Sunday, March 25, 2012

On Meals and Memories: Some Thoughts for Maundy Thursday

“I don't really want a Shamrock Shake. I just want the feeling I had: 7 years old and my mom bought me one after the parade.”
My cousin Greg posted this on Facebook a few weeks back.  His status update touched me so that first I found myself laughing and then tearing up remembering his mother, my Aunt Jane.  We exchanged a few private messages after that where he recalled with me that this was common practice for his mom, one passed on, evidently, by our grandmother --- that of special treats communicating something about love.  That shamrock shake, in fact, was his mother's way of saying, “I love you and you’re special to me.”
Meals and memory do get all tied up together, don’t they?
My dad’s family, for instance, had a tradition of sharing a meal of steak and Boston baked beans on Saturday night. It was carried on into my growing up generation, too.  With the advent of a deeper understanding of the connection between heart disease and diet --- and also with him no longer here to ensure the cut of steak we share is the most tender, we haven’t carried it on.  Even so we remember him still at the head of the table brandishing his knife and steel and as the feast made its way around the table him laughing and saying, “It’s just another Saturday night at the Hunt house.”
And passed on from my mother’s side is the tradition of baking bread and the learned memory of a grandmother we never knew kneading the dough twice a week to ensure her family was fed.  And the Christmas traditions of lefse and rice pudding and, at least in earlier years, yes, the lutefisk.  (I’m not all that sorry to say, that last tradition has gone by the wayside, too.)  A few years back I found myself standing in the kitchen on Christmas Eve stirring the rice pudding and my mother remembered her dad doing the same so many years ago.
Those meals tell stories of origins and hopes, of identity and sacrifice.  And joy. I don't pass the meat cooler at the grocery store without remembering my dad or sink my fists into bread dough without thinking of my mother and a grandmother I never knew.  My cousin wistfully remembers his mother every time St. Patrick's Day rolls around and that feeling of being special and loved.  It's not so different with the stories of other family meals passed on to us from ancestors in the faith.
Indeed, is it any wonder that God’s people for all remembered time have tied memory to food?

And we do, in fact, have all kinds of accounts of family meals passed on to us --- all amazing gifts of God --- laced throughout the Biblical witness. We recall Abraham and Sarah preparing and serving a calf, tender and good, when three strangers came to visit and the manna provided in the wilderness for God’s people on their way to the Promised Land. We remember the story of the Prodigal Son and how he was welcomed home with a feast far beyond his own deserving. We recall Jesus feeding thousands with a few fish and loaves of bread and of course, his sharing the Passover Meal with his disciples mere hours before his betrayal and suffering and dying.  It is, of course this meal we remember as we share it again this week when we gather on the evening before Good Friday. The Lord's Supper. The Eucharist.  Holy Communion.  We share together these bits of bread and sips of wine or grape juice which speak to us of our origin and hope, of identity and sacrifice. And utter joy.  We share this meal which carries with it the message, “I love you and you’re special to me”  as we offer again the very gifts of God with the words, "The body of Christ given for you.  The blood of Christ shed for you.”   
  1. What meals hold special memories for you?  Who do you associate with them? Which ones do you carry on?
  2. Which accounts of Biblical Meals carry special meaning for you?   Why is that?
  3. When you think of the Holy Meal we share as the family of God, what do you call it?  The Lord's Supper?  Holy Communion?  The Eucharist?  Why?  What does what you call the meal say about what it means to you?
  4. How was the story of this particular meal we celebrate on Maundy Thursday passed on to you?  What meaning does the sharing of it have in your life today?
  5. While this meal does indeed carry the message, "I love you and you're special to me" it carries other gifts as well.  What are those gifts for you?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

When Dying Means Living...

Some of you will recall that I began an exercise class in January.
The first week I hurt all the time.  And I do mean all the time.  Oh, it didn’t hit right away.  In fact, that first day I drove my hour’s commute to work feeling rather proud of myself and a little smug, thinking I wasn’t in such bad shape after all.
Then I got out of the car and made my way across the parking lot.  In spite of my halting gait, I forced myself to take the stairs as I had every day for months and truthfully?  I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.
Our instructor that week told us a story that surely rang true with me.  She spoke of a friend who hadn’t exercised in years.  On a whim she had gone to a work-out at her place of employment and the next day she announced that the kind of pain she was having must mean this kind of exercise couldn’t possibly be good for her. And so she quit.
I get that.  I was almost with her.  I am fortunate, though, to have been born with a competitive, stubborn streak. And I was even more fortunate to have an instructor who was encouraging and kind. And so I kept going back.  Even though I hurt all the time. Even though for a while there every movement, every breath, seemed like dying itself.  And yes, even though for the life of me I still can’t find a way to balance on that stability ball.  That part’s getting better, but not much.
And so it is this week that we find ourselves thinking about dying as we hear Jesus’ words in our ears today.  “Very truly, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.”
We know the truth of this, of course.  Any one of us who has ever covered a seed with earth knows it is so.  I expect we experience the truth of it in our lives as well.
I’ve known it in my exercise class.  The pain is paying off.  I don’t hurt all the time anymore and my clothes are just a little bit looser.  It’s been worth the “dying” of dragging myself out of bed at 4:45 a.m. a couple of days a week and putting myself through a kind of voluntary organized torture.  It’s been worth it enough so that when it came time to register for the next session I willingly did so, not wanting to go back to where I was before, even if the stability ball is still a challenge.  I have, indeed, had to die a little to get to this place where a richer life is mine and now I find I don’t regret it.  Those first few weeks, though, when I was 'done in' after the opening stretches I certainly could not have imagined this day would come ....
And it’s true in the rest of our lives as well.  We see the proof of this in families where parents give up a whole lot of themselves so that their children might flourish, where children watch out for and occasionally participate in important decisions for parents as age catches up with them, where spouses set aside their own wants or needs to help the other become who they are meant to be.  And yes, we see it in congregations where we give up our place in the pew for a newcomer, where we welcome children even when they fuss, when we reach beyond our shyness or our fear to speak to a stranger.  In a thousand places and ways we know this to be true.  It’s not usually big deaths, of course, but small ones along the way which live out the truth of Jesus’ words over and over again and our 'dying' somehow multiplies and results in life.
And yet.  I think I would have quit that exercise class the first week if I hadn’t had an instructor who was kind and encouraging and who consistently showed me what could be.  And there certainly wouldn’t be much point in all of this in our life of faith if Jesus himself hadn’t gone before us living and dying and living.  Showing us what it looks like, to be sure, but even more than that, being for us resurrection itself.  We keep our eyes and heart there of course.  Knowing that our small dyings and multiplyings and risings are only a glimmer of what has been and what will yet be.  Thanks be to God.
Indeed, maybe in a way this whole walk of faith is a lot like my exercise class.  We all show up with our creaking knees and our flabby abs and our too many years of not doing anything like this and we do this together and little by little, starting right where we are as we lift and push and try to keep our balance, we do get stronger.  As we die, little by little, we do grow in faith and hope and promise.  Only not for ourselves alone.  That’s where the parallel ends, of course.  This dying is clearly not for our own journeys alone. But for the sake of the other.  For the sake of the child, the parent, the grandparent, the neighbor, the stranger: all those who make up the whole community of God’s people and for this world crafted and loved by God.  That’s the dying and living that Jesus did. And so it is that’s the dying and living that we are called to as well.  Amen.
  • What examples of 'dying and living' do you think of when you hear Jesus' words about the need for the seed to go into the earth and die?  What have you experienced in your own life?  What have you witnessed in the life of your community?
  • Is the 'dying' we are called to do voluntary or forced upon us or both?   Does it matter?  Why or why not? 
  • Sometimes it takes a lifetime to see how our small deaths lead to life.  Can you think of times when looking back you can see resulting growth --- life itself --- that you certainly couldn't see it when you were in the midst of it?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Wearing My Sin on the Front of My Alb

It was, in fact, the first time I had ever preached on this Gospel text.
I was in my first year of seminary and I was preaching that Sunday morning in my teaching parish at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in St. Paul.
Since this would be the first time I actually stepped into a pulpit, I wanted to be especially ready and so I went out the week before and purchased my first alb.  It wasn’t anything fancy, but I was pleased with it nonetheless.  I hung it in my closet, hoping the wrinkles would work their way out before Sunday and went to work on my sermon.
Somehow in the days to come I forgot about the alb and its wrinkles until Sunday morning when I went to get it ready to go.  It was early still, as I recall, and so when I noticed the wrinkles hadn't miraculously disappered I didn’t panic.  I just went down to the large public restroom where there was a communal ironing board in our dorm, plugged in the iron and carefully laid the alb on the ironing board.  Slowly I began to move the hot iron over it.  Perhaps I moved too slowly or maybe the iron was too hot or maybe I simply didn’t know what I was doing, for when I picked up the iron there it was:  a perfect dark brown imprint of the iron on the front of my lovely flaxen alb.
I was mortified, of course. However, I didn’t know what to do except to go ahead and wear it anyway.  I was grateful that at least during my fledgling sermon itself my ‘sin’ was not exposed as it was hidden by a pulpit.  And I was grateful that for some reason no one shamed me by pointing out the easily recognizable but out of place pattern on my new alb. And I was grateful that when I went to wash it, the stain did come out.  Still I can’t help but think about how ironic that was.  There I was preaching about darkness and light and sin, hidden and not, and there I stood, “the error of my ways” fully exposed for all the world to see.  I would have preferred darkness that morning.  I would have preferred not to stand in front of 150 people and risk their stares, their judgment, their ridicule.  But there I was… 
And so it is I also find myself especially grateful today that this bit about darkness and light, about sin exposed or hidden, comes on the heels of Jesus’ marvelous proclamation of love for all the world.  What else could possibly convince me to come out of the darkness and into the light except for the promise of the very light of God’s love? 
To be sure, my example of my ‘sin’ exposed so long ago in an iron’s imprint on my alb is rather a silly one.  Indeed, while it demonstrated my clumsiness, my inexperience, my lack of forethought, it was not the result of malintent.  How much more vitally important these words become in the struggles and joys of life in relationship with one another in this world.  Indeed, how much more in those times when my sin has been intentional or has hurt another am I tempted to hide in the darkness, wanting no one to know?
And yet, I’ve found I’ve never once regretted coming out into the light.  I have been especially blessed to have experienced the tender forgiveness of others when I have risked exposing my frailty, my fickleness, my failure.  In fact, somehow it is when I become consumed by hiding it in darkness that It takes on a life of its own, becoming even larger and more threatening than it even was before.  Again, to be sure, the promise and experience of God’s unending love makes it possible to come out into the light in the first place.  And to know then the wonder of grace itself.
  •  I expect that were I to find myself on a Sunday morning with an iron imprint on the front of my alb today, I'd find a way to use it as an illustration in a children's sermon.  Even so, I know there are areas in my life where that is less true.  Where I much prefer not being so 'exposed' for my faults or my failures.  How about you?
  • It can be so tempting to keep our sin 'hidden' in the dark.  Have you ever known it to make it even worse than it actually is?  Have you ever been kept 'prisoner' by the darkness in this way?
  • When and were have you experienced the gift of 'light', of forgiveness, of grace?
  • John 3:16 is perhaps the most familiar of passages.  Does that make it easier to 'preach' or more difficult?  What has been your experience?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Barriers and Broken Hearts

It was a long time ago now… an Easter morning, in fact, and my mother and I were heading out to church.
We were visiting my sister and she had thought about joining us, but it was a particularly heartbreaking time in her life and she decided at the last minute that she simply wasn’t up to it.
So there we were all dressed up in our Easter Sunday best and trying to decide where to go to join our "Alleluia’s" with others of God’s people.  We finally settled on a large Lutheran church nearby.  I looked up the worship time and off we headed with what we thought was plenty of time to spare.
Only the worship time was different than what we found in the yellow pages. (Yes, this was before the internet was the first place to go for such information.)   We knew it almost immediately as we pulled into a full parking lot.  Somehow, though, I still managed to find a parking place and went in to see just how late we were.  As I walked in an usher rushed to meet me at the door and told me there was simply no room.  It was as though the ‘closed’ sign had been put up and there was no getting around it.  I could see in that moment that there was no negotiating with him so I went back to the car and we went about the task of trying to find somewhere else to hear the Good News that Easter morning.
I had never actually been turned away from worship before.  It was, of course, especially painful then as our hearts were already breaking.  No, normally you won’t be met by an usher at the door telling you there is no more room.  Indeed, the barriers are typically more subtle than that, but all too often I’m afraid they are still there.  And they can be especially difficult for the most vulnerable among us to get around.
It doesn’t appear that the barriers Jesus was driving out of the temple that day were all that subtle either.  No indeed, those things that were keeping people from encountering the ‘holy’ could hardly be missed --- and yet perhaps they were hardly noticed by those who had been frequenting that holy place month after month, year after year.  So perhaps Jesus’ violent outburst was necessary to get the attention of the ‘faithful.’  To be sure, he clearly demonstrates his distress at the money changers and those selling livestock for sacrifice in that holy place.   

Now, of course, you and I can’t get behind his words to see precisely what he meant.  Even so, it appears that this holy place had become, for many, merely a place for business transactions.  Some believe that the surcharge for exchanging money into currency which was suitable for temple offerings was so exorbitant that many were not able to afford to encounter God in that place.  For those who were in a more financially secure place --- or those who had frequented that place regularly --- perhaps the practice was no more than a minor nuisance or they had become so accustomed to how things were they didn’t even see it anymore.  Perhaps for some it was no barrier at all.  But Jesus saw it for what it was and no doubt, Jesus saw it for how it impacted those most vulnerable and so today we encounter him with a whip made of cords in his hands --- seeking to make right what had become so terribly wrong.  Doing what had to be done to make it possible again for all the people God so loves to encounter the Holy One there.
No indeed, there doesn’t have to be an usher at the door telling you there is no room for you.  The barriers are often much more subtle than that.    There are all kinds of things that can get in the way of the poor, the broken-hearted, the suffering making their way through the door.    And perhaps those of us who have been around a while simply don’t see it any more. 
I have never forgotten that Easter Sunday morning when we got turned away at the door.  I remember it every time I gather with others for worship and I find myself recalling that some of us come with broken hearts today and I find myself hoping that we've made it easy for them to find their way among us.  That we are not throwing up barriers to their encountering the 'Holy One.'
  • Have you ever been turned away from worship?  Have you ever experienced barriers to encountering the 'Holy One' in a place where you expected welcome?  If so, how has that shaped your own ministry of hospitality?
  • You and I have to travel across time and space and culture and custom to seek to make sense of this story for us today.  Last I checked we don't have money changers or livestock for sale in the narthex.  That being the case, what might be some of the 'barriers' which keep people from encountering the 'Holy One' at your place of worship this week?
  • Who are the especially poor, the broken-hearted, the vulnerable for whom those barriers might be even more difficult to get past?  What is your congregation called to do to break down those barriers?
  • Sometimes it's hard for those of us who have been part of a worshiping community for some time to see how we do things with fresh eyes.  Who might you ask to give you an honest assessment of how things are?  Perhaps your newest members might have some perspective.  Or (and this is something I've always wanted to do but haven't yet) you might try tracking down those who came once or twice and never came back.  I would guess they might just have something to teach us all.