Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Posture of Hope

Luke 21:25-36

"Now when these things begin to take place, stand and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."  (Luke 21:28)
It is unexpected, it seems to me--- this kind of posture in the face of the struggle described in Luke's Gospel now.  Natural disasters are all about.  People are fainting out of 'fear and forboding' at what is coming upon the world. Even the powers of heaven will be shaken, we are told.  It is surely not typical or expected, it seems to me, to stand up and raise our heads when calamity is happening all around us.

In fact, I got a glimpse of its opposite just last week.  It was at the end of the funeral of a young man.  His death was entirely unexpected and there was not a person in the room who was not shaken.  His family thought it was the flu.  It turns out it was something much more profound and he died before they could get him medical attention.

At his mother's request the casket was left open. She was not yet ready to say good-bye.  So in the time we shared, I preached and prayed and commended him into God's eternal care.  And then the mourners filed by the open casket, one by one, pausing a moment to gaze at the lifeless face of their neighbor, friend, nephew, grandson, cousin, brother, son.  Other than his parents, it was the young men who moved me the most, somehow.  All in their mid-20's, they approached the body of their friend one by one or in pairs.  You could see in their postures how very tightly they were holding themselves.  If you looked at their faces you could see how hard they were working to hold back the tears. Their heads were bowed... staving off the suffering they did not want to feel or to show. 

It's not the kind of disaster Jesus describes in our Gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Advent.  But it had shaken their worlds nonetheless and their individual and collective instinct was not to stand tall looking for redemption.  No, rather, they bowed down, seeking to protect themselves from that which they could not fight or change.

So as I said, I find it quite remarkable that the call of this Sunday's Gospel is to stand up straight, expectantly, with our heads raised and our hearts watchful. As people of faith you and I are called to assume a posture of hope in the face of such despair. As I first think about it, it strikes me that to do so must be an act of determined will, for it runs contrary to our most basic instincts.

Indeed, it's hard to comprehend the promise that is meant for us beyond all that is described today.  It is difficult to believe that there will be anything more than what we can now see.  In fact, I've struggled to offer some way in which we can begin to be and do as Jesus calls us to be and do today.  How is it that we stand with our heads raised in hope in the face of suffering and despair?  I wondered all week at this, and then I realized the answer was right in front of me.  Or at least the beginning of an answer is there: right there in those young men at the end of that funeral last week.

For as you know, a whole lot of people --- perhaps especially people their age --- would not have shown up for their friend's funeral last Friday night.  How many times have any one of us been at least a little bit tempted to stay away because 'we want to remember them as they were' or 'I didn't really know his family anyway' or, if we're more honest, just because it would be too hard. And yet, those young men showed up anyway.  They didn't take the easy way out. They showed up and stayed until the end. They allowed themselves to encounter the suffering of their friend's brokenhearted parents.  And they walked into their own pain as well.

Perhaps this is where it begins. In our walking into our own suffering and the suffering of others.  In our willingness to stand up and be seen and heard in a world that is shaking all around us.  Oh, at first our heads may be bowed as we brace ourselves for the pain, but I expect that will not always be so.  For as we step into the large and small heartbreaks we live through, we will meet Jesus there where he has always been.  For that is where Jesus always is: waiting in the midst of the pain to somehow show us the way to new hope and new joy and new life.

And once we've done that for a lifetime?  Once we have experienced the gifts of God in such unexpected places over and over again, I would guess that when Jesus does return --- whether it is only to me at the end of my life or to us all at the end of this age --- well once we've done that for a lifetime?  I would guess we won't be able to keep ourselves from lifting up our heads in hope to see our redemption drawing near! Indeed, by then we will have already encountered the source of our redemption in Jesus over and over again!

  • What does a 'posture of hope' look like for you in the day-to-day?  What are those experiences or events which have shaken your world and how do you typically respond?  How would you like to respond? 
  • How is it, do you think, that any one of us would be able to stand with our heads raised and our hearts hopeful in the face of the scene Jesus describes today?  Does my assertion make sense to you? Why or why not?
  • We hear this text or one similar every year in early December.  How is it that we are able to keep sharing these words in a meaningful way?  Do you find your congregations, your communities have grown weary of the wait for Jesus' return?  Why do you think it would be important to have that attentiveness to watching for Jesus' return re-awakened?  How do you go about doing so?  For yourself?  For others?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Christ the King and Jesus Christ Superstar

John 18:33-37

I met a friend for a cup of tea the other day. She is going to be directing "Jesus Christ Superstar" at our local community theater in the spring and wanted to pick my brain a little bit.

She told me something that surprised me --- although perhaps it shouldn't have. She told me that some have been surprised that she is going to direct this as they consider the show blasphemous.  She expressed her own amazement at this as well and when I asked she said they weren't able really to say why they thought this was so.

Now, I don't know about you, but 'blasphemy' isn't a word I hear used very often.  Oh, I know what it means, but still I paused a moment this afternoon to actually look it up.  To commit blasphemy is to claim for oneself the attributes of God.  It is also to insult or show contempt or lack of reverence for God. I expect the latter is what these folks mean when they call the show "blasphemous."  I would also say different ones among us might have different understandings of what it is to insult, show contempt or lack of reverence for God.

I was pretty young in 1971, but as I've poked around a bit I've learned that at the time it first hit the stage this show caused quite the stir among more conservative Christians.  One negative review showed up in Truth Magazine which asserted that "Jesus Christ Superstar" was yet one more method Satan was using to attempt to destroy faith in God, in Christ and in the Bible.  Apparently they were particularly distressed at how the show depicts Jesus as being so very human.  And that it leaves out the resurrection altogether,ending instead with Jesus' burial in a borrowed tomb.

Wow. I have to say I'm eager to watch the show again as I don't remember those things being so distressing at all.

This whole conversation does, in fact, remind me that as individuals and as communities of faith we are still sorting out just who Jesus was and is.  It comes as no surprise that there is more than one way of thinking about this.  And this question is one that is ours to ponder in a particular way as we come upon Christ the King Sunday once more.

What, in fact, does it mean to say that Jesus is King? How important is it that he was both fully divine and fully human?  How central is the resurrection to our understanding of Jesus as King?  And moving beyond this purely academic conversation here, how does all of this matter in the midst of our lives in the moments or the hours after we've seen the show or read the book once more?  What does it mean to not only claim but actually to confess that Jesus is King?

I, for one, find myself most convinced of Jesus' royalty --- not so much because of his triumphs, but rather because of where and how he spent his life. And without a doubt, that runs contrary to how the world usually thinks about royalty.

For instance, like any king whose realm is of this world, Jesus surely held power.   Only his power was always on the side of justice for the poor, the downtrodden, the outcast.  His power was never self-serving, rather it was always exercised in behalf of others.  That is not the way power is typically understood or seen in the world today, not then or at most any time in known history, it seems to me.  Indeed, the power that Jesus had led him right into being on trial for blasphemy himself.  One where he wound up being judged by both the authorities of the temple and of the state as we hear about in today's Gospel lesson.  Jesus' power led him to a shameful death on a cross.  No, his kingship was not marked by the usual trappings of power.

No there is no evidence of the usual definition of power in Jesus as we encounter him today.  And yet, while he found himself in conversation with Pilate where it appeared Jesus had no power at all, still he  held on to his own integrity --- even to the point of engaging Pilate in a conversation which I believe left even Pilate wondering about the things that mattered:  Things like justice and truth.  So in the end, I do wonder which one held the power that mattered here?

Through it all, I find courage in my own journey of seeking to be a disciple of Jesus when I hear these ancient stories as ones which were lived by one who was fully human.  As one who must have struggled to be all he was meant to be in the hardest times: like the place we encounter him today.  I know that I am more likely to follow one who has been 'down in the dirt' with me, so to speak.  I am more likely to believe I can find my way out of the dust and the grime if I can follow one who has potentially been just as mired in it as me.  Oh, I might admire a king (a president, an orator, a teacher) who shows remarkable gifts or whose very presence evokes a sense of history.  But I won't drop everything to follow him or her unless I believe they understand where I am and have been and hope to one day be. 

As for the ongoing conversation about "Jesus Christ Superstar," I think it is a good and important one. Although I guess by now it's pretty clear that I would land on the side of embracing both Jesus' humanness and the wonder of the divinity that was also him.  Still, it's all only just talk until we ask what it means in the midst of our lives ---- until our confessing "Jesus is King" makes a difference in the decisions and choices I make in the world where I live.  Until it begins to impact how I live in the midst of the same challenges of this hurting, hopeful world where Jesus lived as well.

  • What does Jesus' conversation with Pilate today lend to our understanding of Jesus as King?
  • What do you make of the 40 year old ongoing debate about "Jesus Christ Superstar?"  Where do you find yourself within that conversation?
  • What does it mean to you to confess "Jesus is King?"  What does it mean for you that you follow one who had none of the usual trappings of power?  How much does it matter to you that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

No More Worries

Matthew 6:25-33

And so these words which come to us this Thanksgiving aren't first about giving thanks, are they?  No, they seem to get at gratitude's opposite --- or at least that which keeps us from being grateful, namely worry.

It was a few years ago when I went to call on a member of our congregation.
She wasn’t in worship much --- it seemed that anxiety was part of her every day and it had intensified since her husband’s death several years before.  We sat and talked a while that afternoon.  I prayed with her.  I don’t know whether it helped with her worries or not, but either way I still didn’t see her much after that.
It was some time later when a call came saying she was in the emergency room.  By the time I arrived they had determined she had a mass on her brain.  Pretty soon she was sent by ambulance to another hospital where she would undergo surgery to attempt to remove the tumor.
Not long after that I stopped in to visit her at a nearby rehabilitation facility.  I went late in the day, between her rehab and dinner.  When I walked into her room, she pulled herself to her feet, leaning on her walker.  She spread out her arms in greeting and she said, struggling to speak, “Pastor!  I’m not worried anymore!  It’s all gone!”
Now.  If it were me and I had just been through what she had just been through and if I had facing me what she had facing her, I would have been plenty worried.  In fact, these several years later, I can’t say I really know what happened.  It could be that the mass on her brain was pressing on that part which would have made her more anxious, and once it was removed so was her worry.  It could be that the trauma of the experience had put everything else in perspective.  It could be that something broke through and she could see the protecting hand of God in a very difficult time and that wiped away all of her worries.  I only know that for the time she had left her countenance was different.  She really did not seem to worry as she once had.
In all truth, I am a worrier.  This is nothing new.  I carried my anxiety so deep that at the age of six I had nearly developed an ulcer and my folks had me going to a therapist (in a time when that was still pretty unusual) --- with whom I never did honestly share the fears that troubled my little girl's heart.  As recently as this morning I could not focus on the yoga poses in my class as I was worrying over what had become of my cell phone.  It was not where I had put it the night before.  I'm on call at the hospital this week.  I'm on call at the church all the time and that is the only sure way anyone can reach me.  All through my class I would stretch and try to put it out of my mind and it just kept coming back.  (I found it after I got home --- it had somehow just slipped off the ledge it was sitting on.)  Even now I'm worrying over a tough funeral I have on Friday, about when I'll finally get the last of the leaves raked, about when I will fit in a series of much needed new member classes and how it is exactly that we'll be receiving our stewardship commitment cards on Sunday.  As I list these here I realize how minor they really are.  Just imagine how tied up in knots I would be if I really had something serious to worry about!
Without a doubt, my worries are small and even when they aren't they don't seem to paralyze me as they do some and as they surely seemed to bind up the woman whose story I shared above.  Still, even my small worries get in the way of my living in the moment God has prepared for me.  They take away from my fully experiencing and appreciating what is right in front of me.
Jesus knew this, of course.  No doubt this is part of why he so beautifully urges his disciples and all of us to pick up our heads and look around.  It is why he points us to the vastness of God's gifts and pushes us to remember that God takes care of all that and if that is so, how could he, in fact, forget all of us?  Poetic words like those in our Gospel lesson point us to this understanding... but God also makes this point in the midst of our lives.  Somehow, sometimes, God does use the really terrible things that do happen to many of us to remind us of what is worth worrying about and what isn't.  Only in Jesus' words today?  Nothing actually is worth worrying about, not even the worst tragedies and struggles that are ours, for it is all in God's hands.  The big things, absolutely. And the small ones, too: like still to be raked leaves and liturgical directions for bringing forward commitment cards in worship.  Not that God will make sure my leaves are raked (although it was a blessed surprise to discover that some still anonymous friends had raked most of them to the curb a few weeks back) or that God will write the tough funeral sermon that is before me (although, I've learned, over time, that the words always come --- so even in that I've learned to rest some...)   No it won't happen by my ignoring it, but even the certainty, borne to me now by years of experience, that God will give me what I need is usually more than enough.  It's another way of picking up my head and looking at those lilies of the field.  When I pay attention to what I have, in fact, experienced my whole life long, I learn again the same lesson.
So yes, Jesus' sending us to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air for examples of how we are also to be does just what it needs to do.  It points me to what God has already done in the world and in my life.  It reminds me that for all of time as we trust in God, somehow it always works out.  The challenge, though, for me again today, is not only hearing these words but also to step into and embrace the blessing they are meant to bring.  Maybe, in the end, all I need to do as Jesus said.  Perhaps I only need to step outside and gaze at the sky, the still green grass, the now empty fall trees, and the occasional summer flower which somehow survived the first frost --- to be reminded of the gift Jesus offers now in pointing to God's tender care for all that is.
And so these words are ours this Thanksgiving ---  urging us to let go of the worry --- and to entrust whatever it is that would rob our lives of peace and joy --- urging us to finally give it all back to God who gives us all of that for which we give thanks in the first place.
  • How do you hear Jesus' poetic words about the lilies of the field and his urging you not to worry? 
  • Besides lilies and birds, what else might you point to that would carry the same lesson?
  •  What does worry do to you?  How do you manage to let it go?
  • How do you think worry and gratitude are connected?  Why this Gospel lesson for Thanksgiving?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Looking in the Wrong Direction

Mark 13:1-8

A couple of weeks ago we were gathering in the classroom where we come together for Confirmation each Wednesday.  Some were done with the service project earlier than others so Jim, one of our adult leaders, volunteered to wait with a handful of young people who were the first to return.

I walked in a few minutes later ---while the group was still small.  Pretty soon Jim was asking me to 'test' Joe, one of our 8th graders.  I was sent to the whiteboard where they had drawn a rough square which had been marked off into nine smaller squares.  Joe left the room and Jim told me to choose a square.  I walked to the board and pointed to one.

We called young Joe back in and we looked on as he stood and pondered the white board for a moment. I found myself watching him closely.  A few moments later with little hesitation and eyebrows raised he pointed to the square I had chosen a few moments before.

We tried again.  And again. And again.  And every time Joe got it right.  The other students arrived and pretty soon they were fully engaged in 'testing Joe' as well.  Still, time after time Joe chose the square they had quietly pointed to while he was out of the room.  Pretty soon others wanted to try to see if they could match Joe's skill.  I was especially entertained by the one young man who thought if he stood the way Joe did, if he tilted his head in the same way, if he tapped his leg just as Joe did he would be able to figure out which square had been chosen.  Of course, he did not.

I tell you the truth when I say that for a while there I was thoroughly convinced we had a gift among us. Clearly I can be gullible, but before the night was done, I was actually wondering how we could get this remarkable young man on Letterman.

After we did our closing blessing and the students had gone their way, one of our other adult guides took me aside and explained the 'trick.'  Apparently, Jim (the first guide who had gathered with our students before my arrival) was passing signals. It seemed that every time Joe walked back into the room, he quickly glanced at Jim.  Only I hadn't been looking at Jim.  And somehow I hadn't taken note of Joe's mannerisms before he pretended to study the whiteboard before him.  Apparently, all of our 8th graders were in on the game, but I was not! I was looking in the wrong direction and thus unable to see what was right before me.
I wonder at times if my experience a few weeks ago doesn't begin to get at why we struggle with the sorts of 'end-time' texts that are ours to ponder this week.  Of course it is true that you and I don't live in the same context that the people who first heard these words did. We don't have the same reference points. Either way though, much like those who would have first heard these words, it may be entirely understandable that we might find ourselves 'looking in the wrong direction' as the sorts of things Jesus speaks of now begin to unfold. Our attention almost can't help but be drawn to wars and rumors of wars, to earthquakes and famines. It's no wonder we tend to turn our focus away from what under girds it all --- or from the larger future these events have us all moving towards as we seek to make sense of what is right in front of us.

I don't know exactly what to make of lessons like these.  Wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines have been headlines on the evening news for as long as I have been paying attention. And yet in and through it all?  It seems that Jesus is no closer to returning than he was the first time I thought to ponder it.  So perhaps, in the end, part of the gift that is ours to receive from words like those in our lesson now is the promise and the certainty that even though we don't fully understand how,  in and through the worst that happens, God is still active --- if not in it and through it then in spite of it.  Or perhaps words like these call us to simply stand still in the certainty that in fact, no matter what, we are called to always keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, lest we be distracted or misled by others who would claim to be him.

It's easy to get distracted, to be sure.  All too often, like when I found myself studying an 8th grader's 'extraordinary gift' a few weeks back, I miss the point altogether, bedazzled as I am by what's in front of me.  I should have known better then.  I should have known he was being helped along by a friend... that there was something behind his ability to do what no one should be able to do.

Maybe, finally, there is a lesson in that for us here as well.  Maybe we are simply called to stay curious and open.  Perhaps we are called to always keep our hearts and our minds open to what God may be doing. Without a doubt, we are urged now to remember that there is always something greater under girding it all --- whatever the future may hold --- that gift of God's love and grace and very presence. Indeed, I imagine that's what we're meant to be watching for all along.

  • Do you ever find yourself 'looking in the wrong direction?'  In life?  In your life of faith?  What has brought your attention back to where it is meant to be?
  • How do you make sense of Jesus' words today?  Do you find them startling?  Comforting?  Hopeful?  Despairing?
  • What is the good news in a lesson like this one?  How would you share that message with others?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Widow's All

Mark 12:38-44

I spent an hour last week sitting at the foot of the bed of one of our own.  Frieda was then in her last days, having lived 94 years.

She was surrounded that afternoon by two sons, a grand-daughter, two great-grand-daughters, and an old friend. Not to mention the occasional 'accidental' visitors who also reside in the Alzheimer's wing of our local county nursing home.

The hours get long when one is keeping vigil and it helped to pass the time that day by singing.  At first the youngest among us were invited to choose the songs.  We shared in a rousing rendition of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.'' Soon the tone gentled some as we joined in "You are My Sunshine."  Then one of Frieda's sons ventured down to the activity room and returned with half a dozen large print song books and soon we were joining in on all those old favorite hymns.  "Amazing Grace."  "My Hope is Built on Nothing Less." "Nearer My God to Thee."  "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."  There was only one truly gifted singer among us, but it didn't much matter, for the sound of our faltering voices seemed to soothe Frieda.  I think it did the rest of us, too.  More than that it helped give shape and meaning to the afternoon.  I expect it was an hour none of us will soon forget.

I think there cannot be a more 'impoverished person' than what Frieda was by then.  At least by many of this world's standards.  For some time now she has not been able to tend to her most basic needs.  By last Friday afternoon she was beyond eating, beyond communicating, beyond even opening her eyes.  And yet, as we sang, her breathing slowed some.  And from time to time, when nothing else was true in those last days, Frieda would move her head in the direction of the sound of our voices. 

It was all she had left, and yet she gave it.  And somehow even that small movement brought comfort to all those who loved her.

I know nothing of what it means to be Frieda or anyone like her in their last days, utterly dependent on the care of others.  In like manner, I know nothing of what it would have been to be the widow in today's Gospel lesson.  Without voice, without legal standing, without resources, without anything at all that I so take for granted... Indeed I imagine the widow in our story now was invisible to most in the Temple that afternoon --- it is a wonder Jesus took note of her at all for most of us, much of the time, overlook those like her, our eyes drawn instead to the attention getting robes of the powerful. 

And yet, of course, again today, we have Jesus noticing what the rest of us would probably otherwise miss altogether.  Drawing the focus to one others might not see at all and in a few words offering an unforgettable example of faithfulness.

Perhaps it is because this story usually falls in the preaching cycle at this time of the year when our attention is turned to financial stewardship for next year's budget --- that we hear this story and think first of the widow's extraordinary generosity --- and of course, she was generous.  It seems important though to take a step back and look at the whole picture and to wonder if there are other lessons this unexpected example might just offer.

Is she a reminder to pay attention to those we might normally ignore --- to pause long enough to hear the stories behind the most obvious one?  Don't you just wish Jesus had stopped her and asked her where she lived, what routines made up her every day, how long since her husband died, or what finally compelled her to come and give away her last bit of money that day.

Is this story a reminder to all of us of what really matters in this world?  That it's not the size of the gift that matters, but the manner in which it is given?

Is this poor widow a model for all of us of what it is to be utterly dependent?  Oh, I expect this is a position not a one of us would envy but that all of us are called to as we live in our relationship with God.

I think back on last Friday afternoon in the nursing home and the sound of those voices.  I know most of the world would not have paused to notice one such as Frieda whose breathing was slowing --- nor her family who were already grieving one who had loved them so well.  It was the love of her grand-daughter sitting closest to her which noticed that the music seemed to help her some. Still, these were gifts given with the whole hearts of those gathered that day.  And Frieda, too, gave all she had in return, even if it was something as slight as the turn of her head.  By any measure this world offers it was not much at all.  But, for those of us gathered around her bed that afternoon, it was everything for even that small movement was a sign of love --- and it was all she had.

It was all there was --- just as it was all there was for the widow Jesus points to in the Temple now.  No, I expect, God doesn't only expect our generosity.  If Jesus' teaching today is any indication, God expects our all.

  • What do you think Jesus is trying to teach in his using the widow's gift in his teaching today?
  • Can you think of examples when someone has given their 'all?'  What did that look like? What does 'giving your all' look like for you?
  • Do you think this is a fitting example for a 'stewardship sermon?'  Why or why not?