Saturday, November 23, 2013

Jesus Re-member Us

Jesus, remember me. Remembering has been on my mind a lot, with the large scale historic events of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and the anniversary of JFK's assassination. Closer to here and now, the church secretary, Donna, and I took a 96 year old saint to lunch who lives alone. She loves the Olive Garden. Her regular dining companion and driver died last year. Increasingly she wonders if she is remembered. I’d promised to take her to lunch awhile ago. This was the week. Being remembered brought joy. At the restaurant, the longtime waitress remembered her too which just tickled her. Over lunch we heard it was time to type out her pretzel gift list for the holidays, (on a real typewriter-remember those?), as she remembered being a secretary for 30 years. Dorothy is a positive person but she says, “I think I’m living too long perhaps.” Even so, that bright spot of remembering and reconnecting is one image of “Jesus, remember me” that empowers us and reminds us of the kingdom. Where, as Colossians puts it, Christ is the “one in whom all things hold together.”  If 'remembering' is powerful enough here and now as part of the flock, how much more meaningful is it when remembering happens in the mind and heart of Jesus? As we hear forgiveness spoken even for those who haven't asked for it, who may not even know they need it and the willingness of Jesus to truly see those in his presence, and then see beyond a brokenness. To remember and reconnect.

This is Christ as King, in charge and encompassing it all. We hear of glory and power, but it’s Paradise from one dying on the cross. Of gathering sheep amidst chaos and scattering. Of giving thanks with joy while enduring suffering. Seeing destruction in the world but hearing of the city of God. That too was remembering this week. Proclaiming God in what shakes us. One afternoon, a girl from the Doves Nest showed up grieving the murder of her uncle.

We went to the Chapel, a quiet peaceful place. I asked if she could tell me about him. At first she said it’d been awhile since she’d seen him. But then she remembered, telling of trips to the pool, and his buying the BEST Christmas presents as only an uncle can do. And she began to smile and cry.

It all changed when he was in a car accident, and he lost his memory. He wasn’t who he’d been before. Now even later, he was gone.

In the Chapel is a window, a beautiful window, through which even when the room seems dark, the colors stream in rays that create tiny places of beauty. We sat there in those little scattered but persistent rays.  Looking at the center of the window-Jesus, the shepherd. I asked what she saw in Jesus’ face. “Love…his eyes are love.” And what about that sheep Jesus is holding- what do you see? “That sheep is clean, and well fed, and peaceful. That sheep, pastor did you notice? It’s smiling. That sheep has a smile on its face! That sheep knows it’s got it good.”

Well, if you’ve ever seen a real live sheep, they’re smelly, and dirty, with junk stuck to them. They often make really bad decisions and get pretty banged up. Her uncle experienced that part of being a sheep in the world. Truth is that he became really broken. No longer the man she remembered nor the person God created him to be. Imagine a whole flock of that- that’s pretty much us in the world. It’s no wonder there’s such a contrast between paradise and daily existence. We see a story of failed leadership and scattering, where those who survive simply cannot create a new chapter. And while we want to just race to the hopeful verses, the starkness of our reality must be seen- like that man on the cross who knows what he deserves as far as the world sees it and anything different can only come from the work of God. God doing the opposite.

Gathering, not scattering. Bringing a promised future and a chance to thrive for all. A promise far different from our current world where failures have led to depletion and scattering that has reached “exile” levels. Jesus, remember me. Re-member us. Hold us together with you. It’s not yet here in its fullness. For the simple reason is that our failed leadership continues to contest God’s announced future and in the process continues to scatter and do evil. It makes us want to plead “Thy Kingdom Come!” But here is the promise- it has begun.

While we wait, what is needed is not a race to a greeting card cliché for the day, but remembering words of that new reality in our midst. As we sat in the Chapel, light streaming through the window, and our tears, downstairs you could hear the noisiness of the Doves Nest in full swing, but at the same time notice the peace of Christ. And that is how it is. And we remembered together that Jesus’ promises are true. For her uncle it means that now, he’s no longer broken, or struggling. He’s THAT smiling sheep. Loved, cared for, whole, at peace. That sheep with the smile. God’s power and love are at work. Simply and only because God has both the power and the desire to make it so. For him and for us.

When we are overcome and when we know in our hearts just who we’ve been. We can remember the good news that God’s judgment- God’s assessment of the situation- leads to God’s re-membering. Putting us together again and holding us. Remembering and reconnecting to Christ as God with us and for us. Christ refusing to let the results of “evil doings” be the last word. With us, even when the world around us might seem to be falling apart and unpredictable.

In chaos and in isolation, the voice of God can still be heard, a ray of light found. Jesus as the Lord of all uses his power to gather back, to re-member all things, everywhere. Putting us together and holding us in peace and reconciliation. This is the sign of the kingdom of God in Jesus. "The gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven."

And this is what the faithful remember and praise. It might be a busted up and tattered flock and faith but it’s there. Just like when Jesus was on the cross, surrounded by mourners, followers, family, women and others- there at the cross not quite sure. But they showed up.  As one writer suggests, maybe this is what Luke means when he talks about expecting the Kingdom of God. It’s about the ultimate, but until that ultimate event actually takes place, it’s about being people of the kingdom who show up and remember-

helping, repenting, waiting, and  watching. Learning, supporting, and sometimes just showing up to mourn. But showing up- to look for and pray for the kingdom. Believing that when life seems hard, the world seems dark, or the race feels long, we can hold on to the good promises of God. Made strong and given joyful patience.

Problems may not go away, but we can keep on because…we are not alone. We are remembered and redeemed. Gathered to pray as ever-Jesus, remember me, re-member us in your kingdom. Teach us to pray believing your kingdom can be, and is so, in us. AMEN

Let us pray- Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine IS the kingdom and the power and the glory. Forever and ever. Amen.

(I have to say that Dancing with the Word, Working Preacher, Edge of Enclosure, and Ministry Matters are all really fine sites- please support them in their efforts)

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Grinch, the Temple and Jesus

Today I read from the Message translation of Luke 21- the whole chapter. And then…

So, today I am thinking about Christmas, after all everyone else is. Especially with Thanksgiving just around the corner. And the Reading holiday Parade and Christmas tree lighting are next weekend, even before Thanksgiving. My neighbors are putting up Christmas lights and there are snarky “don’t hate me decorating” posts on Facebook. No worries, friends. I am thinking about Christmas but more specifically about “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, a now classic Dr. Seuss tale that has been a TV special and a movie. I was significantly depressed to learn that it was first broadcast in 1966 and that I was alive. Well, you might wonder what The Grinch Who Stole Christmas has to do with Jesus and the Temple of the people of Israel. In the Grinch story, the Grinch is a very unhappy creature who can’t stand the happiness and celebrating of the Whos in Whoville, especially at Christmas. They wake up and open presents and then all come outside and stand around the big Christmas tree and sing and then there is feasting on the Who Roast Beast. It seem this is the center of life. The Grinch finds it all so irritating and can’t stand how this galvanizes people and gives them joy. So, he sets about bringing it to an end. He devises a plan believing that if he takes away all the trappings of the day, there will be nothing to celebrate. Because it’s about the stuff.

In Jesus’ day, the temple was the center of it all- It was huge and stunning. The outer court alone could hold 400,000 people, and at festival times, like for those gathering in Luke, it frequently held crowds nearly that large. It was intended to honor God, but it was not breathtakingly beautiful because the people made it so. It had been Herod, a Roman ruler who wanted to be powerful who spent massive amounts of money making it beautiful.  Taking the Temple intended to testify to God’s unique majesty, and making it beautiful to bring glory to himself. The place intended to reflect where God touched the earth and held it still and safe had become something very different to many. So in all those people and all that beauty, one insignificant woman, faithful but widowed could be impoverished and unnoticed, as she has thrown her whole life away to preserve God’s house. Because others are so bedazzled by the beauty of the building. Its beauty and not holiness, had become the center.

Jesus, who has already been poking sticks at religious leaders, speaks prophetically of it all being leveled. Not one stone on another on the eve of the big festival. Scandalous talk that the beautiful temple was temporary. That even something so concretely placed in people’s minds could be gone. What would life mean? How would life go on?

For those hearing the Gospel of Luke for the first time, this was reality. The temple had in fact been brought down about 30 years before, by the Romans determined to leave no stone standing. Just like the Grinch in his efforts to take away all of Christmas from the Whos in Whoville. In a calculated way to guarantee that everything that shapes their identity will be gone. The Romans didn’t quite succeed. One wall is left, which we now call the Western wall, or the Wailing Wall.

Suzanne Richardson, whose work can be found online at Edge of Enclosure writes that while reflecting upon Jesus prediction of the destruction of the Second Temple, the Grinch comes to mind. Particularly the scene involving the moment the Grinch pauses to hear the moaning of the Whos in Whoville after he has stolen everything related to the village Christmas celebration. "That's a noise," grinned the Grinch, "That I simply must hear!" So he paused. And the Grinch put a hand to his ear. “And he did hear a sound rising over the snow. It started out low. Then it started to grow... But the sound wasn't sad! Why, this sound sounded merry! It couldn't be so! But it WAS merry! VERY! He stared down at Who-ville! The Grinch popped his eyes! Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise! Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, Was singing!

Without any presents at all! He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same!” There stand the Whos in a circle around where the tree had been. They lift their heads and now instead was a glowing star rising over them-light for the world. They live anew! Transformed. They don’t just endure, they live anew. Because it’s not about the tree or the presents or even the Roast Beast.

Our gospel reading at first sounds more like what the Grinch expects-destruction, chaos, rejection, family-shattering, betrayals. And Richard Swanson suggests, it might seem that what we take from this is that the calm individual is the center of the world, (and) that Christian endurance is the point of Jesus’ message. It’s actually greater than that-its’ not just about endurance but survival.” And by survival, I don’t mean “hunker down.” I mean continued new life. That's the question we all ask when something happens that rips the very fabric of our existence apart, or the roadmap we’ve been using is gone. When divorce comes out of nowhere, when illness changes everything, when addiction tramples and terrorizes, when family strife breaks out. Or when church doesn’t look like it used to. When the universe is shaken to the core, how will we live?

Even in world-destroying catastrophe, Jesus says, God’s faithful people should lift their heads and expect resurrection, redemption, and rescue. Life.
It takes life together looking for God at work. And moving beyond what stymies the Grinch. The Whos find a way to live and share joy that is not at all about stuff. For us, that living doesn’t come from this sanctuary as a beautiful place as it is. These windows, the memorial gifts are not the source for living.
It comes from the God we encounter in the midst of them. God who enters the world, in the flesh, and rises beyond everything we imagine. Coming into a world waiting for life to be what it should be, bringing resurrection and faithful hope. To people just like us.
And this is why I say thank God it’s not about a building. 
But here then are deeper questions that I hope empower our living here.

Do we recognize this place as one where we sense and connect with God? When we are here, is it holy?

Do we sense that we are in the presence of the Divine?  

Do we glimpse Jesus present in our midst?

Do we feel Christ literally taken into us in communion, dwelling in us?

Do we notice that power- that we bear this sacred and holy into a suffering world-
where people don’t see beauty or joy or new life?

Are we raising our heads to look for resurrection?
Or do we just see people and stuff?

All our words in worship are centered around helping us experience resurrection.
We can't explain it but that's the power of God in this place.
Luke goes on to tell of faithful rising day after day to listen to Jesus. Words heard by people who only see the charred remnants of a ruin and disappointment. Trying to lift up their heads and look for the promised resurrection in the midst of what seems like anything but.
That is what our life as Christians often feels like- trying to see and point to God’s life in what seems like anything but.
This is why we are here to be God’s people- together.
To encounter resurrection and to show it to others in the kingdom.
Because we know-in our world, endurance is just not enough, not even close.
When it really matters, and everything feels like its falling away
only resurrection will do.
But to steal the phrase from Dr. Seuss-
“they can’t stop Jesus from coming.
Somehow or other, he comes just the same!”

Thanks be to God. AMEN

Monday, November 11, 2013

Entering the Larger Life of God

Today the Sadducees are getting a bad rap in the gospel. It’s the first thing we hear-they don’t believe in the resurrection! But I got to wondering, how about us?
What do WE mean when we say we believe in resurrection? I asked a lot of people this week.
One friend says it simply means God promises life after death. Another said-life never ends, even if it seems like it from a human viewpoint. God's life-giving power will always be more powerful than death and destruction. The crucified and risen Christ is the ultimate promise of redemption and new life for all of creation.
Someone else said-It means that the fundamental character of God is to bring life from death. We receive that promise through Christ and we can depend on it throughout our life and beyond. It doesn't mean that life doesn't pass away. It means that we can depend on God's character to bring life from death…and it's a promise that all can trust in. As a Christian it means that I've been given the Spirit in order to participate in God's action.
Another friend shared-God is constantly creating and recreating. Now. And in the future. We see new life everywhere. Isn’t that resurrection?

Then I talked to our afterschool kids who told me that God's new life comes in how God gives us blessings in this life and promises more to come. Probably with lots of gold and fluffy clouds. "After all Pastor, the Bible says there's a lot of gold!"
And others told me about pets in the afterlife, and I starting imagining My Little Pony. But who’s to say?
I was struck though-all of the answers I got focused upon Life more than death. While many adults focused on the life to come, our kids whose lives are just as complicated think it matters where God is giving life now, even as some of them are still actively mourning the killing in our neighborhood of their friend Wilberto a few months ago.
My seminary President chimed in on Facebook and shared that he has a friend who is an Episcopal priest who always announced a death saying, "Jane/John has moved on into the larger life of God." I love that image! But I would expand it- it’s not only about the great hereafter. We gather here and say that gathered in the name of Christ we can experience this earthy and earthly life as a foretaste of the feast to come. Moments where the larger life of God come to us now. Resurrection starts now and resurrection extends beyond our horizon. But you know, I am also struck by the notion in the gospel today that as much as God desires us to live in this altered reality, God is not making us believe in resurrection. The Sadducees weren’t buying it.

On Wednesday night when we talked about this week’s gospel and right away the question was-just who were those Sadducees?  They were a small group within Judaism in Jesus’ day who had a particular view. Just like lots of people claim to be Christians but the message can be different, so too in Jesus’ day there were different viewpoints in Judaism. The Sadducees believed that even though there were more scrolls others considered to to the Hebrew Scripture, for them,only the first five books mattered- Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers and Leviticus. That’s it. Most others felt God had more to say; they did not. The rest of the words on the scrolls were helping many develop a belief in life after death by the power of God-resurrection. But not the Sadducees. They also only believed that God was in the one temple in Jerusalem- and that’s where they were, so much so it kind of felt like “their” house. So when Jesus has come to Jerusalem and gone straight to the temple and set up shop day after day, it’s like he has occupied “Their” house. They’re miffed. So they come and ask him the question we hear today about an idea they don’t even believe in-resurrection. They can’t imagine even if there is more after this life, that it will look any different than their expectation. Instread they think the way you live on is that your name is carried on by your children- literally your seed lives. That’s why all those barren women matter. People are only children of our earthly creators. Even if there was an afterlife, for that poor woman, afterlife would mean continuing to try to produce that child-hardly paradise. Then Jesus shakes them up by quoting about Moses back to them- God is bringing life out of what seems like death, and the barrenness of the childless but it’s a whole different world. Larger than their vision.

It’s larger but we don’t know much. What will resurrection of the body and that next life be like? Over time this has generated tons of questions. During the Crusades and times of war when people lost hands or feet or heads and whole bodies could not be returned, people worried about how their body would be resurrected if not all of it had been buried. Some people literally went around worried about fingernails! Others worried about what if the ashes blew away, how would that work? How could God fix that? In our data gathering world, if we can’t have proof, we aren’t so sure. Perhaps a modern day version of what we will accept versus not. It’s why books about what heaven will be like are popular. It’s only natural we want to know. And for those missing dear departed saints we just named last week, it’s fresh. How will we know them? What will we look like? Us, only better? Or what it will look like- our favorite time? Who will be there? What about people we don’t want there, who we don’t want to see? We hope Jesus knows how to arrange our next house when he says that there are many dwelling places. When we say we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting week after week what do we know? Whatever the concern, we all worry how God will do it, or sometimes wonder if God even can.

Kind of like the Sadducees- we can fall victim to relying only on our vision, not trusting in the larger life of God. The God who says- you see all this? I created it. You can trust in what seems beyond your full vision. For the Sadducees, life came to a dramatic halt when their temple was destroyed 70 AD- since that was the only place God was, and it was gone, they just couldn’t go on. If, like the Sadducees, we limit our vision to imagine God’s love or power, that smaller view will not bring life for us either. It’s true we don’t know much, but we know God is powerful, God keeps promises and we will be with Jesus.

Now I come back again to what words people shared about resurrection- here’s what I see-all those responses were not so much about death but life. Life! That’s the mysterious good news. God who gave us life, gives life. And the promise that more lies beyond this life.  And in the meantime, we live in this life, and we should live! And it’s life with God! God who is in our beginnings and endings is in all of the in between as well, both the glorious and the frightening. Inviting us to live as those given promises, and power-resurrection now. This is the larger life of God. Where is it found? In all those new life moments-when we remember we are already God’s children claimed in baptism at this font. When we hear that we are freed from our failures and struggles to live anew each Sunday to start worship. When we hear that Jesus Christ is love and food and healing for us each time we gather at this table. When we get that second chance in relationships, or that new lease on life in some part of our lives. Moments of peace we didn’t expect that helps us carry on-resurrection. Given by a God who even more than life is love. That’s this cross for us. God loving us into life after all the kinds of death we experience.

In the end, this is what all the words we say when we gather remind us of-  In Christ, this life and love proclaim we are children of God forever. Children again this day invited even deeper into the larger life of God.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

For All the Saints' Life Songs

Today is All Saints Day when we remember and give thanks for all of those saints in God's church and in our lives who have blessed the world with their faith witness. We'll sing "For all the Saints" but we could just as easily sing a song by the contemporary Christian group Casting Crowns-entitled “Life Song” with a refrain- “let my lifesong sing to you.”  In the purest sense, this is what a truly saintly life looks life- a life song sung to God by a person who loves God and loves people the way God loves. Some saints are martyrs for their faith-Most are not. Some are held up as examples for the whole church. Most are not. Most are ordinary, anonymous men and women. Today we give thanks for them all.  The people depicted in these stained glass windows, people for whom we will ring a bell, and people whose name doesn’t ring a bell. Those whose earthly journey is completed and are now called “the saints triumphant.” Today we remember them all. And hopefully sharing their life songs guides us in ours.

I give thanks for my grandmothers- for Margaret who always made sure to freeze strawberries from the garden for me to eat since I would not be there "in season" and for Marie who shared her love for art with me as we took in a Chagall exhibit in Philadelphia. Neither of them was much for the church, and both struggled mightily in life. But they loved as they could and still are a part of God's saints. And I remember people I met in church-Pat whose sharp tongue was matched by her fierce devotion to God and family. She once told me cancer was a gift because it brought her closer to God. Her last earthly communion was just a bit on the end of a spoon as she told me she knew she was bald but she was beautiful. And she knew God thought so. Virginia encouraged me to be a person of faith. Henri showed me true sacrificial servanthood. And Ray. Ray told me when he first met me he didn't think I got what it was all about, but later what a great pastor I would be. But then he quickly added- "It has nothing to do with your own doing of course. Only the Holy Spirit could make it so." Yes- and I have not forgotten. All Saints now triumphant.

In this life we are saints too- saints militant. When I mentioned this at Table Church I watched faces crinkle up at that word "militant." Why such a war like term? Well, I think if we are honest, we know that the tension between living as faithful Christians and succumbing to other influences can be fierce. We are sinners and life is a struggle. Each of the saints I named and many others I did not, knew this challenge. Sometimes we have to fight to remain in the path of discipleship. The presence of sin in the world means we are often more sinner than saint. It takes being militant. Across our lives as Christians there are times when we will knowingly or not bless the world with our witness and will love people the way God loves. And other times we will not. But thank God we are not responsible to “saint” ourselves. We don't "saint" ourselves. God's love and promises do.  It starts in what we celebrated again last week- baptism. Where we receive the gift of faith, and that Holy Spirit working in us. And we receive something else as well-each other in communion here. Intended to be just a glimpse of a more perfect communion with the saints triumphant. So then what to make of the gospel this day? One scholar notes that some might try to translate Jesus’ teaching into a set of guidelines, as if they amount to a “to-do” list for potential saints. But to do so suggests we just follow the blessings and curses as “how-to” instructions. But since we do not “saint” ourselves, the blessings and curses create something different- a set of values that shapes how we are to understand God, ourselves and the world. It doesn’t make sense to hear, “Blessed are you who weep now,” and then find ways to make ourselves sad. It does make sense to ask, “In what kind of world does God’s blessing seek out those who are hurting?” And make our lifesong be about bringing that glimpse of kingdom. And Jesus’ teaching invites us to stretch our imaginations concerning the saints regarding who are blessed by God. The “saints” include not only spiritual superstars who attain exceptional virtue and the average. The saints include people who are vulnerable, those society routinely forgets about – or worse, takes advantage of.

The neglected, the isolated, those in poverty. Those who crave simply the gift of connection with others, and life with meaning. Who have no one to sing with, no communion to share. How are we connected to these saints? Now hear-Woe to those who keep their riches and enjoyment to themselves! Then the glimpse of God’s feast to come eludes us all. Jesus reminds us not only of how we are to respond but where God’s blessing shows up. Shaine Claiborne shares how he encountered a woman as she struggled through a crowd to get a meal from a late-night food van. Asked if the meal was worth the effort, she replied, “Oh yes, but I don’t eat them myself. I get them for a homeless lady, an elderly woman around the corner who can’t fight for a meal.” Saints militant.

Jesus’ words don’t create a set of policies for looking after others, nor do they amount to a list of demands that his followers must obey. Instead, Jesus’ words and our storytelling shape our values and our imaginations. Where we may see poverty, infirmity, or loneliness, Jesus pronounces God’s blessing and presence. Where we keep accounts regarding who deserves assistance, Jesus seeks disciples who would do for others what we desire done for us. Working for a world in which God is present everywhere, building communities of care and support. It’s a joyful, blessed world. We’re invited to inhabit it and to make our life’s song sing to our God who blesses like that. This is why God gives us a church. Communion with fellow saints in this life. In all its glory and frailty. Together we share love, and celebration, and pain and hurt and challenge. We hug, we laugh and sometimes we tell the necessary word of correction.  And we remember that in all of our glory and frailty God claimed those gone before and claims us- honoring promises, and saint-ing us, empowering us for blessing. So let’s celebrate God's work in those we miss and in those God is placing before us now. And sing a song for all these saints.