Sunday, June 30, 2013

An Owner's Manual for Missionaries

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

I purchased a 'new' used car last week.  My old one was starting to show its 114,000 miles and it was time.

When I got home I pulled out the owner's manual.  Never mind that it's the same make and model as my last car, things change in 7 years.  I smiled to flip open to the index and find that the previous owner had recorded notes of his own inside the back cover.  So as to save himself from having to flip through 636 pages, he had recorded what mattered to him most and how to get to more detailed information more quickly. For instance, you can learn about the car's lights on page 250.  You can find out about how the back door opens on page 93 or cruise control operation on page 266. 

Such shortcuts are helpful when it comes to new cars. I expect this is also so in our life of faith.  In a way, that is how I think about this week's Gospel lesson. If you want to know what you need to know and do and be and have to be about the mission Jesus calls us to today,  it's all right here in a few short verses:

For instance, we quickly hear:

  • The work is urgent. There is not time to waste, for the harvest is ready.
  • It won't be easy.  In fact, sometimes you'll feel like you are wolf prey.
  • You don't need to take much with you to do this.  No cash or credit cards.  Not a change of clothes.  Not an extra pair of shoes.  For that matter, I suppose, not your cell phone, your new used car,  or your Facebook page.
On the other hand,
  • You will have a companion with you.  This is never meant to be done alone.
  • You do have a script --- and a simple one at that --- you are to declare peace wherever you go.
  • You will need to be able to simply accept the gifts of those who welcome you --- no shopping around for someone or something more to your taste.
  • And again, it won't be easy.  Sometimes when you think the 'harvest is ready' it won't be --- at least if the responses of those who are less then welcoming is any indication.
  • You're not in charge of how people respond.  You are just the emissary, the messenger, the one speaking in behalf of Jesus.
It's all right there in a few short verses.  

And so as I think ahead to sharing these words with God's People in the days to come, I find myself moving in a number of different directions.
  • Jesus sends them out in pairs.  This is not work to be done alone.  Think, for instance, of all the other times when we hear about such missionary partnership in the New Testament. There are Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13:1, Paul and Silas in Acts 15:40, Peter and John in Acts 8:14, Barnabas and Mark in Acts 15:40 and Judas and Silas in Acts 15:32.  I can't count the number of times when I have been so grateful to have partners in ministry --- those who support and challenge and join their creative dreaming to mine.  This is also so in every day life.  In my early morning exercise class sometimes our instructor will pair us off to work in stations.  Occasionally she leaves it to chance but other times she comes with a list of partners already assigned.  I always wonder at her choices --- I expect that in the pairing she is looking for compatibility and the ability to mutually challenge one another.
  • Jesus sends them out with a word of peace.  According to David Tiede in his commentary on Luke, "This is the same salute which King David's servants extended to the Calebite clan that stood on the fringe of Israel:   "Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have (1 Samuel 25:6).  It is an official declaration of the presence of the kingdom, and it confronts the people of the house with God's salvation and authority.  It is a word of blessing." (p. 202)  These words must have sounded familiar to those who first heard them.  I wonder what words we might use today to convey the same message.
  •   A couple of weeks ago my sister and I were helping my mom sort some things in her closets when the doorbell ring.  I went to the door and was greeted by two Jehovah's Witnesses --- literally living out the model of what it is to be a missionary that we hear about in this Gospel today.  Since I was clearly busy, they kept the conversation brief.  They were very kind.  No, we do not understand how God works in the world in the same way at all, but I found myself feeling blessed by the encounter and I wondered at what the rest of us are missing.
  • Often when I read this passage I find myself thinking that we tend to make things far too complicated.  While even this morning we had a guest in worship who found her way here via our congregation's website, technology only gets us so far.  If she had not been welcomed at the door; if a long time member had not extended kindness to her; if she had not heard the Gospel preached in a simple human voice...well, I expect she would not consider walking through these doors again.  All of these are the same simple gifts the seventy had so long ago.  People are reached in the same way: with kindness and with a message of peace.  It is not fancy, but it is still oh so effective. 
  • Finally, when I hear this passage I hear Jesus' words about the harvest being plentiful.  It is a word meant to convey the urgency of the mission.  There are people who are ready right now to hear the message we have to bring.  We dare not wait a moment longer.  Oh, the metaphor has its limits for it is often a lot easier to tell when an actual harvest is ready to be brought in that it is to tell when one is ready to hear the message we've been called to offer.  Perhaps this is why Jesus says we should be indiscriminate in our sharing.  "Just go and do it," Jesus seems to be saying.  And leave the results up to God. 
Most of all, whenever I consider this story I stand in wonder at the place of privilege and joy you and I who are also sent hold in the story of what God is up to.  At least in the way its told today we are reminded that there will be times along the way when someone else will have planted and weeded and watered and we just get to be in on the joy of seeing the harvest gathered in --- We get to be among those who simply rejoice to see God's own beloved children come home.
  • I compare this bit of Luke's Gospel to a shortened version of an owner's manual for missionaries.  What is missing that you would include?
  • We have a lot of ways we can go in our preaching and teaching, learning and sharing this week. Do any of the above especially speak to you?  Is there something else in the passage that strikes a chord with you instead?
  • Who have been important partners for you in your life?  In your life of faith?  What has made them so important?
  • Instead of "Peace to this house," what might we say today?  Or does that message still ring true?
  • While technology can be a wonderful tool of introduction, I do believe it only gets us so far.  What do you think?
  • When you hear the words, "The harvest is ready, but he laborers are few," what comes to mind?  How do Jesus' words speak to you today?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

No Turning Back

Luke 9:51-62

Every time this Gospel text rolls around, I find myself annoyed by it for what Jesus has to say today makes no sense to me at all.  I mean, truly, what is this business about the dead burying their own dead?  And then I remembered...

It was the summer before I was to begin my seminary internship.  For the last couple of years I had been blessed with a wonderful part-time job working for the American Lutheran Church Women out of the office of the old American Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis.  During those years before the merger which formed the ELCA, the women of the church decided to preserve their history for future generations and I was hired to serve as the project manager.

I loved the work.  I loved digging into church archives, interviewing leaders about their experience, organizing time lines, and searching for old photographs.  I loved being part of something that mattered.  And I loved the people I worked with. Indeed, from that vantage point I was able to experience first hand the deep call lived out by people at all 'levels' and expressions of the church.

So as I said, it was the summer before I was to begin my seminary internship.  I was anxious --- more anxious even than that early day in June two years before when I drove myself to St. Paul and moved into the dorm.  I knew what school looked like.  I had already done that for sixteen years.  I also knew what church life looked like for I had been part of the faith community since birth.  Only, as I have perhaps shared before, life in the congregation where I grew up had not always been easy and I was more than a little nervous about this next step in my life where I would be trying on what it would be to be a leader in such a setting.  In addition, unlike many today, I had no experience of women pastors whatsoever and so much of what lay before me felt especially unknown.

At the same time, the church at that level was going through a transition of its own.  All around us those who had no intention of moving to Chicago with the new churchwide expression of the church, were making changes.  My immediate supervisor, in fact, was leaving for other work and I learned that someone had suggested I be considered for the position  Only I also heard that our director Bonnie Jensen had replied, "'No.  Janet has other things she needs to be about now."

I can remember being a little peeved about that.  I can recall wishing I had been allowed to make that decision myself.  Deep down, though, I knew then as I know now that had I decided to stay there and finish out that work --- assuming I would have even been given the opportunity--- my motivation would have been all wrong.  I would have been acting out of fear and not hope and as the wise person who never even engaged me in so much as a conversation about that option knew, it could have derailed my call for years to come.  No, technically, it was not 'the dead burying their own dead,' but it was people putting an end to something.  It was to make way for something new, yes, but my part would have only been to put an end to something without any other future in sight.

Now not everything went smoothly after that.  My internship like so many others had its share of bumps.  I found myself lonely and uncertain and questioning through a good part of it.  When it felt darkest I can remember writing a letter (back when letter writing was more common) to Bonnie, sensing she would understand.  One late night she called me up. She let me talk.  And then she said three words which I have never forgotten. She said simply, "God values you."  It was all I needed to hear.

Oh yes, it is so that there is a great deal I don't understand in this week's Gospel lesson.  It makes me twitch more than a little to think of the poor man who was told that if he wished to follow Jesus he needed to leave right away --- leaving others to bury his father.  It's hard to see what harm would be done by someone simply going home to say good-bye.  And yet, like my old boss, Jesus knew that there are times when we must simply move forward.  His face was 'set towards Jerusalem.'  The city where he would share a last meal with his disciples. Where one would betray and another would deny and others would flee in fear and horror. Where he would die an unspeakable death to remind us all of just how much God values us. Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem and you and I are called to do the same as we follow him.  And once we have heard that call in all ways that matter there is no turning back.  Not for anything.  Not even those very good things which meant so much before. There is no turning back.

Of course it is so that the import of this may not always seem as clear in our life of faith as it was so long ago for a 25 year old seminary student about to go on her internship.  To be sure, in the day to day none of us have the hindsight that I now have looking back on that summer which turned out to be a turning point in my life.  So perhaps we would do well to presume that every day is a day, like Jesus, when we are urged to 'set our faces towards Jerusalem.'  Every single day we must have our ears, our eyes, our hearts open to answer Jesus' call, knowing that there is no turning back.  Not now and not ever.  And what wondrous days those promise to be as we hear and realize anew how much God values us each one.  What wondrous days these are as we follow Jesus by passing this truth along so others might hear it, too.
  • What do you think Jesus means when he says the dead should bury their own dead?  How have you experienced this to be true in your life?
  • Can you think of times when such a clear choice was placed before you?  How did you experience Jesus' call in those times?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

What God Has Done: The Man No Longer Possessed By Demons

Luke 8:26-39

This is one of those weeks when it feels a whole lot more like I am Wrestling instead of Dancing with the Word.  Indeed, a friend of mine will be away from her congregation next week and she was unable to come up with a supply pastor.  They'd looked ahead, you see.  They knew what the Gospel lesson would be. And they had no interest whatsoever in struggling with the challenging story and images before us now.  I did not look ahead.  Along with many of you, I will be climbing into a pulpit next Sunday and while it is tempting to grapple with the words from Isaiah or Galatians instead, I know that if it's hard, there's probably a reason I need to be stepping into it.  And so let me offer you a sense of where I begin as I read again about the demon possessed man and a herd of swine who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Most of us will assume that what was experienced as demon possession in the time of Jesus was actually what we would recognize as mental illness today.  If you have ever been with someone in the midst of a psychotic break you will know that they do suddenly possess superhuman strength --- that it would not be beyond the imagination to see them breaking their chains and shackles and making a run for it.  If you have ever spent time with someone who is depressed, schizophrenic, or struggling with an addiction, you know the compulsion to keep them safe at all costs ---even if the cost is their freedom of movement, their fullness of life.  While it is so that we are perhaps more enlightened about such matters than they were two thousand years ago, (and some would rightly argue this point), those in the throes of mental illness and those who love them know what it is to be 'living in the tombs.'  We know what a living death looks like and feels like for in some ways we live it still.

Indeed, I am one of those whose family has been touched and in some ways shaped by mental illness.  I have known the anger it produces in the one suffering from it and the anger and despair it engenders in others who love that one.  I can imagine what it was for the parents of the man so tormented in today's Gospel --- how he may have been such a promising young man --- how they remembered his smiling face as a little boy --- or holding him close to feed him and celebrating his first steps.  I can imagine how it seemed that his life and theirs were destroyed when powers so great overcame him.  I can imagine their grief, their despair, their wondering about whatever god it was they worshipped -- at their wondering where that god was --- as their desperate prayers went unanswered.  For I will never forget standing for the prayers in worship as a child and when it came to the part where we remembered silently those who were ill, I would pray with all my little girl's heart for the healing of my mother's sister.  For this was our collective heartbreak.  Those prayers have not yet been answered.  At least not as I yearned for them to be answered.

So think of any family you know who has been on this particular journey.  If it is your family, you probably find yourself wresting with this story much as I have.  What would it be for Jesus to meet the one you so love and for those 'demons' to suddenly just be gone from him, from her?   For a moment or for an hour or for a week or for a month you would probably not know how to respond.  I don't imagine your first thought would be for that poor herd of swine (although I will tell you I often think of the unfairness of how this all played out  --- for both the swine and those townspeople who counted on them for their livelihood.)  I imagine we would not be able to catch our breath for the unbelievable wonder of it.  And then when we do catch our breath?  Well then we would have to re-imagine our whole future with him, with her, for all of us.

And no, I imagine there were those in the case of this man who were simply unable to imagine a different future with him and for him.  If they wanted Jesus gone, I can only imagine they wanted him gone as well, for his newly found wholeness came at their actual expense.  It's no wonder he wanted to accompany Jesus from there on out.  It was no wonder at all that he begged to leave it all behind and start again in a new place where he had no history to contend with.

For yes, part of the challenge of this story is just this. We have grown accustomed to the chains and the shackles --- both those worn by others and those, hidden and not, which we wear ourselves.  We have all gotten used to living in the tombs.  And for those of us who have experienced healing of any kind, we may not even know where to begin to begin again among those who knew us before.  We see the sideways glances and those hands and hearts which still seek to shield and protect.  And sometimes, I would guess, we are those who are not so good at allowing others to abandon those chains and shackles either.

Oh, I know we are not there yet.  I know we who still have the will to pray, still whisper out loud the names of dear ones who are bound up by powers which seem to always win.  I know we still find ourselves and others 'living in the tombs.'   And I don't know precisely what this power of Jesus will look like when it comes one day, but I pray that when it does --- and I can only trust and hope and pray it will --- I pray that I will be able to recognize and embrace that new day and all it will mean for you and for me for neighbors and friends and family members who have known too long what it is to 'live in the tombs' --- who are too long bound up by chains and shackles.  And I pray that whatever the cost is to me and mine and us and ours that I will recognize it as so very small in comparison to all we have been given.  That I will hear him 'declaring all that God has done for him' and simply join him in the declaration, adding my own story to his.

  • What do you find especially challenging about the Gospel account before us this week?
  • How does this story intersect with your own?  Why do you think the townspeople are afraid?
  • When you hear about the chains and shackles and the 'living in the tombs' in this story, where do you see people doing this today?  Where and how have you experienced this yourself?  While I speak only of mental illness above, it is also the known experience of those struggling with all kinds of challenges.
  • How do you experience this story as good news? How do you see it living out in the world today? 
  • Have you ever known someone to be able to leave behind their 'chains and shackles' and take up residence among us again?  What was that transition like?  How did you experience them declaring God's good gifts for them?  How has this been part of your own story?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Responding to Jesus: A Child's Song, A Woman's Gift

Luke 7:36-8:3

I sat half way back for my cousin's funeral earlier this week.  Normally, like many of you, I am up front, so it was a gift to experience this very different perspective.  It was easier than I would have thought just to sit back and receive the gifts of the day.  In fact, it was a blessing to hear the good news of God's promises proclaimed by another.  It was more than that though.  For from where I was sitting I was able to hear and see this week's Gospel lived out in a particular way.

Seated right in front of me was a young couple with two children.  A four year old was sitting on his mother's lap just bursting with energy, no doubt entirely unable to comprehend the grief carried by those around him. We were past the sermon and before the prayers when the soloist began to sing "Jesus Loves Me."

It happened to be a favorite of my cousin's.  It is a tune, a song, a message we all know by heart.  It is one we all sing loud and clear in my congregation when it is part of our Sunday worship.  As the soloist began to sing this little boy's head popped up. When he came to the chorus, he joined in, his crystal clear child's voice serving as a beautiful accent to the bass voice coming from the back.

I expect everyone in the place heard it.  I imagine many of us smiled to hear it --- this child's spontaneous, unselfconscious expression of the faith which had been passed along to him.  We found ourselves glad in a sad moment to be so blessed.  And yes, in some ways he reminds me of the woman with the alabaster jar in our story from Luke's Gospel this week.   Like her, it was as though he could not contain the song within him.  Even as a youngster it was clear that his relationship with Jesus was sure and strong.  He had known the gifts of God and all he could do was respond with what he had.  He had a song to give.  The woman in the story before us now had her tears, her tenderness in drying his feet with her hair, and the ointment in her jar.

In some ways that little boy is much like the woman in this story and in others he is so very different --- not in the faith expressed but in our willingness to receive it in kindness and joy.  A child can laugh or cry or sing and while, when done at a time that is inappropriate by some standards, we accept it. For he is just a child.  She is just a little girl.  But once we are grown. and especially if our reputations are less than sterling --- well, then, the rest of us may not find ourselves able to see beyond our preconceived notions of what is acceptable.  Such spontaneous outbursts may make us uncomfortable in the extreme.  We don't know how we should respond.  And we find ourselves uncertain as to to what to do with the unexpected responses of anger or shame or fear or just plain discomfort which rise up inside us.  I expect we would do well to take the time to take another look at where those strong reactions come from within us.

And so this is the gift and the wonder of the story before us now.  It pushes me, perhaps it pushes all of us, to put ourselves in the shoes of the Pharisee who is hosting the party now and to wonder how we might have responded.  For if I am honest, I am not at all certain I would have been any different.  I, too, prefer things to move ahead as expected --- especially if I am 'hosting' the party.  I, also, would probably be shocked to discover someone of such disrepute in my home.  I expect I would have to force myself to 'think again' if I were to see Jesus respond with such kindness to one such as her.  And yet in my 'thinking again' I can hope that I would see her as I saw that little boy earlier this week --- singing the chorus to "Jesus Loves Me" with all his heart.  For clearly he sang because he already knew Jesus.  He sang because he had experienced Jesus' love for him.  He sang because it was all he had to give. I smiled at that expression of faith. Why would I not smile to see it in anyone else?

Indeed, perhaps the gift and the wonder of this story is also that it pushes me to put myself in the shoes and the experience of the woman with the alabaster jar and to wonder at what it was that caused her to bathe her his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair.  To wonder at how Jesus had already touched and shaped her life to draw such a response from her.  Oh yes, perhaps I am then compelled to wonder as well why I'm not also singing Jesus Loves Me aloud with all my heart, giving what I have: my tears, my tenderness, my emptied alabaster jar to show my gratitude.
  • Where do you find yourself entering the story before us now?  Can you understand the Pharisee?  Do you relate to the woman with the alabaster jar? 
  • If the woman in the story here were to enter your home or your place of worship and behave in this way, if you are honest, how might you respond? 
  • Has she, in fact, already arrived in some other form?  How have you met her?
  • What in your life of faith would cause you to respond to Jesus with tears of gratitude?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Funeral Interrupted

Luke 7:11-17

I have to say I have no parallels for the story before us now.  Never in my life or ministry have I encountered such as this.  I have been part of hundreds of funerals by now and while there are some which have perhaps proceeded not quite as expected, all of them have ended in the usual way. 

Not so in the remarkable account before us now. Death has been pronounced. The mourners have gathered.  Words have been spoken and perhaps sung.  The procession is making its way to the cemetery.  The widow's grief is of course, as grief often is, complicated by what this will mean for her now.  With no ready means of support, with no male voice to speak for her, from here on out life will be only hard.  And then the procession is interrupted.  She has been seen by Jesus.  Weeping may have spent the night, but joy has certainly come on this new day (Psalm 30:5).  And all those gathered that day know that nothing will ever be the same again.

I have no parallel for the story before us now.  But like this widow, I do know what it is to have been 'seen.'  And I have a sense of what a wonder that can be.

It was the first day of January sixteen years ago. My dad's surgery had not gone well and his doctor was urging us to transfer him to a hospital where he could get more specialized care. The fog lay heavy on the ground that night, so he would be going by ambulance instead of helicopter.

I remember little of the hour's drive into the city that night.  I do not remember parking the car once we got there.  I can't recall the elevator ride up to the intensive care unit or even what floor it was on.  What I do remember is this.  The nurse who rode with him in the ambulance tracked us down that night.  And while I did not, do not, know her name and would not recognize her if I passed her on the street, I will never forget what she told us then:  "I want you to know I held his hand all the way here."

I remembered this today as I thought about Jesus 'seeing' the widow in all of her pain.  I remembered this as I thought of Jesus feeling that woman's loss deep in his own being.  And I thought of a nurse whose name I do not know who saw my dad --- and even more than that --- 'saw' the rest of us, too, knowing that this difficult time was felt by a whole web of people, each one impacted by that hour's ambulance drive and all it meant. She must have felt that same kind of compassion for us then.  Oh yes, I remembered this today and truthfully, I wept, remembering that 'seeing' and the act of kindness shared.

No, we have no parallels for the story shared today.  And yet, as I remembered the story of one nurse's kindness, I found myself remembering another dozen times just like it:  times when I have been 'seen' beyond my role.  Occasions when I have been seen in my vulnerability or need and have experienced the compassion of another.  Oh yes, every time we are 'seen' by another. Every single time the 'seeing' results in even small acts of kindness offered. Every time we get a glimpse of at least the start of what it will one day mean when all of our funerals are interrupted. When our grief will be interrupted by joy once and for all.  For the story before us today begins with simply being seen by Jesus.  And from time to time we know what it is to have that lived out between us and among us already.  Indeed, in those remarkable moments, it seems to me, we, also, experience the very presence of God.

  • As I said, I have no parallels for the story before us now.  Perhaps you do, though. What would your story be?
  • When were you last 'seen?'  Were you seen in your vulnerability or your strength?  Did you experience that as a gift?  Why or why not?
  • Does it make sense to you that the beginning of the remarkable event which plays out before us now begins with Jesus 'seeing' the widow?   Why or why not?