Sunday, March 22, 2015

I Will Draw Them All

Perhaps I am just ready, beyond ready for spring. Today we hear Jesus say he must be lifted up, and to the ears of those listening they imagine he means “exalted.” Which is a word not often used in our everyday speech. But to be exalted reminds me of what we see when the winning pitcher or the MVP is lifted up and carried by teammates after the big victory. That image of baseball season seems to work well for most of us. Not just for the warm weather it imagines. Or maybe you’ve been into March Madness and the winning team hoists someone up to cut the net off the hoop. That’s the kind of lifted up people expect.

In the gospel, the Greeks have come to see Jesus. They have come on the heels of Jesus having raised Lazarus from the dead. They are drawn by the curiosity and the power of that move. For the glory, or maybe they are like people perhaps who become fans when the winning streak is on. But as far as we know, they don’t see Jesus at all. Which is ironic since carved into some old pulpits is the phrase, " Sir, we wish to see Jesus." 
Instead, Jesus, hearing of their presence says that it indicates something else- God’s broader mission beyond the people of the covenant, and that for Jesus, his time is up. By the time the Greeks have caught the message, things must move quickly.

And he says what probably confounded everyone- you want to see me now? Come see me when I am lifted up- that will draw everyone.

But of course he’s not talking about the victory exaltation- he’s talking about a bloodied, naked body on a cross on Skull Hill. Why on earth would THAT draw people? I once knew a pastor who had a life sized cross and he would have it laid across a section of the pews each week during Lent. And people refused to sit anywhere near it. Avoided it at all costs. Finally someone came and told him that that cross wrecked the beauty of the sanctuary.

Since the time of my installation, when we borrowed a processional cross from Christ Hazelton, I thought we should have a processional cross here. Frank and Barb Gaval have been working on a processional cross for this congregation. For us to use on special days like Palm Sunday, Easter and the like. But it’s not just a cross- it’s a crucifix. With Jesus lifted up. In the course of its preparation, Barb and I have talked about what a moving experience it has been and the challenge to get Jesus “right.” Some of that is about things like Jesus’ head being the right size or the draping of the arms, and proportion. But the deeper challenge has been things like deciding to make a crown of thorns, choosing the nails to nail Jesus to the cross. And the temptation to give Jesus a little more to wear than we know he was wearing. Can’t he wear a little more than one strip of cloth?

This wrestling with seeing Christ lifted up – in the flesh points up our own wrestling with what it means to imagine God’s love in the flesh in a visible body, in an explicit and heartbreaking way. And the sacrifice.

In death. Jesus followers expected a Messiah who would live forever, and the Greeks expected a victor. No one was looking for death and loss. Just as then, we abhor the notions of death and loss. Not just in imaging that death on the cross, but the concept of sacrifice. We prefer perhaps a different Jesus.

And the question for us as it was for those Greeks and the disciples is I think, which Jesus draws us here? A vision of glory or that seed willing to die for the sake of bearing much fruit?

Every believer and every pastor is tempted, you see- just like the temptation to give Jesus more clothes. Tempted to “realize the kingdom of God apart from the cross of Christ. We are tempted to win the world and draw people here with programs, agendas, food. And we excel at that those here. But perhaps maybe we think at the most basic level because the message of the cross seems by itself, ineffective, counterintuitive, even foolish.” Leading with the cross may not seem like the best idea. People want beautiful and dynamic congregations. And after all, if people see how well we care for ourselves, they will want to be a part. People want winners.

And we are dynamic and vibrant. Yet sometimes I have heard already, we are so good at it. That we communicate that we have it all figured out- and if you do not, maybe there is no place for you. Or that all our programs already so well run, that maybe there is no place for you and your energy.

All of our efforts and ideas, while not entirely bad also have the potential to draw us away from God’s simple truth- it’s not the congregation that draws people into the kingdom, but the Son of Man lifted up. For all.

Yes, we participate in programs and initiatives, and we derive immense pleasure from relationships and events. But at the heart of the reason and the center and the mission is always- God’s Son lifted up for us. This is the game changing love and light for our lives and the promise for all.  

At a certain level we communicate that every day when the lights come on at night. I am not sure how many of you have looked at it lately- we have a profoundly beautiful stained glass window. When I first came, I was not sure what the breathtakingly beautiful stained glass window with all its color and movement was depicting. Frankly, I thought it was depicting the beginning of creation. Perhaps that means I watch too much Big Bang theory.

 It was only in the daylight that I saw the crown of thorns on the outside. Then a visitor asked me about the window, and I confess I didn’t know. So I asked to know more. And learned that the window depicts Christ on the cross, looking down at his head wearing the crown of thorns. And the love and power and new creation that radiates from him. It’s not only breathtaking, it lights this part of the Valley. It shows us the breathtaking beauty of God’s love for the world that we are invited to share. It shows us the heart of God willing to risk it all and it points ever outward. Love and sacrifice.

There is blessing and challenge in this- If God’s mission is ever outward, like the light of our stained glass window showing the vibrance emanating from that crown of thorns, are we ever outwardly turned?

Do we know the needs of the Greeks in our midst, those unchurched? Those who gave up on church? Those who long for a message of good news? Do we know how to find them and meet them with the gospel? And re we ready to let our seeds die for the answer? If they come, are we who love life here prepared to lose it to draw others closer in the kingdom of the cross, even in something as simple as sharing “our seat”?

May God forgive us and then renew us with a clean heart when we realize there are moments when in truth we know that the answer we know in our hearts is “no.”

The good news is that we are saved by the Son of Man lifted up. Not left to try to earn God’s love. Whether we do well or fall short. And we are saved from the belief we have to be perfectly dynamic- Christ on the cross, revealing God’s love is sufficient. It is sufficient for our life and sufficiently good news to share. We are called first simply to believe in this grace and power and live life in faith- that the one whose desire is to draw all into the kingdom will lead ever into the future.

And then, we are called to believe that the God whose desire is always to draw all- empowers us to help others see Jesus. Let’s not let the Greeks be the example- let’s not let people fail to see Jesus.  We are approaching Holy Week- may it be a time when we invite. And maybe, let’s dare to let go of what we might be holding onto that becomes an obstacle, but believe God will bring forth fruit for us all. So look at the cross, and may we be ever drawn deeper into the heart of our Lord and life for all.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

God's Love for the whole World

Whenever our daughters fought when they were younger, there was a lot of stair stomping and door slamming. and they would fight with one another about who had the right idea, invariably, someone would stomp off with one yelling, “I’m leaving!” And the other yelling back some variation of “GO ahead! See if I care!” When I read the passage of Moses and the people in the Book of Numbers, and all of the whining and grousing of the people about the food and the water and oy! I wonder if it doesn’t go through God’s mind to just say- “Go ahead, you stiff necked people, see if I care!” And it is disturbing to imagine that God would subject them to the poisonous snakes. Although in another sense, perhaps God who has been watching over them in all their kvetching while helping them overcome obstacles may in fact just be deciding to stop holding back the snakes. Because normally those snakes would have been around. And maybe until now they have been kept at bay, but now, they are set loose. In the anger and hurt and sense of betrayal. and maybe just like perhaps we have as parents sometimes decided, let the rebellious experience what they seem determined to experience.

When Moses comes to God in prayer for the people it may even feel like a pointless prayer, as he too has been the subject of their complaining. But he prays. God still responds and tells Moses how the people can be healed and live. They are reminded what got them there to that troubled place, and what there is no place for. But the last word is what God has overcome for them. The last word is love.

When I worked as a chaplain I was paged to a modern day situation like that. A mother was in her daughter’s room in ICU, grief stricken and angry. The daughter who hadn’t been in good health for a variety of lifestyle reasons had come to live with her Mom who wanted to take care of her and help her. But because doing so often involved a clash of choices, it was often confrontational. And on a particular day, the daughter, whose whining had reached epic levels and the mother who frustration matched it, had a shouting match which ended as the daughter pronounced she was leaving and the mother shouting at her- Go ahead! And knowing that her daughter was really sick, she also said words she probably meant to keep in her head, but they came out anyway followed it up with- You can die for all I care!

Words borne as much out of grief as prediction, because the daughter seemed determined to buck all efforts to live.

Well, on a hot day, this sickly, overweight daughter, blood pressure soaring, stomped off down the street, on a hot, humid summer afternoon in the city. And it was only a matter of time before she collapsed from a combination of the heat, diabetes and toxins. She ended up in the hospital, potentially not expected to live. Near death at the hands of the modern day serpents in her life. Proof that God who gives us freedom will let us have all of the hell and poison we want if we are determined to have it. There we were.

The mother had called for a chaplain, barely able to contain her emotions. Wanting healing for her daughter, she was also wracked with sadness at having the possibility of the last words her daughter heard her say be those poisonous words. That the last moments were hearts cracked and broken and toxic.

I asked her what she would say to her daughter if she could, and it wasn’t - boy did you screw up! It was- I want to tell her that I love her and I want her to live. And in that moment, the mother glimpsed the heart of God. The heart of a God who wants us to be healed and saved. This is the love we hear of in the Gospel- that even in the midst of colossal mistakes and heartaches and sin, God sends Jesus because God loves us and wants us to live.

Just like that mother wondering why on earth her daughter rebelled so often against what was life giving, God wonders how anyone would choose another way. Rob Bell writes, “How could someone choose another way with a universe of love and joy and peace right in front of them? We see it all the time. And we choose it when we isolate ourselves, give the cold shoulder to someone who has slighted us. When we hide knives in our words and harden our hearts in defiance of what we know to be loving and good and right. That impulse lurks in all of us…if we want isolation and despair…if we want nothing to do with love, we are given that.”

And then it is easy to imagine God whose ultimate purpose is to condemn and to punish. Because somewhere in our hearts there is a crack, there is a poison and brokenness that needs to be healed.

Healing began for the mother in the hospital even as her daughter was being healed. There would be more words between them. She let go of the toxic and those cracks in her heart began to mend as we prayed- and she joined in by telling God she didn’t know who the lady was that came to the room, but she knew what God wanted her to see, what mattered and to be forgiven. To know that even though the journey would still be hard, more than anything she wanted her daughter to wake up so she could say “I love you.” As the days passed and the daughter improved, I prayed it was hopefully the start of a new story for them.

“When we crave the light, are drawn to the truth, and are desperate for grace, God gives” us what God’s heart longs to share-that Jesus was sent not to condemn but to save. Lifted up on a cross to show us both the depths of our sin uncontained and God’s victory over all that robs us of life. So we can live a new story.

God’s love in the cross creates a new relationship of uncontainable things- love, and joy and grace. In those moments when we experience it, truly, we can’t help but share it. Jesus invites us into the heart of God and a new promise. An ongoing story of new creation and healing and transforming our hearts to be closer to God’s. This is who God is, what Christ shows and accomplishes for all.

And God’s love for us is why “God continues to come, year after year, to person after person…to show us an expansive and indestructible love that’s been ours all along- every single one of us.” Even the ones we’d just as soon say “see if I care!” to. Jesus is endlessly inviting us to trust, accept, believe, embrace and experience it again and again. God comes to save- whenever we believe that, it changes everything- how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we see God.

So again this day we look at the cross, picture Christ and the new life we are given. And then keep believing that a love “as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in our hearts we think no one knows we have” is God’s love for the whole world.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Words for Life

For the third week in Lent, I have been focusing upon the covenants of the Old Testament with the childrens’ message. So far, we have explored Noah, and Abraham, and now this week Moses. God used Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom and God gave the 10 Commandments to Moses for the people. Because if you have been a slave with no ability to make choices and now you have freedom, what should that look like? I shared a few “commandments” of my own- “ You are your own boss. Do whatever you want, whenever you want to” and “Parents just don’t get it- ignore them when you want to” “ the one with the most toys wins” and “lies are OK if they keep you out of trouble.” The kids wisely knew those were not right. God wants us and everyone to have life that is good. God’s words for us help us remember how to treat others and how to be connected to God.  Then I shared a few more “commandments” with the rest of the congregation.


“Decide who is important and what is important and pay attention to those people and those things.”

“It doesn’t matter how you use God’s name-swear, tell people who God hates. Use God’s name to get what you want because God is on your side.”

“It doesn’t matter if you worship on Sunday, or any other day. Come whenever. If you have things you would rather do, go do them.”

“the main thing is to get what you want, if you want it. Figure out how to get it.”

“Lies are OK if you get what you want. It’s OK to make other people look bad if it helps you look good.”

You can find these commandments in books, or in popular culture, maybe even embroidered on a pillow. And they point up how at odds being God’s people really is. The 10 Commandments are at odds with life as we know it. It is, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, foolishness.

Add to that our perception of “the Law” as the commandments can be called. Our views of the legal system and regulations, perhaps on our mind here in tax season. And of course we have opinions about lawyers. All of those things can get added into how we hear “the Law.” Like it’s a hammer. We chafe against it.

It can be hard to remember that these are actually God’s 10 words- that’s the Hebrew. God’s 10 Words for Life. Given out of love by a God who has saved the people, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of slavery” and literally in Exodus 19, God says- I bore you up on eagle’s wings. It’s a mothering image. A loving image of a God who saves people and makes promises and provides for life. All of the covenants in some way embrace this.

From Noah, being told never again will creation be destroyed, to Abraham being promised he will be the Father of generations. Look at the stars in the sky- more numerous shall your descendants be. To Moses- I have freed you and I want you to be able to handle freedom.  That’s what the 10 words are about. Life for all.

Given by a God who we hear in Psalm 19 has created an arrangement for all of creation- setting those stars in the sky. Creating life for all- beauty and diversity and abundance. For each of us and all of us. We are connected.

In one connected relationship with God and all of creation.

And it then can seem for a moment, so simple. The  10 Commandments are not long.

But it gets complicated by all our layers of regulations and understandings. Our limits and rules.

And Jesus shows up in the temple where people are bogged down in all those layers of barriers and limits and separation. Where what had been well meaning had gotten lost.

In the system of the temple, the people brought sacrifices- if you came to seek forgiveness, you brought a sacrifice; if you came to give thanks, you brought a sacrifice. The sacrifice system was intended to tend a relationship. And so it would seem that selling animals people needed would make sense. Except that the focus had become so much about the business of the selling, the real focus got lost. And Jesus started flipping tables and clearing out those layers.

So what does that say to us today? After all, we don’t have a temple or a sacrifice system.  The sacrifice has been made in that cross for us.  For one, a reminder that we are not earning something.  One of our confirmands asked whether the 10 Commandments were really just a reward system. And people believe that. God’s 10 words for us are not about earning something. We don’t earn our salvation- that same cross made on our foreheads in baptism shows us God’s words for our life. Christ is the promise and decision for us for life already. God’s love and grace are already assured. We can live in that freedom.

We can remember that we too are not perfect in our living- but have been given God’s promise and forgiveness. In this season of Lent when we consider what it means to walk more closely with God, we can ask what in our lives needs to be cleared out that is creating barriers, or separation or is not centered in proclaiming Christ?

I have no agenda when I say this for us personally or as the church. I’m too new to even guess. It’s just a question, but it is the question. What is our focus? Why do we do what we do? What might need clearing?

Where we find our lives are centered in proclaiming Christ, may we give praise. Where they are not may we turn again to the God who claims us, forgives us and loves us enough to give us words for life.



Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Challenging "Possible"

(This year in the season of Lent, with our children we are focusing upon the covenants we hear of in the Old Testament between God and the people. And in Sunday and Wednesday worship we are using Faith 5 Lenten resources which break down the lessons into three themes- the first two weeks focusing upon Jesus coming to challenge. This week, the Old Testament reading from Genesis lifted up the covenant God communicated to Abram, now Abraham- the promise of generations to come through him even as he was 99 years old. An idea that makes young and old laugh even today. But we talked about how earlier God has told Abraham this would be so and took him out to look up at the night sky at the stars- and especially here in the country where there is less light pollution, the sky on a clear night is chock full of stars. We can truly get that they are impossible to count. Just like it’s hard for us to get just how much God loves us and wants to bring forth blessing. The kids took sticky metallic stars and handed them out amongst themselves and the whole congregation. And we encouraged people put them on clothing not the bulletin and to see how long that star would stay on that day even after worship. Later in worship, what a delight it was to see people of all ages coming up with stars on their shirts and sweaters- on the pin a lady was wearing, or the suspenders of a gentleman. As they came forward for communion, most tried to catch my eye to see if I saw their star. And what a joy to see the delight and life in the people as each week I call the kids forward and some run to get to the front of the church (gasp!) for our time together. It’s amazing what God makes possible!)

So today, all of our lessons are about challenging what we think is possible. Surely the covenant God was making with Abraham seemed impossible. After all, if I ask the man who today we acknowledged for celebrating a 90th birthday what he would think if tonight he was told he’s fathering a child, we can see his laugh and head shake “no!” God told Abraham this but then time passed before the conversation we see today and it had be even more improbable. How astounding to have God already have told you that your descendants will be more numerous than the stars in the night sky. The verses we skip today would tell us not only that Abraham fell face down at this, but he laughed. He and Sarah laughed! Now God comes to make this covenant- a promise to be fulfilled. And many of us know that a baby at any age brings a whole new life- both joyous and sometimes frightening. But here in this covenant with Abraham we see a whole new identity, and a new name ( father of nations) and something sacred- that life together with God is much more connected- God is not distant, but one with the people. It challenges what seems possible. And even though it seemed to be impossible, there was life beyond imagining.

As we look at the apostle Paul, and his writings, we see one who was a persecutor of Christians, who handed over, and imprisoned and oversaw the death of others. Until that dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus where his whole life changed. But at first Paul thought he knew what his mission was- to speak to his people, to the Jewish people, after all he had been one of them. But they rejected him. And he seemed stuck, but instead he learned that his true ministry was to proclaim the gospel to a whole other group of people- the Gentiles. People he thought beyond God’s plan for salvation. But with a new name, and a new identity his message began the work of the church still today- making people one. It challenges what seems possible. And even though it seemed like an impossible thing, there was ministry beyond limitations.

Today we hear Jesus has been astounding flocks of people with teaching, and healings and feeding thousands of people from what seems like nothing. And the disciples are amazed and in response to his question of “who do you say I am?” Peter has blurted out ahead of the pack- you are the Messiah! And it seems like this will usher in the age of power and glory and political might. And yet it here that Jesus responds in a way that shocked them- I will be killed and I will die and yet rise. No! Death cannot be possible! It cannot be the way this goes! It challenges what seems possible. And though it seemed impossible, there was life and salvation beyond belief.
And yet, there it is in all the lessons really- that in order for God’s possibility to be brought forth, there is a death. A death to what we are sure we know, when God’s plan seems backwards. If we use the lens of power and possibility we will fail to grasp it- we will fail to get there.

Because God is challenging what is “possible” and it is radically different- life altering. And rooted in love. A radically different love that looks at people no one is looking at, and goes places no one is thinking about and dares the impossible- Life for all.

One life for all

That is gospel for us and yet there is sacrifice. Here's why:
Recently I saw a picture that on one side shows three distinct circles for work, play and rest and then there is a line drawn from top to bottom on the one side. On the other side is a picture of a church. And it says “2 Lives.” It depicts that way sometimes we all can view things- there is my work, and my play and my rest time that takes up about 6 days and 22 hours. And then there is my other life- the hour or two I spend being “churchy.”

Then there is a second picture where the circles of work and play and rest are interconnected like a Venn diagram (you now know the extent of my math knowledge)- but there in the middle of the connection is that cross. And the caption says “one life.” Not two lives. One. God in the midst of it, creating it and active in it. God in it all, not just the official churchy part. And us in God’s world living out God’s vision.

Here’s where the stars come in. They represent what is possible in God’s eyes. Beyond our imagining for ourselves and our world. Perhaps it seems like we are sacrificing to live a “one life” existence as opposed to just compartmentalizing God. And yet there is such blessing amidst yes, challenge, in one life. Imagine the possibilities for life, ministry and mission. Imaging the scope of God’s love.

Perhaps our Lenten challenge is challenging what we think is possible.

And then taking steps closer to living One Life with the God who is inviting us into what is possible- that everything we are and do really are one life in Christ. When you look at that star, may you be reminded of God’s calling.