Sunday, December 28, 2014

No Plastic Jesus Here: The Word Became Flesh

John 1:1-18

We had our "Christmas in the Barn" again this year.  The weather was a little warmer and so the crowd was a little bigger and there were a number of children present with us --- ranging in age from 18 months to maybe seven years.  I called them to the front after I read the Christmas Gospel --- up close where they could get a closer look at the pair of goats and the pig and a couple of miniature donkeys.  And the manger.  Of course, the manger.

We have a life size wooden manger we keep at church.  For eleven and a half months it is stored away, but it gets pulled out every year at this time, of course --- first for the Children's Christmas Program and now for our barn service. Gerry had come into town earlier in the day to pick it up and deliver it. The straw stays in it year around. The blanket had been left from the Children's Program a couple of weeks ago.  And nestled into the straw was a plastic doll ---- meant, of course, to remind us of the baby Jesus.

The little ones gathered around as we pointed out pieces of the story represented there that night, for we were in an actual barn with animals and all the associated sights and sounds and smells.  Indeed, I think they were probably more excited about the proximity of the live animals than by our plastic approximation of Jesus.  Even so, I noted that one of them --- probably four or five years old --- with a sense of wonder and curiosity that children sometimes show--- was reaching in to touch our baby Jesus' eyes.  I've seen small children do this with actual babies, too.  They go for a most vulnerable place ---- closing the eyelids --- even as this little one did this Christmas Eve.

I didn't get the chance to ask, but I have to believe he didn't think this baby Jesus was real. Even so --- everything else in the barn was real that night, so maybe he thought this was, too?  Maybe in some small way he wondered if this could be real, too?

It is, of course, the first wonder of Christmas and one that carries throughout Jesus' life here on earth.  He was human.  He was flesh and blood ---- real --- like you and me with all of its wonder and all of its frailty.

I have become a little more aware of this frailty this year.  I know I've mentioned this before --- my mid-summer's meeting of the ground from my place on an extension ladder.  I am so very fortunate that the ground was not hard and my distance from it was not so far.  I was so very fortunate, I know, to walk away with only some bruises. But, oh, those bruises... In fact, it was only after a quick trip to Minneapolis this fall that I realized how wounded I really was.  For when I returned I was not able to twist and turn to look over my shoulder.  It turns out I had and have a rib out of place.  For some reason the symptoms did not kick in until late October.  I've been seeing a chiropractor about it ever since.  It seems to be helping, but it is slow healing, that's for sure.

Here is one thing I have noticed in the chiropractor's open room where adjustments are made and traction is held and where ice and electric stimulation are applied.  At any given time there can be a dozen patients in there at once.  Now I confess, I don't get it, but there are toddlers brought in as well.  And infants, too.

Truly, it's beyond me how a newborn could possibly be in need of a chiropractic adjustment but since I am usually otherwise occupied with my own slow road towards healing, and really it is none of my business, I don't ask.  Even so, I can't help but think of how very fragile this human flesh is --- how from the start we are so very vulnerable to wound and disease. And to think that God's Own Son would take this on in our behalf?  To think that Jesus would come as one of us?  When I pause in this simple truth, it takes my breath away.

For this human flesh will not last as long as that plastic baby doll we placed in the manger on Christmas Eve.  (I'm told that given the right conditions, that one's life span could be indefinite!)    In fact, even as I write this afternoon, I find myself remembering an old song called "Plastic Jesus" which was recorded in the early 1960's.  You can look up the lyrics or listen to it sung elsewhere online, but here is the Wikipedia summary.  If you haven't heard it before, it may be helpful to know that it was 'inspired' by a radio station in Del Rio, Texas in the late 1950's "which was run by a dentist and religious fanatic who sold the most outrageous stuff imaginable, all with magical healing properties."  It is a spoof, of course, and speaks to our certainty that inanimate objects in and of themselves cannot protect us or save us.  At least not in the way Jesus --- the Word become flesh ---did and does.

And so it is that we pause here on the far edge of the Christmas season to marvel once again that "the Word became flesh."  With all of its risk and all of its promise, Jesus became one of us.  No, this is no 'Plastic Jesus' --- even if we have to use such as that to represent him in a barn on Christmas Eve.  This Jesus lived like us, as we did and do.  Oh, just think of it: God stooping to this for you and me! And of course, you and I who know the rest of the story know exactly what happened to the 'Word become flesh' who lived and died among us.  That, of course, is the greatest wonder of all!

  • How have you come to think of 'the Word becoming flesh?'  What does this wonder mean to you?
  • It is not enough, of course, to stand still in this wonder.  How does this truth of Christmas speak to our callings as individuals and as congregations?  How does faith in the living Jesus lead us to still 'become flesh' for the sake of the world? 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

What Christmas Eve is For

Luke 2:1-20

As we approach another Christmas Eve, I find myself  remembering now one of the first Christmases I served as a pastor. I was still young, of course, and I confess I found myself not quite settled into the role or even into my life as an adult. To be honest, I was struggling then with what to do with holidays where I had to work and could not just ‘go home’ to where Christmas had always been provided for me. And so it was, I found myself a little bit at loose ends: trying to figure out how to make new traditions which worked for my new life, but unable to come up with the time or the energy to do so in any meaningful way. And while it is no excuse, on that late December day, I was just plain tired.  For December had been filled with one pre-Christmas gathering after another with every committee, every women’s circle, every choir, expecting the assistant pastor to show up --- an expectation I had done my best to meet.

Well, it so happened that December 24th fell on a Sunday that year. I had participated in three worship services that morning and was looking ahead to several more that night and another one on Christmas Day. It was just after noon and as I let myself in through the back door of the parsonage I could hear the phone ringing. I went to pick it up and was told that Glenn, a member of our congregation, was dying. His wife Edna was with him. They couldn't reach the Senior Pastor (in that age before cell phones) and would I please come.

And so I did… trudging back out into the late December chill, I went, carrying all of my weariness with me. I made my way past the front desk at the nursing home and paused to listen to the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” being played on the trumpet by the local Brethren pastor who was leading the service that afternoon. The strains of that trumpet followed me as I made my way down the hall and found my way to Glenn’s darkened room. Edna sat next to him, stroking his hand, watching him breathe. I quietly sat next to her and together we listened to his labored breathing until the room went quiet. I hope that I prayed with her, with him.  I’m certain I must have, but it’s been so long now that I don’t recall.

After a time then, Edna gathered herself up and headed for home. I followed her in my own car and went with her into her apartment which bore no signs of Christmas. Instead, a pile of unfolded laundry and unopened mail sat on the kitchen table.  Clearly, her whole heart had been at Glenn's bedside in that nursing home during those weeks when the rest of the world's energy had gone towards festive preparation. She called a nephew and we sat together quietly until he arrived. When he came, he sat beside her, too, and he said to her then, “Aunt Edna, Christmas Eve is just another day.”  Oh, he meant to comfort her, I know he did. He wanted all her future Christmas Eves not to be tainted by this. As if she could possibly ever pass another December 24th and not remember.

After a time then I made my way home. It was a while yet before I had to head back to church and so I took a moment to call my mother. I dialed the phone, pretending even to myself that I was calling to see if she needed anything for our family gathering the next day. Really, I expect I just needed the sound of her voice then.

And so I told her about my day. Perhaps I sounded sad.  More than that, I imagine there was an edge of complaint in my tone for this was not how I had pictured Christmas at all. When I was finished she very quietly said to me, “But Janet, don’t you think this is what Christmas Eve is for?”  Indeed, for you and I who pray and singing for the coming of Emmanuel, God With Us ---- isn't that precisely what Christmas Eve is for?

As  you can tell, her question has stayed with me these many years.  Indeed, as I hear again the story of a child born in an out of the way place to unlikely parents. As I remember the truth that God's Own Son was born not to riches, but to poverty.  As I recall that those who first heard the news of Jesus' birth were lowly shepherds. And yes, as I remember that Christmas was and is about Emnanuel, God coming to us in his own Son, I am renewed in my understanding that for those of us who follow him, we should not be surprised to discover him now in such places, too.  Even on  Christmas Eve. Perhaps especially on Christmas Eve.  In places like Bethlehem. Or a lonely nursing home.  Or a small apartment where there was no time or will to decorate for Christmas.  In places where grief hangs heavy and hope may be hard to find.  With and among those who are most hungry for the good news of God With Us.  Even here.  Even now.  So yes, spending part of my Christmas Eve watching an old man breathe his last among us here and accompanying his wife home, may in fact be the most fitting way to spend Christmas. Oh yes, I do expect that such as that is precisely what Christmas Eve is for...

  • I kept silent that afternoon when her nephew said, “Aunt Edna, Christmas Eve is just another day.” No, I did not argue with him then, but I have been shaping my response ever since. Even understanding his kind intent, I do believe he was so very wrong. What do you think? What would you say to that?
  • Have you ever spent Christmas in an unexpected way?  How was it in keeping with the first Christmas? 
  • What do you think Christmas Eve is for? 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Do Not Be Afraid!"

Luke 1:26-38

These powerful words are spoken by angels more than once in the first chapters of Luke.  First to Zechariah, who, when he saw the angel standing at the right side of the altar of incense, was, in fact, terrified and was overwhelmed by fear (Luke 1:12).  And later when an angel appeared to the shepherds 'keeping watch over their flock by  night' --- again we hear they were terrified.  (Luke 2:9) Indeed, it gives one pause to hear that Mary did not have the same altogether reasonable response to the sudden appearance of an angel.  For as we listen closely, we hear Mary described as merely 'perplexed.'  Even so, the next words out of the angel's mouth are "Do not be afraid."  Perhaps even before she knew she needed those words, they were spoken.

And oh, how we all yearn to not have reason to be afraid.

On Friday afternoon I drove back from the cemetery with a local funeral director.  Our conversation in those brief moments centered around community matters --- about a number of prominent retailers who are shutting down and about the fact that the city we call home is not really growing.  And she said, "Well, you know, they just came out with a list that says that DeKalb is the twelfth most dangerous city in the state of Illinois."

I have to say that I didn't think of her words again until later that day.  I had run out for a few groceries.  I glanced down at my watch as I carried my bags out to the car and realized it was 10:30.  Her words echoed in my mind as I found myself glancing around to be sure all was well.

Now I suppose that fear in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing.  At the very least, it can deepen our awareness about our surroundings and that can't be all bad.  In fact, the fears which haunt me too much of the time are not, on first glance, much like the fear that Zechariah or Mary or the shepherds might legitimately have felt.  No, my fears usually stem from a sense of God's absence --- not God's presence as all three of these clearly experienced with the visitation of angels.

And so today I would offer an example of where one might have experienced God's absence, but instead, the command to not be afraid was somehow heard.  Or at least it appeared to be so in the courage that was displayed.

So here is how it was. I spent two hours sitting on a hard bench at the DeKalb County Courthouse on Wednesday morning.  Oh yes, that time and place seemed as far away as it could possibly be from Angel's Announcement to Mary --- in spite of the decorated Christmas tree right outside the courtroom. In fact, it seemed like exactly the sort of time and place where such urging to not be afraid would be so every welcome.  For fear was all over that time as I sat together with a family, extended family and friends. They came and sat and waited for something that would take but a few minutes: the appearance of the man who had sold their son, brother, grandson, nephew, neighbor, friend the heroin which took his life. 

Courtrooms are fascinating places for about fifteen minutes --- maybe twenty.  On this Wednesday morning the judge went through a couple of dozen cases in the first hour --- most of them with those whose fates were in question appearing by live feed from the County Jail across the street --- making decisions about bail. Again, this is interesting for a little while and then the names and the charges and the circumstances start to blur.  Next came several people who were appearing in person.  Now these were a little harder to hear.  Even though the details evaded me, I found it exhausting to look such human misery in the face for so long.  I really don't know how those who do this all the time keep their spirits intact.  I found it profoundly wearing to pick up on the fear which showed in the faces and postures of so many.

Finally, a man was led in wearing leg irons and a striped uniform.  He was surrounded by corrections officers.  It took but a few minutes to grant a continuance. And through it all a grieving mother -- who had every reason to be afraid as she laid eyes on one who was, at least in part, responsible for the pain she will always carry now--- through it all she sat in the front row with tears streaming down her face.  When the man turned around I could see the look of terror and rage in his eyes. It seemed to me that what I saw in him was carried by most everyone who paused in that courtroom last Wednesday morning.  Indeed, as I said,  I felt it, too, as the minutes turned to hours.  I felt it, too, as so many troubled and troubling stories passed before my eyes.

At first I wondered what it would be if the Angel Gabriel were to show up in the courtroom and make his announcement, "Do not be afraid."  And then I realized he already had.  Especially in the heart of a grieving mother who like  Zechariah and Mary and the  Shepherds heard that call as more than words to be at peace but to move and to do.  For while grief has been her ever present companion in the last year and more, she has heard the call to change the world.  To give her heart's energy to stamp out the use of heroin in our community and beyond.  I have watched her do this: advocating and organizing and telling her story.  In fact, I sat with her one day as she spoke of the man who we saw in leg irons on Wednesday morning.  She did not speak of vengeance then --- but only hoped this would be a wake up call for him to turn his life around before it was too late.

I don't know how one becomes 'unafraid' in the face of what should otherwise terrify us. We do not hear, of course, that Mary was ever actually afraid.  Even so, it seems to me, she must have been.  Young, unmarried, and pregnant as she was in that time and place, Mary had every reason to be afraid.  But Mary, along with all those others who have heard the Angel's urging to leave fear behind apparently did just that.  She did just that as she heard God's own call to something more than what she could possibly have imagined all on her own.

With Zechariah beside the altar and with those shepherds late at night.  In an out of the way place with Mary and in a courtroom on a Wednesday morning.  Oh yes, in all sorts of ordinary times and places we find we yearn for this message still:  "Do not be Afraid."  I have to say I'm still searching for reasons why so many of those sad and sorry people should not have been afraid at our County Courthouse on Wednesday morning, but this much I trust. God's promises hold true. This being so, God was there, too. And as I said, Zechariah and Mary and the Shepherds may well have had reason to be afraid.  It's just that fear did not stop them as they moved ahead in following the angels' urging. 

And so it is that I imagine this to be our call in these last days of Advent. You and I are to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open for the certain truth that fear has no place among us whom the Angel Gabriel has visited.  At least not fear that keeps us from being about what we are called to be about.
I have to admit, I'm not there yet, of course. I am sometimes still afraid and so I do still need to hear the Angel's Announcement.  But there is this. I'm working hard to see the signs of a time when fear will no longer hold sway. And I am encouraged by the witness of those who don't let even reasonable fear stand in the way of doing what needs to be done.  Not even in the most fearful of places.

  • Where in your life do you most need to hear the Angel's Announcement "Do not be afraid!" ?
  • When have you heard that announcement and believed it and moved ahead in spite of the fear fear?
  • Where in the world have you encountered people who heard this announcement?  Where would you most like to speak the words 'Do not be afraid' and be believed?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

John the Baptist: Pointing to Jesus

John 1:6-8, 19-28

I am not an artist, nor do I have a great deal of understanding of art.  Indeed, I was a young adult before great art even began to capture my imagination.  I was in college and my sister, Martha, and I had ventured into the Art Institute of Chicago for the Monet exhibit.  She had rented one of those headsets which narrated the exhibit as we walked through. I really was just tagging along so I hadn't bothered to go to the extra expense of doing so, too.

Well, as you might expect, the Monet exhibit was popular and the crowds were moving slowly that afternoon.  Martha could sense my impatience and yes, almost boredom.  The pictures were beautiful, of course, but I had no deep interest either in the technique used or the play of light on canvas.  I had no idea, really, what I was looking at. We were standing in front of Monet's haystacks when she took her headset off and put it on my head and handed me the volume control. I stood transfixed as I listened to the narrator talk about the story behind the paintings. He said those haystacks which dotted the countryside (and still do --- at least where I live) were symbols of the common folks.  Indeed, he said they served as subversive messages of support in that time and place where, as in so many eras of history, common folks were treated in ways less than humane.

Now I've not been able to track down that particular interpretation in these past days.  Even so, that afternoon a light bulb went on for me as I began to realize that art --- perhaps especially great art --- is often more than beautiful images captured well. Many times a larger story is being told. The art points to something beyond itself.

"Annibale Carracci: Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness (2009.252)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (May 2011)

Perhaps this is especially so of what we might call religious art.  Indeed, this week as I was digging
into the story of John the Baptist I came across a wonderful series entitled "Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading."  It explores the artwork featuring John in the National Gallery in London.  (You can find the first episode here.)  Again and again these experts explore the detail in the paintings --- many of which at one time served as altar pieces --- and they point out the meaning behind things the less educated among us would otherwise probably miss altogether. Either way, over and over you hear that the story told with oil and canvas points beyond itself to something more.

Which, of course, is also what John does in all that we hear about him in scripture.  Right here at the beginning of John's Gospel not only does the Evangelist tell us that John was the one who came to testify to the light, but John himself says so:  "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord."  ".... the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal..."  Indeed, both in the story told here and in all sorts of famous artwork we see John with his arm outstretched, pointing beyond himself.  Pointing to Jesus.

And so I wonder now at what enabled or equipped John to do that --- to point in the direction of Jesus. It must have taken extraordinary clarity borne of discipline for him to not succumb to the temptation of grandeur with all those people flocking to her him preach and receive the gift of baptism at his hand. We don't hear directly about that, of course --- unless we stand still for a moment in those other passages which describe John's extraordinary wardrobe and diet.  We don't hear about that unless we consider that in spite of the crowds which are described in these passages bout him --- he must have also had considerable time alone. Time spent in prayer, meditation, study, and just plain wondering about what he had been called to and for.

In this season of Advent it is so, of course, that this voice of John is crying out to us as well to get ready --- to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus --- and in this way to point to Jesus.  Like John, we are reminded that our job is to get out of the way of the Coming One --- to get out of the way so that others can see Him, too. 

You know, I saw something of what this might look like in a hospital waiting room a few weeks ago.  I was sitting with a couple of members of the congregation I serve --- we had stepped out of cardiac intensive care for a few minutes. 

There were only a handful in the waiting room that afternoon and I have to say that at first I was so focused on those I was with, I hardly took them in.  Pretty soon, though, a young woman wearing a black head scarf approached us. Politely interrupting our conversation, she asked if we could point her in the direction of East.

Now this was an interior room with no windows --- and it was a snowy day anyway so I'm not sure having windows would have helped much anyway.  I stumbled as I tried to reply for I had no idea. As I tried to download a compass on my smart phone, the gentleman behind us jumped in and pointed her in the right direction. Quietly she stepped behind some chairs, laid down her prayer mat and began to pray. She knelt and stood with head bowed and knelt again. When her mother came out of the rest room, she oriented her in the right direction, too -- only she sat her down in a chair to do so.  It was especially interesting to note that throughout the time that she prayed, her mobile phone kept ringing --- but somehow she seemed able to ignore it as she continued to kneel and bow. 

Well, I couldn't help myself.  I told those I was with that I would catch up with them and I hung back to visit with her for a minute.  I asked her who she was praying for.  "Oh, I'm not, " she said. Waving at her prayer mat, she continued, "This is just my usual prayer."  She went on to thank me for our help in pointing her in the right direction.  And then she said, "You know, even if I hadn't known which direction East was, it would have been all right.  I still could have prayed." In those next moments I specifically asked her about who she was there for and she told me they were waiting on news about her father who had six bypasses that morning. She told me his name was Muhammad Eesac (I'm just writing it as she said it here).  And she said, "You know.  Like your Abraham and Isaac."   She went on to say that she had a son named "Esau." And she said, "Like your Jesus."   I told  her then that my prayers would join hers for him and I re-joined my group down the hall.

Our rituals are different, of course.  Even so, I've been wondering ever since how it is that people know that you and I are pointing towards Jesus. Normally, it can't be told in how we dress.  Or in the public practice of prayer.  Or which way we face when we pray.  So then, what is it?   How will people know that we are oriented in the direction of the Coming One: the Christ Child? Will it be in what I say and do?  Will it be in my generosity and joy?  Will it be in my saying so?  As John did?  What do you think?  How will our public witness along with John and not unlike a young woman I met in a hospital waiting room tell the world that we are pointing to One beyond ourselves?

  • What does it look like for you to face in the direction of the Coming Christ Child and to prepare the way?
  • In all of our accounts of John, he is pointing beyond himself.  How are  you and I called to do the same?
  • John had certain disciplines which, no doubt, helped him to be and do what he was called to be and do. Clearly the young Muslim woman I spoke with in the waiting room practiced certain disciplines, too.  How about you?  What disciplines do you engage in which keep you pointing beyond yourself as they both did and do?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Where Righteousness is at Home...

2 Peter 3:8-15a

"But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home..." 2nd Peter 3:13

I simply love the imagery offered to us in this week's lesson from Second Peter.  In these words we are encouraged in this long wait that is ours. More than that, though, we find here a clear reminder that the object of our waiting is meant to show in our living: in how we live between now and that time 'when the day of the Lord will come like a thief..."  This is how it reads: "Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish..." as we wait for that time and place "where righteousness is at home."

It goes without saying, I suppose, that that time is not yet.  In fact, the 'new earth' referred to here has seemed just about as distant as it possibly can in these last days.  And while yes, perhaps this is so every time these words roll around for us to listen to deeply once more, I am especially jarred by the lack of congruity this time around. 

Indeed, I expect I sat with many of you several nights ago, almost holding my breath as I waited for
the verdict from Ferguson, Missouri.  And, you will recall, there was plenty of time to hold one's breath as the announcement was delayed for reasons I may never understand.  At least not if I wish to put the best possible construction on it. I kept the news on just long enough to begin to witness a community erupt in frustration and hopelessness and rage. And in the days since I have started each day hearing about the same not only there, but across the country. Oh, I imagine that some take advantage of the situation to simply wreak destruction ---although such behavior is so far beyond my understanding that I find it hard to fathom.  Either way.  In ALL of it, regardless of one's take on it, and surely in the fading hope that is ebbing out of the hearts of our brothers and sisters?  Righteousness is surely not yet at home.

I have to say that I slept poorly that first night.  One might think that when the news of the tragic death of Michael Brown first broke in August, it would have kept me awake already.  Oh, I stood still in it then, but part of me was waiting to hear the rest of the story --- or to hope against hope that it would play out in a way where the justice I want to take for granted would make itself known.  It is hard to say if justice was done in this case.  Indeed, in spite of my suspicions, because of how it was handled, you and I may never fully know.  Either way, Monday night of last week I tossed and turned and couldn't get past the certainty that there is so very much I don't begin to understand. I was kept awake as I tried to think about how I can learn more deeply what I cannot possibly know all on my own.  Namely what it is to live as a person of color in this country. Or even or especially in the community where I live and serve.

And yes, this is surely part of how I know that righteousness is not yet at home.  Not yet here and certainly not now.  For you see, I truly did not really know how to begin.  Ninety percent or more of the people I interact with on a daily basis look an awful lot like me.  One hundred percent of the people with whom I have relationships of trust look an awful lot like me.  How can 'righteousness be at home' if I don't even know how to begin to hear the stories of my neighbors? 

Sometime in the midst of my wakefulness, though, I thought of Florine.  For you see, Florine is African American. She recently began to work for the Lutheran Social Services Ministry which is housed in our church building.We have spoken casually when we have crossed paths in the atrium outside my office. Once I paused to ask her about her tattoo.  She told me it was for her grandmother who had raised her and who had died, leaving her to fend for herself, when she was just eighteen years old. So in the middle of the night I thought to myself --- what if I were to talk to Florine?  What if I were to ask her what she thinks of the decision in Ferguson?  What if I were to ask her what life is like for her right here in DeKalb?

The truth is that as soon as I thought of it, though, I found myself deciding not to follow through.  It felt intrusive to me. I thought she might think me rude.  It felt risky.  And then, almost on an impulse, when our paths crossed on Tuesday, I asked her to sit down with me. She did and in the moments that followed she told me what she thought about the decision in Ferguson --- that she thought it was wrong. She shared with me also her dismay at the rioting that followed. She told me, again, about her grandmother who raised her and how she was brought up around all kinds of people so she didn't have it in her to judge people by race. She talked to me about her children and what it is like to raise them here. She shared with me her own faith that God would provide ---- even as she tries to provide for them alone in this community which costs more than where she came from. Through a conversation which took up much of her lunch hour she was, quite simply, full of grace and kindness with me in a time when I surely could not have presumed as much.

We talked, too, about how it might be possible for me to know more deeply the experiences of her neighbors and friends.  She told me, 'You have to get out there --- into the community.  Once people know you, they will trust you.'  And she promised to help me think about how to do that.

I don't know where this will go.  I only know that 'righteousness will never be at home' as long as I do not even know the stories of my neighbors. Indeed, as long as we are separate from one another?  We are in no way 'at peace.'  It was only a first step, of course, but I wonder if that simple conversation repeated a million times over might enable us all to begin to see one another as the precious human beings God made and for whom Jesus lived and died.  I wonder if that wouldn't at least be the beginning of 'righteousness being at home.'  What do you think?

  • I know that it is not nearly enough for me to have these conversations on my own.  I am called to lead a whole body of God's people, among whom, --- at least in the time I have been with them ---  we have had no public conversations about race. Or probably a whole lot of things that matter.  By the time you read this, I will have made a first attempt, using the Church Innovations Model: Thriving in Change.  You can visit their website here to get more information. If you are interested in training in this process go to the main website for Church Innovations. 
  • Advent may be the hardest time of year to ask the sorts of questions which this lesson poses.     People are so busy with so many things and their expectations of what Advent is for run far afield from the intent of those who put together our readings in the Revised Common Lectionary.  In your place, how do you observe Advent?  What is it to yearn for a world that is so very different from the one we live in?  What is it to live as though one is yearning for a world that is so very different from the one we live in?  How do we stage conversations about this among people for whom this may never have occurred to them?
  • I am reflecting above on the 'new heavens and new earth' in relationship to race in this country. There are certainly other places and ways where we are 'not there yet.'  Where in the world have you experienced that 'righteousness is not yet at home?'  How are  you called to live a life of 'holiness and godliness' as you address that?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Watching and Waiting

Mark 13:24-37

It is late November. Every year at this time it is a challenge to get the leaves raked and bagged or pushed to the curb before 
the city's December 1st deadline for removing them.  One year I simply waited too long and was left with a dozen bags of leaves still sitting at the end of my driveway the morning after I thought they would be taken away. While that year I had only my own procrastination to blame, it is so that I have one tree which always refuses to finish dropping its leaves until it's almost 'too late.'  Indeed, this week we have had snow and below zero wind chills, and as you can see those leaves still hang on!

I think of this as we hear Jesus' words for us in Mark's Gospel today.  Of course, Jesus' example is of a fig tree that leafs out, and I'm offering up an oak tree that won't let go, but either way, such as these are on their own timeline and in their own very concrete ways they offer a signal of what is yet to come.  More than that, I have found my tree is very predictable.  After just a season or two, I pretty much knew what to expect.  And yet, I have to say that 'having to wait' --- or more to the point, not being able to control the timeline is something I find somewhat annoying.

Because you see,  I tend to think I am in charge of my time lines.  So much so, that waiting and watching is something I don't do most of the time.  At least not willingly or gladly.

Of course, there was a time in my life when I had no choice.  I grew up in a time and place where our family only owned one automobile until I was well into high school.  On weekdays my dad would walk to work, leaving the car for my mom to drive to school across town to teach third graders.  Oh yes, I remember well in those days long before mobile phones, sitting on the front steps of the old Rochelle Township High School after volleyball practice or a meeting with my speech coach --- watching and waiting for my ride home. In those days I was always certain someone would come eventually.  I remember, too, being in the second or third grade and being the last one left at church after junior choir practice.  A family emergency had taken my folks and the car to the local hospital emergency room and there was no way to let me know they would be delayed.  You can be certain that I waited with an anxious urgency that night.

No, at least where I live now, watching and waiting with the urgency Jesus describes today is not something I do well.  I get busy with other things.  It think to lift up my head and pay attention to the wait in short spurts and then the wait becomes too long for me and I find myself turning away and getting on other, seemingly more pressing matters. Unlike when I was a child, for a long time now I have become far too accustomed to being in charge of my time lines.

And I find myself on the expressway and an accident or road construction has brought traffic to a stop and there is nothing to do but wait.  Or my leaves threaten to refuse to drop again this season and there may be no raking them until spring.  Or I find myself in a hospital waiting room waiting for a call from the operating room to let us know all is going well.  Or I sit at the bedside of a loved one and count the beats between breaths and know I cannot control the time line.

This Sunday's Gospel lesson reminds us once more that you and I are not in charge of the timeline -- not the ultimate one or often even the ones that seem ultimate in our lives.  Indeed, we hear that even Jesus didn't know when that day would come.  But even in our not knowing --- perhaps especially in our not knowing we are called upon to live in such a way that we are aware of the certainty that our 'ride is coming.'  Like a certain second grader with her nose pressed against a cold church window on a winter's night.  Oh yes, in a way these words today push us to live as children again: knowing and trusting that finally we aren't in charge.  Really, what a gift it is to know that we don't have to be in charge of those things that matter most of all. 

As we enter into these Advent days, may even those everyday times of waiting which inevitably come to all of us be a blessing where we find ourselves also called upon to watch for the arrival of Jesus once more. May we discover in those times not impatience and irritation, but perhaps even the chance to reflect on what matters most of all.

  • In your life, what does it mean to watch and wait?  When have you found this to be just annoying?  When have you been able to find the gift in it?
  • In the midst of so much which distracts us, what does it specifically mean to watch and wait for the coming of Jesus?  What does it mean to you to 'keep awake' --- as it is put in the last words of this Gospel reading?
  • Is it gift or burden or some combination of the two that you are not finally in charge of the time line --- especially the ultimate one pointed to today?  Why is that so?
  • This is one of those weeks where the 'world changed' since I first posted this.  I will be considering what it is to watch and wait in the wake of the Grand Jury Verdict in Ferguson, Missouri.  If you are preaching or teaching this week, what do you think it means to watch and wait in the face of such brokenness?  How will you be in conversation with your community about this?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Face of Christ

Matthew 25:31-46

I know the images offered in today's Gospel lesson speak of a final judgment where 'goats' and 'sheep' are separated one from another. I know this. And yet I find it most helpful to hear this as encouragement even now to see and experience and respond to this world in new ways. Indeed, I hear Jesus' words today reminding me that I simply don't know when I will encounter the face of Christ next: thus making nearly all ground holy ground.  And in the end, maybe that is precisely what these words are meant to do.

One day this past summer, I had driven the half an hour to my mother's house for Friday chores and errands.  By now it was early afternoon. I had taken her car out to fill it up with gas for her.  Now, I have to say I noticed the trio as I drove north on 3rd Street. Two Latino men were trying to balance a very blonde Anglo woman between them. They were all three walking south on the sidewalk --- although the woman did not seem to be doing well. In fact, as I drove by they were trying to pick her up off the ground.  Well, my errand felt pressing --- or maybe I just wanted it to be pressing --- and so I kept going. Ten minutes later when I returned, I noted that they had not made much progress, so with no ready excuse to do otherwise, I pulled the Buick over and rolled down the passenger side window. I asked if they needed help.  The younger of the two men had an almost audible look of relief on his face as the two of them steered her to the front seat of the car. She was insisting that she was having seizures which caused her repeated stumbling as she walked. The younger man gestured to me that she, rather, was drunk. It took me a few minutes, though, to put that meaning to the hand gesture he was using.

I asked what her name was. She said it was Brenda.  I offered to take her to the hospital emergency room which was less than a block away. She declined saying she just wanted to go home.  She said the hospital would only find something wrong with her and charge her a lot of money and she's had these 'seizures' before and she knew she would be just fine.  Almost against my better judgment I gave in to her request and drove her home to her apartment in subsidized housing just beyond the hospital.

I'm sure it was quite a spectacle to behold for the two old men sitting on the park bench out in front of the apartment building watching that afternoon.  I pulled the Buick up close and stopped in a no parking zone.  I walked around the car to the passenger side. I opened the door and steadied Brenda as she swung her legs out of the car. Oh, I knew our journey together could not end quite yet and so she leaned on me as we walked to the front door where she handed me her key card and I swiped it.  We walked inside and rode the elevator upstairs where again, she gave me her key, and I opened the door. When we walked inside she flopped down on the sofa.  I asked her if she needed anything else.  She asked for my phone number. I didn't give it to her.

As I headed past the lobby on my way out a few minutes later, I overheard the old women sitting  there talking about me and my passenger.  "I think she took her upstairs..." I heard one of them say.  So I walked over to them and said hello and introduced myself.  They had lots of questions for me for which I had few answers.  One among them volunteered that sometimes she gets lost when she goes out like that. I suggested they let someone know Brenda was up there and someone might want to check on her later. And I went home.

I've thought of Brenda from time to time since then, wondering what has become of her.  I think of her now and wonder: "Was that holy ground that afternoon?  Was it, in fact, the face of Christ that could be seen in Brenda who apparently had too much to drink and got lost walking those few blocks home from the Dollar Store that afternoon?"  It would seem so, wouldn't it?  And unlike far too much of the time, this time it was presented itself to me in a way I felt I could not ignore it. 

The reminder today is straightforward, it seems to me. We will encounter Jesus in the 'least of these' --- in the hungry and the thirsty. In the stranger and the naked and the sick and those in prison. Oh no, our faith is not only of the mind and of the heart, but is also for the hands and the feet.  We live our faith in what we do. We live it in what we do in places that aren't always pretty. 

Perhaps most of the time we can ignore that this is so.  A lot of the time I don't have the courage to step towards it.  Too much of the time, not unlike the story I offer above, I do just enough and then extricate myself as quickly as politely possible.  Indeed, I don't offer that story now to pat myself on the back for I really did so very little.  I offer it only as a reminder that we don't know when such opportunities will present themselves. I offer it now as a way to begin to wonder what it means to see the face of Christ and respond.

So let me give you a thumbnail of what I'm struggling with right now.  Yesterday morning, my instant messenger 'pinged' on my cell phone long before dawn.  Now I had watched in fascinated horror the evening before as the husband of an acquaintance ('friends' on Facebook really can be a misnomer, can't it?) spilled his pain all over the screen. The story was hard to piece together, though, and I closed my IPad not long after as my alarm was set to go off early the next morning.  At 4 a.m. I read in sleepy surprise what sounded like a suicide threat by the same man. I confess, I did not respond right away for I do not know the young man and in my less than wakeful state I couldn't figure out how I would do that anyway--- especially since he lives several states away. A little over an hour later, though, I realized I could, in fact, just reply to the message. Would it be too late?  I couldn't know so I simply responded wrote back assuring him of my prayers and that God wasn't done with this story yet. A few hours later he replied with his phone number. I'm still trying to decide if I should allow myself to get more deeply embroiled in this. And yet. Isn't he the hungry, hurting, heart-broken that Jesus speaks of now? Isn't he 'the least of these?' Isn't he also the very face of Christ?

It is important to note, I suppose, that Jesus doesn't explain the actions of those who respond to such aching need in the world.  In the end, he just looks to see who did and who didn't.  And yet, for all of us, too much of the time, we find ourselves weighing and wondering, don't we?  Somehow I doubt that I am alone in this.

So I return to where I began today not knowing fully if I am 'sheep' or 'goat.'  I return to where I began and am grateful for Jesus' words now which at least seem to be opening my eyes to see the needs right in front of me. At least part of the time. I return to where I began and hope that more and more I will do less wondering and weighing and simply give from what has been given to me. I return to where I began and pray that I will see ever more surely that all ground is holy ground for the face of Christ is everywhere.  Especially where we least expect to see him.  Oh, I do return to where I began and yearn for a world where you and I live more and more like this is so....

  • It is a 'judgment scene' that is described today. It seems to be meant as a gift for us.  Are you able to receive it as such? Why or why not?
  • Think of a time when you were confronted with great need.  How did that seem to be 'holy      ground' for you?  How did you respond?
  • What difference would it make if we saw the face of Christ in all who need?  For us as individuals?  As families?  As congregations?  As communities?  As a nation?  How would we then weigh what matters?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Fearful Slave

Matthew 25:14-30

Jesus offers us a rich image today --- literally.  For as we hear about the example of the master taking off and leaving three slaves in charge, we hear that he leaves them with more wealth to tend than you and I can probably imagine. For the talents spoken of here are not aptitudes or abilities. They are, in fact, piles of gold coins. Bushel baskets full, in fact. To my understanding, one talent of gold coins weighed between fifty and seventy-five pounds.  So even the 'least' of the slaves received enough that he may have been challenged to carry it all on his own.  As Jesus tells the story now, we hear that these piles of gold were left with each one of them to tend and manage and grow. And there is no growing without risk. There is simply no growing without risk.

And yet, I completely get the third slave in our parable today. Perhaps you do, too.  I mean, many of us have seen what can happen when we invest our resources in ways too risky.  At least by burying the money, he didn't lose it, right?  At the same time, we can't help but recognize that his existence is small and timid and not what God would intend for us at all.

Still, I completely 'get' him. I recognize his fear in me far too much of the time. Here is a prime example of just that:

When I began my seminary internship many years ago now I was afraid.  I remember it well.  I think I will not ever forget driving alone on the last Saturday in August from Minneapolis south to Des Moines where I picked up Route 80 west to Omaha.  From there I drove west on Highway 6 to a little town called Wahoo, Nebraska, which was destined to be my home for the next twelve months.  I drove those many hours with my heart in my throat, for I was afraid.

Quite simply, I did not know if I would be up to the challenge that was before me. In fact, I think if I had been given any 'out' at all in those months leading up to it, I would have taken it. At the same time, I knew this was what I was called to, and I was deeply aware that the next year could alter the course of my life. My supervisor, the pastor of the congregation there, did, in a very real way, hold my future in his hands. And without a doubt, in those first months I saw him as judge, not benevolent helper --- almost as adversary more than as a friend.

I had been there a couple of months.  We were driving together to a meeting when he confronted me. This is how I remember it. He said, "Janet, you're doing fine.  But you're not taking any risks!"

I remember still how that stung. I heard it as criticism, which, in fact it was. No doubt part of the reason it hurt was I knew it was true.  I was doing what was required of me. I was holding fast to what I knew I had to do. But I wasn't really stretching -- not even in that year which was meant, in part, for taking risks. In fact, from my vantage point  today, I know that would have been one of the best times in my life to do just that. For interns are forgiven many mistakes ---- they are students still, after all, and their time there is brief.  It took me a while to learn that there. In fact, I expect it is a life lesson I'm still learning.

So let me offer a story which gave me real perspective on this.

It was November of 1996 when I first offered this to the congregation I was serving at the time.  My dad had been sick for some time by then with heart problems. Prior to his illness he had been retired a while. Never one to sit still, in his 'retirement,' he set up his own handyman business --- mostly doing odd jobs for widows who were not able or others who were just too busy --- everything from painting, to installing drywall, to repairing doorknobs and toilets.  He also kept busy sharpening knives and cutting window glass for a local hardware store.  He loved it.  For the first time in his life he was in charge of his own schedule.  He was still productive.  He loved people and interacting with them.  He loved learning new things (and many a dinner table conversation had us in stitches as he regaled us with tales of things he had learned and the risks he had taken to learn them!). 

Only he got sick, you see. And he was on a potent blood thinner.  And because of his heart issues, sometimes the blood flow to his brain was interrupted. So naturally, my mother and sisters and I worried about him and his odd jobs.  Truly, we did not think he should be climbing ladders, installing air conditioners, or cutting glass. It was all too risky!

But you know what?  He wasn't worried at all. He just kept going until he couldn't any more. Because you see, by the end of his life, he knew what I'm still having to learn.  A life spent only staying safe is no life at all. Deep down, I expect we knew this even then. So in the end, we just urged him to be careful and let him go.

He died two months after I first shared our struggle with this--- for reasons entirely unrelated to cutting glass or climbing ladders. But in the meantime he invested all that he had in living the life he felt called to live. The lesson he taught me then is one I carry with me still.

So back to Jesus' story now. Like these three slaves, God has richly blessed us in a thousand ways.  Indeed, our bushel baskets are so full we can't lift them on our own. God has given us all of it and asks only that we use it, spend it, invest it, grow it. God has given it all to us and asks only that we love and trust him enough not to sit on it, hide it, or bury it.  So what are we afraid of? For that matter, what are we waiting for?

One last thing. At first glance, it seems awfully harsh to me --- perhaps to you, too, --- that the third slave was punished so severely. However, don't you think that even before his sentence was pronounced that he was already there?  Already in that dark place --- put there not by the master, not by God, but by his own fear?  What do you think?

  • Do you identify with the timid slave in this parable?  Why or why not?
  • What do you think the 'talents' represent in this story?
  • What do you think it means to take risks with what God has given us specifically 'for the sake of the kingdom?'  Do you think Jesus is getting at that here or is his intent something else? 
  • Looking back from the perspective of the end of your life, what will it take for the master to say to you, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave..."?  What would it look like for you to trust enough to risk for the sake of growth in the time that is yours?  What does the opposite of that look like for you?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Foolish Bridesmaids

Matthew 25:1-13

The story I offer now is an old one.  It comes to mind today because the ending is the same as the one in the story Jesus tells today. The door was closed on me.

I was in the 3rd grade.  Our class room was on the second floor.  There were two entries --- the one we normally used and the one we used for recess.  The one we used for recess was actually an old iron fire escape.  Without a key, the door only opened from the inside.

It was afternoon in the fall of the year and we were outside for recess.  Normally, I would have been playing with friends from my own class, but the second grade class was enjoying recess at the same time.  My sister, Martha, was in that class and I got to playing with her.  When I looked up again, my class was gone.

Now ours was a new teacher, and no doubt, she was still learning how to best corral the energy of 40 nine-year-olds.  Her method for gathering our attention and signaling it was time to go back inside for lessons was to stand in the middle of the playground and hold one hand up in the air.   We were to make a single file line in front of her and she would lead us back inside.

I was not the first one to miss it.  In fact, just the week before two boys had gotten busy and had not looked up at the right moment.  When they realized they had missed it, they went around to the school's front doors and came in.  She sent them back outside and ordered them to sit at the top of the fire escape steps until the end of the school day.

As it turn out, that day it was my turn.  I ran as quickly as my nine-year-old legs would take me to the top of the stairs.  I peered through the window to see my classmates taking off their coats and hanging them on their assigned hooks.  I saw our teacher tell them to ignore me --- not to open the door to let me in.  By the example of others, I knew it would do no good to enter by another way. I was something like those foolish bridesmaids we hear about today.  And so I sat on those top steps and waited until the end of the school day came and I was finally let in.  I was told to sit down at my desk where our teacher told me to make up the work I had missed.  I will never understand her surprise that by now I was choking back tears. (If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may wonder how I ever made it through grade school -- not to mention a couple of graduate degrees!)

Again, I offer this now because it ends in similar way to the parable Jesus tells today.  Recalling my third grade experience of being locked out' helps me test the point Jesus offers now.

But here is my struggle with the words before us today.  While the words of the parable end with Jesus telling his listeners to ' keep awake' --- my sense is that is not really his point --- at least not in the way we might normally understand it.  For as the story is told, both the foolish and the wise bridesmaids fell asleep.  So it seems to me that this 'keeping awake' must not be that of a third grader keeping her eyes glued to her teacher during afternoon recess so as not to miss her silent signal. Otherwise, what would be the point of recess at all?  Even so, this 'keeping awake' does have to do with being prepared --- always aware --- that the end of 'recess' is right around the corner ---- that the bridegroom could come at any time. In fact, Jesus is expected --- even if he is delayed.  And somehow our living should reflect that.

No, in many ways, my third grade playground experience is a pretty poor parallel here.  Indeed, the 'signs' of the bridegroom's return are only silent if I put in earplugs and tie on a blindfold and if I harden my heart to it.  Oh yes, in this meantime for all of us, in many ways it seems to me that Jesus would want us to live our lives not unlike a certain third-grader on the playground that afternoon so long ago; with abandon and joy. Only in the case of our whole lives, our 'abandon and joy' is focused on and because of what it means to live as a child of God in the world even while we work and play and care for one another and rest! 

Now I am deeply aware that such single-mindedness seldom characterizes how I am much of the time.  Oh yes, this is a quality I probably abandoned a very long time ago.  There are always so many distractions --- some welcome and some not so much --- that it takes real effort for me to stay fully in any moment for very long. And so it seems to me that Jesus tells this story now as a gift --- to remind us that like those bridesmaids so long ago, ultimately we are here for but one thing and all we have to do is keep our focus there.  In their case?  It was the arrival of the bridegroom and the celebration which would ensue.  All they had to do was make sure there was 'oil' in their lamp so as to be able to finish the wait.  It is the same for us, don't you think?
  • What experience do you have with being 'locked out' because of your own lack of attention or preparation?  How was your experience like or unlike the story Jesus tells today?
  • What does it mean to be 'keep awake?'  What do you think the 'oil' represents?
  • Do you experience Jesus' story today as a gift?  Why or why not?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

And That Is What We Are...

1 John 3:1-3

"See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God,
                       and that is what we are..."

It's a memory that is almost as old as I am now.

We were small children yet --- I would have been under seven, which would have made my sisters five, four, and three in age at most --- we four daughters of Tom and Kathleen.  And I can't say with any certainty how long this was a practice in our family, but it was long enough that it lives as a precious memory still.

It would be bedtime. We would have brushed our teeth and had our baths.  And my mother would start singing.  It had to be her as my dad could not carry a tune.  She would start to sing, "When all the Saints Go Marching In..."  And we would join in, 'marching' up the stairs in our little footie pajamas to bed.  Oh, that would be just the beginning of what we would sing as we would join together in other Sunday School and Church Camp songs --- doing our very best to come up with yet another verse of  "Kum Ba Yah" before we would finally settle in to sleep.  It was a ritual of belonging --- in our family, yes, but one that, through the songs we sang, carried us beyond our small bedroom to family encountered in our congregation and at family church camp --- and to all those un-named, as yet mostly unknown saints whose number we longed to be counted among.  It was, indeed, a belonging we had not earned or even deserved.  It was ours from birth and before: borne of love, yes, and a given.  Not unlike, it seems to me, what is pointed to in our lesson from 1st John today where he tells his listeners that we are God's children because God made it so.  To be sure, in my own immediate family even though miles and life experiences separate us now, nothing can change this.  It is 'what we are': we are the children of Tom and Kathleen.  Don't you suppose this is also so in the 'family' John speaks of now?  That nothing can change this?

Indeed, I had a deep sense of this kind of belonging as I stood next to a young cousin at our Aunt Viola's graveside committal a couple of months ago. BJ is nearly twenty years younger than I am.  Clearly we did not grow up in the same time nor, for that matter, even the same place.  His dad was my cousin.  For that matter, I didn't grow up with him either, he was that much older than I.  As a result, you might think we are mere acquaintances --- and given the amount of time we have actually spent together, this would be objectively so.

So there we stood, facing into the sun--- outside the tent where immediate family had gathered.  BJ had his sunglasses on so I could not read his expression. And then he shook his head and said, "Forty-seven years."  "Yes," was all I said.  Apparently he had not heard that number before that day --- the number of years ago that Viola had been widowed.  The years which have gone by in a blink of an eye but which add up --- and when named reminding us in an instant not only of Uncle Joe, but also all those others whose lives we have cherished and grieved and entrusted to God over and over again.

We were bound to one another in that moment of acknowledgement of shared history in our family--- a history given to us which I barely remember and apparently he had never really considered before.  We were bound to one another and yet, I realized, not only with him as we visited briefly before heading back to the church for a shared meal. For I felt that same assumed, comfortable connection to all the other family gathered there for this.  We hardly know each other any more if we ever really did. And yet we are part of one another.  In the timber of a voice, the shape of a nose, a turn of phrase we recognize it.  We are children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, great-great grandchildren of Mabel and Avery.  It is what brought us to that hour and it was given to us: not earned or deserved. It is 'what we are.'

Only here is what made that day even more memorable.  For you see, there was another cousin at the graveside that late morning.  I had never laid eyes on Gail prior to the night before, although I had heard her spoken of in recent months. She is, in fact, the only child of my mother's younger brother.  His marriage had ended badly when she was but an infant.  Her mother, unquestionably angry and bitter, kept her from the family, all the while raising her within miles of them --- at least those who remained in that community.

Not so long ago Gail was at another funeral visitation. While her dad's family did not know her, apparently she knew us.  For she turned to the woman standing behind her in line and she said, "You don't know me, but you are my aunt." Later Aunt Viola told my mother that it was like seeing a ghost: face to face in that unexpected moment of grace and possibility.

It turns out that she had grown up mere blocks away from Viola.  In the cemetery that day we discovered that her infant daughter was buried just yards away from our Uncle Joe --- next to whom Viola was buried that day. 

I thought it took great courage for her to come to us then.  I was grateful to see other cousins --- and there are many of us --- go out of their way to reach out to her in conversation. More than fifty years have passed since her mother made the decision to cut her off from us.  But it seems to me that she is no less a part of us even so.  Another grandchild of Mabel and Avery.

I say it again: this is a given. We don't earn it or deserve it.  By accident or providence of birth and circumstance we are part of a family.  Oh, surely one can be disowned.  One can distance oneself. One can be cut off from it.  One can run from it, hide from it, but it doesn't change it.  It is still what --- it is still who you are.  Indeed, in our families now and in this great family of God.  It is what you are.  It is who you are.

And so we come to these words on All Saints' Day --- this day when we pause in our perhaps still raw heartache and always yearning hope to remember those who have died. And we listen to these words spoken to us and about us:  "See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God.  And that is what we are."  Only as we remember this we know that in this family it is not about the timber of a voice or a shared profile or even, really, a shared history. At least not the sort we normally think of first.  Except for this: our coming into this family is about love:  God's love for us, and yes, that same love reflected in our love for one another and for the world.

I've read John's words in this letter before.  This time through?  They seem to speak with a greater sense of urgency.  Maybe because I come to All Saints' Day grieving still this year.  Perhaps because I've known some losses in my family and in the church family I serve which were unexpected and seemed far too soon.  I am especially aware now that we can't wait to show the love John speaks of.  But first, of course, we must experience it.

Indeed, I think of marching up those stairs to bed when I was six and singing with gusto "When all the Saints Go Marching In" --- not even really knowing what it was I was singing about, but sensing it made me part of something bigger than I could then imagine. Oh no, I surely did not yet know the vast number of Saints I would come to know and love and later grieve and live in hope to see again one day.  We will sing it this Sunday as our sending hymn and I will do so with tears and with joy and with deep gratitude to know I have been so blessed to be 'what we are' as God's children. Because God said so.  And to recall that 'what we are' means something. For this identity is known only and always in this way:  It is lived out in love.  A love which is shown in our belonging.  A love which is lived out because first we know we belong.  For that is what we are, Children of God.  This is what we are.

  • These are our words:  "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are."  What does it mean that this is 'what we are?'  What does it mean to be 'included in' those who are marching in?
  • It seems to me that 'family is still family' no matter what.  I have witnessed this in my own family and extended family --- that we are still part of each other regardless of time or distance or difference or even intentional cut off.  I believe this is so in the family we hear about in these words today.  What do you think?
  • According to 1st John, what we are is grounded in God's love. What does this mean for you?  
  • Who do you remember this All Saints' Day?  Who is in that number that you yearn to join?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

On Truth and Freedom and the One Who Sets Us Free

John 8:31-36

"And you will know the truth and the truth will make you free..."  John 8:32

I have to say that, like many, I have a rather checkered relationship with 'the truth.'  And while I'm going back close to fifty years to make my point, it would, no doubt, be less than truthful for me to say this is no longer the case.

I was six years old and entering the first grade with all the eagerness one would wish upon a little one first venturing out into the world.  I could not have imagined or anticipated the 'trauma' that awaited me then. Yes, that is a strong word, but that was exactly how I experienced it.

It was in my first days sitting at that child-sized desk that I came to know that the world was far different from what I had come to take for granted. For you see, while our teacher was a tiny woman, she surely didn't seem to be so.  She ruled that classroom with an iron fist.  Or at least a ruler. Her desk drawer was overflowing with marbles and balls and other toys she had confiscated from wayward children over the years. There was seldom a corner without a child in it. Indeed, the sixth grade teachers would threaten those who crossed the line in their classrooms that if they did not behave, they would send them down to Miss Lamb.  (Yes, that was her name.)  Sometimes they followed through and on those days there would also be big, hulking twelve-year-olds crouched under a wooden table in front of us --- this being their punishment for misbehavior.

These many decades later I can call up some measure of pity for this poor woman who was so clearly unhappy.  But then?  I was just afraid.  I can remember cowering in my seat when she would come flying by with a wooden ruler.  I can remember wincing to hear it land on another child's hand or forearm.  But even with all that 'fair warning,' if you will, still the six year old in me was not entirely immediately quashed.  For as it happened, one day early in the year I inexplicably failed to remember that from 9-3 on school days my universe was ruled more harshly than I had ever known before.  I forgot and turned and spoke to a friend across the aisle. As you might expect, I was caught and ordered to stand in the corner almost before I realized my lapse. And these 47 years later I still remember the institutional green paint on that wall. And the feeling of the gap between the cinder blocks where I traced my finger then, willing myself not to cry.  Indeed, my memory of the entire incident and what would follow is an experience I keep pressing against and through which I continue to seek meaning and understanding.

This is where this memory intersects with 'truth.' Or not.  For you see, I vowed I would never tell. For reasons I cannot understand, my 'guilt' almost immediately seeped over into a sense of shame. I was convinced that there was something 'wrong with me' that this had happened to me. (Yes, yes, I know my threshold for hard things was amazingly low. I can only describe my world as profoundly sheltered before this.)  And while it may have been fine to keep this to myself, my sense of shame was so profound that I did not want to go back to school.  And so the next day and the day after that and for several weeks more I faked being sick.  I was not, of course.  My mother and dad knew this. It became a battle of wills --- one that I know must have been breaking their hearts. They finally took me to our family doctor.  They did x-rays and discovered the beginnings of a stomach ulcer.  Before long, I was sent to a therapist in a place and time when this was almost unheard of.  Week after week she would ask if I had gone to school.  And time after time I would tell her I had.  Even when I hadn't. (I did not seem to be capable of reasoning that the 'truth' was sitting out in the waiting room in my mother.)   Funny, but that is all I really remember about those sessions.

So there you have it.  Even at the age of six, I had become a slave to sin.  I did not believe I could safely speak of what had happened and then, in my fear, felt I had to cover it up for I was deeply afraid of the 'truth' I thought it spoke about me.  One lie led to another and to another and people were hurt.  In this case most especially me.
Now eventually I did go back to school, of course. I learned to read and write, to add and subtract and eventually was passed on to the second grade which was a much more gentle experience. And I did not speak of my first grade trauma for a decade or more -- until time and space helped me to see that my offense was really quite minor and that my teacher's reaction to that and to so many things was not rational in the least. More than that, though (--- and this I am still learning ---) I was beginning to understand that our value as human beings is not measured by what we do or do not do. Whether we succeed or fail.  Whether we sin or don't sin.  Oh, I'll never forget the laughter at the supper table that night as this old story was pieced together and we shook our heads at that by-then-far-away six year old who thought she had it all figured out.  And who hadn't yet realized that only love and acceptance was waiting for her.  If only she could acknowledge that she needed it.

Jesus speaks to us today of truth.  And of slavery to sin.  And of his being our freedom as he both models and grants this unfathomable acceptance.  And we know in our gut, don't you think, as well as in our experience that truth sets us free?  But first it has to be spoken, received, and embraced.  Or so it seems to me. First we have to acknowledge our utter slavery to that which binds us up. And our need to be set free.  And that we have nowhere to turn but to the only one who can bring this marvelous gift  of freedom to us.

This is the wonder of Jesus' words for us today and every day.  It's not up to me or you.  You and I are to simply stand still in the unparalleled gift that as broken and hurting and yes, hurtful, too, as we are --- Jesus came to set us free. We can't do it.  All we can do --- all we have to do --- is know our need and be grateful in the gift.  All we have to do is cast aside the biggest lie of all: that we can do it all ourselves and that our value rests in that.  It does not.  And sometimes coming to that larger truth begins in simply speaking what truths we know here and now as best we can. Even or especially about ourselves.  I wonder how my first grade year would have been different if only I had done this.  I wonder what tomorrow will look like if I only do this then.

  • I offer a long ago but not forgotten example of being enslaved to sin --- of being bound up in my own inability to speak the truth.  Surely we all have a thousand examples of this.  What comes to mind for you?
  • Jesus says today that our freedom can only come from outside ourselves:  that we have to be 'set free' by him.  How do you see this coming to be?  How have you experienced this?
  • Truth can be hard to come by. In life it often seems 'relative.'  Still, I think our freedom comes home to us when we simply do our best to speak it and to acknowledge our need to be set free,  in response to the giver of freedom, Jesus, who simply yearns to unbind us and set us free. What do you think?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

It All Belongs to God... All of It

Matthew 22:15-22

I had cause a few days ago to remember that it all belongs to God. All of it. Which is what I think this particular conversation between Jesus and his verbal sparring partners points us to.

This is how this came to be.

I had agreed to be interviewed for a research project on petitionary prayer. The project's purpose is to "understand people's beliefs and practices regarding petitionary prayer, a type of prayer where people ask God or other supernatural beings to make events occur."  The study is being conducted by a sociologist at our local university.

Shelby, his young graduate student showed up in my office on Tuesday afternoon toting consent forms and a ream of questions.  We settled in for a long conversation.  At the end of two hours, I was exhausted.  I found that I had been forced to articulate parts of my faith journey which I have long taken for granted. 

Again and again I was asked if it was 'appropriate or not' to pray for certain things.  This is what especially surprised me: more often than not I found myself realizing that most of these were things for which I could not necessarily remember praying.  For instance, I know with great certainty that I have never prayed for a good parking place. Or that a mortgage application be approved.  Or that I get into the college of my choice. Or what car I should purchase. Or that there be enough money in the bank to get through the month. Indeed, when asked about praying for a parking place I replied that I would be better off praying for one at some distance as I can usually benefit from the extra steps.  But I'm fairly certain it never occurred to me to pray for that either!

Of course, this is a study about petitionary prayer.  If called upon to quantify my prayers, I would say that I do spend time thanking and lamenting and thinking out loud in conversation with God.  I do spend time being still and simply listening.

Either way, even with regard to those things for which we do ask,  I want to say it's not because I don't think God cares about these things... but in some ways I do wonder. At least not for me. I am a person in good health and of great privilege.  I have never had to worry that there would be enough to feed me and those I love, that there would not be enough in my checking account to pay the mortgage, or that I won't be mobile enough to get from one place to another. Surely God has heard my pleas, no matter how small my need --- but in a world filled with so much more profound pain --- certainly God has more to worry about than where I park my car!

At the same time, I do regularly find myself praying for the healing of others.  This I believe God cares about --- that God only wants wholeness for all of us. Still, the older I get and the more I witness and experience, the more deeply I am aware that our time as we know it here is relatively brief.  What comes next will be much more expansive.  And while I know God cares about what happens here and now? God has the long view and that view is so much bigger than mine. 

Whatever else may be so, two hours with a young graduate student has me remembering that it all belongs to God and I am considering again what it is I ask for and why. Without a doubt, my meandering conversation surely extends to the very practical question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians in today's Gospel.  While we are told that their query was meant to entrap Jesus, his response turns it on its head to have us thinking about things that surely matter.  About what belongs to whom and why.

Indeed, again and again in my conversation with Shelby the other day I found myself thinking about when and where such petitions for God's help do seem appropriate.  While not for me, per se, perhaps they are for others.  And while not for me, even the very questions posed pushed me to think about what my response should be in this world where both sides of the coin do ultimately belong to God.

I, for one, have never been turned down for a mortgage.  Others have --- perhaps because they don't have the proper credentials to qualify.  But if the system is stacked against them, is  prayer then appropriate?  More than that, is my own action to change that system appropriate?  And then might I not be in conversation with God about that instead?

I, for one, was accepted at the college of my choice.  Everything in my life to that moment had paved my way to make that not only possible, but likely.  Should I not be working to ensure this is so for others, too?  Perhaps I should be asking God to help me shape a world where children are read to and learning is encouraged and resources are available so that all might be educated to their highest degree of capability.

And I, for one, have never been challenged by health so that I cannot park some distance from my destination and do just fine.  To pray for a nearby parking place would seem selfish in the extreme: especially when so many others could benefit from the same.  But perhaps my prayer should be that I be part of making the way clear so all people have access to what I so easily enjoy.

And at least for these three examples?  My prayer has me intersecting with 'that which belongs to the emperor,' doesn't it?  At least that's where I find myself landing now when I think about my own journey to a greater clarity about what I do believe in these last days.  Indeed, as long as we recall that while the emperor's image is on the coin, in the first creation account in Genesis 1 (see Genesis 1:27) we hear that God's image is imprinted on all of us.  This being so, then even that which has the emperor's image on it, also has God's image on it, right?

When asked what I do pray for, I had to say that when I pray for myself it is normally for calm and wisdom.  Because in this world God made and God loves --- in this world where it all belongs to God, it is my deep sense that God has already provided the answers to much of what I would think to pray for.  This being so, it seems to me that my praying truly should be in behalf of those for whom this may not be the case. For that matter, so should my doing.   And I don't know how to do that without believing that God is also deeply invested in what 'the emperor' does.  And so then must I be as well.  What do you think?

  • I would invite you to take the same 'prayer' inventory which I did this last week. I found the challenge to be worthwhile in clarifying my belief about prayer, about God, and about my place in the world --- even in relationship to the 'emperor.  So what is it that you pray for? Why?  Is there anything you think it is inappropriate to pray for?  Why or why not?
  • Jesus does not reference the first creation account when he replies to the question posed to him.  Do you think it's reasonable or fair that my memory went there?  Why or why not?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Wedding Robe

Matthew 22:1-14

First a disclaimer.  I don't know that much about wedding customs in the time of Jesus.  I do know that it was typical for the celebration to go on for days --- weeks even.  And in today's Gospel reading we are led to  believe that for the guests, a certain attire is expected.  In fact, I remember learning a while back that the 'wedding robe' we hear about today would have been provided when the guest arrived at the door.  I don't know that all the wedding robes were alike --- although I imagine that they were. And so today I am thinking about all those times and places where we wear the prescribed attire --- as 'uniforms,' almost --- which by their very name speak of the unity they offer.  I am remembering the common purpose those who wear them have: at the very least, to work together.

Teams wear them, of course.  Military personnel do, too.  Graduates don their cap and gown on their special day. Although it varies, most of us have a picture of how a bride and groom will dress on their wedding day.  Depending on the store, I know what attire will identify who can help me find what I am looking for.  Pastors put them on, too --- at least those of us of a certain generation or tradition.  I like to wear a clerical collar when I am out on calls, officiating at funerals or weddings, and on Sunday mornings.  It reminds me that I am there for something larger than me.  And yes, sometimes the rest of the world recognizes and sees this, too. Oh yes, we know what it is to wear a 'uniform,' whether it is provided or not as we conform to dress codes of one kind or another. Indeed, I can remember in Junior High --- a very long time ago --- to belong you had to dress in a certain way. In the early 70's it was Levi's jeans and Adidas t-shirts.  Or at least that's how I remember it.  Again, what one wears connotes belonging. And common purpose.  And perhaps certain responsibilities.   

We do this in worship, too.  Again, in the tradition that is my home, as pastor, I wear the white or flax colored robe to lead.  When I put on the robe, my role is prescribed.  As I understand it, the robe worn by me, the assisting minister, and our acolytes is meant to be a sign of our baptism --- hearkening back to when the newly baptized would be dressed in white.  Last  Sunday, eight confirmands wore them, too.  This morning in worship, a beautiful baby girl who was baptized was also all in white.

Again.  We dress the same so as to not be a distraction to others who gather.  It is an equalizer, in a sense. It is also a reminder that those wearing the robe are there for a purpose. We have 'jobs' to do in behalf of all who come together.  It is a sign of 'belonging' to something greater than ourselves.

And yes, I think, too of the white pall we lovingly drape over the caskets of dear ones.  It, too, is a symbol of baptism.  In addition, it also serves as a visible reminder that no matter how costly the casket, in God's eyes, the beloved baptized are all alike. 

I have no idea what the wedding robe would have looked like in Matthew's Gospel.  As for its purpose, I am left to guess that it was worn so as not to take attention away from the celebrated couple and their family.  Perhaps, especially in a case like the one described today, it was a special gift as those attending may or may not have had the means to dress appropriately for such a celebration. Perhaps it was just 'tradition' -- one wore the robe as a sign and symbol that something special was happening then. 

And so it is, just as in recent weeks, today we hear Jesus telling a story in such an extreme fashion that if we are paying attention we find ourselves shocked by every new turn of events. Take another moment now to consider the sequence of events described before us now: 

The king's son is getting married.  Who wouldn't want to be there?  Even if you were not especially a supporter of the current regime and its policies, wouldn't curiosity alone get the best of you?  So when the king hears that the invited guests have inexplicably refused to come to the banquet, he decides to send other slaves --- perhaps some with more persuasive powers. This time he tells them to entice the guests with a vivid description of the feast that was waiting for them. This time, though, we hear that they not only turn the other way, some laugh and go back to work --- on what was probably a national holiday!  It gets even worse when we hear that others still turn on those bearers of the invitation and kill them.  Understandably, by now the king has had it.  He sees to it that they are destroyed, along with their city.

Oh yes, by now Jesus' listeners must be shaking their heads in disbelief.  I mean, really. Who behaves in this way?

And then the story takes yet another unexpected turn.  By no means will the banquet hall be empty.  The king tells his slaves to go and bring in whoever they can --- "both good and bad" --- who will be more than happy to come to the party.  And they come.    

Of course, that's not the end of the story. We are left with this strange twist at the end where we hear about the one who was there, but who had apparently refused to dress properly for the occasion. And evidently, it is a blatant, arrogant refusal.  Again, this is hard to comprehend.  He has been invited to the party to end all parties.  He has even managed to get himself there.  But once inside the banquet hall, his behavior shows that he doesn't really want to be there at all.  He has refused to put on the robe.

And you and I are left to wonder why.

Oh yes, with all of you, I shake my head at this. When told this way it's hard to understand. And then the veil drops and I realize that sometimes the one who refuses to put on the wedding robe is me.
  • Oh yes, it is me in those moments when I have secretly considered myself somehow superior to --- or at least not 'as bad' as the other guests who were also invited to the party.  When I don't want to cover up what makes me distinctive by putting on a robe.
  • I expect this is me every single day when I believe I have to do more, be more to be able earn an invitation to the banquet. When all I really have to do is show up. All I have to do is put on the robe.
  • Oh yes, it is me when I forget I am here for a purpose larger than me.  The robe reminds me of this: perhaps, like with a wedding feast,  I am simply here to live in joy and gratitude for all that God has done.
  • And yes, it is me every time I forget that I, too, always need the 'wedding robe' of Christ's forgiveness --- to cover up all my brokenness, my failings, my sin.  
 The story Jesus tells today makes no sense.  Why would anyone refuse an invitation to the king's party?  And once there, why wouldn't you just put on the wedding robe and join in the joy?  The story makes no sense. And then I realize it plays out in my own heart, in my own life all the time.  Oh yes, can't you almost hear the king pleading with me to just let all the rest go and come to the banquet and put on the robe?

When the day is done, indeed, when my last day is done, I am just grateful that the wedding robe will simply be handed to me.  The robe that symbolizes God's eternal claim on me in baptism that covers up my hesitation, my sense of shame, my fear, my guilt.  This is the promise for sure. Now.  I wonder what it would look like if I would just put on that robe every single day.

  • In a parable which is so hard to comprehend, it does at least help me understand its meaning when I realize that the wedding robes were actually provided to the guests.  How about you?
  • Can you think of times and places and ways when you have refused the invitation --- or having arrived --- have still refused to put on the wedding robe?  What was going on then?
  • Again, it must be said.  This story makes no sense.  Why would anyone refuse?