Monday, April 30, 2012

Abundant Love for Real Sheep

Today’s affectionately named Good Shepherd Sunday. Here in the city, it’s hard to get the whole shepherd thing. But where I’m from, just down the road you could see the sheep in fields-they start out cute lambs, but by the time they’re sheared, they’re kind of a mess. We might think of sheep as looking like THIS:

but in reality, it’s more like this:


Sheep take a lot of work, keeping them in the right place, cutting off all that wool. It takes dogs, fences, sticks, and for shearing, you gotta sit on them, and hold their feet together to keep them there. It’s anything but a perfect and fluffy experience because real sheep aren’t perfect- they’re smelly, with muddy, matted wool, and hard to hold onto. One pastor tells the story of being a little girl helping her grandparents at shearing. Her job was to sit on the sheep, hold it down. But it starts to struggle. She jumps up and this top-heavy sheep wobbles away. As her grandparents are yelling, she throws up her hands and says, “But it WANTED to move” To which they said- “What do you think YOU’RE there for?”  Real sheep are imperfect and wired for struggle. Shepherding means responding to the real needs of the sheep, not the ones they think they want. The Lord is our shepherd.

Psalm 23 tells us this, and I think it's kind of a shame we often only say it in times of dying, when it is so much about life. The kind of life Jesus came to bring- abundant life. Jesus as the good shepherd comes not only to lay down his life. He tells us we are not perfect either. But in God’s eyes, we’re enough. David Lose says- Jesus doesn't die in order to make some kind of payment to God or to satisfy God's wrath or to pay the penalty for sin. Jesus, in John's Gospel, is the One who comes to make the invisible God visible and the unapproachable God real to real people. And to reveal that God loves us and whole world, no matter what. To tell us we are already beloved. We are enough. Worthy in God’s eyes of receiving God’s abundance. The Lord is my shepherd. So I lack nothing.  That’s all there is to say, right?  

Do you really feel that abundance?

I think if we did, we wouldn’t struggle so much. I think the overflowing amount of slogans, infomercials and books about how to "have it all" says alot. That many of us feel incomplete, that it's not enough. This whole abundance thing is hard to believe. Brene Brown suggests that we struggle to believe in God’s abundant love for us, perhaps because to accept this abundance, we’d have to first acknowledge our vulnerability. There is a big difference between perfect and enough.

Today we sang the kids’ song “I just wanna be a sheep”- it’s cute and upbeat, but if we sang what we really think, it might sound more like this: “I just wanna be a creature that is utterly dependent upon someone more powerful than me to care for me because most days I don’t have a clue.” We can spend so much of ourselves struggling to overcome and get enough of whatever it is we think we need. But it’s never enough. So keep trying and end up trapped like that sheep in the mud, in a pattern of living that doesn’t give us abundance or life. And leaves us feeling alone. We want to be THIS sheep,

deep down we know we are THAT sheep.  

In fact we are a whole flock of THAT.

Instinct says, we can’t let that show.
But then we never really know if others love us or who we’re pretending to be. But we fear that by revealing ourselves and others might reject us, or run away.  So we keep running away, chasing ideas, caught in the mire of blaming others, or denial. Yeah,…we’re THOSE sheep. Yet, to gain what we most deeply want, we need to be vulnerable to this deepest fear.

To even begin to be that vulnerable we need lean into realizing that our fears are met by… our shepherd- The Lord is our shepherd. So walk with me in the good news! Let’s journey into God’s abundance here and now- that the psalmist speaks of, abundant life Jesus offers.  Words that declare God knows we are THAT SHEEP but we are worthy. And God provides- even though we’re not sure it’s right. Provides lots of abundance we might overlook.

God tells us to lie down- gives us rest. Do we take it? Or are we too busy scampering off to things we think we need to do, or expect us to do, so we can feel good? Can we accept God’s rest? Some of us need more rest than we used to. God wants us to rest, be cared for and be well. The Lord is our shepherd- we don’t have to self-shepherd.  

We’re taken to green pastures- places where we can eat good things, not just scrappy stuff. God wants us to eat well. Can we be fed? Or do we run off to things that cannot feed us but that we think we want?

We’re led to still water- We’re often drawn to places where the waters are raging, caught in places we don’t want to be. The Lord wants to lead us back to places that are peaceful and bring life. Where we can relax and be our real selves. The Lord wants to shepherd us away from things that take our lives away. To lead us in the right paths to what we really need. This is God’s deepest desire. Sometimes this means holding us back when we’re trying to squirm away, and sometimes keeping us from being distracted by what someone else is doing we think we need to fix. To trust that the LORD is the shepherd- we’re not. So let God show the path.

There will be places of the darkest shadows but there God comforts our nerves, reassuring us we can keep going because the Lord is with us. Ready to beat back things that hurt us, ready to nudge, push, even prod us to where we should go.

To do all that for even one of us, God works really hard! But the Lord is my shepherd, and yours and yours. The Lord is our shepherd, and labors to comfort and to give all of us this abundance. Even when we choose the fast food of life rather than sitting with the Lord at this feast. Even though we tend to take off and have to be brought back, over and over again, God keeps laboring, cleaning us up, restoring, blessing. And it’s all done because God loves the real us. With the deepest love that does more than follow.

Psalm 23 is often translated as saying goodness and mercy will follow us. But God’s love PURSUES us. While we chase so many things, God is chasing US- this is why Christ came, and laid it all on the line. Pursuing us even though we are THAT sheep. Because while we are “imperfect and wired for struggle,” in God’s eyes we are worthy of love and belonging already for all our days. We can’t ask for more than that, can we?
Our shepherd wants to help us accept who we really are- imperfect yet loved and guide us to be the flock who “gets” its identity. Dwelling together in Christ, supporting and embracing our vulnerability AND this abundant life.  Believing in a God of abundant love will open up believing in abundant life. So maybe we should start inviting people to come and be imperfect but worthy with us. Stop struggling- “Come as you are, eat, drink, relax, there’s plenty, it’s for you. Come see the God who loves like this.” It’s too long for a slogan but I am sure it's more than enough for a life.                                                                                                                               

Monday, April 23, 2012

Meeting Jesus in Our Hunger

This past week I got a call from the daughter of Edna Shugars, one of our homebound members. Her daughter was in town for her mother’s 90th birthday and called to tell me Edna said she was really hungry for communion- would you come?  “Of course I’d be delighted to bring communion,” I said and inquired if I could also bring a birthday treat. I learned her favorite cake was Red Velvet, so I splurged and made a trip over to Sublime Cupcakes and got a bunch of cupcakes in different flavors but most definitely one Red Velvet. Communion and cupcakes. We celebrated, took pictures of the birthday girl, and shared good conversation. I learned her son in law often serves as a communion assistant in their Lutheran church in Missouri. He became visibly moved talking about the profound experience of sharing communion with people. Looking into their eyes and seeing that there’s something different, that moment we grasp that Jesus really is in our midst in our eyes and theirs. Some of you’ve shared how this moment hits you too.

When I told Edna I’d brought communion she was filled with joy and hope. After we shared in the bread and wine and prayed, I watched as she sat there, with her eyes closed, and a slight smile. With tears in the corners of her eyes, she sat perfectly still for awhile, just holding onto the communion glass. This lasted so long her daughter asked her if she was OK. But she smiled and opened her eyes oh so slowly and said she was just so happy. And I really believe she was meeting with Jesus. I saw what it meant to be truly hungry for Jesus, and in doing what seemed like I was responding, could reminded just how much we all are hungry for Jesus. At the end of our time, I looked over, and ironically there sat the Red Velvet cupcake-in our communing and communion, it was yet to be enjoyed. In the meantime, Jesus had opened our minds so we could understand the deeper meaning of “This is for you-remember me.” Met in our hunger and helplessness, and given life-fed in the name of Christ. There are lots of other times and places Jesus will show up in what seems like the need of others but will reveal our need and God in our midst.

Unlike my visit with Edna it will often be in the unscheduled, unanticipated people with a need who suddenly appear. After the cross, those who followed Jesus have been hoping to meet him. He’s appeared to some on the road who go to tell the others, but then while they are in mid-sentence, a stranger shows up in the midst of them and just stands there. They aren’t sure who he is or what he wants. They feel scared and helpless. He’s trying to get them to understand and then he blurts out, “do you have any food?” An unanticipated event, and an unexpected request. When they respond Jesus opens their minds, and opens up the meaning of God’s words. But I wonder, couldn’t it all have turned out differently in this event that seemingly begins as an intrusion into their lives? They could’ve told Jesus, that if he was hungry he should find his own food, because it’s not in their budget to feed total strangers who look like they could provide for themselves?

I wonder because as so many in our community and our country struggle to eat and to have peace, this week it was announced that legislators are proposing the cutting of billions of dollars that provide food assistance to families. Many believe that this program is an intrusive drain on our resources. Let others find their own way. Some who use the program who are guilty of a variety of sins. Let them feed their own. Yet when asked how these people, many of whom are children, will eat, the answer is this: Let the charities and churches step up and do something. As the pastor of this congregation that is already stepping up, I wonder how much more can we do, especially when it looks like some are not stepping at all? And according to Bread for the World, the cost of this to churches would be an added $50,000 per congregation, even those already stepping up.  How can we even begin to reach THAT many hungry and the helpless people looking for food and hope and comfort? Here in the RLP, churches, like ours, already have afterschool programs connected with the Food Bank Kids Café project. Others buy food for local moms and grandmas in the neighborhood to feed their afterschool kids. Many stock pantry shelves to feed the hungry.

We hunger for a Christ we long to see, but while we may want to think he will show up like Edna, Christ is also coming in all the hungry of the world. Some days and and people challenge us, when they suddenly show up and have a demand. It’s not always as heartwarming as a visit with a lady like Edna. In many ways, the face of those who hunger is not always the one you expect. In my own childhood, I remember helping my Mom stock the dented cans on the shelves of the low cost pantry. But I also remember that same pantry provided us food. And I remember being tempted to put aside some cans of things I wanted. That pantry helped us have life. Perhaps it would surprise you to see that a food pantry kid is preaching in this pulpit today. You never know how Jesus will show up. One of our own volunteers shared this story- A child came and got a bag of groceries, and suddenly looked up with pure joy and exclaimed– “We will eat tonite!”  Jesus showed up and both the volunteer and the child were fed in the name of Christ.

Christ is coming in all of the hungry reminding us to share what it means that God’s words are fulfilled in him. Christ is coming to open our minds, and to empower us to share this message with all nations, no matter how hard it is to understand.  To tell them “Come hungry, come helpless, come hopeful, eat and live.” Come to all of the places God sets a table because God hungers for all are able to be fed, and be welcomed.”  This is the work for us who claim we carry on his name. It is a draining monumental task that asks us to challenge our leaders and ourselves, and that leaves lots of questions. But through the Spirit like those first disciples miraculous things happen that our own power could not achieve. As witnesses to the power of God, we’re given power to respond to what Jesus asks of us, even in the unexpected, the unbudgeted, and the unknown.  Wherever there are those who hunger, who long for comfort and hope for forgiveness and peace, Jesus is still showing up, speaking to them and to us-“this is given for you- remember me.”

Today we will sing- Eat this bread, drink this cup. Come to me and never be hungry, trust in me and you will not thirst.
How will God's words come to life in and through us? There are a lot of things I don’t know about how each of us will respond, but there is one thing I am sure of, we are called to an active response.

Wherever this may be for you may you be guided by the prayer of the food pantry at Hope Lutheran Church, each week before they open the doors to all those people who show up asking, do you have anything to eat? 
 “Lord Jesus, we know you will be coming through the door today. Help us to treat you well.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Believing God's Power and Peace are Real

A small group gathered at evening, to share a meal, light the candles, and remember the cross. To experience what they needed here-Jesus came into their midst as they gathered in a room that was not a beautiful sanctuary, but a common room. They brought what they could share – some brought wonderful dishes of food, others brought what they had, some couldn’t bring anything, in fact coming to fellowship with the community was how they would eat that night. They gathered and shared the challenges they faced outside. Some hurried in, others were dragging and exhausted. But by the end of their time together, they began to experience peace. Gathering and telling each other Jesus was with them began to feel real. There was a peace, a peace so real that they began to realize others would want to know this peace. To realize they were the best messengers who could share – come and see, let me tell, believe! And as the small group grew in their love for each other, the power of the Holy Spirit brought them together in one mind. In a way that allowed them to see that while they didn’t share all of the same opinions, they could share in this meal; pray the hopes and joys, doubts and fears of others; and be inspired as they sang-“ Go now in peace, may the love of God surround you, everywhere you go.”  They became strengthened in their belief to do what Jesus commanded- go tell, love others.

I could be describing the earliest disciples- they’d seen the Lord, but were still wrestling with uncertainty, behind closed doors. Telling Thomas “we’ve seen the risen Lord,” yet were still letting it sink in what that meant. I could be describing the early community we hear of in Acts, so filled with the power of Spirit they’ve become of one mind, beginning to live out belief by trusting God and letting their possessions be shared. Yet this story is followed by a story of others in that same group who couldn’t live that out. They wanted to, but standing there with the money, couldn’t let go. So they lied. Even for that astounding community-some were still letting it sink in what “Christ is risen” meant.  

I could also be describing the small group who gathered here Wednesday nights in Lent for Table Church. They came, curious, but unsure. Bringing doubts and challenges after a long day in the world. But together we experienced the peace Jesus brings. Our last week, we turned out the lights and just sat in the glow of the candles and the cross, in the presence of Jesus and each other. There was peace. Can the Table Church folks please stand? These are the people who have a story to share! We have seen it, we can tell about it, and have come to more deeply believe in the peace of Christ. It’s powerful.

Last Sunday was powerful too- an overwhelming experience-beautiful music, full pews, children and baptisms, excitement!! Worship ran way over and no one got up and left. It was as though there was this in-breaking of what it means to be of one heart and mind in Christ by the power of the Spirit. I think last Sunday we could’ve done just about anything together. We experienced the power of the Spirit! And were at peace. 

But that’s not reality, right? It’s an ideal world we manage to glimpse once in a while. Now the last notes of the music have faded, the flowers have drooped, the Easter Peeps are stale and it’s back to the real world.  And it would be naïve to believe that such experiences of peace and power could really happen all the time, right? It would be unrealistic to believe that people would give freely for the sake of the gospel.  It would be unimaginable to think that anything new was really possible in a permanent way.  We know what we might hope for in the ideal world, but here we are in THIS one. I can’t see it and I don’t believe it.

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, but the earliest disciples and we ourselves have a hard time holding onto that-it’s hard to believe all the time. We can say what we believe and that it matters, but in the real world, it’s a struggle. Yet it’s into this world of ours Jesus came promising the Holy Spirit and peace. Power and peace. Yes, we live in the real world, but we’re called to see our world, not with the same old eyes, but through the eyes of God’s power and peace. God knows that when we try to walk in our world, it is anything but peaceful. Jesus comes to bring that peace into being, standing in the midst of all of our doubts and struggles, opening the closed doors and speaking God’s power and peace. Jesus is peace. And Jesus meets us to bring his presence, power and peace into our lives so that we can become believers, and can continue to deepen our belief.  

Some of us grew up in the church with the mindset was that church is just something you do-on Sunday you come to church. It’s frustrating that some don’t come. Where are they THIS week? We begin to have doubts and uncertainties about our future. They came last week, they should be here today. But Jesus doesn’t meet the disciples to say “I have risen- go to church.” He comes to say- “I have risen, become believers.” And I think Jesus makes all the post-resurrection appearances to offer forgiveness for when we and others don’t quite believe and to remind us again and again of the power and peace of God. Because while Jesus is powerful enough to take on the world, we’re not. We need to see, to hear and to share over and over again to continue to become believers. This is true for us all. Each week we have this chance to come to the table, hear forgiveness, receive a peace the world can’t make happen. We need it again and again. We need it, others need it. We need Jesus to meet us here so we can live belief by going out and telling what we’ve seen, help others believe this is real. We need Jesus to keep living this belief even when others don’t. To fully experience God’s peace and power, we need to be here. By experiencing this peace and power, the Spirit opens possibilities we might not have seen, bringing us together as one mind- for the sake of the gospel- to share the good news, draw others here and embody God’s love.  

I think it starts by not just shaking our heads about the “Christmas and Easter” crowd.  

Here’s how I hear I hear the Spirit speaking to us: After Easter worship, some of you said you saw people you hadn’t seen in a long time. People you wished I could talk to and encourage them to return here more faithfully.

But what if seeing the world with new eyes means that the best messenger isn’t me, it’s YOU? You who know them best.
How might the peace of Christ help YOU overcome fear or awkwardness to start that conversation? How might the power of the Holy Spirit inspire YOU to call them? 
I challenge you to unlock that door and see where it leads.
Trust that Jesus is with you, and that the power of the Spirit enables you to share what God reveals here. Come- See what I see-God at work. Hear God’s words.  Experience the power of God’s possibility and the depth of God’s peace.

Let’s let it sink in and live together as those who are continuing to become believers in this power and peace, believing God brings a new reality that’s just that-

It’s real.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Story of Table Church continues....

It’s been awhile since I have talked about Table Church- a grand experiment in community and worship at Holy Spirit. Each week during Lent, there was a different focus to the time together, but overall it was intended to be relaxed and open- porous, if you will. Easy to enter and exit. After the opening weeks of setting the tone, and then talking about fellowship of the table, we moved into weeks where we talked about praying together, confessing together, and some core understandings about communion together.

Each week I provided a jumping off point for those gathered to engage over the mealtime.

For example the week we discussed praying together, I amplified our usual prayer practice. Each week I handed out slips of paper to people and pens so that after we cleared the table we could spend time in prayer together based upon the concerns of the community. We would pass an offering plate and gather the prayers. Then I would take a moment and organize them around general themes of thanksgiving, the world, people in need, etc. We would open by singing the Taize song- “O Lord Hear my Prayer” three times and then I would pray the prayer and we would again sing at the end of the prayers and share together in the Lord’s Prayer. But one week, I asked groups of people to pick a person to pray the prayers of the group. Each group had been given a paper- one said “God, you are….” Another said “We thank you that…” Another said “ We ask that you…” The groups were asked to discuss the ways they would complete these as a way of opening up that prayer does not follow a rigid formula- it can be that simple. Then one person from each group read the prayer they had created as we prayed together.

In the week we talked about confession as being something we share in worship, but that in community we should be able to go to a sister or brother and ask for them to hear us and help us see God in situations, we opened with a common youth group ice breaker- “Two Truths and a Lie.” People were broken into four groups and each person was asked to state two true things and one not true thing about themselves but not say which was which and the group had to guess. This was interesting because many people struggled with what they were willing to say about themselves. This gets at the heart of a tension in community- the “me” we present and our worries about how we would be received. Some people were not so sure they would tell another person something in a moment of confession. Others were honest enough to say they were not sure they would really engage this with God. In my practice of the Examen,  I try to lift up both that we can come to God with these things and look for God’s work and guidance in them. Perhaps when we have those moments we accept that God loves us for the “us” we really are, we might then be more able to be Christ for someone else in their need.  Perhaps seeing another’s need, allows God to speak to us in ours.

One week I handed out different colored slips of paper as people were preparing to sit down, and asked that they sit with the other people who had that same color paper. This was a way to mix up the patterns of socializing. Being creatures of habit, we all tend to form groups, but then those groups start to be fixed. Once in the groups I asked each group to talk about what would make a dinner or a party- great? What makes a gathering a good one? People spent most of their time on the food and the decorations, and the theme. Not much time on the people. How fascinating to see a pattern we can experience in church. We spend a lot of time focusing upon the music, the flowers, the building, but not so much on the needs of people. But there was some conversation about people- we would invite friends and relatives. We might tell friends to bring others. But then one group said- well, not all the relatives- just the ones we like. And not just any friends- yeah.  As each group read their responses, this group went last. Their honesty got the group talking and knowingly laughing.

We don’t really want just anyone. So what does that say about communion- a meal and a celebration? Jesus is the host and the center of an amazing celebration in the Meal- how do we see it?

Some people chafed at the notion that communion is a celebration- it should be solemn and we should remember what Jesus did for us. Yes, but how is it also something we celebrate? This was food for thought too.

Our last week, I provided all of the food and just encouraged people to come. We talked about what the early Christians would have been eating, or not. We talked about how each week we had people who only got there when they could, not unlike the early church- and how we like the early church Paul writes to needed to make sure that all were being fed and drawn into the table. We talked about what it meant to really rub elbows together- I made sure the tables were set close- not like we might sit in church. After all our weeks together- how would it feel to hear- One of you will hand me over?  

In our earlier week, people had said for the sake of a party going well they would accommodate that there might be some foods they don’t like or music they don’t like or people they are not really fond of, because the most important thing was the party. What had we learned to adjust to accommodate the fact that we may not all like the same things, but were gathered around a central thing, a person- Jesus the Christ? 

I asked for feedback about the experience from those who had been regulars and the newcomers that night. The notion of gathering, blessing our bread and wine/grape juice, breaking the bread and sharing it, sharing a meal, and fellowship, studying together and praying together.

"It was relaxing." At the end of the day, people found more and more that while they came in with their stresses, they became relaxed.

As something we did week to week, people found some weeks they did not have time to prepare an elaborate thing to share for the meal, and it was still all OK.

It was a different way to worship- acoustic music, no bulletins, no printed music to figure out. But it felt like worship. It was open to strangers.  One person noted that more people would like it but might be intimidated because it was an unknown thing. Others agreed, and then the person said- "But I guess it’s up to us to be the messengers." Exactly!!

Then I invited people to consider that for those who have not been to church lately or maybe not really ever, that feeling of fear of the unknown- what is on the other side of the door- is the same. But we can be the messengers.

Another person suggested we continue this kind of worship at some level, perhaps once a month. When asked for thoughts, everyone else was in agreement. I explored what day or time would be best. Overwhelmingly the response was that Wednesday night was best- it was a kind of middle of the week refresher between Sundays.

So those of us who have gone on the grand adventure of trying a new thing, and making some tweaks on the way, are going to try another new thing starting in later in May.  

And as we prepared to end our time in prayer, someone commented that our time could be more intimate if the overhead lights were not so bright. If we just had the candles. A request for something more intimate!

I turned out the overheads lights so we could just have the candles. We ended our time at the table, with just the glow of the light of lots of tiny votives, and the cross, holding hands in prayer, and then singing:
Go now in peace.
Go now in peace.
May the love of God surround you.
May the love of God surround you.
Every where
You may go.
You may go.

Stay tuned…

Monday, April 9, 2012

Christ is Risen- Get Off my Porch!

My Easter sermon- on the amazing day where 161 people worshipped where last year there were 90 and where we had three baptisms of neighborhood kids. And where we are one week after a tragic shooting death in our neighborhood.
On the way to the tomb, the women remembered the story way back when it all began. It was supposed to be good news. But now they trudge to the grave- numb. Stumbling in the early morning light, forcing themselves to go. Perhaps along the way, re-telling the stories-of things that’d been, the man they now missed. Trying to recapture it. Going through the motions of what was expected. They’re worn out, just coming to do what needed to be done. All the others had fallen away or were hunkered down in fear. The women, they had hung on to hope the hardest, tried to keep the faith. But then nothing happened, and it seemed pretty definite this was the way it would be. They had let to it sink in- it really must be true. He was dead, there was nothing more to expect.

But then they got there and thought they must be dreaming-The stone was rolled away! Out of the darkness came a message in the light, proclaiming that God and not death has the last word! The stone was rolled away! They heard Jesus had risen and had a message for his followers-Go tell!! What Jesus said would happen- has! But...they were speechless. Why does the gospel end like this? Shouldn’t there be more? It's perhaps why there was a later addition that fixes the ending in Mark. Because there should be dancing and excitement, people doing the right thing, all the loose ends wrapped up with a happy ending. Not like this-the stone is rolled away, but the most faithful followers, the ones expected to do as they were commanded- Don’t. They DON’T go and tell. They run away-afraid. And it seems their faith away ran with them.  I even imagine that as they run, they are looking back over their shoulders, still expecting to see that stone. Running, wondering, but apparently not believing.  If we were there, would we? They don’t tell because their faith falls away. What about us? Do WE tell even now? Maybe there IS more to this story. We too can find it easy to get busy dwelling on the stone, whatever that represents in our lives- big heavy things, cold and dark places, things we just can’t move. Sometime there are so many obstacles. Can WE really believe God moves obstacles, much less believe the message of the empty tomb? Or …are some of us here today because we’re supposed to be? Maybe someone expects us to be here. Maybe WE expect ourselves to be here, but some of us may not be sure why. And even if we DO get it, are WE gonna go and tell, or just go home?  

Good thing God’s power is bigger. The stone WAS rolled away but if it was up to us for the rest of the story-the disciples, the women at the tomb or you and me- we probably wouldn’t achieve it. In fairness, maybe we fear we’re not the best messengers. We don’t feel all that pulled together or all that changed- what could WE really tell anyone anyway? And we haven’t been the best followers. And yet- knowing who the disciples will be, God’s message for those doubting, scared and worn out followers isn’t Jesus saying “Hey I’ve risen and why did you deny me?” or “I was strong enough to defy death- Why isn’t your faith stronger?” The message was - “Go and Tell!! Jesus is risen and is moving forward. And he’s waiting for you. So stop looking back! GO!” And this is true whether the women tell or not. Because the God who cannot be contained by that stone, or the power of death can’t be contained by us either. God isn’t waiting for us to validate that Jesus is risen- it is so! But God is still looking for us. The story we hear this day isn’t one with a weird ending, but a glorious new beginning.

Even when we deny, fall away, or get stuck in fear, God still seeks us to be a part of the ongoing vision of grace, love and forgiveness. Saying no obstacle in our lives is too big for the power of God. God wants us to leave the weight of the stone and the fear of the darkness behind. The real reason the messenger met the women and meets us isn’t to test our resolve, but to reassure-that in all the anxiety and disappointments of life, God wants to offer something new. Stop focusing on the stone you can scarcely move, and let your fear be turned into faith.

This is especially important for us here in the aftermath of news on Palm Sunday of a man was shot dead in our neighborhood- caught in the crossfire of someone else’s battle-an event that makes fear easier to embrace than faith. I was talking with many of the neighbors that day as the police were at work. Mass had just let out at St Margaret’s. Lots of people were coming down Spring Street with large crosses, elaborately decorated with palms, while neighbors were all out, and the police were stringing up the Yellow DO NOT CROSS tape on both sides of the street.  It was pretty chaotic. I spoke to one man, who was confused by my clerical collar. He was pretty sure I wasn’t Catholic, but the word “Lutheran” didn’t connect. By process of elimination, he asked if I was Pentecostal, and then with a worried look, asked if I was with “Los Testigos.” The Spanish term for testifiers, or witnesses- he wanted to know if I was a Jehovah’s Witness. When I said “no”, relieved, he told me how the day before Los Testigos had come through the neighborhood. A man asked him if he really believed that Jesus died for him? He said that he did. The person asking told him-“NO! Jesus is dead and Jesus did NOT die for you.”

The man said- “That’s not true! Jesus did die for me and Jesus is alive! I believe this. Now- GET OFF MY PORCH!"

Today we today celebrate what God in Christ Jesus has done and IS doing now-for you, for me, for all. And WE are the testifiers and witnesses to this truth. A truth that continues to strengthen us in the face of those in the world who try to tell us that all we have is a stone, fear and death. We celebrate this good news and the remind ourselves we all share in the ongoing new life in Christ, as we witness and celebrate the baptism of C.J. and Gabby and Giovanni. Baptism is a living reminder that we die in Christ AND share in his resurrection and are given faith. This is what we proclaim and celebrate we make the sign of the cross- symbol not of death but of victory. This is what we see anew as we light a candle that brightens our world's darkness. This is what we experience as water washes us clean and restores us. Ways we're given strength to tell the story.

While Easter and baptisms are times for looking back and sharing stories and pictures,  I hope, I REALLY hope, we’ll do more than just talk about Easter outfits, and stories of “remember when.” Because neither our baptisms  nor the resurrection are just history. They’re events opening up a whole new reality in God’s world, of a story we are in, that’s still unfolding. A story we’re still called to tell. Let’s first tell ourselves- let it sink in- it’s really true! The stone has been rolled away. God has overcome sin and death for us, and in spite of us, out of love for us and he waits for us. It is this good news that empowers us to tell evil wherever we see it- get off our porch. get off our streets, and get out of our world- because Christ IS risen indeed! Alleluia!!!   Amen   

Friday, April 6, 2012

He's Dead- Is There Something You Can Do?

I was walking home after the mid-day Good Friday service and the prayer vigil looking forward to some long awaited time with my family and Toby, when, as I approached the corner where I lived, a car pulled up to the stop sign and honked the horn. I didn’t immediately recognize the car, but just then the window rolled down and the man inside asked, “Excuse me, ma’am but are you a pastor?” Now I should say that my all black outfit and Anglican collar was a pretty good indicator.

When I indicated that yes, I was a pastor, he looked pleased and asked, “Do you have a minute, I really need a pastor” and began parking the car as I said that I could spare a moment. He takes time parking a very well maintained car and steps out, beginning by thanking me profusely, then beginning to tell me he has just had a terrible thing happen.

He was walking his parents’ dog while visiting and it seems that the leash was too loose. The dog who apparently often tries to slip the leash, managed to do just that and dart into the path of a car. The result was fatal. I expressed my condolences as he continued that he had the dog and was on the way to have it buried, but seeing me he had stopped because “ I was wondering since you are a pastor, if there is something you can do?”Perhaps it was my Good Friday/Easter mindset, but I immediately began to wonder in my mind just what he meant by this.

I suggested that I could say a prayer, a blessing of sorts and asked if this was what he had in mind. To which he said, “why yes, that would be great, I mean it’s not like you can raise him from the dead or something.” Indeed. Just then a neighbor walking his dog sauntered by. The man became sad and noted- my neighbor’s dog was wearing the same style of leash and collar. “You there, sir! Please hold on tightly to your dog! I was walking my family’s dog with that collar and he slipped the leash and now is dead! Take care of your dog!”
My neighbor appeared cautiously grateful and a little confused, as he moved on. “I really did everything I could,” the man said. Of course, he had.

I asked for the name of his family dog and after telling me, he offered that  the dog was in the trunk. Before I could say anything, he was popping the trunk. Two thoughts went through my head- is this safe? And what will I see? There was a cardboard box, with a cover over it. I offered to pray, and we prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s gift to us of creation and all the creatures we share life with, a prayer of thanksgiving for Kelly (the recently deceased) and a prayer of hope for the day when God restores all of creation. I prayed for comfort in this time of mourning and peace for all whose lives were touched by Kelly.

Afterwards, he hugged me and repeated how he had done all he could, regaled
me with the family history of canines, and then again reiterated- “I did all I could.” I assured him that this was so, and that he could accept that God knew this was true- that he could accept this as true and not beat himself up. That Kelly knew but Kelly had just wanted to run like he always liked to. He hugged me again, thanked me, wished me a Blessed Easter, and told me how grateful he was to cross paths with a pastor.

In all of the ways I have been blessed to proclaim forgiveness and assurance, I could not have imagined this one. But as I walked a couple doors down and saw my own puppy waiting at the door, tail wagging, I really do believe that in its own canine way, there was a story of Good Friday to Easter grace there.

Love Like This

Over the years I’ve come to realize I am not a good care receiver. I like to be a care giver. It’s hard to let someone do things for me. Many of us have been teachers, secretaries, managers, nurses, parents-lots of ways we’re used to caring for and serving others. We feel good when we care for others. We feel useful. But letting someone else care for US? Not so much. Good caregivers are often lousy care receivers. Sound familiar?

So I wonder- as we struggle to let others do loving things for us, how much are we willing to let Jesus love us? Jesus says love others as I have loved you. But how easy is it to let Jesus get close and love us- the real “us”?

I think the answer to this question affects how we will then love-which has me rethinking this whole foot-washing thing. In some churches tonite is the night for re-enacting not only the Last Supper, but the washing of feet. I was asked again last night- are you going to do foot washing? After all, in the Gospel of John we hear nothing about the meal we call communion, no words of “do this in remembrance of me.” We hear about washing feet. There’s been lots of division in the church over communion, but perhaps not surprisingly no such heated debates about washing feet.  As I was asked about washing feet with cringing faces, there was relief when I said “no.”
We get a little up in arms about the whole foot washing thing. Peter is indignant too, though we hear he is indignant about having his feet washed mainly because he thinks it’s beneath Jesus, this act of bowing down, and doing the work of the lowliest slave. This breach of social standards is shocking. It’s embarrassing to have Jesus on his knees, washing off the grime, and the dust of animals, taking off and laying down robes that will only again be removed when he lays down his life and is crucified.

Jesus washing feet. It was a part of a social custom, but while it’s not a common practice today, I think our feelings about foot-washing still tell us something about Jesus and ourselves. I confess I’ve never been a fan of the practice, but in one congregation I served, I realized there was no way out. I spent hours getting my feet ready for the big reveal-making sure my feet looked OK-which of course ironically reveals something about me.

From talking to some of you, I know I’m not alone. Unless its summer and we’re the flip-flop wearing kind, our feet are usually hidden. Perhaps they’re not our most attractive feature. Yet, one writer suggests that our feet are perhaps an indicator of our real selves. Long after we start out with cute, pink baby toes, our feet develop crooked toes, corns, calluses, discolored toenails, cracked skin, bunions. Centuries later, and in spite of all our technologicla advances, our feet aren’t much better than those feet in the sandals of the followers of Jesus. While they may be cleaner, to invite people to look at our feet is to invite them to accept us as we are, because we can do little to change their appearance.

This is an intimacy that perhaps we’re not likely to want to be a part of. Just like those layers of dirt of the disciples’ feet, we will keep our layers, thank you very much. It’s a little too much humility. Jesus’ humility is hard to look upon, the humiliation that will be seen most fully in his death. We don’t like this, or thinking of our own humility. Even when we care for others, we like a distance. Yet, Jesus shows a loving intimacy that we are ill at ease with. He removes the distance between him and his followers, and brings them face to face with pure love. For Peter and for us there’s something else at stake besides Jesus’ dignity. It is our ability to receive this love that comes as a gift we didn’t earn or deserve, that doesn't allow us to keep our status. Jesus loves us as we are up close, without the layers and pretense, and shows us how we “instinctively seek to protect our position and perception of power and control.”

We don’t respond to God’s commands or to God’s saving initiative easily, but we are even more ill at ease with this searing honest love. Yet, it is only in God’s steadfast faithfulness, seeking and shaping, washing off the layers that we can begin to approach self-giving love- either to receive it or to model it in the world. Tonite we hear again, that we are to love and be loved in this way.

We prefer to let God love us in ways that let us save face, but when we do this, we miss the possibility of God revealed in our midst in ways that break open deeper love in community. 
Who is God using to show us this love?
Can we learn to simply receive it and the  hospitality of others?
Will be willing to risk deeper, more intimate relationships, and proclaim a death to our barriers? The story of footwashing invites us to Christ in these things. Things that break open barriers to real relationships, and encourage us to be willing to lay down our lives for this new way of being.
To believe that Christ’s love for us is even deeper than our willingness to admit our need. And that the love God the Father has for the Son is the love the Son has for us-No reservations. This kind of relationship is possible for us here. Mutual love, without any special treatment. Honest love for who we are.

Foot-washing shows us both the depth of Jesus’ love and the model for us as disciples. While we can’t love as deeply as Christ, we’re invited to step deeper into this reality nd to believe God really does intend such love for us.

When we begin to believe this is true for us, we’ll be more able to receive God’s love through all kinds of people who bear Christ into our midst.
And then...we’ll be unable to keep from showing the light of this love to others, even when it means sacrificing our comfort level.

A real, intimate love willing to go to places our social standards would say we should avoid that models the real, intimate love that went the places God didn’t have to go. Self-giving love seen fullest in the cross.

Tonite we’re asked to remember and here is God's message-
I love you. Love and be loved as I have loved you.
Love like THIS and the whole world will know who I am .

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Surely Not I?

Last weekend, on Palm Sunday, our neighborhood was rocked by the death of a man who was killed when a gun battle between two unknown people in the middle of the night, accidently claimed him as victim. It comes on the heels of other deaths and violence that has led a group of pastors and others to take to the streets to pray and engage the community. This past week I was finally able to partipate in this ecumenical, multi-ethnic event. As powerful as it was we then came to the events of Palm Sunday of which you will hear more. This year as the new pastor, I decided that since every other Wednesday we had mid-day worship, we would have it on Holy Wednesday and used the pericope for the day. The gospel focuses specifically upon the interaction between Judas and Jesus:

Everyone has gathered in the Upper Room, and their meal is well underway. They’re comfortably reclining, eating and drinking on the eve of the Festival that celebrates the liberation of the people. They’ve been a little caught off guard that Jesus has washed their feet, but then he announces the shocking news- “One of you will hand me over.” And 11 of the 12 are stunned. They all say “Surely you’re not talking about me!” And each of the 11 adamantly believes he is incapable of doing anything that would betray, or deny or abandon their Master and Teacher. Surely not I!

But Jesus is deadly serious. It seems one of them WILL do such a thing. They can’t really take it in, maybe becoming suspicious of each other, looking around-who could it be? It’s fascinating that none of the 11 thinks of himself, though over their time with Jesus they’ve all been pretty inconsistent. But even when it’s revealed to be Judas, there’s disbelief and confusion. Nothing makes sense. They’re stunned, and even now don’t quite get why Judas is leaving. It’s unreal. Later when it all comes together, Judas will be singularly reviled in history as “The Unforgiven” in our eyes, often seen in our art with a uniquely sinister appearance. Because he’s not us-He is the Betrayer, and to this day someone who’s a traitor is called a “Judas.”

This day in Holy Week used to be called “Spy Wednesday.” I’m glad it no longer is. This title places so much importance on Judas and his actions it seems to ignore those of everyone else around. “Spy Wednesday” sounds like the name of a TV show, where people pick him apart from a variety of perspectives- medically, psychologically, sociologically. To figure out just what happened, what made him tick. Was he a zealot-part of the group of radicalized Jews who believed violent force was necessary to overthrow the Romans? Was he disappointed that Jesus was not a warlord? Was he in a power struggle with Jesus? Was he someone who shouldn’t be trusted all along, or did he snap?  The animosity toward him is even greater because he was in the Inner Circle, and we kind of celebrate the downfall of people like that. How dare someone in such a place do this!

Let’s pick them apart, know all we can, and then we can separate ourselves by degrees. Because we would NEVER do that. Surely not I! How dare he sit there and eat and drink with Jesus knowing full well that when he walked out the door, he would be anything but a follower of Jesus! Surely not I!

Despite these responses to Judas, of whom we actually know very little, we’re not here today to remember Judas. We’re here to remember Jesus. Another reason why “Spy Wednesday” was a bad name- it places more priority on the action of Judas than upon Jesus.

In reality, Judas did not betray Jesus in the sense that Jesus was caught off guard. Judas handed Jesus over to a fate Jesus already knew was coming, and freely accepted. Jesus knew his time had come to depart. John’s gospel says “having loved his own who were in the world, he (would) now love them to the very end.”

This meal begins the very end that will demonstrate the depth of God’s love and the strength of God’s power until it is finished. And before they reach that end, ALL of the disciples will stumble, deny, and let go of Jesus. Those who ALSO ate and drank with him but then struggle in moments of hurt, confusion and disillusionment, failing to act like His followers. Ultimately,  though they’re the ones Jesus prepared to send out, they’ll hunker down behind a closed door, saying “You want me to face the world? Surely not I!”
The events surrounding the cross are still happening today. Last Friday night I joined with sisters and brothers of some of our city churches. We prayed for the city and walked into the night on our streets. We sang hymns, and prayed for people and businesses, government leaders, our schools, for families and children. We talked with those we met on the streets. To proclaim the depth of the love of Christ and the strength of God’s power. Hoping to show those that Satan is trying to enter completely that God is stronger than all of the forces of evil that tempt us to walk away for good. Our time in the darkness of the streets was powerful. So was the moment when we prayed for the churches. As we sat inside in the light, and considered whether we as churches are really responding by remaining with Jesus in the face of threats of darkness and evil, or whether we responding as those who ate and drank with Jesus but then say- “Surely not I” to our calling.
This is even more poignant as we consider that last week on Palm Sunday oru neighborhood was rocked by the death of a man who was innocently caught in a cross fire and we wonder how to respond.
Are we a people who will hand over our sisters and brothers and allow Satan to enter them completely? Or will we continue to turn to and remain with Jesus and proclaim his liberation to others? In light of the events of this past week, as here in our world where we would not expect it, gunfire has taken the life of an innocent bystander, it’s hard to keep the faith, and hard to pray for those whose lives are hurting but who also hurt us.
It is perhaps here that we get that sense of how Jesus felt when he announced he would be handed over. He was greatly troubled, but not only because he knew the weight of what was to happen. Also because he knows how it will be for the one evil enters completely. In another gospel, Jesus uses the word “Woe!” to speak of such a one. “Woe” is a death wail of grief. That when Satan enters completely, Judas will become one with the night and experience the feeling of total separation.
Though God uses this to accomplish a purpose, it’s still a moment of lament for all. None of us is immune to suffering or to times we too deny, fall away, or hand over things to the forces of the world. None of us should desire such a separation for anyone.
Instead we should pray to follow Jesus-who began knowing who those first disciples and we would be. Who traveled the road to the cross, knowing, and yet offered forgiveness, cleansing and new life anyway. Freely. All the way to the very last breath of forgiveness and true liberation.
Does any of us deserve this? “Surely not I.” But let’s think about what it means that God sees it differently for all of us.