Sunday, February 26, 2012

On Cross-Bearing

Mark 8:31-38

This is a story that was passed along to us after my dad died.  This is how it came to us:
Two of my sisters, my two young nephews, my mother and I had traveled east to the town north of Boston which was my dad's hometown.  My sister, Sarah, especially wanted to go so her boys could meet our dad’s younger brother.  For they carry few if any memories of their grandfather and she wanted to give them this picture of a piece of their own history. 
So we sat on the deck on a warm summer’s night and Uncle Rod told stories.  It turns out both he and my dad shared a flare for the dramatic for this is how this story began,
“Tommy always had the heart of a lion.  Sometimes more than what was good for him.”
From there he went on to share a childhood memory from when my dad would have been twelve and Rod would have been ten.  It seemed there was a playground bully who made it a habit of terrorizing younger children.
Now if you remember my dad you will recall that he was not a large man.  He played football in high school, but at 150 pounds he was the smallest player on the roster.  Yet, he loved the game and apparently he played without fear so he always played.  If he was 150 pounds at 18, just imagine how much smaller he must have been in the 6th grade.
Although he never shared this particular story, when we were children my dad would tell us about some of the playground skirmishes he had been involved in when he was young. His stepdad’s work had them moving into new schools regularly and there was always a new pecking order to find one's place in and apparently he was never one to  back down from a fight… although it’s hard to imagine he ever went looking for one.  Perhaps this shaped in him some of his fearlessness, some of that ‘lion’s heart’ his brother remembered.  I like to think the story I’m about to tell came from something deeper though… some sense of right and wrong and the courage to stand up for  those most vulnerable who need protection.
Now as I said, we didn’t hear this story until long after he died.  Although I do remember him on the phone with his brother one time, laughing over old memories and saying, “I wonder what ever happened to Dick O’Keefe.”
Dick O’Keefe seems like a good name for a playground bully, don’t you think?   My Uncle Rod remembered Dick as a big kid --- looming over my dad in both height and weight.
And so the story went:  One day when Dick O’Keefe decided to go after a first grader, apparently my dad had had enough. So he stepped between the bully and the 6-year-old and told him to pick on someone his own size.  And Dick O’Keefe went after him instead.
My dad didn’t win the fight that day.  Uncle Rod remembers joining him in the boy’s room after recess and helping him clean the blood off his face.  He didn’t win the fight that day, but his little brother remembered his ’lion’s heart’ 70 years later and passed that story onto his great-nephews, his brother Tom’s grandsons.
The Gospel that is ours to share this week-end speaks of picking up our crosses as we follow after Jesus.  This command, this invitation, has always seemed to me to be best understood as sacrifice not for its own sake, not for our own sakes, but for the sake of others.  If we understand Jesus to be not only our gift, but also our mentor and model, it must be so, don’t you suppose?  We are to pick up our crosses always especially for the small, the vulnerable, the helpless.   People like first graders on the playground being terrorized by a bully three times their size.
Oh, I know this is probably easier for 12 year olds…. Unless you’re twelve years old.  I do expect there is ever more at stake for us as we grow older, when there is seemingly more to lose and less to gain by giving up, giving away, taking on the suffering of others.  But in the end, I do wonder if anything else really matters.  Indeed, in the end, I hope I will be remembered as having the ‘heart of a lion’ --- not for my own sake, but for the sake of this world God so loves --- this world full of six-year-olds of all sorts and types for whom my stepping in the path of a bully ---- whatever form that bully may take --- may just make all the difference.
And you know, almost as an afterthought that summer’s night my Uncle Rod told us that somehow Dick O’ Keefe didn’t wield the same power on the playground after that.  Even though he won that particular battle, he seemed less inclined to go looking for a fight again ---- perhaps because one with the ‘heart of a lion’ picked up his 12-year-old’s cross and allowed himself to be beaten so a six-year-old wouldn’t be.
  • When you hear Jesus say we are to pick up our cross and go after him, what does that mean to you?
  • How does cross-bearing look different in the life of a 12-year-old than your own?  What is alike?
  • Can you think of a time when another has taken on suffering or pain in your behalf?  Can you recall a time when you were called to that in behalf of another?
  • Keep your eyes open in the days to come for examples of 'cross-bearing' ---- those that catch your attention in your own life and those you see in the larger world.  How are they like or unlike Jesus' sacrifice for us?
  • Spend some time thinking deeply about Jesus' sacrifice for us. What does it mean to you?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Usually Ashes Are Easy to Come By

Usually ashes are easy to come by.
In my most recent congregational call, our efficient Altar Guild would always make sure we had plenty of ashes on hand every year as Epiphany drew to a close and Ash Wednesday fast approached.
Only as a much younger pastor, I wasn’t yet aware that ashes could be special ordered and would arrive in a nice tidy pouch ready to be made into the sign of the cross on the foreheads of anyone so seeking the reminder that we are but dust.
And somewhere along the way I had learned of the tradition of setting aside the palms from the previous Palm/Passion Sunday and then burning them to produce the ashes to be imposed on Ash Wednesday.
And so it was that one of the leaders of Grace Lutheran Church and I gathered up the dried leaves of the palms from the year before.  Together we crushed them into a coffee can on her kitchen table.  And we dropped a lit match into the can.
It did not go well.
I don’t much remember the details any more, but I will always be grateful we didn’t have to call the fire department to rescue us.
I don’t much remember the details these many years later, but I do recall that in the years that followed, we handed those palms over to Clarence who much more efficiently converted them to ashes in his outdoor grill.
Usually, though, ashes are easy to come by.  Indeed, the sort of ashes which mark our lives and not just our foreheads can usually be encountered at every turn.
We recognize them in hopes that have been dreamed and lost, in people we have loved and grieve, in intentions to do better that somehow never quite got accomplished or in those times when in our sinfulness we never actually meant to do good at all.
We know ashes, even though perhaps we’d rather not dwell in them for long.  Which is why we have Ash Wednesday, I suppose. To be sure that we do ‘dwell’ there for a while: long enough to hear the promise that is meant for us in the midst of loss or struggle or pain or regret or fear.
And so we come to Ash Wednesday and we kneel once more to receive the sign of Christ’s own cross traced on our foreheads.  Ashes may be all around us and in that moment they are all gathered up and we are reminded that what was just ashes somehow, by God’s grace and power, becomes the source of our very hope.
For with the tracing of a finger on your forehead you will also hear the words, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ 
Remember that God is God and you are not.
Remember that in ‘returning to God’ as the prophet reminds us today you will be given everything that matters.
Remember that the cross you bear today is sign and symbol of your very hope.  For God does amazing things with dust and ashes. God brings hope out of despair, joy out of sorrow, life out of death.
Usually ashes are easy to come by.  As they are traced on your forehead and as you encounter them in the midst of your life, may they be the gift only God can make them to be.  May they point you again to the very source of our life and our hope.  Amen.
  • When you hear the words "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" what comes to your mind?
  • What are the ashes from the midst of your life that you carry with you as you begin the season of Lent?  Are you able yet to see how God just may do a new thing with those ashes?
  • What does it mean to you to 'return to the Lord with all your heart' this season?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Uncharted Territory

I have to say that the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness could not have come at a better time for me for I have found myself in ‘uncharted territory’ these days.
The call came at a little after 6 am last Thursday morning.  My 81 year old mother who has always been self-sufficient was calling to say she could hardly move.  I hung up the phone and drove the half an hour to her home where we managed, somehow, to get her out the door and into my car and to the hospital emergency room.
Four hours later they had admitted her for ‘intractable back pain.’  Further tests showed that she had experienced a huge flare up of her rheumatoid arthritis.  From the moment we hit the door of the emergency room and throughout her stay in the hospital, those who cared for her were paying attention to her pain, doing what they could to make her comfortable.  Indeed, modern medicine surely can be a marvelous thing for within 24 hours they were able to bring the inflammation down and things were looking better.
And yet, with all those gifts so apparent, still, I knew right away that I was in a place I had never been before….as she certainly was.  I knew it in an undeniable way that first afternoon as I made my way down the hospital corridor and met her doctor who told me then and there, ‘You know she’s not going to be able to go directly home.’  Yes, of course, that had occurred to me already but I hadn’t had the courage to fully articulate the thought quite yet.
The next morning as she slept soundly I sat in the recliner next to her bed and simply wept.  I am not unacquainted with grief, certainly, but this piece of the journey is one I have not traveled before.  I had not known this particular wilderness yet.  And I marveled at all the times I have stood with families who were negotiating this very same tough terrain.  I imagine I was kind in those times.  Still, I also know I had no idea of what they were going through… couldn’t begin to comprehend the fear and pain and sense of loss that so marks hours like those.  Indeed, I know some things now I could not have possibly known before.
And so it was that in the next couple of days we made arrangements for what is turning out to be a short stay in a rehab center.   She is making the adjustment well, is blessed with a room-mate who is simply delightful and is fortunate to be in a place where they are doing all they can to be attentive to her needs and where they are working with her to get her back on her feet again.  Even more, she is, we are, blessed by a larger community of people who are dropping in and making phone calls and remembering her in wonderful and meaningful ways.  We, like Jesus, have known ‘angels waiting on her’, on all of us.
I have to say I’ve always rather liked this shorter version of the temptation of Jesus we hear in Mark’s Gospel this week.  It’s hard, of course, to read it and not overlay the details offered in the other Gospels.  Still, perhaps because it offers fewer specifics, I find it easier to imagine how this particular account could be any one of ours.
For though it’s hard to think of it, I can see how the Spirit could ‘drive us’ to those tough places.  To be sure, most of us don’t choose to go to those places all on our own.  For that matter, it seems it’s only when we are tested that we are strengthened for all that life leads us into.  And while I believe that these times aren’t meant as punishment, they do still come to all of us and they can be, often are, experiences which deepen our faith, our resilience, our hope.  Why wouldn’t the Spirit drive us there if such times can bring such gifts to us?
As for Satan's temptations and wild beasts?  Indeed, they make themselves known in all kinds of places and ways … certainly ones I have experienced myself in these last days.  In grief and fear and despair to be sure… the kind that tears away at your hope and sense of well-being.  In temptations to not look to or rely on the gifts of God which are, in fact, always ours for the receiving. 
And as for angels, well, I’ve already mentioned some of those --- those marvelous people of God --- some we’ve known for a lifetime and others, strangers only a few days ago, who have made themselves known in tender acts of kindness.
Indeed, the story of Jesus in the wilderness could not have come at a better time for me for through this familiar story I am again reminded that every time I am driven into the wilderness, Jesus has already been there.  There is strength in that for me and I have seen what that can mean in this hour.  In much the same way, although the territory may be uncharted for us, a whole host of others have literally taken this path before us… social workers and nurses and even those in the business office who are helping us sort out those necessary details.  And, of course, so many others whose families have taken this journey before who in their wisdom and love are especially attentive to those of us for whom this is yet ‘uncharted territory.’
The story of Jesus in the wilderness could not have come at a better time for me.  How about you?
  • How do you understand the Spirit driving Jesus or any one of us into the wilderness?
  • When have you spent time in the wilderness?  How did you experience wild beasts and angels?  How did you emerge from that time?
  • Why is it that we always begin the season of Lent with this story?  How do you see it tying into the whole Lenten Journey?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Puzzling Over the Transfiguration

I confess I’ve always puzzled over how to bring this particular story alive.
For it’s not as though this is something that happens every day.  In fact, many of us would assert that we’ve never experienced anything quite like this moment in time where a few chosen disciples join Jesus on a mountain top.  Where they witness him in conversation with prominent figures from their faith history. Where they see Jesus’ appearance change in a way that could not be duplicated on earth. And where they hear the very voice of God declaring Jesus’ identity.  It’s no wonder Peter attempts to bring it all back down to earth by offering to build some dwellings for them.  On the other hand, it’s also no wonder Peter wants to capture this moment, hoping to make it last just a little while longer…
I’ve always puzzled over how to bring this story to life. For I, like most of us, don’t spend a lot of time on the mountaintop.  Most days while I won’t puzzle over who Jesus actually IS, I will spend considerable energy trying to see him at work in the world.  And yet, much like those disciples, I have had those moments of being so privileged to see the past meet the present in such a way that the future somehow holds more promise.  Where the light of Jesus is shining but it’s also marked by a kind of cloud of mystery which reminds us this is not of our doing.  Moments when I have, in fact, been able to recognize the hand of God all over them.  Perhaps you have, too.
I saw it on a Sunday a few years back gathered together with a people I would soon come to love.  I was a new pastor among them, and we were sharing together in tracing the congregation’s history.   We had come to a particularly tender period in their timeline.  Now one of the advantages of being brand new is that one can receive such stories without being all caught up in them.  I could simply stand in the midst of them as a learner and listen.  And so I did as from all corners of the room people shared stories --- pausing from time to time to express their surprise that others carried the very same memories although from different perspectives.  God’s people laughed and cried together that day.  It occurred to me then that perhaps this had never happened quite like this in this place before…. Where at least this particular piece of their shared past so publicly met the present in a group of God’s own people.  It was clear that there was something particularly Holy going on in that hour. I could sense it in the vulnerable honesty of God’s people then and in the way they cared for one another even across their differences.  And as we moved ahead it was clear that nothing was ever to be the same again.  Jesus was in that place showing us what could be, giving us a glimmer of what would be more fully one day.  There was the light of Jesus’ presence in that hour and yes, there was a kind of cloud of mystery about it as well.
I saw it last week-end as I was privileged to facilitate a healing session for a congregation which had been more recently wounded by struggle and pain, regret and loss.  Again, with great courage, a small group of hurting people sat across from each other and spoke words of truth, revealing their own experience, their own understandings, even their own honest acknowledgement of their own responsibility for their recent pain.  It was a wonder to behold, really, as they witnessed the gifts of God living among and through each other in a way that perhaps they could not have imagined possible.  And yes, again, there was the very light of Jesus in that day and there was a cloud of mystery over it all as well.
And I saw it many years ago the day of my dad’s funeral.  If we are so blessed, every funeral we share in carries these kinds of gifts to sustain us in the time to come.  That was a day when I was fortunate enough to be one who got to stand before those gathered and tell stories.  And to hear the laughter welling up from among us as together we celebrated the gift of this one precious life. That was a day when we shared the bread and wine of Holy Communion --- and I remember still what a wonder it was to see so many people from so many places and differing faith homes all gathering at the same table to receive a bit of bread and wine and I remember thinking that one day heaven will look something like that.  That was a day when the organist burst into Handel’s Halleluja Chorus as we followed the casket out to the cemetery.  It was an unexpectedly jubilant sound in that moment and it pointed us to a day far beyond that one which would be untouched by struggle or sorrow or fear.  It was a day when it was apparent who Jesus was and is for us and it is a day I carry still in my heart. For yes it had the light of Jesus and a cloud of mystery all over it.
So again, I always puzzle over how to bring the story of the Transfiguration to life.  And yet, maybe in small ways whenever and wherever the past meets the present and sends us into the future with hope --- maybe they do carry something of the light of Jesus and a cloud of mystery with them.  For that is surely what happened on that mountaintop where those disciples first saw Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah.  Where Jesus became the picture of light itself on that first Transfiguration Day.   And where the very clouds themselves remind us that somehow God’s hand was all over it.   What do you think?
  • As I said, I've always puzzled over how to make the Transfiguration Story come alive. How about you?  If so, why do you think that is?
  • In the examples I offer above, God's people are gathered together. What do you make of that?  Do you think such moments occur to us also when we are alone?
  • When have you experienced the light of Jesus and clouds of mystery at the same time? Do they always go together?  Why or why not?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pity or Anger or Both?

A story for the 6th Sunday After Epiphany
There are things going on in the words of the story before us today that aren’t readily apparent if we only read it in its English translation.  In fact, as I understand it, the main controversy seems to center on Jesus’ mood and response to the desperate man kneeling before him.  It seems that Jesus either looked at the man with pity which is how our translation has it.  Or he responded with indignation, even anger.  For in fact, the words we hear as ‘pity’ can also be translated to mean that when Jesus looked at the man, he ‘snorted like a war horse.’
Now that’s some kind of anger.  It’s deeply rooted, instinctive even.  As perhaps it must have been.
As I’ve sat with those choices over the last several days, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t know why it couldn’t be both. Why couldn’t Jesus have had pity on the man who was suffering so and also be angry at a world that so labels and isolates and excludes those struck down by such ailments?  More than that, why couldn’t Jesus also be angry with a religious system which declared such a one as this utterly cut off from the love and care of God?
For that’s what it had come to be, of course.  Those who contracted this disease were forced to live with others similarly afflicted --- away from the stuff of normal life in community --- their families, their friends, their occupations, and yes, their places of worship.  The way it lived out, particularly in that time and place, it would have appeared that they were even abandoned by God.
Now I have to say, I don’t know much about leprosy….except what I read in commentaries every time a text like this one comes around.  I have witnessed something, though, of what the social isolation of disease can look like.  And so I do have some sense of what a gift this healing must have been for the leper who experienced the healing, restoring, gifts of God today.  And so I do have some idea of how Jesus could have responded with both pity and anger…
I had been calling on a family in my congregation.  I was new to that parish and I was just trying to get acquainted.  These many years later, I still recall sitting in the front room watching their son, Jamie, play.  He was 8 years old and small for his age.  He had first been their foster child, his adoptive mother told me.  She went on to explain that he was born with fetal alcohol syndrome which explained his delayed development.  They had hosted hundreds of babies in their home before:  all short term stays for little ones who needed a safe place for a few days or weeks or months.  But this one?  They fell in love with him and decided to make him their own.
I took her at her word.  It was only as Jamie was hospitalized more and more frequently and as his condition continued to deteriorate that his mother took me into her confidence.  Jamie, in fact, had AIDS.  He had been born with it and had been shuttled between foster homes before they got him.   And once they had him, they couldn’t let him go.
Now this was some time ago.  They did not have the treatments then that they have today.  So even as they  made him their own, they knew what the boy’s future inevitably held.  And this was a small town.  Rumor had gotten out that there was a child in the school system with AIDS and there was such an uproar his parents vowed to never tell it was him. To protect Jamie, to be sure.  But also to protect his sister from being tainted by the social stigma of the disease --- even though she was entirely healthy.
They carried that secret through Jamie’s final illness.   They carried it through his funeral and their heart wrenching grief.  As far as I know they still carry it still today.  They carried that secret out of fear and love.  
And I ached with them and for them.
So as I said, I don’t know much about leprosy.  But I have seen up close how disease and the fear and ignorance that often accompany disease can isolate whole families.  And I can remember feeling anger in those days that these dear people could not speak the truth without suffering terrible consequences.  Indeed, I could just see Jesus then ‘snorting like a war horse’, if you will, as perhaps he must every time we treat one another as less than human, less than entirely beloved by God --- perhaps especially when we label one another instead of simply seeing each other through the eyes of God’s profound love for them, for us, each one.
This last week I listened to Dr. Robert Creech who is Professor of Ministries and Director of Pastoral Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.  He offered a great deal in his day long presentation as he traced the stories of families throughout the Bible.  But what he shared about who Jesus is for us has stayed with me as I lived in this story this week.  He said that when we look at Jesus we know what it is to be fully divine.  He also said that when we look at Jesus we know what it is to be fully human.
Was it Jesus’ divinity or his humanity that led him to touch the leper that day?  Surely it was his divinity that brought the healing, but I wonder if it was his full humanity that allowed him to touch one whom few others would…
And so I find myself returning to the story of young Jamie.  I find myself remembering the day I caught up with him in a hospital room in a large hospital in Chicago.  His parents were not there yet that afternoon and he was sleeping deeply.  I can remember sitting beside his bed and reaching out to hold his too-thin arm as I prayed for him. And I confess that I remember thinking twice about even actually touching him at all.  For by then I knew the nature of his illness.  And while I did know that I could not contract the disease this way, still I do remember thinking about it and even quaking just a bit inside. I still pray that little boy didn’t sense that hesitation of mine…
A few days later Jamie died.  It was a Wednesday evening in Lent when the call came and I left right after worship to pick up his dad to take him to the hospital for he was too distraught to drive into the city.  His mother was already with the boy.  I dropped his dad at the door and went to park the car.  Minutes later, I can remember walking into the room where Jamie’s tiny body was and I can still see his dad bent over him, holding his head in his hands, gently stroking his hair and saying over and over, “Daddy’s here. Daddy’s right here.”  Clearly, whatever fear his dad may have had had long ago been obliterated by love.  And he touched that child with the tender abandon that always marks that kind of love.
And so, perhaps that is how a story like the one we hear today may live out even now for you and me as we look to Jesus for what it is to be divine and for what it is to be human.  From time to time perhaps we will stand in the presence of one who has been healed.  And what a wonder and joy that is.  At other times we will only yearn to know that kind of wholeness that God surely intends.  And yet, while  healing may not always be physical, I expect you and I are agents of another kind of healing when we reach out our hands to physically touch those who, for whatever reason, find themselves isolated, cut off from the kind of community we often take for granted.  Even if our hearts are quaking as we do so…
 I don’t know.  I would imagine Jesus was both moved by pity and ‘snorting with anger like a war horse’ to see the plight of Jamie and his family who loved him so.  And also expect Jesus that anger melted into joyto see  one family set aside their fear and act in love so that one child would have 9 years in this life of experiencing God’s tender love for him.  What do you think?
  • What makes the most sense to you? Was Jesus acting in anger or out of pity or both?  Why do you think that?
  • Are there still people today who are considered 'untouchable' or 'unclean?'  How are God's people called to respond to them today?
  • What kind of experience do you have with serious illness?  Have you had the experience of it isolating you or cutting you off from community?  How did that play out in your life?  Have you walked that journey with another?
  • Consider all the levels at which the man in the story was healed today.  What have been your experiences of different kinds of healing?
  • What do you make of Dr. Creech’s assertion that in Jesus we encounter what it is to be fully divine and we also encounter what it is to be fully human?  I’m especially wondering what it means to you to be ‘fully human?’  What in Jesus’ life and example showed us what that means?