Monday, December 30, 2013

A New Year's Reflection

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
When my sisters and I were young, every year on New Year’s Day, my dad would bundle up against the cold and head into our back yard and prune the grape vines.  It was a task he always gladly seemed to do alone… not that any one of us were jumping at the chance to work outside in the cold!

He later said it gave him a chance to clear his head after a rare late night out with friends.  More than that, he said he used that quiet time and space to reflect on the year just past and to think ahead to what was before him in the year ahead.  (Honestly, it may also have been just a welcome excuse to get out of the house for a little while: time apart from four little girls whose Christmas vacation had gone on too long!)  Whatever mixed motives he may have had, it is a model which would serve us all well: to intentionally take stock and to consider what our 'time' has gone to and where we would like it to go to in the months to come as one year passes over into another.  What better time would there be to consider how we might intentionally begin to line up how we spend our time with what, in fact, matters most to us?

Indeed, the words of Ecclesiastes 3 offer a wonderful model by which to measure all that has been and all that we hope to be and all that we yearn for the world to be as we measure birthing and dying, planting, and harvesting.  As we consider what needs to be ‘killed’ – perhaps within us or in our daily habits or routines --- and what or who or which relationship is in need of healing.  As we measure our tears and the times we have laughed until we cried.  To be sure, as we read through the preacher’s list here we realize he has left nothing out. 

Oh yes, as I read through these familiar words once more I find myself wondering how they apply to the life I’m leading. 
  • What does it mean to be born to new life or to “die” with family members, among friends and neighbors, or with coworkers?
  • What might it mean to ‘plant or to harvest’ in the daily tasks I am called to at home or at work?  And how might I might be more discerning about which is most appropriate?
  • What does it mean in a time of mourning to remember that there will be dancing again? 
  • That when I am laughing, others are grieving so much so they can’t seem to remember the sound of such joy anymore? 
  • How much would I (and all those who associate with me) benefit from my remembering that there is, in fact, a time to simply keep silence?  And that there are times when my voice of courage and hope is desperately needed?
  • How do I understand when a ‘ time for war’ is appropriate and what does that mean, really, and what does peace look like in our world now?
And through all such times of reflection, what does it mean to us to remember that God holds it and all of us through it all, in all of our times?  In fact, it is certainly so that such certainty of God’s unending love is what allows me to explore and to wonder about these important questions in the first place.  Otherwise, I’m not certain I’d have the courage to risk wondering at all.

And so for all of you who pause with me as we pass from one year into another:
  • What comes to mind as you reflect on what has been and as you begin to articulate your hopes for what will be? 
  •  How might the words of the preacher in Ecclesiastes inform your reflection this season? 
  • Indeed, what grapevines need pruning --- what solitary task might give you the time and space to look back with gratitude and to look forward with wonder now?

Sunday, December 29, 2013

"And Pitched A Tent Among Us..."

John 1:1-18

There is so much that captures our imaginations in this wonderful poetry found in John's first chapter.  Indeed, one might find oneself reflecting on the similarity of these opening words to that of Genesis 1 where both writers weave poetry about 'beginnings.'  One could stand still in the marvelous contrast between light and darkness.  One surely can't help but consider the truth that some received and receive Jesus well --- and others simply do did not and do not still.  Or you might, as I have found myself again today, be carried away by the image of the Word becoming flesh... and, in my favorite way of hearing these words ... "and the Word became flesh and 'pitched a tent' (or tabernacle or booth) among us."

It is such a concrete, down to earth, image -- this one I carry of Jesus kneeling down with hammer in hand and pounding tent pegs into the ground to hold his temporary shelter in place.  But there is so much more than that to this, of course.  For this image ties the experience of the Incarnation to the history of the people of Israel --- in particular recalling that time when God 'tabernacled' with God's people in their wanderings in the wilderness.  Oh no, this was not and will not be the first time that 'God came near,' taking up residence with God's people wherever they may find themselves.

And yet it is so that from the distance of these many years it is hard to imagine what the Word become flesh must have been for those who first walked with Jesus.  It is difficult for us to grasp it for in every real sense, time and space stands between us now.  It must be so then, it seems to me, that this Word become flesh 'pitching a tent among us' must happen now through God's people --- those who have "become children of  God... those born of God..."  Else, I can't see how it happens at all.

Now I know that it goes without saying that all too often those who should be living like the Word Become Flesh do not.  Even so, I can remember time and again when this has been so: when God's people have lived like the one who pitched a tent alongside us --- doing the same in turn for a hurting, broken world.

This story of this being so returned to my memory just last night.

I was a young pastor then, serving a small church. The people there were kind, I knew this to be so for I had experienced it first hand. Still, I was not certain how they would react on the Sunday morning when one of our teen-agers showed up holding her new born baby boy.

She and her sister and her mother were with us in worship every week --- in this rural church which boasted few young people.  Her mother grew up among those people and probably her mother before her.  Amanda had hidden her pregnancy well --- wearing large sweatshirts and coats so no one would guess.  The call announcing the birth of her baby was a surprise to me, too.  And so, I did not know how this would go.  How would God's people --- the Word become Flesh --- in that time and place react to this?  (We must remember that this was more than twenty years ago when this was much less commonplace than it is today.) 

Oh, it's not as though I expected a scene.  More in keeping with the culture of that place, I would have thought people might simply turn the other way and say nothing at all.  Much to my surprise though, when Amanda and her baby, her sister and her mother, walked up the steps into church that Sunday morning, not only did no one flinch, but old women gathered around reaching out their arms to welcome this new little one into their midst. Even without warning or announcement, they passed no judgment whatsoever. They simply loved.

Perhaps it would have been different if this family had not for generations been part of their own extended family there.  I don't know.  And I don't really know what motivated their welcome.  Except perhaps they had seen enough and known enough and experienced enough to know that grace and kindness are really all we have.  Maybe they were reaching out with a love they had received first themselves and they knew, in turn, it was simply theirs to share as well. 
  • It is easy to come up with examples of how God's people have failed to 'pitch their tent' and live as the Word Become Flesh in the world today.  Can you offer examples when it has been so?  What was that like?
  • There is a temporary quality to a 'tent,' a 'tabernacle,' or a 'booth?'  That could be understood in a number of ways.  On the one hand it means the one dwelling there may soon be 'moving on.'    On the other hand, it offers flexibility to be available when and where needed and to go where people go.  How do you understand it? 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Reunion

Titus 2:11-14

"For the grace of God has appeared..."

I am captured by it every single time.  I can have the news on for background noise only, and every time I find myself rushing back into the room or turning towards the
screen so as to catch the sight of a dad or mom kneeling down to welcome the embrace of a school age child who is surprised and overjoyed by their unexpected homecoming.  In these stories both of those sharing the embrace hold real life memories of one another which they are yearning to continue to build upon.  Not so this time though.

For you see, this wonderful image came across on our congregation's Facebook page this week.  Brian, the returning soldier in the photo, is prayed for every time we gather as God's people.  While he and his young family no longer live here, his extended family does.  So we pray for safety, for a sense of God's presence, and that God might use these men and women who serve our country to be signs of justice and peace the whole world over.  Just last week, Brian made it home in time for Christmas. The baby in his arms is his own 7 month old daughter, Ariea.

I shared a conversation with Brian's mother, Ariea's grandmother yesterday.  She was beaming as she shared what she witnessed that day.  For you see, until the moment you see pictured here, Brian and his daughter had never met face to face. Oh, the gift of modern technology has meant that he has been kept up to date on every development in her young life. The little one has been propped up to see and be seen when her mommy skyped with him.  They have a video recording of Daddy reading "The Best Daddy Ever" which has been played to her rapt attention in these last months.  But he was not here in person to hear her first cry, to walk her to sleep, to marvel at the color of her eyes, the texture of her skin, her awakening curiosity at the world.  Captured here is the first time he held her in his arms, the first time she felt his strong arms embracing her.

Indeed, I am told that perhaps because of their efforts to make it so, her dad seemed to be somewhat familiar to her. Still, in those first moments Ariea did glance over at her mother more than once to be sure this was all right.  You can't tell in this image though.  All we see is her smile.

To be sure, there is no experience shared between us humans which can come close to the gift of Christmas which is ours to receive once more in these days to come.  Even so, as we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation once more, I got to thinking of how when Jesus came and comes to us, there may be ways in which he may seem familiar.  At the same time it may still take us a moment or two or more to take him in.  Indeed, I wonder at how very much you and I may be something like this 7 month old who is seeing her Daddy face to face for the very first time.  Oh, as we encounter the Christ child this Christmas, it is most likely not for the first time for many, but that will surely be so for some.  Still, we do so in the days to come in a way we do not every day.    

Indeed, this is why we gather around this story, these promises again this season.  We come together not so much as parents looking to hold a child for the first time, but as those searching for the face of God in one so innocent and small.  In fact, I have come to know this is something we all yearn for -- this encounter with the Christ child.  I heard it Sunday morning again as we gathered around crèche with the children, adding in the animals and the angels one by one by one.  Through it all, one little guy kept repeating, "But where is baby Jesus?"  It did not appease him much at all when I told him if he just comes back on Tuesday, baby Jesus would be there!

So I expect this Christmas perhaps we are all a little like Brian --  yearning with all of our hearts to hold God's precious gift for us for the first time.

And I expect we are a little like a seven month old baby girl --- still trying to sort out who this one is for us. 

And yet, I do wonder, too, if maybe God is also like the daddy in this picture now. In the form of his very human son, coming to us and as we embrace him, we recognize that we have been embraced by him first as he comes to us and scoops us up into his strong arms and gently holds us each and every one.  And yes, I have to wonder if maybe God is not overcome by emotion, too, as Brian surely was in those first moments with his baby girl -- at the simple wonder of being so very close.  Oh yes, I wonder if that's not exactly how God felt when he sent Jesus to us so long ago and every single time he comes to us again in ways mysterious and true. 

Indeed, I can't help but believe that all three may be so.  What do you think?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Christmas in the Barn

Luke 2:1-20

I have friends who have done this for years --- gathering in a barn on Christmas Eve --- with bales of straw and battery operated candles and more people than room and a few animals to make it seem especially real.  I'd thought about it in other years in other places, but existing worship schedules were already so full I never pursued it.  Even this year, I came to it late.

So here is how it went. First, I raised it with a few staff members who were open to the idea.  However, I needed to run it by leadership as well and given my poor timing, it didn't come to our council agenda until November.  When I floated the idea there, eyes started to sparkle almost immediately.  Even at that late date, we decided to try.

So a  couple of days later I was in conversation with Gerry, a farmer in our congregation.  He would have gladly opened his own barn, but it was full of stuff and there was no way to get it ready on such short notice.  He had another one in mind, but that one also didn't work out.  Even while Gerry kept asking around, I made a Sunday morning plea, and still nothing...  By now it was getting late.  I had just about given up: uncertain as to whether I should be relieved or disappointed.  Then someone else had an idea and got on the phone.  And a couple of days ago, several of us met Dean out at his barn.

It turns out it's not so easy to find a barn anymore... not even here in farm country in Northern Illinois. Apparently, barns aren't used like they used to be and as a result, many are, by now, in disrepair. Or they're used for storage.  In addition, very few farmers have an assortment of animals anymore, however the barn which will shelter our service on Christmas Eve does --- in stalls against the north wall are two goats, a pig, a couple of donkeys, and a rabbit in a cage:  a petting zoo, it turns out, that is open when their seasonal pumpkin farm welcomes guests.  It's a small-ish space, but we're just trying this on this year and so it will probably be more than enough.  Besides, I'm thinking the first shelter Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus knew wasn't so very large either.

It was such fun to watch Dean, the owner of the barn, and Gerry, who has been in on this dream from the start, stand there in the cold and sort out what could be moved, and what would be needed and how it might all come together.  Dean wondered if he should clear out the cobwebs.  "No," we all agreed.  "What about Christmas lights?"  "Now that might be nice."  Gerry is going to bring in some extra straw bales for folks to sit on and he's going to rig up a spot light for the manger.  Dean is going to move out the hay rack and extra cages and tidy up a bit, but not too much. When his daughter is home from college, they'll hang the Christmas lights together.  We'll find some folks who can direct traffic and bring the service, the people, the bread, the wine, the song.  And the story we gather around, of course, is already ours to simply repeat with one another once again.

For all of the fun of this venture, this is what especially struck me in the middle of this journey to this point.  In the midst of his asking around for a barn, Gerry had one person say to him, "Now why would you want to do Christmas in a barn?  Jesus was born in a cave, don't you know?"

Now that is probably so, I can't argue with that.  In fact, when you return to the story as Luke tells it, there is no mention of a stable or a barn.  Only a manger --- a feeding trough for animals --- is mentioned.  It would, of course, make sense that there was some kind of shelter which held the manger and thus Mary and Joseph and Jesus, but we are simply not told exactly what that was.  And so while yes, we do want to encounter this story in as authentic a way as possible, we don't have any caves around here anyway.  And since most of us picture a stable in our own memories and imaginations... and since, if Jesus, Immanuel, "God with us," were to become incarnate in the same way again today, I'm thinking it would probably not happen in a cave or a stable or a barn at all? Well, I expect a barn is as good a place as any.  As long as it leads us to wonder at the meaning of the story here and now.  As long as it has us looking to encounter Jesus yet again and wondering where that just might be...

And so it is that I do find myself wondering just where this might happen today.  If Jesus were to come again in human form, would it be like the last time?  Would it be in a country far away or would it be in our own back yard?  Would it be in an unused room at a nursing home?  Or at a homeless shelter?  Or under a city bridge?   I do wonder where Jesus would be born today, don't you? And I wonder how my wondering changes how I encounter those who are in those places now.  How does the possibility that those places are already made 'holy' by the presence of the Christ Child change everything?

  • As you consider where Jesus might be born today, what possibilities come to mind?  What elements or characteristics of the first Christmas story would you take into account as you think about this?
  • How does it make a difference in terms of  how you think about those who normally inhabit such places you imagine if you think that Jesus might just make his home there?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Just What a Dad Does...

Matthew 1:18-25

I carry still a memory of my dad which goes back close to fifty years now.  It was early December.  I was five years old and I was suddenly ill and my mother called him home from work to take me to the hospital.

Now I was the oldest of four children.  I had been 'too big' to be carried for some time by then. But I was so very sick I was literally unable to walk and so they bundled me up and laid me down in the back seat of the family station wagon. When we reached the hospital, he lifted me up in his strong arms and cut across the frozen grass to the emergency room entrance of Rochelle Community Hospital.  Even as sick as I was, I can remember the protest in my heart, "But I'm too big for to be carried!"  And then I just gave in and knew I was safe in that place in his arms.

I offered that image in a sermon many years ago now. My dad was sitting in the pew that morning, and was a little embarrassed I think.  That's not a feeling he was much accustomed to, it seems to me, as he was such an extrovert that he always rather enjoyed being at the center of things.  Not that time though --- for, in fact, later he took me aside and quietly said to me, "But Janet, that's just what a dad does."

We have a story before us now about what dads do.  Only in Joseph's case, it really is quite extraordinary. In Joseph's case, rather, it was a matter of life and death.  In the matter before him now, though he could not have fully known it then, the future of the world hung on the decision it was his to make.

Now you wonder, don't you, why God didn't take an easier way to come to us, for surely this path was just about as risky as it could be.  For not only does God risk the danger of childbirth where anything could go wrong, but God entrusts this child to a very young woman and her fiancée, expecting that they would believe that the conception of this child was of God.  God took the risk that very human Joseph would be able to get past the stone of betrayal that settled in his stomach when he first heard the news of Mary's pregnancy and came to the very rational conclusion that she must have been unfaithful to him.  God had to trust that Joseph could set aside his own pride and step into a role, into a life, which would begin in a way he had not yet dreamed.  Oh, one would have expected that dream included children, but it could not have included a child in this way.  It seems to me that God risked a lot, trusting that Joseph would be open to the urging of a night-time messenger, this angel who told him not to be afraid. Who assured him that he and Mary were to be part of some thing much, much larger than even the very good life they must have dreamed together. Who urged him to name the child, sealing his adoption as his own son.  You would think God would have taken an easier way.  But God did not.  And somehow that deepens our understanding of how very much God will risk for all of us. As Joseph risked then, too.

Because as you know, Joseph did precisely what the angel told him to do.  We don't know what doubts and misgivings he later entertained along his way, for we don't hear all that much from him after this, but we do know that Joseph did what he was called to do then.  He did not leave.  He did not cast Mary aside.  Rather, he stood with Mary.  He claimed that baby boy as his own and gave him a name. That name of Jesus which means "God saves."  And we know that he must have been an awfully good dad to this boy, that he 'just did what a dad does' for this one who was destined to be the source of our hope and salvation.  Indeed, it seems to me we know this through the stories Jesus later told.

For where do you think, except from Joseph, that Jesus got the idea that a father always gives good gifts to his children?  Where, do you imagine, did he get the image of the father running to welcome home his prodigal son?  Where do you think the tenderness in his voice came from when he said we were to address God as 'abba' or 'daddy' if not from his own experience of an earthly dad?  I have to believe that Jesus drew from his own experience growing up with Joseph as his father here.  Joseph who abandoned his own pride, his own long-learned sense of right and wrong. Who set aside his fear and worked through the stone in the pit of his stomach. Who stretched his own sense of what and who he was responsible for, to 'just be a dad' to Jesus.  To give earthly legitimacy to this child of Mary's from the Holy Spirit and to help shape Jesus' life and his vision in such a way that some of his best teaching was informed by his own experience of an earthly, loving dad.

It was the decision of a lifetime for Joseph. It was one he could never have expected to make and yet, it is also a dilemma which will parallel one we will probably all face at one time or another as we are called to sort out how we are called to do the right thing in a situation that at first seems all wrong.  And when you do that. When you step up and do what is right and good in the face of earthly 'wisdom' or advice which would urge you otherwise.  When you act with forgiveness and hope and trust, well then, the world changes.  It surely did with Joseph and Mary and Jesus. And it does every other time, too.

For I've seen it happen. So have you.  This story of Joseph gets lived out again and again and again.

Indeed, I saw it play out once in a waiting room outside an intensive care unit long ago on a late summer's night.  Sixteen year old Nathan and his friend had gone to the mall --- driving from their own small town into the city. They had taken a shortcut they had taken with their parents take dozens of times before.  It wasn't that late. They hadn't been drinking. They even had their seatbelts on, but the paved road turned to gravel before they remembered and the car rolled.  Nathan's friend walked away from the accident with no more than a broken leg, but Nathan was in intensive care with a brain injury.

I stood with his step-mom late that night. His dad had stepped out for a minute when she told me this story, relaying to me that in his first marriage, her husband's wife had been unfaithful. When Nathan was born, his dad, the only dad he had ever known, claimed him as his own. Raised him as his own.  Loved him as his own.  And when his first wife left them, he continued to do just that. And now he kept vigil with him, and from what I've heard, supported him right through the years of therapy that followed.  He did the right thing, like Joseph.  In the middle of a situation which was 'all wrong' where he wouldn't have had to, he stepped above and beyond what anyone would have reasonably expected him to do.  And Nathan's world was never the same. And neither was anyone else's who knew them.

Such as this will come to us, too.  It may not be that big and difficult, although chances are it will be.  And it may well be that the real challenge will lie then in the long term simply getting up every day and 'just doing what dads do.'  And we know this for sure.  It may not seem like it at the time, but it is often on those seemingly small things that the future hangs.

So this is what we have today. The gift of one dad and one child who lived in one particular place in one specific time.  Just like all of us in so many ways. It makes you step back and wonder, doesn't it?  What might God just be doing here and now with all of us?  Where might we see God at work in something that seems all wrong where we still try to do what's right?  And what might that mean for tomorrow?

  • What is most surprising to you about the story of Joseph?  Why do you think God chose to 'risk' in this way to come to us?
  • Can you think of examples where someone 'just did what a dad does' and it made all the difference?  In your life?  In the life of the world?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Blind Receive Their Sight

Matthew 11:2-11

For me, at least, there is no more appealing image of John the Baptist than the one before us now.  The John we meet preaching in the wilderness always strikes me as almost abrasive in his certainty.  And while I could probably stand to be more like John in that way, I have to say that I can more easily identify with the John we meet in prison now.

Not that I've ever spent time in prison --- at least not the sort that we are led to believe John experiences now.  But I have known doubt and fear.  I have known what it is to yearn for the sort of understanding John yearns for now.  And yes, along with John, I have asked the hard questions --- Oh yes, Sometimes I simply find that I, too, simply need someone else to tell me what they know for sure.

And apparently that's OK.  For Jesus' response to John's question carries no judgment, no surprise, not even a small measure of wondering that John would wonder.  It's as though it's to be expected that all of us --- every single one of us --- would need the witness of one another to bear us up.  I know that I do.  Today was one of those days when I received precisely this gift. And while the witness I was privileged to hear did not, perhaps, offer quite the same sorts of miraculous signs that surely point to the identity of Jesus as 'the one who is to come,' the story I offer now is every bit as miraculous in its own way.

At the congregation I serve on this Sunday in December we share in a "Love Auction" for our companion congregation: the Ketumbeine Lutheran Parish in Tanzania.  Folks bring platters of holiday cookies to be auctioned off and we join in the fun of trying to outbid one another for a good cause.  It seemed like a good Sunday to invite Mike to preach --- for he and his wife, Sharon, travel every year to Tanzania to assist in equipping teachers to better reach their students through the Mwangaza Centre in Arusha.  And today Mike told the story of a miracle where, in fact, the 'blind' are seeing in new ways.

This is how it was.  Twenty microscopes were about to be discarded from a school here.  They were, by now, at least twenty years old and it was time for them to be replaced.  But one with an imagination and a connection to another part of the world where such riches are almost unimaginable, called Mike and wondered with him about whether something useful might be done with these.

They had them checked out and it was decided they were in good shape.  The challenge is,  however, that electrical systems differ greatly from one part of the world to another and these microscopes which have served well here would have been rendered useless there.  So pretty soon, physicists and inventors and students got in on the project and all twenty of those microscopes were retrofitted with rechargeable batteries and solar units and I can't begin to understand what else.  And last spring and summer they made their way to Tanzania safely packaged in bubble wrap in the extra suitcases of others who were traveling there.  Mike said that more than fifty people had their hands on those microscopes in one way or another between their first lives in a high school classroom to their final destination half way around the world.  He also said that many of those fifty people can't wait to do it again.

And today?  People are seeing in new ways: teachers and students and medical folks are seeing things they have not seen before.  Who knows how the world might just change because of that?

This wonderful story was precisely what I needed to hear today, for while I do not now and have not ever known the darkness of John's prison, I have found myself a little weary of late. Indeed, as I listened this morning I heard once more of how God uses ordinary folks in extraordinary ways to do amazing things.  I heard of how the gifts of all people are needed in order to accomplish what God would have us do.  Quite simply, as Mike walked us through the unfolding of this 'miracle' I was filled with joy and wonder at what Jesus does through all of us.

It is so that some people far away are seeing in a new way because of the gifted, hard-working efforts of more than fifty people.  It is also so that I expect Jesus first opened the eyes of a handful --- bringing sight and insight --- so that the possibility of such as this might even be imagined.  And isn't that something?  Oh yes, along with John's disciples so long ago, you and I can join in as we point to the evidence of Jesus among us: for the blind do, in fact, see! 

  • Have you ever found yourself asking John's difficult, important question?  Where did you hear or see your answer?
  • What do you make of Jesus' response?  Why do you think there is no judgment, surprise or wonder in his answer?
  • Where do you see the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, etc.?  What evidence do you point to in response to John's question when it is posed by another?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Get Ready!

Matthew 3:1-12

I was late arriving at the hospital yesterday morning --- my first day back from vacation.  When I stepped into the waiting room to catch up with the family I was greeted with the words, "You're just in time."

I had seen the signs posted downstairs about the drill, but in my rush I hadn't paid much attention.  It turns out the hospital would be running a Code Silver drill in a matter of minutes.

Just after the doctor came out and told us that all had gone well, the alarm came over the intercom.  A 'shooter' was making his way down the Pastoral Care Hallway.  Seriously...

So together we were shepherded with several others and a hospital volunteer into a small room normally used for consultations.  In an effort to keep the experience somewhat 'authentic,' we were told to silence our cell phones. We had been told that there would be real actors in make-up acting the parts of shooter and victims. We had also been told that all the real activity would take place on the first floor.  We were on the second.

At first the volunteer assigned to us was chatty, regaling us with stories of her 55 year old long marriage and how her husband still worries about her.  I think underneath her jovial presentation she was a little nervous though, for pretty soon our designated volunteer/guide got serious and told us to turn off the lights for we had heard voices out in the hallway.  She peeked out the door and saw police officers coming towards us.  Indeed, she knew the 'drill' was being graded and she wanted to do this right --- or at least not to be caught in doing it wrong.  Some among us kept chattering but she quickly shushed us and for the next thirty minutes we sat in the dark with strangers and friends, alone with our thoughts.

It was restful, to tell you the truth.  I knew this was only a 'drill,' of course, so it wasn't hard to disengage from the experience some, but it was also so that I had been up since 4 a.m. and I welcomed the chance to close my eyes and breathe for a time.  Before we knew it, the 'all clear' was sounded and we stepped back into the outer waiting room where all sorts of others spilled in, too ... each with our shared but different experience of being part of the hospital drill that day.  One man across from us wondered at why they would choose a busy Monday morning for such as this.  Why not do it when the hospital wasn't so busy?  I let his question lie there --- it would probably have been insulting to say that was probably the point.  What's a drill if there aren't people to practice?

Hospitals and schools and others do these drills now. They practice what could one day happen but all pray never will --- moving into locked, darkened, hopefully safe places as we wait for the danger to pass.  Those of us who just happened to be there yesterday morning won't hear about what comes next... the reviewing, the critiquing, the learning so as to do it better next time when it could be real.  We 'prepare' by practicing. We get ready by pretending it is already so.  In these cases, we let our minds linger for a time on the unthinkable, so should that time ever come we will be ready.

Indeed, one can almost hear the echo of  John the Baptist in our experience yesterday for John is calling upon anyone within range of his voice to get ready.  Only his isn't just a drill.  He is calling upon us to 'make ready' for the coming of Jesus who was on the horizon and even now is both present with all of us and will return in all of his fullness one day.

I t is not a perfect analogy, of course, and yet John's words do carry warning.  They are meant to move us to places of shelter and safety in Jesus' tender care.  Only this is not some 'test' to be critiqued and graded to make us more ready for the next time or the real time which could happen one day.  This is a call to preparedness meant to wake us up and change us now for this life today.

And yes, it is so that  in a way we can think of Advent functioning in this way for us.  I suppose it is a kind of practice drill for us: a time for us to stand still in and take seriously the scenario John describes.  Only truly, it's not a matter of 'if' but of 'when' for all of us.  The day John describes has come and will come again.  Once, to be sure, and maybe once and again in ways different and the same for each of us.

And so I wonder with you now:

  • What would it look like if you and I were to actually 'practice the drill' John pushes us to now?
  • What would it mean to engage the world and the people we are called to care for within it with John's urgency sounding in our ears?
  • How would that 'practicing' change how our lives are lived and through us the life of the world?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Wolf and the Lamb

Isaiah 11:1-10

A while back I was with a family and friends at a local restaurant.  We had gathered for lunch after a late morning cemetery committal.   Sitting at my end of the table were Ken's widow, her cousin from California, a co-worker and friend, and another long time friend of the family. 

The conversation was more upbeat than one would have thought that afternoon... although we had waited several months for the committal and so the loss was not quite so raw by then.  The cousin from California and the co-worker were especially enjoying their shared banter.  I don't remember how it was the conversation turned.  I do remember the long-time friend began speaking of their first years in DeKalb and as she shared she spoke of protesting the Vietnam war in those turbulent time.  It seemed we all became especially thoughtful as then we leaned in to listen to Ta, the co-worker and friend, tell her story.  For her childhood began in that war-torn country of Vietnam. 

Indeed, she shared with us how the war threatened their livelihood and their lives.  She was nine when she boarded her dad's small fishing boat with her family --- hoping to make their way to safety. They wound up in a refugee camp and later emigrated to the United States.

I remember.  Although I wasn't much older than she, I do remember.  And I remember how many churches across the country saw this as a mission--- to sponsor families like hers.  What joy and meaning experienced as congregations sought to them a fresh start with kitchenware and furniture and housing and jobs: to show God's love in this very tangible way.
Only that wasn't her story. Rather, her family was sponsored by a farmer in Texas who basically used them as indentured servants: as slave labor.

She spared us most of the details, but her words hung heavy between us.  Clearly, she had found her way out and is enjoying a life marked by all sorts of middle class comforts. Even so, I was struck by her evenness of tone.  There was no bitterness in her voice as she recounted her beginnings in this country.

Even so, her story came to mind this week as I read the amazing images offered by Isaiah for the way in which her experience was so very different from the scene Isaiah describes.  Indeed, it's almost impossible to picture for the things the prophet describes for they simply are not so.  Wolves and lambs do not lie down together.  Bears and cows do not eat side by side.  Lions are anything but vegetarian.  And no toddler would be allowed to venture anywhere near the hole of an asp.  The stakes are too high.  The consequence too great.  It is in the very nature of the snake to strike, the wolf to feast, the lion to enjoy a regular meal of red meat.  All must eat and like it or not, it is in the natural order of things for the menagerie Isaiah describes today to rely on one another in a predatory way for their survival.  And yet, Isaiah uses these opposites to paint a picture of a time when it will all be different.

And I think of Ta's story and I am aware that when I pay attention such stories as hers are repeated day after day, year after year.  Over and over again and a few weeks ago in the person of a woman sitting across from me, we hear about or we ourselves experience what it is to be treated as less than the human beings God created us to be.  And this, all too often, is not at the hands of a 'natural enemy,' but at the hands of those who look more like us than not.  Indeed, it would be enough of a miracle were Isaiah to describe a time and place where humans did not do such to one another, much less wolves and lions, lambs and bears and snakes.  Oh, for that day that the prophet foretells when the one will come who will "judge the poor with righteousness and the meek with equity!" 

I lived in this longing for a while in these last days and while I still do and perhaps always will, when I returned to the prophet's words once more this time I recognized the familiar in his words.  So caught up was I in the remarkable reversals he predicts at the end of this passage that I missed these the first time through.  Indeed, how many times in twenty-five years as a pastor have I repeated this prayer for "the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord and the spirit of joy in God's presence"?   How many times have I splashed the waters of baptism on God's children of all ages and spoken these words for them by name?  How many times have I rested my hands on the heads of thirteen and fourteen-year-olds as they affirmed their baptisms and earnestly prayed them again?  Indeed, how many times have these very words been spoken for me?

Oh, it is so that in this season of Advent we yearn for the coming of the One who will make all things right --- that time when animals and humans alike will only experience peace in the presence of one another.  But in the meantime?  Even as we watch and wait, it appears that the responsibility lies with us ---- not only to cry out in horror or dismay when it is otherwise, but to be those who judge with righteousness and equity for the meek and the poor even now.  To make things right when and where we can in this season today.  For that Spirit has been given to us, to you and to me, for precisely this and for this time now.  I wonder what it would look like if for only just for a few weeks this December we were to live like this were so...

  • How do you experience the prophet's vision for us here?  When and where do you yearn for this to be especially so?
  • Have you ever experienced the sort of reversals Isaiah offers?  What was that like?
  • What does it mean to you that you have been given 'the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God's presence?"  What difference does this make for you?
  • What might it look like this December if we were all to live like this is so?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Last Days
Matthew 24:36-44

I snapped this picture last spring before the trees had yet leafed out.  The sign had already been up for some time by then, although I have to say I never actually went inside to see what they might possibly be selling for a dollar in a furniture store.  (Today if you drive by you will see that not only is the sign gone, but the furniture store it pointed to has also been leveled and a bright, shiny, new, as yet unoccupied strip mall stands in its place.)  And so, even in that season when the world was becoming new again, I found myself looking ahead to this week's Gospel lesson and the way in which it points to final things, last days and of how Jesus' words today inform us in such a time. I am reminded that unlike this furniture store whose sign offered warning and invitation to the community for months, in terms of what Jesus points to now you and I are not going to have any such warning...You and I are left to live in the moment, in every moment, as thought it could be the last one...

I wonder how one does that though.  How does one live with that kind of expectation, that kind of urgency all the time? 

I got a taste of it Thursday afternoon.  I was making late afternoon hospital calls when my cell phone rang.  I glanced at it to see it was my mother, but I had already spoken with her earlier in the day. All was well then so I did not immediately pick up.  Instead, I silenced the ringer for just a moment, lingered a moment or two longer with a woman who had just undergone a serious test.  Something told me to return the call, though, as I made my way down the hallway for one more stop.  As soon as I heard her voice I knew something was seriously wrong.  She had gotten home from afternoon errands when a fever set in.  Her voice was weak and she couldn't stop shaking.  I told her I was on my way.

I had half an hour drive ahead of me to contemplate all that could be and all that I wasn't yet ready for.  I've seen enough with other families to know how this could go.

When we got to the Emergency Room the doctor told us it was a good thing we came when we did. Another day and the story could have ended quite differently.  As it is, after a couple of days in the hospital and some heavy duty antibiotics, even as I write Mother is in on her computer checking her Facebook page and playing games.

It is really only a handful of times in my life that I remember feeling the need to act with such urgency.  In all those times the call came unexpectedly, like a 'thief in the night.' In all those cases, the well being of a loved one was at stake.  In each of those times, regardless of the outcome, I found I came off those hours both exhausted and clear about what matters most.

And yet, I have to say I'm not really certain how it is that Jesus would expect us to live that way all the time.  At the same time?  Gospel lessons like this one are easier ways to be reminded of the urgency of what matters most than are November afternoons driving just within reach of the speed limit to get to a loved one in need.  Indeed, the message before us now appears to be simply this. Time is shorter than we think.  It all could, in fact, end at any time --- whether in the cosmic sense that Jesus speaks of now or in the very personal, individual sense that I found myself contemplating on an anxious November afternoon.  It all could end at any time and that being the case, well shouldn't that make a difference for how I live this moment now? 

As I write tonight I remember how I first learned this lesson and no, I didn't learn it the easy way.  I was twenty-one and a senior in college.  I was all caught up in the final things: the last year and months and days that seniors who have loved their college experience get caught up in. 

The word came in that time that a beloved cousin was seriously ill.  Perhaps because I had only experienced the losses of much older loved ones by then, I could not imagine this would end as it did.  Or maybe it was only that I had no idea of what it could mean.  So I didn't go.  And in May she died.

I did go to her funeral.  I recall standing with family near her casket overcome by grief and regret.  It was in those tender moments that her older brother came over to me and putting his arm around me he quietly said, "She loved you, you know."

I had not tended last things well and even so in that moment when I was confronted by the consequences of that, I was enveloped by grace.  And ever since then?  I've always tried to go.  For I always know now that last things could, indeed, be last things.  At least for now.

Jesus' words don't go down easy today.  He speaks of things I would  rather not consider much of the time.  And no, I don't know how we live as though this is so all the time.  Even so, they are as true as they can possibly be and they are meant as gift if only I can receive them as such.  Indeed, I need to be reminded of these things:
  • Don't lose sight of what matters most. 
  • Know that it will all one day end. 
  •  Live like that is so.
And?  Through it all --- on those days when I do it well and on those days when I don't still comes the whisper of grace that I am still loved. As are you.

  • How do you hear Jesus' words today?  Are they meant in the cosmic sense or the individual sense or both?
  • How does this 'warning' make a difference for how you live your life?  Where and how have you already learned this lesson?  What has that meant for you?

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Luke 23:33-43

Last week I sat at the bedside of a woman who has struggled with her health for some time.  It was her third hospitalization in a couple of months and that afternoon she was especially uncomfortable. Our conversation had waned when one of the cleaning staff quietly walked in.  She greeted Anna by name and then proceeded to be about her work.  As she was mopping in the far corner of the room, Anna turned to me and said that it always made her glad to see her students doing well.  As sick as she was, she made sure to speak these words loud enough so her former kindergarten student heard her.  Before the woman left, she bent over her old teacher and kissed her on the forehead as she said good-bye.

I found myself brushing away tears as I watched this tender remembering between them.  It had been forty years or more since that hospital worker had first entered Anna's classroom.  I would guess their paths had not had reason to cross all that many times and places since.  Indeed, we are blessed to be remembered in this way.  This sort of remembering spoken and acknowledged with love is a remembering that changes us.  Both were better for having been remembered.  Anna knew that her work so long ago had made a difference. The woman pushing her cleaning cart walked a little taller to know her old teacher was proud of her.

It seems to me that the remembering that is spoken of as we mark Christ the King this time through is both like this and of course is very different, too.  We are not told that the criminal on the cross and Jesus had any sort of history, although we cannot know this for sure.  For, in fact, the man who hung dying next to Jesus knew something of who he was, else he would not have defended him.  And if he had no idea of who Jesus was, surely he would not have presumed to ask to be remembered in the kingdom Jesus was to come into.  Since neither man had any real hope of coming off his cross alive, he must have believed that Jesus' identity differed in a fundamental way from anyone else he had ever known.  And as for Jesus knowing him?  Whatever he may have known of the unnamed one who suffered beside him, it probably wasn't all that positive and if he remembered him at all in that moment?  Even though in his dying moments he did not display the cynicism and anger the man hanging on Jesus' other side did, one would not expect the promise that Jesus utters now.

Of course, what we witness here is entirely different from any tender scene in any hospital room or anywhere else for that matter.  For this is a remembering which has ramifications far beyond one fading November afternoon.  Still, I get a sense of it from time to time in this life between us now.  And if 'remembering' is powerful enough here and now to change us for the better, how much more meaningful is it when such remembering happens in the mind and heart of Jesus? 

As it is Christ the King Sunday again, it is ours, of course, to note what this exchange offers us about Jesus as King. The sacrifice Jesus made comes to mind first and always.  The forgiveness which is spoken for those who haven't asked for it, who may not even know they need it, is also at the center of this image now.  The willingness of Jesus to truly see the one hanging next to him --- even through what must have been blinding pain --- to see beyond his broken life and to promise to remember him?  Well, that is the image I cling to now, for it means the promise holds for you and me as well.  How about you?
  • What do the images in this week's Gospel text tell you about Christ as King?  What surprises are there in Luke's telling?
  • Have you ever witnessed 'remembering' in a way that changed things?  Have you ever remembered or been remembered in this way?
  • How do occasions of such remembering compare to the account before us now?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Falling Temples

Luke 21:5-19

I would be less than truthful if I said I knew precisely what to make of the Gospel lesson before us now.

On the one hand, I do know at least a little bit of what it means when 'temples fall.'  Anyone who has experienced the world changing around us has experienced the impact of this.

For instance, I drive by the house that was my childhood home and I see the fence which now cuts off most of the back yard we ran and played in when we were small.  After much deliberation rooted in the growing realization that it was becoming too much to care for, several years ago my mother sold that sturdy old farmhouse to the local Catholic Church.  The house backs up to their cemetery.  One day the house itself will be torn down to become a place where the dead are buried and people go only to remember.

I drive by my grade school which now stands empty.  All the children on the south side of my hometown are now bussed to the other end of town to attend school.

The high school where I discovered and was coached in some gifts I still use today has been replaced by a Walgreen's.

Temples?  No, of course not. At least not in the way that Jesus speaks today.  But places that seemed permanent and immovable?  Yes, they were that.  Even so, all these changes do seem to fit into a natural order of what we might understand as progress.

So while I have not seen temples fall in the violent way that Jesus speaks of now, I do know the ache in my own soul to see so much of what I thought would always be, be no longer.  The older one gets, the surer one becomes of this.  The things that last are not always the things you think will last.  Not even the big, impressive, amazingly beautiful ones. No, not even the ones that helped make you who you are.

So while I sort of get the first part of this week's Gospel reading, I can't really begin to say that is so about the second part.  Except for what I catch on the evening news or skim on my news feed, I don't know much of nations rising against nations.  I have experienced tremors here in Northern Illinois --- even ones that can wake you in the night --- but not great earthquakes.  I have never known hunger nor plague and I certainly don't know what Jesus is getting at when he talks about dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.    

For that matter, what comes next is pretty foreign to me, too.  I know nothing of the sort of persecution Jesus speaks of now.  Nor have I experienced betrayal at the hands of trusted loved ones. And while some may see what I do as irrelevant, I'm not sure I've ever done anything offensive enough to stir up hatred in another.  At least not lately...

This was not the case when these words were first recorded and passed on. Those who first heard them knew precisely of what Jesus spoke. And I would venture to say there are people in the world today with whom these words resonate as well. For those who hear them as meant for them, these are surely meant to be words of promise and hope. For them the words they must cling to are those at the end of this section where Jesus assures them that not even a hair on their heads will perish. That all they have to do is hang on.  And yet, while these words do speak to some how do they speak in the world I am called to serve? 

Indeed, how do these words resonate in a time and place where I sit in a warm office on a brilliant November morning as I scratch out these words today?  How do they speak in a world where all I have to do is simply turn off the news of the rising death count as a result of the typhoon which has just devastated the Philippines?  Where I have become numb to the report of another wounding or death by gunshot of an innocent child in the nearby city of Chicago?  Where I find myself looking away from the sign at the cash register line informing those using LINK cards that their benefits have been cut, so they had better check their balance?

Oh, I wonder sometimes if I am not like those gawking at the temple so long ago.  I wonder if the signs are all around me and in my own personal comfort and denial I have just chosen to look the other way.  Maybe I need the hard words of Jesus now to wake me up.  Perhaps I need to be reminded that just because the 'temple' still stands for me, it doesn't mean this will always be so.  And it is already not so for much of the world.   

So I suppose I end where I began.  For while I know for sure that they do speak, I can't say for sure how these words speak today.  And maybe it is so that Jesus' words ring more true for those in devastating circumstances than they do for me.  So, I expect it is true that those who are in the midst of the struggle are lifted up by his promises in ways I may never fully know.   At least not yet.  Maybe this is one of those lessons which calls me to simply stand alongside and listen to those for whom these words do speak.  Maybe then I won't have time to 'gawk at the temple.'  Maybe then I won't find myself resting in the false promise that the world is secure and things made by human hands will last forever.  Maybe then I will finally be about what Jesus calls me to. What do you think?

And so, for now I am venturing out into this crisp November morning to go to our local hospital where dear ones from the congregation I serve are struggling to 'endure' in the only way they know how.  I expect they do find themselves in the midst of circumstances which mirror Jesus' words, if only in individual and limited ways.  As I walk the hallway I will remember that in many of the rooms I walk by some are discovering that the 'temple' of modern medicine with all of its gifts will simply not  always do all we hope it will. In other rooms others will be finding that in the midst of a health crisis, family relationships are becoming more clear than perhaps they would like.  And yes, at the same time I know I will be passing by small acts of kindness and large ones, too, which point to the promises Jesus offers now. 

Indeed, whatever else may be true, even if these words don't resound for you today, the time will come when they just might.  And then, as now, the promise for many and for you and me, too, while it may not always seem like it, remains.  God is watching out for you, too.  Even down to the hairs on your head.  Just hang on and even should our 'temples' fall, you won't lose what matters most of all.  For God has claimed you as a Beloved Child.  You are God's Own.

  • Do you hear Jesus' words today as meant for us universally or cosmically, individually, or both/and?
  • When have you experienced 'temples falling?'  What was that like?  How did you receive a promise of hope in those times?
  • If you are living and serving in a time and place where these words do not seem to immediately speak to your context, how do you hear them?  If you are living and serving in a time and place where these words do speak to your context, what hope do you find in them?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Sadducees' Question

Luke 20:27-38

I am guilty of this, I know I am.  I preach funerals and I paint pictures imagining heaven as a place that is some kind of extension of all that we have held dear here in this life.  I would guess this is because my imagination is earth-bound.  This is all I know.  If today's Gospel lesson is any indication, clearly I am not alone.

For I imagine this also must have been true for the Sadducees who seek to back Jesus into a corner today.  They only know what they know and aren't willing to risk beyond that.  In fact, they go nowhere near where the Pharisees and Jesus and you and I would go in terms of believing God has something in store for us after this life --- even if we can't describe it or fully understand it. Instead, given their example today, it is clear they have placed their hope for immortality squarely on the shoulders of their children and their children's children.  If they live on at all, they believe they will do so through their offspring.  And I have to admit that their question is a pretty good one -- if you carry my usual earth-bound preaching images to their extreme.  If the next life is simply a continuation of what we have known here?  Well, things could get pretty confusing!

And yet, on first glance I don't necessarily find Jesus' response to the Pharisees today all that helpful. What does he mean when he speaks of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob saying 'for to God all of them are alive?'  How can this be, these many generations later?  How does this speak to those who have surely stood at gravesides and said good-bye?  How does this bring hope to those living in the darkness that always seems to come --- if not the next day --- then in the weeks and months that follow when those who brought such comfort return to their lives and the proclamation of hope which rang so true has now faded.

At least this was so for me.  I had to sort through these questions about what follows this life the hard way.  Perhaps we all do, I don't know.

I offer you now one of the most tender pieces of my journey in life and in faith.  I know I am still finding words for it, so I hope it will make sense to you

You've heard me speak before of the time around my dad's final illness and death.  Now, as you might guess, by then I had rested in the promise of the Resurrection my whole life.  I had unflinchingly preached it for a decade by then.  And then, suddenly, the loss was mine and I experienced the sort of grief which perhaps we all experience at one time or another --- where it feels as though a pillar of your world has fallen away --- where you are walking around with a hole in your heart which no one else can see.  Oh yes, I expect you know of what I speak.

It was in that lingering winter that I came to wonder about heaven -- about the promise of the next life that is ours.  Oh, I could not imagine that a life force as strong as his was then simply gone from this world.  And it was not enough, somehow, to believe that he simply lived on in memory or in the lives of his children and grandchildren --- although this was very much true.  Still, while I knew there had to be something more, I am also a child of this age.  I have seen rocket ships fly through space and men walk on the moon.  Those who have crossed those borders have come back to say that they saw no evidence of heaven.  (I know.  Perhaps until the age of 35 my faith was quite child-like.  I had never thought to think this through before.  It took this shock to my system, to my life, to the ground that had held me, to make me go deeper.)

And so I silently wondered and feared and doubted and still I preached.  Sunday after Sunday I preached right through that barren time, all the while wondering if what I was offering was based on truth or not.  For I simply couldn't see it then.  With the Sadducees, I found myself asking impossible questions. Only I was the one backed into the corner.

Now what happened next is difficult for me to relay for I am not fluent in science fiction.  I simply don't understand it and what I don't have any hope of understanding holds no great fascination for me, so this is a language I have not begun to master.  But for some reason the summer after that long winter I went to see the movie, "Contact."  Perhaps you remember it.  The film is based on the novel of the same name by Carl Sagan.  It deals with the question of other life forms in the universe.  More than that, it deals with matters of doubt and faith.  It starred Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey.  If you want the full synopsis of the plot, you can find it here:  

At any rate, Jodie Foster plays a scientist whose life calling has been to listen for evidence of alien life.  The backdrop of her personal story is that her mother died first when she was a child followed then by the sudden death of her dad.   The climax of the movie comes when she 'travels through a wormhole' and encounters alien life: which takes the form of her dad.  "He" says to her that though it appears as though he is, he is not actually her dad.  Rather, he came in this form so she would be able to accept and receive it.  When she "returned to earth" she believed that she had been away for some time, but those observing said she had only been gone a couple of minutes.  (Are you still with me?) The audio tapes which were recorded did, in fact, record 18 hours of static.  At the end of the film, she is before Congress testifying that not everything can be explained, but that does not make it not so.

I weep every time I watch this movie... especially at the scene where the form of her dad comes to her again.  Only, I weep not so much because of the story before me, but because of the faith that somehow was then born again in my heart. For where I arrived then is where I find I still am.  This is the understanding I now hold:

  • There are so many parts of the universe I do not know.  There are ways and places which are utter mystery to me.  I know many understand more than I do, but we all, at some point, come to the end of our understanding.  And I have become comfortable in not knowing.
More than that though:
  •  I don't know how God does what God does, but still I believe God can and God does; most likely in ways and places yet unimaginable to me or to any of us.  Indeed, this may seem a little strange, but ever since I left that darkened theater, I have come to think of heaven as a kind of other 'dimension' --- we can't find it now, perhaps.  No matter how high we fly or how deep we dig.  But God is bigger than this.  And that is enough. 
I never would have believed that a movie could have done this for me. But it did.

So, no, I have to say that Jesus' words don't necessarily speak to my mind which has been shaped by a scientific, proof-seeking age.  But his words do speak to my heart.  For they speak of a God of life who does the unimaginable.  If Abraham and Isaac and Jacob are still living, then so somehow must be those I have loved and so will I be, too, one day.

And while it is so that my funeral preaching images are entirely inadequate, they do all speak to joy and hope and wonder in the face of sorrow and despair and doubt.  For they are all images of lives lived well in faith and with hope and with purpose.  And if what God has created here is 'good' then that must go on in some way, mustn't it?  Even if it's not enough?  Even if it won't even really begin to compare with what's in store for us next?

As for the Sadducees and their very good question today?  They are right, of course, if God is bound by what we know here.  But God is not.  For in a world and in our lives which are marked by death, God is about something more.  Life.  And yes, I don't completely get it yet.  But somehow I'm able to rest in my not completely knowing now.  And that is something.

  • Have you ever found yourself identifying with the Sadducees and their question today? What was that time like for you?
  • How have you sorted out the important matters before us in our Gospel lesson now?
  • What does it mean to you that ours is a "God of the living?"


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Blessed Are...

Luke 6:20-31

I know something of blessings and blessedness and after the last year I know some things I didn't know before.  Or at least I am more deeply aware of some things I never thought about enough before.

Because you see last September we began a Year of Blessings at the congregation I now serve.

It happened almost by accident.  Or maybe not.  It was late in August and I looked out at the congregation and it dawned on me that our college students would be returning to school in the days to come.  And some of them were there that morning.  So at the end of worship I called them up and the children and I surrounded them with prayer.  We blessed them on their way.

At our Tuesday morning staff meeting one among us commented on how meaningful that was.  And somehow out of that hour's conversation came the idea to do a Year of Blessings.  We decided to bless something or someone every week for a year.  That would be 52 blessings!

Colleagues and friends wondered if we could do it.  How in the world would we come up with 52   blessings?!?  But you know, we did.  We blessed the usual things: like volunteers in our Christian Education program in the fall and seeds in the spring.  Of course, we blessed babies at baptisms and children receiving Bibles.  We blessed prayer shawls and their knitters and we blessed the property committee.  We blessed health care workers and those who are employed at the University.  We blessed those leaving on mission trips.  We blessed special wedding anniversaries and birthdays and...  We blessed and blessed and blessed.

Or I should say, God blessed.  For here is what was so wondrous about this.  When I arrived in this place among these people we were coming off a difficult and broken time.  Some may have wondered if we would ever fully come out of it.  Probably all of us wondered how we would move to a place of wholeness again. The details don't much matter for this telling, but what happened next is a story I'll probably tell for the rest of my life. As we kept thanking God and praying for and blessing, something changed. Spirits lifted. Hope was reborn. I can't explain it, I just know it was so.  For now all I have concluded is that somehow over that year we came to remember that all of this and all of us belong to God.

Now I know there are different ways to think about 'blessing.'  Unlike some, I am not among those who believe that something necessarily 'magical' happens when we lay hands on something or someone and invite God's blessing.   It is not as though  nothing bad will happen now or that the object so blessed carries some kind of power it didn't before.  And yet...  something does happen in the remembering and the thanking and the commending.  In the act of blessing.  Something certainly does.  Indeed, if you look closely at the word that is translated 'blessed' in this week's Gospel lesson, you will find that it can also to be understood simply 'to be happy' or 'to be fortunate.'  No matter what word is used, in this context we understand it to be a 'privileged recipient of divine favor.'

And so today we listen in as Jesus speaks of 'blessing' --- or more to the point --- of those who are especially blessed.   The poor and the hungry. The weeping and those who are persecuted for their faith.  On first glance, or the second one either for that matter, these would not seem to be particularly 'blessed.'  In fact, even in Jesus' sermon for most of these he seems to say that their happiness will be found in the future 'when their hunger will be satisfied, when they will laugh again, when they know some sort of heavenly reward.'  For them the blessing almost seems to be a promise of what will one day be.  Even if they can't see it yet.

And maybe for the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted, perhaps it is also so that as they and we simply stand still in the presence of God and remember that God holds us all, that the blessing begins. Perhaps that is what begins to change everything.

But in the meantime, it seems especially important that I also hear the second half of today's sermon for most of the time, this is the part that is meant for me.  For I am not poor. I have never known real hunger. Yes, I have known grief, but it does not mark my every day. And most of the time?  Folks speak pretty well of me --- at least so far as I know.  It would appear that I am marked by God's divine favor now, wouldn't it?  And yet, it would also appear that this is not favor that will last.  At least not if I rest in it for it's own sake.  At least if I forget to stand still in the presence of God and remember that God holds us all and that all of the good gifts I have been given are not mine because I deserve them, but because God gives them to me.

It is interesting to me that these are the words assigned to us once more on All Saints' Day: this special day when we light candles and remember those who have gone before and the blessings they have been and the ways in which they shared their blessings with us all.  As we remember them it is almost impossible to do so without resting in the truth that they are held by God --- even as they always have been.  Perhaps by pausing there, it helps us to remember this is so also for us. When we know ourselves to be 'blessed' and also in those moments when we forget to remember these gifts all come from God. And surely in those times when we wonder why God's divine favor seems so remote and we find ourselves yearning for a happier time.  Perhaps by remembering with gratitude those who have gone before and entrusting them to God's tender care once more, we more easily stand still in the understanding that this is also so for us.

For this is the gift of Jesus' words today.  All that we are and all that we hold and all that we hope to be belongs to God.  And remembering this, we are indeed 'blessed.'

  • How do you understand 'blessing' as Jesus speaks of it now?
  • How have you experienced 'blessing' in your life?  Where do you locate yourself in Jesus' sermon today?
  • Our experience of a 'Year of Blessings' seemed to change our perspective.  Can you see how that might be so?
  • How do you believe these words speak to All Saint's Day?


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Slavery and Freedom

John 8:31-36

Most of the time I really do understand Jesus’ first listeners today when they proclaim for all the world to hear that they ‘have never been slaves to anyone.’  For even though it may be obvious to anyone else that they are a people who  should know what slavery is for we who know their story know that as a people these children of Abraham were first enslaved in Egypt and then later by Babylon, and even then as they were speaking they were occupied by the Roman Empire.  Even so, as Jesus speaks to them now of slavery either their memory is short or their awareness is limited.  But I have to say that mine is took sometimes.  

Indeed, I expect it is even easier for you and me than it was for them back then to live in a kind of denial about slavery.   I say this now realizing that it was not that many generations ago when all of my ancestors arrived here and what I know of them is that they were mostly looking for freedom from hunger and freedom of opportunity and freedom from oppression.  Slavery does, in fact come in many forms and perhaps the worst kind of slavery is the sort where we have forged the chains which bind us ourselves.  Indeed, Jesus says today that we who do wrong, are in a very real way tied up with and by that wrong.  We who sin are enslaved to sin.  To pretend this is not so does not make it not so.  And if we are fortunate, the day comes when we can't live in our denial any longer.

And so while like Jesus’ first listeners I like to think of myself as free, still I am not.  This is how it has come home to me.

It was more than 25 years ago that I last underwent an actual physical fitness test.  It was a hoop we had to jump through as one of our ordination requirements then.  I wasn't necessarily out of shape yet, but it is so that I didn't pay that much attention to my physical well-being in my 20's. What I still remember distinctly about that session was that at the end the young woman who shared my results told me that I was losing flexibility already.  At the age of 26 I was already finding it hard to touch my toes.  To twist around. To move in even every day kinds of ways.

Ouch.  One would have thought I would have paid attention to this clear warning of what could only get worse.  One would have thought that I would have done something about this then before it was too late.  I did not.  Indeed, a quarter of a century passed before I even really noticed. And now I find myself noticing all the time. Especially early on Tuesday mornings when I force myself out of bed for an early morning yoga class.

Because, you see, I'm really bad at yoga.  Almost every Tuesday morning for over a year I have been stretching and holding and breathing.  And more than once I have almost laughed out loud when our instructor has us lying flat on our backs with arms and legs straight up in the air (or some such equally uncomfortable pose) and then invites us to relax into it.  "Relax!?!?  Really?" I think to myself and mostly don’t let myself mutter out loud.   Oh yes, all these years of not paying attention, of not moving in ways that would really stretch me, has resulted in my being 'bound up' --- enslaved even, if you will, in ways that indicate I may never really know full freedom of movement again.  

It is so, of course, that as Jesus points out today, sin can enslave us in much the same way. And I would guess that this is especially true when we find we have not paid attention to it in the way I ignored the warning about my physical flexibility a long time ago.  Indeed, I have had to learn countless times that our actions --- or lack thereof --- have consequences. Sin repeated over and over again leaves a mark, shapes habits, scars us in our very being. And while it is so that I can go long stretches of not paying attention to such as this at all --- the day always comes when I wake up and find I do really miss that one from whom I have been estranged for so long, when I realize that I am exhausted from behaving as though I have to do it all and have forgotten or failed to receive the gift of Sabbath for yet another week, when I experience that nagging resentment I sometimes do that results from my envying all the good things others seem to take for granted.  Oh yes, it is so that all too often I live in the same kind of denial that Jesus' first listeners must have when they claimed they had never been enslaved. Then I wake up and find it hurts to move in a way I once would not have believed possible.

And so I find I hear Jesus' words of promise today and I feel a kind of wonder at what he has to say. For I have neglected far too much, failed far too profoundly, ignored it --- whatever it is ---for far too long to ever know freedom again, haven't I?  Well, haven’t I?

And yet, that is not what Jesus says to us now.  In fact, he makes it sound almost easy, if not without pain.  For there is something to this stepping out of our denial and into the truth of who we are and what we have done or not done and who Jesus is that changes everything. There is something to simply knowing we need this gift of freedom offered to us now that brings freedom already.  Freedom from denial, for one.  Freedom from having to pretend I’m more than I am.  Freedom from believing it all rests on me.  Freedom from feeling the need to hide my failures, my hurts, my neglect and freedom to simply be all of who God made me to be among others who also fail and hurt and neglect and do wrong.  Oh, yes in that alone there is a kind of wondrous freedom.  In just not having to pretend anymore there is an amazing kind of freedom.  

And while it is so that this amazing promise of freedom does not mean that next Tuesday I will go to yoga class and be able to relax into whatever outrageous pose is modeled for me, that a relationship broken by neglect or hurtfulness will suddenly be as though nothing ever happened, or that the toll on my body and spirit by too many months or years of thinking it all depends on me will suddenly disappear.  Still for people of faith, this step into the truth is the first step and perhaps the most important one of all.  For this is the one that says that we do, in fact, know what slavery is first hand and that we also know that Jesus and his life and death and forgiveness is our only avenue to any kind of freedom that matters. 

Oh yes, it all begins with the truth that I am prone to even ignore well-meant long ago warnings that my actions have consequences.  It all starts with the truth that tis freedom Jesus offers now means something real --- not just in the next life, but in this one, too.  Indeed, standing in this wondrous truth is the best and only way I know that moves us closer to claiming and experiencing the freedom we long for. For this truth has us standing in the presence of Jesus in the fullness of all that we are this truth includes being offered the promise again that this freedom is not only possible, but that it is meant for you and me, too. 
  • What experiences of slavery and freedom come to mind as you hear Jesus' words for us now?
  • What does it mean to you to be 'set free?'
  • What is the truth that Jesus speaks of today?  How do you know that to be the avenue to freedom in your life?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Who is the Persistent Widow?

Luke 18:1-8

As for me, my dealings with judges have been limited.  It is only twice that I have been required to sit in the witness stand or to stand before a judge and offer my experience or perspective on the matter before the court.  Several other times I have found myself sitting in the gallery in support of family or friends.  In those times I have found myself in court, things have always been calm, orderly, and in control.  In all those times I have found myself hyper alert, afraid of miss-stepping or miss-speaking in the presence of such powerful authority.  Even so, while I have always been deeply invested in the outcome of whatever was before the court, I have never felt myself in the apparently desperate position of the widow Jesus describes today.

Now I imagine things worked a little differently back when Jesus described the persistence of the widow in today's parable.  Evidently, there was no court docket to ensure that only one case appeared before the judge at a time.  Or that limited the time or times when a case could be presented.  Or perhaps it was simply that the widow's situation was so desperate that she was ignoring all the rules which most people would have observed.  After all, what did she have to lose?  She was already living on the margins --- already, because of her station in life, without public voice and perhaps without actual means of physical support or sustenance. Whatever else may be true, the cause she was so persistently pleading must have been a matter of life or death for her or for someone she loved.

I find it interesting in today's parable that Jesus chooses two people who are on such extremely different ends of the social spectrum.  For instance, why does he choose to offer a widow who is so persistent in her pleading?   Wouldn't someone else whose situation was not so precarious do just as well?  Or are you and I to identify with the widow in some real way?  Are we to think of our lives as that vulnerable  --- as that dependent on the good favor of one in power --- in this case an unjust judge?

And why is it that Jesus describes the judge in the way that he does?  Why is it necessary that the judge "neither feared God nor had respect for anyone"  and who, in this telling, actually claims these nefarious qualities as his own?  Given this, I find it difficult to hear this story as one which somehow describes how we are to relate to God and yet it's also hard not to, given the interpretation Jesus offers as he begins by urging us all to "pray always and not lose heart."

It could be that this is Jesus' way of recognizing this world for what it is.  Perhaps he is simply pointing out that there are many of us who are without means or voice or security and maybe he is even saying that, in some ways, that may well describe some or all of us even now. And maybe in this short story he is acknowledging that there are powers in this world which appear to consider themselves all powerful without any felt need whatsoever to recognize that we are all in this together, regardless of station or means or potential.  Who are given more power than they deserve and who are not likely to implement 'justice' in any real sense of the word. Oh, yes, there are people like this in the world who often will only  listen and respond if they are badgered into it.

Only again, that doesn't sound much like the God I pray to.  Indeed, I was privileged this last Friday to spend some time in conversation with some preaching students at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.  I told them that I was stumped by this particular parable for when I read it at face value, it makes no sense to me.  Since when do we have to badger God to get what we need?  And how could God be compared to one who had so little regard for anyone or anything else?  As I posed my struggle, one in the back row raised her hand and said, "Oh, but is God the judge or the pleading widow in the story?"

 It still wouldn't be a perfect analogy, but in some ways that works a little better for me.  I can see Jesus being that persistent in our behalf, can't you?  I know that God --- particularly as we meet him in Jesus ---- was willing to go up against all kinds of disrespectful, unjust powers for God's beloved people.  Indeed, Jesus did so to the point of suffering and death --- and still he kept praying.  And the outcome of those three days alone should be enough for all of us who follow him to keep praying and not lose heart when we find ourselves in situations which in large ways or small mirror that. 

I don't know for sure if Jesus means to say that God is like the judge or the widow in this story, but I do know this.  God loves us with a desperate kind of love which did and would go up against all sorts of powers to secure our welfare.  I also know that sometimes those powers can seem unrelenting and that sometimes the pleading has to go on a long time before they finally relent. 

And so I also know this.  If you and I are called to identify with the widow, then we also are to pray like this: we are to keep asking, to not lose hope --- regardless of how long it takes.  Because the promise is that our pleading will be answered and our hope will not be in vain.  No matter how it seems today...

  • So what do you think?  Is God like the judge or the persistent widow in the parable Jesus offers today?
  • Why do you think the widow doesn't give up?  Is it because she doesn't have anything to lose and has everything to gain?  Is it because of great love and desperate hope?
  • What does this parable teach us about how and why we are to pray?  How do Jesus' words here inform or shape your own praying?