Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Force Awakens: The Light Shines in the Darkness

John 1:1-18

I will never forget the feeling of sitting at the old Hub Theater in Rochelle watching the first Star Wars Movie. I was sixteen. I was not then, and am certainly not now, especially a fan of science fiction, but the epic battle portrayed in the story caught my imagination and stirred something within me: some recognition of truth and heroism and hope. And yes, the power of darkness.

I'm not sure you can be alive in the part of the world I call home today and have missed the hype over the opening of the most recent Star Wars movie. With so many others, I wanted to see it, but I was afraid I would find it hard to follow. It has been 38 years since I was mesmerized by the first one and truth be told, I haven't seen every one since. I don't know what happened. I got busy. Or distracted. Or something.

So the other day when I learned that my sister Martha had seen it, I asked her if I would 'get it.' I wondered if I would be lost since I had been away from the story for so long. "Oh," she said, "You'll get it. It's just good versus evil all over again."

And sure enough. When I saw it this week-end, I realized she was right. It IS good versus evil all over again. Some of the more science fiction-y parts escaped me. And the older I get, I find myself becoming more and more non-violent, so I found little gratifying in the lives lost --- even if the enemy was mostly wrapped in anonymous storm trooper white.

As I watched, I found myself reflecting that not a whole lot has changed since 1977 when I was first perhaps deeply recognizing the darkness which too much marks our world --- except perhaps the role of women in the film is much stronger and the special effects are that much more spectacular. In terms of overarching themes reflected on the screen, however, it is all much the same. For evil is still profoundly resilient. And this is so as well: we continue to cling to the hope that the forces for good are stronger still.

And no, not much has changed since John first put together the words which are ours to hear once more on the 2nd Sunday of Christmas. There was and there is light and darkness. Good and evil were embattled when John recorded this beautiful poetry and clearly, as John had it and as you and I know so well, this has been true for all of recorded history. I have seen it to be so again in these last days:
For I find my heart aching in these past days to hear that two young men who returned to Chicago for Christmas break --- students from our own Northern Illinois University--- were killed by gun fire while home.
There is still light and darkness. Good and evil. And one wonders if the light will prevail.
I have spent a whole lot of time in this otherwise festive season walking alongside those whose grief is heavy. No matter their age, the one who died always died too soon and those left behind are left to sort out life without them.
Yes, one wonders when or if the light will prevail for we live in a world where darkness threatens still to have the last word.
War still rages in too many parts of the world and innocents are affected in ways that we cannot ignore their plight.
Oh yes, we wonder still if the Light will have the last word or not. 
And yet, we who cling to the Light keep on pointing to it. Even Queen Elizabeth in her annual Christmas Message pointed to these words in John's Gospel:
"The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it..."
She spoke these words as she reflected on the shared moments of darkness the world has experienced in this last year. You can watch and listen here: The Queen's Christmas Message 2015.

Indeed, we all continue to hang on to the promises of God as we hear them again today. In spite of all evidence to the contrary:
The light prevails.
Good wins.
God wins.
And yes, as you might expect this was true in the Star Wars movie which was mine to enjoy a few days back. Light wins.

But even so I recognize this in this particular story and in even more so in life as I have witnessed it: There are casualties along the way. And through it all, those engaged in this epic battle are making choices. Between light and darkness, yes. But also between responding to the impulse of fear or standing up and moving forward in courage and in hope. (I expect the latter are simply the light and darkness within us, wouldn't you say?)

I do have to say this, though. Many will go to this movie to enjoy the special effects. And yes, many will be utterly convinced (if we are not already) that violence is the only way to combat violence. And yet, it seemed to me that the most powerful parts of the story were those which reflected love and sacrifice. For one's beloved, yes. And for one's beloved child.

For this is always so. The message of today's Gospel is that the power of Light is not ours to use to destroy one' enemies. Rather, it is always ours to invite and encourage and somehow enable others to follow that Light which brings Life. Even those who seem to have been consumed by the power of darkness. Yes, even those. For in the end? Light itself destroys the darkness. Every time.

  • Certainly others will address the theological parallels and themes of the latest Star Wars movie better than I. If you have seen it, how would you modify what I have offered here?
  • It is easy to find signs of darkness in the world today. Where have you seen evidence of the light over which the darkness has not prevailed?
  • For me the most meaningful parts of the movie are where love and sacrifice are joined. This seems to be the place where light prevails, even though they are marked by profound suffering. And this is our Gospel Story, too, is it not?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Something More: Defying Gravity and Other Thoughts for Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

One almost can't help but find oneself thinking about the cultural images of Christmas which surround us in these last days of Advent. Now there are certainly those who would hold fast to their certainty that Santa and his Reindeer and all the rest cloud the true meaning of the season. And while I cannot argue with that view, I find myself in these days looking a little more gently on our passing on of Santa Claus to our little ones. For I can't help but wonder if it is rooted in our desire to offer 'something more.' Something that can't quite be explained in the usual way. Something that allows us to believe at least for a little while that that which holds us to the earth can be denied. And maybe flying reindeer offer some semblance of that.

This is how this came to me in these last days. I found myself driving through open country this week on the same road where, but a few months ago, I was hemmed in by lush green fields of ripening corn and beans, Now, however, you can see for miles. We have no snow to speak of. What little we did have has long since melted and we are left with acre after acre of stubble which remains after combines swept through and farmers harvested their crops. Driving by these frozen fields, I was taken back to a funeral I helped put together several years ago now.

Their mother and grandmother died in summer, so as we sat at the kitchen table our gaze fell upon fields very different from the ones I passed by this week. The story told was of December nights, though, and how Grandma would be hard at work in the kitchen, making ready for the Christmas feast and urging the little ones to the window where they would see a red light bobbing across the open field: an approximation of Santa and his reindeer, with Rudolph in the lead. Grandpa was apparently the one who made his way out on those cold nights, year after year, seeking to make magic for those who still so believed. Seeking to offer 'something more' than what was normally theirs on any other day or night of the year.

It was something to realize, of course, that those remembering could not have recalled a single gift they had unwrapped in those years so long before. But they remembered the 'magic.' They recalled the certainty that anything was possible. Oh yes, for at least a while they lived in the confidence that gravity itself could be denied. And later, when they learned how this actually came to be, they remembered and spoke with deep fondness of the love behind it all.

And oh, isn't it always our dearest wish for those we love the most, that somehow we might all believe that 'something more' might be theirs in gravity itself somehow denied --- be it only even in flying reindeer and an old man dressed in red who somehow manages to make Christmas happen for all the children of the world in one single solitary night. Oh, don't we want to defy gravity in other ways even more --- all that which keeps us so bound to the earth. Be it Betrayal. Or Dashed Hopes and Dreams. Or Illness. Or Pain. Or Grief. Or Death.  And long past the time when we have come to the realization that defying such as these seems to lead us nowhere, one can't really blame us for trying to protect the illusion of this possibility for the small ones among us. If only with our tales of Santa and his flying reindeer.

So it was that a few days back I heard this yearning again in the voice of a mother unknown to me. She had called the church with a plea for help. She told me that she had not yet put up a Christmas tree this December for she did not want her five children to hope for what she thought could not be hers to give. Her breaking heart could be felt through the phone line as she spoke of her desire to give them 'at least something' this Christmas. My heart joined hers as we did what we could to make this so. For I found myself saying out loud that children should have something to open on Christmas.  I, too, was hoping that somehow in this they might believe that other things might be possible as well: that somehow 'something more' might be theirs this season, too. That --- dare I say it --- perhaps 'gravity itself' might be defied for them this Christmas.

And yet, of course, for all of our wanting to deny or defy or destroy what holds us to this earth, the gift and irony of Christmas is that Jesus came to us as he did so long ago in a way that did not defy gravity at all. No indeed, God's own Son came and submitted to being as bound to this earth as you and I. Born to a too-young mother and an at first hesitant dad. In an unremarkable town with not even a proper bed to sleep in. Surrounded by animals and visited by shepherds. It is all so remarkable simply because it is so un-remarkably earth-bound. Except for the angels, of course. Those heralding angels remind us that somehow by Jesus not defying gravity, in the end, gravity and all it symbolizes will be denied, defied, and utterly destroyed once and for all.

And it all starts with loving enough to be 'earth-bound.' For while the possibility of reindeer flying through the air towing enough gifts to delight all the children of the world gratifies us for a moment, it is nothing next to the gift of God's Presence, God's Love, God's very Life beside us and within us.

And as for those other tales of Christmas which our small ones still hold dear? May the generosity and joy they offer somehow point us back to remembering that Christmas possibility of 'something more' is not only for children. For this is what stays with me about the story I offered here. While I love the playful image of a red light bobbing through an empty winter field there was this: Those now grown grandchildren gathered around the table that summer's day remembered only the love she held for them as she passed along the possibility of 'something more.'

And so this is my prayer for each and all of you:
  •  May 'something more' be yours this Christmas and always as you remember and celebrate the One who did not defy gravity but who, in great love, became as earth-bound as the rest of us. 
  • May the gift of Jesus being earth-bound for us be not only gift but model as we seek to reach a world of people who need the same.
  • And may the certainty of God's great love for you always be yours. For this love is that which promises to deny, defy, and finally destroy all that keeps us bound to earth.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Like Mary Did

Luke 1:39-55

St. Mary's Catholic Parish is right across the street from the congregation I serve. It is a busy street that divides us and so it is not often that I have reason to cross it to be in conversation with our neighbors. And yet, this fall I couldn't help myself.  For you see, as I parked my car one afternoon I looked up to see someone refurbishing their statue of Mary.

Truthfully, I hadn't much noticed "Mary" before. For one thing, if you are directly across the street from her she is hidden behind a large tree. No doubt the one who planted that tree did not fully anticipate its growth. For another, over the years her color had faded. While that tree may protect her from the sun, it cannot fully shield her from the ravages of wind and rain and snow.

And so it was that one afternoon I walked across the street to visit with the woman who was working hard to make Mary 'new.' The artist's name is Gloria. She told me that at one time work such as this was her livelihood, but she is mostly retired now. She lives ninety minutes away, but she has a friend in this parish and so was asked to do them this favor. "This Mary is precious to them, I know," is what she said to me. And so for several weeks on sunny days this fall, Gloria could be seen putting layers of paint on this statue which has graced the church yard for longer than most can remember.

It was not quite finished on the day I took the photograph above. And perhaps it is a little hard to tell in the shade, but maybe you get a sense of what I do when I pause to look at her now. For what I see is this: Gloria gave the statue texture. Oh, we know it is just a statue, of course. It is but a symbol of the young girl whose song is ours to sing again today. Even so, this piece of religious art which is mine to glance at almost every day reminds me of her centrality to the story which is ours to celebrate in these days. And the new textures which jump out at me speak of the nuances of the experience which must have been Mary's.

And yet, this is what comes to mind first. As lovely as it is and in spite of the imagination of many artists', the actual Mary would not have worn blue. Dye such as this would have been impossible to come by for one of her presumed stature and status in that time and place. Most likely, Mary's garb was flaxen-wool colored. As I understand it, the traditional blue got added centuries later in order to visually depict Mary's 'royal status.'

And so it is that perhaps we have added texture or layers to our understanding of who Mary was
which would not have existed 2,000 plus years ago. And in so doing, perhaps we have lost sight of the texture which was already there. Indeed, consider Mary with me again:
  • This young woman whose first response to the angel's greeting was understandably confusion.
  • This one whom the angel urged not to be afraid.
  • This Mary who heard the angel's promise and invitation and apparently had the presence of mind and heart to simply recognize it and receive it.
  • This young woman who could not, would not stay alone with her news, but went as quickly as she could to her cousin, Elizabeth, whom the angel named as also unexpectedly and seemingly impossibly having life growing within her.
  • And yes, this one who, in the tradition of Hannah's Song, speaks words of depth and wisdom and promise and realized hope the likes of which the world then and now so very desperately needs to hear and witness and experience for themselves, for ourselves, again and again and yet again.

In actuality, we know so little of Mary, of course. And while it is so that her openness to God's startling, life altering will for her life is remarkable, I do wonder sometimes if in our marveling at what we do know of Mary, we somehow fail to comprehend the angel calling us to the same, in all of our layers and textures. No, of course, perhaps it is unlikely that Jesus will come again in the same way he did so long ago. But is it possible, still, that he might come --- and that you and I might somehow be bearers of him to the world? As Mary did, so might we be called to do as well?

And yes, perhaps it starts like it did with an artist named Gloria who used her best talent to portray the first Mary for all the world (or at least those of us who pass by) to see. Perhaps our 'bearing' Jesus into the world once more can begin as we go deep into Mary's story and wonder at what it means and how it looked then and when and where it was and might still be received. But don't you think as we do so faithfully and well that this might be so for us as well? That as we take in Mary's story in all of its complexity and hope, with its textures and layers, that we might recognize her in us and us in her? And that we might see anew that God intends to use us, too, to bring a message of hope to the world?
To be those who carry Jesus into the world over and over again?

Indeed, I can't believe that Mary quite knew what she was saying yes to, when she said,
"Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word."          (Luke 1:38)
Oh, I can't help but wonder what might come to be if you and I, too, would simply listen for the Angel's Invitation. Indeed, even while we cannot fully know what will follow, what might it look like if we simply respond with open hearts?

Like Mary did.

  • What do you know of Mary's story? How does this inform how you hear today's Gospel?
  • Do you have a favorite artistic rendering of Mary? What do you see when you when you experience it?
  • Do you think the Angel's Invitation is meant for you and me as well? Why or why not?
  • What would it mean for you to receive that Invitation with an open heart?
  • Indeed, what would it look like for you, your family, and/or your congregation to carry Jesus into the world this year?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Baptism with Fire: Now Who Shall We Be?

Luke 3:7-18

I trudged through the mall on Friday night. is not a place I frequent often, but at least once a year I make my way to the Hallmark Store to purchase my nephew's Godchild ornament.

I started this tradition his first Christmas and even though this is the 19th time I have done so, I can't seem to stop. Never mind that Michael is now a fine young man who has found his footing well in his freshman year of college. Never mind that by now he has traveled to places in the world I have not yet seen. Never mind.... I keep buying these ornaments for him which mostly, as much as I can recall from these 19 seasons, are little lambs in one form or another. His mother has now purchased a small tree to hang them on. And Michael, bless him, even through his teen-age years, has always opened his gift and smiled and thanked me.

It is the picture of baptism many prefer, of course, this one of an infant dressed in white. It is, quite simply, sanitized and sweet and in many ways seems a far distance from the one our fiery John directs us to today. For the one John points to behind himself --- this one which Jesus brings--- we are told is more than baptism by water, but is one which brings fire and the Holy Spirit.

It is so, of course, that this baptism was Michael's almost nineteen years ago --- and yours and mine as well. Oh, one may have to squint to see it on that day when water is splashed and photographs are taken and the whole family gathers for a celebratory feast. And yet it is there for all to see for in those moments after the water is poured, we make a sign of the cross on the forehead of the one who often cannot yet begin to comprehend the meaning of what is happening to him or her. We make the sign of the very cross on which Jesus died and in so doing we are placing the newest among us at odds with the forces of this world where the likes of greed and violence and hopelessness and despair threaten to prevail.

Now it is so that in a world where challenges to our faith can seem global in their implications, I find it interesting that John keeps his advice to his listeners pretty close to home. No doubt his preaching might contain more than this today, but then as now his words still ring true. For you and I who have heard the judgment. For you and I who have experienced the fire. For you and I who somehow hear John's words as being meant for us, when we ask "What now?" John simply offers this:
  • Share what you have plenty of.
  • Don't take what is not yours.
  • Be content with what you have been given.
In a world where the challenges are so huge, one wonders how these seemingly small things could make any difference at all. And yet, one at a time, one person after another, seeking to live in these ways? Maybe in the end this would be, could be the beginning of changing everything.

Now I don't know, of course, the audience who first heard John's preaching. I don't know the texture of their lives, although I expect for the most part those who went into the wilderness to be baptized by him were not especially rich and powerful. No doubt they were not strangers to the worst of what life in this world can hand you. Perhaps it was so that they took the time to seek out John because they were trying to make sense of the lives they had been given.

And so it is that much of the time I would not count myself much like John's first listeners as I imagine them now. Indeed, too much of the time I can get by with believing that I am entirely self sufficient in many ways.

And then as has been so for me in these last days ...
  • My gall bladder makes itself known and I find myself at the mercy of modern medicine and now continuing on with the certainty that this human body is more fragile than I remembered...
  • Or the word comes that our cherished friend and colleague Laura Koppenhoefer has died as a result of the cancer which has stalked her for years and I find myself weeping with her family at her casket on a Friday night in December and I am reminded that life is fragile and oh so short and with many I am left wondering at its meaning...
And so it was that on Saturday morning before Laura's funeral I stood with a friend in silence as our un-shed tears kept us from speaking. When finally the words came, I said simply, 
"Now who shall we be?" 
In the wake of this fire, this judgment pointing out the brevity of all that we are, this suffering, who shall we be?

And I return to Laura's own words which are at the top of her CarePage where she tells her story beginning with: "My name is Laura. I am a Child of God."

And I return again to my now grown nephew and a Christmas tree full of little lambs.

And I know the fiery judgment which burns away that which needs to be burned away leaves us always with this. Through it all, we are still those little lambs.  We are still God's children. And to live as God's children means simply this:
  • Share what you have plenty of.
  • Don't take what is not yours.
  • Be content with what you have been given.
And oh yes, isn't it interesting that for all the hardness of the lives of many of his first hearers, John doesn't show them pity? Isn't it something that he still calls them to account and challenges them to be who God made them to be?

And so also with us, don't you think? In the wake of whatever fire has been ours, so also with you and me. May we keep wondering who we shall be now. And may we hear the beginning of an answer in John's sermon so long ago.
  • Share what you have plenty of. 
  • Don't take what is not yours. 
  • Be content with what you have been given.
Indeed, may this fire which Jesus brings always burn away that which needs to be burned away: be it pride, or false self sufficiency, or lack of empathy, or greed, or shortsightedness and on and on... May it all be burned away so that you and I might be led  to live more deeply and truly as the Children of God that we are. 

May this always be so.
  • How do you hear John's sermon today? Is it all judgment or is there promise, too?
  • How do you think John's first hearers would be like or unlike those who listen in on his preaching today?
  • When has the fire burned in such a way that it left you wondering, "So now who shall we be?"
  • John offers three ways God's children are called to live. The list seems pretty complete to me. What do you think?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

One Brick at a Time: Preparing the Way of the Lord

Luke 3:1-6

They finished laying the brick work on what was once a through street outside my office window a few weeks ago. The city's decision to expand the public library resulted in them closing our street permanently in order to accommodate the addition. They removed the bricks for a season and stored them away in a warehouse. Then they hauled them out again and laid them one by one, end to end, to finish the cul-de-sac which now provides access to our building's main entrance. Yes, most of the streets in our city are ordinary pavement. A few, however, reflect a time long past before asphalt replaced the quaint bricks which lined our paths.

One brick at a time, they were arranged, as you can see in the picture above.

As I hear John the Baptist today hearkening back to the promises of Isaiah to a people in exile, I am reminded that preparing a way through the wilderness was more similar to this than what we in this century are normally accustomed to. And yet, I am reminded of a passing image of a young man with a shovel working to even out a road in Tanzania when I traveled there some years ago now. For most of time, making such ways has been hard work: one foot, yard, one brick at a time.

And so I wonder now if this is perhaps a way to think about our Advent journey. I get so captured by big, seemingly insurmountable problems too much of the time. I worry and I fret over the implications of racism, the experience of the working poor, the imminence of war. I do believe that each and all of these and so many more require large scale solutions and yes, sometimes, they are called for in short order --- not in the amount of time it would take to lay bricks one at a time in the wilderness. And yet. Seldom have I known a big solution which has come to be without the back breaking, soul stretching work of doing it one step at a time. The sort that shapes values and deepens relationships. The kind that makes it safe to grow and make mistakes and back up and start over and grow some more. And that always takes time. The problem is, it seems to me, that too often we want the instant solution. The one, perhaps, that already aligns with my own beloved preconceived notions or positions. The one that does not necessitate me understanding deeply the humanity of my neighbor with whom I might just be at odds. All too often I am simply not willing to give it time, which if you think about it, is foolish and short sighted, for one way or another, time will be demanded.

Some of you will know, of course, that even as I write today I am recovering from minor surgery. I have heard stories of those who have undergone similar procedures and were up and about their business within a day or two. This has not been the case with me. Perhaps this is because, as one observed, I went into this tired. Or maybe I am learning --- or being forced to learn again --- to take my time. For healing comes, yes, but it comes on its own schedule. I can't force it. All I can do is help make the conditions right so that it will come.

And so the bricks I am laying one by one in these days have included getting proper rest. And sitting still to read as I have not in some time. And moving as I am able. And eating as I should. And looking out the window. And whispering prayers of thanksgiving and hope. One brick at a time. Probably I'll be back at work in a day or two. I am hoping this forced slow down will remind me to move a little slower this Advent. Perhaps now I will pay attention to where the bricks are laid, end to end. In myself. Between each and all of us. And as a way into the world. Oh, it seems to me most of the time we have no choice but to do it this way, you and I. For if we don't take the time to do it now? We certainly will be forced to do it later as we seek to mend or to heal.

And so today I wonder. If we would only get started laying bricks among us and between us? Maybe then the road will be built. You know the road of which I speak: that highway which leads to peace. The one which John points us to today. The one the Messiah travels on.

Indeed, John tells us today that this way will be made smooth by our repentance, yours and mine. The path is cleared by our being reconciled to God and to one another. And that takes time. Perhaps one brick at a time. We do it now with intentional-ity and with hope. Or we will surely do it later, seeking to mend and to heal and find ways to begin all over again, only weakened now by our choosing to not do so before. Perhaps not unlike me in these days following surgery. Indeed, I suppose it is our choice.

  • I have offered the image of 'preparing the way of the Lord' one brick at a time. Does that work? Why or why not?
  • Reconciliation takes time, yes? Where are you called to 'take the time' to pay attention to where such reconciliation is needed in your life, in your world? Where are you called to lay your bricks, end to end, to get there?
  • My minor surgery in this season has forced me to slow down. What has done this for you? When have you been forced to 'take your time' in a way that has shaped how you have lived next?
  • Can you think of times when you have put off 'laying the bricks' among us and between us and into the world? How has your not 'taking time' to do so then demanded even more time later? What difference might it make to 'prepare the way' today?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Nearness of the Kingdom: Jesus Goes, Too

Luke 21:25-36

I spent several hours in the E.R. the other night --- this time not because I had been called. No, instead, I was on the other side. I'll spare you the details, but I was suffering a severe gall bladder attack. After they diagnosed it and addressed my pain, they sent me home with the advice to consult a surgeon. I did. Surgery is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Now it has been a long time since I've had any kind of surgery for I have been so very fortunate when it comes to my health. In fact, the last time was forty-seven years ago when I had my tonsils removed. Before that, and much more traumatically, as a five year old I spent ten days in the Rochelle Community Hospital following an emergency appendectomy.

I don't remember much from when I was five, but I do remember that. And it is not the pain I remember so much as the fear. I had never been away from family before. Indeed, I had never even used a telephone. (That's impossible to imagine with the five-year-olds I know today!) Oh, I can't imagine my mother's heartbreak when I would not speak to her on the bedside phone. I was simply paralyzed in my fear.

By now you may be wondering why my mother was not right beside me then, but with three younger sisters at home, it was simply not possible for her to be there all the time. Although I do expect that my overriding memory of fear has also clouded my recollection. For this I learned later. My dad, in fact, stayed with me every night. He slept on a cot right next to my bed. Only, truly, I don't remember that at all.

Not surprisingly, all of this has come rushing back to me in the last few days. And somehow it speaks to me as we approach Advent I with Jesus' hair raising predictions of what is to come. For embedded in these often fear provoking words are promises that our redemption is drawing near, about the nearness of the Kingdom of God and that the Son of Man stands in the midst of and at the end of it all. Perhaps in the same way, this can also simply be hard for us to see or to feel --- particularly when fear overwhelms.

Indeed, as I have been recalling the past, and anticipating my own very personal future, not to mention the chaos playing out all over the globe in these last days, the words of Carrie Newcomer's song, "I'll Go, Too" keep running through my mind. In it she makes the comparison between the presence of a father with a child --- particularly in moments of anxiety or fear. And in it, she speaks of her own deep hope that when we come to the end of our days, one of God's own angels will be there to 'go, too' --- to accompany us into what follows.  You can listen to the song here. The recording of her entire album, "The Gathering of Spirits" is one I am grateful to count in my collection. You may want to add it to yours.

And so in the midst of a world where there is a great deal which confuses and frightens... in the midst of our lives where the worries of this life threaten to overwhelm, I am clinging to the certainty that Jesus 'goes, too.' As he already has. Sometimes it is only this, it seems to me, that allows us to stay alert and strong in the face of whatever is still to come. Indeed, it is the promise that Jesus is at the beginning and in the middle and at the end that carries me now.
And so yes, in these days as I face a truly minor surgery, I am comforted by this. And surely such comfort --- surely the promise which prompts that comfort which has been offered to all of us --- somehow enables us all to truly live our lives as though the kingdom of God is near.

As for all the rest I am certain to learn about myself in these next days --- not the least of which will be what it is to seek to live in faith alongside the certain experience of the fragility of one's very human body --- stay tuned. No doubt I'll be compelled to share in upcoming Advent reflections.  In the meantime, thanks for tagging along, for 'going, too.' I am grateful for each and all of you.

  •  My anticipation of surgery in the next few days has deepened my Advent reflections. What experiences have you had which have done the same?
  • How does the promise that all that Jesus describes is simply a sign that 'your redemption is drawing near' inform how you hear the rest of his words? How is it that we can tune our hearts to the nearness of God's Kingdom even or especially when it feels so far away?
  • The promise of accompaniment as Carrie Newcomer sings of it, soothes me in these days. What helps you when you are afraid or uncertain?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A King Like No Other

John 18:33-37

I has been ringing through my mind these last days -- the cry of the people in 1 Samuel. You remember it. They are in the land which was promised to them. They have been watched over and led by a series of Judges --- some of whom did better than others. And now terror is rising within them as the forces of the world are bearing down on them. They cry out to Samuel, refusing to listen to his voice of reason and warning, they say,
"No! But we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles."       (I Samuel 8:19-22)
Samuel has wasted his breath trying to convince them that an earthly king will do more harm than good. And finally God gives in and says to  Samuel,
"Listen to their voice and set a king over them." 
These words have been echoing in my mind in these last days as I have sat transfixed before the news once more: witnessing terror attacks in Paris, yes, but in countless other places around the world as well. Oh yes, we hold deep within us the desire to be safe, particularly when the violence of the world threatens what we hold most dear. And we see no other way, too often, than that which plays out before us every day. We feel as though we must compete on the same battlefield the world has set up for us. We cry out as people have always cried out, for someone to at least protect us.

And then we encounter Jesus now in his exchange with Pilate.
  • Jesus, who by now has been betrayed by one trusted disciple and denied by another and abandoned by all the rest; 
  • Jesus, who has been shamed by the high priest and who will soon be beaten by Pilate's soldiers; 
  • Jesus, who will shortly be wearing a crown of thorns and a mocking robe of purple; 
  • Jesus, whose cross is now but hours away.
We are yearning for a king who will fight our battles in a world marked by abject terror and God sends us this?

Yes. God sends us this.

A few days back in a small way I saw just this lived out.

I had just finished presiding at an evening funeral. This one had been longer than some as there were no fewer than eleven eulogies read or shared. (I know that you who have presided over such as this probably know what it feels like to feel as though it is getting away from you. I certainly felt that then, but the family was clear this was what they wanted and my warning that this could be less than helpful went unheeded.) And so it was that one after another, family and lifelong friends stood to share their dearest memories of one who was larger than life, who was the life of the party, whose absence now will leave a gaping hole in their lives.  Many of the friends who spoke had known him since their college days. Indeed, many of the memories shared were from when they were young and strong together --- when the whole wide world was theirs --- or at least so it seemed.

And so I was standing at the door of the funeral home as people gathered up to leave. A woman in an electric wheelchair approached me then, asking where the dinner would be. She had come in her wheelchair more than a mile to get there and she wanted to be sure there would be enough battery life remaining to get her home.

I bent down to her and asked her name. "It's Joan," she replied. And then she went on to share that
she had been a neighbor to the one who died. She told me then that she had not known him as long as those who had spoken.  However, they had been neighbors for some time. She would go to see him from time to time and he was able to tell her about his suffering from the cancer which would take his life. And she thought that helped him some.

No doubt this was true. He knew that Joan had suffered, too. He was able to share his pain with her in ways he probably had not been able to with others. No doubt that had made a difference.

Oh yes, in these days I am reminded once more of how very vulnerable we all are. And into this awareness, God sends us a King, our Jesus, who walks into suffering in our behalf and enables us to do the same. Somehow in his suffering, Jesus redeems our suffering, too.

Now it is so, of course, that no earthly 'king' can save us from heartbreak. No protector in this life can shield us from all that would harm. And in the end, isn't it so that the point is not to only be safe? Isn't it so that safety is not our primary aim? No rather, kindness is. And generosity. And sacrifice in behalf of others. No, indeed, Jesus surely was not 'safe.' And so it must be so that we who follow him are not meant to be either. At least not in the way the world measures it.

I'm not there, yet, of course. I'd rather shun the suffering as most of us would. In fact, on Thursday afternoon, I went to yoga class. I've missed too much, of late, what with other demands which have crept into that late afternoon time slot, so as you can imagine, my lack of flexibility was making itself known. Half an hour in, I could tell little difference from when I first spread my mat on the floor. Except there was this. Somehow the stretching and the breathing managed to open up something else in me. Some need to express a whole lot of pain...

For you see, I was lying on my back doing banana poses at the end. I was trying not to think, trying only to breathe. I couldn't keep the thoughts at bay, though, as I thought back on four funerals in eight days. And as much as that I expect, as I allowed myself to face the heartbreak of a cherished friend entering hospice care that very day. The tears started to flow and would not stop. I was glad then for a dark space as the tears pooled in my ears. I did not want those around me to witness my suffering.

I wonder why, of course. Only maybe not. All of us carry illusions of what strength looks like and it certainly does not look like lying on your yoga mat on a Thursday afternoon with tears flowing unabated. Or maybe it does. With Jesus as our King, maybe it does...

And so I wonder now,
  • Who shall we be in this time when we almost can't help but clamor for an earthly 'king' who will ride into battle in our behalf --- who will appease us with promises of safety?
  • What does it mean for our lives that we call Jesus,'King' --- this one who suffered and died for this broken world?
  • What does strength look like for those who follow Jesus? How can we model a different kind of 'strength' as we follow Jesus into the world?

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Beginning of the Birth Pangs

The world ended that day. With that phone call. That startling news.That deepening realization. The world ended that day. Or at least it ended as you had known it.

I am so deeply aware of this right now for I am in the midst of a stretch of funerals. Some expected. Others not. All leaving those they loved living with a before and after like they have never known before. And yes, I say again, for each and all of them the world ended that day.

Now I know, of course, that the ending Jesus points to in the temple today is a cosmic one, a final one, an only one, I suppose. And yet, it seems as though from the start of human existence there have been wars and rumors of wars, nations rising against nations and kingdoms against kingdoms. Once again, the news in these last months and weeks and days have been full of reports of earthquakes. And, yes, there is famine --- and at least the sort of hunger where the poorest among us are forced to choose between paying the rent and putting a meal on the table right here in my community and yours. These words roll around for us to ponder again and again and again. And still we are here. Clearly, with all of this struggle, the end is still not yet.

This is why, I suppose, I fall to the temptation to bring this home. For yes, there are cosmic struggles all around us. At the same time, there are the wars and the battles and earthquakes erupting in our own hearts, our own families, our own neighborhoods, our own communities. And yes, we know endings, one by one, we surely do.

What always puzzles me, though, is that Jesus inserts this amazing promise right here in the middle of all of these dire predictions. In the midst of that which we know brings death, there is this first inkling of life. At first it may be hard to imagine how this is even possible, but we know that it is. Let me tell you how I have seen this to be so even in these last days.

I presided at a funeral this week of one who died too young. It was no secret to the hundreds gathered that he died at his own hand. The heartbreak the family feels is not new, though, for his struggle had been long and difficult. Indeed, I borrow now from a friend who traveled this path not long ago. When her family shared her brother's death with the world they said, "His death resulted from complications related to bi-polar disorder." And, oh, isn't that so. Indeed, while many of the details differ, still this was the journey this particular family had traveled as well.

And so there was no pretending as we gathered for his memorial service. The heartbreak was named. And so was our hope which rests in God's love which is greater than our heartbreak, our struggle, our regrets, and our fears.

I stood in our social hall afterwards visiting with friend and stranger alike. The room was emptying out when two women approached me --- friends of the family. They spoke to me then of how their lives had also been touched by suicide. Each of them had buried both a brother and father in the wake of such as this. Each of them.

They spoke of their own journeys. They spoke of their love for their friend who travels this path now. And they wondered with me about what they might do next--- about how their experience, their pain, could become a gift to others who find themselves where they have been.


In the middle of this busy week I opened a book by Joan Chittister where she is reflecting on what are probably the most familiar words of Ecclesiastes: For Everything a Season. As this week had carried so much pain for so many I have encountered, I intentionally turned to her reflections on a time to weep. There she speaks the truth that it is hard to acknowledge the need for times of weeping. They are always unwelcome. But she also speaks of how our individual tears can open us up to the pain of the whole world and how in that way we are changed. Yes, such struggle can be 'the beginning of the birth pangs.' Yes, by God's power, even these can be the beginning of new life.

No, indeed, for all of our effort and will we won't get the wars, the earthquakes, the hunger to stop. These will still be. And yes, we will still be those who weep in the wake of these, perhaps most especially those which affect our own lives. At the same time, you and I are called to be among those who recognize the new life that comes from even these. Indeed, might it be that  you and I can even be the midwives who help make it so?

  • How do you hear Jesus' words today? Is it fair to equate the smaller ways in which our worlds 'come to an end' with what he speaks of now?  Why or why not?
  • How is it that these things which are normally associated with death actually signs that new life is coming? Why does Jesus tie birth pangs to such as these?
  • Where have you experienced the sorts of birth pangs Jesus speaks of now?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Seeing the Widow

Mark 12:38-44

Truly, my whole life --- including the years I have served as a pastor --- I have heard the story of the widow in Mark's Gospel as a story of sacrificial giving. It is a story about generosity. It is an image of one who gave all that she had.

This drama and my usual understanding of it is especially powerful as it plays out there in the temple with an accompanying backdrop of the scribes 'walking about in their long robes' and garnering the respect and admiration of one and all. Indeed, the contrast is awfully hard to miss as one considers that the more wealthy give so little in comparison to the widow who gives all that she has. It's not hard to see how for generations, this nameless widow has been held up as a positive example of financial giving. And, of course, she is.

And yet, this time around, I find myself moving in a little different direction. For in fact, this time around I find myself also hearing Jesus' earlier words about the scribes where he says, "They devour widows' houses..." Could it be that Jesus points out this particular widow now as a living illustration of what he was just talking about? Could it be that he is pushing his disciples then and now to simply take note of the one who is normally invisible? Could it be that as our attention is drawn to her, we are also made more deeply aware of how the needs of so many like her are too often ignored --- or that, just as was apparently the case so long ago, their need is exploited in such a way that those with more just get more?

Too much of the time like the disciples so long ago, unless it's pointed out to me, I also simply don't see it -- or at least it is so that I do not fully comprehend this contrast and its often accompanying injustice which Jesus speaks of now. Only lately I've come to see it. And it is so that I am not at all proud of the fact that other, certainly no more important things, cloud my vision tooo much of the time.

Here is how it has been where I live.

Five months ago our state legislature passed a budget. Only the governor refused to sign it. Setting the politics of this aside, this has had dire consequences.

Now it is so that except for the years I was away for school, I have lived my entire life in the state of Illinois. This is a state that holds a whole lot of good --- and, yes,  a whole lot of bad. And nothing demonstrates that 'bad' as much as the situation with our state government. It is a seemingly perpetual drama and so I am not proud to say that I have been among those who, until too recently, have not paid a whole lot of attention to the latest crisis. (For an 'outside' perspective on our situation, check out this piece in the New York Times.)

And then a headline in last week's local paper caught my eye. Because we have no state budget, non-profits are not being paid. By now it is catching up with them so that locally, starting this next week, our Meals on Wheels will need to cut services. This means that for the foreseeable future, 225 older, often disabled, adults will not receive a meal on Tuesdays. For some of them it is their only meal of the day. For many of them, it is their only human contact.

I happened to be leading a Bible Study that morning. In our time together we were asked to name out loud our laments. I named this as mine. Others at the table joined me. And pretty soon one offered to call to see what could be done. Before the week was done, in behalf of my congregation, I was able to hand-deliver checks in the amount of $500 to help ensure that the 100 most vulnerable of those Tuesday recipients of noontime meals might still be fed for at least another week. Thankfully, others are mobilizing to do the same.

I am struck, though, at how invisible they have been to me. Honestly, I had no idea that there are so many in our county who are so utterly alone. Indeed, those 100 have no family to check on them at all -- no one to step in and fill the gap left as the result of a stalemate between politicians.

Only here is the truth. Stepping in to be sure that 100 are fed for now does nothing to change things when it comes to the big picture. (Yes, of course, it potentially changes everything for them --- keeping those individuals from going hungry for food and human contact --- and the vital well-check that comes from someone just dropping in.) Only even this doesn't bring them into much clearer focus for me and countless others like me who have little need or call to interact in a regular way with people whose economic circumstances are so very different from my own. More than that, it doesn't change a system which has somehow made them with even their very basic needs expendable.

So here is where I am landing with image of the widow dropping her two last coins into the temple treasury this week.  I still think this is a stewardship story. Only it is pointing us to something much larger than how much I will put in the offering envelope this Sunday or any Sunday to come. Rather, this raises questions about how I steward my whole life as well as the lives of those around me --- near and far. Most especially those I haven't noticed. Indeed, it seems to me that our financial stewardship is meant to be just the start of changing us so that in the name of Jesus we might attempt to change the world. And it all starts by seeing. Especially those it is easy not to see.

So Jesus points her out to his disciples then and now.

May our seeing and understanding change us all.

  • How do you hear the story of the widow in today's Gospel? Is this a story about financial giving? Why or why not?
  • I can't help but wonder if Jesus were standing next to me today who he would point out now. What do you think? Who might that be?
  • What happens when you 'see' or understand something for the first time. How are you changed? What happens next?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

All Saints Day: Claiming the Easter Promise

Isaiah 25:6-9
John 11:32-44

For as long as I have been a pastor, I have loved All Saints Day. In some years, I have made the time to walk through a local cemetery --- returning to those places I have frequented in the months past. Other years, time just gets away from me or the weather doesn't cooperate and I simply find myself recalling those who have gone before us. Indeed, I have found the ritual of naming in worship and lighting candles in memory of those who have died --- especially in the past year, but also countless others --- to be a simple but important way to mark our grief and to measure our healing.

I have always loved All Saints Day. Only it feels different at 54 than it did at 27 when I first was called to lead God's people on this day. For those saints whom I have known and loved and said good-bye to are growing in number: both those who have shaped me in powerful ways from the start and those I have been called to walk alongside in recent years. Simply put, the losses are piling on. The grief is more complicated, more nuanced, more textured than it was when I first began.

Having said that, when we gather as a congregation next Sunday, we will remember but six this time around.  Of them, two lived past the century mark and one was in his nineties. Though small in number, each and all of them touched me in profound ways:
  • Kim, who on the day we met, welcomed me into her hospital room with a wide smile and a kind spirit. She taught me about courage and about hope. I miss her open heart.
  • Rodney --- who never moved far from the farm he grew up on and who loved to fly. Only he loved his family more and gave it up when the kids came along...
  • Keith --- whose quiet presence is missed by our staff every day for he was one of those who with patience and wisdom looked after the well-being of our church building ....
  • Al --- who was as likely as not to have a copy of something he thought was interesting or funny in his hand when he went to shake mine on Sunday mornings --- but who made a lasting impression on me when his lower plate of false teeth fell out of his pocket on one of my first Sundays here, only to be discovered by the custodian. (Apparently they were not fitting comfortably that day!)
  • Ruth -- whose beautiful soprano voice rang clear and true right up until the last year of her life in the nursing home...
  • Mary --- whose great grandchild made the sign of the cross on her forehead the day we shared in the Commendation of the Dying.  That same young man will carry the candle into worship in her memory this All Saints Day.
These precious ones were not 'my people' even four years ago, but now they are and will always hold a place in my memory. Certainly the brief sentences above do not begin to capture who they were in the hearts of those who loved them --- and certainly not in the heart of God. Even so, as I say their names I remember them in moments of joy and struggle both and I am grateful that for them it is now only all joy. And I realize anew the profound diversity and depth of the people God calls and how the growing number I have come to know and love are but a tiny fraction of the multitudes whom God has gathered home.

I have always loved All Saints Day, only it holds a deeper meaning now as I hold closer the memories of so many more. And yes, for some reason, it is so that I come to this November 1st with the grief feeling a little heavier, the shroud a little closer than it sometimes does. Perhaps this is why this season these deaths we grieve and so many others have me tasting my own mortality a bit more than was true a season ago.

So I have to say that I am especially grateful for the promise of God through the prophet Isaiah that the day will come when the shroud will be destroyed for we will no longer have need of it. And oh yes, I am so very grateful for the image of Lazarus emerging from the tomb --- a foreshadowing, to be confident that we will one day be "unbound" from all the ways that death obliterates life. Indeed, All Saints Day is a precious day when we can celebrate the Easter Promise with certain dear ones in mind. It is a day, for me, when Easter has a face --- or, actually, many faces. And this year, I find myself especially grateful for this.
  • Who are those whose memories make All Saints Day especially meaningful for you this year? How do you remember them?
  • We celebrate the Resurrection every Sunday, of course. However, does it make sense to you that All Saints Day is a particularly 'personal' Easter celebration?  Why ore why not?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Truth and Freedom

John 8:31-36

And so what is this truth that makes us free?

I was called upon to preach at our local Hospice Annual Memorial Service a few weeks ago.

Those in attendance were primarily family members and friends of dear ones who had died in the past year. I knew their memories would be fresh and their hearts still raw. I had prepared words about celebrating and giving thanks for the gifts our loved ones had given to us. I had grounded my words in God's love and promise to never let them go.

Before I spoke though, two hospice nurses stood up and read more than two hundred names of those who had died while under the care of hospice this year. It was clear that only a fraction of those who had experienced such loss had the need or the inclination to gather that October afternoon.

And before that there were words of welcome. First from the hospice chaplain. And then from the hospice medical director.

Now the medical director is my own doctor. I know him to be a person of quiet faith. I have experienced his kindness. And yes, I have been at the receiving end of his gentle truth telling. Even so, I found myself surprised at his words that afternoon.

First Dr. Thornton welcomed and commended those who had gathered for coming at all. He reminded us that to remember is important but it is also hard and it takes a certain amount of courage to do so. Only he didn't stop there. Rather, he went on to speak to us of the suffering we had witnessed and experienced in this past year and the hard decisions which had to be made. Next, he essentially urged those present to remember that one day we would also all die and this would be a very good time to update or make out our own living wills and advanced directives and the like.

It was a little jarring, I have to say that. And yet, I expect he knew those gathered better than I --- even if he had not yet met them. For he is that rare doctor who acknowledges the truth of our very human limits --- especially, of course, as we experience them in our physical bodies. He deals with this truth every single day and he chose to speak of it directly with a group who had come against this truth themselves in the not too far distant past.

So is this the truth that Jesus speaks of now? Is this the truth which we will discover more deeply as we continue in his word? Yes, in many ways, I expect this is precisely the truth of which he speaks: We are human. We are limited. We are not God. Only God is God. And acknowledging these truths allows us to more faithfully live the lives God calls us to live.

And so on this Reformation Day, it is not only ours to speak and hear these truths --- it is also ours to celebrate the freedom they bring.

  • Perhaps we experience this as freedom as it helps us to realign our priorities, our values, our dreams.
  • Maybe this offers freedom from worry about those things which, in the end, really won't matter.
  • Possibly this enables us to freely live our lives in grace knowing that in our human limits, failure will always be part of our lives --- in the same way it will be with our neighbors --- and that forgiveness is perhaps the most freeing thing we can offer or receive. 
  • And yes, perhaps this frees us finally to be fully human in the best sense of what it is to be human.

This meaning of this freedom to be fully human came home to me in a story told by a member of my congregation who died this past year. Kim was just my age. She was diabetic --- a condition which had plagued her since she was a child. As a result, her physical journey was tough in the extreme. Coincidentally, we shared the same family doctor.

She told me this story. Not too long before she died, she sat in her doctor's weeping in her frustration. She so wanted to be better and to that end she had been following doctor's orders every step of the way. Only it wasn't working. Her physical body was continuing to decline.

And that same doctor who spoke to families and loved ones a few weeks back about their own human limits, clearly has acknowledged them in himself. For in those next moments he demonstrated that he is no longer enslaved by the expectation that he should somehow "fix" all that ails us. He simply handed her a tissue and cried with her. Oh yes, his acceptance of her limits and of his own, allowed him to be fully human in the best ways God calls us to be. 

And it all starts with truth, of course. This truth of our humanness and the greater truth of God's great love for us. 

Oh, there are many truths which set us free, of course. This is simply the one which resounds for me today as I hear Jesus' words. How about you?

  • In your experience how are truth and freedom related to one another? What stories would you tell?
  • What do you think it means when Jesus says "If you continue in my word?" How are we called to do that?
  • My thinking on this is that sin is rooted in our tendency to believe we are 'more than human' and this surely can enslave us.  Does this make sense to you or would you go in another direction? Why or why not?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

James, John, Jesus and my Great Aunt Esther

Mark 10:35-45

When I was a child, my imagination had painted a picture of heaven --- one which may well have been informed by the interaction between James and John and Jesus shared today.

Now it is so that before the age of eight, I had little reason to think much of heaven.  And then my Great Aunt Esther died.

Now Esther was my grandmother's sister. Grandma Anderson had died just a few months before I was born, so Aunt Esther was the closest thing I ever knew to a grandmother.

This is what I knew of Esther:
  • She was not educated by the world's standards. Like many in her generation, she had only completed eight years of formal schooling.
  • Her husband, Glenn, was a laborer --- all of his life he worked hard.
  • They lived in a small gray house by the railroad tracks. As a child, I loved to lie on the couch in their living room and listen to the trains rumble by. (This, of course, is only 'magic' to a child!)
  • I can close my eyes to this day, almost fifty years later, and see the hutch in the dining room which held a thousand treasures for small hands. Indeed, I can still feel the nubs on that brown couch against my face.
  • Esther was a person of deep faith. She lived out that faith in many ways, I'm certain, but I especially remember when we went to visit, my sisters and I would clamor to go to her Sunday School class at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Waukesha. It didn't matter if we were older than the other children in her classroom, it was where we wanted to be. In fact, Esther taught that class for more than forty years.
And I remember this: an emergency trip to Wisconsin when my cousin, Michael, was killed in Viet Nam. My mother was urgently trying to get there to be with her sister. I insisted on going along.

The grief that marked that journey was lost on the six year old I was then. I just knew I didn't want to stay at home with my sisters and the inevitable 'baby-sitter' who would watch over us while my dad had to be at work. And I knew there would be people who loved me well on the other end of that drive. In fact, perhaps it would be forgotten altogether if not for this. In that time before seat belts and child car seats, my mother had to come to a sudden stop and my face had an abrupt meeting with the dashboard, blackening an eye and loosening some teeth. After having me checked out by her old doctor (no doubt, a detour that was not appreciated that day), my mother dropped me off at Esther's who sat with me on the couch and held ice wrapped in a towel against my face. These many years later I remember her tenderness.

Aunt Esther was a servant --- not only to me, but to many. When she died, I had my first taste of grief. And when picturing what had become of her, I was confident she was sitting at the right hand of Jesus.

Now it is so that I shake my head a little bit today at my childhood conclusions. For I don't really believe any more that heaven is the kind of place where God has kept track and your assigned 'seat' depends on the score you had accumulated over a lifetime on earth. And even if this were so, probably every one of us has an Aunt Esther who we are certain deserves that special place of honor at Jesus' right hand.

It is also so that even as James and John spoke, they were probably not thinking of some kind of afterlife. No, we can be pretty certain that they were imagining a time in the then not too far distant future here on earth where they might just be rewarded with seats of honor for being among the first to follow after Jesus. 

And yet, even having said all this, as I hear Jesus' response to James and John today, it is possible that as an eight year old, perhaps I was on to something --- even if my picture of 'heaven' reflected the imagination of a small child. Indeed, from what I knew of her, Aunt Esther was exactly what Jesus calls us to be. She followed Jesus with the simple gifts and ordinary life she had been given. And in doing so, she simply served. Indeed, as you can tell, I was the recipient of her devotion. From my own experience I knew that she made small children feel safe and loved.

Not that it was probably as easy as she made it appear.
  • For of course, I have no way of knowing this for sure, but don't you think she would have liked to have at least finished high school? 
  • Don't you imagine there were days when she wished she didn't have to work so hard to get her husband's work clothes clean? Or that he had a job which paid just a little more? 
  • Don't you suppose she wished for a house that didn't shake with every passing train?
  • Don't you think she thought from time to time that she deserved more? Perhaps she even wondered if it wasn't about time someone started serving her.  
Maybe Esther thought all these things at one time or another --- even as James and John appear to be doing today. Maybe she carried those disappointments deep in her heart. All I know is they never showed. She must have learned to let them go. For all we remember of her is that she loved us well. Indeed, over time, it seems to me, Esther became exactly the sort of follower Jesus calls us to today.

Perhaps it is so that like James and John, you and I are only at the beginning of understanding the demands of this call to follow Jesus. And no, maybe none of us will ever get it completely right. At the same time, we are so blessed to have in Jesus the perfect model of what this journey looks like at its most faithful. And yes, we are also fortunate to be able to look back on our lives to see others like my Great Aunt Esther, who embraced what it was to serve.

And so I wonder now:
  • Who is your "Aunt Esther?" Who taught you what it is to serve?
  • What other examples can you offer of those who have drunk the cup that Jesus drank or were baptized with his baptism? How does their witness inform your life? 
  • How do the words of Jesus now shape your understanding of what it is to follow him? What will it mean to you to be baptized with his baptism or to drink the cup that Jesus drank?   How shall you be a servant?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

On Recovering Perfectionists and the Rich Man

Mark 10:17-31

My 7th grade home economics teacher called me a perfectionist.

I don't remember the occasion for this critique --- and believe me, it was precisely that, for there was no kindness in her tone. I do remember being surprised, for I wondered then what could possibly be wrong with striving for perfection. And yes, I do remember being surprised for what work I had turned in so far that year was considerably less than perfect. (If it still existed --- which, thankfully, it does not --- I would offer you a picture of the orange apron I sewed that year, complete with crooked seams and uneven pocket on the front.)

No, I don't remember the occasion for the critique, but I do remember how it stung. For I knew it was not meant as a compliment. And yes, I sensed that it was true and deep down I understood, somehow, that this was not a good thing. I know this more fully today, of course, for perfectionism is rooted in trying to measure up to some outside standard. One that can never quite be reached and so one is always left feeling less than. Although some of those tendencies in me have certainly been worn away by the constant demands on time and energy, even so, there is a part of me that still shrinks inside when I know I have missed the mark. One could say, I suppose, that I am a 'recovering perfectionist.'

And so it is that we come upon the rich man in this week's Gospel. You remember him, don't you? This one who threw himself at the feet of Jesus begging to know how it was that he could be ensured that the inheritance of eternal life would be his? Jesus reminds him that he already knows what needs to be done. And the man confidently says that well, yes, he's done all that. And Jesus knows. Oh yes, Jesus looks at him and loves him and knows. Indeed, as I hear the story this time through, I find myself wondering if he was a perfectionist, too.

For what would it have meant for this man to have kept the commandments all of his life? Indeed, how stiffly he must have held himself since he was young --- taking the utmost care not to step out of line in any way. And yet, it appears that he knows something is missing. He must sense that even though by every external standard he has done it all just right, it somehow isn't enough.  He must know this --- else why would we find him today kneeling at the feet of Jesus asking what is left to be done?

My 7th grade home economics teacher saw it in me: this tendency to want to get it all right but in my doing so somehow missing the point altogether. For no truly fine work is done without risk and risking means, inevitably making one's share of  mistakes. It means falling short of perfection. Indeed, it is so that one can become so obsessed with getting it right that one loses one's way altogether. Oh, isn't it so that one can play by all the rules and in so doing, not let oneself be fully engaged in the 'game?'

Now I know there are a number of faithful ways to enter into the encounter of Jesus and the rich man in today's Gospel. Certainly there is the assessment of how difficult it will be for most anyone with any kind of means to enter into the kingdom of God. And there is that profound and much welcome assurance that in the end, not one of us can do this on our own, if at all. Rather, only with God is it even possible and only with God will it be so. And yet, I find myself trying to get into the mindset of the one who prompted Jesus' teaching here. Indeed, I especially find myself wondering why the story points out that Jesus loved him before laying out the true demands of following him.

I think it must be because Jesus did not take his assertion that he had 'kept all the commandments since his youth' as arrogance but as eagerness. I expect that he saw a man who really was trying to do the best he could, and who is starting to realize that his best would never be good enough. What he doesn't know yet is that in the end it really wouldn't matter for finally it is not about what we do, but about what God did and does. Oh yes, I think perhaps Jesus felt some measure of pity for him, knowing that he was weighed down not only by 'his many possessions,' but also all those external, perhaps self-imposed expectations of what worthiness looked like. Even if he hadn't experienced it yet, Jesus knew the disappointment and eventual heartbreak which lay ahead of him if he continued on this course. And, yet isn't it difficult to give all that up and to trust another --- to trust God --- with all of it?

Perhaps it is easier for those who have less ---  less stuff, less ego, less self reliance --- to enter the kingdom of God. Perhaps they have come to realize a long time ago that it really doesn't depend on them. Perhaps embracing that realization as true for all of us would give us, would give me, the freedom to truly be about what matters most of all. To keep attempting to be righteous, yes, but to do so in the service of the poor and the suffering --- those in any kind of need. And when we fall short, to depend on God's grace for the strength to get up tomorrow and attempt the same.

  • I am fascinated by the rich man who kneels at the feet of Jesus today. Is it possible that he actually believes he has kept all the commandments all of his life? Is this arrogance or eagerness?  What do you think?
  • Put yourself in this man's place. How would you have responded when Jesus told you to sell all that you own, give the money to the poor, and follow him? Why would you have responded in this way?
  • Why do you think the story makes sure to point out that "Jesus, looking at him, loved him...?" What is it about him that Jesus loves?
  • Where is the grace in this story? Do you hear Jesus' words only as judgment or is there gift in this as well?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

On Bandaged Fingers and Broken Hearts: Jesus' Words on Divorce

If you are a regular reader, you will know that I already posted some reflections on this Gospel reading. However, since I attempt to get something online in a timely way so as to be in conversation with other preachers, often my thoughts crystallize between then and when I actually preach on a particular text. What you see below is closer to what the people of my congregation will hear on Sunday.  Blessings to you in your continued study and in your proclamation!

I’ve been walking around with a large bandage on the ring finger of my right hand for the last week and a half.

Here is what happened. Ten days ago I got home from a few days away at our Synod’s Professional Leaders’ Conference. I was tired and feeling a little pressed by all the work in front of me when I returned. I decided I would go easy with supper and so I drove through Panera and picked up a couple of bowls of soup. I have done this before. And so I know that normally by the time I get it home, my mother usually prefers that hers be reheated. So I popped hers into the microwave for a minute. Sixty seconds.

Evidently I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was certainly in too much of a hurry. For when the timer went off, I opened the door and picked up the bowl with my bare hands. I got halfway to the kitchen counter with it when the heat from the bowl caused my hand to shake and the soup spilled over onto my right hand. And I’ve been sporting a bandage ever since.

It is true, I tried to hide it at first and perhaps it is so that most didn’t notice it. Although I don’t know how that would have been possible for these hands very publicly rested on the heads of nine high school freshmen who were confirmed last Sunday, served a whole lot of people bread at the communion table last week and shook countless hands on that day and every day since. I don’t know how anyone could have missed it. 

And yet, once the initial pain eased, I found I also didn’t have to think about it all that much either as I had it covered most of the time. I was taking the bandage off at night to let it breathe though. On Thursday morning I found myself studying the wound underneath the bandage, examining it to be sure it was healing. Wondering if it will leave a scar. Knowing it probably will. Realizing that this angry red mark on the fourth finger of my right hand is far from God’s intent for me. I mean, God gave me a brain. I know better than to pick up scalding things without something to protect my hands. There were reasons for my thoughtlessness, yes, but I do know better. And now I will carry a reminder of my mistake on my right hand for a very long time --- if not for the rest of my life. It is, if you will, adulterated. My hand was not born this way, not meant to be this way. I bear and probably will always bear the sign of my mistake where everyone can see it.

We all have wounds. Some of those wounds are visible. Some we are able to keep covered up. Some are physical. Others take a toll on our spirits. A lot of wounds leave scars. A whole lot of them.

Now I have to say this is probably my least favorite Gospel to preach on. It always has been --- surely this was so nearly thirty years ago when I was first called upon to step into a pulpit and consider Jesus’ words on divorce. Back then I ached to do so because I knew full well who in our midst would hear these words as judgment. And yet, I don’t like it any better today when I am so deeply aware that nearly all of us in one way or another have experienced the pain of divorce --- what led up to it and what follows --- hitting very close to home. 

Oh yes, all of us have wounds. Some of them are visible. Some we are able to keep covered up. They take a toll on our spirits. A lot of them leave scars. A whole lot of them.

And yet, even though perhaps we’d rather not, we are called upon to take Jesus’ words seriously today. But let me offer a couple of thoughts even as we seek to do so.

First there is this. While we take these words to heart, we must hear them not as judgment first but as simple description. Divorce is never part of God’s intent for us. God would never want our dearest hopes dashed, our spirits so crushed. God never wants the most vulnerable among us to be put at risk. Any time and every time something runs so far afield from God’s intent, it is a form of adultery.  Simply defined it is ‘impure.’ Not as it was meant to be.

And consider this. In his last words on this, Jesus is speaking in general, in a quiet moment away with his disciples. I can’t help but wonder how his words, his tone, his message would have been different if one who had been through such pain had actually been standing before him.

And consider this, too.  Jesus didn’t bring it up first. The Pharisees did. I don’t know what point they were trying to make, how they are attempting to entrap Jesus here, but certainly they are.

And finally this. When Jesus speaks of hardness of heart he is speaking into a time and place when women had no legal standing so they could not file for divorce. And apparently there then, as there are now, those who would divorce their wives and move on to another, leaving them and perhaps their children, too, destitute with nowhere to go, no means of living, no means of protection. Jesus is speaking against a practice which treated other human beings as less than precious and beloved by God.

And another. Men and women may both be guilty of this today. Indeed, perhaps we all are every day whenever we do not cherish those we have been given to love. No, it seems to me the judgment is not really on the actual divorce. But on all of us who fail to love as we ought.

And think of this with me.  It seems to me that as Jesus sees today how historically we have pulled these words out and forced them to stand alone and used them then to wound or ostracize or exclude those among us whose pain is simply more visible? I can’t believe he is pleased. No, indeed, his heart breaks with those whose hearts are broken. Whose wounds are deepened by our actions or in-actions in the face of such suffering. His heart breaks. And so should ours. So should ours.

So, no. I don’t much like it when these words roll around for us once more.

And yet, it is important to hear these words.

  • To be reminded that God cares so very much about those things which matter to us most of all.
  • To be urged once more to be wise and kind and thoughtful about the ways in which we tend those relationships which are so dear to us. To love well those we have been given to love.
  • To remember that wherever we cause each other pain, it is always adultery: never God’s intent for us.

But it is also ours to not forget that we all fail. Some of our wounds are just more visible. Everybody knows. Some we have managed to cover up. All of us yearn for healing. All of us carry scars.

So back to my bandaged finger. Everyone who has seen it or heard how it came to be, has winced in recognition. Yes, a few have shaken their heads at me, but not in cruelty or ridicule. Everyone has been kind. Our parish nurse even went out and bought me a box of extra-large bandages on that first day as we realized this was not going to be pretty. This has been gift to me in that even in something as small as a burned finger, we recognize our common humanity. Human flesh is fragile. So are human spirits. When we are broken, we are called to love each other.  Period.

May this be so in all of our lives.  For in Christ Jesus we are bound to one another in love. We are brought even closer to him and to one another by the power of forgiveness as we recognize our common wounded-ness and seek another way. This forgiveness heals and invites us every single day to be more and more about what God would have us be about with each other and for each other. Whether our wounds are visible or not. All of us. All the time. 
  • How do you understand Jesus' words on divorce? Do you hear them as judgment? As description? As both?
  • It seems to me that historically this teaching has at times been used to further wound those who are already wounded. What is your experience with this?
  • Is it so that in some sense we are all 'guilty' of the adultery Jesus points out today? What is your thinking on this?
  • Is it so that some of our wounds are simply more visible than others? Who are we called to be for those who are wounded?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

On Divorce and All of Us Little Children

Mark 10:2-16

When I was a young pastor this was a particularly challenging Gospel to preach. It still is, of course, but close to thirty years ago one was especially aware of the mere handful in our midst who had been divorced. Now, though, I am hard pressed to think of a family which in one way or another has not been touched by this: if not they themselves, then a child, or a sibling, or a parent. Somehow, though, I have to say that doesn't necessarily make it any easier to speak of this.

And yet, having suggested that it is more common today, I do have to wonder. For, in fact, there was a stretch of several years relatively early in my ministry when every couple I married divorced shortly thereafter. Every. Single. One. I started to wonder what I was missing. Most of them are a blur now, but one I do remember distinctly.

The bride to be was a little older than I was. Her fiance was quite a few years older than her. They had both been previously married. She had young children.

I was not yet thirty years old. When I sat down with them the first time, I remember him veritably sneering at me --- asking what it was I could possibly offer them, given my age and inexperience. I shouldn't have agreed to do the wedding, and yet I did. Within a year, they were divorced. I remember not being especially surprised. I remember wishing I had shown more courage those months before.

And yet, I have also had cause to celebrate with couples who have been married fifty and sixty years and more. I have offered blessings at parties and before the altar. I have witnessed devotion deepen and grow through good times and hard times both. And yes, I have to say I have also seen those who choose not to marry build a devoted partnership together.

At the same time, I have seen those, I have known those, who chose not to divorce and who certainly should have --- for the hardness of heart which Moses addressed so long ago had turned to resentment and cruelty --- sometimes dangerously so. And yes, I have known those who have divorced and who really needed to do just that to have any chance at the fullness of life and love God intends for us all.

And so it is that Jesus speaks of divorce in today's Gospel. His words fall hard on our ears for when we hear them the faces of loved ones or yes, our own hard earned experiences pass before our eyes and pierce our hearts. And yet, we certainly know what lies behind the words of Jesus today, perhaps especially if they hit close to home. I have not yet officiated a marriage celebration which was not marked by great hope. Couples bind their hearts, their habits, their finances, their dreams to one another. If they are so blessed they are joined by children who are reflections of them now and who catapult them into the future. Divorce is no simple breaking of a business contract. No, it is a tearing apart of much more than that. And it is so that while there are exceptions, very often children are the ones who suffer the most. For far too often one parent is more absent in every way than what can possibly be life giving for those who are most vulnerable.

Jesus speaks of divorce in today's Gospel. As he does so, it seems to me he reminds us of the preciousness of each and every one of us. That people are not meant to be used but are to be cared for and treasured as though the one we commit ourselves to were as dear to us as though we were actually physically joined to one another. Oh yes, Jesus is saying that the pain reflected in divorce was not and never will be part of God's intent. And yet, of course, normally that pain began long before attorneys were called and settlements and custody agreements were notarized.

Thirty years ago and more the words of Jesus were heard as judgment on those whose lives were reflected in them. And yes, perhaps, too often, those of us whose pain was not so public, were a little quick to judge. Today we may still hear these words as judgment, yes, but not only on those whose hearts and lives have been so broken. Certainly these words fall on all of us as we seek to support those who enter into such tender and fragile bonds with one another. Perhaps we do not do enough teaching, enough modeling,enough praying, enough upholding of each other. Perhaps. Oh yes, perhaps these words are a call to all of us to hold precious those closest to us. Like the little children we all are --- as Jesus urges us to be like in his welcome a few sentences later.

  • What experience do you have of divorce? How does that shape your hearing of today's Gospel?
  • Why do you think the image of Jesus welcoming children comes right after his teaching about divorce?
  • At first glance, it certainly is easier to hear more judgment than grace in this Gospel. Where do you find the Good News today?