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?