Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Vine and Core Strength

John 15:1-8

A few days ago in my exercise class we were asked to do mountain climbers at the same time we did planks while bracing our forearms on the stability ball.
I expect even if you have no idea of what I’m talking about you can guess it wasn’t easy. 
For you see, my ‘core strength’, while improving, is still lousy.   I’ve gotten to where I can do a ‘plank’ on my knees and hold it for a while, but on Monday we were asked to do a full plank extension braced against a stability ball (which by its very nature is unstable ) and then to bring our legs forward as if we were climbing a mountain.  I did it.  Still, I’m not quite sure how.
Over and over again I’ve been told how important are those deep muscles in our torsos.  Those ‘core’ muscles’ in my abdomen and my back are what give me strength and balance, both of which diminish over time and disuse.  Indeed, our instructor will shout at us several times a session, "Take care of your body, and it will take care of you!"
Only I expect most of the time we don’t think about those muscles so much, even though when you stand still and consider it, you know you are using them all the time.  Perhaps it’s only when they become so weak that we can’t do the things we once took for granted that we realize how important they are.
In fact, it wasn’t so many years ago when I began experiencing back trouble.  My work at then had me on the road a great deal: often several hundred miles a day.  When I spoke of it, my boss told me I needed to go home and do sit-ups.  I remember thinking his response was not terribly sympathetic… I was blaming my pain on the poor back support in the driver’s seat of the car I had to drive.  I was blaming it on the many, many miles that were mine to cover in order to fulfill the obligations of the work I was called to.  I didn’t want to take responsibility for the fact that as I grew older I simply hadn’t given much thought to maintaining my core strength.  And so I never did do those sit-ups and instead spent time and money on a chiropractor to address the strain in my back.
I think sometimes that it is not so different with the image before us in this Gospel lesson.  I am a little familiar with grapevines for when I was growing up we had an arbor in our back yard.  However, much of the time I spent back there was in the warmth of summer when the vine and branches both were all but invisible because of their foliage.  Come September all we thought about was the fruit: the ‘harvest’ that was ours to help cut from those branches.  To be sure, my dad would tend to the vine and the branches.  Every New Year’s Day he could be found pruning those branches to ensure they continued to bear fruit.  As for me?  I never thought about it much.
Perhaps I'm not alone and that is partly why Jesus so aptly compares himself to a vine today.  For Jesus can, in fact, also be mostly invisible: hidden even by the fruit of the gifts he brings.   Still, if we stand still and consider it for just a moment, we remember that without Jesus our strength and balance, our very ability to bear fruit, is utterly gone. 

Indeed, the central gift and demand of the Gospel image before us today is that we are told to 'abide' in Jesus --- that we are to stay connected to the vine.  For while actual branches of vines have no choice in the matter, you and I do.  And while there is no means by which you and I can strengthen the vine in the way that we can strengthen our core muscles, by simply taking time to stand still and remember Jesus is there;  by turning to our Lord in worship and prayer; by going deep into the Word --- not only for our next preaching or teaching responsibility, but simply as a matter of fact on own journeys, we 'abide.'  Unlike those core muscles which hold me up and enable me to move, Jesus will not weaken.  But like those core muscles, I need, at least, to pay attention to the Vine, to Jesus, "apart from whom I can do nothing."  (John 15:5)  Amen. 

  1. How do you experience Jesus as your 'core strength' or your vine?
  2. 'Core strength' may be another way to think about the vine.  Can you think of others?
  3. When Jesus says that apart from him we can do nothing, what do you think he means?
  4. What do you do to 'abide' in Jesus? 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Of Sheep and Shepherds

I don’t know much of sheep and shepherds, it’s true.
A long time ago when I preached on a Good Shepherd Sunday, I confessed this truth.  As he shook his hands with me after worship that morning, John Spangler offered to educate me.  John was a hard man of few words and to be honest, until then he had always scared me a little.  Still, I took him up on his invitation and a few days later I drove out to their farm in rural Northern Illinois.  John climbed into the driver’s side of his battered up pick-up truck and as he pushed the passenger side door open from the inside he nodded for me to get in so we could get to the back part of their property.  As he pulled the truck up next to a falling down barn he told me to watch my step and follow him.
I did.  And as he stepped forward suddenly he was surrounded by sheep of all sizes… as he called out to them they bleated and pushed against him.  I was struck, however, that while he called them "by name," those sheep only had two names, “Blacky”  and “Whitey.”  Still, they knew their shepherd’s voice, who spoke to me then of his efforts to protect them from being prey to wild animals. Even there in Northern Illinois.  I wasn’t afraid of John after that. For I had seen the shepherd in him. 
In spite of that one encounter, I know little of sheep and shepherds, to be sure.  I expect that’s true of many who hear these words this week-end.  Although some of us have lived in these words for so long perhaps they have become a part of us anyway.  At hospital bedsides and in cemeteries we’ve spoken and heard them and in the dark of our darkest nights we’ve whispered them until they have somehow become part of us.
I knew this to be true some time ago when I was called upon to lead worship at a local nursing home.
Several times a year my turn came around and the scene was always the same: the residents would remain after lunch on Sunday afternoon in their dining room.  Tables would be pushed aside and wheelchairs gathered in a large circle.
Only the kitchen was right next to the dining room and the din of dishes being done would often drown out the sound of my voice.  And of course, there was no sound system to assist my being heard over the noise.  Even without the distraction, no doubt many would have struggled to hear anyway.
Perhaps it was that and maybe it was that whatever I had shared with my congregation that morning wasn’t all that interesting to those who weren’t blessed with other Sunday afternoon visitors, but I often felt as if I was just talking to myself those Sunday afternoons.  Until I finally took to simply reading the 23rd Psalm every time.
And I do mean every time.
It wasn’t terribly innovative, of course, but it seemed to get through like nothing else I had to say would.
Indeed, maybe those dishes weren't quite as loud as I had thought and perhaps their senses were sharper than I had believed, for eyes would suddenly brighten as God's people in that place would mouth the words as I spoke them.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”
I wondered why.
For even twenty years ago in that somewhat rural place most of those gathered had probably never  encountered sheep and shepherds.  These were factory workers and laborers who were spending their last days here.  Most of them would have had no real idea of what shepherds actually do.
It could only have been their upbringing in the faith that made these words so dear to them.
Perhaps it was the image of Jesus tenderly carrying a lamb over his shoulders.  Or the memory of shepherds in a field hearing the good news of God’s love born for them in Bethlehem.  Or the Sunday School story of a shepherd boy becoming king.  Whatever it was, it was clear that by their last years, these words and images had become theirs. Even if they’d never met a shepherd. Even if they had only encountered sheep from a distance.
I don’t know if that’s as true anymore. A while back, for instance, I sat down with a family to plan a funeral.  I didn’t know the children and grandchildren crowded around my table for they had long since moved away.  I asked them then if they had any preferences on lessons to be shared when we gathered the next day.  “Anything but the 23rd Psalm!” one among them exclaimed.  It had been too long associated with sadness and death, she offered in explanation.  Clearly, she had never heard it in other times as a source of comfort and promise.  It no longer lived for her.
I want to believe these words still speak though.  Even so, perhaps we may have to work a little harder to make them come alive for those who not only know little of sheep and shepherds, but also haven’t known the history of God’s people to be their own.  What do you think? Do these images still speak?
  1. What do you know of sheep and shepherds? What experience do you have that bring these images alive?
  2. When has hearing or reading the 23rd Psalm been especially meaningful in your walk of faith?
  3. Think through this familiar Psalm slowly.  Read the Gospel lesson carefully.  What gifts of the Good Shepherd are you especially grateful for right now?
  4. Do you believe these images still speak?  If not, what others might you offer which would offer similar meaning?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

You Are Witnesses...

Luke 24:36-49

It’s just a couple of times that I have been called as a witness.
Both times were in family court.
Once was on a Christmas Eve long ago when I was asked to stand before a judge and describe the erratic behavior of the woman whose future was in question.  Thankfully he stopped me soon into my testimony, acknowledging he had enough to make the decision before him then.
The second time was just a few years back. A young woman, a stranger to me, walked into my office weeping as though her world was coming to an end.  She told a tale of tragic loss … of how her children had been killed in a car accident and now she couldn’t even get their bodies to bury them.  Our entire staff ministered to her that day.
Over the next few days I remember watching the local news for information about this terrible accident for even though it had happened several states away since local people were affected I thought it would make the papers here.  Nothing showed up.  Then I got a call from an attorney asking me to testify against the young woman.  It turned out her children were alive and well and her ex-husband was seeking custody.  He told me I didn’t have to come on my own but if I didn’t I would surely be subpoenaed.  And so I went.  And again I stood and told the story as I remembered it. This time, though, the young woman stood before the judge as well and told him she had never seen me before in her life.
Our witness, our testimony, is a fragile, powerful thing, it seems to me.  We stand and say aloud what we have seen and heard.  Or what we believe we have seen and heard.  Our speaking truth can change the course of histories, it's true.  It may be the absolute truth or it may only be the truth as I remember it or it may be a combination of both.  Given all of this, I have to say, in those few cases when I have been called upon to formally bear testimony, I have been ever so grateful that someone else was weighing my witness and the witness of others to make the decision at hand.
My first time in court I went with breaking heart because I knew the woman and her family well and simply saw no alternative other than what was before us to get her the help she so desperately needed.
The second time I left that room questioning myself.  I was sure of what I had seen and heard.  I knew it was her --- although her appearance was less disheveled that Friday morning in court than it had been in my office a few weeks before.  Still, she spoke with such conviction of her own certainty that she had never set foot in our church building that I had more than one moment of wondering.
Our witness is such a fragile thing.  And yet, Jesus says to the disciples now, “You are witnesses of these things.”  Of Jesus’ teaching and his healing.  Of his suffering and dying.  Of the wounds in his hands and in his feet.  And now of him standing among them alive --- and as if to prove how alive he is --- sharing in their meal with them.  “You are witnesses of these things,”  Jesus tells them.  And apparently they took that as not only noun but also as verb for you and I gather still today around the same amazing story, hearing how Jesus lived and seeing and experiencing how Jesus lives still.  Because they were witnesses.
And yet, there were countless times with the disciples when their witness was questioned --- even to the point of persecution and death.  I expect the same is true for all of us… that we all have times when someone else will stand and tell us we are mistaken.  Or who will simply turn and walk away, saying nothing, but clearly not embracing the truth of what we have to share.  For this news you and I share may not be credible on its surface.  We speak these words and live our lives as best we can to reflect these promises of God.  In the end, I am always grateful that I am not the judge. I don't have to make anything be true or not.  I am not in charge of what happens next.  It is only mine to tell the story as it has been true for me.  That is all Jesus asks of us today. And God will use that fragile witness then to make the difference it is meant to make.
The difference of course is that we always have a choice.  If I had been subpoenaed to court some years ago I would have had to go.  When it comes to the witness of faith we are called to share, it is always a choice.
And yet, both times I went to court I was certain I would speak for the sake of the well-being of others.  I wasn’t forced to go, but did so because I knew it to be the right thing to do.  Is it any different with the testimony of faith --- the witness Jesus reminds us is ours as well?  Is it not also ours to share so others might know the fullness of God’s amazing gifts?

Perhaps that's what the promised power from on high that God's people are clothed with does for us.  Perhaps that power enables us to witness for the sake of a world that so desperately needs to hear the Good News embedded in the stories we've been given to share. Perhaps it is that power enables me to want to do so.
  1. Have you ever been called to be a 'witness' in a court of law?  How was that experience like or unlike the call to 'witness' in our walk of faith?
  2. Jesus tells his disciples, 'You are witnesses of these things.'  What is the content of your witness?  What have you seen and heard that you are called to share?
  3. Who have been the most convincing 'witnesses' in your journey of faith?  What makes them believable?
  4. What does the promised 'power from on high' mean to you in your walk of faith?  How does it enable or strengthen your witness?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Scars and Stories, Doubt and Faith

I can still remember the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when the trailer lurched forward and caught my dad’s hand between it and the hitch on the back of the family station wagon.
I was twelve, maybe thirteen years old.   That would have made my sisters eleven, ten and nine years old.  I was still bigger than they were and stronger. Mary, Sarah, and I had been assigned to the back of the camper to push and Martha was standing next to my dad waiting to guide the camper into place.  Only the wheels were caught on some kind of grade and try as we might we couldn't seem to get it to budge.  My dad shouted at us to push just one more time and I gave it all I had and felt it give. 
Before we could fully understand what had happened, my mom was driving him to the local emergency room with a towel wrapped around his bleeding hand.  We were left to sit and wait around a now cold campfire --- I remember carrying the guilt heavy in those waiting hours for I knew it was my effort that had hurt him.
A few hours later they were back.  His wounded hand now sported a couple of stitches and a big white bandage.  He was quick to assure us that it was his fault, not ours, for we were only doing as we were told.  And then he went on to say that he was glad it was his hand that took the blow and not Martha’s… for he knew the damage to her much smaller hand would have been far worse.  Like any loving parent, he would willingly take the pain in place of his child any time and every time if he possibly could.
He bore the scars of that particular afternoon on his hand the rest of his life.  I sometimes think the mark on the palm of his hand said as much about who he was as anything did.
Indeed, I suppose it is so for all of us.  Our scars tell part of the story of who we are, what has mattered to us, what has happened to us, the risks we’ve taken, the gifts we’ve given.  And as we are reminded in the story before us in John's Gospel, this was surely also so with Jesus, too.
Which is why Thomas insisted he needed to see, no more than that, feel the scars in his hands and put his own hand in Jesus’ side to be sure that it was him.  One would think he would have recognized him with from the features of his face or the sound of his voice, but no, for Thomas, Jesus had become something more since that long walk to the cross a week before.  Jesus’ very identity was now defined by the sacrifice he had made in our behalf.  A sacrifice made most visible in those wounds that by then could have only begun to heal.
Now it seems to me in recent years that Thomas' reputation has been somehwat redeemed.  I'm old enough to remember when the descriptor 'Doubting' always came before his name.... as if one could do anything but doubt in the face of such incredible news as was shared with him by the others.  These days, it seems, the emphasis is more on his confession of faith which comes right after Jesus' appearance among the disciples in that locked upper room: "My Lord and My God!" is Thomas' exclamation as soon as he realizes that he is actually standing in the presence of the Crucified and Risen One.

Still, I wish sometimes that we could go back to the time when we talked more about Thomas' doubt, only perhaps in a different way than we once did.  For in my experience, doubt is not necessarily a terrible thing.  To be sure, doubt is not comfortable, and depending on the circumstances can be downright terrifying.  And yet, for me, it's only when I've allowed myself to stand still in my own doubt that I have discovered answers and meaning and hope again. In fact, in their new little book, Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is, Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams name doubt in the second chapter as something for which we should give profound thanks.  For as they write,

There is simply a point in life when reason fails to satisfy our awareness of what is clearly unreasonable and clearly real at the same time --- like love and self-sacrifice and trust and good. Data does not exist to explain these unexplainable things.  Then only the doubt that opens our hearts to what we cannot comprehend, only the doubt that makes us rabidly pursue the truth, only the doubt that moves us beyond complacency, only the doubt that corrects mythologies not worthy of faith can lead us to the purer air of spiritual truth.  Then we are ready to move beyond the senses into the mystical, where faith shows us those penetrating truths the eye cannot see. (p. 17)
We do sometimes recognize one another by our scars.  Thomas thought he needed to see and touch his scars to be certain it was Jesus.  In his quest for the truth he was not afraid to ask the hard questions which led him to an ever deeper faith.  But, in the end, as the story is passed on, he didn't need what he asked for.  When Jesus simply stood right before him Thomas was able to embrace the truth of who Jesus is with all of his being.  The scars told part of the story, but only part of it, it seems.  I wonder though.   Would Thomas have gotten to that point if he hadn't asked the questions, if he hadn't 'doubted' first?  What do you think?
  1. Can you think of 'scars' that tell something about who one is and what matters most? 
  2. What words would you put to the meaning of Jesus' scars?  What evidence of Jesus' resurrection do you still yearn to see?
  3. What role has 'doubt' played in your journey of faith?
  4. What questions about  your faith do you still need to pursue that you haven't yet?  Where might those questions lead you if you just let yourself ask them?
  5. What have been the moments in your life when along with Thomas you have embraced your faith simply with the words, "My Lord and my God!"  What brought you to that place in those times?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Gift of Good Friday: It All Belongs to God

On Wednesday morning I got called away as it appeared to those closest to him that Cliff would not make it through the day.  Cliff is my brother-in-law’s dad.  He is 92 years old.  He has been widowed for many years and in these last years has depended on the attentive care of his children.  Last week-end he suffered a massive stroke and in the days since has been in a hospital bed.  It appears he is no longer aware of what is happening around him, but still his body struggles to breathe as the part of the brain which controls such basic functions forges on. 
The surroundings and circumstances of course are entirely different from what Jesus looked down on from the cross.  The hospital Cliff is in is shiny and new.  Those charged with his care are doing all they can to make his last hours as comfortable as they possibly can.  His children and grandchildren are able to lean in close and remind him of how much he is loved.   On Wednesday afternoon a representative of the Veterans Administration came to talk about options for honoring his service to  country  for Cliff was a veteran.  As part of his visit he attached a pin representing his World War II service to his flimsy hospital gown and saluted him.  When we gathered Wednesday morning we offered prayers for his comfort and for the family's strength and we spoke prayers of gratitude for the marvelous promise that Cliff was made God's Own in the gift of Baptism many years ago. As is often the case, tears and laughter both have marked these days...
And while it is not easy, this one seems to me to be as good a death as any death can be.  For there should always be as little suffering as possible.  One should be surrounded by those one has loved.  One ought to be honored for the gifts one brought to the world through a long life well lived.   And even in those difficult times when none of those may be so, we are blessed to be among those who are able to commend the one we have loved into God’s tender care.  As difficult as any death may be, yes, this one seems to be the best that it can be. 
And again I can't help but notice in this Holy Week that this death is so very different from the death that Jesus died.  For aside from the sponge of sour wine offered to assuage his thirst, there were no physical comforts offered that Friday afternoon.  His was a public, shameful, painful death. Jesus was subject to ridicule, not tender salutes.  And in a remarkable reversal, even as Jesus hung dying on the cross he offered comfort to those gathered, rather than the other way around. For those who executed him by what they did and what they did not do, he pleaded for God’s forgiveness.  To the thief hanging next to him, he extended the promise of salvation.  To his mother and his disciple, John, he pointed them to a future of mutual care of the sort that should always be shared between mother and son.  And at the end, those who heard him commend his spirit into God’s own hands must have known some measure of comfort as Jesus lived his faith in God’s promises with his dying breath.
Still, it was not by most any measure we would bring to it a ‘good death.’  And yet it was the most remarkable death that ever was.  For even in his last words, Jesus gathered up all the gifts of God and extended them to those who would follow him.  Forgiveness of sins.  An endless future with God.  And in the meantime, tender care for one another.  Surely in these and all his dying words we hear Jesus’ own certainty that it all belongs to God.  Our times of joy and times of struggle, our experiences of pain and in gifts of comfort shared, in our faith and in our doubt, in life and in death it all belongs to God.
And so it is when we bury Cliff we will use Jesus’ own words to send him on his way.  For at the last Jesus said, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”  (Luke 23:46) And so for Cliff and for all of those whom God so loves we are privileged to say with resounding hope, “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant…. A sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming...”   
We are able to say this for one another because of what happened on that first Good Friday.  No, Jesus did not suffer a "good" death.  Instead he died a death which allows all of our deaths to be marked by the goodness of God's gifts that carry with them the hope and the promise that it all belongs to God.  In life and in death, and in all that they hold, it all belongs to God.
  1. Of all of Jesus' words from the cross, do any carry special meaning for you this year?  Why is that?
  2. How has the gift of Good Friday come to life this Holy Week for you?
  3. What measure of comfort does it bring to you to know that 'it all belongs to God?'  How does that certainty make all the difference?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Gap in the Story: Easter Thoughts

Mark 16:1-8

There’s a gap in the story. And for now, at least, I'm not speaking of the one that comes at the end of this resurrection account but one that's there in the story right before the narrative of our Gospel Story. One where the details are entirely left out --- perhaps because those first listeners to this account would have been so familiar with the routines that they didn’t need to be told.  Perhaps also because what took place after dusk that Friday and through the day on Saturday so paled in comparison with what came next.
Still I found myself pausing in the gap this week.  Wondering about where the time and energy of those first to the tomb was spent between the moment when they followed to see where the body of Jesus was laid and when we meet them again on that early Sunday morning on their way to Jesus' tomb.  I wonder about their Sabbath that week.
Now I'm sorry to say I don’t know all that much about Sabbath keeping…. at least not in the traditional sense which is spoken of in all of our Gospel accounts.  My ‘best’ image of what Sabbath keeping might have looked like comes from places like "Fiddler on the Roof" whose images are centuries removed from what would have been experienced in the time of Jesus and to tell you the truth ‘paging’ through Wikipedia didn’t serve to enlighten me all that much.  What I do understand though is that women were in charge of the preparations making possible this regular cessation of routine.  What I do know is that it was weekly time set apart to focus on the ancient stories which gave the people their ground and identity: a time for rest and for ritually acknowledging that God is God and we are not.  And what I do know is that at least part of the presenting reason Jesus found himself on the cross was that he did not ‘keep’ Sabbath in the way that was expected then. 
And so I find myself wondering about those women now… those who were looking on from a distance: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome.  I wonder if they thought they would just break away for a just a while that Friday afternoon,trusting whatever was on the cook-fire to the watchful eyes of an eldest daughter or granddaughter.  And I wonder then if it was force of will that kept them there at the foot of the cross for as long as they stayed or if time stood still for them and all other responsibilities just faded away.  And I wonder if they found themselves hurrying home then before sunset to finish things up at the last minute.  So that in spite of everything, their families might mark and celebrate Sabbath that week.  And I wonder about that long Saturday for them. I wonder if the ancient stories heard and told were comfort and promise for them or just welcome distraction from the grief that was clouding everything now.  I wonder if they were able to ‘rest’ at all that long Sabbath day or if they were edgily counting the hours until they could go out and purchase the spices they would need early the next day.
And I wonder about the people who will gather in all of our places of worship this Easter morning to hear again a story many of them have heard over and over again.  I wonder what grief, what loss, what worry, what fear will be clouding their hearts as they step into a place bathed in lilies and the sounds of trumpeted Alleluias.  I wonder if for them this hour shared will be a distraction to be gotten through before they get back to other matters pressing on their minds and hearts or if they will hear in the ancient story retold a promise that will then somehow come alive right before their eyes as they return to their lives in a world which all too often seems to hold a whole lot more despair than hope, more cynicism than trust, more death than life.  I wonder if some among us, like those women on that first Easter morning, I wonder if we will see God's promises kept in unexpected ways and places on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning or Wednesday  night.  And I wonder how our celebrating this Good News of God defeating death again this Easter Day will help us all to experience it, embrace it, and bear witness to it out there in the world!   
There's a gap in the story to be sure.  And of course there's that other gap in the story at the end. For we don't hear where the women went next in the face of their fear.  Except we know that couldn't have been the end of it else you and I wouldn't be here today joining our Alleluias! to those of generations who have gone before.  We know they must have found all the pieces fitting together ---- embracing then the wonder of God at work bringing life out of death as God had always done.  And of course, they must have told what they saw --- or rather what they didn't see that early Easter morning. Indeed, just think of how much richer still their Sabbath keeping must have been for the rest of their lives as they took deep into their hearts the wonder of what God does while we rest.  For while they rested and prayed and heard the old stories again that Sabbath Day so long ago, God was busy getting ready to turn the world upside down.  God was filling in the gap with life and hope and joy!  For Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen, Indeed!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!  Amen.
  1. What do you think that particular Sabbath held for those women?
  2. In what ways do the stories they would have retold enable you to see God at work in the world today?  How about the Easter Story?  Does it help you to see Resurrection in the world even now?
  3. How do you enter the Easter Celebration this year?  Is it gift or distraction or both?
  4. What examples do you have of "God at work" while you rest?  How do you see God 'filling in the gap' in your life?  In the world?