Monday, March 31, 2014

Healed of our Deficiencies

On Sunday I invited the congregation to be seated for the gospel, and put down their bulletins and close their eyes so that in some way we would not use the perception eyesight gives us but to listen to gospel with insight. While their eyes were closed I read the gospel while walking around and through the worship space so that sound and closeness changed as my direction changed, and they could hear the dialogue of the man and the others more clearly. Some people had a hard time closing their eyes. It was not the kids. It was adults. Who felt insecure. But they stuck with it.
And then we opened our eyes...

A few years ago, my mother had cataract surgery. I remember back when my grandmother had it, what an ordeal it was. Now it is so much easier and the results more immediate. There was incredible joy at the thought- “I can see! Look at everything I can see now!”

However, that was quickly replaced by- “oh my, look what I can see” as my mother began to realize that in the light was revealed the things she had not been cleaning so well. And the guilt of what people who would have thought who visited-Lord, have mercy!

Very quickly the joy of the healing was replaced again by the tendency we all have to focus on deficiencies and shortcomings. The places where it is “not enough!”

This is so much a part of our lives that recently a high school student began a program called “Operation Beautiful-the Perfectly Imperfect project.” She realized that so many people look upon their deficiencies so much more than their positives. And she started a simple thing- taking Post-It notes and writing “You are beautiful” or “You are stronger than you know” and other messages and leaving them on places they would be seen like the mirror of the girls’ bathroom. Or inside the cover of books at places like Barnes and Noble. Random places where people can be reminded of who they really are.

Rather than just focus upon who they are not.

Which is where I think our readings take us today.

We hear in I Samuel of the search for a new king and Jesse’s sons being brought forth to find the chosen one. One by one they are noted for their strength, and stature and good looks- qualities we would surely think are important in a leader. And instead God chooses the youngest boy, brought in from the field probably still wearing sheep dung, and we hear that God sees beauty. Where we don’t. God’s eyes see that we are perfectly imperfect and loved by God. God’s eyes see differently. With love.

And then we come to the Gospel and what God sees. Our very long reading today begins with Jesus seeing a man. Yes, a man who is blind. But it really is first and foremost that Jesus notices a man and stops. Jesus sees a man. And wants to heal him.

And almost everything that follows in all those verses is what everyone else sees and thinks. The disciples see sin and judging- what’s wrong, what’s the deficiency? Because of course that is far more important than helping.

The religious leaders see a label. “Blind.” Despite his being in the view for a long time, they know so little about this man other than the label, that when he is not blind, he is like a stranger to them. They are so focused on his deficiency that they don’t even want to let him tell his own story. And they see lots of things they think cannot be or that they don’t know. And ones they are sure others don’t know.

Jesus sees a man who needs to be healed. And heals him. That’s it.

Everything else is about how others are so quick to return to the deficiencies. And the poor man who for his whole life has been excluded from the synagogue and can FINALLY worship there, ends up back where he started. Kicked out. Kicked out of the very life he could finally have.

And he’s separated again.

Then Jesus comes to heal him again. Jesus heals him a second time.

He sees the man and restores him. The first time he healed him of his blindness. This time he heals him of the wounds caused by the blindness of others. He gives him a place, and shows him that Jesus stands with him.

I think that Jesus coming that second time helps us see that Jesus meets us here in the places we need to be healed. Because in our lives we too have lists of deficiencies, the one we have for ourselves, and the one that is made up of the deficiencies of others. The places where we think it is “not enough!” Where we think that we are not enough, where we look at our city, or this church or our world and only see it as “not enough.” Places full of what we can’t see or cannot be. These are the lists of word, perceptions, and fears that keep our lives at the surface level only. That keep us from really living. The things that keep us from seeing ourselves as created in God’s image, and loved; from seeing others and our world in the same way.

Jesus comes and sees and wants to heal. Comes again this day to us to heal us. And again and again. To remind us that God sees with eyes of love and grace. To wash away all those deficiencies like so much mud.
To open our eyes to see the light of the world made known to us in the work of the cross. So we can let go of what we cannot see or don’t know. Because the only thing we need to know is the love of God in Jesus for us.

Let us pray- Lord, thank you for coming into our world and healing us from our blindness and the effects of the blindness of others. Thank you for seeing us with eyes of love and forgiveness. Wash away the words, perceptions and fears that we are sure cannot be or cannot change, so that all we see is the only thing we need to know- your son Jesus, the light of the world. Amen


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Listen, Remember and Live

Listen. From the very beginning God has been saying we should listen. Our brains are capable of listening to about 125 words a minute, but thinking about 1,000 to 3,000 in the same amount of time. If you search for resources on effective listening, there are 1000’s of entries because most of us are preoccupied or distracted about 75% of the time. So many choices.

Listen, Adam, Remember and live. He must’ve told Eve once she was created. Because when the serpent comes, saying- “So you really think you can’t do that? You think you’ll die?” She remembers, “That’s right, and we’re not even going to touch it.”  

No one told Adam not to touch the tree. Those brains were already thinking. “Are you sure? You don’t really believe that do you? Eat it and you’ll be like God. Then who needs God?” In a modern world, they would have gotten on the internet and Googled trees to see if what God said seemed right. When we want to go our own way, we choose who we listen to.  

Adam and Eve don’t die, but something’s different. They’re ashamed and nervous. They try to fix it. And that’s when they decide to sew together the fig leaves. And I wonder whose idea THAT was. The first generations of people hearing the story would’ve laughed hysterically. “They did what? They used fig leaves?!” Fig leaves on bare skin would have felt like sandpaper. Scratch, scratch, Hurry up before God gets here. Scratch, scratch. We don’t want to be caught, Scratch. Scratch.

Like that would work. While God is angered, God gives them real clothes.

When we humans think we’ve become like God we usually show we really cannot handle the knowledge. Sadly, our track record shows that those scratchy fig leaves are the least of it. God made us to prosper, serve and to care for- but we’d rather control and plunder and take over. Forgetting God’s promise to sustain us. The scratching leads to clawing and fighting and killing. Too many examples abound.

Lent offers time to stop and listen to God and find our way, which is about our identity and purpose. Adam and Eve received an identity and a task, assured they were provided for. But that fruit looked really good to eat, what could be wrong? And that’s how evil works. We’re most often not enticed with things that appear to be bad, but things that seem good.

There are two things at work- God testing and evil tempting. We often see them the same because we don’t want either. We want to go our own path. God’s testing stretches and encourages us. It strengthens us to trust God and to follow a framework for living. God wants to show us that we are able with God’s help to be faithful. And that God desires life for us.

At the same time however, the Tempter’s purpose is to convince us that’s a horrible idea. To try and cause us to make a mistake, to sin. God’s purpose is to strengthen faith. Satan’s purpose is to weaken it. We must always ask-what are we listening to? Will it draw us closer to God or cast us farther away?

And here’s the thing-temptation is not coercion. No one forced the first humans to eat, or Jesus to eat bread. Tempters can’t make us do things, but they can convince us to want to. They don’t take away our will, they try to change it. Usually it’s not about not knowing what to do, just wanting to do something different. And picking who we listen to.

Even worse, the choices are blurred-decisions that can be good involve the wrong timing, or have large scale consequences we might not grasp. If we do not continually listen to God’s word and remember, we lose perspective.

Worship is the key way we listen and to remember God’s words for life. Notice I did not say “church.” Deciding to go to church is like deciding to go to the mall. Coming to worship God is different.

Deciding to go to church is about whether anything really big is happening, or who we want to sit with. We can then choose to not come when it’s not tempting enough. Because we don’t need church to worship God. We can listen to the voice saying spending time with family or catching up on rest is better. After all we won’t die if we don’t come. And worship is not just an hour on Sunday, but every day of our lives.

Is the timing of our choices rooted in worshipping and serving God? Do our choices sustain our relationship or not? Will sports or travel or anything else have the power to save us, anymore than bread alone? What would it mean for us to test our own resolve to truly listen to and serve God?

After Jesus was baptized, the very first thing God says is- This is my Son- listen to him. And today if we do, we see that the core of the temptations Jesus faced, was not about whether he was the Son of God but whether he would rely upon his power in self serving ways that would lead him away from his mission. His responses stay true to his identity and mission. He remained steadfast in believing in God’s power and providing.

The core of what we face is not about whether we are children of God but whether we rely upon self serving ways or God’s power in our lives. Where are we self-serving? Where are we struggling with trust in God? Where are we angry with God for not simply acting according to our demands?

You are probably wondering where the gospel is this day. Here is the good news- 
Jesus after 40 days in the wilderness fasting surely was tempted. But shows not only his identity but his obedience, even to the cross. Knowing what he endured, and what was to come, and knowing our track record as humans, he gave his followers a prayer.

A prayer that meets us wherever wilderness is, and whatever temptation looks like. So we can listen to and remember God’s way. And strengthen our faith. Not only in Sunday worship but every day.

Martin Luther suggested we begin each day by thanking God, then saying the 10 Commandments and saying the prayer Jesus gave-the Lords Prayer. Every day- first thing- to shape the whole day. I imagine how some days, our attention would be caught by different parts of the words. Perhaps not unlike how Jesus felt in those 40 days. Practicing for when the tempter came. So he could hear God’s words more strongly than others.

I invite you on this day we have all lost an hours sleep, to close your eyes, resist sleep, and let’s listen.

“I thank you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, your Dear Son, that You have kept me this night from all harm and danger, and I pray that you would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please you. For into your hands I commend myself, my body, and soul and all things. Let your holy angel be with me that the evil one may have no power over me. Amen.”

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery

You shall have no other gods before me,

You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain,

Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,

Honor your mother and father,

You shall not kill,

You shall not commit adultery,

You shall not steal,

You shall not bear false witness,

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,

You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor

Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as in heaven

Give us this day our daily bread

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



What if those were the first words we heard each day?

And what if every week when we saw how we did or did not reach those words, we were then here to listen, remember and be strengthened,  wherever the week had gone to hear-

This is my body given for you, this is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Remember.

This is for us.

Listen, remember, and live.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Reflections on Ashes

This year we should be feeling blessed by a “late” Lent and Easter season. Instead we have been surrounded by so much cold and damage and dirt of a season that has assaulted us that we are surely ready for the ashes of it to blow away with the next strong gust. So the new life of spring can start.

While different times in the church year can signify endings and beginnings, for me perhaps Lent is my favorite. Today we receive ashes made from the palms of last year’s Hosannas, and they are also ashes of everywhere the journey took us after Palm Sunday. A whole year of places of love, truth, patience and kindness. And places of affliction, hardship, sleepless nights and hunger.

All of it burned away to dust.

What starts out like a giant leafy palm, becomes the small amount of dust in this dish. There are actually a few palms that became our ashes. But even if we had all the palms we waived last year, there would be room in that dish.

I think it’s a concrete way of seeing that we cannot store up the praise or the glory we think we’ve achieved. We cannot hold onto that dust.

But are also reminded not to hold onto the pain of the times that we really messed up or where someone really hurt us.

Let that dust blow away.

This is my third year to work with our dust. And at a fundamental level my comfortableness with the ashes reminds me of how it all comes to this dust. You see, they don’t teach us how to make ashes in seminary.

My first year, I had little idea how to make the right ashes and I got lots of unhelpful advice like what my internship supervisor said- let the sexton do it. I fussed and fussed to get it right- not to crumbly, not too oily. I made a huge mess and ended up with far more ashes than we needed.  Enough for decades of Ash Wednesdays.

But once mixed with oil, they don’t keep. Last year’s oil is pretty nasty. In spite of all the fretting, if you do not remember those ashes, that is a grace. If you do, sorry.

My second year, there were so many things going on that I waited until the last minute. I was so preoccupied and as a result, they were not fully set- too spare for the early service. Barely a cross maker at all. If you don’t remember that, that also is a grace. And if you do, let it go.

This year, I put a little oil in the dish and dumped in the ashes and walked away. When I came back later, a couple stirs and they were ready. Which probably means there should be a whole lot less of me, and all the things I hold onto. And a whole lot more of God and God’s timing. After all, God is used to making things from dust. And making something from what feels like chaos.

These ashes remind us where we’ve been and yet invite us into a season that’s about working through the chaos. To get to what’s essential. What is not essential is burned up or blows away. Jan Richardson writes that Lent challenges us to reflect upon what we have filled our days and lives with. To see what habits and practices, possessions or ways of being have accumulated, or taken over. Where is a pattern of chaos threatening to block our seeing the presence of God?

Each scripture passage today invites us to ponder what our practices are and which ones we have given ourselves over to. And which ones God calls us to- individually and as a community. To pay close attention to the rhythms of our lives to see which practices draw us closer to God and which pull us away.

We ask God to create in us a clean heart. Lent asks- What is the state of your heart?

What has taken up residence there?

Are there habits or ways of being that you are so invested in or attached to that it is difficult to see new places God might be inviting you to move into?

Out of the good and the bad and even the ugly of a year, God is creating a new path that takes those ashes and makes a new path marked by a cross. Making beautiful things from the dust.

On this day and throughout this season may see more clearly what is treasure and may our hearts be open to the unexpected life that only God in Christ can bring. That cross-it’s the only thing that we truly need.

And because of our loving God it’s the one promise we can be sure of.