Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Temptation of Indifference

Today I read not only the appointed lesson for the day, but went back and read chapter 1 of the Gospel of Mark, from the beginning, through verse 15.

I took us all the way back to the beginning of Mark which is really only eight verses before.  Mark is the action packed gospel- we hear it’s the beginning of the good news and the next thing you know, Jesus is at the Jordan being baptized by John. And that was the reading on my first Sunday with you. Today we hear about the baptism again as Jesus is then sent into the wilderness. And as I read the lesson I thought, “well, we’ve already heard about that baptism and we really don’t need to do that again.” And as soon as I say it though, I wonder if that is our thought about baptism. That we, already baptized have already done that. And then I think about my stole for Lent which not only has purple and black and crosses, it has that third color, the blue. That blue represents baptism and I think it’s so important, it’s in my stole.

And so we really should talk about baptism again. Mark has such intensity about Jesus’ mission and purpose. And when Jesus comes to be baptized, we don’t hear that God the Father just kind of saunters by and says, “Oh, by the way, he’s going to be important.” No! We hear that the heavens are RIPPED OPEN and that the Holy Spirit descends in the form of something like a dove. And doesn’t just hover, but enters Jesus.  God is invasive and intrusive in the world and in us. Life altering!

And I wonder how many of us have thought about our baptism THAT way- that God “invades us” and dwells in us in that kind of life-altering way?

In the days of early Christians, there were men and women who went out to lives as hermits in the wilderness. They purposely chose to imitate Jesus in the wilderness in a life altering way. They were called the desert mothers and fathers. They wrote very insightful things about human nature and challenges in the wilderness. They had the time, and were removed from everything else. The thing about the wilderness, being alone though was, when they were mad, it was their anger and the wilderness.

When they were sad, it was their sadness and the wilderness. And in reading some of what they wrote, they chronicled the various temptations of life, which made me think even more about what Jesus must have experienced in the wilderness. The loneliness, the fatigue, the hunger, the thirst, the doubts. In a place people saw as the most dangerous place around.

But of all the temptations, hunger, thirst, fatigue, these weren’t the greatest according to the desert dwellers. The greatest was another, called “Acedia.” Indifference. They called it the noonday demon- somewhere between the beginning and end you just lose interest altogether. As one New York Times writer noted this feeling “is not a relic of the fourth century or a hang-up of some weird Christian monks but also a modern force that easily attaches” to us.   With the overburdened schedules. While we seem so busy, as we do more, we commit less and less. Think of the ways we allow our “schedule” to alter our living.

As it turns out, Pope Francis, in this year’s Lenten address spoke to this very thing-perhaps the greatest temptation of our age: “Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.” Because of our networks and distractions, he described the phenomenon he calls the globalization of indifference, Francis writes that “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.”

He continues that, “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.” And maybe we even convince ourselves that God is pretty indifferent too. After all, why are there so many struggles and troubles? It reminds me a of cartoon series “Coffee with Jesus” where Jesus is having coffee with a woman who asks why there are so many destructive things happening in the world, and Jesus, coffee cup in hand smirks and replies, “I was going to ask you the same question.”

Indifference is a temptation. The forces of evil are counting upon our belief that nothing will really change.

But the gospel is that Jesus comes to challenge such a world. God has ripped apart the heavens. The Spirit descends and enters. The gospel breaks in with life altering promise!

This is amazingly good news in all our places that seem that the world can’t change or wilderness exists. Since God has invaded and altered the world- it’s not the world we think we see. There is difference. Not indifference. When we turn away from indifference, when we fast from it, then we can feast on God’s love.

Now all battles with evil are altered-the game is changed because God is present. And it comes back to baptism- where we hear we become part of God’s family and mission. And it’s about more than just assuring our salvation as in eternity with God some day. Luther taught that baptism is necessary for salvation- this we believe. What about those not baptized? Will they be saved some day? Is that the only way God will save people? As important for this life I believe, is that baptism is necessary for salvation in this life- that every day we know life, share community and healing, and forgiveness and know we don’t stand alone. God is present and providing and redefining. And today Karlie, who is up here being absolutely adorable, enters this life- baptism is a life changing journey with God.

This weekend some of our youth, years beyond their baptism are experiencing this. They are at Youth Quake and the theme is ReDefine. Being followers of Jesus redefines and alters us- who we think we are and what we can do. This is the change in our conscience we hear of in 1 Peter.  We are changed and given the gift and challenge of serving others. No matter how young we are- no matter who we are. This weekend the youth are packing food for the hungry.

And here we are collecting for Baskets of Promise. These things challenge the world as it seems. Even in something as small as the soap we gather. Because when you are in a wilderness like a refugee camp, a simple bar of soap reminds you that you are human and you are not alone, you are loved.

This is what we can share, living out our baptism as not just once and done- but continually being reshaped in the story that God is here. And in us. This overcomes evil and that great temptation- the myth that tells us God isn’t really present and so we don’t need to care either. It’s exposed. Even in the most challenging place, even when God seems silent, without any doubt, God is present in it all.

So here’s the thing- may we continue to be redefined by this God and in how we respond to the challenges, and may we resist the urge to sacrifice the promises of community in Christ. Let’s bust the myth.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Promise in the Dust

Today, as a part of beginning this Lenten season, I took a picture. Each day in Lent, I will be taking a picture that coincides with a word from Scripture during the Lenten season and then contemplate where that picture takes you in connection with the story of Scripture and our lives. Everyday taking a picture and posting it to #lent2015. Appropriately enough, today’s prompt was “dust” and as you might imagine most of the pictures I saw posted to Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram were of the ashes we’re wearing tonight. I decided to take a picture that was not the expected. I could just take a picture of the dust of the ashes, but I was looking for something more connected to me than that. Something that spoke of our daily existence and what it comes down to. I ended up instead, taking a picture of dryer lint.

And you know, if you stop and think about it, dryer lint tells a story- it not only tells what you were wearing and using, but where we have been. It tells of our living, reacting and responding. Look closely enough and it tells our struggles and failures, frustrations and heartaches. And it tells our joys and hopes and dreams pursued.

And especially with children, that dust came complete with the occasional partial Kleenex, candy wrapper, loose change or ticket stub interspersed. Each representing the sadnesses, celebrations, losses and triumphs of a life.

Perhaps that little label “Clean after each cycle” reminds us that dustiness is our reality but God longs for us to start anew. Dustiness is what we all share.

Young and old, at the end of the day, what is left, is our dust, and frankly, scientifically, we also carry the dust of others. And if you’ve ever gone to the laundromat, and had the dryer someone else forgot to clean, you know the moment- having to clean up someone else’s dust. It’s hard enough dealing with our own. In any event, at the end of the day, the week, a life, what we see is what we leave- dust.

Today we are reminded of our dust.

And as we look around the world, we see it on a larger scale- the giant swirls of trash in the ocean, those piles now sometimes given names, which breaks my heart; the belching of factories taking life up and downstream and people can’t breathe from all the dust; and the unquenchable thirst for violence reducing people and places to dust in ways the prophet Joel couldn’t even fathom. As we ponder how on earth we can possibly overcome these forces that seem to inevitably point to destruction, what we see is our limitation, and our frailty.

Today we are reminded we are but dust. The ashes more vividly remind us of our dust, our ashness.

Years ago, as we took our children to church for Ash Wednesday , it was the day most feared. And it all started when Catherine was very young. We carried her forward for ashes as a preschooler, at an age just old enough to be aware. Our pastor at the time had a booming voice and a particularly large thumb. There was our girl, confronted by this seemingly enormous black thumb approaching her, too close, and the voice thundered “Remember you are dust. And to dust you shall return!”

And perhaps in the truest response to such a pronouncement, she responded perhaps as we all might, or might want to. In a high pitched lament, she cried out, “Noooooooo!” And burst into tears. While at first we laugh, if we stop and think about it, perhaps she expressed what if we allowed ourselves to think it, was our response.

If we allow ourselves to think it, we can see our mortality. Today we are reminded we will be dust. Today we are reminded of our dust.

And that is for me the thing about Ash Wednesday- that cross we bear breaks into our world and tells us what we try not to hear, or contemplate. It breaks in and speaks intimately, too close.

Yet, as soon as we say return to the Lord, we are already feeling that “too close.” And amidst the ashes of our lives are, as Walter Brueggeman writes, “burdened with the tasks of the day, (and) we are already halfway home, halfway back to committees and memos, halfway back to calls and appointments, halfway on to next Sunday, halfway back, halfway frazzled, half expectant, half turned toward you, half rather not.”

Please don’t make us confront our ashness. The consequences of our living, the limitations of our control and our frailty. How totally opposite that cross is to our world which attempts to minimize and sanitize, or to dominate and isolate any experience of what real life and death involve. We would rather insulate ourselves.

We’d rather not hear the prophet pleading-consider your ashes, and consider how far you’ve strayed. We’d just as soon not look at how many layers insulate us from reality. That black thumb my daughter feared, you see, truly represented our reality. And while we have over the years made receiving ashes a once a year act-saying “we got ashes.” There is the truth- we’ve always got ashes.

Brueggeman writes in his poem “Marked by Ashes”

“All our Wednesdays are marked by ashes- we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth; of failed hope and broken promises, of forgotten children and frightened women, we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust; we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.”

And what is the response to this? Today at Bible study we talked about someone’s experience in worship on Ash Wednesday of a garment being torn- rending a garment is no small act. And act of mourning, or of contrition. The ripping open of what seems to be woven and fused together. And comparing that to our hearts. As God, our God calls to us to rend, to break open our hearts and return. Break through those layers of ash and insulation so we not only see the reality of our ashes, we see the reality of our Lord,

It’s not too late- come back to me. Fast from your ashness-from the ashes we bear each day. The ones we bring to this place each week. To come and experience changed hearts.

Come back to the God who is YOUR God. Who is not just saying, but begging, pleading, longing. God’s heart is torn by our absence. God longs to restore us and take our ashes. And make us new.

Richard Lischer writes, “it is only in Jesus that (our ashes) are gathered together in the shape of a cross. Time and time again we bring them to him, and then return to our mortal lives with something far better.”

The God who formed us out of chaos and ashes, gives us new form in Christ. Out of these ashes.

As Marcia Shultz writes, there is promise in the ashes

“No! I thought.

No black cross

Not on my forehead

No revealing mark

Of failure

Of grief

Of death


But yes,

Take up your cross

Be marked



Blessedly alive


God’s best work

Marked as acceptable



Acceptable to God

Not by my will

But Christ alone

Bearing the Cross

Wearing the Cross

In hope

The sign of the promise

Humanity lived



By Christ alone.

This is the journey we enter and we pray to our God who promises that dustiness may be our reality but not our destiny.

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Place in the Kingdom

With the kids:

Yesterday I started with Carolyn Brown’s idea of noticing what hands are doing in the gospel. After the gospel lesson, we talked about things we do with our hands. At one service BMX bikes were popular, and at another, reading and puppets were popular. Brown notes there are lots of hands in action in this passage.  Jesus reaches out his hand to heal Peter’s mother-in-law.  She reaches out her hand to Jesus to get his help and then uses her hands to serve Jesus. We talked about how we use our hands in worship- praying, sharing the peace, holding the worship book, the offering. Then we ended with how we can serve Jesus rest of our week- helping others, praying for them, and more. Our kids helped us see this part of the story!



So we had another highly successful Pork and Sauerkraut dinner, where imagine the crowds rivaled those wanting to be healed by Jesus. We had 710 tickets last night and that might give us a sense of the whole city at the door.  As I made my way around last night on occasion though there were some people who were obviously here for the miracle of pork and kraut, and jokes about feeding the thousands, and whether if we ran out of gravy, I could perform a miracle. There were people here for the pork and kraut, but others were here for something more-the connection. We as humans are wired for connection. We long for those connections.

It happens pretty often where when I visit, people want to hold my hand. It happens sometimes here in communion. That longing for connection. In those moments when our hands connect, something new is happening. Even in the tiniest way. And suddenly, however briefly, we move beyond who someone has been, or who they seem to be. Into who they truly are. And I always assume that in those moments people are not seeing me, they are seeing Jesus.

In the gospel, Jesus has been in the synagogue as we heard last week, and now he has left the synagogue.  Last week I talked about how “synagogue” is a word meaning “people gathered together” with God. The word is synago in case you want to impress others with Greek. Jesus was in the synagogue, but now Jesus has left the building and yet, and soon people are “synago- ing” around Jesus.   Some are there just to watch. Some are there hoping for a miracle. And some will find that freedom and healing and future are wherever Jesus is found. As Jesus has cast out demons and healed people and teaches and preaches with authority. Among men and women, inside the synagogue and outside. What he is doing is getting rid of separation.

Illness is about separation. The earlier hearers of the gospel would have known what is harder for us to see- that what Peter’s mother in law faced was different than we understand it. In the contemporary world we view disease as a malfunction which can be remedied with a prescription. In Jesus’ day, healers focused on restoring a person to a their state of being. Being ill was about experiencing a lack of dignity and value and worth that disrupts lives. It’s about separation and loss of meaning.

Peter's mother-in-law cannot be who she is. While to our modern ears we imagine it seems a little unfair that she is healed to just serve the men, in fact something else is happening. As the mother in law, she is the head of that part of the household. Others might prepare the food but she is the hostess, with the role of welcoming guests. Jesus’  healing restores her to her position within the household. She regains her dignity and worth.

There’s a dignity in the serving. When it’s been lost, we long for it. To have value. It’s why when I visit our older folk they tell me what they used to do- it’s a way of wondering if they have value.   

For this woman, it is now restored. Recently, as I was visiting one of our homebound, she told me that when I am coming to visit next time if I let her know, she can order me a tray so we can eat together. She is not preparing the food, but make no mistake she is serving me. And it is a blessing to me and gives her dignity.

And there’s something more in our gospel today. Peter’s mother in law is lifted up, and in some ways she returns to doing what she always did, yet in some ways, there is something more. She is transformed into a new place. Because she is not serving just any man, she is now serving Jesus. It starts with a letting go. Something she cannot do alone. The fever lets go and she is transformed.

It is a "letting go" of something- where whatever caused that separation or lack of dignity no longer controls life. Holding onto Jesus also means a letting go. Perhaps each of us has something we need to let go of, and the gospel is our invitation to do so. To encounter Jesus and be given the power to let go of whatever is keeping us separated or disconnected.

The good news is that wee are given that chance to let go and start fresh and new. To be restored and lifted up and empowered to serve.

I urge you not to see the serving as law- please do not hear this as you must get out there and serve. Rather it is an invitation to continue to be transformed.

Last night I met a man who is a Shriner clown who travels to burn units to visit children. No easy task, but one he loves. He tells me that he feels compelled. The more he serves, the more he feels compelled to serve. The children are transformed by his visits, and he is transformed.

This is how we experience what it means to have a place in the kingdom. Something we all long for.  What we do as Jesus’ followers is to experience Jesus and be lifted up and then become a part of the revelation of what it means that this is God’s kingdom.

May we live in that kingdom- a place where people are liberated and lifted up, valued and given dignity.  And may God empower us to help others connect with the good news of Jesus Christ.




Sunday, February 1, 2015

The God Who See Us Whole

I will give thanks to God with my whole heart- Psalm 111. Whenever I have seen this phrase, I so often think of it as speaking about the force of our commitment. But I was reading from Jan Richardson’s work on the Painted Prayerbook which is one of the online devotional sites I utilize. Richardson sadly lost her husband a little more than a year ago, and she has been focusing upon how her life is altered and yet how God is rebuilding her. She approaches this week’s lessons with a question that caught my attention. She asks about wholeness in a different sense. The sense where sometimes our hearts don’t feel whole. That there is in some way a sense of incompleteness, and then encountering the lessons as offering a view of God’s wholeness into those un- whole places. So here’s the question-Where might we instead of having whole hearts, have instead, a hole, that keeps us incomplete?

Perhaps we are falling prey for example to what Deuteronomy warns against- believing that some false god is our source of completeness. There are a lot of those to choose from. Food, possessions, activities, work, and more. What might we be hoping will fill that space? Sometimes each of us has that feeling.

The singer Jewel wrote a song called “A Hole in my Heart.” Part of the lyrics say, “There’s a hole in my heart, and I carry it wherever I go.. it travels with me down every road. There’s a longing, lonesome and deep, kind of bitter, kind of sweet. Time stealing swiftly, children having children of their own, and around life’s merry go round goes, and there you are wanting what you cannot hold.”

If this day, you are wrestling with a hole in your heart, perhaps it’s hard to imagine a wholehearted cry of thanksgiving. Yet here you are, and our calling in Christ is to help you find wholeness

But to complicate life, Paul tells us that while we are often trying to fill our own sense of what makes everything right, we must be mindful that individual choices have consequences for the health of the whole community. Maybe the hole we want to fill is the church just “perfect” while someone else is finding that desire to be a stumbling block to community. There you are, wanting what you cannot hold. Yet it is here that we are met by Jesus.

In our gospel today we hear of Jesus’ encounter with the man possessed. I’m not here to talk about what exactly was possessing the man and speculate about what it was. Because, more importantly is what possession looked like. And it is just as true that we all, are possessed by things that keep community and wholeness at bay. Here comes this man into a place called the synagogue. That word’s very meaning is people drawn together. But he’s been unable to be there. Imagine that man, seen by those around him as unable to be whole, told he cannot be whole-not physically, or in community. Imagine believing that you can never be whole.

And in one sense we can’t be whole if we are relying upon our power to achieve the wholeness, to fill the void, or heal a breach.

Yet, each of these passages shows us something of the wholeness in which God created us, and is working out within us. And each shows us that actions speak louder than words. We are drawn to acknowledge the liberation Christ brings us. And that only Christ can bring. That’s the last line in Jewel’s song- There’s a hole in my heart in the shape of you. There’s a hole in us that only God can fill. Maybe that’s the song we can sing to God. Whole heartedly. There’s a hole that only you can fill, God. The good news is that God wants to fill it. And that this is more than just words. It has to be more than words because otherwise we leave here just the same.

Jesus teaching in the temple happens in a way that shows he is something more. But it is when he liberates a man from what has denied him wholeness that we see God’s words come to life. This is what amazes people- a glimpse of God’s power that is more than just words. That the forces of separation cannot possess Jesus. And in our midst he shows that God’s desire, rooted in love is that they not separate and possess us either. This is what God is building in us and through us.

So perhaps the question that the gospel asks this day is: How might it be to open your heart—no matter how broken—to the One who sees you whole?

And then- How might it be to open your heart to someone who also has a hole? And help them see Christ

Our actions and words can perpetuate isolation and despair or center others in Christ who is our salvation. We gather here to believe and to share the glimpses of “what it means to have a whole heart, to live in a way that recognizes that, broken though we may be, God sees us complete and is about the work of helping us live into that completeness, not just for ourselves but for and with one another.”

That’s amazingly good news for all of us! So I close with the poem written by Richardson- Blessing for a Whole Heart

You think
if you could just
imagine it,
that would be a beginning;
that if you could envision
what it would look like,
that would be a step
toward a heart
made whole.

This blessing
is for when
you cannot imagine.
This is for when
it is difficult to dream
of what could lie beyond
the fracture, the rupture, the cleaving through which
has come a life
you do not recognize
as your own.

When all that inhabits you
feels foreign,
your heart made strange
and beating a broken
and unfamiliar cadence,
let there come
a word of solace,
a voice that speaks
into the shattering,

reminding you
that who you are
is here,
every shard
somehow holding
the whole of you
that you cannot see
but is taking shape
even now,
piece joining to piece
in an ancient,
remembered rhythm

that bears you
not toward restoration,
not toward return—
as if you could somehow
become unchanged—
but steadily deeper
into the heart of the one
who has already dreamed you