Sunday, February 23, 2014

Living in Dignity

There's a word we don’t hear in our lessons today. We hear so much about love it almost just rolls past us. But one word I think we should engage is Dignity. It never appears in our lessons but I think is very much a part of what God’s law and Jesus’ teaching are about-the worth of each person God created matters to God. Dignity is a word sorely needed in our world on so many levels. Not the least of which is the notion that “Stand your ground” and “turn the other cheek” are incompatible.

Jesus is preaching and talking about loving neighbors and the crowd knows it. It’s from Leviticus-Love your neighbor as yourself. But here’s the thing- the word that is not in Leviticus-enemy. There’s no hating enemy in Leviticus. It might seem like Jesus is a little sloppy about remembering Leviticus. But I think he preaches to what he knows people have decided to believe. “Not my neighbor” means “OK to hate.”

He preaches dignity to the crowd for themselves, for those Galileans who are oppressed by the Roman rule, and for all their others. We all have “others.” The ones who are not neighbors to love.

I’m just back from the Youth Sleepover, where kids constantly question the scope of how much is really expected, questions about what each newly encountered situation demands: “ But Pastor…!” you REALLY mean I have to do THIS?” No wonder those 10 commandments became over 600 rules in Leviticus. We all ask the questions.

Today Jesus sums up God’s “yes” to our “No” about the poor, the stranger, the deaf, blind, rich, extended family, and more. All the people we encounter not those we want to. And if you think about your day and who you encounter- it’s often largely not family. If you stop and think many of us encounter and spend more time with the doctor, the store clerk, the bus driver, the food server, coworkers.  What does it mean to love and honor them? With dignity? Maybe it starts with seeing them as people in the picture as opposed subjects of McWages,  immigration limits, healthcare and more.

A little deeper, think about all the people you just cannot abide or maybe even have hurt you. Them too? One of our kids on the overnight is struggling with controlling anger. She already has a label-she has “anger management” issues. Like that ends the possibilities. She's been taught it's the response to everything that is challenging. When she gets mad she thinks nothing of “popping” the offender. But I have "anger management issues." She insists that “ I choose my attitude based upon how you treat me.” Sounds kind of like “eye for an eye.” And she can hold her anger and not let go. As I work with her to find better avenues, I shared with her the saying “holding a grudge is like letting someone live rent free in your head.” Why would any of us give that much of us to our "enemy"?

It sounds easy to talk the talk, but the real walk is so much harder. Because frankly til Jesus is done, there are no enemies. And love isn’t just about being nice, its about God’s framework as our lens. Our default says it’s not possible. Or at the least that some great models accomplish it but it’s not reality. It is easy to overlook God at the center of relationships-I am the Lord and YOUR God.

Our walking in God’s ways and also turning away from things takes God. Relationships and wisdom are not static. Not just memorized it in Sunday school. Not a simple set of brightline moments. We tend to collapse time and history in ways that take away the reality of all of the in between good and bad. Owning the journey may be one way to then recognize the importance of walking close with God in guidance. Even if it’s only in looking back that we see where we’ve been with God. 

The truth is that if we really try, being God’s people, God’s reflection is heavy duty lifting. Yet, the early Christian church’s ability to embrace this and to relieve the misery and hardship of urban life for the majority poor in cities was the major factor in growth of Christianity. Being a persistent, pervasive and reflection of Christ so that the community is seen as God's.

Even as we might cringe to hear that God will provide for the good and evil. Comprehensive, indiscriminate and undeserved kindness is God. Even in Jesus’ time Josephus noted - “it is surely madness to expect God to show the same treatment to the just and the unjust!” The struggle is timeless. And it sounds so good but it’s so hard.

This is where I think our translation of the gospel gets it wrong. We hear “be perfect.” And frankly that be perfect part is just not for real. That’s kind of a crappy translation. Looking back to Leviticus, we hear- be holy as I the Lord your God am holy. And I think it’s fair to say that related to being holy is being whole. The greater righteousness which embodies God’s empire imitates God in wholeness.

To be whole or holy takes active trust and obedience- walking with. It takes what only God can give- faith and the Spirit

Constant and comprehensive love even in the face of opposition is what we see of God across Scripture and then to the cross. And we are then empowered to be whole, doing love toward all, including those we call enemies.

To even begin takes constant discerning of what the kingdom looks like in each situation. But one writer notes, “no matter who we are the Jesus truth is this: Because I am made in the image of God, I am deserving of dignity and respect. Often Sunday School repetition has lessened the shocking impact of Jesus’ words for us today, nothing can lessen even for us, how very hard it is for us to love an enemy: how incredibly difficult it is to live this truth. But if we are to live as people of dignity, it is a skill we have to learn.”

And here is where there is another challenge. We often lift up great models of the faith- Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others. Like they are icons or super Christians. And they are almost inaccessible. Often model people of the faith are hard for us to embrace as connected to us.

So I want to share in closing two stories about everyday people in the struggle to live God’s dignity.

On the sleepover, our 12 kids got there to join about 100 kids total. We were sitting church for the opening and one of our girls turned to me and said, “Pastor, we are surrounded by a sea of whiteness. How’s this gonna be for us?” The fear of the enemy dynamic was alive for her. How will the Riveras and Figueroas, and Rosarios fit in the picture? As it turned out our 11 girls were put in a room with three girls from Bernville, a town of a few hundred that doesn’t experience our diversity. I am happy to say that in the midst of concern, the gospel was proclaimed in how everyone came together. Even if it centered around Justin Bieber as much as Jesus. That’s a story that has to continue to be lived to become working reality.

Here’s the second story, of love and dignity when it has not been reality. Philip Yancy’s book Rumours of Another World tells of South Africa, at a Truth and Reconciliation hearing after the end of apartheid. Where people tried to reconcile the injustices.

“A policeman recounted how he and other officers, had shot at point blank range an 18 year old boy, just because he was black and then burned the body to destroy the evidence. Eight years later, the men returned to the boy’s home and forced his mother to watch as they bound her husband, poured gas over him and set him on fire. The room grew quieter and quieter. And then the judge turned to the woman and asked: ’what do you want from him?’

She replied, ‘I want him to go to the place my husband was burned, and gather up the dust there so that I can give him a decent burial.’

‘He took all my family away from me, but I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to my home and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like him to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know forgiveness is real.”

Imagine the power of that wholeness.

I cannot imagine the cost to her, what her neighbors thought of her. But what dignity, healing and hope she brought through her love for her enemy, not just to herself, and not just for him, but for all who hear the story. Including us.

We don’t love our neighbors because they deserve it. We love them because God says they are our sisters, and our brothers, and because God, while we were yet sinners, loved us first.”

God calls us into this holiness, this wholeness, this love. It is hard work. But if we want to live with dignity, it is the only thing to do.

(For more on this I invite you to read "What Dignity" on the blog)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why is Jesus So Harsh?

This past week I was coming home after a full day of Bible Club, distributing grocery bags and Table Church and my neighbor was standing on his porch asking, ”Can I have communion and can you tell me the gospel reading for Sunday?” He has missed Table Church and was going to be away Sunday.  It had been a long day and frankly I was tired. My first response was to say the gospel was Matthew 5 on killing, adultery and divorce and that I didn’t have any communion at home. Yes, I know I really did say that at first.  

I’d traveled long that day. I really didn’t want to turn around and walk back to church and get the communion ready and walk back again... About one whole minute later, I popped back outside and said-“ I’ll be right back.”  I went back and got wine and wafers and as I came back, he apologized if I had gone to any trouble. But really, how many people are so focused on Jesus that they would even ask? It seemed necessary. And it was for both of us.

I set up communion in the dining room and started reading this gospel lesson from Matthew. As I read it frankly all I could imagine was someone hearing it who needed some good news and it's murder, adultery, divorce, hell fire. It’s harsh. And I almost felt like I needed to resolve it in some way. So I talked a little about how sometimes as a parent and even before that as a child there have been the “hard conversations” where the niceties get stripped away and we tell people straight up truth not only about love but owning our actions. And how all the rules we had for our kids were about showing them how to live in life and love. Our “law” wasn’t about creating a game no one could win. The words themselves might sound harsh but they have a purpose. That sounded good.

Then I pointed out that it’s easy to hone in on the sexy words of divorce or adultery or the fierce words of murder where lots of judging happens and say- well I didn’t do THAT! But Jesus is speaking about things much more broadly- the ways we are all somehow drawn into the scope of words that kill, promises broken, lives shattered ad hearts that are grieved. Not just where we are victims but actors. And you know, when Jesus puts it that way, it’s pretty hard to be judgey. We want to believe that our relativism or comparison strategies count. It stings to be reminded that none of us is who we were created to be or even wanted to be. And that sounded good too.

Well, then I suggested that the good news is there is more to the story- that though we cannot live up the law, God’s grace in the cross is the last word.  And although that’s true it kind of fell flat.

Luckily I think he wasn't listening to that. Because he was emotional and said hearing those words from Matthew were just what he needed. He had felt someone was a little insulting and sarcastic, so he had been a little salty back. Reflecting later he realized that the other person might not have understood and he needed to make it right. He wasn’t focused on “just get to the grace.” He was focused on the ethics. And it really wasn’t a terrible thing he’d said, but he looked for a time to work together with this person where they both volunteer to have a conversation to clear the air and tie up loose ends.
And then he shared that it felt good to do that. Hearing Jesus’ words about our ethics, affirmed not just what he had done but to keep doing it. Keep choosing to transform something rather than just let it go. We really do need that accountability. This is what Jesus is getting at. One scholar I know says, following Jesus means doing what Jesus says which is MORE demanding than other paths. And it is about community. Just appealing to grace won’t cut it.
And I think I played the grace card because I felt guilty about my earlier words.

We can opt for recognizing and trying to gloss over our human failure but Jesus goes to the root- our motive and attitude matter. And the justice and righteousness of which Jesus speaks- God’s transformative will-demands confronting and changing the status quo in all of us.
When we do not live this way, we are not participating in the completion of God’s purposes.
The law is not about pleasing God, it’s what’s given for our life- all of us. More than a negative goal of avoiding sin. But a positive one of discovering and following what is God’s will. The sting we feel is not that God’s being harsh, its our experiencing the potential for pain and destruction our brokenness brings and seeing our role.

All the examples Jesus gives show that destructive expressions kill. Angry thoughts, words of contempt, insults, public shaming, emotional abuse, disgrace. Choosing to demean and discard. We want to hear these are not as bad as killing. But we know in our hearts how these destroy and cause loss of life. Even when we think it’s a little thing, we are sacrificing each other in ways that harm more than we know and break our connectedness.  God calls us to keep each other focused by giving us this community.
When we are not reconciled in relationships we find life lacking. But the work of tending relationships is not convenient. The story of leaving the sacrifice imagines journeying 80 miles to do something only to turn right around and journey back the same distance and another week to participate in mending a rift. Much farther than a block. That’s how far we should go to avoid allowing bad in relationships to remain unresolved. Or risk someone feeling lost altogether.

It shows the importance of relationships to God and what Jesus shows is what God gives for us. For life. We don't find life in the comparison strategies or relativism we want to rely upon.  Even in what lots of people gravitate to- the part about divorce. Jesus is speaking to protect dignity so that no one is demeaned or cut off. In Jesus’ day marriage was a male prerogative in which destructive behaviors included victimizing women to abandoning them for things as simple a thing as spoiling a meal. Jesus proclaims that destructive behaviors undo the “One flesh-ness” of marriage. Even here, no matter how we try, none of us perfectly escapes times we undo the one body-ness of many relationships in some way.  

And living with perfection is beyond our grasp.

This is where Jesus continues to come to show us and lead us into new places and to offer forgiveness. In seeing our brokenness then we grasp the power and love of the cross. And the strength to try again to live into the ethics of the kingdom. Where we show and experience God revealed. Together. In all our thinking, speaking and living. Even the simplest words.

My neighbor didn’t need to share his experience with me- he could have kept it to himself. He shared because he had a need. But it wasn't for me to make Jesus more palatable. He  and I needed to hear Jesus say again that doing the hard work of relationships was holy and that God’s word, communion and fellowship are where continually we meet the God who promises to lead us not into temptation or the destruction of evil, but into the kingdom. My neighbor said at the end that when he is away from church too long, he can feel it. That he needs it. We all do.

And the other day he saw I was stressed and called out, “Pastor,  just remember Matthew 5. “


Sunday, February 9, 2014

You Are

Given the nature of our existence lately here in the land of the polar vortex, there are lots of things I could say about salt and light. Including that because a sidewalk was not salted, I ended up doing a faceplant which fortunately only involved a couple really banged up hands and knees. Salt in the winter has a special preserving quality. One of the things I love about Centre Park is that many of us sort of the Fellowship of the Snow Patrol. Someone shovels out here at the church so others of us shovel their house, and random salt dispensing for each other happens. At the same time recently someone proudly cleared all of their snow but did it in a way that buried the cars of elderly neighbors who it turns out have just as many places to go in their cars as wage earners. Not all our collective responses are as life giving as they could be.  And some folk who emerge with a shovel hoping to earn a few dollars, some of whom can barely shovel. But who surmise that unless they have something to offer they have no hope of receiving. Now, these particular concerns were not a reality in Palestine where Jesus lived and preached. There was no such thing as a snow day. But salt and light were obviously important to life enough the Bible mentions them a lot.  

Salt, a simple and common thing has really significant powers. It can preserve things. Meat could be salted and saved for another day’s meal. It makes bread rise. It has abilities to have certain abilities to heal, and to clean. Currently the production of saline solution for surgery is outpaced by demand causing delays in medical procedures.  According to the Salt Institute (yes, there is one), salt helps muscles stay strong, and makes our brains work. And of course, we know that salt can make things taste better.

As important as we find it, salt was so important in Jesus’ day, it was used to pay people. Literally the word “salary” comes from the Latin of when people were paid with salt. The best workers you hired were “worth their salt.” All those people who were sick and downtrodden were not.  Being salt means bringing life and worth.

Light, is another seemingly simple thing. Yet, without it, the earth would be cold and there would be no life. Plants wouldn’t grow. For those of who garden it’s just about time for the “grow lights” to start seedlings. Without light, things would be unclear, there would be no color. Without light people become depressed, and fish in places like the deepest ocean trenches or caves are blind. Without light there is isolation. Think of all the things you cannot do or do well if you don’t have light in which to accomplish them. Cooking, reading, cleaning, the list goes on. And a candle in the window means welcome. Being light means drawing others into growth, and seeing and community.

Salt and light- two things we take for granted much of the time. But two things that when circumstances force us to stop, we see differently. Ask anyone who has endured living without them. These simple things, are just as critical for our existence as they were in Jesus’ day. Both of them are naturally occurring in God’s world. Both thing that when shared, bring life more abundantly.

I think that the fact they occur naturally probably means that God intends that the world share in them. And God’s arrangement is we care for each other, love our neighbor with them so we all share in the blessing of abundant life.

Rather than hiding the light or calculating who is worth their salt.

Jesus takes these notions and turns them upside down.

Aside from all of the other things we can say about salt and light, I am thinking that what I notice is that whenever I shake salt, I only marginally control where it lands, and no matter what we try to do to direct light-particles of it go beyond. We live in a world that so often tries to put salt and light in containers. But if you've ever been longing for life to have flavor or darkness to end, you know that you hope that some falls your way.

Much of our life in our world and sometimes in the church is about structure, but Jesus reminds that our structures should never be the primary thing. We as individuals are vessels as are our ways of being community. But vessels not so much to contain as to distribute. We are called as the Psalmist shares, to not fear bad news so much we fail to be generous or to live with integrity.

Just before today’s gospel Jesus has shared the Beatitudes. Sayings which tell the large crowd gathered there is a word for the poor in spirit, those mourning, who work for peace, who are persecuted. And a message for those who hunger and thirst for God’s people to be people of righteousness. Blessed.

To the thousands who have been drawn out of that hunger and thirst-who long for life, the downtrodden and the weak- Jesus says-“you are to be blessed.” Those who have nothing to add to the equation of worth as the world see it are worth it. You are worth your salt. For many of us this is a word of blessing. We who have gathered this day are blessed. Where have you seen it? Thanks be to our God! If you came here this day looking for salt and light may God bless you through us.

There’s more. Jesus turns to his followers, the blessed and says-“You and you and you- are salt. You are how blessing will be spread. You all are salt for the whole earth. And you are light. You are the answer to those who walk in darkness. Don’t hoard your light. You are light for the whole world.”

Jesus doesn’t say- “you COULD be salt and light.” OR “you should try to be salt and light and see if you like it.” OR "if you try you might be good enough to be salt and light."

You are. Salt and light. Life for the world.

This is righteousness- living as those who are my disciples is this. Scattering life abundant and God revealing community spilling over. So, go be who you are.

Be the answer to the prayers of those who cannot pay, or earn, or contribute. Be the path into wholeness, the preservers of lives. In your saltiness and lightness, others will see the grace of God falling their way. And they will praise the God of salt and light shown through you.

It’s that simple. We have the ability through the Spirit to be salt and light. We don't need to wait for the right moment or other ingredients. Or the right people. We simply are.

And we don’t need to decide who is worth their salt. God’s decided it’s everyone.

Salt and light will happen this day.

Where will you see it? Where will you be it?

May you share in God’s bright and salty day!


Friday, February 7, 2014

A foretaste for God's Children

Last week we celebrated the festival of the Presentation of our Lord. The day when we hear of Joseph and Mary who bring the young infant Jesus to be presented and named. Blessed. And for many of our neighbors this is the culmination of a journey that began with La Posada- Mary and Joseph searching for a place where that baby could be born. And as the tradition goes, some of our folk share of bringing the Baby Jesus as a figurine to be blessed. Then on Los Reyes Magos, they gather for gifts and rosca cake and everyone wonders who will find the tiny figure of Baby Jesus in their piece of the cake. I was blessed this year to be invited to share in this night and the anticipation and joking as each person took a piece hoping to “avoid” getting the baby. Though it turns out there were six babies in the ring shaped cake. Most of whom were found by kids in the family.

Some of them were the same kids whose family longed for them to formally “make First Holy Communion.” Already welcomed at the table but desiring to make holy and honor this as a sacred time.

So we set about preparing for the blessed day. You my child.

And we journeyed together in the weeks that follow between Los Reyes Magos and Candelaria (Presentation of Our Lord). Candelaria is named for the English Candlemas, a time when on the day of Presentation of our Lord, priests would bless the candles to be burned in churches and homes for the year.

Part way between is the Sunday where we commemorate Baptism of our Lord. And as I was teaching about baptism at our Wednesday night Bible Club for kids, one of the kids came to me and tugged on my arm to tell me that her Mom wanted to know if they could be baptized. All 6 children in the family. And so we began a second conversation about baptism. You my child.

And what better time than Presentation of our Lord. Presenting children, and not only calling them by name, but by their new name- children of God? And blessing them as we ourselves remember what it means to be God’s children?

The final piece came together as I remembered the tradition of Los Reyes Magos- those who received the baby were to make a meal on Candelaria.

And so, we held communion instruction open to those “making first Holy Communion” and those receiving but interested. And we gathered and heard why we celebrate communion- a time of drawing near and being in Jesus’ presence- because Jesus says so. And what it means that it is a celebration and is holy and special. And then we made communion bread. The bread for the next day. For that special day when children would be presented and blessed, and presented to feast. You my child.

And young and old had a role in making the bread and seeing the finished product.

In the meantime, I hoped that we would then celebrate and feast together afterwards. And together we planned for a fiesta- for food to be made and shared and cake and celebration. And on THE day the aromas of the good ness wafted upstairs from the kitchen invitingly.

And on THE day, there was a profusion of white- of fluffy dresses and crowns, of suits and new shoes. And I realized just how special as the church filled with friends and family. And that the two families that loved these 10 kids had bonded. And we with them. We God's children.

I invited all of the kids to come and sit in the choir loft, and told them they were the gospel- the good news and the message of what God can do and is doing in all of us. And there was light and joy and promises. At the font and at the table.

As six kids leaned over at the font and hairstyles of teens endured that water, but later six candles gleamed as parents and godparents and we all shared in joy and promise.

And then the feast. For you- God's children.

I asked the kids who had made first communion to share in serving that day the bread and wine. And then I saw the tag on a suit. Still there. And I saw two things- the pride and joy, and the sacrifice.

All of the kids were bedecked in splendor almost beyond reach. So beautiful and not at all as I see them when they are chasing each other in the afterschool program. But the bright smiles as they processed and the bright smiles as they served and their families glowed.

And the sacrifice- that something you do not own cannot be ruined-the real cost would be great.

And I thought not of the social aspect of what we were doing but the selflessness and servanthood. For the kids and their families to honor God in this.

And I heard anew the words of our music at offering:

Let the vineyards be fruitful Lord

And fill to the brim our cup of blessing

Gather the harvest from the seeds that were sown

That we made be fed with the bread of life

(even if that bread looks more like an asteroid than a perfect wafer).


Gather the hopes and dreams of all

Unite them with the prayers we offer

Grace our table with your presence

And give us a foretaste of the feast to come.


And there it was- for the families who longed for these moments, for me as I saw a glimpse, brief but heavenly of all our community can be when our ministry is truly seeing our neighbors

After many seeds sown, many prayers prayed

Joys celebrated and sorrows shared

The feast. For all God's children.

After many smiles and pictures we gathered downstairs for that fiesta that culminated.

And the cake was a scrumptious cake from one of the Latino bakeries- Jozefina’s. Beautifully decorated, dense and moist, heavy. Gingerly transported in less than optimal weather lately.

And with “Nuestra Primera Communion” joyously proclaimed. I am long beyond the sugar high but not the transcendent high of real presence in that day and in all of God’s children with whom it was shared.

And then I thought of the sticky marshmallow icing. On that cake. It was the kind you simply cannot let go of or get rid of it seems.

And so it seems is my hope. That the love of Christ, and that cross on a forehead and the words “for you” are sticky. Life is hard and so many things get in our way of remembering the clarity and beauty of being presented and standing in God’s presence and experiencing grace and love, forgiveness and hope. May God’s presence stick with us no matter how hard we try to do otherwise.

Our worship looked exactly like it should if we say we love our neighbors and we want to be one in Christ.

And I hope that the foretaste of that feast to come sticks in all of us as we savor the precious blessing we have shared.  So much so that we cannot imagine not being in the presence of our Lord and being together. As God's children.