Monday, June 22, 2015

Getting to the Other Side


So today I want to talk to you about my friend, Keith. Keith and I were on a seminary trip to Greece and Turkey a few years ago, and Keith was very excited as was his congregation which had blessed him by paying for the trip to advance their pastor’s knowledge. Things were going well until we went to travel from Greece to Turkey when a storm hit. Not one with waves, but a problem at the border. Keith was a citizen of Bermuda and the travel agent had not obtained the right visa for him. And there he was stuck on one side and we on the other. And no idea what would happen. For him to get to the other side was going to take a lot. And there in a flood of emotions was it must have felt like that question the disciples ask Jesus, “ Can’t you see I’m perishing here?”

He had fly to Germany and then on to London and then hope to get the one emergency visa issued by the consulate, which he did. And then he had to fly back to Germany, and to Turkey and then take ground transportation to catch up to us, all in about 48 hours. It was exhausting and it took resources he didn’t have. It took talking with people back him to make it all come together. And he made it.

We’ve been talking about gratitude these past few weeks and there was immense gratitude for God’s leading and protection. Because honestly, how did Keith do all that? God calmed the storm and made a path. You could see God’s hand and power at work to help Keith carry on through.

I remembered this story this week when I thought of Keith because my brother in the gospel is an African Methodist Episcopal pastor in New York. And the news of the week, heavy on my heart made me want to reach out. Keith and I were at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary together. Which at first might sound odd.

Why Gettysburg? That has to do with another storm being calmed and path cleared. In the early 1800’s Payne heard the call of the Lord to preach. But seminaries would not give him entrance, except for Gettyburg. And a major force in the AME church was able to study because the Lord made that path. And many AME pastors have since followed this path- there is a bond.

When news broke of the racial hatred in Charleston that killed 9 innocent Christians at Mother Emanuel AME Church, I thought, “ What can I do?” And how can we live in this storm that just keeps churning in our country? Amidst so many emotions, there are so many questions. The same ones in the gospel, “ Jesus, can’t you see we’re drowning here?” And the one perhaps they spoke to themselves, “ What can we possibly do?” Questions for all of us. When I reached out to Keith I shared the memory that he was the crucifer at my ordination service. And I remembered that while he was delighted to do so, his question to me was, “ What will your people think?” Even now, so much work to do. What can we possibly do we might ask.

Then I heard the interview with Debbie Dills, the florist running late for work in Shelby, North Carolina. She spotted a car that looked like the one on TV and a person that looked like the one on TV. She didn’t want to believe it was him. But she called her boss, and asked, “ What should I do?” He replied, “We need to call someone” and called the police while he kept her on the line. Debbie decided to follow the car, which was daring if it was a person who had killed nine others and had a gun. She provided the tag number and an arrest happened. Afterwards when asked if she had fear, she said, “ I am no brave person, but I felt I had to do this.” And went on to say that she felt someone was watching over her, and in control. “The Lord had his hand in it. God is the one who made this (arrest) happen.” She had been driving to work and praying for the families in Charleston. “ I can’t imagine, they were just studying the Word and they were massacred.”

Debbie moved from fear to faith, and had a role in calming some of this storm. But she went on to say what I think we should take to heart, “ We need to be lifting them, be there for them and surround them. That’s what we need to do.”

Racism is not just about a few bad actors. We as a culture must ask how we allow it to persist when we say it’s not here, it’s not us, or we just hope the storm calms. This incident will pass but there are storms on the sea. Between the storms there will be calm, but you know what the disciples in the boat came to realize? When Jesus calmed the storm, they still had to row to the other side. There were not at the shore, and now with no wind they had to row extra hard. But remember that they were on the way to where Jesus wanted them to go. The goal was not to hang out off shore. They were headed to the other side to see the Gentiles, people who they don’t really know, or maybe “get” or maybe even want to like. But they have said yes to going where Jesus wanted to go. And Jesus always wants to go there. But when they get there, it’s then they will see miracles. It’s hard work to get to the other side.

We have hard work too. To be people follow as Jesus commands, to go where Jesus goes, and to live as Jesus lived. To be in solidarity with our sisters and brothers. To stand with those in places of suffering and to name evil realities for what they are. I have been meeting with the group headed to Pittsburgh to the Pittsburgh Project- youth and adults headed to the North Side and a predominantly African American community to help with critical repairs to housing and other ways of ministering with people. And we’ve talked about what it means to stand with others, maybe even those we don’t quite get. And when I asked our youth about the evil realities in our world, before the events of this week, without skipping a beat one of them said- racism. It’s an evil reality and a churning storm in our midst. Not only for those in Charleston, or Baltimore or other places but for all of us. And we have to BE THERE.

Almost 50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a book entitled Where do We Go From Here?  Indeed this is the question. The subtitle is Chaos or Community?

 He wrote,” We can no longer worship the god of hate, or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate…Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good….We must hope that love is going to have the last word…We still have a choice today- chaos or community?" Words still today.

I hope you were as moved as I was at the choice of the famiilies of the AME Church who ringed the area in prayer and singing and whose grieving spoke forgiveness to a man who vowed he hated them. They didn't speak chaos. They spoke love. What hard work.

As ever, like the disciples, we keep rowing with our questions. But lest we think our prayer and our service are insignificant they are not. We ask for your prayers as we head to Pittsburgh and follow Jesus. I think our work matters and is only possible because of the most important question the disciples asked- “Who is THIS?” That he commands even the forces of nature”

Jesus. Jesus empowered them. And Jesus is the power and the guide. Because of the work of the cross. New life is possible. The resurrection is the clearest example of love having the last word. For all of us.

And Jesus is calling us to reach that other shore.  To get to the other side because that's where Jesus is going.

To labor still for Beloved Community where miracles happen. For the sake of Christ, may we all lift our brothers and sisters, pray for justice, and not rest until there is dignity for all. We still have rowing to do.

BUT…Jesus is in the boat too, and we’ve got everything we need for the journey.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Dancing with the Trinity

How many of you like to dance? Here among us, it's pretty many. Probably in fact more than I thought. But it's not surprising to me. I'll tell you why in a minute. But first, it may not surprise you that in fact in these parts, not a lot of German Lutherans are much for dancing. Not really. So now, knowing that, I want you to imagine- Lutherans dancing...in a conga line...on camera...to an African song as the keyboard is played and music sung by a man born blind from birth who they only met yesterday- as they sang about how we DO life. As God's people unleashed from fear to do life. They were young and old, rich and poor, of every background and walk of life- DANCING! Some were really dancing, others bobbing in their spots, and still others not able to dance, but you could see it in there eyes, there they were- dancing too!

Celebrating God's work, beginning with remembering our history- in the words of Martin Luther who taught that it's always about God's grace- meeting us in all our crisis and joy and saying- starting in baptism- "I claim you. you are mine, and I don't share- so let's do life!" Freed to do life and dance!

I want to be a part of a community of faith like THAT! And the best thing is, that I am and you are- we are able to dance, the Dance of the Trinity. Living as those who know God is in us. The God who created us into being, Christ who saves us and frees us, and the Spirit who gifts and empowers us- call us into their dance.

This weekend I got to see and to hear many stories of this dance. In the work fighting World Hunger as we celebrated that just at the synod assembly thousands of dollars were given in addition to the recent Bike for World Hunger. We heard that the instance of malaria in Africa has been cut IN HALF by the work of groups like Lutheran World Relief. All because of mosquito nets that cost cents to produce. Life restored by half!

We heard of the work of Lutheran Disaster Response as we prepare to send our own team out in July to North Carolina to restore life. We heard the touching story of a man who was living in Iraq and needed to find a safer place for himself and his family to live. He tried traveling to Egypt and to Israel but ultimately was helped by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services both for himself and for his family. And I tell it like it took mere moments. But it took 6 years for his family and he to be reunited .  And next month he will become a US citizen and he works as a caseworker helping others have life and freedom because he was given a home and taught English. By this church.

And the list goes on - feeding projects like the Potato Project where last year I worked with kids and adults and in one half day 10,000 pounds of potatoes were harvested. all because a man had a field and others had a vision to feed others. And we give life in suicide prevention, college ministries, chaplains for prisons and the military, prayer ministries and more! We are freed to live out this joyful response! 

And I say "we" because it is with a certain point of pride of pride that I tell you that we here are the third largest giving congregation in our synod. Not the largest in people, but among the largest in Spirit. I tell you not to boast but to celebrate how you are living out your lives in faith. And so it's not a surprise at all that many of you like to dance-  we've been doing a lot of dancing with the Trinity here!

But in all of this, as our Bishop Elizabeth Eaton noted, the goal is not that we are just a better social service organization. It's more. We are helping others live not in that spirit of fear, the Apostle Paul speaks of,  but the Spirit of Life! We are proclaiming and sharing in the life Jesus talked about- where the hungry are fed and the oppressed are freed. Here and now- living as those who in baptism were claimed by a loving God to show that love- to be who we were created to be, who Christ saves us to be and who the Spirit empowers us to be and to join the dance for the sake of God's kingdom.

Some of us dance well, and some of us try, and some of us can only nod our heads but each week when we gather here we remember our place in the dance. We celebrate what has gone well, and hear  new life for those things that have not. At the table and the font we are reminded of  the heart of the Trinity and God's love, forgiveness and mercy. because we are THAT church!

Sent forth and led by the Spirit. We've done some great things but there is still more to do for the sake of the gospel. There is more to the dance of the Trinity, so don't put your dancing shoes away just yet.
Come join the dance.


Monday, April 20, 2015

When I Say I Am a Christian I Need to Get it Right

I am woefully behind in posting sermons here- in part because I was fighting major sickness before and during Holy Week, and then there were the funerals both at the church and beyond. Normally I wouldn't bother to say any of this except to say- for all of us, sometimes there are clusters of busy-ness that we are trying to work through. And when we are busy, sometimes we don't get to pay attention as closely as we might tend to or want to. So in the midst of that I was heading into Sunday feeling like the car coasting on fumes.

And wrestling with a sermon that wasn't quite clicking and I was looking for just that certain something to wrap up with and I found it! Or so I thought. I was preaching on 1 John and wrestling with the notion of Christian perfection and somehow I came across "When I Say I'm a Christian" and it clicked! And the poem by this name was attributed to Maya Angelou. I loved it, and I spoke of it in my sermon and several people were really taken by it.

The dream for pastors is that people tell you how they connected with the sermon, or what they will be thinking about, or in this case, one person was taken by the poem and went out to find it. Only to discover that there was a whole lot more the to story- and as grateful as I am that he was listening to my sermon, I am even more grateful for what happened next.

It seems that the Internet has co-opted "When I Say I am a Christian" and by that I mean that it has been adapted, and given different attribution and circulated in a variety of ways, BUT these things have all happened without the permission or desire of the true author. The true author is Carol Wimmer.

Her website is HERE. Carol wrote her poem in 1988 and it was first published in 1992. She holds the copyright to her poem.

So, perhaps now I should add that in addition to being a pastor, I am a lawyer and in fact have taught at Gettysburg Seminary and at the Region 7 Leadership Guild on the subject of copyright permissions. It is absolutely a question of Christian ethics concerning Luther's notion of vocation, not to mention the 10 Commandments has a thing or two or two to say. And of course the federal law has a lot to say about the rights of those who create.

We want people to create beautiful music, art, poetry, photography, and resources that enhance our lives and ministry. And we want immediate access to the things we want to use. As much as I am a creature of social media and the internet, I was reminded yet again of the deceptive nature of what is "instantly available." This is not the same as instantly usable.

Those who create have a legal right to compensation for use of their work, and a legal right to oppose the use or adaptation of their work in ways they do not wish to consent to. It is a matter of compensation and dignity.

So often in our world of instant digital media, we fall into a trap of a combination of impatience and desire.

Here I was a "late in time" sermon writer who now realized that what I thought was the truth was not. And of all things, in my own area. Ironically, the sermon I was preaching using I John 3 focused upon what it means to be God's children, not only in the great beyond but in this life. The challenge of  living as the epistle says " that those in Christ will not sin." The struggle of the concept of Christian perfection and the sense of gratitude and humility we can sense when we remember God's love. We cannot achieve the vision of what it means to be pure or without sin. Yet over and again, the God who loves us and calls us children invites us to strive to draw closer. Our lives are lived somewhere between perfection and "who cares." " I want to" is not enough of a reason to run roughshod.

There are lots of reasons to care and to do all we can to get this right, rather than become indifferent or even defensive about the value of the work of others. What did I do? Well, first I went back and took out the incorrect information before my sermon will be published and this coming Sunday I will tell my folk that I misspoke. And, I contacted Carol Wimmer and explained that I wanted to use her poem- the real one in my sermon blog ( sermon to be posted later) but that I also wanted to tell the story of how her poem and rights have been infringed upon. She graciously agreed ( thank you, Carol!)

Here are her words- "So many people have NO understanding of the purpose of copyright law. There is NO perception of the need to guard and protect the spiritual intent of a work! I literally receive hate mail from people who have had the copyright infringement removed from their social media accounts. I am accused of not being a Christian. Judged as being spiteful, or against sharing the gospel in order to make a name for myself. These judgments come only from those who carelessly share the altered version of the poem which changed the original intent of the work...It's all about protection of inspiration and intellect...In all my years I have never had anyone come to me with the desire to use my work in the context of discussion on copyright issues. This is wonderful!!!"

Imagine, sisters and brothers, discovering not only that your words have been twisted, but that all kinds of merchandise appears with what is not quite right but also for which you receive NO compensation- coffee mugs, posters, calendars, and more. And to boot, the poem you felt inspired to pen is attributed to another person altogether! I hope you can hear her pain in the words above. This is the way many whose work is lifted feel. And well they should!

While I am sorry I originally got it wrong, I am delighted to have connected with Carol and the rest of her website HERE.
And I am grateful she provided me with a download of the original poem along with permission to use which appears below.


WHEN I SAY, "I AM A CHRISTIAN"

When I say, "I am a Christian"
I'm not shouting, "I’ve been saved!"
I'm whispering, "I get lost sometimes
That's why I chose this way"

When I say, "I am a Christian"
I don't speak with human pride
I'm confessing that I stumble
Needing God to be my guide

When I say, "I am a Christian"
I'm not trying to be strong
I'm professing that I'm weak
And pray for strength to carry on

When I say, "I am a Christian"
I'm not bragging of success
I'm admitting that I've failed
And cannot ever pay the debt

When I say, "I am a Christian"
I don't think I know it all
I submit to my confusion
Asking humbly to be taught

When I say, "I am a Christian"
I'm not claiming to be perfect
My flaws are all too visible
But God believes I'm worth it

When I say, "I am a Christian"
I still feel the sting of pain
I have my share of heartache
That’s why I seek God’s name

When I say, "I am a Christian"
I do not wish to judge
I have no authority
I only know I'm loved

Used by Permission
Copyright ©1988 Carol Wimmer
All Rights Reserved
www.carolwimmer.com
www.whenisayiamachristian.com
www.facebook.com/whenisayiamachristian

Sisters and brothers, may we strive to do what is right, walk in grace and honor what others create.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Exposed Yet Loved


When my girls were babies I used to love to give them baths. To marvel at their fingers and toes- pink and beautiful. And babies love their feet. They enjoy looking at them as much as we do. They are a source of joy. Sometime after that though, I am not sure when, we stop thinking that. We learn to think of our feet as something to be covered up, not exposed. Something for which we need props. Even the bravest of us get pedicures. Feet are somehow not beautiful.

And so when we hear that Jesus washed feet on the last night with the disciples, I wonder how many of us would be in the church today if the way we remembered Jesus each week was to wash feet?

Yet here we are with this lesson, and every year for the past three I have preached on it. Maybe some day we’ll wash feet. But not tonight.

We hear that Jesus gathered the disciples for a meal and for conversations and that he loved them to the end. And he is entirely in control.

And slowly, he took of his robe and all the things that identified him as a Rabbi and a Teacher and a Leader. Set them aside. And there he is, wearing only a towel and holding a basin of water.

And he begins, kneeling and crawling, from person to person and washing their feet. And it’s odd and uncomfortable. And we can’t imagine.

It’s odd and uncomfortable. And yet Jesus knew where their feet had been. Those feet were dirty and calloused, perhaps scratched in places. Walking without the best footwear, and walking on the paths animals also trod. And animals do what they do- and the feet bear it- dirty, damaged and stinky feet.

And he goes to person after person. And maybe deep down we even want to say, “Get up, Jesus!” We don’t want this.

As beautiful as it is that tonight we are celebrating 6 kids making first holy communion, and it is beautiful, we want communion, and Easter! Not Holy Week and washing feet.

Like Peter we want to say- no way! Yet Jesus loved them to the last.

To the very last one. Even Judas had his feet washed. Be still. This is for you. Even though you don’t understand it.

In humility and service, in love and intimacy, Jesus loved. Showing there was nothing that stood between us and God’s love.

He loved who we are- people uncomfortable in our skin.

He loved people knowing where there feet had already been- the times the feet had walked away in argument,

the times the disciples said they would do something and then didn’t.

The time feet walked to a meeting to agree to betray for 30 pieces of silver.

Those feet were cleansed.

As Jesus keeps showing intimate, no holds barred love.

Knowing where the feet will go. Yet saying- you belong to me.

And you belong to each other through me.

And the message for us as ever is that we are exposed, but we are loved.

It’s a gift we almost don’t want- we don’t want to be that known and exposed. And yet, it’s the gift we most desperately need- to be renewed and cleansed by real intimate love.

Sacrificial love.

A love that challenges everything in us and yet is whole hearted.

This is what we long for, isn’t it? Isn’t this why we are here?

To experience THIS love?

God knows us- we are exposed. Yet loved. God loves the real us.

It is uncomfortable, and sorrowful, and leaves us in humbled awe, and hopefully joy.

This is the love we are then challenged and empowered to share.
 
Love one another like this.

This love- This is Christ for us, Christ with us.

Still.

AMEN

 

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.