Sunday, August 25, 2013

Moving Up Higher

Luke 14:1, 7-14

In my experience it's not all that often in our culture that we encounter such a formal situation that we know what it means to be 'moved up higher.'  As in the time of Jesus, at wedding receptions perhaps. And on airplanes.

My station in life has meant that I've never been one who ever really aspired to be seated at the front of the plane -- which is why I can remember the three times I was unexpectedly 'moved up higher.'

The first was when I was flying standby with my family... trying to get from Boston to Chicago after Hurricane Bob.  (You probably don't remember Bob, but yes, it was an actual hurricane which did its share of damage on Cape Cod in August of 1991.)  As a result of the storm, our vacation had gone on longer than had been planned.  I was glad to be 'alone' for a few hours.  A kinder person, perhaps, would have offered that seat to one of her parents.  I did not.

Another time was when my flight was delayed by weather and I missed a connecting flight in Dallas, got too little sleep in a nearby hotel --- and someone, apparently noting my unpleasant experience late the night before, was kind enough to put me in a seat where I could actually nap between there and San Antonio.

And the last one?  Well, our group was in the airport in Nairobi, waiting to board Ethiopian Air for Washington, D.C.  I've you've ever traveled to East Africa, you know it can be a grueling journey.  I've done it a few times and every other time I've arrived home convinced that the human body is simply not meant to hurtle across time zones like that. In fact, that's not it at all. We're just not meant to hurtle across time zones curled up like a pretzel.

So as I said, we were waiting to board when I was called to the desk. Apparently coach was overbooked and they were going to put our group leaders into First Class.  I didn't say no and was overwhelmed by the difference it made to be able to simply stretch out for that endless flight.  Once or twice I ventured back into coach to check on my friends there, but I quickly retreated as the close quarters in the rear of the plane were leading to building resentment among my fellow travelers --- no doubt because their experience contrasted so with the imagined luxury I was enjoying.

On all three occasions I was invited to 'move up higher' and I did so with gratitude and few regrets, although each time I did feel a bit like an impostor. Like I didn't quite belong.  Indeed, remembering those times I find myself recalling now yet another time when I received such an unearned gift.

It could be that it's because I just passed a milestone anniversary year that I find myself remembering the following incident from my senior year in college.  Or it could be that for reasons which will soon become obvious, I will simply never forget it.  Either way, this is how it was:

It was the night before my last final that May. Apparently I must have thought myself well prepared, for friends and I had gathered at the local bar that was located just off campus.  It wasn't long in that small college community that we were joined by a number of faculty --- one of whom was my college advisor: the same professor who would grade my last final in the days to come.

I had had many classes with him as had my friend sitting next to me and I suppose by then we were as much friends as people could be under such circumstances.  Still, what happened next was entirely unexpected.  For as the evening was nearing its end, our advisor looked at the two of us and told us not to come to the final the next morning.  We stole glances at each other, not knowing whether he was serious or not.  A few minutes later he repeated himself and when he said it yet one more time, his colleague looked at us and told us he was serious when he said not to show up as our A's were assured.  He was offering us a gift which we surely had not earned.  We were being offered first class seats for which we had not paid.

My friend and I walked across campus a while later giddy with how this was playing out.  When we approached our respective dorms we agreed on a plan... that we would, in fact, not show up for that final test --- but that we would also hide out in our dorm rooms until well after the test was over so as not to raise suspicion.  So far as I know that's exactly what he did.  I know it's what I did the next morning.  Still, for obvious reasons, I never felt right about it. Putting this in print here I still wonder these thirty years later if I might yet be found out.

I wonder how it would have been in the time of Jesus for the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, who Jesus told his host to invited to his next party.  I wonder if he actually did and I wonder if they got over their surprise and showed up.  And I wonder if they worried still about the reactions of others --- or if they felt entirely out of place themselves having lived their lives with second class status or worse--- some of them their whole lives.  I wonder if they felt they really didn't deserve it --- or if they simply settled into the party and had the times of their lives.

I wonder about all these things in  this life, but I don't wonder about these so much in the next one.  For so much of what Jesus offers has to do with reversals --- the sort we hear about in his words today.  In ways so very different from how this world usually works, in that time and place humility will be rewarded and associating with the poorest people we encounter will have eternal dividends.  No, I don't wonder about this in the next life for with Jesus such examples are just glimmers of what will one day be.  For then only by God's gift will I once again be one of those upgraded to first class --- Indeed, I have been promised an "A" grade I never actually earned.  And I expect the same will b true for my neighbor, my friend, my enemy.  No, indeed, I won't have to worry about being found out -- for Jesus knows me through and through and he has still issued an invitation with my name on it --- and yours, too, --- to move up higher for we will one day be among those who gather for that great banquet in heaven.  I won't ever be able to earn it nor deserve it and what a party that will be as we all celebrate in the certainty that each of us is there only by God's grace.  What a wonder that will be!

  • Can you think of times when you were unexpectedly, undeservedly 'moved up higher?'  What was that experience like for you? 
  • How do such earthly reversals compare to what Jesus offers in today's Gospel lesson?
  • How do you imagine the final great banquet in heaven?  What does it look like?  Who will be there?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Jesus, the Bent Over Woman and a Pastor Who is Still Learning...

Luke 13:10-17

The story we hear today is one we can't help but feel deeply, it seems to me.  To hear of a woman who has been unable to stand up straight for eighteen years is to begin to feel how her every waking moment must have been marked by physical pain. To understand that she would not have been able to easily gaze into the eyes of another --- not her husband, her child, her grandchild, her neighbor, her friend ---  must have resulted in her feeling cut off from those who meant the most to her.  To experience the truth that her deformity would have led to her being unwelcome in the synagogue where she is called into the presence of Jesus today --- well, she must have even felt cut off from the promise that belongs to those of us who claim faith in a loving God. Jesus' words offered healing on so many levels.  Still, prior to that seemingly chance encounter in the synagogue, hers was an existence I cannot imagine.  Just as I know I can hardly begin to imagine the struggles of many --- even those I encounter every day. 

Or maybe it is that I don't want to. For the suffering of others taps into my own. The struggles of another remind me that I am one poor decision, one bad diagnosis, just a few years away, perhaps,  from experiencing the same.  If I'm honest, often I am not so different from those who would rather not have looked upon the suffering of this one daughter of Abraham.  For it is so.  Too often, we seek the easy explanation, try to assign blame, or simply look the other way in resignation, judgment, or despair.

Now there are, as always, a number of different ways one could run with the marvelous story before us now, but the one I find myself returning to is this.  It seems to me that in the moment after Jesus called the woman over to him and before he healed her, he must have bent down to look into  her eyes. Luke's account does not say this, of course, but I've never been able to imagine it any other way.  We know for certain that Jesus must have felt what troubled her deep down in his own being else he might not have taken notice of her at all.  And I can't help but think that her first step towards wholeness was Jesus getting down on his knees and looking up at her.

I am not proud of the fact that I did not learn this lesson long ago, but I was brought to a deeper understanding of the importance of this not that long ago. 

Oh, I make hospital and nursing home calls, I always have.  But it is also so that I have made those stops itching to keep moving.  Like everyone else,  I am busy, of course.  Too often I am fitting in these visits between a dozen other pressing obligations.  Still, I was brought up short a year or so ago when I was in conversation with  a woman who told me the story of her daughter's experience.  It was and is a wonder to me that she would have had no way of knowing that this was something I needed to hear.  Or maybe she did...

For you see, her daughter died a few years ago from a fast moving cancer and, like many in her circumstance, spent more than her share of time in hospital beds.  During that time she was visited by dozens of doctors.  The one she loved and trusted the most was the one who got down on his knees so he could look into her eyes when he talked to her. 

I listened to the telling of this a while back and I realized how seldom I did that --- how often I stood when I visited and prayed.  I thought of this and realized that by not even taking the time to sit down I was keeping one foot on the threshold --- ready to move on as soon as I could --- unable or perhaps unwilling to fully encounter the pain of the one I was there to visit.  As I sat and listened that afternoon I realized how often I have not begun to understand much less begin to meet the needs of those I have called upon in my time as pastor. 

I am no less busy now, of course.  And I don't always do it, but more and more I try to at least sit down and listen to the struggle, the questions, the pain of the one I am called to be with in that moment.  It not that I think I can ever fully emulate who and what Jesus was for that bent over woman so long ago.  But maybe, just maybe, my looking the suffering of another in the eyes will be the beginning of some kind of healing.  And maybe, just maybe, I also begin to have a sense of the wonder of the truth that Jesus bends over to look into my eyes every single day.

  • Where do you enter the story before us now?  Can you begin to understand the suffering of the woman in this story? Why or why not?
  • Can you also understand her joy at being made whole again?  Why or why not?
  • Why do you think Jesus picks her out of the crowd in the synagogue?  Why do you think others protested her healing then?  Was it simply a violation of Sabbath law or do you think there was more going on?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Not Peace But Division

Luke 12:49-56

The words of Jesus are hard to hear today....and yet I have learned that what he points to, while painful, often simply is.

And so it is that the story I share now still lies close to my heart --- never mind that the memory is nearly 40 years old, it still pains me to remember.

It was Christmas Eve when I was in the 8th grade.  My grandmother had died the week before and immediate family had gathered at the funeral home that afternoon.

Immediate family included only my parents, my three sisters and my grandfather.

My dad's folks had moved to the Midwest the year before when Grandma's Alzheimer's Disease meant they needed the support of family in the day to day.  My folks bought the house next door to us for them and a wonderful group of friends from our congregation showed up and cleaned and painted and readied it for their arrival.  I remember that as an especially happy time --- a time when I witnessed the church at its best.

Only my grandparents had never been involved with a church.  It was never talked about though.  To this day I have no idea what their thoughts were on the matter of faith, but their absence from all involvement spoke for itself I suppose. 

Indeed, when Grandma Hunt died, this was especially evident, for this is what I remember from that day.  The church was not there: not its people, not its pastor.  This would not have been my parents' choice, I know, but they were following her wishes and that of our grandfather.  My dad, her oldest son, was the one who stood at the head of her casket and spoke words which I have long since forgotten.  I only remember his voice breaking as he spoke.  I can't imagine how difficult that must have been for him. 

When we left the funeral home that afternoon it was raining. I remember waiting for my grandpa to pick me up at the door for I was riding home with him and how sad I was and stamping on my memory that detail so I would not forget. When I got home, while the house was more quiet than it normally would have been, there was still the special day that was upon us.  Looking back now I would guess my folks must have just been going through the motions of last minute preparations for our Christmas celebration then.  I remember pausing in the kitchen where the grief was heavy and asking if perhaps we ought to ask Grandpa Hunt to go to church with us that night.  No one looked at me.  Finally my dad shook his head and said he didn't think that would be a good idea.  I never brought it up again.

Years later when Grandpa died we gathered around his grave in Boston.  By then I was in my first year of seminary and my dad and I shared the speaking then. 

For years I pondered and worried and wondered over this.  Some time ago though I finally let it go, entrusting them both into God's tender care --- whether it was a love they ever acknowledged or not. 

So I know a little of what Jesus speaks today.  I know it is so that family can be divided by matters of faith and its expression.  I know something of the heartbreak it carries --- spoken or not.  And I know that it just is.  That though the life of Jesus and all that it was is meant to unite it doesn't always.   Sometimes it does precisely what Jesus says it will do today.

It is a wonder to me, really, that my dad, his brother, and his sister, all were people of faith --- all deeply involved in congregations, and they raised their children to be and do the same.  I choose to focus there --- knowing that no matter what has been, hope can still emerge.  And while my dad was always a good son, he did not let that loyalty dictate his life choices.  Some things, I expect he discovered, matter even more than that.  Still, this must have been hard for him ---- harder than I ever thought to ask about.  Even so, you never would have known.  The belonging, the joy, the hope he found among God's people were always a wonder to him.  Perhaps especially because he came to it as an adult.

And yet it is so that I am still shaped by those people, those events from so long ago especially in this way.  You've heard me say this before.  I'll do a funeral for anyone.  If I can, I will stand with those who grieve so that no family will have to be as alone as we were that Christmas Eve.  And I am not surprised to hear that others share the same experience with those they love.  I understand the real grief they live with, for I share it, too.

So I hear the hard words that Jesus offers now as simply describing what can be so.  Following him is so much more than choosing to worship on Sunday morning --- or Christmas Eve --- although that may be the first place the difference becomes evident.  Even more than that, this journey we are called to impacts our life choices, our values, our priorities.  One who even seeks to listen for the Holy Spirit's leading may find oneself at odds with even those most dear.  It is not, I know, that the division is necessarily permanent, although my example above makes it appear to be so.  Still, this is faith that matters, and as such, it is likely to make us look different than we would had it not claimed us in some real way.
Is there grace and gift in the fire and division that Jesus brings?  I imagine there is, although in this life, perhaps, I will always grieve those most dear to me with whom I could not share this most  important, this most defining of things.  Maybe I will always wish this were not so, and yet Jesus offers the simple truth today that when we stand for that which matters most, not everyone will stand with us.  Knowing this, while I acknowledge that I cannot fully know the mind, the heart of God, still I trust that God somehow holds us all.
  • What do you  make of Jesus' words today?  Do you struggle with this as I do?  Are  you able to find grace in what he has to say?
  • Where have you witnessed the truth that sometimes faith divides?  Have you also witnessed reunion once more?
  • Is there some measure of 'comfort' in the fact that we who have experienced such division are not alone?  If nothing else, do Jesus' words remind us that what we are called to be and do matters and as such we may find ourselves at a different place than others? 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Old Faithful and the Waiting Slaves

Luke 12:32-40

I ventured into Yellowstone National Park for the first time last week.  I flew into Jackson Hole late on Monday and out early on Friday, so my time there was short.  I traveled there to participate in a retreat so most of my time was taken and I wasn’t able to linger long at the amazing sights tourists frequent.  Even so, as I made my way back south out of the park on Thursday, I decided to detour west and take in Old Faithful.
Even in July, the traffic had not been bad before that, but it was backed up as I drove towards the parking lot.  I pulled in, grabbed my bag, and headed in the same direction as all the other tourists seemed to be going.  When I got close, though, it appeared the geyser had just erupted and wasn’t due to do so again for another hour or so.  I thought about passing on the experience, but it was early enough that I could still get out of the park before dark, so I walked back and found myself an early supper.  When I walked back to the viewing area for Old Faithful, it was already packed with others like me.  I was half an hour early and all the seating was taken.  So I stood between some benches and with the crowd found myself staring at a hole in the ground.

After a while a murmur went up in the crowd for there was a small puff of steam to be seen.  Along with all the rest I held my camera phone high over my head, not wanting to miss my chance at a photograph.  And then it stopped. And then there was another.  And then nothing.  A few gurgles of water bubbled up next.  Then it was quiet again.  Those around me began to speculate that perhaps it was just teasing us.  Those accompanying small children were doing all they could to keep them entertained while we watched and waited. 
We were there together all in that place for nearly an hour before the geyser fully erupted.  It came about twenty minutes later than the clock in the nearby shop had indicated. Still, just as it has for hundreds of years or more, it keeps more of a schedule than any other geyser in the park --- perhaps anywhere in the world.  And just as millions before had done so, together we witnessed something remarkable.

The images Jesus offers now speak to us of the kind of expectation which I observed in myself and in others that afternoon gathered around a geyser the week before last.  Like those slaves waiting for their master to return, we were hyper alert with cameras of all sorts at the ready.  Mostly we believed it would come --- relying as we were on the witness of millions who had gone before.  I don’t know that many of us would have been willing to wait all night to witness this wonder of nature as those slaves would have as they awaited the bridegroom so long ago, but we were willing to wait a while.

Many things in life are not this predictable.  In this season of weddings I find myself thinking back to a young couple I worked with a few years back.  As with many, there was much conversation about when to start a family and how many children they would have.  Soon after the wedding they found themselves expecting triplets.  Yesterday I officiated at the wedding of a wonderful young couple. The bride’s father was killed in a car accident in February.  The beauty of the day was unexpectedly shadowed by their devastating loss.  Joy and tragedy.  Grief and healing ---  they all come on their own schedules, it seems. Unlike that geyser in Yellowstone, we can’t set the clock by them.  We can only be assured that they will be. 

It seems to me, it is much the same for all of us as we await the return of Jesus --- which, of course, the images Jesus offers today point to as well.  We are offered now clock to help us anticipate his coming and it’s been a long watch by now --- for all of us who gather now we have waited our whole lifetimes.  It is the same for those countless who went before us.  To stand still and wait as those crowds of tourists do every day, would not be right and faithful.  But to lose track of who and what we are waiting for would, of course, miss the mark as well.
And so I find myself thinking of those slaves waiting for the bridegroom --- not knowing precisely when he would leave the feast to return home.  I can’t imagine they would have simply sat still and watched the door --- although perhaps they would have taken turns doing so.  No, I imagine they would have been busy about other tasks: all pointed to the service and care for the one they are waiting for, to be sure.  No, I don't really believe their time was marked by idle waiting.  At the same time, all ears and eyes would have been leaning towards the door and his return.  For he, in that time, was the source of their life, their meaning, their identity.

It is the same for us, of course.  We work and watch and wait for Jesus to come again, knowing that he also is the source of our lives, our meaning, our varied identities.  We don’t do so as a group of tourists do, watching the clock with their cameras aloft.  Rather, we do so as those slaves would have done so long ago, busy about our tasks, but never losing sight of who we are here to serve.  Never forgetting to lean a little towards the door as we await the return of the bridegroom, who, upon entering, always serves us, too.

No, we can’t set the clock by Jesus’ return.  At least not the sort of clock the tourists in Yellowstone go by nor the one I live by in the day to day.  We do still know, however, that such a day will be ours to embrace one day as well.  We join with the millions upon millions who have watched and waited for two thousand years, trusting their witness as well.  Knowing that the One for whom we work and watch and wait has given us everything and always will.  Indeed, as the beginning of this week’s Gospel lesson urges us, it is in our watchfulness even as we live that I expect we will learn to make purses that don’t wear out. This is how we will find ourselves setting our hearts on the only treasure that matters.
  • What do you think it means 'to make purses for yoursleves which don't wear out?'  How do we learn to do that?
  • Is our 'alertness' to be idle waiting?  Why or why not?  How do you think those slaves would have used that waiting time in the image Jesus offers now?  W hat does that mean for all of us?