comes to be baptized, we don’t hear that God the Father just kind of saunters by and says, “Oh, by the way, he’s going to be important.” No! We hear that the heavens are RIPPED OPEN and that the Holy Spirit descends in the form of something like a dove. And doesn’t just hover, but enters Jesus.  God is invasive and intrusive in the world and in us. Life altering!

And I wonder how many of us have thought about our baptism THAT way- that God “invades us” and dwells in us in that kind of life-altering way?

In the days of early Christians, there were men and women who went out to lives as hermits in the wilderness. They purposely chose to imitate Jesus in the wilderness in a life altering way. They were called the desert mothers and fathers. They wrote very insightful things about human nature and challenges in the wilderness. They had the time, and were removed from everything else. The thing about the wilderness, being alone though was, when they were mad, it was their anger and the wilderness.

When they were sad, it was their sadness and the wilderness. And in reading some of what they wrote, they chronicled the various temptations of life, which made me think even more about what Jesus must have experienced in the wilderness. The loneliness, the fatigue, the hunger, the thirst, the doubts. In a place people saw as the most dangerous place around.

But of all the temptations, hunger, thirst, fatigue, these weren’t the greatest according to the desert dwellers. The greatest was another, called “Acedia.” Indifference. They called it the noonday demon- somewhere between the beginning and end you just lose interest altogether. As one New York Times writer noted this feeling “is not a relic of the fourth century or a hang-up of some weird Christian monks but also a modern force that easily attaches” to us.   With the overburdened schedules. While we seem so busy, as we do more, we commit less and less. Think of the ways we allow our “schedule” to alter our living.

As it turns out, Pope Francis, in this year’s Lenten address spoke to this very thing-perhaps the greatest temptation of our age: “Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.” Because of our networks and distractions, he described the phenomenon he calls the globalization of indifference, Francis writes that “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.”



He continues that, “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.” And maybe we even convince ourselves that God is pretty indifferent too. After all, why are there so many struggles and troubles? It reminds me a of cartoon series “Coffee with Jesus” where Jesus is having coffee with a woman who asks why there are so many destructive things happening in the world, and Jesus, coffee cup in hand smirks and replies, “I was going to ask you the same question.”

Indifference is a temptation. The forces of evil are counting upon our belief that nothing will really change.

But the gospel is that Jesus comes to challenge such a world. God has ripped apart the heavens. The Spirit descends and enters. The gospel breaks in with life altering promise!

This is amazingly good news in all our places that seem that the world can’t change or wilderness exists. Since God has invaded and altered the world- it’s not the world we think we see. There is difference. Not indifference. When we turn away from indifference, when we fast from it, then we can feast on God’s love.

Now all battles with evil are altered-the game is changed because God is present. And it comes back to baptism- where we hear we become part of God’s family and mission. And it’s about more than just assuring our salvation as in eternity with God some day. Luther taught that baptism is necessary for salvation- this we believe. What about those not baptized? Will they be saved some day? Is that the only way God will save people? As important for this life I believe, is that baptism is necessary for salvation in this life- that every day we know life, share community and healing, and forgiveness and know we don’t stand alone. God is present and providing and redefining. And today Karlie, who is up here being absolutely adorable, enters this life- baptism is a life changing journey with God.

This weekend some of our youth, years beyond their baptism are experiencing this. They are at Youth Quake and the theme is ReDefine. Being followers of Jesus redefines and alters us- who we think we are and what we can do. This is the change in our conscience we hear of in 1 Peter.  We are changed and given the gift and challenge of serving others. No matter how young we are- no matter who we are. This weekend the youth are packing food for the hungry.

And here we are collecting for Baskets of Promise. These things challenge the world as it seems. Even in something as small as the soap we gather. Because when you are in a wilderness like a refugee camp, a simple bar of soap reminds you that you are human and you are not alone, you are loved.

This is what we can share, living out our baptism as not just once and done- but continually being reshaped in the story that God is here. And in us. This overcomes evil and that great temptation- the myth that tells us God isn’t really present and so we don’t need to care either. It’s exposed. Even in the most challenging place, even when God seems silent, without any doubt, God is present in it all.

So here’s the thing- may we continue to be redefined by this God and in how we respond to the challenges, and may we resist the urge to sacrifice the promises of community in Christ. Let’s bust the myth.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Promise in the Dust


Today, as a part of beginning this Lenten season, I took a picture. Each day in Lent, I will be taking a picture that coincides with a word from Scripture during the Lenten season and then contemplate where that picture takes you in connection with the story of Scripture and our lives. Everyday taking a picture and posting it to #lent2015. Appropriately enough, today’s prompt was “dust” and as you might imagine most of the pictures I saw posted to Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram were of the ashes we’re wearing tonight. I decided to take a picture that was not the expected. I could just take a picture of the dust of the ashes, but I was looking for something more connected to me than that. Something that spoke of our daily existence and what it comes down to. I ended up instead, taking a picture of dryer lint.

And you know, if you stop and think about it, dryer lint tells a story- it not only tells what you were wearing and using, but where we have been. It tells of our living, reacting and responding. Look closely enough and it tells our struggles and failures, frustrations and heartaches. And it tells our joys and hopes and dreams pursued.

And especially with children, that dust came complete with the occasional partial Kleenex, candy wrapper, loose change or ticket stub interspersed. Each representing the sadnesses, celebrations, losses and triumphs of a life.

Perhaps that little label “Clean after each cycle” reminds us that dustiness is our reality but God longs for us to start anew. Dustiness is what we all share.

Young and old, at the end of the day, what is left, is our dust, and frankly, scientifically, we also carry the dust of others. And if you’ve ever gone to the laundromat, and had the dryer someone else forgot to clean, you know the moment- having to clean up someone else’s dust. It’s hard enough dealing with our own. In any event, at the end of the day, the week, a life, what we see is what we leave- dust.

Today we are reminded of our dust.

And as we look around the world, we see it on a larger scale- the giant swirls of trash in the ocean, those piles now sometimes given names, which breaks my heart; the belching of factories taking life up and downstream and people can’t breathe from all the dust; and the unquenchable thirst for violence reducing people and places to dust in ways the prophet Joel couldn’t even fathom. As we ponder how on earth we can possibly overcome these forces that seem to inevitably point to destruction, what we see is our limitation, and our frailty.

Today we are reminded we are but dust. The ashes more vividly remind us of our dust, our ashness.

Years ago, as we took our children to church for Ash Wednesday , it was the day most feared. And it all started when Catherine was very young. We carried her forward for ashes as a preschooler, at an age just old enough to be aware. Our pastor at the time had a booming voice and a particularly large thumb. There was our girl, confronted by this seemingly enormous black thumb approaching her, too close, and the voice thundered “Remember you are dust. And to dust you shall return!”

And perhaps in the truest response to such a pronouncement, she responded perhaps as we all might, or might want to. In a high pitched lament, she cried out, “Noooooooo!” And burst into tears. While at first we laugh, if we stop and think about it, perhaps she expressed what if we allowed ourselves to think it, was our response.

If we allow ourselves to think it, we can see our mortality. Today we are reminded we will be dust. Today we are reminded of our dust.

And that is for me the thing about Ash Wednesday- that cross we bear breaks into our world and tells us what we try not to hear, or contemplate. It breaks in and speaks intimately, too close.

Yet, as soon as we say return to the Lord, we are already feeling that “too close.” And amidst the ashes of our lives are, as Walter Brueggeman writes, “burdened with the tasks of the day, (and) we are already halfway home, halfway back to committees and memos, halfway back to calls and appointments, halfway on to next Sunday, halfway back, halfway frazzled, half expectant, half turned toward you, half rather not.”

Please don’t make us confront our ashness. The consequences of our living, the limitations of our control and our frailty. How totally opposite that cross is to our world which attempts to minimize and sanitize, or to dominate and isolate any experience of what real life and death involve. We would rather insulate ourselves.

We’d rather not hear the prophet pleading-consider your ashes, and consider how far you’ve strayed. We’d just as soon not look at how many layers insulate us from reality. That black thumb my daughter feared, you see, truly represented our reality. And while we have over the years made receiving ashes a once a year act-saying “we got ashes.” There is the truth- we’ve always got ashes.

Brueggeman writes in his poem “Marked by Ashes”

“All our Wednesdays are marked by ashes- we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth; of failed hope and broken promises, of forgotten children and frightened women, we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust; we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.”

And what is the response to this? Today at Bible study we talked about someone’s experience in worship on Ash Wednesday of a garment being torn- rending a garment is no small act. And act of mourning, or of contrition. The ripping open of what seems to be woven and fused together. And comparing that to our hearts. As God, our God calls to us to rend, to break open our hearts and return. Break through those layers of ash and insulation so we not only see the reality of our ashes, we see the reality of our Lord,

It’s not too late- come back to me. Fast from your ashness-from the ashes we bear each day. The ones we bring to this place each week. To come and experience changed hearts.

Come back to the God who is YOUR God. Who is not just saying, but begging, pleading, longing. God’s heart is torn by our absence. God longs to restore us and take our ashes. And make us new.

Richard Lischer writes, “it is only in Jesus that (our ashes) are gathered together in the shape of a cross. Time and time again we bring them to him, and then return to our mortal lives with something far better.”

The God who formed us out of chaos and ashes, gives us new form in Christ. Out of these ashes.

As Marcia Shultz writes, there is promise in the ashes

“No! I thought.

No black cross

Not on my forehead

No revealing mark

Of failure

Of grief

Of death

No.

But yes,

Take up your cross

Be marked

Perishable

Fragile

Blessedly alive

Human.

God’s best work

Marked as acceptable

Wounded

Broken

Acceptable to God

Not by my will

But Christ alone

Bearing the Cross

Wearing the Cross

In hope

The sign of the promise

Humanity lived

Fulfilled

Redeemed

By Christ alone.

This is the journey we enter and we pray to our God who promises that dustiness may be our reality but not our destiny.

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Place in the Kingdom


With the kids:

Yesterday I started with Carolyn Brown’s idea of noticing what hands are doing in the gospel. After the gospel lesson, we talked about things we do with our hands. At one service BMX bikes were popular, and at another, reading and puppets were popular. Brown notes there are lots of hands in action in this passage.  Jesus reaches out his hand to heal Peter’s mother-in-law.  She reaches out her hand to Jesus to get his help and then uses her hands to serve Jesus. We talked about how we use our hands in worship- praying, sharing the peace, holding the worship book, the offering. Then we ended with how we can serve Jesus rest of our week- helping others, praying for them, and more. Our kids helped us see this part of the story!

 

 

So we had another highly successful Pork and Sauerkraut dinner, where imagine the crowds rivaled those wanting to be healed by Jesus. We had 710 tickets last night and that might give us a sense of the whole city at the door.  As I made my way around last night on occasion though there were some people who were obviously here for the miracle of pork and kraut, and jokes about feeding the thousands, and whether if we ran out of gravy, I could perform a miracle. There were people here for the pork and kraut, but others were here for something more-the connection. We as humans are wired for connection. We long for those connections.

It happens pretty often where when I visit, people want to hold my hand. It happens sometimes here in communion. That longing for connection. In those moments when our hands connect, something new is happening. Even in the tiniest way. And suddenly, however briefly, we move beyond who someone has been, or who they seem to be. Into who they truly are. And I always assume that in those moments people are not seeing me, they are seeing Jesus.

In the gospel, Jesus has been in the synagogue as we heard last week, and now he has left the synagogue.  Last week I talked about how “synagogue” is a word meaning “people gathered together” with God. The word is synago in case you want to impress others with Greek. Jesus was in the synagogue, but now Jesus has left the building and yet, and soon people are “synago- ing” around Jesus.   Some are there just to watch. Some are there hoping for a miracle. And some will find that freedom and healing and future are wherever Jesus is found. As Jesus has cast out demons and healed people and teaches and preaches with authority. Among men and women, inside the synagogue and outside. What he is doing is getting rid of separation.

Illness is about separation. The earlier hearers of the gospel would have known what is harder for us to see- that what Peter’s mother in law faced was different than we understand it. In the contemporary world we view disease as a malfunction which can be remedied with a prescription. In Jesus’ day, healers focused on restoring a person to a their state of being. Being ill was about experiencing a lack of dignity and value and worth that disrupts lives. It’s about separation and loss of meaning.

Peter's mother-in-law cannot be who she is. While to our modern ears we imagine it seems a little unfair that she is healed to just serve the men, in fact something else is happening. As the mother in law, she is the head of that part of the household. Others might prepare the food but she is the hostess, with the role of welcoming guests. Jesus’  healing restores her to her position within the household. She regains her dignity and worth.

There’s a dignity in the serving. When it’s been lost, we long for it. To have value. It’s why when I visit our older folk they tell me what they used to do- it’s a way of wondering if they have value.   

For this woman, it is now restored. Recently, as I was visiting one of our homebound, she told me that when I am coming to visit next time if I let her know, she can order me a tray so we can eat together. She is not preparing the food, but make no mistake she is serving me. And it is a blessing to me and gives her dignity.

And there’s something more in our gospel today. Peter’s mother in law is lifted up, and in some ways she returns to doing what she always did, yet in some ways, there is something more. She is transformed into a new place. Because she is not serving just any man, she is now serving Jesus. It starts with a letting go. Something she cannot do alone. The fever lets go and she is transformed.

It is a "letting go" of something- where whatever caused that separation or lack of dignity no longer controls life. Holding onto Jesus also means a letting go. Perhaps each of us has something we need to let go of, and the gospel is our invitation to do so. To encounter Jesus and be given the power to let go of whatever is keeping us separated or disconnected.

The good news is that wee are given that chance to let go and start fresh and new. To be restored and lifted up and empowered to serve.

I urge you not to see the serving as law- please do not hear this as you must get out there and serve. Rather it is an invitation to continue to be transformed.

Last night I met a man who is a Shriner clown who travels to burn units to visit children. No easy task, but one he loves. He tells me that he feels compelled. The more he serves, the more he feels compelled to serve. The children are transformed by his visits, and he is transformed.

This is how we experience what it means to have a place in the kingdom. Something we all long for.  What we do as Jesus’ followers is to experience Jesus and be lifted up and then become a part of the revelation of what it means that this is God’s kingdom.

May we live in that kingdom- a place where people are liberated and lifted up, valued and given dignity.  And may God empower us to help others connect with the good news of Jesus Christ.