Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Challenge of Kingdom Living in a Big Box Store World

I remember when the cardboard box was the method for storing and transporting things. Twenty five years ago I went to the State Store and got empty liquor bottle boxes to pack for college. The past couple of weeks, I’ve been helping our older daughter prepare for her freshman year and we’ve been doing the necessary shopping. Fortunately there are plenty of stores ready to not only sell us what she needs, but what she needs to store what she needs. Stores like Target, Walmart, and Home Depot are called “big box stores” because of what they look like when they are built, but it also describes our shopping in them as well as we leave with lots of big boxes. As Catherine and I shopped we’ve had conversations about whether you “need” your own microwave when there is one in the dorm kitchen. If you “bunk” your beds you have more room for stuff, resolving who gets the space under the lower bunk. Do you each need your own trash can? Do you need a personal safe to store your cell phone and ID? And those storage containers? Thank God we’ve been able to find them in turquoise and lime green, the agreed upon colors. These are all issues that people of abundance discuss. Even in this economy, there is abundance.
My daughter’s room is 11x 17 which seems about right to me, but on the tour many people felt it was too small. Some feel that way about their houses as well- leading to a rise in “satellite storage” facilities- those storage unit complexes we see lots of places now, often built upon farmland. We as a culture are a people in search of the bigger barn today, just like the man in the gospel. We too are rich toward our possessions, taking a lot of time and energy and attention getting, keeping and caring for our stuff. The question is, at what point does it control our lives and take away our perspective? And what does our stuff give us? In the midst of our abundance a number one complaint today is that people feel a sense of a loss of community. Things seem out of whack but we’re not sure what that is about.
The rich landowner gains abundance, and he begins thinking about what he will do with HIS good fortune. Already showing a lack of perspective- if we look more closely we see that it is the "land" of the rich man that "brought forth plentifully." It wasn’t because the rich man was such a great farmer. It was a good crop year in that area, a factor beyond the man’s control- a factor that speaks about God. Because of the abundance many were needed to bring the crop in. He was able to reap the harvest not because of his labor, but because of the many others he employed. But what about when it comes time to enjoy that abundance?
The man thinks only of how HE’s set- surplus goods laid up for many years, and he can "rest, eat, drink, be merry. " And if he plays his cards right he can control the availability of all that grain and make more money from those who need it. It’s OK to rest, eat , drink and be merry. We hear this in Ecclesiastes - Life is hard. Enjoy yourself when you can. But God, however, calls the man a "fool." Not because he's enjoying himself, but because of his lack of perspective. He's finally got his storage solution perfected and finds out he’s going to die in just a few hours--"this night your life is demanded from you." He has forgotten his relationships with God and others. All that stockpiling suggests he is not satisfied with God’s providing and that he lacks trust in God. He’s forgotten that not only did God give the abundance, God gave the man life in the first place, and God can "require all of it back." And that for all his self-centered strategizing, the man doesn't run his own life after all. Too busy tending, thinking he’s free, but actually owned by stuff! Stuff he can’t take with him. He has disregarded God, but this is not the only problem.
In Luke’s world 90% of the people lived at the level of bare subsistence. By tearing down the barn and building a bigger one, the man is taking land out of farming, land probably supporting those workers. Land that now will never produce future crops. He used his power to take away what little land they had, driving them into destitution and homelessness, while facing those higher prices. Sounds kind of like our economy today.
There is crisis all around, but in the midst of this, the rich man talks only to himself, and thinks only of himself. And he makes no consideration for his neighbors, nearly all of whom are poor. In disregarding his neighbors, he again disregards God. We hear that we should not seek a life that isolates us from others and from God. And by the way, how merry can you be when you’re partying by yourself? These are the ways that the man is not being rich toward God. So are we today who are blessed, living richly toward God? It is more complicated than it might seem.
This was on my mind as I read the news this week about the events in Arizona. As you may know Arizona is stressed by the volume of illegal immigrants which have flooded their area. The large numbers have overloaded the budgets for schools and social services. Others complain that the immigrants are taking “American jobs.” The Arizona law required anyone who “looks” illegal to prove they are not. This effort toward self-preservation is not totally without merit. Yet, every day outside the Home Depots in Arizona there is a lineup, of people who hope to be picked as “day laborers.” Many of them “look” illegal. When the federal judge struck down the law, a newspaper article reported that a man came out to the line of people and said, “Good news, guys! Today you can work!” Because the provision overturned included the requirement upon employers and contractors must check id’s. Now no one would have to check their id’s. We should be troubled by this. Not just because potentially illegal immigrants are being given a “free pass.” What is troubling is the connection to our complicated world of stuff.
The day laborers aren’t being given real jobs, with fair pay and benefits. Not at Home Depot, or Walmart, or any of the other “marts.” If they were, American citizens would want these jobs. Yet if Home Depot paid fair wages, it would eat into their profit margin. And one of two things would happen- prices would have to go up or profits go down. If profits go down, many of our retirement plans would have less money-many plans own this stock. And we would not be as rich. If prices went up, we would not be very merry because we could not buy as much stuff. So the truth is we need those illegal immigrant day laborers willing to live on what we consider subsistence pay. We also need cheap labor in other countries and we need those petroleum wells in the Gulf to produce the plastics we need for all those storage bins for our stuff. We can’t worry too much about immigration, fair trade, human rights, or the environment. Because if we did we can’t have our bigger barn. What does God have to say to this issue? Instead of talking about numbers and stuff and worries, what the landowner does, maybe we need to talk to God.
Kingdom living is just as challenging today. Rather than give answers it leaves lots of questions. Can we be satisfied with the beauty of creation and relationships God gives? Can we consider living in trust that God will provide “enough?” Can we be honest about our ways of business and their ripple effect? How might God be calling us to ask what it means that our neighboring country is so poor that risking a border crossing in hope of even a day’s labor is better than home? Every price rollback comes on someone’s back.
God wants to provide abundance for us, but also for others. To discern when to focus on self-advancement, or the needs of neighbors, our best guidance comes from our relationship with God.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Are You Too Busy Trying to Relax?

Pulling into the campground today, I was reminded of the many camping trips I've been on. Before children, my husband, Michael and I used to go camping and white-water rafting with a group to Ohiopyle State Park. Michael has a friend named Dean who organized the trips. If you're going camping you want a "Dean" with you. Many times when hear the story of Mary and Martha, it becomes a story about women and roles and kitchenwork. Dean is living proof that "Martha" is alive and well in men too. Dean collected and packed everything that we needed, with his own system for how it should be packed so that things could be taken out of the trailer in logical order. He got all of the permits and the equipment, and when we got on site, he was a flurry of activity, making sure everything was staged and set up- tents, and campfires and food. He did it all. I was glad we had Dean.
Our trips became so popular there were as many as 100 of us. We may not see each other much of the year, so the trips were like reunions, getting away and enjoying each other's company. Throughout, Dean was poised for action, always anticipating things like when it was time to get out the supplies for Mountain Pies, or the four pronged hot dog fork. I'm not sure he ever relaxed. Sometimes it was kind of hard to relax around him. Dean's wife, Joanie, was also along. She was focused on spending time with friends- that's why we went. But she'd no sooner sit down to talk and he'd call to her to get something, find something. Sometimes she'd respond but other times she'd tell him it could wait, it was not the most important thing. I'm not sure if you are a Dean or a Martha too, but let's not be too critical of them. They do what needs to be done. I confess that since this is my first time to lead worship here, while I should be focused on God in our midst, somewhere my mind is distracted-wondering if I've done everything so we can be fed by this service.
But we're here at the campground, getting away from it all. You've left it all behind, you're relaxing, right? But we all know what it's like getting ready…. and we'll be busy catching up when we return. And sometimes we are busy on vacation, busy making sure others have a good time. Maybe we're so busy trying to guarantee relaxing that we don't. Martha is unhappy she is doing all the work. She violates Hostess Rule #1 and complains to her guest, basically telling Jesus his visit has caused this and to do something about it. The whole time she just can't sit, or stop talking. Mary has set aside her priorities. She is sitting and listening. Mary in doing this is beholding "the beauty of the LORD" as the psalmist in Ps. 27:4 says we should do. She's paying attention to God. Jesus surprises Martha, telling her to stop and be with him- make a different choice. Choose over the many distractions and sit at Jesus' feet and listen.
Jesus doesn't criticize Martha for her "service," but for her worries and anxieties about many things -- a life that is being pulled in too many directions. The original meaning of distracted is "getting pulled around" It can feel that way, can't it? Jesus asks each of us to consider whether we have been pulled in many directions by many things, rather than making time with God our TOP PRIORITY. When we are so anxious about doing we have trouble hearing the word of God. It's about balance. Just before this story in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, to which he responded, "love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself." The story of the Good Samaritan demonstrates loving our neighbor in ways that challenge us. Today's message is about the challenge of loving God with all one's heart. To do either of these things means rejecting society's priorities in favor of God's. We're shown the overriding importance of devotion to the Lord's Word as an expression of one's love for God, rather than getting distracted. It's about balance. There is a time to "go and do" and a time to "sit and listen".
Coming together for worship is one example of that time. But I challenge you to consider the rest of the week and how you sit and listen with God. To think about being "busy" and how it affects us, and how it can affect our prayer life too- the other time God wants to spend with us. Earlier this year, I decided to try committing to praying in the morning, the middle of the day, the evening and before bed using the Liturgy of the Hours. Four times a day about 15 minutes each. But those four times where between 6 and 9 am; 11 and 1; 5 and 7pm and before bed. The busiest times of the day. I quickly discovered how busy I really was trying to juggle the kids, dinner, work in the parish, my husband, the dog…you get the picture. I'd start out with good intentions, but there are all these other things pulling me around. And then it's the end of the day and I'd think, NOW I can sit and pray. Sometimes I'd fall asleep praying- somewhere in the middle. Think of how we'd feel if we were talking to someone and they fell asleep on us! The lesson is simple in principle but so difficult in application Think of your favorite thing to do, and how much time you devote to it. Can you imagine that time spent being with God, abiding with God, in tending your relationship with God, listening to the quiet still voice of God still speaking to us, deep within our hearts?
It is a difficult word that Jesus speaks, but it is a freeing word as well. In order to choose the better part, we need to let go of the many things that distract. The good news is that we can. We can remember the freeing nature of God's saving work in Christ that reminds us we that we don't have to do anything to prove our worthiness. When we begin to shift our focus, we make room for the Spirit of God to breathe freely in us, renewing our lives. Talk about really getting away. The good news is that Jesus gives permission for all of us who can be distracted, frantic people to sit down and eat our fill of God's word and promise. Then our hearts and minds really will be ready to put hands and feet into doing God's work.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

God with us in the muddy water

After seemingly endless wickedly hot and dry days, it has felt like all of the energy has been sapped out of me, especially since I live in a house that has one air conditioned room. Today the blessed soaking rain came and many of my church type friends have been making baptism analogies. As life would have it I am in the middle of "unpacking" the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River as a part of the work those of us seeking approval for ordination must do. I could use a good splash in a cool stream. Part of me felt the sweltering heat of the wilderness in our weather. Which made me think about how when our self-created worlds are challenged we can see just how much we need God and what trust John the Baptizer lived out. Where all of the forces that are much bigger than us are much more clearly in view. Ways of being reminded that it is God and not I who is in charge.
And I was forced to slow down, and contemplate what was critical because it was so hot. More time to think and less time to just get caught up in doing. I realized that the best thing to do was to get out of the heat in the middle of the day- so each day I picked a place to go and a person to meet to share time with. Catching up with what God was up to in other peoples' lives. Sometimes a long time passes from when we see each other til the next time. Sometimes so long we almost forget we'd been waiting to get together.
In the gospel of Matthew, we begin to hear how prophecy is being fulfilled. We hear about Jesus' family tree, we hear echoes of the prophet Isaiah-"I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness...and the coastlands wait for his teaching... new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them." It had been a long dry and dusty time for the people who waited.
Jesus was born and some began to proclaim him "messiah" and "king of the Jews" and "Emmanuel- God with us" but then after those early years, people waited in silence until now when he is 30 and he shows up, not at the temple, not with the people who one would expect, but exactly where people are longing and waiting, at the coastline, at the edge of the river.
As I watched our grass scorch and the ground become parched and dusty, I began to imagine all of those people who came from other places. People who perhaps already felt like they were in personal wildernesses, because they were living out on the edges of it all, not acceptable, not the ones a "God with us" would come to. Out into the wilderness they traveled to the Jordan, a river which was and is one of the only regular water sources that does not evaporate in the hot arid seasons of the region. So I think it would stand to reason that by the time people got to the Jordan, they were sweaty and dirty.
There at the Jordan, John was found, at a popular crossing point for travelers. A popular place to cross because it was shallow, only a couple of feet, maybe waist-high. So there at the Jordan, people and animals were regularly plunging themselves into the couple feet of water. With all of that splashing, of travelers and of those who were being baptized, its's not likely that the water remained crystal clear. Certainly not like the specially purified water tucked away in the temple for people who had to cleaned up to be cleaned up.
It probably was more like the way it was when my cousin and I used to head down the dirt road in rural North Carolina, and then through the brush, to get to our "swimming place." We put our dirty sweaty selves in and splashed and stirred up all of the silt on the bottom of the creek so "seeing underwater" was not possible soon after we arrived. We used to try to get out of taking baths those days, because we were "already in the water" but yet later we would see that we really brought alot of the creek back home with us.
Sometimes we imagine Jesus showing up at the Jordan and it is this pristine moment where his robe is lily white and his hair is perfectly coiffed and the water is pure and still. But I like to think that when he got to the edge of the river, his hot, dusty feet experienced the squish of the cool mud between his toes. And that when he came up quickly out of the water, all of the dirt of all of those baptized before him that day, got stirred up.
That in that moment, before God speaks those words "this is my Son,the beloved" we have already seen the one who has sought us out and has gotten into our dirty water and stood with us. That the first moment of Jesus' ministry in the gospel of Matthew comes in this demonstration of what it really means that Jesus is "God with us." God, there in the river, in that moment, standing with all of us in the river, and that each droplet of water that clung to him had some little part of our dirt that he took on, for us. This is God, the God who will continue to reveal what it means to be "with us." All the way to the cross, so that in our baptism, whether we are "sprinkled" or dunked, that when we come up out of the water, it is little drops of God clinging to us, that we take with us. And we hear God call us "beloved."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Lots of Change

It is now almost a month since LC#1 graduated from high school. There was a whirlwind of activity starting with prom, spring concerts and culminating events. I have blogged briefly before about her challenges with learning disabilities. This praise is long overdue. In the last year or so we have witnessed a transformation as she has come into her own and begin to stake a real claim to her own identity. She wants to study social work, and completed a wonderful career internship in a geriatric care facility with grace and responsibility and true empathy for a population she once said she could not relate to. She was formed in music by wonderful teachers, and by Lutheran Summer Music where she learned to embrace music as a core part of her identity, both for herself and how she shares her joy quietly but fervently with others. She worked diligently as a musician and with tears in my eyes we cheered her on as she was given an award for excellence in musicianship by a music educator who encouraged her, and a senior award. To see her march in with those who had the greatest grade point averages and be recognized for her talent was incomparable. In the end she chose a college where she can both pursue her major and music as a non-major.
I have watched her come out of her shell at times to challenge others prophetically and watched her demonstrate empathy that comes from experience. She is a little less quiet and a little more self-assured. And in a month an ten days she will go to college, armed with a roommate she knows and a willingness to connect with music, her profession and campus ministry. What more could one ask for than to send her off beyond the nest? I can celebrate the God who made her just as she is and who stood by us when we wondered what that would mean.
(OK that is easier to say than do, but I WILL not helicopter!)
It is now two and half weeks since I said "so long, farewell" to my internship parish. I do not like goodbyes, especially not where I could have just as soon stayed! Hence the trip to NOLA. The advantage of internship in your back yard is ease of convenience. The disadvantage is we're all still in the same county. I have tried hard to encourage the necessary break. Hence the trip to NOLA. Reading an obituary of someone I provided pastoral care to is a twinge.
Still unpacking that last day. The tears at the godspeed. The standing ovation for my sermon which took my breath away. And the fact that a 95 year old parishioner who I think I have on three or maybe four occasions commended as death seemed imminent, the last occurring the day of his wife's funeral, got up, and dressed and came with his son and walker in tow, to hear my last sermon. A man with whom I have had the most significant ethical, eschatological, sacramental conversations, stand at the foot of the cross conversations-which is to say, he has forever marked my faith journey by what he taught me probably far more than anything I could offer him. He came to say goodbye and godspeed. I can celebrate that God who redeems us, who shows us through others just what that means and who reminds us who proclaim that we proclaim not only for others but for ourselves that forgiveness and grace and community.
It is now two weeks since I sent LC#1 off with LC#2 to explore and revel in a trip as sisters to Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. With the wonder that is Facebook I have heard a couple times some snippet of their experience. A preview of the empty nest. After all, in the fall LC#2 is a junior and we prepare again. Who knows how the Spirit will be at work?
Somehow in the midst of all of this I am to write essays for the church and baptism and the Lord's Supper. We can all say many things about these topics, and I sure I will over 20 pages. And the process which will unfold regarding my discernment, and hopefully call and ordination. Only God knows where the path leads, yet somehow in the end it comes down to those breathless moments of relationships and how God is connected to us and sends others into our midst in ways that shape us irrevocably. Moments where we can rejoice, moments where we cry bittersweet tears and where we stand in awe.