Saturday, September 29, 2012

Divorce Court

Mark 10:2-16

Before I begin, let me say I write these words with humble heart today, asking forgiveness, if needed, of those who know more of what I attempt to speak than I can possibly begin to comprehend. Even so, I am diving in here, with a certain sense that this is tender ground we walk on now.
I wound up in the wrong Divorce Court a few weeks ago.

I had gone to support a friend, but was running a little late and there wasn't time to connect before her court time.  I entered the courtroom on the second floor, double checking the schedule outside the door just to be sure I was in the right one.  It appeared that I was.

I took my place quietly in the second row of hard wooden chairs and looked around.  I didn't see the person I had come there for, but it did seem as though things were running behind.  Besides, I've been through this before with ones dear to me.  Sometimes people are meeting with attorneys behind other closed doors.  So I sat quietly and watched and waited while pair by pair men and women stood before the judge.  He would ask questions.  They would respectfully answer 'yes' or 'no.'  He would tell them to come back later or would reflect on the fact that one or the other hadn't shown up the last time or he would double check to be sure they knew what it meant that they were going ahead without legal representation.  I was especially struck by the couple who found themselves standing there after having been married less than a year.  There were no children to be considered and little material property accumulated, so in their case it really did appear to be cut and dry.  That's only the case though if one doesn't consider the human toll...

It felt strange to sit and watch and listen without emotional attachment to any of the parties.  I have sat in that chair before when this was not the case --- when my heart was literally breaking for the pain behind the formal words spoken and perfunctory decisions made.  When I believed that divorce was as right as it could be, necessary even, for the individuals involved to come to any kind of healing and wholeness.  But even in those times, just like on this recent afternoon, the fact that we know that marriage is a contract which can be broken with a few strokes of a pen and entries into a computer database doesn't begin to get at the struggle behind it all. One might not at first notice if you sat next to me on this recent afternoon, that in every single case there were lives leaving the courtroom limping, wounded in ways which might well take years and years to heal.  For human beings can't be quantified on paper.  We enter into such 'contracts' with open hearts and when the wounds become so deep the marriage can no longer be sustained, that does not necessarily mean the wounds just go away.  Both the wounds that are old and those that continue to be inflicted among and between the people involved.

This week, again, we have before us one of those texts many of us pastors would rather avoid.  We have wondered at the meaning of these words in our own lives, perhaps.  Or we have people in our congregations who are divorced and many of them, if they are so blessed, have found a way to love again. Jesus' words about 'adultery' seem harsh to us... and perhaps that is made more so by the church's long standing tendency to make more of this particular human failing or struggle than we have of others.  Those who have somehow survived divorce itself with all of its heart-wrenching losses --- of relationship or hope or place in a community or some combination thereof, are left then to sort out just what that means among the rest of us who almost can't seem to keep ourselves from choosing sides --- leaving one or the other out.  It happens in congregations, too, to be sure.  I know you've seen it where both members of a couple have been active and then one or the other has to choose whether to move on or to stay in a place where they may not feel nearly as welcome as before.  And yes, even today, with all of its prevalence, there is still a kind of judgment that comes as we seem compelled to sort out fault and blame, seeking perhaps to begin to understand.  My heart breaks every time.

And so it is I don't know exactly how I'll preach this week.  I can offer here only a few starting thoughts.

1.  You will notice that Jesus doesn't jump immediately into the debate.  He puts it back on those asking the question with another question.  To be sure, the Pharisees make no mention of, not even the slightest nod to the often profound human pain behind their challenge.  They seem entirely insensitive to the real brokenness behind the scenario they offer now as they try to trip Jesus up.

2.  It seems to me that Jesus' speaking of adultery here is simply descriptive.  It is just plain hard.  Such brokenness can not be within God's intent for any one of us.  Adultery, in its most basic sense, means that something has been altered at its core in a way that was not intended at its inception.  God does not intend for this to be.  In fact, the 'adultery' might well have been so many years before one is divorced and remarried.  For wouldn't cruelty, abuse, disdain, and neglect also be outside of God's intent?  

3.  I think if Jesus were to step into the experience of any one of us who has known the judgment of others in the wake of divorce --- I think Jesus today would turn it back on those of us who are inclined to judge.  For that can't be what God intends either.  Indeed, although my own experience does not fit the scenario behind Jesus' words today, am I not also guilty of adultery?  Am I not also among those not living up to or into the life God fully intended for me?  Who am I to judge?

4.  I am grateful that at least this text takes this on.  For shouldn't we in the church be able to talk about the things that matter?  Even so, it is always risky from the pulpit where what we say can easily be so misunderstood --- especially since there is seldom ready opportunity for those engaged in the listening side of the exchange to ask questions or to seek clarification.

5.  I do still wonder though where the 'grace' or 'gift' is in this hard text.  Is it in what I have already named or is it something else?  What do you think?

No, I don't know exactly how I will preach this week.  I hope I will do so with gentleness and with grace.

As for my trip to Divorce Court a few weeks ago, I never did find my way to the right courtroom.  I was sorry I wasn't there to support a friend.  As I left though, I found myself deeply aware of what a rare thing it is to sit in a place like that without the ties of history or loyalty --- to not sit there with a broken heart.  I wasn't sorry for the experience, but as I preach this week I will do so knowing that almost none of us have the privilege of walking into those places detached from the struggle and hurt of it all.  I hope that knowledge will shape my preaching, too.

  • What experience do you bring to this text this week?  Have you ever sat with broken heart in such a place?  If so, how has that shaped your life and faith?  How does that impact how you read and understand Jesus' words today?
  • Do you think people of faith still put the same stigma on divorce as we once did?  Why or why not?  If so, why do you think that is? If not, then what has changed?
  • What is the 'good news' of this lesson before us now?  Where do you discover God's love and grace within these words?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Struggling Still With This Hard Text...

Mark 9:38-50

I was called upon to officiate at a funeral last Saturday.

I didn't know the one who had died, as he was not a member of the congregation I am now serving and apparently his connection to his own congregation had waned since his wife's death and his deteriorating health made it impossible to get to worship.   Regardless, it's always been my practice to take most any funeral.  I can't imagine what it would be to not be cared for in such a fragile and tender time and so I have always done my best to fill that role whenever I'm called upon to do so.  I find I've never regretted it.  I almost always receive more than I give.  This time was no exception.

On Thursday afternoon I stopped in to see his daughter and son.  This is something I always do, but it is, of course, that much more important when I have no acquaintance with the family.  I have found though that even if I do know the person, they will always know him better... so those calls are part condolence and part listening deeply so as to be able to shape a message which speaks to the hearts of those who are grieving.

They shared many things with me that afternoon.  They talked about their dad's lifetime vocation of carpentry and his gift for mentoring others in his trade.  They spoke of brokenness in relationships and healing experienced.  They talked about his joy in his grandchildren and his love of history.  And they shared with me the circumstances of his dying.

For he was certainly not old ----  only in his late sixties.  I was told he had suffered a stroke a few years back and he had experienced circulation problems ever since.  A few weeks ago when the doctor told him it was necessary to amputate his foot, else the infection would spread, he simply said no. He told his children he would be fine and in spite of their desire to keep him here no matter what, they bowed to his wishes.  Within a few weeks he was gone.

He knew his limits, it seemed.  He knew what sort of life would be acceptable to him and what would not.  And amputation was clearly not part of it.

I respected his decision.  It's not often that I hear of one who says finally that enough is enough and is willing to trust God with the rest.  This man did.

So I suppose it is not difficult to see how I returned to that story as I grappled with this week's Gospel with Jesus' talk of voluntary amputation. Indeed, I have to say I have always found this to be a hard text and one I would rather just skip over on my way to the more palatable of Jesus' teachings.  I, for one, can remember how these harsh words about cutting off a limb in order to keep you from sinning filled me with terror when I was a child.  Back then I had no idea I could take this as metaphor, and maybe in the end, that's okay.  For there is something in the violence of the image Jesus offers now which jolts me into taking it a little more seriously.

Indeed, Jesus seems to be saying that it may not look like life as you have known it or have come to appreciate it, but it is still life --- fuller life even --- if it is in keeping with the direction God would have you go.  Jesus appears to be saying that some things are worth giving up for the sake of something better.  Indeed, to carry out the metaphor of the man whose funeral I was part of last week, if something doesn't go, that which has infected us will take our lives anyway.  At least it will take the only life that matters: a life that has to do with protecting the most vulnerable among us ---"little ones," to be sure, but perhaps even more precisely, those new to the faith, or struggling in the faith. It matters that much.

Now I suppose this may mean something different for all of us.  I'm not sure I can say in any definitive way what it even means to "put a stumbling block before one of these little ones. ''  For now I only know these words are prompting me to open my eyes and my heart to wonder at its meaning for me and for the larger worshiping community I call home.  Indeed, I wonder if Jesus speaks of cutting out our fear to stand up for what is right or if he speaks of my ridding myself of my non-attentiveness to the struggle of others, so preoccupied I tend to be with my own journey.  I wonder, too, if he also speaks of something more sinister that lives within me, perhaps in all of us, which will always tend to place my own comfort before that of others.  And I wonder at what forms that 'stumbling block' takes.  It seems in the end we are left to fill in the blank.

Back to the man whose funeral I was part of last Saturday.  For him an amputation was just one more indignity, one more tearing away at his independence, one more breaking down of his perception of who he was. It was one step closer to an ending which seemed inevitably to be coming soon anyway.  His life had been diminishing for some time now and he did not see this 'taking away' as bringing anything other than more of the same.  And while no one knows what would have happened if his decision had been different, as I said before I respected his decision and am grateful for the peace he apparently had in it.

For you and me, though, the kind of taking away or cutting off that Jesus speaks of now is one that leads not to less, but to more.  And while it  is not what one might expect in looking for wholeness or completeness or fullness of life, it is, by Jesus' measure, the only 'life' that matters.  It is life that it not just about me, myself, alone, but is one where I find myself all tied up with the well-being of the 'other': especially those most weak, most new, most vulnerable: "the little ones."  Indeed, I can only pray that I will keep being shown the way to living the life Jesus points to now.  And that the greater gifts Jesus envisions for God's people today will one day be ours to experience in all their fullness.
  • Do you find yourself wanting to skip over these words of Jesus?  Why or why not?
  • How do you make sense of Jesus' words for us in the hard text before us now?
  • Is it helpful for you to read these words literally or not?  When you hear it metaphorically, how does it speak to you?
  • What needs to be cut away or cut off in you to bring greater health or wholeness? To bring your community to greater health or wholeness?


Saturday, September 15, 2012

A View From the Other Side of the Pulpit: The Price of Welcoming

Mark 9:30-37

I pulled into the parking lot at the community center at a little after 5 a.m. last Monday morning for the beginning of a new session of my weight training/conditioning class.  It struck me that there were fewer spots available than usual but I didn't think much about it until I climbed the stairs and walked into the open room where I've been working hard with others twice a week since January.  As I entered the brightly lit room, I looked around to notice that the small, by now familiar group of 7 or 8 bleary eyed women had suddenly become 15 or 16.  And someone else's mat was where mine usually was.

I was surprised at how that jarred me. Even so, I quietly moved and found an open spot near the center of the room where I rolled out my mat and laid my weights down.  The view was different from there.  I didn't know the people to my right or my left.  Still, I tried to convince myself, I was there for the exercise and the rest didn't much matter and so I put my head down determined to focus on that. The music started and we circled the room to warm up.  We returned to our places and began the same sort of routine that had become familiar to me over the last nine months.  This should have righted things for me, but then I discovered there was also this: since there were twice as many people there our very encouraging instructor simply couldn't pay attention to all of us in the same way she had only the week before.  To be sure, it was only right for her to be showering her encouragement on those newest to this early morning torture session.  Indeed, I'm not sure I heard the words "good job" with my name attached even once that morning.

Wow.  As I drove home and then into church later that morning I wondered if this is how people in congregations I've served have felt whenever we experienced growth.  It's true, we joke about someone 'sitting in someone else's pew' and many of us have horror stories about when guests have been rudely told just that.  But I'm quite certain I have never experienced what that feels like from the other side of the pulpit.  My place up front is always reserved, after all.  I tend to arrive early enough on Sunday morning so that regardless of how many come later, a parking space is easy to come by.  And as for the necessary diversion of the leader's attention?  Well, when the roles were reversed, I have to say that bothered me more than I would have expected. Indeed, intellectually, I know that for every new person a congregation welcomes, key leaders do find their energy being redirected, no doubt at the expense of others who had grown accustomed to receiving their share of just that.  I just hadn't experienced what that felt like on the other side before.

To be sure, this seems like a good thing to have experienced in the days before we dig into the Gospel story which speaks of the disciples' squabble over who came first and Jesus' reminder that our call is to be last and least, like a little child.  It's good for me to know first hand what that feels like.  I mean, it's easy for me to preach that from where I stand every week.  It's not always so easy to embrace it from the midst of the congregation where it has real consequences.

And so I find I wonder now how it is that we as communities find ourselves able to heed Jesus' invitation today to 'welcome.'  I wonder where we get the clarity, the strength, the courage, the confidence, to be and do what is right in this way.  It must be more than simply knowing that new people are necessary in order to keep any institution, whether it be an exercise class or a congregation, going strong.  In fact, if that's our only motivator, it never really works.  At least not in churches.  Rather, it must, somehow, come from a deeper love for the last and the least and the lost that we would be willing to give up our space and welcome,  focusing always on what matters most of all.

It's not easy, to be sure, and I do wonder if this is why many congregations are less than welcoming, why so many of us are not growing.  And while I have a deeper empathy today for why that is so, I'm still hanging on to the hope that even my seemingly normal self-centered nature can be overcome.  It matters too much for it not to be possible, after all.

Perhaps this is how it can happen.  Maybe it has something to do with my remembering the open armed welcome I received when I was first new. I expect it has something to do with looking at the stranger who took my place and being glad for her that she's being brought to something which has become so important to me.  I'm wondering if it has something to do with growing deeper in my own certainty that this (whether it's my experience in an exercise class or in this church) is not first or only about meeting my needs, but that God has something wonderful in store for the whole wide world.  And if someone has taken my place?  Well, maybe that means we're that much closer to experience God's amazing intent for us all!
  1. Have you ever experienced the consequences of welcoming others in a not so positive way?  What was that like for you?
  2. Given the seemingly built in barriers to growth, how do you think we ever get past it?
  3. Can you think of a time when you were new, when you were welcomed and made to feel at home?  Does standing still in that memory help to deepen your own motivation to welcome others?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

"Taking Up Our Crosses"

Mark 8:27-38

I don’t have a story this week.  What I share now is a moment, a memory, a light-bulb turning on realization I’ve never forgotten and that continues to inform my every day.

It was more than 15 years ago that I found myself caught up short.  We were then still keeping vigil with my dad.  The days had been long with one running into another and with each passing hour it became more and more apparent what the outcome would be.  All that time while we tried to hang on to hope we knew ever more surely that it would need to be a larger hope which would carry us now.

I can remember the experience of suffering and loss like it was yesterday.  I can remember thinking as I walked down the brightly lit hospital corridor --- I can remember thinking I wished I could shield my sisters from it somehow… not wanting them to have to feel what I was feeling as we experienced the loss of one who had loved us our whole lives long.  And as I said, I can remember the moment I caught myself up short standing still in a new realization, for two things occurred to me in almost the same instant. 

One was this: I could not protect them from it.  They were in this, too, of course, and the loss inevitably would be every bit as much theirs to experience as it was mine. Nothing could change that.

And two, even if somehow I could shield them from the heart-ache, I knew that would not be fair.  For I was already discovering that with the pain came enormous gifts:  Strength building, faith strengthening, community celebrating gifts.  Even in the midst of it, I found I was so grateful for those and more and I knew, somehow, that they would not be mine to embrace in the same way had I not traveled the particular path that that had been ours to share in those last weeks.  Even if I could protect them from the struggle, I knew I would not want to deprive them of the gifts and the two seemed inseparable
The words Jesus offers today are ones we know by heart.  “If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me...,” he says.  To be sure those words have been misunderstood and misinterpreted, for suffering is not always redemptive.  And those words are ones we can only find our own way into and through for the calls God places upon us, the crosses we are called to take up, can be as unique as our DNA.  We can't say for someone else what their cross will be. What our crosses have in common is the simple fact of their existence.  Not one of us will get through without struggle. And there is this: Often, we will find the struggle, the suffering, does bring unexpected gifts.  Especially as we do as Jesus did as we take up our crosses and follow him --- not for our own sakes, but for the sake of others, for the sake of the world.

And so it is that I look back to that time fifteen years ago and I expect some of my impulse to protect those I loved was selfless.  I was the big sister, and to see them hurt, hurt me, too.  Ah yes, there was that.  It occurs to me now that perhaps my instinct to take their pain away was not only for their sakes.  It was also for me.
It's not uncommon, of course.  I have experienced this in the well-meaning words and actions of others, to be sure --- in the quick assurance that all will be well, in the blithe promise of prayer, in words urging me to do what I needed to do to heal and move on.  And I have done this to others, too, I know.  At the same time I am ever so grateful to be able to say that I have also been blessed with the presence of others my whole life long who have simply stood with me in the silence, in the struggle, and resisted the urge to fix it --- allowing me to take up my cross --- whatever it is --- and to experience it with all of its struggle and all of its joy. 

It is hard, of course, to look into the face of pain and not walk away.  It is difficult to stand still and not offer advice or platitudes.  It is challenging to only listen.  For the pain of others hooks our own, especially if we are particularly close to the one who is suffering.  It reminds us of where we have been, or where we haven’t been and have always been afraid we might just be. It calls to mind, perhaps, the crosses we once carried and then abandoned for it just finally seemed too hard.  Or it offers us a window into what we will, one day, perhaps experience ourselves.  It takes every ounce of will that I have some days just to stand still and receive it.  To not give advice or to fill the silence with my own stories of struggle.  To not flinch, or judge, or sometimes even to pray too soon --- especially if my praying offers me an easy or quick exit from the room. (Pastors, I expect you know of what I speak here.)  Indeed, this is one way I take up my cross and follow Jesus.  I seek to allow others to carry theirs.  To not leave them alone in it, perhaps --- but also to simply let them experience the struggle so that they might also receive the gifts which will almost inevitably be theirs.

Now this is not always true, of course.  Sometimes taking up our crosses means doing all we can to shield others from unnecessary pain ---- especially the vulnerable among us.  More often than not though, most of the time, I have found that for me it means getting myself out of the way and quietly standing with others as they walk the path put before them, taking up the cross that is theirs.  Many days it's the hardest thing I do.

  • What does it mean to you to 'take up your cross' and follow Jesus?
  • What unexpected gifts have your received when you have 'taken up your cross' and followed Jesus?
  • Are you ever tempted to deny others the 'cross' that is theirs to take up?  Why or why not?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

"Of Sidewalk Messages and Crumbs from God's Table"

Mark 7:24-37

A couple of months ago I was out on my early morning walk.  The sun was not quite up as I headed down Meadow Lane and turned left on Borden.

I don't remember now what was on my mind that morning as I tried to pick up my pace and turn my walk into more than just an easy stroll.  I do recall I was walking with my head down when suddenly through the still dim morning light I was picking up words on the sidewalk.  Every couple of yards or so someone had written an encouraging message.  It occurred to me then that there had been a 5K run on that route the week-end before.  There had been no rain since then so the messages were still there, clearly written for one person in particular, but left behind for all the rest of us to enjoy as well:

"You Go Girl!"  "You can do it!"  "You are awesome!" 
Written in colorful sidewalk chalk, this went on for blocks. And the funny thing was with every passing encouraging word I felt my spirits lift and my pace pick up just a little more. It didn't matter, somehow, that the words weren't meant for me. It didn't matter that they were 'left over', crumbs even, from someone else's important day. Still, they fed me. They were enough to completely turn my day around.

In today's Gospel we find Jesus in conversation with a Syrophoenician woman.  What we know of her is this.  She was a Gentile. She was a mother. And she was persistent --- driven, no doubt, by a great love for her suffering daughter. Clearly she would go to whatever lengths were necessary to get her child the help she needed. So with courage and tenacity she crossed all kinds of barriers and went to one she had heard could make the difference she was so desperate for.  She went to Jesus.

Only the conversation that follows is not one that you and I who are so accustomed to thinking of  "Gentle Jesus" would think we would hear now. Indeed, I have read every commentary on my shelf this week and I still have trouble comprehending how or why this conversation begins in the way that it does, with Jesus' refusal to simply give this understandably desperate woman what she came for. And I have little way of beginning to understand or explain why it is he goes so far as to imply this woman and all of her kind are 'dogs' --- as I understand it, then and now, a profound insult in that part of the world.  Somehow I am not made that much more comfortable by those who assert that the words on the page give us no way of knowing Jesus' tone or facial expression.  Maybe his tone was kind and a smile played on his lips as he said it, but if that were the case, surely it would have helped if the one who recorded this story would have told us so then.

So I have to say that since I don't really fully understand, I do find myself tempted, once more, to jump to the second healing story in this week's Gospel.  It's taking some effort for me to stand still in this one and to try to comprehend and accept the implications of what we know is so:  that the gifts Jesus brought were not meant first for the Syrophoenician woman or her daughter.  And that the gifts Jesus brings were not first meant for the likes of you and me.  He was sent for the children of Israel.

Even so, if we stand still in the story before us for a while, the gifts are still more than we can comprehend. Indeed, the wonder of this story is that Jesus engages in conversation with this woman at all --- and with a woman who is a Gentile at that.  And the wonder of this story, particularly in that time and place, is that the woman does not back down.  Perhaps it is so that there was something in Jesus' demeanor which invited her to challenge him. Or perhaps she was simply driven by great love. Finally, the wonder of this story is that the woman knows that even the crumbs of God's goodness and power would be more than enough. That just a little bit of the gifts of God go a long way. That even just the crumbs from God's table are for those who receive them like a feast which will change the world.

It is so very true of course.  I see it in the place I am serving every single day. In the experience of how simply standing still and listening to someone can change the course of a conversation. Just crumbs, really.  In seeing one of our own who had not been with us in a while return to worship when members of the congregation took the time to send a collective sympathy card when his mother died.  Only crumbs, if you think about it, with a first class stamp attached. In the kindness of a staff member who walked a young couple looking for a place to have their wedding through the building --- and how they couldn't get over his hospitality and now are thinking this may be just the church home they have been looking for.  Just crumbs.  It doesn't take much, it seems, not if it comes from God's table.

A few months ago on my morning walk I was surprised by 'crumbs' left behind.  They were not meant for me at all. I even knew there were not meant for me, but left over, they fed me still.  It seems to me the power of God is like that, too. It just doesn't take much to change everything. And even if they were not meant for us first, it doesn't much matter now for still we share in them, too. By God's grace and power the gifts of God are ours. All of ours. And what a wonder that is.

  • What do you make of Jesus' conversation with the Syrophoenician woman?  Try to put yourself there at the table as it develops. 
  •  Does it make any difference to you that the gifts of God were not first meant for Gentiles, for you and me?  Why or why not?
  • Can you think of times when just 'crumbs' have made all the difference?  In your life, your family, your community, in the life of your congregation?
  • Can you think of others for whom these 'crumbs' might just make all the difference? What would it look like to share with them?