Saturday, July 28, 2012

"Starving One's Body to Feed One's Soul"

I heard this said a while back and it has stayed with me…
 When serving a meal, the host with the fewest material resources will ask if her guests have had enough to eat…
That those who call themselves “middle class” will wonder about how the meal tasted…
And that those on the high end of the economic spectrum will be concerned about a meal’s presentation…
I count myself in the middle group and have to say, that most of the time, have not been all that concerned about a meal’s presentation.  At the same time, as you might expect, my cupboards have never been empty.  Hunger is not something I’m terribly acquainted with, unless you count those tiny twinges I sometimes feel when I’m coming up on mealtime --- but even with those, I’m never certain if they are prompted by actual hunger or simply the time on the clock.
I don’t know much of hunger.  For that matter, I can't say I have ever intentionally chosen to get to know it better.
And so we come now to week’s Gospel lesson where we hear Jesus speak of being the ‘bread of life’ and his promise that ‘whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’  And while it is true that given my lack of experience (and that of most of my listeners this Sunday) with actual physical hunger, I am tempted to extrapolate this to all those sorts of hunger which I have known: hunger for recognition, for acceptance, for healing, for hope… and yes, of course, that would also be true.  Jesus, no doubt, is speaking of those hungers as well.  Even so, I'm going to start where Jesus does where his first listeners understood him well. With physical hunger.
A couple of days ago I was running back and forth between various kinds of visits and had my radio tuned into the local NPR station.  The Olympics are upon us again and I have to say, while the competition itself is interesting, the stories that have shaped those athletes are what always capture my imagination.  I wondered then as I drove and listened --- Is this the first year that we have fully paid attention to the huge diversity of those who will put their skills to the test on the field of play this Olympic season, or did I just somehow miss it in previous years? For I have noted more than one story about Muslim athletes in this Olympic cycle. As I drove and listened I found this story, in particular, offers a parallel to what Jesus speaks of in this week’s Gospel.
For it seems that Ramadan and the Olympic Competition fall at the same time this year.  Ramadan, of course, is that holy season in which Muslim brothers and sisters will be called upon to fast from sunrise to sunset.
So here is how the story begins,

Mazen Aziz, representing Egypt in the 2012 Summer Olympics, has trained for the 10,000 meter, open water swim for years.  It’s a grueling race that can take upwards of 1 hour and 45 minutes, depending on the waves, current, or water temperature.  But Aziz is Muslim, and with the Olympics falling during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the 22-year-old athlete had to make a choice: be in top physical condition or maintain a primary tenet of his faith.
It turns out the authorities in Egypt have given Aziz a way out, that he can postpone his fast, just as Muslims who are sick or pregnant can.  This won’t be true for all Muslim athletes, however.  Others will have to make a much more difficult choice.

Indeed, for many the dilemma boils down to this. As Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, who serves at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Virginia, explains it, "Do I starve my body and feed my soul?  Or in this month, do I starve my soul to feed my body, and my appetite for Olympic gold?” (for the whole story click here.)

Now it seems to me that understanding is not so different from the one Jesus offers now when he says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life…”
(John 6:27)

So I'm thinking now of turning my attention to the whole ancient discipline of fasting.  To try it on and consider what it may teach me about hunger.  Maybe this will mean fasting in ways I have not yet.  Perhaps it will mean simply paying attention when I wake in the morning to the hunger I always feel before breaking that daily fast.  It could be that even that would help me go deeper in my understanding of what it is to hunger for the things that matter, the food that endures, the food that is Christ's love and power and forgiveness and hope.
  • What do you think Jesus is getting at when he speaks of 'working for the food that endures?'  Does the comparison to Muslim athletes needing to make a choice between feeding one's soul or one's body work?  Why or why not?
  • Have you ever known hunger?  If so, how do you think you hear Jesus' words today differently as a result of your experience?  If not, how do you hear Jesus' words in this week's Gospel?
  • What disciplines help you keep in touch with your hunger for the 'food that endures?'  Do you fast?  How do you pray? What role does regular worship play in this for you? (And for those of us who are regular leaders of worship, how does that work for you?)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

On Barbeque Grills and a Boy's Lunch

John 6:1-21

Several years ago I served on a bishop's staff.

It was early on the Friday morning of the first Synod Assembly he would preside over.  For such gatherings one always wants things to go smoothly, but never more than the first one.

The evening before we had been out to dinner with staff and officers.  The meal was cut short because of the terrible storms that blew through.  When the restaurant lost power we knew it was time to call it a night.

As I drove home the evidence of the storm was all around me. Whole oak trees had been pulled up by their roots.  When I arrived home I discovered I was also without power.  I was certainly grateful when I heard it click on at 1 a.m. but a few hours later I found myself in the basement hard at work with a shop vac.

It was still very early when I ran upstairs to pick up a ringing telephone. It was our bishop calling.  Apparently at his hotel they were still without power.  It would probably have been a sleepless night for him anyway, but this really gave him something to focus his anxiety on. He spoke aloud of seven hundred Lutherans who would be driving into town in a few hours he wondered then about how we were going to feed them if there was no power... He had already worked out an answer to his wondering, though, for in his next breath he suggested that in the next couple of hours I call every Lutheran church in town and ask them to put out a call for charcoal grills.  "We'll set them up on the football field," he said.  "And we'll make sure everyone is fed."

I can still remember standing in my pajamas and smiling to myself as I listened.  I assured him that I was certain Augustana College (the site for our Assembly) had everything well in hand --- but I promised I would get over there early to be sure.  Sure enough when I arrived a little before seven o'clock the lights were on, although our hosts told us they were just minutes from renting a refrigerated truck to preserve the food waiting to be served.  In the end, seven hundred Lutherans were fed in the usual way that week-end --- having no idea how close they came to being part of a miracle much like the one those who first followed Jesus experienced so long ago.

There are, of course, a variety of interpretations for the story before us now.  Some prefer to think of it as a kind of supernatural miracle --- where a boy's meager lunch was, by Jesus' touch, able to serve thousands.  Others insist it would be as much of a miracle if, following a child's example, everyone simply put on the table what they had brought --- thus seeing to it that everyone's hunger was satisfied.  In a world where we are all too quick to hold tight to what is 'ours' and awfully slow to share, the latter would seem to be as amazing an event as any.

It's hard to say which interpretation is best.  In the end, perhaps it is enough to simply hear this story as a vivid reminder that there is enough.  In Jesus' presence there is always more than enough. Enough food, enough space, enough kindness, enough...

At the same time, I do wonder what would have happened if thirteen years ago I had found myself calling up every Lutheran church in town putting out a call for charcoal grills.  Wouldn't that have been a sight to see?   And wouldn't that be a story we would still be telling?
  1. In many of our congregations a lot of our conversations center around 'scarcity.'  There is never enough money, never enough youth, never enough people, never enough... How might this story contribute to that conversation?
  2. I often wonder what tone Andrew used when he pointed out the boy's lunch of five barley loaves and two fish.  I sometimes imagine he was joking --- or at the very least there was skepticism behind his question.  Do you suppose we also might be overlooking resources which, on first glance, seem as though they would not be enough?
  3. In a crowd of 5000 plus, I wonder how many even recognized the miracle that was happening right before their eyes.  For all their enjoyment of the simple and plentiful meal before them, they may hardly  have noticed where it came from.  I imagine this is also often true of me, that I don't have the viewpoint to recognize the gifts that are right in front of me.  And I wonder how I might become more adept at recognizing and more consciously receiving and celebrating those gifts.  What do you think?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Breaking Down the Dividing Wall...

Ephesians 2:11-22

This is an old story, but it's one I return to over and over again.

I was new in a call and still a relatively new pastor.

The congregation where I was pastor had been through a tough conflict before I arrived, but I was young enough and naive enough so that I didn't fully realize all the hard work that was before me.

I had been there about six months when I received a letter from a leader in the congregation.  In it she enumerated her complaints about my ministry.  It seemed that from her point of view in the short amount of time I had been there I had done a great deal wrong.  In fact, I believe she wrote out at least fifteen mis-steps I had made, carefully spelling them out for me one by one.

I'll not soon forget sitting in my office and opening that letter.  I can still remember the flood of emotions I experienced as I read it: anger and shame and fear all rolled into one.  I put the letter in my top desk drawer.  Then I pulled it out again.  The first few times I read it I could only react to her words.  After my fourth or fifth reading and after several days I was able to begin to comprehend it.  By about the twelfth reading I could finally admit there was some truth to what she said.

I knew almost from the start that I couldn't leave that letter unanswered.  And so finally I called the sender of the letter and asked if we could meet.  A few days later she came into my office and sat opposite me.  She pulled out her copy of her letter. I had mine open as well.

I hope I prayed with her first, but I honestly can't recall if I did.  I only remember walking through her points one by one and admitting that she was absolutely right about numbers one, two and four.  And that there may have been some truth to number three, but as for the rest, well, I couldn't agree with her there.

Something happened though as I owned my part of the responsibility for what lay broken between us.  The tension in the room dropped.  We were able to talk openly about the hurt behind her complaints and I was able to ask her forgiveness.  And while it's true that she and her husband did finally leave our congregation for another one, they did not leave angry.  And since their daughter and grandchildren remained and were active in that place, they chose to visit from time to time and our encounters were always cordial.

I've told this story dozens of times --- whenever I've been called upon to lead a workshop on congregational conflict resolution. After I told it to a gathering of intern pastors and their supervisors one of the more seasoned pastors piped up and said, "But, Janet, all she cared about on her list was 1, 2, and 4.  She was just piling on with the other 12!"

I imagine he was right, although that hadn't occurred to me before that.  Even so, it was a pivotal moment in my life as a pastor.  I learned to take responsibility and admit my mistakes when they were mine to own.  I learned how important it is to do so face to face.  And I was gifted with a real experience of 'Christ as our peace' that we hear about in our second lesson for this week-end.  For what had been broken experienced some healing that day. In ways I hardly knew to hope for when I first made that call to invite her to come in and talk to me, the wall that divided us was no more.

Now I suppose one does not have to attribute such as this to Jesus.  And yet, I am grateful to be able to say that it is among the community of God's people I have learned it best: the truth that yes, I will certainly make mistakes, but there can also be forgiveness among the saints like nowhere else.  And while, yes, I'm certain this can and does happen in other ways and places, I haven't much seen it.  Indeed, as God's people we have the opportunity to model this for a world which sees it almost nowhere else.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case.  In fact, I know that far too many of us can tell stories of  times and places where we feel a whole lot more like strangers and aliens than like members of the same household of God.  Places and people among whom walls continue to divide us in the very places where they should not.

And so it is also true I have over and over again called God's people to seize the amazing opportunity that is ours to bear witness to the 'peace that is Jesus.'  To pay attention to what it means to be about tearing down the walls of anger and hurt and fear that would divide us.  And for us, it seems, it always begins with this: standing still in the blood of Jesus: that blood that signifies and teaches us to emulate great love and profound sacrifice and enduring hope in the face of that which would break us apart.  And perhaps sometimes the next step is as simple as admitting when we're wrong.
  1. When you consider what it is 'to be brought near by the blood of Christ,' what does this mean to you?  How have you experienced this?
  2. Is it easier to think of examples of when we have acted more like strangers and aliens than when we have acted like members of the same household?  What in your experience makes this so?
  3. How have you experienced the peace that is Jesus?  In your life?  In the life of your congregation?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

One Powerful Witness

Mark 6:14-29

There are no two ways about it.  The story before us now is one that always turns my stomach.

Not that I've ever been a huge fan of John the Baptist although it is likely I might have felt differently about him had I actually encountered him in his prime. Then perhaps his choice of attire and diet would not have seemed so strange for I would have been more familiar with his association with the prophet Elijah.  And while I can't imagine I would ever have been comfortable with John's very direct and occasionally accusatory preaching style, apparently his message of the need for repentance hit home for the people were flocking to hear him.

It was apparently no different for Herod, who also found himself admiring John, almost in spite of himself.  While we are not told where and how Herod first encountered John, in today's lesson we are told he doesn't quite know what to make of John.  On the one hand he seems to be almost afraid of him.  On the other hand, we hear that he liked to listen to John.  As mixed as he was on the matter, I suppose it comes as no surprise that in the end, Herod had his reputation, his pride, his power to protect. So when John stepped out of line and his criticism became personal, Herod had him put into prison.

And as we hear again today, it all goes down hill from there.  Some of the details are denied us in Mark's account, but even so it doesn't take much to let our imaginations picture the scene of an extravagant birthday party where as the wine flowed freely, both inhibitions and tongues were loosened.  Pretty soon Herod is promising the young dancing Herodias anything she wants and not long after that Herod finds himself backed into a corner.  He doesn't appear to have the courage or the moral fiber to weigh the difference between a promise made in a drunken show of extravagance and one that is more carefully thought out.  Att this point Herod seems to care only about his reputation and so he keeps his hastily made promise to Herodias and before we know it John's life is ended in a most gruesome way.

It always makes my stomach turn, the sordid, pointless waste described before us here.  And while it's true, of course, that the story of John's execution in many ways parallels and foretells that of Jesus' own death, I find myself wanting to go deeper into this story itself for its own sake.  Not the execution exactly, but rather Herod's experience of continuing to be haunted by John.  For at the beginning of this week's Gospel we hear that Herod has taken note of the amazing ministry of Jesus' disciples.  And Herod is certain that even though he received the certain evidence of John's death, somehow he ties to the witness of John and he's convinced John is back.

And so it seems to me it must have been some powerful witness lived and spoken by John.  And all he did was speak the truth.  The truth about Herod and his brother, Philip's wife, to be sure.  But also the larger truth about the importance of repentance in our lives and the even larger truth that was shared through his entire life as he pointed always to Jesus "the thongs of whose sandals he wasn't worthy to untie."  (Mark 1:7)

In fact, the sort of fascination Herod had with the fore-runner John is something that has never ceased so far as I can tell.  A few years back I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Istanbuhl. As we were touring Topkapi Palace I was treated to the sight of  "part of John the Baptist's arm" in a corner display case. I cringed at the sight and confess no small measure of disbelief. Still, I'm reminded that it doesn't go away, this desire to know for certain that John once was. A few weeks ago, in fact, a story popped up on my news feed asserting that once again it was believed that perhaps the bones of John the Baptist had been found.  (Don't ask me if the aforementioned part of his arm was at some point somehow separated from this most recent collection!)

One wonders why we want such physical proof of John for we really know little about his life.  Indeed, all we really know of John are the names of his parents and the fact that his birth was unexpected.  All we really know of John is that his diet and wardrobe were odd, at least by our standards. All we really know of John are snippets of his preaching, recorded and passed along for us to hear again each Advent.  Still, we wonder at him, this fore-runner of Jesus.  It make me think, to be sure, that one witness is a powerful thing.  For all John tried to do was clear the way in the hearts of his hearers for Jesus to be known.  All John tried to do was get himself out of the way so that all God's people could know the gift that Jesus was and is.

So it seems to me it doesn't take his bones to prove that John once lived.  The certainty that John once was lies in the truth of this witness which still rings true for us and sometimes through us as we seek to do the same...helping clear the way and getting ourselves out of the way so that others might encounter Jesus.  With or without his bones, we have plenty of the evidence that John was. Wherever we encounter another who, like John, points the way to Jesus.  Whenever we who follow Jesus find ourselves seeking to do the same.

It was, indeed, one powerful witness John shared for it was one that pointed to Jesus.  Herod's reaction reminds us today that the witness does not die even when the person does.  For the object of that witness lives.  In Christ Jesus and in all who follow him still.

  1. What do you make of the gruesome story before us now?  What is the 'good news' of this story for today's listeners?
  2. Why is it that we yearn for 'tangible proof' of the faith that is ours?  Would it make any difference to you if it could be proven that the bones of John the Baptist had been found?  Why or why not?
  3. What's the power of a witness?  Who do you know who has functioned like John the Baptist?  When have you been called to do so?