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?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Meat (and Potatoes)

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

The story painted in Numbers this week is a vivid one. Indeed, it hits awfully close to home for anyone, anywhere who has ever tried to lead. I find myself especially struck today by Moses' cry to God, for by now the burden of leadership has become profound --- so heavy, in fact, that not only does he beg God to take it away --- but that death itself would be preferable. I am not especially proud to say that I know something of what Moses felt then.

Over the past year I have enjoyed spending some leisure time doing research into a particular time and place: The Soldiers' Widows' Home which once stood on the banks of the Kankakee  River in Wilmington, Illinois. It was founded in 1895 to address the needs of impoverished and/or abandoned widows and daughters of Civil War veterans. Prior to this, at least in Illinois, there existed another home for veterans and their wives. However, once their husbands died, their widows were left with nowhere to go. And so it was that Flo Jamison Miller, though not the first superintendent of the home at Wilmington, apparently was the one who carried the vision forward and brought this institution into being.

Now, of course, it is impossible to get into the 19th century mind, but I have been especially curious about her motivation. What I know is this. Flo's father was a Civil War veteran --- when mustered out in 1865 he had attained the rank of Colonel. She was a small child during the war and so one can safely presume that her father was absent during that formative time in her life. Also, her father died when he was still relatively young. Flo was nineteen years old. From what I can tell, her mother was in her care until her death twenty-six years later. In addition, Flo was considered one of the foremost patriotic speakers of her gender in that time. She was among those who advocated that patriotism be taught in the schools. (Perhaps this seems a bit odd today, but evidently at the end of the Civil War, there was not a common sense of country. We were, at least in the Midwest, still a nation of immigrants.) No doubt the fact that she put her life's energy towards first the formation of and later actually running the Soldiers' Widows Home in Wilmington was rooted in all of this and more.

Once the initial dream was accomplished, however, if you read her semi-annual reports, you can certainly detect her frustration. For it seems that she had envisioned a place of culture where these women would be offered some of what had been so meaningful to her in life. Instead, she was left to see to the needs of more than 80 elderly women whose bodies and spirits were worn down by the demands of difficult and mostly impoverished lives and who had now been left alone, many just abandoned, by surviving children. And all of this in a time when they did not have the means or understanding which would be at our disposal now to address everything from arthritis to dementia.

It was hard going. And it was surely not made easier by the residents of the home. For so it was that in the year 1905 Flo Jamison Miller, superintendent of the Soldiers' Widows' Home at Wilmington, was investigated by the Board of Public Charities of the State of Illinois. The charges brought forward included mistreatment by the superintendent. Among other things they said she was not giving them enough to eat, particularly potatoes. (Decatur Evening Herald, July 5,1906, p. 3) She was later acquitted.

But oh, can't you just hear the echo of the 'rabble' quoted in today's account in Numbers?
"If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at!" (Numbers 11:4-6)
One can certainly understand Moses' despair --- which was probably shared by  Flo Jamison Miller and any leader before or since who simply did what they thought they were supposed to do and were left to deal with the complaining of an ungrateful community. She and all of us who have found ourselves there can certainly resonate with Moses' cry:
"I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are gong to treat me, put me to death at once --- if I have found favor in your sight --- and do not let me see my misery." (Numbers 11:14-15)
Clearly, Moses had had it.

And yes, this is where this story in Numbers always hooks me. For more than once at various times in my ministry when a seemingly petty complaint has been brought to my attention, I have been known to grumble, even if only to myself, "Don't they know we have people dying here?!?" And often we do, of course, for the nature of ministry, in part, is to walk with and tend the needs of the suffering, the dying, the grieving.

And yet, at least at this point, I am fascinated that the Lord does not only join Moses' lament. While a few verses later, those complaining people get their 'due,' (Numbers 11: 31-34) even so, the Lord sees Moses' despair as a cry for help. And he gives him what he needs --- namely other people who could stand alongside him, speaking a prophetic word to the people. For surely we can take from this that we are not meant to do this alone. In fact, as we read today's account in Numbers we are reminded that sometimes the Lord gifts unexpected people in unexpected places to 'prophesy.'

So, no, the complaining is not good. And yes, it never fails to surprise me that when we are in a hard place we often find ourselves wishing for what once was --- even when as in the case of the people of Israel or the residents of Soldiers' Widows Home at Wilmington, our present circumstance has given us life itself. The complaining is not good. But neither is our tendency as leaders to try to do it alone --- allowing ourselves to sink into the kind of despair Moses experienced.

Like I said, I understand Moses. And yes, I do understand the complaining 'rabble.' I find myself wondering now what it would look like to be grateful -- 'meat or potatoes' or not. And I find myself wondering where God's spirit will rest next: who God will raise up to do the work with me, with us, so that we might more faithfully do the work we are all called to do. And I can't help but wonder how this story might have ended differently if Moses had only recognized his need for such help sooner.

  • Have you ever found yourself where Moses finds himself today as he takes in the complaints of the people? Do you recognize yourself in those lifting their voices in complaint? Or do you see yourself in both?
  • Look around. On whom is the spirit resting today?  Any surprises?
  • Why do you think the Lord addresses Moses' despair in this way first before dealing with the complaining crowd? What are we to take from this?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Whoever Wants to Be First..."

Mark 9:30-37

I offer my thoughts today in gentleness to colleagues who climb into the pulpit or rush to the hospital or who are struggling especially at this time of year to keep up with the demands of getting a new program year off the ground. I write this in gentleness and humility, knowing that the words of Jesus now may just hit awfully close to home for those of us who want to do so well, but often believe we find ourselves falling short. Who find ourselves on the losing end of the disciples' argument about 'who is the greatest.' Or who, from time to time, are tempted to claim that we've got it all together and our gifts are perhaps even a little stronger than those of a neighbor, a colleague, a would-be-friend down the road. I offer this in gentleness knowing I so need your gentleness in turn. I don't know how my thoughts will preach this week. But I do know this bears our considering.

For on the one hand, we hope and pray that the argument the disciples battled out about 'who was the greatest' actually ended with Jesus' gentle reprimand. And yet, we know it goes on. Even if it is never spoken aloud. Even if it is not an actual argument, but is simply an internal comparison we make in our own minds and hearts.

Now here I have to say I can only speak for myself. At the same time, I can't help but believe I am alone in this. For unless I am truly alone, I expect that we find ourselves doing this far more often than we would like. For instance,
We turn to the back page of a neighboring congregation's newsletter and we scan their attendance and giving numbers. And we find ourselves either gratified that we are not there or envious that they are and we are not.
Or in the 'safety' of a group of colleagues, we speak the truth about a particular struggle in our own congregation and we are met not with empathy but with advice --- as if the other's wisdom is so much greater than our own and if I/we were just smarter, more talented, more organized... more SOMETHING ... I wouldn't find myself here. Or, more likely, we never speak the truth at all, fearful that is just what we will receive. And we struggle on alone.
Or we look at the trajectory of our own 'career path' and we think to ourselves that we should be serving in a bigger place by now --- with more people --- either in the congregation or the community. Or with a larger staff. Or a newer building. Or among a people who possession a greater sense of mission. Or whatever...

Again, perhaps this is not so for all of us --- but for many of us, while we don't have the argument in quite the way we believe the disciples must have had it so long ago, still the argument rages on. It surely does.

Indeed, early in my ministry I had a colleague who literally hated to talk to his dad on a Sunday afternoon. His dad was also a pastor and his first question was always, "Well, son, what was the attendance today?" At that point in time his son was serving a congregation with a huge heart --- but which only boasted about forty in the pews. And so every time the conversation played out, the son felt small.  As though he was, once again, on the losing end of the argument.

That was almost thirty years ago. Or two thousand years ago. Or just yesterday. And yet, we haven't learned. And I worry, I do, that if we don't change now, we stand to lose it all. For Jesus says,
"Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
It was true then. It seems it must be all the more true today. For it is simply too hard out there, in here, to do otherwise. If anything, we need one another more than ever.

Oh yes, I remember well the day I admitted to a friend that I envied her gifts, her place of ministry, her effectiveness at what she did so well. And she turned on me in anger. For the argument the disciples had and the one that still goes on separates us from one another. It puts us on opposite sides instead of on the same side working together. Where we belong.

And so I wonder now how much different would we look as the people of God --- all of us --- if we were only doing what Jesus says we must do now? How would our lives be richer, fuller, and most of all more faithful if we saw one another as dear ones to be served and not as rivals to be beaten?

Like I said, maybe it's just me. But I think not. And I wonder what this means for our future and our future together. I wonder what it means for our collective witness to the world. And I cringe.

And so today I am especially grateful for colleagues.
For the one who was quick to call me back one morning this week as I was struggling through a ministry quagmire. Who didn't judge. Who offered sage and gentle advice. And before she hung up made me promise I would sit a minute in the sanctuary and breathe before I did anything else. I did just that.
And another who called me up just to commiserate and grieve together at the death of a mutual friend. This is one of the busiest weeks of the year for many of us, but he took the time for a ten minute phone call.
And yet another who is working shoulder to shoulder, side by side, with me to shape a confirmation program which our congregations will now share.
We need so much more of this if we are to be those Jesus calls us to be. And the wonder and the irony is that we are all already 'first in the eyes and heart of God.'  If only we were to live like we were 'last' with one another? I expect we might find ourselves to be 'first' in profound ways which are, as yet, unimaginable to us.

  • The competition the disciples voice reflect the 'way of the world,' both then and now. While I think Jesus' teaching now hits close to home for those of us in 'professional ministry' --- surely it must speak in other contexts as well. For those of you who don't get paid to serve the church, how do you hear these words? Where and how do they speak?
  • Who is 'last' in your place? Where you work, in your neighborhood, at your child's school, at your church? What would it mean to 'serve' them? How would that be a reflection of your faith? How might it make a difference?
  • Church workers: how do these words speak to you? Do I come close in describing your experience? Why or why not?
  • What would it look like for us to truly 'serve' each other? How might that change everything? How might that shape our collective witness to the world?

Sunday, September 6, 2015

"Who Do You Say That I Am? ... Bearing the Cross as Jesus Did"

Mark 8:27-38

As of this writing, I'm not exactly sure where my preaching will take me next week-end. As a result, I am simply offering several starting places. Maybe one of these will work for you as well.

It's September and the Chicago Cubs are still in the race. OK, it's just the wild card race, but still... I've been rooting for this team for as long as I can remember, and these days I find myself starting to hope again.
Now if you share my loyalty to this perennially losing team, you will know that one utters these words with trepidation. Indeed, it is hard to shake my life long experience of disappointment after disappointment, yes, heartbreak after heartbreak.
Indeed, in spite of the fact that they've had a remarkably good year, a high school classmate posted this in late July after the Cubs were no-hit by Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies. He wrote,
"If it's a no-hitter against the Cubs, is it still a no hitter?"
As though since it's the Cubs, it really shouldn't count.
I laughed out loud.
And yet, when I went back and looked, it turns out that in spite of their record of fewer World Series appearances than any other team in baseball, they haven't been no-hit since 1965.  1965!
Isn't it funny how reputations get made and they stick, even though they may or may not have grounding in current reality. It is interesting how we find ourselves shaped in one way and then truth turns us around.
So must it have been for Peter in his encounter with Jesus today. Oh, he certainly knew and believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the chosen one, the anointed one. At least he says as much today. Only clearly he has no idea of what that really means beyond what he has always assumed. To his mind, to his experience, 'winning' does not look like suffering and dying and he certainly says as much. For that matter, he is not really behaving like it is so. I mean, if he really believes Jesus is the Messiah, he should show more respect than to take Jesus aside and rebuke him. In fact, it is almost as though Peter is usurping Jesus' role as the leader here. It is no wonder that Jesus responds as he does.
  • What examples of "winning and losing, saving and losing" come to your mind as you consider the paradox in today's Gospel? How do you reconcile Jesus' sacrifice with what the world considers victory?
Or this:
This past week we had to reschedule our weekly staff meeting, for we wound up with a funeral on Tuesday morning.
Now we have our share of older folks, so funerals are more commonplace than we like. This one was especially tough, though, for Keith has been a member of this congregation for nearly all of his life and he had been active right up until very recently. Among other things, he served on our property committee and up until a couple of months ago, if you got to work early enough in the morning you were as likely as not to find him in the building, having addressed some sort of puzzle old buildings like to pose.
The last few months, though, had been terribly hard on him and those who loved him as test after test came back negative. A few days before he died, his varied symptoms were finally explained for they found cancer cells in his spinal fluid.
As our staff sat together, we grieved, trying to make sense of it. And our custodian said, "It's true, isn't it, that often you can connect the dots when you look back --- it's a whole lot harder looking forward."
Only in today's Gospel lesson, Jesus is doing just that. He is connecting the dots for Peter and for the rest of his disciples and for all of us --- trying to help us make sense of what makes no sense at all. Trying to help us understand what is then before him and for all of us who seek to follow him.
For like Peter, you and I have grown up in a world which teaches us that winning looks a certain way and losing looks another way. And even though we know this narrative by heart, if you allow yourself to really think about it, it is hard to imagine that the way Jesus describes could possibly have God's hand in it bringing good out of evil, life out of death. It certainly helps that we are offered a template to help us understand today.
  • How is it helpful to you that Jesus offers meaning to our suffering --- particularly suffering in behalf of others --- even before we have experienced it?  

And this:

Our local hospital is changing names. Like so many other hospitals in smaller towns and cities, we will be merging with a large regional medical center. Oh, it's certainly not the first time hospitals have closed or merged in this area, but it's been long enough that many of us have only known this one. Will we still be able to call it "Kish" once it becomes part of the Northwestern System?  And certainly, more important than that, will the care offered this community change --- will it be better? Will it be worse? And through it all, will we lose the feel of knowing everyone as we make our ways down the hallway? Will it still feel like home?
My bank is changing names as well. Oh, the merger happened years ago, but I looked on the other day as men changed out the sign from Castle Bank to First National Bank (of Omaha). And I wonder. Will the Castle Challenge  -- sponsored by the bank  --- (the annual football face off between the adjoining towns of Sycamore and DeKalb) still be the Castle Challenge? More important than that, of course, will this bank which looks the same but has a whole new name still meet my needs? Will my banker be there to still call me by name when I make my way through the door?
I offer these musings because this week's Gospel has me thinking about identity --- both that of Jesus and you and me who follow him. And just as with our local hospital, just as with my hometown bank, in spite of my initial discomfort, the name really doesn't matter as much as what stands behind the name.  In today's Gospel Jesus completely redefines what it is to be Messiah by what he does. And in our world today, as we follow him, we have the chance, day after day to do the same.
And so I wonder:
  • When people look at me and think "Christian" do they think judgment or grace? Hope or despair? Indifference or kindness? Or do they even think "Christian" at all?
And just one more:
The news is flooded these days with stories of the refugee crisis in Europe. The suffering experienced by these desperate migrants is beyond the imagination and certainly the experience of most of us. It is said that with millions displaced this is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

  • Could it be that with these as well as those in our own neighborhood, picking up our crosses and following after Jesus is to look such suffering in the face and to respond?

  • Indeed, might it be ours to just act in a world where answers are indeed, costly and not at all simple? I can't help but wonder who history --- and for that matter, the world today --- will say that we are as we seek to follow Jesus, bearing the very face of Christ.

God bless you in your hearing and responding to the call of Jesus to pick up your cross and go after him, whatever that may mean.

May the world be blessed through you.