Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Authority of Jesus

Luke 7:1-10

There are, of course, things going on in this story which we don’t see through our own cultural lens, particularly since the world Jesus lived in was ordered so much by ‘class’ in ways we may never fully understand. 

Recognizing my own ignorance, I know I need to wonder, for instance, why the centurion would give so much credit to Jesus.  They come from different worlds, and the world Jesus comes from is one beneath that of the centurion in most every way.  It was not to be expected that the centurion in the story would turn to one such as Jesus for help.  
Even so, the centurion had heard about Jesus.  And to hear about Jesus would be to know that Jesus had no issue with crossing all kinds of social barriers.  To hear about Jesus was to know that Jesus consistently reached out to people ‘beneath’ him.  And to hear about Jesus was to know that Jesus was one who offered something which could bring wholeness again to the centurion's highly valued slave.  I expect the centurion's whole life had taught him that sometimes authority is given.  And sometimes authority is earned.  No doubt, he recognized in Jesus both sorts of authority.  And so in spite of all that might keep him from doing so, he turned to Jesus when he needed him most.
I think it still happens.  I have known this to be so --- that people in impossibly dark places look to Jesus.  And from time to time you and I are called to be bearers of the gifts of God, and by association alone we carry some of the same authority the centurion in this story recognized in Jesus so long ago.
I found this to be so last week.  The call came at 4 a.m., jolting me out of a sound sleep.  I was on call at the hospital and they had a family in need.  A baby had died. Would I come?
I have always been one who could wake up quickly when needed and I was glad for this then.  Only being so fully awake I also found myself deeply aware of the terror I was feeling then.  I had knelt down to pick up something off my bedroom floor and I found myself staying on my knees, breathing deeply, praying the simplest of prayers: “God, help me.”   

For you see, I did not know these people whose pain was unfathomable.  I did not know what to expect when I walked in there.  I only knew it would be awful.  For that matter, they did not know me.  They only knew to say 'yes' when asked if they wanted a chaplain.  They were looking for someone, anyone, to walk in and say or do something, anything at all.  As I walked across the parking lot to the hospital, I found I was still shaking inside, knowing I did not know what I would say or do.  It doesn’t matter that I’ve been doing this for 25 years.  I still go in scared sometimes.
When I entered the room, the baby’s mama was holding him close, weeping.  I knelt down next to her and in an act of attentive kindness the hospital supervisor tossed me a blanket to cushion my knees.  When the young mother looked up and saw I was the chaplain she pleaded with me to baptize him. 

Now I was taught in seminary that it is not right to baptize those who have died.  I know this is so for baptism is not some trick we perform to open up the arms of God.  I knew to my bones that little one was already with God.  Only I knew my simply saying so would not have been enough.  So I was brought some water and we baptized her baby as his mother held him.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit we baptized him then.
Mostly I stood nearby after that as family and friends arrived.  Soon another family member called her priest --- who came as well.  Leaving the hospital, leaving that baby behind, was excruciating for the child’s mother, of course.  She clung to me in gratitude when I offered to walk with him down to the morgue, something that turned out to be unnecessary as the coroner came directly to receive him then.
I walked the family to the parking lot a while later.  I did not know if I would ever see them again, but have been watching the obituaries ever since.  I thought perhaps I would ask the funeral director to see if it would be all right if I attend the child’s funeral.  Yesterday he made a connection with the mother and gave her my number.  They had been trying to find me, she told me when we finally spoke. For I had baptized him.   Would I speak at the funeral lunch on Friday?  Would I get up and say a few words?  And later, sometimes, when all this is past, would it be all right if we talk again?
I did not know what to say that long night turned into morning. Still, I went not on my own authority, but on the authority of Jesus himself.  Jesus who walked into dark places of unspeakable pain, promised to go before me and so I was able to go. I did not think at the time that I said anything particularly profound.  I felt I had nothing to offer which could take away the cause of her wrenching grief and guilt and pain.  On the other hand, what I did was speak aloud the name of the One who could and would and will.  I named the one who has ultimate authority over life and death.  This was what this young mother was looking for.  I was blessed to be the one to carry it to her then.
The centurion in this account in Luke’s Gospel knew about authority.  He knew what it was to speak and to be obeyed.  In spite of all that might have kept him from seeing it, he recognized authority in Jesus, too. Now this authority was not one which would command armies, rather Jesus had the authority to cast out sickness and death, suffering and pain.  You and I, people of God, we also are called to act on that authority.  This is what this young mother recognizes in me.  And yes, sometimes I walk in afraid.  Perhaps this is true for you as well.  Still, somehow I am able to put one foot in front of the other and go, knowing I don’t ever go alone.  Jesus walked into dark places and so I can, too.  And people recognize God in that, they do. 

After nearly twenty-five years of taking late night calls sometimes this is all I know for sure.  If I simply get up and walk into the darkness itself, God will find a way to act.  Sometimes through me. Perhaps more often in spite of me.  It seems to me that Jesus' authority was earned, at least in part, by his willingness to step beyond where most would be comfortable.  Where fear threatens to overcome hope.  Where darkness seems to prevail.  And then that is where God works.  That is where God always works.  This is still true today.  I have seen it to be so.

  • Why do you think the centurion in Luke's account shows such faith?  Have you ever witnessed such faith?
  • Is Jesus' authority given or earned or both?
  • When have you walked into darkness and then seen God work?  When have you carried the authority of Jesus?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Truth That Catches Us

John 16:12-15
"Jesus said, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth..."  (John 16:12-13)

"The truth is a snare: you cannot have it without being caught. You cannot have the truth in such a way as to catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you."  (Soren Kierkegaard, Danish Philosopher and Theologian, 1813-1855)
The Greek word for Truth is Aleithia.  Literally, it means, 'unhidden' or 'unforgotten.'  (See for a fuller explanation.)
I don't know about you, but normally I first think of 'truth' as something I am pursuing.  In fact, while I know I am looking for it every day, sometimes my curiosity will have me going even deeper still, trying to understand.  This is how it has been for me in these last couple of days.

I was walking through the cemetery earlier this week and came across a memorial stone, complete with photographs and commentary on one Esther Mae Nesbitt. Before Monday morning I had not heard of her, but her story interested me and so I decided to track down what information I could.  My quest led me to an hour in the history room of our local library where volunteers handed me a file folder of photocopied newspaper clippings and personal correspondence. 

Here is some of what I learned: Esther Mae Nesbitt was a veteran of both the 2nd World War and the Korean War.  At the age of 30 she enlisted in the Women's Army Corps as soon as it was formed.  During her time in the service she rose to the rank of Master Sergeant.  She came to be in charge of the map room for the entire European Theater of Operations.  She was awarded the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) by the French  Government --- an honor normally reserved, as I understand it, for those who showed heroism in combat.  Following 21 years of military service she retired to  Sycamore, Illinois, her hometown, and resumed her first love as an artist.  Her rendition of "Christ in Gethsemane" hangs in the chapel of our local Methodist Church.  I plan to go see it for myself. 

Esther Mae died young, of cancer, at the age of 58.  What is left is a file folder less than an inch thick in the Joiner History  Room at our local public library and a beautiful memorial stone in the cemetery behind my house.  If you walk Somonauk Street in Sycamore you can also find her home which is also marked by a plaque offering her name and rank.  I have yet to learn if there are those who actually remember her, but since she would have been 100 this year, I imagine it is fairly safe to assume her contemporaries are all gone with her.  She never married and had no children so direct descendants are do not exist.

As I paged through that file folder, though, I learned a lot, and while there is much left to be uncovered, one question stays with me. That Croix de Guerre she received?  That hero's medal from the French Government?  According to some recollections penned by a second cousin, it was not with her things when she died.  No one knows where it is.  There was another typed paragraph whose author is unknown which suggested that 'she was not allowed to wear it.'  So no my curiosity is piqued.  I'm wondering whatever became of that medal.  What is the truth behind its disappearance?  Indeed, that truth is probably both 'hidden and forgotten' at this point.  For now I am left to speculate and wonder and the discovery of that truth, if it ever comes, will happen on another day.

There is, of course, a great deal that is "hidden and forgotten" among us, between us, and within us.  Perhaps that is why much of our energy every day is spent pursuing truth.  This week alone I have not only wondered at the location of Esther Mae Nesbitt's "Cross of War."  I have also wondered at larger truths still:  I have wondered at why it is that one person receives a long awaited organ transplant and another never does.  I have wondered at why some pregnancies are more difficult than others.  I have wondered at what makes a certain person tick.  I have wondered why one person greets me on my morning walk and another avoids my gaze altogether.  I have wondered at how it is that sermons always seem to come together even though only a few hours earlier, there was not a shadow of an idea in sight.  I am always chasing after understanding and I am, more often than not, forced to dwell in mystery.

Jesus speaks to us of truth today, telling us that when the time is right (for at his speaking the disciples were as yet, apparently, unprepared for it) the Holy Spirit would come and truth would be ours to understand.  I'm thinking now that the Truth Jesus speaks of here is more than some factual understanding, although there are a thousand questions (a few of which are named above) whose answers would be deeply satisfying to me.  And yet maybe what Jesus is getting at is finally more in the line of Kierkegaard's assertion.  We may pursue truth, but Truth, at least any Truth that matters, is finally something that catches us in turn.

As for the mysteries and meaning of any human life --- whether it be Esther Mae and her long lost war medal, or any other person who sits and offers me the story of a loved one's life, I have discovered that the details of  'the truth' often still lie hidden and forgotten --- even if one has only just left this life.  In fact, I cannot count the times I have sat with a family and asked them to tell me what they would have me know about the one they loved.  Invariably, the answers are simple.  "He loved his grandchildren."  "She loved her family."  This truth they hold and share is that which mattered most to them.  And it is hardly ever first about accomplishments or awards bestowed or medals earned.  It is about the relationship and what was precious and will never be forgotten even when all the rest is gone from memory.  And yes, that is a truth which catches us, as Kierkegaard has it  --- whether it is between us human beings or it is encountered between us and  God. 

Now I can't say this for sure as it is not yet revealed in John's Gospel itself, but maybe, just maybe that is also the truth which the Holy Spirit leads us towards.  All that God does, God does in love.  God loves His children.  God loves Her family.  Without a doubt, that is a Truth that captures us and changes everything.

As for Esther Mae Nesbitt, I find myself reflecting on the truth that while her medal is gone, the lives saved by her service continue on in children and grandchildren and great grandchildren by now.  And that painting of Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane still hangs in the chapel of a local church.  A larger Truth captured her and she gave her life to it in a whole variety of ways.  And while I'll keep pursuing that other truth of the whereabouts of that French Cross of War for a while, I expect the truth is that the evidence of what is left behind is what mattered to her most of all.  May it also be so for all of us...

  • What 'Truth' still lies hidden or forgotten for you?  What do you wonder most about?
  • How do you find yourself 'pursuing Truth?'  How have you known it to capture you?
  • How does the Holy Spirit reveal 'Truth' to you in your life?  In the world around you?
  • What is 'the Truth' Jesus speaks of now?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Pentecost: Oh How the Holy Spirit Still Moves

Acts 2:1-21

I am remembering now a time when I discovered how difference in language can be so symbolic of all that can separate us one from another.  It has always been so, of course, and it is what makes the Pentecost Story before us now so very wondrous.

Now this story goes way back.  I was working corn pack at Del Monte in August of 1980.  Most of the other college students had already gone back to school, but I wasn't due back until after Labor Day.  Like me, many of my high school friends worked their way through college by working pea pack. By August though,I did not have quite so much in common with most of the people on the line with me. 

My job that late summer season was to work the cutters.  This meant my task was to dislodge ears of corn which got stuck en route to being parted from their kernels.  I wore a white plastic apron and heavy rubber gloves. The blades were sharp and those gloves were meant to protect our hands.  I carried a wooden stick --- for poking into the machines to dislodge those ears of corn.  Each worker was assigned to three machines.  It was not exciting work and it was uncomfortable for it was sweltering hot in there in the middle of the day. And the noise of the machines was deafening --- so it was not as though conversation was likely anyway.  Still, I was on a line with six other women of various ages.  The other six were Latino ---- members of families of migrant workers who traveled through for seasonal work every summer.  And they spoke only Spanish.

Now of course it was not only our spoken languages which separated us from each other.  We were also separated by the languages of our pasts, of our educations, of our likely futures.  As physically close as we were then working side by side, we were actually been miles and miles apart in terms of our life experiences.  Still, it was the difference in our spoken languages which brought all our differences home one morning.

For this is what happened.  My first day on the job I was assigned the most difficult machines --- those which allowed no leisure time for they were always choking on corn cobs.  I took it in stride, but was glad the day one of the women called in sick and our supervisor told me to move down --- that we'd put the new girl on the more challenging machines.  I took her up on it.  Well, about half an hour into our shift the new worker was getting pretty frustrated with those machines.  Before I knew it, she and the others ganged up on me and language difference or not they indicated to me that I was going to have to switch places with her.  I didn't argue with them. 

I have to say that I smiled even then to realize that for probably the first time in my life in that moment I was not the one who was privileged.  And for the first time, I think, I knew the impact of the difference of language to separate and divide. Indeed, I knew even then that all sorts of other languages separated me from them: ones which would take me out of that plant and temporary jobs like that one.  It was no wonder those women stuck together.

It is so that language often divides --- even when we think we understand each other well.  How we communicate with one another can be a path strewn with all kinds of hazards.  It is no wonder we tend to associate with others who at least can understand our words, if not always our meaning.   This was certainly no different in the time of the Pentecost story we hear about every year.  It is, in fact what makes this story from Acts so very remarkable. For it is so that we can make ourselves understood when we want to --- as I experienced working the cutters so long ago.  Only even that speaking and understanding was about protecting one's own or putting another in her place.  Not so in the story before us now.  No, this speaking and understanding travels across time and space, across culture and experience to pull together listeners into a common place of joy and hope.  This speaking and miraculous understanding offers a glimpse of a time when language will not separate --- nor will anything else for that matter.  So much does separate us one from another in this world, in this life, but for a moment in time long ago people were drawn together by a common understanding. They were embraced by the same wondrous joy.  Only from time to time I am reminded that this was not just once so long ago.  For somehow it still happens.

For you see, my nephew, Andrew, who is about to graduate from high school is now working the same sort of job I did so long ago.  Only he stands behind the counter of a fast food restaurant.  The men who work in the kitchen are also all Spanish speaking.  Only unlike me, Andrew hasn't let the differences divide.  He's been practicing his high school Spanish with them and they share a warm, laughing friendship of sorts.  Last Sunday afternoon, I listened to him for a while.  He was sitting at the dining room table in his work clothes--- ready to head off for his shift.  He told us then of his deep respect for those men, as he leaned forward in his chair telling us of his having learned that they work three full times jobs, some of them, just to make ends meet.    To be sure there are worlds dividing them yet --- these hard working men and this young man about to head off to college. Still, I can’t help but wonder at what God is doing with this already to change the world.  And just like with that first Pentecost, it all starts with reaching across the differences and speaking and understanding.  Oh, it may never move beyond this time and place, but it just might.  It is in knowing this that I know God is not yet done with us.  Pentecost still comes.  The Holy Spirit does, in fact, still move among us bridging the differences between us. Helping us to understand each other in spite of all that would keep us apart. 

  • Can you think of a time in your experience when language separated people from one another?  Can you think of a time when that division was overcome? 
  • Can you think of other languages besides the spoken language which divide us?  What comes to mind?  Can you offer a time when by the work of the Holy Spirit those differences were overcome?


Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Unity Not of Our Making

John 17: 20-26

I got word on Wednesday afternoon that my old friend John would most likely die that night.

His dying was not unexpected, but word of it still took my breath away.  I stepped outside into the warm May sunshine to try to take it in, to put this news in its place.  And then I came back to my desk to write to all of you about it.

I have known John for twenty-five years.  He chaired the church council where I was first called to be pastor.  And he kept track of me for all these decades since I left that place.  A devoted lay leader in the larger church, our paths kept crossing.  I grieve his dying as I do that of so many others who were part of shaping me when I was young to ministry. 

Now admittedly, John and I did not always see eye to eye.  Sometimes I would find myself sighing at his relentless persistence and his way of doing things which would differ so from my own. And yes, I say this with all gentleness, sometimes I found him a little bit annoying --- although, if I'm honest, that may have been more about me than him.

But then that would be true of many people --- perhaps of all those people I have known deeply and loved long and well --- we don't always see eye to eye.  We do not always agree with one another on how to get things done.  And yes, from time to time it seems, we will annoy, perhaps even dislike one another.  It is inevitable, it seems to me. And yet, in the 'unity' Jesus prays for today, this is who he has put us together to be unified with. Even the people who annoy us.  Perhaps especially those who annoy us.

And I have to say that this much is true as well.  I'm not sure John and I would have necessarily been friends had God not somehow put us together in the same place for a time.  We were that different from one another.  But because God did, for all of my ministry when I would hear from or encounter John he would greet me with a huge smile and a warm welcome.  Even the last time I saw him just a few weeks ago.  Again, not because we were so much alike, it seems, but because God gave us to one another.

This past winter I was called upon to teach using Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together.  This small volume had sat on my shelf a long time, but I'm not certain I had ever had cause or reason to read it carefully before.  I have to say that this time through I was especially taken with his first chapter on "Community."  If I get his point, Bonhoeffer is saying that Christian Community, as many tend to imagine it, is a 'wish dream' --- that the harmony we often envision is not all that likely or perhaps even possible.  In fact, he says, you and I have no right or reason to be disillusioned when it doesn't meet our expectations.  For it is somehow in our very experience of this community not meeting our hopes and dreams that we actually finally discover our 'life together' --- not because we necessarily like one another or agree with one another --- but because of the ways in which all of our struggle with each other enables us to see more clearly and to be all the more grateful for what Christ has done for us.  Christ died for this and these and no other.  With all our warts, our struggles, our hurts, and yes, sometimes our hurting one another, this is where God put us and this is who God put us with to learn from and to grow with.  And it is in our differences and in our struggles that the glory of which Jesus speaks in John 17:22 most shines, it seems to me.  For this glory is best known in true forgiveness.  This glory is best experienced among those who can examine their own faults and recognize their need for God... which is what our struggles also do.  Let me offer just one brief quote as illustration of Bonhoeffer's point, this time pointing to what often happens when we find ourselves disillusioned:

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it. But God's grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine  Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves. (pp. 26-27)
Imagine my surprise.  I have spent my entire ministry working to resolve church conflict and Bonhoeffer appears to be saying it is not only to be expected, but it is also something we are called to be grateful for. And it is so, of course.  It is in our differences, in our struggles, in our hurts that we encounter and receive God's grace and gift most completely.   It is then that I am able to see Christ in my neighbor.  It is then that I am able to be loved in spite of myself. It is then I know most deeply my own need for God.

Now it is so that perhaps in Bonhoeffer's time and place, church conflict was not as virulent as it is today.  And yes, I know it is so that there have been times in my life when the world has so pummeled me that it was all I could do to slide into a pew near the back and yearn to be soothed by the familiar strains of the liturgy, all the while hoping that no one would want more 'community' from me than my fragile state could bear.  I know that may be so of many who populate our churches on many Sunday mornings.  Still, most of the time it has been important to me to look for and experience that sense of connection to others. And when I have done so, when I have allowed myself to go more deeply in relationship to those others God has put me with, sometimes I am disappointed by or yes, even hurt by the behavior of others.  Perhaps this is why I found these words of Bonhoeffer hit home as well:
He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes the destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. (p. 27)
What an important reminder it is to me to know that just because I am hurt or disappointed does not mean that this group of God's people is not of God's design.  And when I have had the patience to live through the struggle, I have learned over and over again that over time and hard earned shared experience the connections do go deeper than anything I would have put together on my own, with my all too human tendency to surround myself with people who think and do as I think and do. 

So no, I would guess that John and I would not necessarily have been friends if God had not put us together.  But because God did, I experienced the kindness of another I never would have known otherwise.  I was challenged and pushed in ways I did not always find helpful at the time, but which made me think more deeply about my own suppositions.  I learned to look behind that which I sometimes found annoying and to see God at work in remarkable ways.  And in the end I expect we both discovered something so much more than what we could ever have created on our own... the kind of unity Jesus speaks of today which does not rely on us at all but on what God does through us and sometimes in spite of us.  It is God's doing, not ours!  And today as I grieve the death of an old friend, who was at first perhaps not necessarily a friend of my choosing, I give thanks for this amazing gift of God.

  • Have you read Bonhoeffer's Life Together?  It certainly has lent insight to my understanding of the unity Jesus prays for now.  Is it helpful to you as well?
  • Do you think of unity first as something God does or something we do or some combination of the two?
  • How have you experienced unity in your life, in your congregation, in your community?  How has that unity been a witness to the world?