Monday, July 29, 2013

The Rich Man and Me

Luke 12:13-21

The perspective offered in this week's Gospel lesson is one that's always hard earned and too often, I'm afraid, comes to us late. I, at least, like the poor rich man in the story Jesus offers now, normally don't hold it. I'm still holding on, saving up, thinking I have forever. At some level, I know better, I do, but that hasn't necessarily translated into a daily awareness. Some time ago now I can remember spending the day with an old friend. She had recently been diagnosed with a rare physical condition. It sounded like cancer although they weren't calling it that. Unfortunately, her diagnosis had come late and by now it had really taken hold of her. The truth of this was hanging silent between us. Looking out the passenger side car window, out of the blue she said, 'I only wish I hadn't worried so much about money." It was true, she had worried a lot about her finances, I knew that. I didn't push it further though, for frankly I could think of nothing to say, although a kind question might have helped her to work it out more deeply. Indeed, these many years after her funeral I wish I had said something more. To do so, however, would have been to acknowledge the weight of the loss we both were bearing then and I wasn't yet ready. Instead I nodded and kept driving.

As I reflected on these words this week, I was sitting on an airplane flying home to Chicago from Jackson Hole. I had spent the last several days on retreat at Yellowstone. They were good and rich days, whose learnings I will share on another day. It was as I was driving south out of the park on Thursday afternoon that I found I was struck, once more, by the utter beauty of it all, of course -- as much as I could take in for I was driving alone. For all the raw beauty of it though, from time to time I couldn't help but notice the not so beautiful stark stands of trees, stripped bare by fire in 1988. I'm told the fire burned so hot at times it stripped the leaves and the life from the trees and left the bare trunks standing before it moved on. In some places you can see new, smaller trees growing up to replace them.

It's the natural order of things, of course, but 1988 was twenty-five summers ago! It was the year I was ordained a pastor and trust me, that seems like a long time ago when I measure the learning and the losses, the hopes realized and the dreams I alone have abandoned in that time. Only, twenty-five seemed like forever looking forward. Looking back, I get a little of God’s perspective on it all as it seems like just yesterday. And yet while I still recognize the young woman in the photographs from that summer I often feel I am not the same person at all.

Well, I was on a schedule on Thursday, trying to get out of the park before sunset, but still I took a
moment to pull off at one point to take a picture. I stepped off the road for just a minute into the midst of the bare trees and the charred limbs lying on the ground, these stark reminders of loss and change. And then I saw the flowers --- beautiful tiny yellow and purple flowers growing up in the midst of it. Life is returning to that bare landscape. In God’s time, life is returning. I offer this image now because twenty-five years seems like a long time. In God's eye, however, it is just the blink of an eye. My friend looked back on her life and realized the same. It had gone quickly and at least in some ways she regretted not living it as fully as she could have.

And so I am grateful that from time to time God wakes me up and I think to pull the car to the side of a winding road to notice the flowers growing up from the charred landscape. Somehow this helps me remember that God holds this all, that God holds us all. Even those things I worry too much about which hold no ultimate meaning or power. I may never fully hold the perspective this week's Gospel means for me to carry. Even now, hearing the story once more I find it hard to believe this all will end --- that one day, too, probably before I know it, my own ‘life will be demanded of me.’ And so I do believe the story Jesus offers now is one meant not only as judgment but also as hope. And if we hear it as judgment, well, I would guess we are hearing it rightly --- but if we are hearing it at all, that means there is still time for new life, for new ways, for new flowers to emerge from the burning away what was. Indeed, I expect Jesus tells this story to this who can still hear hime for that purpose solely. Jesus would burn away my old expectations. Jesus would turn into a heap of charred limbs and logs my life where I think I’m in charge of it all and where I worry about that which finally doesn’t matter. Oh yes, if I hear this as judgment, I know it is meant as a gift of hope I desperately need to wake me up and bring things into proper focus. To remember what matters most even now. An old friend in her dying regret spoke to me of this And somehow, small as they are, flowers growing up out of a long charred landscape, speak to me of this as well. Time goes quickly. But it is not yet too late…

  • Do you relate to the rich man in the story Jesus offers now?  Why or why not?
  • In your life experience, what brings this story home to you?
  • Do you hear Jesus' story as judment or hope or both?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Young Man, His Dog and How Much More Will the Heavenly Father Give...

Luke 11:1-13

I was running errands for my mother this week.  I had made a stop at the grocery store.  On her list was watermelon and they were out of it so I decided to try another store.  As I walked towards the entrance I noticed a large black dog wearing a brown scarf around his neck.  He was lying down pressed up against the building, trying to keep cool in its meager shade.  While he caught my attention, still I guess I didn't pause to think much of it.  Instead I kept walking, making my way to the back of the store where the fresh produce is.  I picked out a melon and headed for the check out lane.

When I got to the front of the store, there was another customer before me waiting to pay for his purchase.  But there was no clerk.  We stood there for a moment when we saw a worker moving quickly towards the door holding several bottles of dripping cold water.  She shouted to us that she'd be right back.

As she punched the numbers for my watermelon into the cash register she apologized again for the delay, telling me how thirsty that dog was.  Then she said that his owner had been in a few moments before and had spent his last bit of change on food for his dog.

As I made my way back to my car, I saw the young man sitting on the pavement next to his dog, sweltering in the 100 plus degree heat index.  He was dressed in dark jeans and shirt and hat and had his ear buds on.  The dog's food had been poured out on the pavement where it was by now half eaten.  Both were soaking up the cold water which had just been given them.

I put the watermelon in the back seat and digging into my purse I walked back and handed the young man $20, commenting that it looked like he could use it.  (Oh, I know all the reasons not to do so and normally I don't, but I figure anyone who will spent his last bit of change on his dog is doing his best.)  He looked up at me and thanked me and then he said, holding aloft the $20 bill.  "This is what I love about this country --- that you would do this for me."  I, for one, think there must be something wrong with a country where people have nowhere cool to go on such a hot day --- where impossible choices lead one to spend one's last meager resources on one's dog and not one's self.  Still, I didn't argue the point.  I told him to take care of himself and I returned to my errands.

It's a less than perfect story, I know.  There are certainly any number of directions one could go with this experience, but as I was sitting with this week's Gospel I couldn't help but hear the echo of Jesus' own words, "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead?"  and "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children... if you then, would take your last bit of pocket change and be sure your dog is fed instead of feeding yourself... how much more then will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?"

God will give us what we need.  All we have to do is ask.  Indeed, sometimes, often, we don't even have to ask and it is still ours to receive.  Oh yes, I would guess that at least part of what Jesus is getting at in this piece of Luke's Gospel is the relationship we share with God.  One which addresses God as Father.  One where God acts as a loving Father, providing what we need.    It is a relationship where we do, in fact, at times find ourselves asking, searching, knocking.   And in turn receiving, always receiving.

Back to that young man and his dog.  It seems to me it would have been easier going for him if he didn't have his dog with him.  I can't think of a nearby shelter which would take them both.  And the dog seemed devoted to him, in turn.  I can't imagine he would have been easily separated from his owner.    The relationship, the devotion, they share is a mutual one.  Not that it compares to the relationship you and I have with God.  Except that ultimately we are also utterly dependent on God. Except that God, too, spent his last, his most for us.  Except that God always gives us what we need.

Oh, it's not a perfect story this one and I am still haunted now by all that I could have, should have done. I hope I will do better next time.  Even so, I witnessed something this week which spoke to me of at least part of the intent of our Gospel word now.  "If that young man would spend his last bit of change to be sure his dog is fed, how much more will our Heavenly Father do for us..."

  • There are a number of lessons about prayer for us in Jesus' words for us now.  What stands out most for you?
  • My parallel with this week's Gospel is less than perfect, I know.  Have you witnessed something which rings more true?
  • How have you experienced God as a loving parent giving you all that you need?


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Martha and Mary, Mary and Martha

Luke 10: 38-42

A long time ago I was in worship on a Sunday morning.  I was a young teenager and sitting on my lap was three-year-old Elizabeth.  I was her regular baby-sitter.  Our dads worked together.  We lived in the same neighborhood and worshipped at the same Lutheran church.

Now this church was a mission start in the early 1960's. Ten years later we still had metal folding chairs which sat on a hard tile floor.  Elizabeth sat facing me with her feet hooked under the edge of the chair.

The pastor was reading the Gospel --- this Gospel in fact.  When he spoke the names of Mary and Martha, Elizabeth's head jerked back in recognition, her eyes grew wide and when she jumped and exclaimed those names aloud, the force of her movement lifted my folding chair right off the floor.  For you see, 'Mary' and 'Martha' are in fact, the names of two of my sisters.  That little girl may not have been listening closely, but in that moment she thought the pastor was telling a story about her friends. Which, in fact, he was.  More to the point, every time this story is told it is told about all of us and each of us.

Indeed, is there a Bible story which gets a more instantaneous reaction from church folk?  If there is, I certainly don't know of one.  I walked into a Women's Bible Study a few days ago and all I had to do was say I was thinking ahead to preaching on Mary and Martha and the response was quick and clear. We 'get' Martha.  We wonder how it is the coffee will get made, the table set, the meal prepared, the dishes done without her.  Most of the time we don't mind mentioning how we resent Mary's ability to somehow simply ignore all that has to be done.  And we certainly don't react all that well to Jesus' seeming to take Mary's side.  I have a friend who wants to have t-shirts made which read "Martha Got a Bad Rap."  I'm not sure she couldn't retire on the proceeds of such a venture.

Now I, for one, am not worth much in a church kitchen.  In fact, there are a whole lot of hands-on practical matters you don't want me anywhere near.  Some might even look at this pastor and see someone a lot more like Mary than Martha.  Not this week though.  And not many weeks, if I'm honest.

In fact, as I wrote much of this I was sitting in the waiting room of a large University Hospital.  It was my normal day off, but this week once again for all good reasons it simply didn't happen. In fact, technically my 'day off' started at 2:15 a.m. with a phone call from a local nursing home where a member had died.  I stayed until the funeral director arrived then went home and grabbed a couple of hours sleep, thinking I could perhaps still get to those tasks which normally make up a Friday.  At 8 a.m. the phone rang again telling me we had another in critical condition so I made the drive into Chicago.  The week had already held a number of challenging meetings in addition to planning another funeral with all its chasing down details and tending a grieving family.  I don't miss meals and a couple of times this last week I almost forgot to pause to eat.  I 'get' Martha.  I know 'busy' and I know what it feels like to believe without me it won't get done.  And yes, I find myself hearing Jesus' words with a certain measure of resentment myself today.  How does one 'choose the better part' when there appears to be neither time nor space to do so?

And so today for now I only have this to offer.  Even though Jesus' words annoy me, I'm trying to hear them as good news and not only judgment.  I'm wondering at what it would mean to take time in the midst of all that demands our time.  I'm trying to take a hard look at myself and to consider the very real probability that my own quick reaction to Mary is not about her and more about me and my own needs and hopes and hurts.  And I'm wondering if there is a way to 'be Mary' in the middle of all that presses in.  And I wonder, too,  if the work itself can somehow be worshipful --- if the work itself can be 'the better part' if it is done in the right spirit.

For of course the work has to be done.  Everything that I did this week: every call made, every table  sat at, every prayer offered was necessary and important.  I expect a lot of good and important work was done in these last days.  And yes, I believe Martha's work was also good and important.  Perhaps it says something that Jesus' words are only spoken when Martha approaches him in her own distress. Apparently, it doesn't take much for Jesus to pick up on his friend's 'distractedness' and to see her own spiritual drought.  It's not so much the work itself that he is condemning so much, but what it appears to be doing to Martha.  At least I hope this is so...

It is so that what I offer now is done mostly in a spirit of confession.  I 'get' Martha, I do.  I know what it is to be exhausted, distracted, resentful. I've had those days when the good and important work I'm called to share loses all its joy.  I'm also learning that my reaction to 'Mary' is more about 'me' than it is about 'Mary.'  Perhaps as I learn to hear Jesus' words in all their intended honesty and kindness, I will more and more 'get' Mary, too.  And perhaps I will learn more often to quit always 'doing' and simply be.  And not only to be strengthened for the 'doing' again.

And so on Friday afternoon I ventured down to the cafeteria alone and paused to eat.  I sat still and watched and listened as strangers walked by and I overheard languages I did not understand and somehow experienced a small measure of Mary's gift of 'choosing the better part' in the midst of an otherwise hectic week. I was at the end of my energy and almost felt as though I had no choice but to sit still for a little while.  Wouldn't it be something if I also did so when I felt I had a choice?  Before I sense Jesus shaking his head at me and saying, "Janet, Janet...."  Even so, for now, I expect Jesus celebrates either way though.  And for that I am grateful.
  • How do you hear today's story about Martha and Mary?  Where do you meet yourself in it?
  • Do you hear Jesus' words to Martha as judgment or grace or both?  Why is that?
  • When did you last sense Jesus shaking his head at you?  How did you respond?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Who Is My Neighbor?

Luke 10:25-37

I stepped out the front door of the church the other day and looked up to see a woman clothed in a black burqa walking by.  She was holding the hands of two little girls.  The children wore head scarves and were sporting bright purple and pink flowered back packs.  No doubt they had taken a Monday morning walk to the public library next door and now laden with books, were heading towards home.

Now in case you don't know, I don't serve in New York City or Chicago. DeKalb, Illinois is a University town so we have more than our share of diversity, but this was a first for me.  I picked up my step to try to catch up with these neighbors but they were moving quickly.  I called out a good morning, but the mother only turned to glance at me and then kept moving.  I'm not certain I accurately read her expression, but it seemed to hold some measure of alarm. I imagine she couldn't figure out why this crazy American woman was chasing her down the street.  If it had been me I probably would have run in the other direction, too.

This near encounter with a stranger got me to thinking.  It is so that the foot traffic outside my office window is constant and while from time to time I do pause to watch those walking by, usually my eyes are glued to the computer screen, my attention is on the one on the other end of the phone line, my energy is given to those who have found their way into my spacious office.  When I venture out, normally I am going to see members and friends of the congregation I serve.  My encounters with neighbors unknown to me are polite and perfunctory.  The other day, a woman whose whole being was hidden from view caused me to wonder at what else is hiding in the lives and hearts of those whose path crosses mine day after day. But who I'm afraid I've hardly paused long enough to see.

There is a great deal for us in the story of the Good Samaritan before us now.  It is a story which is familiar in its meaning even to those who have never actually heard it read from Luke's Gospel.  And yet, I think the start of the story is in the eyes the Samaritan had for one he had never before met.  In his ability to see beyond the long-standing divide between himself and the wounded man he came across on the road to Jericho.  To be sure, it results in his willingness to risk and to reach out with kindness and generosity in a way that is surprising still yet today.  The young lawyer asks Jesus who his neighbor is and instead of answering, Jesus offers an image of what it is to be a neighbor.  And for everything else the neighbor does in this story, first he sees.

I don't know how it is that I can have sat at the same desk for a year and a half and had my eyes so closed.  It took a woman in a black burqa and two little girls to get me wondering.  Now that my eyes have been opened, now that I'm starting to see I'm trying to figure out how to take the next step and get to know the neighbors who walk by every day.  I expect some of them will have great need, not unlike the victim of robbers in this familiar story now.  I'm fairly certain many of them have been passed by over and over again by those of us who should know better --- including me.  For while it's no road to Jericho outside my office window, if they're walking by it's fairly certain the neighborhood they call home has its fair share of challenges.  More than anything, I know for certain they are all God's Own and for that reason as much as any I am called to open my eyes and see them.  As the Samaritan did in the story Jesus told.  As Jesus did and does for all of us.  I don't know what happens next, but I'm also confident this 'seeing' will probably lead to discoveries I haven't yet imagined.

  • I expect most of us can retell the "Story of the Good Samaritan" without even looking at the text.  How does one make such a familiar story 'new' again?
  • Have you ever had an 'eye-opening' experience like mine when you were forced to see who was in front of you all the time?  What was that like?
  • Who is your neighbor?  Does it strike you that perhaps there is someone you haven't taken the time to really 'see' yet? 
  • After the 'seeing,'  then what?