Sunday, May 25, 2014

"All Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine..."

John 17:1-11

There is a great deal before us in the words of Jesus' prayer before us now.  While there are a number of directions one could go, this section seems to be building to the same point as the following one:  the unity of those who follow Jesus.  Indeed, it seems to me this unity finds it's root and source in the sure sense that first and last, we belong to God.  And now and then, if we are so blessed, we get a vivid sense of the vast multitude of who that includes and just what that means.

For instance, along with some of you, I spent the last week in Minneapolis at the Festival of Homiletics.  If you have been to this event before, you know first hand what a blessing it is to simply sit and receive the gifts of some of the best preachers and teachers imaginable, not just once, but over and over again.  I have to say, though, that it was also something of a wonder to do so alongside people who traveled there from such varied places. Preachers were there from all across the United States and Canada.  And more than that, we came from different denominational homes.  Indeed, I couldn't tell by looking at our name tags whether you call your home a manse or a parsonage, whether your leaders call themselves a church council or a session, whether you will soon gather in a synod assembly or a general convention.  It simply didn't matter.  If you were there, you know it was really something to sit in a sanctuary filled with thousands who would return home to the same sort of deep joys, profound struggles, and mundane tasks which mark my every week.  Oh yes, it was a kind of wonder as together we experienced a kind of unity as we erupted in laughter at a turn of phrase which said it better than most of us could ever hope to, as we held our collective breath at something which hit home, and to rise as one to the rhythm of a local Gospel choir. 

I have to say I found it a little disappointing, though, that I seemed to find so few opportunities for conversation beyond those I came already knowing. I really wanted to know who some of those gathered were.  Oh, it doesn't help to be innately introverted, of course, and it struck me that many of those gathered might claim the same trait --- or maybe we just arrived in that place stretched thin and exhausted and unable to extend ourselves for one more minute.  For even as I tried to connect with those I had not met before, it wasn't so easy.  I seemed to manage this only briefly --- as I sat next to a stranger and waited for a workshop to begin ---- or a while later standing in line to check out at the bookstore.  It should not have been surprising, I suppose, that we would seem to cluster with those we already know --- or in this day of constant connection and communication, in otherwise unoccupied moments, that we would pull ourselves off to a space apart with our nose in our smart phones tending to email, texts or Facebook posts.

Something happened, though as I was driving home.  I got myself well east of the Twin Cities before stopping for lunch.  I made my way inside and decided to make a trip to the restroom before placing my order.  As I reached for the door handle, it swung open from the other side, and I found myself face to face with the woman I had shared peace with at worship just a few hours earlier.  She drew her breath in sharply, smiled and then quickly moved past me.  A few minutes later I sought her out in the dining room where I caught her in the middle of a bite into her hamburger.  She seemed shy to be interrupted and so I only asked where she was going and then wished her safe travels home to Chicago.  I retreated then to my own table and looked around the room and wondered about how many others there had just come from the same place I had just left.  I wondered at how many would claim the unity Jesus prays for today as their own --- a unity which ties us to each other because we all belong to Jesus.  Indeed, as I read the Gospel for this week, the common thread seems to be that you and I come from the same place and we are blessed with the same destination and in this meantime --- in this world where Jesus knows we need protection --- and sometimes the greatest blessing we can have is each other.

I witnessed a reflection of this kind of unity again Saturday afternoon.

We had come from different places, seven of us, to visit my Aunt Viola.  Viola is the oldest surviving sibling of what were once the nine children of Avery and Mabel.  She has kept moving all of her 93 years --- until Mother's Day when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  In hospice care now, her four children have arranged a schedule so one of them is always with her and the rest of us are doing what we can to get there when we can.  Yesterday I drove my mother, her sister, up to see her.  My cousin, Teresa, drove Aunt Carol there as well.  So there we were --- three sisters, three daughters, a son-in-law and a grandson -- all caught up together in this odd and wonderful and interesting and oh so tender space in time between diagnosis and the inevitable future which is quickly bearing down. We spoke of mundane things like the wonderful cookies that were always available in the lounge and of beautiful things like the amazing array of birds which came to eat at the feeder just outside her window.  An old photo album was pulled out and the three sisters leaned in, identifying those behind the black and white images there.  Pretty soon though, Teresa, leaned in and asked, "So who have you seen?  I understand you have been seeing people.  Who have you seen?"  And Viola replied, "Oh, everyone."  Indeed, my cousin, her son, had earlier shared that her dreams, her visions of loved ones gone before, have been so vivid, that she awoke worried that she wouldn't have the brand of coffee which one of them favored.

And so I think of yesterday afternoon and I know that we are all bound up together.  In this case, of course, family ties us to one another. We may not see one another or speak to each other for months or years on end, and then we can find ourselves comfortably sitting together in a small room talking about cookies and ultimate things in consecutive breaths.  We may not know the texture of each other's days, but we know that we are part of each other and always will be.  Tied to one another not only by Avery and Mabel but by the one who claims us as his Own.  Both here and now and in the future Jesus is preparing for us.

And I think of this last week as I gathered with all those other preachers in Minneapolis, and I know, too,  that we are all bound up with one another.  We may not know each other's names, or what home called to us as we went our separate ways on Friday.  We may not have paused to hear what we had brought with us when we came or what we were taking with us as we left. Even so, we were, we are sustained by the same Word, fed by the same Bread and Wine, and lifted up in praise and lament, struggle and hope as we voice our heartfelt longings to the One who makes us One.  Just knowing this, now I wonder if I'll find myself every time I stop for lunch, with my eyes peeled for others who belong to Jesus.  They are there, of course.  All over the place.  And yes, all of us, all the time do find ourselves in that oh so tender space in time between diagnosis and the inevitable future which is quickly bearing down.  Oh, I do wonder how this certainty changes my encounters with all the world?  Might I be even more likely next time to strike up conversation with a stranger --- whether I sat before her in worship a few hours earlier or not --- and wish her safe travel home?  I hope so.  I really do.

  • When Jesus says, "All mine are yours, and yours are mine" he is laying claim to us.  What does this mean to you?  What difference does this make to you that these words are also spoken about others you encounter in your day?  That this claim has also been made on countless ones you may never meet?
  • How have you experienced 'unity' in these past days?  In your experience, what binds us to one another?
  • It strike me that this unity is especially resilient because it finds its root and its source in Jesus.  What do you think?
  • How does it change everything that all of us, all that time, find ourselves in that oh so tender time between "diagnosis and the inevitable future bearing down on us?"  What difference might it make to live in that kind of awareness all the time? 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

"I Will Not Leave You Orphaned..."

John 14:15-21

I took my car in to get the oil changed a couple of days ago.  Things were a little slow at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning and Alex, the man who checked me in, was full of stories which he was eager to share. It was clear that this one in particular is one he is particularly proud of and it took neither prodding nor invitation to get him to tell it to the handful of us waiting for our cars to be serviced.

It seems Alex grew up in a small town in southern Wisconsin some years ago now.  His parents' best friends had a six year old who was being bullied.  Every day as he was walking to school a group of older kids would ambush him and steal his lunch money.  Desperate to keep him safe, his parents talked to their best friends who roped their son, who was a few years older and a whole lot bigger than their son, into walking him to school.  Indeed, the man who now manages the place where I get my oil changed, was that little boy's protector.

It turns out that when that little boy grew up, he ran for Vice-President.  Alex went to one of his campaign rallies a few years ago and managed to get close enough to speak to him, calling him by a childhood nickname.  But the candidate pulled his old protector close and said, "It's Paul.  My name is Paul."

What interests me about this story is not so much that a little boy needed protection on his way to school.  We all have times and places when this is so.  No, what captured my attention was his strong desire to leave any reminder of that hard time far behind him.  No doubt, Alex's very appearance at his campaign rally brought to mind the unwelcome memory of a time when he was vulnerable --- and ironically, at a moment in time in his life when he felt he could show no weakness.  Indeed, I expect he felt his entire future depended upon it.  And perhaps it did.  (Indeed, I can't say as I blame him, really.  I know that I, too, cringe to remember the names and the faces of the two girls who made my life miserable in the 7th grade.)

So as I hear Jesus' promise for us today, I expect it goes without saying that none of us wants to be 'orphaned.'  No one looks to be vulnerable, in need of protection, or in particular, as was in the case of the disciples to whom Jesus first spoke these words, without the presence of their beloved master and leader, guide and friend.  In fact, Jesus knew this even before the disciples did as he speaks to them in today's reading.  Oh yes, he knew that they and we would need more than the memory of who he was to carry us forward.  He knew that we, too, would need an Advocate, a Protector, a Teacher, a Guide in the Holy Spirit promised now.  Otherwise, we might well find ourselves much like a little boy walking alone to school --- vulnerable to the vagaries of all the bullies of this world and unable, perhaps, to grow into all that we were created to be.

Now young Paul, of course, was not 'orphaned' --- even though he may have felt like he was.  He had parents who were looking out for him and who, in this instance, called in the help of long time friends to change the course of his first grade year.  Indeed, it seems to me it's not too much of a stretch to say that Alex, who grew up to run the shop where I get my oil changed, may have looked a lot like the promised Holy Spirit now.  Just by walking alongside him, Alex stood between a little boy and the bullies who would take his lunch money, making sure he got safely to school. 

And at the same time, Alex, as a twelve year old in a small town in Wisconsin, was in a very real way 'keeping the commandments' Jesus speaks of now.  At the direction of his parents, to be sure, he was loving another as he would have wanted to be loved when he was also six.  And he became a reflection, a living example of what God would have us all be and do.  And somehow Jesus is present in that.  Oh yes, somehow we get a sense of what and who the Holy Spirit is for us and all the world.

It's hard, I know, to acknowledge our need for this.  We don't want to be reminded that perhaps we are all, still, very much like a six year old in need of someone to walk us to school.  And yet, as I allow myself to recognize that truth in me, I am able, without judgment and with deeper sensitivity, to see that need in others, too.  For sometimes, oh yes, I sense Jesus' promise kept to me --- and I know beyond reason or explanation that the Holy Spirit is right beside me.  More often though, I have to say, I recognize this remarkable gift of God in the active presence of others --- who are living in kindness and compassion.  And I am reminded then that I am called to be and do the same --- that perhaps the promised Holy Spirit might just show up in and through me, too.  Again, not unlike a certain twelve year old walking a six year old to school.

  • Can you recall a time when someone walked alongside you as protection?  Can you remember the last time you were called upon to do the same for another?  Can you see how that may have been a reflection of the promised Advocate in our Gospel now?
  • Think with me about this.  What is it in us that makes us want to deny our need for protection, advocacy, or guidance such as Jesus promises now? 
  • Have you known yourself to be 'orphaned' in any way?  How has that deepened your understanding of others in such circumstances?  How have you known God's protection and care in those times?  How are you called upon to live as that for others?


Sunday, May 11, 2014

In My Father's House...

John 14:1-14

"In my Father's house there are many dwelling places..." John 14:2
A few years ago I saw an exhibit at the Minnesota History Museum.  It was called "Open House: If these Walls could Talk."  It was fascinating to walk through the 'history' of one house in St. Paul --- to hear about the different families who lived there: immigrants all and also to witness the rapidly changing technology which had marked their lives.  (If you're interested, there is a link to a more detailed description here.)

All houses have histories, of course, whether we are aware of them or not.  In fact, while I have lived in a number of different houses, for the most part their histories have eluded me.  Except the house I call home now.  For you see, a few years ago I was called upon to officiate at the funeral of the woman who, along with her husband, actually built my house.  So in visiting with her children, I was able to get a window --- if not into the actual house itself, then into those who first called it home.

Indeed, I can only imagine the hope that filled them when he came safely home from war, they got married, and bought land on Meadow Lane where they soon put up the four walls which shelter their family.  It was then just two bedrooms and a bath, a kitchen and a living room --- all sitting atop a basement which they never felt the need to finish.  It worked just fine as workroom and playroom and laundry room just the way it was.  The house was small and sturdy and just right for them and their infant daughter --- soon to be followed by a son.  Only the children grew and before long they decided they needed more room. So they hoisted the roof right up and turned the attic space into bedrooms and another bathroom for the kids and they moved into the back bedroom downstairs --- knocking out a wall and turning the other bedroom into what now serves as the dining room. And a few years ago I got to sit down with her old photo albums.  I couldn't help myself.  I found myself looking for glimpses of the house that is now my home.  I have to say that at first I was a little disappointed.  For you see, no one actually took a picture of the house all by itself in all of its phases and transitions. Rather, the focus was always on the family. They can be seen posing in front of the house on the way to church or some other festive outing or in once case, simply relaxing out in the front yard which then didn't even have trees to shade it.

So it is for all of us. All of our houses have stories --- some of which we know and others of which moved on with those who lived there before us.  Whether we can tell them or not, all of our houses hold histories shaped and shared by those who lived in them.  Only truly, for many of us, the most interesting part of the story is not the 'building' itself, but those who built their lives inside it.

And so it is today that Jesus speaks to us of home, the very home that is being prepared for us even now.  Certainly this home will be similar to the homes of our childhoods.  It may, in fact, hold some things in common with homes we've bought and owned, fixed up, sold, and moved on from.  Oh yes, all the places we have called home, if we are fortunate, may offer us some sense of the home Jesus promises his disciples now.  Even so, I would guess it offers even something more, this home the promise of which even now can bring calm in the midst of our storms, peace in the midst of our worry, and hope to our despair. For even before the promise of 'home' itself, Jesus urges his disciples to not let their hearts be troubled.

I have no idea of what that home will look like, this place which Jesus goes to prepare for us today.  Only this house?  Its story isn't marked so much by those who have lived there. Today we are reminded that this home is marked and made, shaped and molded by God's love --- by the builder himself.  And this Builder assures us that there is plenty of room in this house  --- that the attic won't have to be pushed up and the upstairs remodeled for we are expected --- and when we arrive, each one of us, we will feel at home. 

It is no wonder, of course that these words are often read at funerals --- at that time when we need to hear them most of all.  What a gift it is to stand still in the promise that when our time for 'making a home' here is done, a place is waiting for us for us in God's own house.  In the meantime, may all of our homes now be a foretaste of what is yet to come. May we be a part of making this so whenever and wherever we can.  And may the promise that there is another Home waiting for us enable us always to live in hope for what is yet to come.

  • What is the story of your 'home?'  Is it in the design, the architecture, the furnishings, the people?  How would you tell the story of your home?
  • What comes to your mind when Jesus speaks of 'going to prepare a place' or a home for us?  What do you picture?
  • How does this  promised future shape your present life now?  How are we called to be part of 'making homes' in this world today?

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Gate for the Sheep

John 10:1-10

 I closed myself in my office this afternoon, hoping to get some writing done.

A few minutes before when I got home from running errands, I threw the windows wide open. I did so partly because this is one of the first warm days of spring for us here, and it just felt good.  I also did so because I thought it might distract my cat, Shadow.  She loves to sit in an open window.  And if I don't distract Shadow, more often than not she is vying for my attention. Cat owners everywhere know this to be true: a cat wanting your attention can make writing, or anything else requiring energy and attention, difficult.

It didn't work.  Oh, as I said, I closed the door and made sure it latched behind me, but before long I could hear her on the other side.  She meowed and meowed.   Then she began to throw herself against the door to get to me.   This is how it often is. I am away from home a lot.  When I am home, she stays as close as possible. (In the picture here, you can see Shadow keeping an eye on me through the gap at the bottom of the door when I went to the basement today.)

After a few minutes, I  gave up.  I pulled a book off my shelf and carried it into my bedroom and stretched out to read awhile.  Happily, Shadow curled up next to me and fell asleep. Somehow this time it was enough to just be nearby. I gave up, you see, because my bedroom door bears scars from another such standoff. That time she did not simply throw herself against the door. She tried to chew her way through it.

Gates and doors, of course, are for precisely this.  They stand as barriers.  Oh, they often serve as protection, of course, but they can also be obstacles which keep us apart from one another. Sometimes I would rather do nothing other than give my cat all of my attention. Sometimes I have other matters calling me. Sometimes my door stands open to the world. Sometimes it is latched shut out of fear, wisdom, or a need for privacy or a little time alone to recharge. Gates and doors are for this. They stand as boundaries, offer protection, delineate an inside from the outside, and yes, they divide insiders from outsiders.

I grew up in a time and place when doors surely marked boundaries, but we were not so afraid of others inappropriately crossing them. Some of you may also recall a time like this: we often simply did not lock the doors when I was growing up. When we finally did, my dad hung a key in the garage where anyone could easily find it --- just in case we inadvertently locked ourselves out.  In the town I now call home, those who have lived here awhile can remember to the day and hour when they started locking the doors. It was the late 1950's.  A little girl was abducted when playing outside after supper with a friend.  Her body was found miles away several months later.  The case was not solved until just last year.  The world was not as safe after that.  And ever since, people have closed the gate, locked their doors, and lived in a kind of fear some can remember not feeling.

Gates and doors are for precisely this. They provide protection and shelter.  They are the means for going in and going out.

It is interesting today that Jesus, our good shepherd, does not describe himself as the gatekeeper necessarily, but rather as the gate itself.  You and I who find ourselves so far away from what it was to shepherd in the time of Jesus might think something got lost in translation here in John's Gospel. It turns out that is not the case.  Jesus calls himself the gate, because that was part of what a shepherd was. In sheep-folds where there was no actual physical gate, the shepherd would lie himself down in the opening which allowed entry and exit. In this way the shepherd knew who or what came and went or who or what attempted to come and go and so could serve as protector of the sheep.

It is telling, I expect, that we hear about no door which separates the sheep from Jesus since he is the gate, the door itself.  Unlike my poor cat, none of us needs to beg to be let in --- none of us needs to throw ourselves against the door or chew our way through to find entry.  Jesus the gate and the gate-keeper opens and closes the way for us.  Letting us in.  Letting us out.  Keeping us safe.  And giving us all we need.

And so I find myself wondering now just how my life would be different if I lived believing and trusting that was all I needed.  Like a sheep who knows it needs its shepherd and that is enough.  Indeed, I wonder how it would be for you and for me, if something like my cat, Shadow, it was enough on a Saturday afternoon to just lie down and rest in the presence of Jesus.

  •  What does it mean to you that "Jesus is the gate for the sheep?"
  •   How is Jesus your protection and your provider?
  •   All metaphors eventually fall short. Even so, how are you like or not like the sheep Jesus    speaks of now?  In your journey of faith, how are you like or not like my cat, Shadow, in her persistent yearning to just be with her 'person?'