Sunday, June 29, 2014

"We Played the Flute for You..."

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

For a while there, I was an avid reader of the Harry Potter series.  It was interesting, complex, adventuresome, AND it gave me a natural 'in' with my then young nephews.  I can't remember which book it was when I finally had to put it down.  What I do remember is being filled with such angst at what I thought was blatant child abuse in some of the story lines that I just had to stop.  My nephew, Andrew, who is now 20 years old, urged me to just skip over that part and to push ahead.  I just couldn't do it and so in my memory young Harry is still serving his teacher's sentence.  He is sitting in a classroom painfully writing his name on his hand over and over and over again.

Now I know there are those of you out there who would vehemently disagree with me and I would be most happy to hear from you.  But the fact is that for me it became simply too much to witness these children trying to survive by the force of their own wits and power.  I know the world is, or at least can be, much like this too much of the time --- where evil seems to 'win' far more often than it loses.  And I know that far too many children are forced to get through childhood without the vigilant protection of grown-ups who are meant to be those who help and not hurt.  And yes, such heroes as  Harry Potter and his friends who are forced to survive by the force of their own wits and strength and power stand as wonderful role models for those who are forced to battle in this life now. Even so, I couldn't continue. At one point, I just stepped out of the dance --- simply refusing to rejoice or to mourn --- to borrow the images of the brief parable Jesus offers us today --- at the fates of these engaging characters.

I'm not exactly certain why people also choose to do this in their lives of faith, although I could offer some guesses.  Either way, we who are deeply engaged in this particular 'dance' do know that fewer and fewer of those around us in the world are in it with us.  We grieve this, I know.  We are surprised by it --- by the cynicism, the anger, or the utter lack of interest held by so many.  I know that when I am in conversation with many couples before their wedding day, it is the exception rather than the rule that they consider their faith to be an important support in their life together.  More often than not, even among those who were raised in the faith, by the time they reach young adulthood it appears that faith is a non-player.  They don't seem to even hear the music anymore --- or at least they don't hear it in a way that calls to them.  

A few weeks ago I overheard a conversation that was probably more honest than what most of my couples are willing to offer when we are working towards their weddings.  I had ventured next door to our public library and was poking round in the religious section, looking for a book. There I was in the stacks on the second floor, browsing through what was available on the book of Genesis when, the voice of a young man on the other side of the stacks caught my attention. He said, "You know, I don't believe in God.  It's my right not to."  And his companion --- a young woman  --- replied, "Oh, but I do.  I'd be too afraid of going to hell, so I believe."

Ouch.  Ouch to both of them.  I ached to overhear this brief exchange and can't decide what made me more sad --- the young man who has abandoned his faith altogether or the young woman who claims her belief only as a safeguard against some sort of fiery afterlife.  For both are missing the great gifts this life of faith can offer to us now. Both are trying hard, it seems to me, to live this life now pretty  much on their own.  And yet, at the same time, both appeared to be deeply engaged in conversations about things that matter.  God is surely not done with them yet and it may be that one day they will hear the music again as meant for them.

Of course, the danger of how I tend to hear the words that  Jesus offers now is that I hear it as meant for others --- I forget that 'this generation' which is too much marked by cynicism, despair, anger, and hurt that has forgotten the sound of the music that is calling us to dance -- is also many days descriptive of me.  Indeed, I am among those who have been called to encourage others to live their lives in ways that are rich and full and good and somehow, as I think of the two whose conversation I overheard a few weeks ago --- perhaps it is so, that I have been less than a good model for that full engagement in all of God's gifts.  Perhaps, I too, don't always 'hear the music' in a way that others can tell.

To be honest, I struggled hard with Jesus' words this week --- not so much the individual ideas and messages but I had a hard time figuring out how it all hangs together.  For we hear Jesus' words of frustration --- emulated in his parable about the children in the marketplaces calling out to one another.  We hear his anger at 'this generation' and its response to both the witness of John the Baptist and to Jesus. We hear all this and then Jesus seems to move into an entirely different mode altogether as he speaks his very tender words about coming to him in our weariness and putting his yoke upon us.  I've wondered what they all have to do with each other and this is where I've come down:

This much I know. It is wearing to live and work in a time and place where the music we are dancing to seems to not even be heard by much of the world.  Yes, I along with you, do become weary and I am yearning simply to rest in One who offers all that I need.  Only I wonder now. Do you suppose that the 'rest' Jesus offers now can be experienced especially as I seek to take Jesus' yoke upon me?  And do you suppose that to take Jesus' yoke upon me is to simply engage those I encounter in the world who don't seem to hear the music in the very way that Jesus did?  For even with the anger he expresses now, until his last breath and beyond, Jesus was present to all those he encountered:  his disciples and the Pharisees, the widowed and the hungry, the sick and the dying, the hopeful and the hurting, the wise and the innocent, old and young.  Through it all, his message was clear. Jesus was always inviting others to fully live the lives God had given them. To hear the music and dance. And not only did he preach it.  He lived it.

Oh yes, perhaps what Jesus urges us to now is to allow ourselves to dance when we hear the music and to grieve when our hearts are broken and through it all to know that a place of rest and peace and hope is always ours to return to. And perhaps if I only lived my life fully engaged in the world, that alone would be powerful witness to those who can't seem to hear the music any more.

You know, I really did like the Harry Potter books.  I found the characters engaging, the story lines fascinating, and the lessons offered well worth learning.  It finally became too much for me to read about their battles with evil for I couldn't discern a larger force holding them in their world. (Somehow, I find this more disturbing when the main characters are children.  I certainly read plenty of other fiction where this would also not be the case.) I wouldn't mind learning that perhaps I was missing something.  Either way, this much I believe: you and I are called to live our lives in such a way that it is obvious that in both our dancing and in our mourning, we know and trust that God is present.  There is something larger and more powerful than the forces we find ourselves battling now.  And I wonder. Do you suppose that as I learn to do that more fully, even my weariness will cease?  As I seek to do as Jesus did?

  • How do the words of Jesus hang together for you in this chapter of Matthew?  How do you make sense of them all of a piece?
  • What does it mean to you to take Jesus' yoke upon you?  How do you seek to do so?
  • How do you think we are called to respond to 'this generation' now? 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Finishing the Race...

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18

"I have finished the race..."

I am not a runner.  I can jog a little.  I love to walk, but hitting the pavement hard over and over again is something I've never done with joy and haven't even really attempted in more than thirty years.  The closest thing I know to 'enduring that sort of physical exertion' is when I 'finish' my 45 minutes of yoga every Tuesday morning.  And yes, normally it is enough for me just to finish.

So no, I am not a runner --- I'm not even much of an athlete, but I know those who are --- who live for the race.  When asked, they will say the medals are a motivator, to be sure.  But more than that is the feeling of accomplishment --- especially if it's a race of any distance.  And sometimes even more than that, what they remember most of all is the companions they encounter along the way.

David, a member of my congregation is running these days.  He has been a runner for some time --- competing in and completing a number of marathons.  What makes his story unique is that David is legally blind.  He can see no more than five feet in front of him.  (He is pictured here with his grandson as his guide.)

I caught up with him by phone one morning this week in Missoula, Montana.  Not long ago, he committed to running 11,000 miles around the perimeter of the country to raise money for Cystic Fibrosis Research.  His grand-daughter has it, you see, and he wants to do what he can.

He's running 11,000 miles and as he does so, he is making regular stops along the way.  His disability keeps him from running directly from one point to another, so he's pausing in places like Missoula. Only while he may be in one place for a few days, he's certainly not standing still.  In Missoula, for instance, he spent hours running the track around the high school for miles and miles to make up the difference of what he can't do on the open road. And while there, he enlists the help of local folks.  He said to me that his disability is a blessing for you see, he's discovered that people are curious about the 'blind grandpa' who is running.  They come out to see him and they learn more about the cause he's committed the next 11,000 miles of his life to.  He also said this.  People are standing in line to be his 'guide.'  Whether it's a marathon or the last Ironman Triathlon he just completed or along this long journey, people want to run the race with him.  And he said this. He said that those in endurance athletics are the best people. While there is a spirit of competition, they are always offering advice and help to one another.  Apparently, there is a strong sense of 'all being in this together.'

I have heard it said that the life of faith and life in the church is like this. Or at least it could be, should be.  We who are in it know, of course, that this is an endurance 'sport.'  We know that we are in it for the long haul.  And at its best, it is like this, don't you think?  That when we, with Paul finally say, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race" we, too, will be able to say that it was a run that mattered, that saved lives, and that we were good companions to others on the way --- offering advice from our own experience --- extending gifts that others might not have --- and receiving with joy what others so generously offer.  Paul speaks in the first person here and there is no arguing that he was speaking for himself as he was apparently deeply aware of the nearness of the end of his own physical life.  And yet, while we hear these as words we also strive to emulate, it seems especially important to hear them as pointing to something you and I are called to do together --- with each other --- finish the race, that is.  Even though the actual finish line may come at different times and  places and under varying circumstances.  For surely, even though it is not spoken directly here in these verses in 2 Timothy, as Paul ran the race, he did so always together with others of God's people. The actual fact that these words were written in the form of a letter of profound encouragement to Timothy (and read and overheard by millions) is testament enough to that.

David has a window into the best of what this can be that many of us whose disabilities are less obvious may never have.  Indeed, he says his disability allows him to see a goodness in others he might not otherwise see.  In fact, as we spoke the other day he said that if he got the call tomorrow that there was a cure for his blindness, he would surely go --- but he also said he would say, "I'm coming. But I have few things to do first."  And he repeated again that his blindness is a blessing for because of it he has experienced the world in a way he never would have otherwise. I carry his words with me now, wondering if I, too, would experience the world differently if I also could somehow just embrace the 'weakness' in me.  It's another text, another sermon, I know.  But it is also one well worth pondering.

If you want to follow David's run --- or if you'd like to make a donation to the cause, you can do so through his website:  It's All I Can Do.

  • I find it interesting that in this letter, Paul speaks of 'fighting the good fight, finishing the race, keeping the faith...'  There is no talk of 'winning,' but enduring --- as though that is winning enough.  How do these words speak to you?  What does it mean to you to 'endure?'
  • How is your 'race' these days? Who offers you encouragement as you 'run?'  How are you encouraging others? What will it mean to you to 'finish?'

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Disciple is Not Above the Teacher...

Matthew 10:24-39

"A disciple is not above the teacher..."

It came to mind today as I was reading tender Father's Day tributes on Facebook. It was as I was scrolling through the photographs that one had me standing still in memory.  Perhaps it was no coincidence that I had remembered him out loud already once before today as I stood with his widow at our Synod Assembly.

And I am remembering now what seems to me was the last time I saw him.

I had pulled into the drive at their old farm house.  I could see Larry standing at the kitchen door -- his hair now gone from his battle with cancer.  Head down, my heart caught in my throat as I made my way to the back steps.

We stood in the kitchen and visited a while.  When I left, he said to me.  "You know, I'm not afraid. George taught me how to do this."  He was speaking then of our precious friend whose dying we had grieved together not so many years before.

It was a Saturday in August too many years ago now when he and I met up and traveled together to see George to plan his funeral.  I can't recall now if we knew that would happen then.  We only knew time was growing short and one more visit wouldn't wait.  We talked about music that day and scripture, about who would sit at the organ bench and who would fill the pulpit.  George knew what he wanted.  Near the end of our visit he exclaimed, 'Oh, how I wish I could be there!'  With tears standing in his eyes, Larry replied, 'Oh, but you will be!'

Not all dying is done with such gratitude and grace.  It can, and often does, get messy along the way.  Even so, I find I look to these who have taught me.  And I expect that however it is, however it will be for me, it will only be sketchy approximations of their examples.  And yet I keep striving, we keep striving, don't we?

Jesus says today that the disciple is not above the teacher... that it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher.  Indeed, as we seek to learn from him, following him, we can expect the same fate to be ours. That you and need not go seeking our 'deaths,' for they will surely come: both large and small, as we emulate his example.  We only need to look to Jesus to know what to expect. We can look to Jesus, too, to see how it is to be done.

There is a great deal that is frightening in the words before us now. None of it sounds pleasant.  Much of it promises to be painful. In spite of Jesus' urging not to be afraid, I confess that often I am.  If I'm honest, I have to say I wish it didn't have to be the way it is described today.  And yet I know there is no choice.  Not in the world we are called to live and die in where so many powerful forces work against good and healing and hope. These are hard words before us now.  And yet, this much I do know. There are powerful words of promise interlaced with the rest.  For we are reminded that God loves common sparrows, so mustn't he love us all the more?  And that we are so loved that even the hairs of our heads are all counted. And yet, for me, the most powerful words of grace and comfort come at the start where we hear that we do have a teacher, a master, whose fate not only serves as warning for all of us who follow him --- but, inherent in the image itself --- the certain promise is that as our teacher and master, Jesus also goes before us to show us the way.  In ways so much more profound than even those I look to in this life to teach me, we follow One who already did this.  As we are told today, it is only in this way, that we who somehow lose our lives "for Jesus' sake will find it."

Too many years ago now, in far too close succession, I stood by as witness to see Larry and George embrace an unknown future in their dying. I still carry their examples deep within me.  I remember how they expressed their gratitude in the face of their own grief and fear.  And I remember the peace that held them then. We are blessed to have such companions on our journey.  And yet, even as one 'taught the other' how it was to be done, they both had their eyes and hearts fixed on another Teacher, whose example we are all privileged to carry deep within us. I pray this will also be so for me one day in my actual dying.  May it also be so today as I seek to live. Indeed, may I say over and over again in my dying and my living, "You know, I'm not afraid.  Jesus taught me how to do this."

  • How do you hear Matthew's words for us today?  Do the promises outweigh the suffering that seems inevitable?  Why or why not?
  • Who are your companions along the way who serve as examples for you?  What have they taught you?
  • What are the stories of how Jesus did this which are particularly meaningful for you now?  Have there been different examples at different times in your life?  What have they been?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

To Rest: Created in the Image of God

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

"And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from  all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the word he had done in creation."  Genesis 2:2-3

I offer this disclaimer first. In my nearly twenty-six years of preaching, I cannot find evidence that I've ever strictly preached on "The Holy Trinity."  For me, at least, such theological concepts are hard to bring to life.  So instead, it appears I have always just taken one of the assigned readings and offered what connections I could.  While  I was not surprised to discover I have never preached on "The Holy Trinity,"  I was a little surprised to see that I have no evidence of having tackled this soaring creation account in Genesis --- assigned this day, no doubt, to highlight this one aspect of how God, the Creator works among us. Even so, I don't know that I could do the whole reading justice, and so I am settling in at the end where it speaks of God resting.  Probably because it's a word I need to hear.

Indeed, yesterday this is what I found  on the sidewalk just in front of my house. Evidently, the two little girls who live next door have been at play in these first warm days of June.  Look closely though.  I played hopscotch when I was a girl.  Only I know that none of my games included a place to 'rest.'  (I did poke around Google Images and found that this is not as unusual as I first thought.  I had simply never seen it.)

At my workout class this week I realized there was an intentional place to 'rest' as well.  We were doing something new --- with partners this time and a medicine ball and forward and backward lunges.  And before we passed the ball off to our partner we were to stand still for just an instant. The point was, if I got it right, if we 'rested' for just that moment, we could re-balance and get our form right before we lunged again.

It would come as no surprise to those who know me that I'm not all that good at 'rest.'  I can remember being 19 years old. At my college work study job our supervisor was trying to prepare us for 'adult professional employment.' So out of her limited budget she purchased for each peer counselor in the Career Development Center a calendar.  We were to use it to keep track of our appointments and meetings.  I was so proud of that book. This is weird, I know.  I'm a little ashamed to say now that I was especially proud of it as it became filled up with various commitments.  It was almost a status thing for me then.  And I'm not especially proud to say now that while my calendar may look different, in many ways it does still define me.  One of the ways I understand myself and prove my worth is by 'being busy about important things.'  This is not good, I know.  And as you might guess, I'm not so quick to put in times of 'rest' along with all the rest that needs to be tended. At least not in ink.

I did some reading this week about 'sabbath' --- about this rest you and I are told to take even as God did.  I found myself remembering whole books I've read on Sabbath Rest and I, in fact, have no fewer than two books on my Kindle right now which address it.  I've read and owned and apparently given away book after book on the subject --- I must have given them away for I can't find them anywhere on my shelves. In fact, apparently, they made deep impressions on me so much so that I felt compelled to  pass the wisdom along.  Only evidently, I passed them along and away from my active consciousness.  Oh yes, it is so that I do recall very well what was said.  Only honestly?  I have not yet fully learned to embrace the gift intended for us in those words.  The little girls who live next door are already figuring out its meaning for them. My exercise coach teaches the value and necessity of 'rest' as balance to hard work. My body reminds me regularly that while much work is good, rest is needed and is also good. Maybe even just as good.  Perhaps better even than all the rest.

God Rested.  And we who are created in God's Image are called to rest as well. It may well be the hardest thing we do in a time and place where our very way of life seems to demand that we always be moving, always producing, always doing.  My guess is that it may also be the most important thing we who worship God are called to do.  For in our simply resting we acknowledge that we are not finally really in charge, in control, or able to affect all things.  Our bodies, our intellects, our spirits, our wills are also only gifts we are called to steward. And without rest?  None of the rest works quite so well.

I know this, I do.  I expect you do, too.  But knowing this alone does not make it so.  So I pause now to ask all of us:
  • What would it look like to adopt and practice 'rest' as a 'spiritual discipline?  How shall we rest in this season?
  • What will that rest look like for you and for me?
  • How might our 'rest' set us apart from the rest of the world?
  • How can our very resting be a visible witness to our trust in God?
Indeed, perhaps it is in our 'resting' we best acknowledge power gift of "The Holy Trinity" that we are called to ponder now.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Power of the Holy Spirit

Acts 2:1-21

Having a few days off this week, I decided to tackle some big tasks.  One of those was digging up the bushes in my back yard which didn't survive the winter.

Now they looked mostly dead, but they weren't entirely.  I expect this made job that much more difficult.  First, I trimmed them back so I could get a better look at the base.  Then I sawed off most of what stood above ground.  Then I began digging.  And digging.  And clipping off the roots where I could reach them.  And digging some more.  It wasn't easy.  Indeed, I can't recall how many times during this grueling task on a humid afternoon that I recalled my dad saying, "If you have the right tools, you can do anything."  I'm not certain I had the right tools, but they proved adequate.  I had the strength, but just barely.  Even so, as I worked at it, I was gratified knowing that with hard work and perseverance, I could accomplish a lot.  Even this.

It was as the second shrub gave way that I found myself flat on my back looking up at the blue May sky.  It's not a place I've found myself often since I was a child and still had such time to stare at the sky and look for shapes in the clouds.  Only?  I shouldn't have been able to see the sky, for a large tree stands there.  Spring has come to us late this year, so perhaps it's not surprising that it was only then I noticed that big old tree is not leafing out like it does most springs.  It is dying.  My heart sank with the certain realization that alone I surely don't have the tools to take it down.  Unlike the character in the photograph opposite which was floating around social media this week --- whose response to local law enforcement officers was that it was his land, his tree, and he'd cut it down any way he pleased (and yes, it is so that I've cleaned up the language here), I do know better.

Now of course it would be too utilitarian to say that the Holy Spirit is a 'tool' to help us overcome the challenges before us in this life.  And yet at the same time, it goes without saying that much of what we are called to that truly matters is far beyond what we can accomplish on our own.  All on my own, I don't have the 'tools', the strength, the ingenuity, the passion, the imagination...  All on my own, I am never enough.

And so it is that the gifts of God are described for us in amazing ways in this week's Pentecost story in Acts.  As I stood within these familiar words this time around, I found myself overwhelmed by the breadth and depth and height of what is described.  Indeed, I paused briefly in the other lessons for this Festival Day, and I found myself returning to the marvelous story before us now.  For it is something, isn't it, to think of those disciples, described now as still together in one place --- in one house, in fact?  I mean, do you suppose that in spite of all those times Jesus had appeared to them in those last forty days, that they are still huddled together in fear?  And then we hear there is a violent wind inside the house and there are tongues of fire and suddenly they are speaking in languages  --- or at least being understood in languages they have never spoken before.  Next it appears those disciples have moved outdoors and are within the hearing of others who are 'amazed and astonished' because they can actually understand them.  Indeed, pretty soon we are told that those disciples are heard and understood in languages across time and space. And then through Peter, the ancient promises of God become new again in the hearing of those who perhaps have not yet received these powerful words before. 

Beyond the wind and fire though (which are quite something to imagine), I find it especially interesting that the power of the Spirit is known most profoundly in the wonder that people who just moments before had no understanding of one another now do.  In the culture I call home, we may well tend to believe that the gifts of God help ME to be and do more all on my own. (It is evident, for instance, that the man in the photo above is thinking that.  He certainly has ingenuity and courage... but one wonders at his need to take on a monumental task like this all on his own.) No, instead, the gifts of God which are ours in the Holy Spirit are ones which bring us together with those we perhaps have only begun to understand. This gift of the Holy Spirit as described today is only experienced by people who are together: in long standing community or in community which has just suddenly been formed as we see in this story.  And then somehow God builds upon that first gift to begin to change the world.

So flat on my back on a warm day in May it came home to me that all alone I am not, I do not have, enough.  I simply do not have the tools, the strength, the experience to do what needs to be done and so this week I'll call around and find someone else who does.  There is, in fact, a whole community surrounding me which is full of folks who are good at things I am not.

In the same way, God puts us together on this journey of faith.  All on our own we do not, but all together we have 'the right tools' to do what needs to be done --- whatever that may be.   Perhaps the most amazing thing God does in this story in Acts is to break down that which divides us from one another so that we can see that this is so.  Oh yes, the Power of the Holy Spirit is not really to be found in the wind and the flames which only seem to foretell the amazing events yet to come.  The Power of the Spirit is discovered between us and among us and through us.  It all begins with understanding one another.  And anything is possible after that!

  • What is your favorite part of this familiar account of Pentecost?
  • How have you seen God 'break down what divides us from one another?'  In your experience, how does the Holy Spirit still and always help us to understand each other?
  • What difference does this Power of the Holy Spirit make in your world?