Sunday, July 26, 2015

This Food That Perishes...

John 6:24-35

These days my Friday mornings are pretty much the same.  I start the laundry. I get bread rising. And I clean spoiled food out of the refrigerator. Because food --- or at least most any food you would want to eat --- perishes.

But, of course, it is not only the food we eat Jesus speaks of today. He is speaking of all those things we come to rely on --- no, more than that --- those things for which we tend to spend our life's energy striving.

Indeed, it came to mind again today, a drive I took with a friend many years ago. She was fighting a rare and virulent cancer then: one which would take her life within mere months. We were mostly quiet as we traveled that morning when suddenly she broke our shared silence and she said, "I only wish..." and she paused to catch her breath. I found myself holding my own breath as I waited for what she would say next. "I only wish I hadn't worried so much about money." And yes, I remember well the day her four children emptied out her house and divided up her precious things, particularly the growing pile which would make its way to the city dump. I remember cringing just a bit as I walked through her kitchen to see all this play out.

Oh yes, I have found myself thinking a lot about this food that perishes in these last couple of weeks for the congregation I serve has undertaken the work of replacing our old stained glass window covers. The old ones were installed probably forty years ago. They did their job well in terms of protecting these precious, beautiful windows. In that length of time, however, as they aged, they also yellowed. And so in these last years their beauty has been masked on the outside and on the inside, too, because the light which still came through was dimmed.

Some generous gifts, large and small, has made this work possible. Even so, $58,000 is a lot of money. So yes, I shake my head to think of it, knowing that amount of money could feed a whole lot of hungry people for a very long time. (And while that, too, would certainly be 'food that perishes,' still it could save lives.) These new covers, though, should last long beyond the lifetimes of many of us who gather in this place today. In fact, we are told they are guaranteed to be able to withstand bullets, although it's a little hard to imagine who would want to shoot a bullet through our windows. And yet, of course, one never knows. But even at that? These will one day need to be replaced as well.

As I said, I shake my head a bit at the cost, but even with that, I do find myself taking the long way around the building just to watch the progress and to admire the beauty of those windows which are completed. And at least once a day I climb the stairs with someone up into our worship space to marvel at the light and color which now shines through. Is this also 'food that perishes?' Of course it is. And yet, I am aware that healthy congregations are also good stewards of what has been given them to tend. And when it comes to stained glass windows, one could certainly make a case that as they were once a means for catechesis for those new to the faith, they may still be attractive to those seeking a church home. And that surely promises to be 'life-saving' as well.

So how are we to think now about the 'food that endures for eternal life' as opposed to that which 'perishes?' For, in fact, we can't live NOW without this food which takes up most of our resources as we pursue it, can we?

And yet, I don't want to get to the end of my life and carry the wrenching regret that my friend did when she realized that her energy had been wasted on things that did not matter. And I don't want to get to the end of our shared ministry, wherever it is I may be called to serve, and realize that we worried more about surface beauty --- about the building --- than about those who are brought to faith in it and through it.

I don't know this for sure,of course, but perhaps as you and I seek to follow in the way of Jesus, part of our discipleship path must mean, at the very least, asking ourselves hard and important questions earlier rather than later. I mean, again, I don't know how it is that we live without the 'food that perishes.' Jesus knew that, too, of course  --- just look back to him feeding the crowd of 5,000 last Sunday. Even so, I also know that if that is all there is for us? We are already perishing in terms of what matters most of all.

  • What do you think Jesus is getting at when he contrasts the food that perishes with that which endures for eternal life? What examples would you give of each? What experiences would you bring to this important conversation?
  • How are you and I called to 'balance' our need for the 'food that perishes' with our greater need for that which 'endures for eternal life?' What does this look like for you in the day to day of your life? In the life of your congregation?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Jesus and the Feeding of the 5,000 and a Man Named Karl

John 6:1-21

To tell you the truth, I completely understand Philip's response in this week's story of the feeding of the crowd of 5000. It is a mountain of hunger standing before him, after all. And it's not as though any one of Jesus' close followers had with them the resources to begin to touch that unending need.

Oh yes, I understand him, even though I've never stood before a crowd of 5,000 hungry people. In fact, all it takes is one to send me down a path where hope seems scarce. At least this is what I experienced last week.

I was at the church. Our executive committee would be meeting in the late afternoon. The plan was that when we were finished with our business we should have time to grab a bite to eat before returning for evening ministry team meetings.

Now normally our outside doors are locked at 4 p.m. when our administrative assistant leaves for the day. We decided to leave them open that Tuesday afternoon since our leaders would need to be getting in. It was almost 4:30. I was in my office gathering up files and papers when I glanced up to see a stranger talking to our council president. Instinct borne of experience told me that he was probably looking for the pastor, so I made my way out to where they were standing.

It took but a glance to take in the situation. Our guest's jeans were in tatters. He had new stitches across his forehead. There were dark smudges under his eyes. He smelled of alcohol. I took a deep breath, introduced myself, and asked how I could help him. He told me he needed to talk --- that his life was a wreck.

Now I had four people waiting to meet with me in the next room. Yes, they would have waited, but I had no idea how long this would take. So I asked if he could come back at around 6 as I figured I would have a window of time then. He told me he would. When I stepped into our meeting, I told the group that I would be grateful if someone else would remain in the building should he return. No, I wasn't really afraid, but one never knows.

At about 6:15, he pulled up on his bike. We made our way back to my office. When I asked for his name, he told me it was Karl. He told me he had stopped at the Methodist church first, for that was where he had been baptized. He offered this with tears in his eyes. Only late in the afternoon as it was, their doors were locked. He had made his way across to our Catholic neighbors, but could find no entrance there either. Our doors just happened to be open. From there he launched into a tale of horror and woe for which I could see no happy ending.

Now one's first thought might be that Karl was looking for a handout. He was not. He only wanted to talk. Specifically, he was begging me as someone representing God to tell him where his life was headed.

Since he admitted to a drinking problem, I asked about support from AA --- whether he had a sponsor. It was clear that meetings hadn't been part of his regular routine of late. I asked him about family, and that didn't offer much either. I'm not sure I offered much else in terms of wisdom, although I spoke to him of the tenacious promise of God's love for him. Honestly, from there I was at a loss and so I have to say I was especially grateful that a while back someone had handed me a pile of gift cards to McDonald’s for times such as this. And so finally I asked him if he had eaten that day. He said he had not. And I gave him $20 of those cards and told him to go get himself something to eat. And again, he started to cry. He thanked me and as he went on his way, I told him the door was open should he want to stop back. I haven't seen him since.

Now it would appear that not much changed for Karl last Tuesday. He still would have court dates in front of him. His wife would still have left him, his siblings disowned him, his driver’s license revoked. He would not wake up to a job to go to on Wednesday morning. Not much would have changed. Except maybe some small part of his hunger was satisfied --- and I hope not just physical hunger, but the hunger we all experience to be treated with dignity and kindness. 

And yet, even though I had the means to physically feed him, I find I still feel an awful lot like Philip pointing out the obvious truth to Jesus that it takes a whole lot to make a difference to such a mountain of need. Situations like these always leave me feeling a little hopeless. As though nothing I can offer will ever be enough and that even what I have to give won't start to satiate the profound needs of people in this world. Not even when they show up one at a time. Oh, yes, I know something of the despair which fed Philip's response in the story before us now.

And so I look again to Jesus. And I realize that he looked beyond Philip's entirely reasonable response. I remember that all Jesus saw was a hungry crowd and that in the face of such need even reasonable despair is simply not an option. It just isn't. And when he was told that there was a boy there with a lunch of bread and fish, he took that and began to share it. And the rest? Well, we know the rest. No one went away hungry that day.

It surely would have made more sense to tell those people they were on their own for their next meal, just as perhaps it would have made more sense to lock my door against Karl or the likes of him with his profound, unending need. Indeed, just like with Karl, this crowd of 5,000 would be hungry again before they knew it. A miraculous meal on a hillside wouldn't change that. And that only spoke to their physical hunger. One can only imagine the other needs which were multiplied by 5,000 and more that day.

And yet there is this:
  • We are not told, are we, what became of those 5,000 who feasted on a boy's lunch that day so long ago?
  • We don't know how many of them left that day with a greater sense of possibility and hope than they had ever had before.
  • We don't know if in the next meals they shared, whether they experienced a deepened sense of wonder at what can happen in such ordinary moments. And we don't know whether as they learned to watch for it, they were able to continue to experience the work of God in remarkable ways.
We don't know, for the story doesn't tell us. We  DO know, however, that this story is told in one form or another in all four Gospels, so it must have been life changing for many. And so we DO know that this truth that Jesus met people where they were and gave them what they needed in that moment is central to our understanding of who Jesus was and is and therefore, is also central to who you and I are called to be as we seek to follow him.

No, it doesn't seem like much:
  • Five barley loaves and a couple of fish,
  • A handful of gift cards to McDonald's,
  • Fifteen minutes of listening deeply to a stranger in need.
It doesn't seem like much, but in the end, it may be everything. We may never know. But the fact that you and I often don't know what comes next, doesn't mean it didn't make a difference. And just that possibility can turn despair into hope again.
  • Who do you relate to in this story? Philip? Andrew? The boy? Someone in the crowd? How does where you enter the story impact your understanding of the meaning of Jesus feeding the 5,000?
  • Have you ever felt Philip's despair? What did you do then? How was that despair turned around, or was it?
  • Why do you think this story is told in all four Gospels? Beyond what I offered above, what do we hear about Jesus in this particular miracle story? Does what we hear about Jesus inform who and how and what you and I are to be as well? Why or why not?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Jesus: Our Peace

Ephesians 2:11-22

I certainly can't remember a time when differences didn't divide. In fact, this truth has come to mind in a particular way this past week-end as I have watched my beloved Chicago Cubs fall once more to the Chicago White Sox. Fans from both teams may look alike, may work or worship or live side by side, but bring up the North Siders versus the South Siders and all commonalities seem to go out the window!

Indeed, when I was in college there was a virulent rivalry between Wartburg College and Luther College. These two colleges of the church are located but 70 miles apart in Northeast Iowa. One was founded by German and the other by Norwegian immigrants. Tales had been passed down for generations about the 'terrible things' which had been done by these rivals --- whether it was temporarily absconding with the other's mascot or burning a giant emblem on the other's football field. Then I went to seminary and discovered a classmate and good friend was a Luther grad. And suddenly, all my stereotypes were destroyed.

These are small, relatively meaningless examples, I know, of 'dividing walls.' Sports team and school rivalries don't typically result in real lasting damage (although there are exceptions to this, of course.)
Not so with those dividing walls which are especially high these days for we do, in fact, seem to be divided by so very many things which matter. Oh yes, it is so that the issues being addressed in the powerful words before us now were written for a particular circumstance --- specifically, how Gentile Christians would or should be welcomed. Even so, one does not have to think too hard to come up with the many painful things which divide us today, many of which have profound bearing on who we are as Church.

For instance:
  • We categorize ourselves and one another 
    •  by race,
    •  by gender,
    •  by sexual orientation, 
    •  by class,
    •  by citizenship status. 
  • We are deeply aware of our differences in 
    • political party
    • and theological position
    • and church denomination. 
  • And the wall seems to grow only higher as too much of the time, many of us listen only to those who already agree with us, afraid of being tainted or convinced or proven wrong, perhaps. As a result, we do not allow our positions and therefore our hopes and dreams --- indeed, our very lives, to be refined by the fires of simple conversation back and forth.
Oh yes, there is so very much that divides us that we sometimes even find ourselves hesitant to bring up the controversial, fearful that our false sense of peace will be disrupted.

And so here is where my memory has been returning in these days. I am recalling a time when difference threatened to divide, and in the end, did not.

It was twenty five years ago, but it could have been yesterday I remember it so well.

It was in that time between Thanksgiving and Christmas when plans were being firmed up for the next family gathering. My sister had come out to us just a few months before. Now in those days, at least in my family, we hardly had language for this and we were still discerning what to make of it. As I recall, I was standing with my dad in the living room of our childhood home. We had just received word that another part of the family was threatening not to come for Christmas if she was there.

Now I seldom saw my dad angry, but his eyes were flashing then as he insisted,
"No one tells one of my children she can't come home."
It still brings tears to my eyes to remember it. He who truly hardly knew how to begin to understand this and honestly was more than a little uncomfortable talking about it, sided with love and with welcome, even if it cost. I have never been prouder that he was my dad. And yes, let me say, my mother was in those words as well. He just happened to be the one speaking them that night.

There is so very much that divides us in these days. And along with many of you, I find myself at a loss as to how to begin to take bricks out of the wall which stands between us. But as I think of my dad and his instinctive response to what threatened to tear us apart, I find I am still learning. For him, love and welcome came first. These values were deeply ingrained in him and this wasn't going to change that. Indeed, I imagine that this threat to unity helped him to sort out what mattered most.

So then. How are we called to talk about this and so many other matters which threaten to divide? How might we rely on the certain truth that "Jesus is our peace" and the promise that what divides us has already been broken down in him? Is it possible that it is not my job, not your job, to remove the bricks from the wall because Jesus has already done so? Is it so that all we have to do is walk through the opening which Jesus has already created for us? Certainly, that is what these words to the  Ephesians seem to say.

And so I wonder:
  • Is it enough to remember that Jesus died for all? For those like me as well as those so profoundly unlike me that it's hard to know where to start to delineate the differences?
  • How does the certainty that Jesus' first response was never judgment, but welcome --- especially for those on the margins, for those outcast by the rest, inform us now?
  • What difference does it make if our defining values are love and welcome?
  • And is it enough to know that both the goal and the method God's people is given is always peace?

Oh, I know that the content of that peace is now and perhaps always will be debated. Even so, if some are excluded from the conversation, if some are not welcomed home, if those who we perceive to be on the other side of the 'dividing wall' are not brought near, then I don't know how we can even begin to sort out what this peace will be. And when I say 'welcomed home,' I mean in a safe way, where one's whole being is treated with integrity and kindness.

As for me, it has been twenty five years now. In that time my world view has changed a lot. I have heard stories, listened deeply to the experiences, and come to love profoundly those whose life experiences are significantly different from my own. Some of these are the dearest, most courageous, kindest people I know. I can't believe the welcome of Jesus is any less for 'them' than it is for me. But finally, not because of who they are, but because of who Jesus is. Even so, this came to me because someone I loved had the courage to say who she was. I will always be grateful.

And you know that Christmas so long ago? Everyone came. Even those who threatened they would not. For they, too were welcome.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

A Meal to Remember

Mark 6:14-29

Is there anyone out there who finds this week's Gospel reading in any way life-giving?

Truth be told, this week I thought hard about honing in on the prophet's words about plumb lines and Amos's call in Amos (Amos 7:7-15) or about our inheritance as God's adopted children in Ephesians (Ephesians 1:3-14) instead. And yet, I don't know how to stand up and read these words from Mark's Gospel to those who will gather and then simply not speak of it as though these gruesome images were, in fact, not floating about in the imaginations of God's people.

And yet, there seems to be no good news in it.
  • We have before us a corrupt and apparently further corruptible leader in Herod.
  • We have John, the fore-runner of Jesus who was prone to speaking unpopular truths.
  • We have the collision of the two when John points out Herod's very public moral failing in marrying his brother's wife.
  • We have Herodias, who evidently feels threatened by John's words. Indeed, this must have been more than simple annoyance. She must have thought her husband, who evidently liked listening to John, might just heed John's warning. And then where would she be?
  • And we have Herodias's daughter. At first it appears she is but a pawn in this whole scenario --- used for the pleasure of the men gathered for Herod's birthday party -- until she asks her mother what it is she should request and then escalates that request from a 'simple beheading' to asking for John's head on a platter, no less. As though what was left of John should be received as but a final course in the meal shared at Herod's party.
Oh, one can be certain that all those attending never forgot this meal. And again, I say, there appears to be no good news in this.

Except maybe for this.
We are told that John's followers did not abandon him in death. It is interesting to note that at this critical point, they behaved with more courage than did the close followers of Jesus. At least they came and collected his body to bury him.
And this.
We hear that John's message lived after him. Herod never forgot him, for one. When he heard about all the good that Jesus was doing, he thought of John particularly in his wondering was whether John was somehow alive again. Evidently, Herod somehow believed that such as this could not really be killed.
And yet, both of these seem to be a stretch. Indeed, even while I struggle to find anything life-giving in this week's Gospel, I can't even take comfort in the illusion that that was then and this is now. Oh how I wish I could believe that such as this is today a rarity. That these things no longer happen. That good people are not martyred in order to save the faces of those in power or for equally less compelling or admirable reasons. Indeed, I'm sad to say that too many days when I observe the world around me I still see this happening. And not just on the public stage. Also, yes, in my own doing or not doing and in those I associate with every day.

So as I look for good news to share this week, I find myself turning to other memorable meals:

Like the one we hear about just after this in Mark's Gospel. (Mark 6:30-44) You remember --- the one where a boy shares his lunch and suddenly the hunger of a multitude is satisfied. Where all are welcome and there are no hidden agendas: only generosity and kindness. And where in the sharing there is more left over than what they started with. Can it possibly be an accident that the story of this remarkable meal is told right after the recounting of the meal shared by Herod on the occasion of his birthday? Don't you suppose Mark is wanting us to recognize the way the two so profoundly differ?

Or better yet, the one we share again this week-end as we do every time we gather. Where bread is broken and wine is poured. Where flesh and blood is mysteriously consumed once more because of Jesus' willing sacrifice in our behalf. This meal first offered to Jesus' close followers in the hours before they would abandon him and leave a near stranger to request his body and see to his burial --- oh yes, this memorable meal where no one has to worry about saving face because it is the source and seal of our forgiveness. This meal where all are welcome and no one is exploited and we get up from the table renewed for life in the world.

Indeed, the sort of meal Herod hosted is still far too common in the world we share. In places of power, yes, and sometimes at our own dinner tables. Wherever and whenever the innocent are sacrificed in order to save ourselves. As Judas did. And Peter in his own way. And all the rest as they fled for cover. To be sure,  perhaps most of the time for you and me the result is not as gruesome as what we hear about at Herod's party, but in some ways it is no less deadly.

And yet, we have this meal. Offered, again, the first time right before the disciples and you and I would need it most of all. The promise holds. Forgiveness and life have been promised to us no matter what. In a meal to remember.

  • So now. What would it take for more and more of our meals to look like the meal we share every time we gather and less like the one Herod hosted? 
  • What would it look like if our doors were opened and all were made to feel welcome and safe? At the lunch table at school or at work? At our dinner tables in our homes? At whatever place we pause to share a meal  next?
  • What would it mean for all of us if we never again had to wake up with the aftertaste of regret as Herod surely did and perhaps his guests did, too? 
  • Indeed, how can a bit of bread and a taste of wine enable us to create more tables of welcome? How might you and I be host and guest at the sorts of "meals to remember" which Jesus hosted?