Sunday, December 30, 2012

On Magi and Journeys

Matthew 2:1-12

It is difficult to read this piece of the Christmas story and not picture three youngsters wearing Sunday School Pageant finery and sporting ill fitting crowns, making their way down the center aisle while the congregation sings, "We Three Kings."  And yet, my imagination is taking me in a different direction this year as I consider the story before us now.  Oh, yes, there is the truth that the gifts these royal travelers presented appear to point to death for this newborn baby.  And yes, there is the wonder that all the world was coming to kneel at his feet. Still, I find myself wondering about these travelers themselves and what compelled them to take such a journey in the first place.  And so it is that I find myself returning to the poem by  T.S. Eliot, "Journey of the Magi." (If you want to hear it read by the poet, go to this link: Journey of the Magi.)  For what a journey it must have been for those who first followed that star.  Indeed, Eliot imagines it as difficult all the way through from beginning to end and his poem asserts that the challenges did not cease for them once they returned home.  And how could it have been simple after that?

For they had, no doubt, risked their fortunes and their reputations to travel far --- only to have their purposes nearly thwarted and their lives threatened by a paranoid ruler.

For they had traveled to see royalty and they were led to kneel before a baby born of poor parents in an out of the way place.

They must have had dreams and nightmares both about this particular journey for the rest of their lives as they wondered at its meaning for them and for all the world.

And so find myself thinking of those wise men, those magi, those kings and I find myself wondering about what stirred in their hearts to compel them to risk so much.  What deep yearning for something other than what they had known led them to travel so far?  And as I think of them I find myself thinking of all of us and  wondering at other journeys taken...and what it is that makes such journeys possible, necessary, preferable, even, to simply living the life that is right before us. What sign in the sky, what communication from God, would make me go that deep, that far to discover its meaning for me?

And then it strikes me that those travelers to Bethlehem were simply living their lives to their natural conclusions.  For apparently their life's work was studying the stars.  And when they saw a star which seemed to hold such meaning, all they could do, if they were to be true to who they were called to be, was to follow its direction. So having studied the stars and having felt the prodding of one particular star to take this incredible journey, when they came to the place to which the star led them, they were met there by God.  We know this could not have been at all what they expected --- at least not God in the form and circumstance before them there.  And it may well have been true, as in T.S. Eliot's estimation, that things were never quite the same again for them --- and perhaps in ways that were not all that pleasant.  Still, in that baby, they met the 'Holy One,' God's Own Son. And all they were doing was what they believed they were made to do.

And yet, at the same time, this was probably more than what they bargained for when they first started out --- for packing up to travel to far flung places was probably not in the job descriptions they first accepted.  Indeed, in what they set out on here and in what they experienced in and through this journey, there was a whole lot more for them now than sitting in a quiet, familiar place, taking notes on parchment and sharing their insights with others.

Perhaps this is so for all of us.  As we use and develop the gifts that God has planted within

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas Message

This past week I headed out on some communion calls… taking the gifts of God to those who can’t be part of our celebrations with us in worship in these next hours. First I knelt with Hazel in the hallway outside the dining room at the nursing home which has been her residence these last several years.  Next I caught up with Verina and her daughter in the lobby --- she was on her way to an appointment.  Together we formed a quiet circle in that busy place and shared the bread and wine together. Finally, I made my way to the other end of the nursing home to find Ruth sitting in her room.  She complained of being cold, so we adjusted the two afghans wrapped around her as we tried to cover her feet as well. 

Ruth is not always the easiest person for me to call on as her dementia makes it so that she doesn't seem to always remember me.  Only I’ve been told Ruth had an amazing voice and so this time I thought to begin by asking her what her favorite Christmas Carols are.  When she looked at me blankly I suggested, “How about “Away in a Manger?””  And Ruth, in a voice mostly untouched by her 99 years, began to sing this song I expect she has sung since she was a little girl. 

Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,
The little Lord Jesus, laid down his sweet head;
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
She didn’t quite have all the words but you could hear in her voice her love of this story which still lives in her heart.  From there, we went on to sing a few others until she paused and looked at me and said, ‘You know, if I could have one more job, I would like to preach.”   And so I asked, “What would you preach?”  Pausing a moment she said, ‘God loves you...and that’s about it.”  And then before we shared the sacrament we also sang “Jesus Loves Me.”

God loves you… and that’s about it.

And so with Ruth this Christmas Eve, I offer the only message that really matters:

God loves you.  And that is it.  And that is everything.
May the blessings of Christmas be yours in abundance this year and always!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Stolen Baby Jesus

Luke 2:1-20

I grew up with a manger scene, of course... the very same one that still adorns my mother's living room each Advent/Christmas season.  My dad made ours out of plywood when we were children. There is a round hole in the back at the top of the wall where a Christmas bulb fits through: shedding light on the scene below.  The various pieces are simple painted plaster --- chipped and marred by many, many years of handling by children and grandchildren and somewhat faded by the passing of time.  All of the usual players are there: Mary and Joseph, some donkeys and camels and sheep, a few shepherds, a dog, an angel who hangs on a nail on the front of the stable announcing this Good News, and some wise men bearing gifts. And the baby Jesus, of course.

In my home I have prettier ones than that I suppose.  I have the carved olive wood scene that comes from the Holy Land, the soapstone one I purchased for $7.50 at a market in Nairobi, and the dark wooden one I pieced together on my last trip to Tanzania. They are all precious to me, but none evoke the memories that the first one does, for it was on our knees that four little girls played with it as a kind of holy dollhouse. Over and over we would arrange the figures.  In fact, my folks would say they would come in and find Mary in the strangest of places sometimes. This wasn't borne of disrespect though.  It was just children trying to take hold of this amazing, familiar story and make it our own.

We still do it, of course.  In manger scenes the world over we depict this so familiar scene and if we think to do so, we pause each season to make it our own once more.  It was a few Christmases ago that I was in downtown Chicago.  I stopped for a moment before the Nativity Scene on Daley Plaza.  That one is nearly life-size and, as expected,  it offers all the usual players.  Only if you look closely, you will see that baby Jesus is chained to the ground: ensuring that no prankster will carry him off.

For it happens every year, it seems.  In fact, out of curiosity I looked again today and discovered that if you google "stolen baby Jesus" you will find dozens of news stories of the infant being taken from manger scenes all across the country.  Year after year, in town upon town, from church corners to front yards, someone will think it sport to take baby Jesus away, out of the manger, often never to be seen again.  Oh, there is the story of the city in Florida which attached a GPS tracking device to their baby Jesus and so they were able to locate the culprit quickly.  And I confess, I did find some measure of amusement in the story of the baby Jesus who showed up eight months later on the owner's front porch with photos of his adventures attached: from sitting on a bicycle to hanging out in someone's kitchen.  And I am especially fascinated this year by the story which even got picked up by USA Today.  Evidently this year in one community in Wisconsin three different manger scenes from three different churches were robbed of their baby Jesus.  Apparently, there is speculation that the thief is protesting the presence of Jesus in the manger before Christmas actually comes.  I, along with many others, will be waiting to see if Jesus gets returned on Christmas Eve.  So, given all of this, and yes, maybe they've had the baby Jesus stolen before.... the city of Chicago simply chains him to the ground.

Now I don't stand in defense of anyone who would take Jesus from his rightful place in the manger --- even if they do so on theological grounds.  And yet, you and I who hear the Christmas Gospel once more in the days to come do so knowing that the real Jesus can't be kept in the manger by means of chains.  And the real Jesus?  We don't need to attach a GPS unit to him to be able to track him down.  You and I encounter Jesus all the time in all sorts of places, although to be sure, perhaps often in unexpected ones.

Indeed, we discover him again whenever and wherever we are moved by the truth that Jesus was born humble and poor and that God still has the most tender of places in his heart for those for whom Christmas dinner will be hard to come by this year --- and for whom a decent meal any day of the week might be only a dream.

We see Jesus in all kinds of places: whenever we recall that God loves deeply those who, like Mary and Joseph, are in danger of having no warm, safe place to sleep tonight.

And yes, we see Jesus once more whenever we recall that Emmanuel, God-With-Us, can still be seen embracing those who grieve, who suffer, who struggle the whole world over.

No, indeed, no GPS is needed. For Jesus is as near as the next act of generosity shown to someone for whom a moment of kindness will make all the difference --- sometimes for the rest of their lives.  Jesus is there in every act of selfless sacrifice offered for another.  Jesus is right here in our own hearts changed by God's great love for us that we would be among those who risk and give and love this world and all who inhabit it.

So do remember the story is yours again this year. Take a moment this Christmas to kneel with a child before a manger scene.  Handle the figures in the creche. Wonder about this holy story once again and know that this birth in a faraway time and place has come to you once more and is for you and all the world Good News.  And as you do so, remember this. We can't chain Jesus to the ground.  No, we can't keep him in the manger.  For in wondrous ways Jesus will keep breaking free and making his way into the world, into your life, into your very heart. 

Indeed, I wonder where we'll see him next, don't you?  In fact, we would do well in the days to come to keep our eyes and hearts peeled because I'm guessing Jesus is going to show up again almost before we know it. And for anyone out there who might be thinking about stealing baby Jesus?  Well, there's no need. Jesus is already yours. And the truth is we don't have to wait for December 25th for that to be so.

  • Think about your own favorite manger scene.  Which figure(s) capture(s) the story for you this year?
  • What are the Christmas traditions you carry on from your childhood?  How do they continue to help you to embrace and be changed by the gifts of God this season?
  • If Jesus cannot be chained to the ground, where is it that you have encountered him of late?  Where do you expect to see him today?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Hopes and Fears

Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

"The Hopes and Fears of All the Years Are Met in Thee Tonight..."                                                                       .... Phillip Brooks, 1867

This has always been one of my favorite lines from all those familiar Christmas carols which are ours to share in the days to come.  It is sung by those of us imagining Bethlehem the night of our Savior's birth.  And it so captures the meaning of this birth.

Although it is so that hope and fear meets in every birth, it seems to me.

The call came on a Monday morning in Lent nearly 16 years ago.  My sister, Sarah, was in labor.  Upon receiving the news, I immediately called her. The hospital switchboard put me through to her and we chatted pleasantly for a moment, until she said quite politely, under the circumstances,  "I have to go now; I'm having a contraction."  I told her I loved her and said good-bye.  I 'went with haste' across the street to my home and packed an overnight bag and drove just within reach of the speed limit two and a half hours south.  And I wept the whole way there.

At first it would seem my reaction made no sense, really. We had no reason to believe all would not be well. It's just that we had only just buried my dad weeks before and as is often the case, joy and sorrow got all caught up with one another.  Hope and fear were meeting in my own heart.

When I arrived I was greeted with the news that the baby was fine.  It was a boy.  His name was Michael and he was sporting a healthy set of lungs. And within the hour I got to hold that precious life in my arms.

Every birth ties us to all who have gone before and every one hurls us into the future.  But none more so than the two births we find ourselves looking forward to in this week's Gospel where Mary can't get to her cousin, Elizabeth fast enough.  If the news of any birth that matters to us fills us with hope and joy and yes, perhaps some measure of sorrow all at once, just imagine what these two unexpected pending births did to these two women and all who stood alongside them.  Just imagine how filled they all must have been with shock, surprise, wonder, joy and fear!

I'm struggling to put 'words on paper' with you now with the news rumbling in the background.  I came home from the hospital where I was standing with a friend whose elderly dad had just died to hear that at least 26: 20 little children and 6 adults lie senselessly dead in an elementary school in Connecticut.  I'm thinking that every single one of those precious lives began with profound hope and wonder.  Have we ever been more in need of a Savior than on this day?  How can we not look to Bethlehem in the wake of this news and not simply ache for the very presence of God with us once more?  Indeed, as those who have seen and felt so much --- so much more than anyone should see and feel --- not only here but in the wake of senseless acts of violence the world over, perhaps we find ourselves tempted to turn away, to cut ourselves off, to do all we can, all we must do to shield ourselves and those we love from all that might harm.  I would guess this reaction is all the more so as we consider those little ones whose families grieve today.  Only where would that leave us then?

And so I am comforted by Mary's song as she sings of a world which will one day be turned upside down. I find myself grasping for this hope that is meant for us. Even as I sort through my own outrage, my own grief, my own fear, I am reminded by the song of a young girl that God's intent is not this.   And I remember that in the end both of these mothers' sons suffered unspeakably violent deaths. One mother presumably did not live to see it.  The other stood by and witnessed every moment.  Only Jesus' death was not without meaning. Indeed, hope and fear met in Bethlehem so long ago.  Fear and hope also met on a cross not so many years later so that today you and I might be among those who, for the love of Jesus and one another, comfort the grieving, tend the suffering, and work together with courage and with hope for a day when we won't need to anymore. At least not for reasons like this...
  • What do you think Mary is carrying in her heart as she goes 'with haste' to see Elizabeth?  Do you think hope and fear are meeting there?
  • How do the words of Mary's Song, speak to the events we have witnessed in these last days?  How do these words speak to you?
  • How does the Incarnation of Jesus bring good news to those who are suffering?  What is the Good News of Christmas in this world, now, today?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Winnowing Fork in Jesus' Hand: Good News for Today

Luke 3:7-18

When I was in college I had a summer job working at Del Monte in my home town. Pea Pack would start mid-June and run deep into July. It was good work, although I have to say I was especially grateful to be assigned a job which was at least a little bit challenging. From 5 p.m. until the second shift ended, I tested peas. My work had some bearing on what label wound up on the cans of peas which were processed that night.The 'tougher' peas would get the store brand while the tender young peas would leave the factory bearing the Del Monte label.

So every night several trucks an hour would pull up and I would take a couple of buckets of peas off them and run the peas through a series or tests.  First I would pour a bucket of peas through a 'shaker' which would sort the peas by size and which would sift out the waste.   Each drawer of the shaker would be weighed and recorded and then each size would be put through the 'tender-ometer' to be measured for its tenderness and recorded again.  (This was almost 30 years ago now, and I still remember every detail of the work, for it was a task repeated over and over again!)  I was delighted to discover a photograph of a 'tender-ometer,' circa 1938, just like the one I used, which you can see here:

Nearly all of those summer nights run together now, but there is one I will never forget.  I had taken several bucket-loads of peas off a truck and had dumped the first bucket into the shaker.  After the peas had shaken down, I pulled out the top shelf and there in the midst of the usual waste was a piece of glass the size of my thumbnail.  I stared at it for a long moment weighing my options.  On the one hand, it could well be an exception: the only piece of glass on the load.  And yes, it is true the truck had come in without a tarp on it, but it didn't seem likely it had picked up any glass in that way. I finally did what I knew I must do.  I walked across the street to the scale shack.  Mr. Folkerts, our high school English teacher, was sitting in his usual place behind the counter.  (Second shift pea pack was also his summer job.)  I placed the piece of glass on the counter and pushed it across to him.  I can still recall him looking at me over his glasses.  I could not then and dare not now presume to interpret his look, but we both knew what had to happen next.  He called down to the plant and within the hour eight thousand pounds of peas were dumped into a nearby farmer's field. For at best, if more glass was discovered, it could halt the operation of the cannery that night.  At worst, it could wind up on someone's dinner plate.

Oh, it is hard at first to hear the good news in John's preaching now.  It is difficult to think of Jesus with a winnowing fork in his hand --- sifting out the good from the bad, the waste from all the rest. And yet, what a wonder it is to think of God taking the time to sort out, to sift through what is good and what is not so good in me.  We didn't have the means to do so for that load of peas that night so long ago.  We didn't have a backup plan for more wisely disposing of four tons of peas, most of which would have safely fed a whole lot of hungry people for many, many meals.  And yet, God does. God always does.

By now you can hear how I hear John's word for us today. I don't think of Jesus sorting out the good people from the bad ones.  No, my observation and experience and deeply held belief is that there is no one beyond the reach of God's redemption.  So it seems to me this is what Jesus does, over and over again, in all of us.  Jesus sorts out what is worth keeping in me and tosses aside all the rest.  And yes, most of the time that process is awfully uncomfortable.  But the good news is that God is willing to do it. No matter the effort it takes, the time it takes, God is willing to do it.  And what a wonder that is!

  • How do you hear John's preaching as 'good news' today?  
  • How have you experienced Jesus 'winnowing' or sifting through what is worth keeping and what is not worth keeping in you?
  •  Has the process of winnowing been uncomfortable for you?  Has it been 'worth it' anyway?  Why or why not?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

In the Wilderness with John

Luke 3:1-7

We meet up with John again every year in Advent.

And we meet up with John always in the wilderness.

It's the wilderness part that has me thinking this year --- remembering that the identity of the people of Israel was formed and shaped by forty years in the wilderness.  Indeed, I expect that is why our Gospel writers make it a point to remind us that John was in the wilderness.  God is always doing new things in unexpected times and places. And from what we know of God's history with the people of the Israel, we can be certain that the wilderness is precisely the place where we can expect God to do new things!

So it is the wilderness that has me going deep this time around.  For it seems to me that wilderness is not something many of us would choose much of the time.  Not if it's true wilderness.  Not when there is no end in sight to the suffering, the struggle, or even just the uncertainty.

It keeps coming back to me, these several years later: a conversation I shared with the chaplain of our local hospice.  She had asked to meet me for coffee and so I did.  After we got settled in, she looked at me and asked, "Why do you show up when people are dying?" I found myself stumbling over my answer, for I had never really thought about it.  In an unguarded and entirely unsophisticated way I replied, "Because I am supposed to," with a slight question at the end.

It had never occurred to me not to show up. Somehow, early on my journey I learned that this was what pastors do.  Only she was asking the question because this was not what she always observed.  Apparently we were not all taught this.  Or maybe this is just  the sort of 'wilderness' many would rather not enter if we can find any way not to.

It came up in a roundabout way at our text study this week.  I don't know how we got there, but my colleague from across town offered, "I think the most vulnerable time for a pastor is when we get called into a crisis."  I was glad I thought to ask why for his answer was good and true:  "I can only speak for myself," he said, "but I feel vulnerable because I know I can't fix it." And oh, that is wilderness, isn't it?  To be at a loss. To not be able to make right what is so terribly wrong.  Only my friend didn't end there.  He went on to tell us that the only way he  can walk into those places is knowing that the whole community of God's people across time and space goes with him.  It goes without saying that Jesus walks with him, with all of us, too, of course. Still, it's wilderness --- and something we'd probably rather not enter if we could possibly avoid it. 

And so this Advent we are called to encounter John in the wilderness again. When we arrive, we hear his urging to prepare the way for the One who would come after him.  I expect it's only after we step into the wilderness that we learn again deeply our need for the One who is coming.  I know it's in those times that I am more in touch with my own hunger, my own thirst --- physically, perhaps, but more surely, spiritually. Perhaps it is so that in Advent we pause in the wilderness to be reminded of just this. And to heighten our joy when we encounter the Christ Child once more.

But there is more to it, of course.  Wilderness time is not ours only for getting to the other side of.  One encounters the gifts of God within it, too. The people of Israel surely did in their forty year trek through the wilderness.  There they discovered God would care for them over and over again.  I wonder how we see this again in the story of John.  In the story of our own lives...  I wonder how wilderness can be gift to us once more.  I wonder how we will experience the gifts of God in the wilderness this year.

  • How would you define 'wilderness'?  When did you last step into the wilderness?  What might you discover there?  Did you discover the gifts of God in that place?
  • How does it help you to go into the wilderness if you do so remembering you do not go alone? 
  • Why do you think John is 'in the wilderness?'
  • How might pausing in the wilderness this Advent heighten your joy this Christmas?  What might pausing in the wilderness look like for you?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Posture of Hope

Luke 21:25-36

"Now when these things begin to take place, stand and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."  (Luke 21:28)
It is unexpected, it seems to me--- this kind of posture in the face of the struggle described in Luke's Gospel now.  Natural disasters are all about.  People are fainting out of 'fear and forboding' at what is coming upon the world. Even the powers of heaven will be shaken, we are told.  It is surely not typical or expected, it seems to me, to stand up and raise our heads when calamity is happening all around us.

In fact, I got a glimpse of its opposite just last week.  It was at the end of the funeral of a young man.  His death was entirely unexpected and there was not a person in the room who was not shaken.  His family thought it was the flu.  It turns out it was something much more profound and he died before they could get him medical attention.

At his mother's request the casket was left open. She was not yet ready to say good-bye.  So in the time we shared, I preached and prayed and commended him into God's eternal care.  And then the mourners filed by the open casket, one by one, pausing a moment to gaze at the lifeless face of their neighbor, friend, nephew, grandson, cousin, brother, son.  Other than his parents, it was the young men who moved me the most, somehow.  All in their mid-20's, they approached the body of their friend one by one or in pairs.  You could see in their postures how very tightly they were holding themselves.  If you looked at their faces you could see how hard they were working to hold back the tears. Their heads were bowed... staving off the suffering they did not want to feel or to show. 

It's not the kind of disaster Jesus describes in our Gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Advent.  But it had shaken their worlds nonetheless and their individual and collective instinct was not to stand tall looking for redemption.  No, rather, they bowed down, seeking to protect themselves from that which they could not fight or change.

So as I said, I find it quite remarkable that the call of this Sunday's Gospel is to stand up straight, expectantly, with our heads raised and our hearts watchful. As people of faith you and I are called to assume a posture of hope in the face of such despair. As I first think about it, it strikes me that to do so must be an act of determined will, for it runs contrary to our most basic instincts.

Indeed, it's hard to comprehend the promise that is meant for us beyond all that is described today.  It is difficult to believe that there will be anything more than what we can now see.  In fact, I've struggled to offer some way in which we can begin to be and do as Jesus calls us to be and do today.  How is it that we stand with our heads raised in hope in the face of suffering and despair?  I wondered all week at this, and then I realized the answer was right in front of me.  Or at least the beginning of an answer is there: right there in those young men at the end of that funeral last week.

For as you know, a whole lot of people --- perhaps especially people their age --- would not have shown up for their friend's funeral last Friday night.  How many times have any one of us been at least a little bit tempted to stay away because 'we want to remember them as they were' or 'I didn't really know his family anyway' or, if we're more honest, just because it would be too hard. And yet, those young men showed up anyway.  They didn't take the easy way out. They showed up and stayed until the end. They allowed themselves to encounter the suffering of their friend's brokenhearted parents.  And they walked into their own pain as well.

Perhaps this is where it begins. In our walking into our own suffering and the suffering of others.  In our willingness to stand up and be seen and heard in a world that is shaking all around us.  Oh, at first our heads may be bowed as we brace ourselves for the pain, but I expect that will not always be so.  For as we step into the large and small heartbreaks we live through, we will meet Jesus there where he has always been.  For that is where Jesus always is: waiting in the midst of the pain to somehow show us the way to new hope and new joy and new life.

And once we've done that for a lifetime?  Once we have experienced the gifts of God in such unexpected places over and over again, I would guess that when Jesus does return --- whether it is only to me at the end of my life or to us all at the end of this age --- well once we've done that for a lifetime?  I would guess we won't be able to keep ourselves from lifting up our heads in hope to see our redemption drawing near! Indeed, by then we will have already encountered the source of our redemption in Jesus over and over again!

  • What does a 'posture of hope' look like for you in the day-to-day?  What are those experiences or events which have shaken your world and how do you typically respond?  How would you like to respond? 
  • How is it, do you think, that any one of us would be able to stand with our heads raised and our hearts hopeful in the face of the scene Jesus describes today?  Does my assertion make sense to you? Why or why not?
  • We hear this text or one similar every year in early December.  How is it that we are able to keep sharing these words in a meaningful way?  Do you find your congregations, your communities have grown weary of the wait for Jesus' return?  Why do you think it would be important to have that attentiveness to watching for Jesus' return re-awakened?  How do you go about doing so?  For yourself?  For others?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Christ the King and Jesus Christ Superstar

John 18:33-37

I met a friend for a cup of tea the other day. She is going to be directing "Jesus Christ Superstar" at our local community theater in the spring and wanted to pick my brain a little bit.

She told me something that surprised me --- although perhaps it shouldn't have. She told me that some have been surprised that she is going to direct this as they consider the show blasphemous.  She expressed her own amazement at this as well and when I asked she said they weren't able really to say why they thought this was so.

Now, I don't know about you, but 'blasphemy' isn't a word I hear used very often.  Oh, I know what it means, but still I paused a moment this afternoon to actually look it up.  To commit blasphemy is to claim for oneself the attributes of God.  It is also to insult or show contempt or lack of reverence for God. I expect the latter is what these folks mean when they call the show "blasphemous."  I would also say different ones among us might have different understandings of what it is to insult, show contempt or lack of reverence for God.

I was pretty young in 1971, but as I've poked around a bit I've learned that at the time it first hit the stage this show caused quite the stir among more conservative Christians.  One negative review showed up in Truth Magazine which asserted that "Jesus Christ Superstar" was yet one more method Satan was using to attempt to destroy faith in God, in Christ and in the Bible.  Apparently they were particularly distressed at how the show depicts Jesus as being so very human.  And that it leaves out the resurrection altogether,ending instead with Jesus' burial in a borrowed tomb.

Wow. I have to say I'm eager to watch the show again as I don't remember those things being so distressing at all.

This whole conversation does, in fact, remind me that as individuals and as communities of faith we are still sorting out just who Jesus was and is.  It comes as no surprise that there is more than one way of thinking about this.  And this question is one that is ours to ponder in a particular way as we come upon Christ the King Sunday once more.

What, in fact, does it mean to say that Jesus is King? How important is it that he was both fully divine and fully human?  How central is the resurrection to our understanding of Jesus as King?  And moving beyond this purely academic conversation here, how does all of this matter in the midst of our lives in the moments or the hours after we've seen the show or read the book once more?  What does it mean to not only claim but actually to confess that Jesus is King?

I, for one, find myself most convinced of Jesus' royalty --- not so much because of his triumphs, but rather because of where and how he spent his life. And without a doubt, that runs contrary to how the world usually thinks about royalty.

For instance, like any king whose realm is of this world, Jesus surely held power.   Only his power was always on the side of justice for the poor, the downtrodden, the outcast.  His power was never self-serving, rather it was always exercised in behalf of others.  That is not the way power is typically understood or seen in the world today, not then or at most any time in known history, it seems to me.  Indeed, the power that Jesus had led him right into being on trial for blasphemy himself.  One where he wound up being judged by both the authorities of the temple and of the state as we hear about in today's Gospel lesson.  Jesus' power led him to a shameful death on a cross.  No, his kingship was not marked by the usual trappings of power.

No there is no evidence of the usual definition of power in Jesus as we encounter him today.  And yet, while he found himself in conversation with Pilate where it appeared Jesus had no power at all, still he  held on to his own integrity --- even to the point of engaging Pilate in a conversation which I believe left even Pilate wondering about the things that mattered:  Things like justice and truth.  So in the end, I do wonder which one held the power that mattered here?

Through it all, I find courage in my own journey of seeking to be a disciple of Jesus when I hear these ancient stories as ones which were lived by one who was fully human.  As one who must have struggled to be all he was meant to be in the hardest times: like the place we encounter him today.  I know that I am more likely to follow one who has been 'down in the dirt' with me, so to speak.  I am more likely to believe I can find my way out of the dust and the grime if I can follow one who has potentially been just as mired in it as me.  Oh, I might admire a king (a president, an orator, a teacher) who shows remarkable gifts or whose very presence evokes a sense of history.  But I won't drop everything to follow him or her unless I believe they understand where I am and have been and hope to one day be. 

As for the ongoing conversation about "Jesus Christ Superstar," I think it is a good and important one. Although I guess by now it's pretty clear that I would land on the side of embracing both Jesus' humanness and the wonder of the divinity that was also him.  Still, it's all only just talk until we ask what it means in the midst of our lives ---- until our confessing "Jesus is King" makes a difference in the decisions and choices I make in the world where I live.  Until it begins to impact how I live in the midst of the same challenges of this hurting, hopeful world where Jesus lived as well.

  • What does Jesus' conversation with Pilate today lend to our understanding of Jesus as King?
  • What do you make of the 40 year old ongoing debate about "Jesus Christ Superstar?"  Where do you find yourself within that conversation?
  • What does it mean to you to confess "Jesus is King?"  What does it mean for you that you follow one who had none of the usual trappings of power?  How much does it matter to you that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

No More Worries

Matthew 6:25-33

And so these words which come to us this Thanksgiving aren't first about giving thanks, are they?  No, they seem to get at gratitude's opposite --- or at least that which keeps us from being grateful, namely worry.

It was a few years ago when I went to call on a member of our congregation.
She wasn’t in worship much --- it seemed that anxiety was part of her every day and it had intensified since her husband’s death several years before.  We sat and talked a while that afternoon.  I prayed with her.  I don’t know whether it helped with her worries or not, but either way I still didn’t see her much after that.
It was some time later when a call came saying she was in the emergency room.  By the time I arrived they had determined she had a mass on her brain.  Pretty soon she was sent by ambulance to another hospital where she would undergo surgery to attempt to remove the tumor.
Not long after that I stopped in to visit her at a nearby rehabilitation facility.  I went late in the day, between her rehab and dinner.  When I walked into her room, she pulled herself to her feet, leaning on her walker.  She spread out her arms in greeting and she said, struggling to speak, “Pastor!  I’m not worried anymore!  It’s all gone!”
Now.  If it were me and I had just been through what she had just been through and if I had facing me what she had facing her, I would have been plenty worried.  In fact, these several years later, I can’t say I really know what happened.  It could be that the mass on her brain was pressing on that part which would have made her more anxious, and once it was removed so was her worry.  It could be that the trauma of the experience had put everything else in perspective.  It could be that something broke through and she could see the protecting hand of God in a very difficult time and that wiped away all of her worries.  I only know that for the time she had left her countenance was different.  She really did not seem to worry as she once had.
In all truth, I am a worrier.  This is nothing new.  I carried my anxiety so deep that at the age of six I had nearly developed an ulcer and my folks had me going to a therapist (in a time when that was still pretty unusual) --- with whom I never did honestly share the fears that troubled my little girl's heart.  As recently as this morning I could not focus on the yoga poses in my class as I was worrying over what had become of my cell phone.  It was not where I had put it the night before.  I'm on call at the hospital this week.  I'm on call at the church all the time and that is the only sure way anyone can reach me.  All through my class I would stretch and try to put it out of my mind and it just kept coming back.  (I found it after I got home --- it had somehow just slipped off the ledge it was sitting on.)  Even now I'm worrying over a tough funeral I have on Friday, about when I'll finally get the last of the leaves raked, about when I will fit in a series of much needed new member classes and how it is exactly that we'll be receiving our stewardship commitment cards on Sunday.  As I list these here I realize how minor they really are.  Just imagine how tied up in knots I would be if I really had something serious to worry about!
Without a doubt, my worries are small and even when they aren't they don't seem to paralyze me as they do some and as they surely seemed to bind up the woman whose story I shared above.  Still, even my small worries get in the way of my living in the moment God has prepared for me.  They take away from my fully experiencing and appreciating what is right in front of me.
Jesus knew this, of course.  No doubt this is part of why he so beautifully urges his disciples and all of us to pick up our heads and look around.  It is why he points us to the vastness of God's gifts and pushes us to remember that God takes care of all that and if that is so, how could he, in fact, forget all of us?  Poetic words like those in our Gospel lesson point us to this understanding... but God also makes this point in the midst of our lives.  Somehow, sometimes, God does use the really terrible things that do happen to many of us to remind us of what is worth worrying about and what isn't.  Only in Jesus' words today?  Nothing actually is worth worrying about, not even the worst tragedies and struggles that are ours, for it is all in God's hands.  The big things, absolutely. And the small ones, too: like still to be raked leaves and liturgical directions for bringing forward commitment cards in worship.  Not that God will make sure my leaves are raked (although it was a blessed surprise to discover that some still anonymous friends had raked most of them to the curb a few weeks back) or that God will write the tough funeral sermon that is before me (although, I've learned, over time, that the words always come --- so even in that I've learned to rest some...)   No it won't happen by my ignoring it, but even the certainty, borne to me now by years of experience, that God will give me what I need is usually more than enough.  It's another way of picking up my head and looking at those lilies of the field.  When I pay attention to what I have, in fact, experienced my whole life long, I learn again the same lesson.
So yes, Jesus' sending us to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air for examples of how we are also to be does just what it needs to do.  It points me to what God has already done in the world and in my life.  It reminds me that for all of time as we trust in God, somehow it always works out.  The challenge, though, for me again today, is not only hearing these words but also to step into and embrace the blessing they are meant to bring.  Maybe, in the end, all I need to do as Jesus said.  Perhaps I only need to step outside and gaze at the sky, the still green grass, the now empty fall trees, and the occasional summer flower which somehow survived the first frost --- to be reminded of the gift Jesus offers now in pointing to God's tender care for all that is.
And so these words are ours this Thanksgiving ---  urging us to let go of the worry --- and to entrust whatever it is that would rob our lives of peace and joy --- urging us to finally give it all back to God who gives us all of that for which we give thanks in the first place.
  • How do you hear Jesus' poetic words about the lilies of the field and his urging you not to worry? 
  • Besides lilies and birds, what else might you point to that would carry the same lesson?
  •  What does worry do to you?  How do you manage to let it go?
  • How do you think worry and gratitude are connected?  Why this Gospel lesson for Thanksgiving?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Looking in the Wrong Direction

Mark 13:1-8

A couple of weeks ago we were gathering in the classroom where we come together for Confirmation each Wednesday.  Some were done with the service project earlier than others so Jim, one of our adult leaders, volunteered to wait with a handful of young people who were the first to return.

I walked in a few minutes later ---while the group was still small.  Pretty soon Jim was asking me to 'test' Joe, one of our 8th graders.  I was sent to the whiteboard where they had drawn a rough square which had been marked off into nine smaller squares.  Joe left the room and Jim told me to choose a square.  I walked to the board and pointed to one.

We called young Joe back in and we looked on as he stood and pondered the white board for a moment. I found myself watching him closely.  A few moments later with little hesitation and eyebrows raised he pointed to the square I had chosen a few moments before.

We tried again.  And again. And again.  And every time Joe got it right.  The other students arrived and pretty soon they were fully engaged in 'testing Joe' as well.  Still, time after time Joe chose the square they had quietly pointed to while he was out of the room.  Pretty soon others wanted to try to see if they could match Joe's skill.  I was especially entertained by the one young man who thought if he stood the way Joe did, if he tilted his head in the same way, if he tapped his leg just as Joe did he would be able to figure out which square had been chosen.  Of course, he did not.

I tell you the truth when I say that for a while there I was thoroughly convinced we had a gift among us. Clearly I can be gullible, but before the night was done, I was actually wondering how we could get this remarkable young man on Letterman.

After we did our closing blessing and the students had gone their way, one of our other adult guides took me aside and explained the 'trick.'  Apparently, Jim (the first guide who had gathered with our students before my arrival) was passing signals. It seemed that every time Joe walked back into the room, he quickly glanced at Jim.  Only I hadn't been looking at Jim.  And somehow I hadn't taken note of Joe's mannerisms before he pretended to study the whiteboard before him.  Apparently, all of our 8th graders were in on the game, but I was not! I was looking in the wrong direction and thus unable to see what was right before me.
I wonder at times if my experience a few weeks ago doesn't begin to get at why we struggle with the sorts of 'end-time' texts that are ours to ponder this week.  Of course it is true that you and I don't live in the same context that the people who first heard these words did. We don't have the same reference points. Either way though, much like those who would have first heard these words, it may be entirely understandable that we might find ourselves 'looking in the wrong direction' as the sorts of things Jesus speaks of now begin to unfold. Our attention almost can't help but be drawn to wars and rumors of wars, to earthquakes and famines. It's no wonder we tend to turn our focus away from what under girds it all --- or from the larger future these events have us all moving towards as we seek to make sense of what is right in front of us.

I don't know exactly what to make of lessons like these.  Wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines have been headlines on the evening news for as long as I have been paying attention. And yet in and through it all?  It seems that Jesus is no closer to returning than he was the first time I thought to ponder it.  So perhaps, in the end, part of the gift that is ours to receive from words like those in our lesson now is the promise and the certainty that even though we don't fully understand how,  in and through the worst that happens, God is still active --- if not in it and through it then in spite of it.  Or perhaps words like these call us to simply stand still in the certainty that in fact, no matter what, we are called to always keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, lest we be distracted or misled by others who would claim to be him.

It's easy to get distracted, to be sure.  All too often, like when I found myself studying an 8th grader's 'extraordinary gift' a few weeks back, I miss the point altogether, bedazzled as I am by what's in front of me.  I should have known better then.  I should have known he was being helped along by a friend... that there was something behind his ability to do what no one should be able to do.

Maybe, finally, there is a lesson in that for us here as well.  Maybe we are simply called to stay curious and open.  Perhaps we are called to always keep our hearts and our minds open to what God may be doing. Without a doubt, we are urged now to remember that there is always something greater under girding it all --- whatever the future may hold --- that gift of God's love and grace and very presence. Indeed, I imagine that's what we're meant to be watching for all along.

  • Do you ever find yourself 'looking in the wrong direction?'  In life?  In your life of faith?  What has brought your attention back to where it is meant to be?
  • How do you make sense of Jesus' words today?  Do you find them startling?  Comforting?  Hopeful?  Despairing?
  • What is the good news in a lesson like this one?  How would you share that message with others?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Widow's All

Mark 12:38-44

I spent an hour last week sitting at the foot of the bed of one of our own.  Frieda was then in her last days, having lived 94 years.

She was surrounded that afternoon by two sons, a grand-daughter, two great-grand-daughters, and an old friend. Not to mention the occasional 'accidental' visitors who also reside in the Alzheimer's wing of our local county nursing home.

The hours get long when one is keeping vigil and it helped to pass the time that day by singing.  At first the youngest among us were invited to choose the songs.  We shared in a rousing rendition of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.'' Soon the tone gentled some as we joined in "You are My Sunshine."  Then one of Frieda's sons ventured down to the activity room and returned with half a dozen large print song books and soon we were joining in on all those old favorite hymns.  "Amazing Grace."  "My Hope is Built on Nothing Less." "Nearer My God to Thee."  "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."  There was only one truly gifted singer among us, but it didn't much matter, for the sound of our faltering voices seemed to soothe Frieda.  I think it did the rest of us, too.  More than that it helped give shape and meaning to the afternoon.  I expect it was an hour none of us will soon forget.

I think there cannot be a more 'impoverished person' than what Frieda was by then.  At least by many of this world's standards.  For some time now she has not been able to tend to her most basic needs.  By last Friday afternoon she was beyond eating, beyond communicating, beyond even opening her eyes.  And yet, as we sang, her breathing slowed some.  And from time to time, when nothing else was true in those last days, Frieda would move her head in the direction of the sound of our voices. 

It was all she had left, and yet she gave it.  And somehow even that small movement brought comfort to all those who loved her.

I know nothing of what it means to be Frieda or anyone like her in their last days, utterly dependent on the care of others.  In like manner, I know nothing of what it would have been to be the widow in today's Gospel lesson.  Without voice, without legal standing, without resources, without anything at all that I so take for granted... Indeed I imagine the widow in our story now was invisible to most in the Temple that afternoon --- it is a wonder Jesus took note of her at all for most of us, much of the time, overlook those like her, our eyes drawn instead to the attention getting robes of the powerful. 

And yet, of course, again today, we have Jesus noticing what the rest of us would probably otherwise miss altogether.  Drawing the focus to one others might not see at all and in a few words offering an unforgettable example of faithfulness.

Perhaps it is because this story usually falls in the preaching cycle at this time of the year when our attention is turned to financial stewardship for next year's budget --- that we hear this story and think first of the widow's extraordinary generosity --- and of course, she was generous.  It seems important though to take a step back and look at the whole picture and to wonder if there are other lessons this unexpected example might just offer.

Is she a reminder to pay attention to those we might normally ignore --- to pause long enough to hear the stories behind the most obvious one?  Don't you just wish Jesus had stopped her and asked her where she lived, what routines made up her every day, how long since her husband died, or what finally compelled her to come and give away her last bit of money that day.

Is this story a reminder to all of us of what really matters in this world?  That it's not the size of the gift that matters, but the manner in which it is given?

Is this poor widow a model for all of us of what it is to be utterly dependent?  Oh, I expect this is a position not a one of us would envy but that all of us are called to as we live in our relationship with God.

I think back on last Friday afternoon in the nursing home and the sound of those voices.  I know most of the world would not have paused to notice one such as Frieda whose breathing was slowing --- nor her family who were already grieving one who had loved them so well.  It was the love of her grand-daughter sitting closest to her which noticed that the music seemed to help her some. Still, these were gifts given with the whole hearts of those gathered that day.  And Frieda, too, gave all she had in return, even if it was something as slight as the turn of her head.  By any measure this world offers it was not much at all.  But, for those of us gathered around her bed that afternoon, it was everything for even that small movement was a sign of love --- and it was all she had.

It was all there was --- just as it was all there was for the widow Jesus points to in the Temple now.  No, I expect, God doesn't only expect our generosity.  If Jesus' teaching today is any indication, God expects our all.

  • What do you think Jesus is trying to teach in his using the widow's gift in his teaching today?
  • Can you think of examples when someone has given their 'all?'  What did that look like? What does 'giving your all' look like for you?
  • Do you think this is a fitting example for a 'stewardship sermon?'  Why or why not?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

On Cool October Breezes and All Saints' Day Once More

John 11:32-44

It's the ending we all hope for, isn't it?  You and I who stood at gravesides some four days or four months or four years after the dirt has filled in the gaping wound in the ground before us and grass has grown up over it --- only covering up the hurt --- but not quite completely healing it.  It's the ending we all hope for, isn't it?  This one where the one we loved so is suddenly back with us now untouched by the illness, the suffering that perhaps marked their last days, their last moments.  The one where breath is restored and color is back and life in all of its fullness returns.  Indeed, when grief is so very hard we want it most of all, it seems to me...

I think of my dad every year as we approach All Saints' Day again.  Oh, by now his name joins a whole host of others who have marked and made me who I am, but he is the one who inevitably comes to mind first. He'll have been gone 16 years in January.  I visit his grave from time to time --- indeed, I'm fortunate to live just a few miles away from the cemetery.  But I have to say I've never gone with the expectation of the ending that Mary and Martha experienced with Lazarus so long ago. Even so, there are times when I get a glimmer of just what that might be.

So it was a few years back I found myself dreaming of him again --- it happens still, from time to time.  Now these have not yet been dreams with big messages or especially startling moments --- just ordinary snapshots of life which perhaps repeated themselves a thousand times in those years when he was alive.  This is how this particular dream played out. I was sitting at a computer --- one of my sisters was in the same room with a television on.  Suddenly in he walked as alive and energetic as he ever was before he got sick.  I looked up to say 'hello' and he came over to me, laughing, and leaned down and pressed his face against mine. And his face was cold as though he'd been outside working and had just come inside. I woke up a few  moments later feeling that cold on my cheek.  It wasn't long before I realized that what I felt was probably the cool October breeze coming through the open window, but in those first waking moments, I couldn't be sure, not really.

To be sure, I wonder whenever one dreams like that --- I wonder what happens to cause one to dream of ones we have loved in such a way that seems so very real.  Are they so ingrained in our memories --- in the very cells of our brains perhaps --- that now and then it's just like breathing that they are there again?  Or is it something that happened the day before that brought him to mind again?  Or is something going on in my life that I am yearning for that reminder of safety and security that he was for me as long as he lived?  Or is it, as I do believe, simply the certainty that those whom we have loved and who have died, are held still in God's tender care, and so never really leave us?

Still as wonderful as those sorts of dreams can be --- and as real as they may still seem in our first waking moments --- they are nothing compared to what Mary and Martha must have known when Lazarus came walking out of that tomb. That brief sensation of cold on my face? Only a faint shadow of the promise of life again with Jesus which we cling to which is foreshadowed in the Gospel story before us now.

All Saints Day is for all of this and more. It is, of course, for remembering those who have gone before --- whose memories still enliven our dreams from time to time. But it's not only for that. All Saints Day is also for celebrating for what is yet to come.  It is for standing still in the promise of eternal life that is meant for all the Saints, for all God's Holy Ones.  Oh, I expect we'll always go to cemeteries with no expectation of the sort of ending that Mary and Martha knew. At the same time, you and I are called to live our entire lives in the hopeful expectation that one day there will be even more than what Mary and Martha and Lazarus experienced --- for them and for all of us and all we have so loved.  And between now and when that hope is realized --- perhaps we'll have cool breezes in the night--- gifts of God in a way --- to remind us of the promise of life and love, safety and joy, wonder and hope that by God's gift belongs to us all.

  • Who comes to your mind first this All Saints' Day?  What is the story of your remembering?
  • I have noted two purposes for All Saint's Day above. Can you think of others?
  • What are the promises which resound in this week's Gospel story?  How does this story shape or inform your celebration of this day of the church year?
  • How does the promise of eternal life come home to you in this and the other lessons assigned for this day?  How do you experience glimmers of this promise in your life even now?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Messiest Pastor Ever..."

John 8:31-36

To be sure, I am not one who can speak deeply from a personal experience of 'slavery' --- for it is not part of my own history. But then, as Jesus points out to his first listeners today, that sort of experience is not what he is speaking of at all.  Rather, the kind of slavery he points to today is the universal kind ---  for, in fact, we are each one of us 'slaves' to sin.  Let me tell you of a time when I knew this was so...

After greeting the faithful after the 8 a.m. service I looked down to see that I had spilled wine on the front of my alb.  We still had one more service to go that morning so I headed back to the sacristy to seek the advice of someone who would know better than I.  I stepped through the door and explained my dilemma, wondering if there was any way to remove the stain in the next hour.  Shaking her head, Carole said to me then, "You are the messiest pastor we've ever had."  She was laughing as she said it, but I could tell she wasn't really kidding.

To tell you the truth, I was shocked.  Oh, one glance at my desk will tell you that I am not the most orderly person around, but then, that is true of many other pastors.  Still while there was always a steady stream of traffic through my office and my 'messiness' was by then common knowledge, it was clear that in that moment she was not speaking of my lack of priority in getting papers filed or discarding junk mail.

In spite of Carole's light tone, I can remember standing still in my surprise at having been so 'found out' for I felt a sense of shame flooding me even before I knew what she was talking about. I can remember standing still long enough, too, to hear exactly what she meant.  It turns out that for many months now I had been spilling wine on the altar linens. And not just once a week-end, but often more than one time on any given week-end.  Clearly, I was entirely oblivious to this --- and more than that, as a result, had been going about my business for some time giving no thought at all to the extra work this was causing our very fine altar guild members.  I left that conversation determined to prove I could do better.

Now in my defense, there are good reasons beyond my own clumsiness for this.  For this is how it was.

It was the practice in that congregation to share the sacrament at every service every week-end. We had lovely gold plated chalices, however, which had a tendency to corrode if the wine was left in them for too long.  So the practice in that place was for the pastor, while she spoke the Words of Institution, to pour the wine into the chalice so as to minimize the time the wine would be able to do its damage.   Only the pouring ewer wasn't really a pouring ewer at all.  And so apparently, week after week, service after service, a tiny drop of wine would catch on the lip of the ewer and when I wasn't looking the deep red wine would dribble down onto the altar linen beneath it.

I hadn't noticed. But of course, the altar guild had.  It turns out they had taken to simply moving chalices around in order to cover up my stains between services so as to not have to clean up after me more than once a week, but until that morning not a one of them had said anything to me.

Well, after that I tried to change my ways, to prove them wrong, I really did.  Only service after service, week-end after week-end, the aforementioned design flaw in the pouring ewer made it so that no matter how I held it, no matter how carefully I poured from it, there was no stopping that single drop of red wine from making its mark three times a week-end.  After a few weeks of doing my best I took to simply running my finger along the lip of the ewer and then wiping my finger on a tissue I kept in the pocket of my alb for just this purpose.  Try as I might, I couldn't make it not 'spill.'  It felt a little like 'slavery.'

Now I could come up with a dozen other examples of what it is to be 'enslaved to sin' --- most much more profound than this one.

For instance, I could speak of my on again off again addiction to caffeine.  No, I don't believe the caffeine itself is sinful.  And no, I'm not saying that the experience of others is at all like mine. Still, if I 'm honest, I have to admit there is an ongoing pattern underlying my succumbing to temptation once more. I grow tired or stressed.  I'm taking on too much, trying to prove my own worth once more.  I'm insisting that there is so much to do (and pastors, you know how this can be) that I simply can't get my day off again this week.  Then it's four o'clock in the afternoon.  I'm returning from a hospital call with a full slate of meetings still in front of me.  I find myself in the drive-through ordering a diet coke.  The first sip tastes terrible and then the second and third suddenly have me revived.  And I'm right back where I started. A slave to caffeine?  Maybe.  More than that I know myself to be slave to my own inability to set boundaries on my time and energy, to rely on God and God's people more than I do on my own limited skills and abilities and energy and time. I know I am a 'slave to sin.'

Or I could speak of my fear of confronting hard things, of my once more not speaking up in favor of the hurting or the oppressed.  I could choose one example now and then make a list of the thousand tired excuses I've used over my lifetime for not doing what I'm called to do in the face of injustice.  I could speak of how it gets easier and easier to ignore as my fear defines me more and more.  Oh yes, that's slavery, to be sure.  That is what it is to be a 'slave to sin.'

And for that matter? My story about the wine dripping on the altar linens week after week?  Well, as I've sat with it again this afternoon I am more and more convinced my 'slavery' was not in my inability to make a ewer with a design flaw do what it would never do.   My 'slavery' was tied to my yearning to be liked in all ways at all times.  My 'slavery' was rooted in the moment of confrontation when I felt 'found out,'  'less than,' 'not enough' --- in that quick flash of shame I experienced then that led me to do all I could do to make it right.  No, I am not proud of my inattentiveness to the altar guild's need to constantly be cleaning up after me.  At the same time, I wonder now why I didn't insist instead that we look for a better solution than me using my index finger to catch the mess before it became a mess week after week.  Why didn't we simply purchase something that would work better?  And why didn't I say so, thus sparing every pastor who came after me from the same plight?

No doubt about it, we are all, at one time or another, or perhaps at all times, slaves to fear or doubt or pride or ....  you name it.  All of us.  And even in those times when I think I'm making progress.  When I stand up or step up or reach out or speak the truth even when I'm afraid.  Even then it is not enough for the struggle goes on and one day I think I get it close to 'right' and the next I'm right back in the drive-through paying the price for, if nothing else, trying once more to prove my own worth or value all on my own.

So thanks be to God for the promise that is ours in Christ Jesus today: that promise of freedom which we only get glimmers of in our life together now.  For to be sure, there was some freedom experienced by both of us in the moment an altar guild member finally told me the truth.  And I knew some freedom in the realization that they would love me even if I was" the messiest pastor they'd ever had."  And while I'm grateful for those glimmers, those make me look forward all the more to the day when I will know the freedom Jesus offers now. When I will know fully and completely that the only way I can be set free is if someone else does it for me.  And when I will live in joy and trust that this is already so. When I will feel no more need to prove my own worth or value for I will be resting in the certainty that God already did that by loving me.  When I will hear words like 'You are the messiest pastor we ever had' not as words to be proven wrong, but rather as words to be listened to and heard which may well provide moments when forgiveness can be extended and received and which can be followed up by together finding a new and better way.  Indeed, what a day that will be!
  • How have you experienced 'slavery?'  Are you tempted, along with Jesus' first listeners, to argue that you have never been 'enslaved?'  Or is this part of your lived experience?  If so, how does that inform your hearing of this text?
  • How do you understand yourself to be a 'slave to sin?'  What story would you offer to help another understand what this means to you?
  • How have you experienced being 'set free' from sin?  How does that experience reflect the larger one Jesus offers in his words today?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Jesus' Call to Servant-hood

Mark 10:35-45
"So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’" (Mark 10:42-45)
I heard this story a while back.  I was sitting in a hospital waiting room with a woman while her 89-year-old husband was in surgery.  And she was telling stories about him.  This one still brings tears to my eyes to remember it.

Apparently there was a young friend of the family who was going through a difficult time --- so much so that he made an attempt on his own life. When he came home from the hospital she said her husband knew his young friend would be alone much of the time.  So every day for the next six months this retired farmer picked up lunch and took it over to share with him.  I'm told they spent more time in silence than in conversation.  But the young man who was so cared for in such a basic way would now do anything for this one who showed him kindness day after day.  Indeed, I expect he knows he owes his life to him.

I heard another like it yesterday as I visited with a man whose 94 year old mother has been in a nursing home with Alzheimer's Disease some time. It appears she will soon die and so her son called to begin a conversation about the shape of her funeral. Since I have been serving as pastor here for only a short time, he was seeking to tell me something of what her life looked like before this devastating illness took so much from her.

Apparently his mother was on the original auxiliary of our local county nursing home --- the same one which has offered her such excellent care in these last years.  As a volunteer she interacted regularly with the residents.  He told me then of one his mother spoke of who, shortly after her admission to the nursing home, her husband had divorced her.  She had no other family.   She would spend the next twenty years flat on her back... with few other than his mother to visit her day after day, week after week.

These are small things, I suppose, and maybe that is why these sorts of stories of servant-hood often go unrecognized and untold.  Indeed, they are precisely the opposite of what we know leads to status and success --- at least by the world's standards.  In fact, it is also so that for many of us this way of acting doesn't come with intention, without effort. Perhaps that is why they are precisely what Jesus speaks of today.

I almost hate to admit it, but I understand James and John in our Gospel lesson far too well --- and certainly, in some ways, I relate to them more deeply than I do the two examples I offered above.

Oh, I do make nursing home visits and hospital calls. I always have and I expect I always will.  For I know how much they matter to those whose worlds have shrunk to the size of a single room, whose schedules now revolve around the next treatment, the next pain med, the next time the doctor will stop in to offer a diagnosis or prognosis. Still, it doesn't come easy to me.

So in a spirit of full confession here, I tell you the truth.  It was only a couple of weeks ago that I can remember coaching myself to slow down as I stepped into the room of a woman who has Parkinson's Disease.  Her speaking has become more and more halted and every time I see her it seems it takes her longer to say what's on her mind. I, on the other hand, am all too often in a hurry, always thinking ahead to the next task, the next person, the next...  As I remember it, I sat in her wheelchair as she lay in her bed and I consciously forced myself to just sit still, vowing I would not rush her or make her feel more uncomfortable than she already was. She spoke to me of her transition to the nursing home.  She spoke of the toll this disease has taken on her.  She spoke to me of her gratitude for the care of her daughters.  It wasn't easy for me to hold myself still in those moments as she struggled to express herself.   In the end, though, I found I wasn't sorry that I made the effort.

It was on a similar afternoon that I had one more stop to make.  This time, the woman in question has long suffered from dementia.  I do not know if she remembers I've been there even moments after I've left her room.  I'm not always certain she knows who I am when I am there.  Sometimes, if the afternoon is full and I am especially tired I am tempted to skip that visit altogether.  I mean, who would know the better?

I thought better of it though that day and so I stopped in anyway.  When I stepped into her room, Ruth was sitting in her chair facing the small CD player that sits on her bedside table.  And she was listening to opera.  As a beautiful soprano voice soared through the room she sat there with a smile on her face that told me she was at home. I'm told it was not long ago that her lovely voice soared, too.  No, she may not have known who I was, but she recognized the gifts of God, all the same.  When I left her a while later I found I was not sorry I had paused with her before heading home.

It doesn't come naturally, answering the call to servant-hood which Jesus places before us now.  Wherever we go, the world will push us to be about something different from this.  Indeed, I would rather be known as an excellent preacher, an insightful writer, an inspiring teacher than as one who serves those who hardly know I'm there.  I mean, one never gets 'known' for that.  There is little reward in that at all.  And while I'm doing that?  Well, other important things --- the things people really notice --- well they don't get done --- or at least not done as well.

Remember, I'm simply telling the truth today.  I'm not proud of where I am in all of this, but I do recognize that I am, perhaps, moving in the right direction.  For I find myself thinking of a retired farmer who stopped every day to spend an hour with a fragile young friend and of a woman who saw another abandoned and alone in her illness and who refused to also leave her untended.  I think of these servants and realize that they know something I am somehow still only beginning to learn about what matters most of all.  And I suppose that's something.

Oh, I do understand James and John far too well, to be sure. That may never really change. And so it is that my prayer every single day for me, for all of us, is that the day will come when we will discover that the invitation to servant-hood Jesus offers now is the only one that matters.

And between now and then?  Well, in those moments when I do pause to hear and respond to that call? By God's grace from time to time, I will step into a room to find one of God's own listening to opera and smiling. And along with her I will also know then that I am in the presence of the very gifts of God.  And I expect because I am so very human, that will serve to prod me on to servant-hood on yet another day when I am tempted not to because so often it goes unrecognized in this world's eyes.
  • Can you relate to James and John? Why or why not?  What are the measures of 'success' or 'status' which call you to choose something other than servant-hood?
  • What does 'servant-hood' look like in your world?  What examples of servant-hood can you think of which demonstrate what Jesus speaks of today?
  • What experiences have encouraged you to embrace Jesus' call to servant-hood?  Where are you on this journey?

Sunday, October 7, 2012


Mark 10:17-31

I am remembering today a conversation I had with my dad a long time
ago.  I was probably in college --- home working for the summer.  We
were out in the garden late on a summer afternoon where he could have been leaning on a pitchfork digging up potatoes or loading tomatoes or squash or cucumbers into buckets to be enjoyed an given away.  And he was talking about his life.  About choices he had made.  He told me then what I had observed my whole life long but hadn't known it was a conscious choice before then.  He said to me, "You know, Janet, I never played golf."  (I knew this, of course.)  "I always wanted to have hobbies that kept me closer to home so I could spend more time with your mother and you girls."  I knew this, too, of course, as we stood then in the garden --- one of those 'hobbies' --- which more than fed our family of six and a whole lot of other families, too.

It was about choices, of course, as it always is.  I know, also, that when given the choice, he never took a transfer with his job: so as a result he never made a lot of money.  His reasoning was the same.  He did this also for the sake of us: for he had grown up moving from place to place, following his step-dad's work. He wanted something different for his daughters.

Now the choices he made don't begin to compare to the one placed before the man kneeling at Jesus' feet in this week's Gospel lesson.  At least not in scale. Indeed, the choice placed before him is so extreme that I find myself enumerating the reasons why what Jesus proposes now would be entirely out of reach in 2012.  I mean, how is it that any one of us could actually sell all that we have in order to follow Jesus?  What about our families?  What about health insurance? What about the fact that my house wouldn't sell in this market anyway? And how could I possibly serve Jesus anyway without a car/cellphone/laptop computer?  It is beyond the reach of my imagination for me today.  I expect this was also so for the man in the story before us now.

So perhaps it is true that we shouldn't pile up our excuses and move too quickly to step back from the magnitude of the requirement Jesus places before the young man now.  For what Jesus invites him to now is a life that is less about keeping the law and more about living the Gospel.  What Jesus invites him to now is a life of meaning and purpose which so far had evaded him --- else I expect he wouldn't have found himself prostate at Jesus' feet begging for another way.  No, I expect we would do well to stand still in this for a moment or two longer than what makes us comfortable.  Because for all the apparent unreasonableness of Jesus' proposal, that life of meaning and purpose this man was looking for is some thing we still yearn for, and which by God's gift is still somehow available to us.

I think my dad knew a little of that.  Oh, together with my mom, he worked all his life and no one at their table ever went hungry.  The bills were paid on time and they managed to help four daughters go to college and beyond.  The cars were never new, but they usually had decent tires and the oil was always changed every 3000 miles --- something he learned to do himself.  No, he never sold all he had, but he made choices all the same.  Choices that were right for him.  Choices in keeping with what he felt he was called to be and do. As a husband and a dad, to be sure, but also as a person of faith.

Indeed, I am comforted to hear that before he's done today Jesus admits to his disciples and to all of us that what he speaks of would be impossible for any one of us.  And I find I rest, too in the realization that the demands of discipleship placed on each and all of us vary from person to person.  For what we hear is that as Jesus looked at the man before him now, he loved him. And to love him, he had to know him, recognizing in him the whole journey which had already been his and quickly assessing what he might be capable of next. He had kept the law all of his life, to be sure.  He was a person of apparently extraordinary faith --- so much so that in Jesus' assessment, he was ready next to give it all away.  To put his trust somewhere other than in all those possessions which had shaped and defined him.  I hear this story and I wonder to myself what it is I'm called to give away and how I'm called to trust more deeply.

And so it is I find myself especially grateful today that part of the story for us as well is that Jesus looks at us in all of our striving, all of our struggling, all of our trying and failing and sometimes stopping before we start. Jesus looks at us and loves us, too. And that love is made known to us in his invitation to follow him more deeply and surely than we did yesterday.  Indeed, for the sake of lives that matter, I expect Jesus is reminding us, too, that it's about choices.   Choices which shape our every day.  And for all the truth that I am not capable of being and doing what it would take to make my own way into heaven, the promise is that's already been done.  And so maybe, just maybe, the gift and promise of the story before us now is that you and I get a taste of the eternal life Jesus offers us even now even in small ways as we make choices which mean giving away part of ourselves for the sake of something more as we seek to follow him.

  • What do you make of Jesus' demand on the man before him now?  If it had been you in that situation, how would you responded?
  • Do you see your life and situation in that of the man in the story?  How do your possessions get in the way of you more fully following Jesus?
  • Do you hear in Jesus' words an invitation to you and for you as well?  What choices have you made?  What choices are you called upon to make?