Sunday, October 27, 2013

Blessed Are...

Luke 6:20-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Slavery and Freedom

John 8:31-36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Who is the Persistent Widow?

Luke 18:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Between Samaria and Galilee

Luke 17:11-19

That land between Samaria and Galilee is where we find Jesus today. 

I can't count the number of times I have preached the story of the healing of the lepers and always I have gone to the experience of the lepers --- wondering at the one who was given eyes of faith and understanding enough so that he returned to give thanks.

I am not there today, though, although I may get there yet. 

For now I find myself reflecting on where Jesus and his disciples travel now --- through that in-between land.  I wonder if the writer of Luke offers this detail as a mere literary device to 'get Jesus from one place or another.'  Or I wonder if perhaps it is something more.  I wonder if we meet up with Jesus in that particular place for a reason.

For the land between Samaria and Galilee is neither one or the other.  By its very existence, it is a place where it is impossible to forget that the two had once been one.  It is a location which causes one to remember how things were before long before the experience of exile left its mark on both kingdoms.  It is a place where one might find oneself unsure of who belonged and who didn't, where one might be uncertain, un-trusting, even a little fearful.  It is a place where the accustomed rules might not apply --- where one would not fully know one's place.  It is the place where Jesus travels today.  It is a place where, it seems to me, if we are where we are called to be, you and I are traveling every day.

At least this is what I have found to be so for me of late.   I suppose it should come as no surprise, thought, that in some ways I'd rather not.  And it occurs to me, too, that while I find myself there as a pastor, most others find yourselves even more fully there. Whether your daily lives take you to schools or construction sites, office buildings or hospitals, you know what it is to walk that line between what you know and what you wonder about as you encounter this uncertain, often frightening in-between-ness in the lives of others --- or in your own.

I was struck by this two days ago, this awareness that lately I am more and more in that strange land where Jesus traveled so long ago.  I had just climbed into my car, having ended a conversation with two young men who, under other circumstances I might just cross the street to avoid.   They were leaning against a car in the funeral home parking lot smoking.  I had arrived early to pray with the family and was leaving as many of their friends were just arriving.  I almost nodded and walked by.  Instead, I paused to ask them how they were.  They told me that they were the friends who had been asked to speak at the funeral of their lifelong friend the next day.  Their friend, whose body lay inside, had died of a heroin overdose earlier in the week.  If you paused long enough to look beyond their nonchalant stance, you could see their grief and fear.

What hit me two days ago was this was not a world I knew well.  I grew up safe and protected and in a world entirely foreign to the anger and despair that really took the life of their  young friend.  Much of my life  I have believed that if one just did the right thing one's efforts would be rewarded --- unlike the heartbroken mother whom I had just left who had done all that she knew to do and still today suffers an unspeakable loss.

And I have to say this.  I don't much like traveling in this land in between where words are hard to come by and healing seems so awfully elusive.  Where the rules I've come to count on don't quite seem to apply.  And yet this is where God keeps calling me of late --- to this same place where Jesus traveled when those desperate, hopeful lepers cried out for mercy.

It was just before we were to start the funeral on Friday morning that I bent down to speak to his grieving mother where she was seated in the front row.  She had been thanking people for coming until a few moments before.   I can't remember what else I said to her, but I do remember telling her the room was full.  And with tears flowing down her cheeks, she spoke her gratitude that they were there.  That they had not left her alone in this in-between place of grief and confusion, anger and despairing hope.

I do not have Jesus' power to cleanse and make whole as we hear in the remarkable, familiar story before us now.  But I do have the power to step into those in-between places in people's lives where one can no longer deny that once was whole is now broken and where the pain of their experience may be simply heartbreaking.  Those places where the lepers in today's Gospel once lived --- cut off from all they knew and loved and took for granted.  You and I can walk into those places and maybe, just maybe that is the beginning of cleansing, of healing, of restoration.  And somehow even just that alone sometimes evokes the kind of gratitude we witness in today's lesson.

It's where I'm called more and more, it seems to me.  I expect there was a time when fear alone would have kept me from choosing to walk into these in-between places: this land between Samaria and Galilee where the rules don't apply and the words are hard to find and healing is elusive.  I'm not entirely certain what has changed except most days I see no other choice.  And yes, many days I still find myself surprised to be here. And yet, it is where Jesus traveled.  So don 't you suppose that's exactly where God's people are called to travel, too?

  • Does it make sense to you that we are called to travel "between Samaria and Galilee" as Jesus did? Why or why not?
  • How would you describe that in-between place?
  • How do you feel when you find yourself there?  What has been your experience?
  • How have you encountered Jesus in that place?  In your life?  In the lives of others?