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?