Sunday, March 25, 2012

Living in God's ALL

Today's gospel reading begins with the "seeking Greeks" but a little background for where we pick up in the 12th chapter of the Gospel of John is helpful. Lazarus has been raised from the dead and all kinds of people are drawn to Jesus as a result. This leads the Pharisees to comment that Jesus can't be stopped- the whole world is coming to him, and then the Greeks show up wanting to see Jesus:

In this time as we prepare for Easter, we’re getting ready for that annual increase in pew attendance. Soon it will be fuller than today. But what if there were so many people being drawn to worship God we had to expand? Long before Jesus spoke of drawing the whole world, Jeremiah’s vision was that so many people would come to worship God, the city of Jerusalem would have to be enlarged! It reminds me of stories of the legendary confirmation class of 100 here. I’m not sure I'm ready to teach a confirmation class of 100 but I’d be willing to give it a go. People were drawn here- as if by a magnetic force. As many of us long for a return to this, I’m reminded of a website called the “Magnetic Church.” It provides lots of ways to draw people to your congregation-so you can grow. At best it’s a helpful resource for realizing how often we fail the test of effective communication or meaningful hospitality. But the underlying question for me was when I think about this website or the myriad books written about how to draw people to your church is- “What are we drawing people TO?” Christ lifted up on the cross or our newly renovated social room? What draws US here or does not? When we hear “come and see” what do we expect? When others respond to “come and see” what do we do? Are we drawn by the power of the work of Christ, or something else?

Back in Jesus’ day, the whole world was coming to Jesus because of his signs and his magnetism. Yet, he responds by speaking about death and being lifted up on the cross. Predicting an event but also a new reality- that in the work of the cross, all might be drawn to God in Christ. This is God’s deep desire. ALL people drawn to God in and through the cross. And this is the goal of the Gospel of John- that all might believe and be drawn. Not just “encouraged to consider choosing” but drawn as if by a giant magnet. This word for “drawn” is the same word that describes the force it takes to haul in the "amazing fish catch" where all the fish were drawn after Jesus tells the disciples to throw the net out again. It’s the way the disciples felt when Jesus first called them. It’s the same experience some share with me at the door, who’ve come to worship after being away, or when they come for the first time- “I just felt drawn here- compelled to respond.” That’s powerful stuff. But the Gospel of John makes it clear-we can choose how we respond to the message of Christ lifted up on the cross.

This power to choose frustrates us when we look around and wonder where everyone else is. What’s wrong with us if they’re not here? But WE also sometimes choose to not be in worship. When some other event trumps worship, or we’re tired, or we need a ride but won’t ask, or it’s too rainy, or too nice out to be drawn here. And there’s another reason. It’s the one that over the last six months i've hears as I’ve listened to regular attenders, occasional worshippers, homebound, and former members tell me: it just isn’t the same at Holy Spirit-“the people we used to know are gone,””the neighborhood changed” “I only come for Sunday school””I try to make it once a year to keep my membership in good standing””I don’t know who those new faces are” “I haven’t come since Pastor So-and So left”  or “I quit coming when Pastor So and So came.” “I don’t drive, but no… I don’t want a ride.” Choosing to not be drawn here, yet not going anywhere else to worship. God travels SO FAR to assure our redemption and salvation, but we choose to believe the distance is often too great for us unless we are in our selected world. When we respond in this way, we’re responding to being drawn by ourselves, and not the cross. And it does matter that we fail in communicating or showing hospitality- but it has nothing to do with us- it's all about drawing people to Christ of the cross. Jesus is still calling people- not to Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, but to the cross.

And this means we also have to confront our fears about just how broad the magnetic field of the cross really is. This is the challenge- it will mean some things have to die for the sake of the whole world in Christ. The Pharisees aren’t happy with that. It threatens the way they want it. The WHOLE world is coming- they want to make THAT stop.

But Jesus keeps drawing people who keep responding to “come and see.” But while they have mouthed the words “come and see,” even the disciples put on the brakes. When the Greeks wanting to see Jesus come- they get the disciples. And we don’t hear they ever get to see Jesus.  They’re filtered out by disciples who have a pattern of trying to select who sees Jesus. Old patterns are hard to break. True for us too in ways we encounter others and we choose how to respond. When we see those we know who aren’t here, do we choose to reinforce that it really WAS better before, or invite them to “come and see” again? When someone shares why they can’t come, do we choose to simply say “that’s too bad” or help draw them here? Do we decide who are and are not “good enough members” to care? When we do these things , we’re missing the chance to draw them to see Jesus again.  And we’re treating what happens here like an RSVP to our social event, not being drawn to the compelling witness of the cross. But we ALL need to see Jesus. We can’t see Jesus at the Table if we don’t come and have our eyes opened in the breaking of the bread, and hear the words of forgiveness offered for us. We can’t deepen insight into the meaning of the cross if we come to study but never LIVE as part of the community centered in this cross. When we don’t come together, we don’t really learn how powerful Jesus lifted up truly is.

Now let’s take it one more step. Jesus lifted on the cross and Jesus drawing ALL is something our world STILL tries to stop. There is more to ALL than just lapsed members. Around us is an amazing neighborhood that represents the true diversity of the cross- Who have we personally tried to draw here to worship God? We can choose for ourselves, but we cannot choose for God. God has chosen ALL. All we need to do is watch the news to know that in our world,  if your skin is the wrong color, or you are poor, or you are the easy victim of prejudice there are those who will say you don’t matter. Hasn’t the hour come to proclaim a death to this thinking and to proclaim life in the cross? We’re called to proclaim to the world that hatred and prejudice no longer rule. The hour has come and God has decided to draw ALL. This is our mission as the church of Jesus Christ.  And our power doesn’t come from the magnetism of the people or the strength of the pastor or the beautiful building but God’s sheer grace and endless love in the cross.

As we again approach the celebration of Christ lifted up on the cross and it’s life altering meaning for all, we’re reminded ALL need to hear and be here. Are you willing to be that kind of Magnetic Church? Pulling all here no matter what the world or our gut says? God’s decision is to draw all in the cross- good news for us and all the hurting world. Who will you invite to “come and see” and then greet them when they come and help them see Jesus? The hour has come to lift up the cross for all.  In the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu: “Jesus did not say, when I am “lifted up I will draw SOME.’ Jesus said, (when I am ) lifted up, I will draw all.

All, all, all. Black, white, yellow, (brown), rich, poor, clever, and not so clever, beautiful and not so beautiful, gay and straight. All. It’s one of the most radical things. All belong.

All are meant to be held in this incredible embrace that will not let us go. All.”

The good news is that we’re all in God’s ALL.

The question is-  how will we dare to respond?  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The growth of Table Church

This week we talked about listening. That before any of the celebrated miracles or healings of Jesus, he listened. He listened to the woman who was hemorraghing, the leper, to the man with a dying daughter or a sick son. Over and over he revealed the presence of God drawn near in listening. Tell us that those who have ears should listen. We were astounded as we anticipated maybe 16 and had 25. Including newcomers who brought newcomers!
My personal prayer each week is that those whom the Spirit knows need to be drawn near are. And ironically one of those who came was a woman I saw on Christmas Eve. A woman who used to worship here but who felt that as a single woman she was not listened to.
I try to provide something to help those gathered engage in conversation related to my message. And on this night of thinking about the meaning of listening as Christ-centered community, I asked people to use the paper and pen on the table to reverse brainstorm.
Instead of listing ways to be a listener, list ways you would show someone you are NOT listening.
The conversation was lively as people had no difficulty identifying those things- the ones that have hurt us.
As I collected the sheets, one sheet had 17 entries!
But as I read them I asked people to raise their hands if they had experienced this.
Then I asked them to keep hands up if they had ever done this.
We all had much to share.
How rich then to realize that not only was Jesus listening to those whose stories are recounted in the gospels, but that God is listening to us. And that when we who bear Christ listen to each other, we are carrying out what Jesus offered to those desperate and in need.
I shared my own time as one who developed better listening by working as a chaplain- where I learned to listen in hard places, and in emotionally overwhelming places and where I saw how hungry we all are to be heard for who we really are.
I invited people to contemplate not only times when they have longed for a listening ear. To imagine that God offers to us what we need- to offer this presence without judgment to others. And to see how we are gifted by what others can share.

As always we wrap up with prayer- and this night there was an abundance of prayer requests and thanksgivings. And I delighted in how this week people who were here last week were humming the songs before we sang them. How they helped each other listen to the tune. And how the presence of Christ in our midst blessed us and gave us peace.

My focus has been to use what we bring and what we have. As we continue to gather in a reclaimed space, we are lighting half burned but forgotten candles that can be used to give us light, and praying prayers to our God who listens and redeems. And in this there is life and there is a peace. It is holy.

This coming week, we will focus on praying our prayers together as we continue to deepen our bond around the table where we trust in what God provides and in the sustaining presence of Christ

Saying No to Ourselves

Over the years people have given me lots of crosses. Necklaces of engraved sterling silver, wood from Jerusalem, art glass personally crafted for me, a Celtic cross reflecting my Irish heritage. And there are ones I have picked out. Each time either the giver or I described one of them, we said something well intended, but ironic-“Isn’t it pretty?”  We know what we want it to look like. The wooden cross outside the church isn’t pretty now- it’s bare. Usually it’s lovingly draped in the color of the church year. But now it’s naked and bare. Honestly it looks beaten up, and dare I say it? Ugly. Maybe we cringe and can’t wait for it to be “nice” again. But whether we realize it or not, we begin to make the cross of Christ “our” cross. The one we want to see. We make it a reflection of ourselves and unintentionally a symbol of what we don’t want to sacrifice. We want to appeal to us.

At the 1987 Vancouver World's Fair, a Christian presentation used glitzy photography and flashing lasers to appeal to people to follow Christ. Writer Marva Dawn tried to explain her concerns about the production, but the attendant protested saying that the display had saved many people. Marva Dawn asked,”yes, they were saved, but saved by what kind of Christ?" She asks-When we only show appealing portrayals of Christ and his cross, do we nurture his identity of willing suffering and sacrificial obedience? What about Christ who calls us away from the world's superficial things?  How do we really see the Christ of the cross?

In Lent we’re to turn to renew our fundamental understanding and relationship to the Christ of the cross. The cross that proclaimed the ugliness of how we treat each other and of execution, suffering, rejection, sacrifice and death.  We cringe as I am sure Peter did when Jesus spoke of his purpose and this fate, and began teaching the disciples by leading them toward the already long reaching shadow of his cross. He’ll repeatedly point to this and what it will mean to follow from now on-what will be necessary. Suffering.Rejection. Death. Sacrifice. Ugly frightening words. If we really let them sink in, they make us cringe. And I think it’s not that Peter fails to see, but that he stumbles over not wanting to. Mark Twain wrote: “Many people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand." This is such a passage and we’d rather not let ourselves understand. If we do, we’d rather opt out.

Like the roller coaster I once rode. You climbed up several stories to get on board. The whole way to the top, people and signs warned you of what was ahead. That the first thing it did was a massive drop to within feet of the ground. Along the way signs reminded you and there was a “last chance to opt out” place just before the top- where you could say “never mind- not going there.” Because people wouldn’t really take it in til they were confronted with it. But as you got to the top and you heard the screams and saw the drop of the coaster, it changed.

I think we all have those places as disciples. Where we don’t want to understand but when we do- we wanna put down the cross and say, “nope, not going there,” telling God what is and is not going to happen. Asserting “our”selves. In such moments we become adversaries to God’s will. This is what happens when Jesus calls Peter “Satan”- it’s actually a way of saying- “you are my adversary. When you set your will on your desires, not God’s, you are my adversary.” Say “no” to your self will. Today we’re called again to this-to say “no” to our selves. Not by saying “no” just to get something so WE will benefit, or to be followers of Christ simply for what it offers US. Not by just taking up just shouldering our own worries in life. We’re asked to take on painful, redeeming actions voluntarily undertaken for others"[i]  Because this is what the cross in the world will mean.  

Here’s the cringing hard question- What might God be asking us to sacrifice, to say “no” to for the sake of the gospel?

Can we say “no” to our feelings of anger toward someone who has hurt us?

Can we say “no” to our belief something can only be our way?

Can we say “no” to our need for “personal time” when it leaves God out?

Can we say “no” to getting more good things when others are in need?

Can we deny ourselves the desire for OUR cross and OUR world and OUR Jesus?

The shadow of the cross of Christ is long.

In it, I see how often I am a stumbling adversary to Christ and the gospel. Even when I follow this path for awhile, I have limits and I find I am not walking with the cross but walk carrying my preconceived ideas and needs instead. I think I’ve got company. We can’t quite fully follow as Jesus asks.

So where is the gospel? One answer is to remember that before the section about "what we are to do" we hear Jesus' clear announcement about "what HE must do." Jesus stays the course on a way that will be spectacular but not power or glory or looking good. And he takes up this cross and path, even when we cry- may it not be so! But because of this cross, it’s not about our worthiness, or the beauty of our lives.

That shocking and ugly cross frees us to take up the symbol of the beauty of it all- God’s grace. Jesus keeps calling us back to this cross and leads us in this way- reminding us to let go of “our” cross we hold onto. To follow his path in the world in a continual response to what Jesus has done.

Proclaiming God’s saving grace alone makes it so- because Jesus defied our view of the world- for sake of all of the stumbling, the forsaken, the ugly and the messy- including ourselves.

[i] p. 154], Williamson. Quoted in  Stoffregen Cross Marks.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Examen and The Table Church

During the meal we had at Table Church I placed slips of paper and pencils around and visited with people to encourage them to use the papers as they wished to contemplate prayer concerns or blessings so that as we gathered in prayer together we could lift up all these things at the end of the day together. Some were quick to do so, others at some point in the meal, and others during our reflection time. A lovely space at the end of conversation where I encouraged people to listen to how God present here might be speaking now. No one seemed to mind the extended suspension of time. As I invited them back I reminded that if there was any thing they wished to lift in prayer we would take a moment for that as well as clearing the space quietly. A few feverish writers.
During the meal in my conversation with people, I discovered that some wrote a lot on one small paper and others a few words said it all. We talked about how all of this is prayer God invites and hears.

By initiating the process this way, I was hoping to promote inclusion of introverted folks. Before we entered into the prayer which incorporated Taize as the opening and at the end of each segment, I was delighted to share with them what was behind this way of developing our prayers. I briefly spoke of the use of daily review or Examen at the end of the day as a way of going back and looking for God. I shared a sentence or two about my own experience with this process not only as a way of ending a day but preparing the next with God.

Interestingly most of the prayer slips were thanksgivings. A few were honest concerns for self or others. But suspecting and knowing there may be other things, I also lifted up the fact God knows what else is on our hearts and minds and is hearing it now even when wordless.

We ended with the Lord's Prayer and a blessing we sang together.
And for that moment I could see there were many who had in fact entrusted things to God and found peace and who were hopefully carrying bread home with the leftovers.

I am grateful for God's inspiration to introduce and incorporate this element of Examen as a starting point that I pray will be nurtured quietly.

This week when we gather we will explore the ministry of listening as a part of being Christ centered community. I am eager to see how our gathering will unfold.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

What We Need is Here (part 1)

Last night was out first adventure with Table Church. This is a Lenten worship opportunity that is outside the traditional box and is a combination of elements from an earlier experiment a couple of years ago when I was a seminary intern, and elements from St Lydia's Church in NYC.
The theme, if you will, for this experience is  "What We Need is Here"

The early Christian church gathered around tables, over a meal, to share in fellowship centered in Christ.  This gathering not only reflected the practice of Jesus gathering with the disciples, but before that, it reflected the Sabbath meals and Seder meal of Jewish tradition.  At the beginning they would have given thanks and blessed the bread, which was broken and shared.  During their time together they would have eaten, shared conversation and also listened to teaching. At the end of the meal, they would have blessed the cup and been sent forth in peace.  This is the shape of  our worship.

Everyone was encouraged to come and bring a munchie to feed 4 people. The food could be hot, cold, made by you, made by someone else. There was no advance sign up or preparation needed by anyone coming and if someone could not bring food- no worries. We shared in preparing the space- the tables were moved into the shape of a cross and covered, a cross and candles were brought out. Bread and wine were added.

Opening Prayer: Loving God we give you thanks that you have gathered us here and that you gather us in your presence in this place. Open our eyes to see you, our ears to hear you and our hearts to welcome you now. Amen
We gathered and lit candles. I distributed candles to people one by one and slowly, so we could power down from our day and all of the distractions we had brought into the room. Many of us had come from hectic days. We then began singing "What We Need is Here" - a paperless music song I experienced in January. We sang this song a bunch of times before moving to our table area where we placed our candles there and lit a few more.
After some opening prayer, we sat down and I invited the person closest to the bread at each of the four arms of the cross to lift the bread as we prayed a blessing. That person then broke the bread and shared it with the person next to them- "This is my body given for you." And around the tables it went.
We then blessed the cup and ate our meal.

After the meal was almost done, we had a reading of Scripture and some time for a message and discussion.

Bible reading:

He sat down to eat with them, took the bread and said the blessing. Then he broke it and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Wasn’t it like a fire burning in us when he talked to us on the way and explained the Scriptures to us?”   Luke 24:30-32.

Our life together is about recognizing Christ in our midst. Even in our feelings of insecurity. In our time here in Worship, Study, Fellowship and Prayer we meet Christ and share Christ around God’s Table.

Since this was the first week, I did more talking than is intended for future weeks- it was a time for setting the shape.

We're Learning How Important the Bread Is:

Since there were some gaps at the tables, I noticed as people would turn to each side making sure to ask- "did you get bread?" The bread became necessary. And this shaped us. We read the lesson from Luke where Jesus breaks bread with the disciples after his resurrection and it is when the bread is broken that they recognize him and it lights a fire in them.

God provides our daily bread and is the Bread of Life.
What does it mean for us to know that Christ is here and that this is God's table?
Where do we recognize Jesus?
How is God speaking to us?
What fire is God lighting in us?

We provided time for silent reflection about how God might be speaking.

As I looked around the room, people were deep in prayer and thought.

Who else should we be looking for to ask-"Did you get bread?"

We can see daily bread as food and wonder who is literally hungry.
We can also see daily bread as a hunger for God
Who is hungry and needs to be fed?
 If what we need is here, and others also need this how will we respond?

We're Learning a Lesson in Trusting God:

We had to trust to come. We had no idea who all would come and how many.

There are obvious worries in this premise- how will we know if there is enough food? how will we know if we are the only ones who come? how will we know if people we want to be with come? how will we know what to expect? It was hard to not plan who was bringing "real food" as opposed to a bag of Tostitos. It was hard to not know what would happen ahead of time. These are legitimate concerns. In the end, there was so much food that one table was not enough to hold it.

While I had talked in advance with a musician to provide acoustic accompaniment to our singing, we only had three songs to sing- our gathering, a song during our prayer time and our blessing song at the end. We sang these songs by listening and repeating- there was no printed music or bulletin. There was the obvious worry about whether we would be able to sing the songs. We all shared our anxieties and the experience of having those anxieties overcome.
We worried about our needs but what we needed was provided.
And we experienced communion- when we share food and ourselves as those who have gathered in Christ.

We are still learning from God and each other-

Tomorrow: Deepening our Prayer together at the Table