Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Lord Sent Them On Ahead in Pairs

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

"After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go." (Luke 10:1)

I can think of no other time when I have been more grateful to have partners in mission and ministry than I am today.

This is how it is where I live and serve. Unlike in many other contexts, we do not have what one would call a strong ministerium. Ecumenical relationships are few and where they do exist they are tentative. And yet, over the last couple of years, forces larger than us appear to be working to bring us together in new ways. This is how it has been:

In the wake of  Ferguson, Missouri, it seemed especially important for us to be talking about race, and yet, I serve an essentially all white congregation. So at a volunteer chaplains' lunch at our local hospital, I spoke with Joe Mitchell, pastor of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church --- a congregation which is primarily African American about our struggle to hold this conversation. He invited our participation in the newly started Beloved Community Dinners. The primary purpose of these monthly gatherings is to promote conversation across our racial differences.

Several months later the nation stood in shock when a young man opened fire in a church during their Wednesday night Bible Study in Charleston, killing nine. The young man happened to be a confirmed member of the denomination I call home. I called Joe Mitchell again. We agreed we needed to worship and pray together and so we did, inviting our communities to join us.

In the wake of the Orlando Pulse Night Club massacre two weeks ago, Joe called me. Again he suggested the need for worship and prayer.

Over the last several months other colleagues have been working to try to gather area clergy for a monthly breakfast with decidedly mixed results. Usually no more than three or four of us sit down together. All I have been able to determine is that we are all just too busy and perhaps it is so that gatherings such as these can seem like a waste of time. Even so, by now I had an email list and so after talking with Pastor Mitchell, on Tuesday afternoon I sent out an urgent email to everyone on the list, suggesting a breakfast gathering the next morning. Six of us showed up and over scrambled eggs and coffee we agreed that we would put together a response which would include interfaith worship. You can read our letter to the editor here.

By Monday of this week, the group had more than doubled in size and it continues to grow. Next Wednesday night we will gather together for prayer and song and reflection and candle lighting.

And so I have found myself thinking about partners in mission and ministry in a very concrete way over these last couple of weeks. Here is what I have observed so far:
  • When the need is urgent, and it surely is, people respond. Even if we are too busy.
  • When we can discern a common mission --- even across our many differences --- people respond to the call to come together.
I have also found this to be true:
  • This is hard work. We don't all speak a common language --- not even those of us who call ourselves Christian --- even though for the most part we come from decidedly mainline churches. Perhaps because we do not know each other well and because the stakes are so high, we find ourselves needing to work hard to listen well enough that we understand each other..
And yet, that is the whole point, isn't it? Isn't it precisely the opposite of the willingness to do this hard work which has us stumbling around in shock after yet another crazed gunman picked up his too easily obtained gun and ammunition and forever altered the lives of not only the 49 killed, but countless, countless others? Oh yes, it is hard work to try to understand one another and to find our common voice and it is surely something we should have been about a long time ago. And yet, we are finding it is not impossible.

There is so very much before us in today's Gospel lesson from Luke, but given my recent experience of 'partners in mission,' I am settling in with Jesus having sent the disciples out in pairs. Without a doubt, this partnering was done for their own protection and for companionship. And yet, in these last days I am starting to wonder about how those partners were not only gift but were also challenge to one another. Indeed, without a doubt, it was their mutual need and their common mission which held them together.  Even so, I imagine along the way there were animated conversations shared:
  • About which house seemed most likely to provide for their needs and which one or ones they ought to just bypass; 
  • About who was going to heal the sick this time and who would offer simple words of peace; 
  • About when and where it was appropriate to wipe the feet off in protest.
For aren't we always both strength and check to one another? How very much we need each other as we seek to meet this world God loves with God's peace and promise that the kingdom is, in fact, near!

I, for one, have never known the truth of this more than I do today as by now more than a dozen of us from varied faith traditions have covenanted to not only worship and pray and remember together, but also to bear a common witness to the world about  the intrinsic worth of all people. I am filled with anticipation as I consider these growing partnerships and what these dear people are teaching me about myself, about the world, and about where and how we can do and be together as we are "sent out like lambs into the midst of it." I do not know where we will be taken in the weeks and months to come, but I am so very grateful that in keeping with the model offered in today's Gospel, I am being sent out with others with this powerful message of peace and promise.
  • This Gospel reading from Luke is a rich and multi-faceted one which continues to speak powerfully in a variety of contexts and circumstances. It is this passage which Church Innovations uses to teach its disruptive missional practice: Dwelling in the Word.  You may want to check it out.
  • I am so very blessed to be able to say that I could easily come up with countless stories illustrating the importance of partners in mission and ministry. I have offered but one above. What comes to your mind when you think about who Jesus has sent to walk alongside you?
  • Usually when I first hear this passage, I think of the gift of companionship and even a kind of protection such partners offer. This time I had reason to recognize that such partnerships can also challenge us and that may seem to make the work more difficult at first. Can you think of a time when such a partner's challenge was vital to you and your shared mission?

Monday, June 20, 2016

Choices: "Letting the Dead Bury Their Own Dead"

Luke 9:51-62

"Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

Given this coming Sunday's Gospel, it strikes me that there is profound irony in the fact that for the first time in four years I am a day late in getting my post up because I have been about the business of 'burying the dead.' Indeed, the words of Jesus have been playing as a kind of background soundtrack in my mind over these last days as I have struggled with where I needed to be and when. Oh, I have had cause to wonder a the meaning of Jesus words for my life today. For while many of us can recall pivotal moments when we have turned to follow Jesus with all that this means, it seems to me that it is also so that we do this with our choices every day.

So let me give you a window into these last days and then let me offer some possible ways of thinking about Jesus' words before us now.

Early last week the word came that Norma, a beloved family friend of more than fifty years, had died. I live close enough to the town where I grew up that such news always presents the opportunity to return and to be present to and for and with those who grieve. This was one time when I felt a real need to be there for Norma's gifts to me and many were so very grace and faith filled. For many years I have acknowledged my gratitude for her kindness to me and for the ways her walk of faith served as model and guide for my own.

So it was early on Tuesday morning I heard that she had died. Later that day I heard the funeral had been set for the following Saturday. On Wednesday I was asked if I would speak at her funeral.

I knew where I felt I needed to be, and yet, there was this. Our Annual Synod Assembly would still be in session then. Perhaps there are years when one would not miss much if they were to miss out on being part of the last day of this annual business meeting of the larger church. However, this was not one of those years for with the retirement of our bishop, we would be discerning the call of the one who would follow in his stead. And as if this were not enough, I was quite certain that some of my closest friends would be in the mix of our collective deliberation over this call. (It turns out I was right on target as to how that played out.)

So, right or wrong, the words of Jesus kept rumbling around in the back of my mind.

  • What does it mean to let the dead bury their own dead? 
  • Was my decision to return home to share in the grief of these precious people doing that? 
  • Or was it more likely that there was a way in which either choice would be following Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom of God and it was simply up to me to decide in the best way I could?

In the end, it was with no hesitation that I agreed to attend Norma's funeral and to speak. It was an honor to be able share who she had been for me and for many. And I knew it would give me the chance to show kindness to her very precious family. (Although it became evident that others knew I had made a choice as well when I leaned over to speak to Wally, Norma's husband of 62 years. He scowled at me and told me I should be at our Synod Assembly. Respectfully, I told him I was right where I needed to be. And this was so.)

So I tell you the truth now when I say that I do not entirely  know what to do with Jesus' words about 'letting the dead bury their own dead.'

On the one hand I am almost tempted to say that he is telling some kind of joke --- or at the very least, speaking in metaphor for literally speaking, those who are actually dead certainly cannot bury others who are dead. Indeed, Jesus is clearly speaking to something basic in one man's priorities and motivation when he tells him that to go and bury his father is to turn his back on another call. Oh yes, Jesus is talking here about making monumental choices. He is speaking to the essential truth that the choice to follow him means precluding other options -- even those which are rooted in our most fundamental familial obligations.

So here is part of my struggle today. In both my personal life and in my ministry it has always been so that I have made time and space for the funerals --- for 'burying the dead.' I have done so because these are occasions when I have always felt called to follow Jesus in ways of kindness and caring and proclaiming powerful promises of hope. For as long as I can remember I have had a real clarity about that. In my estimation, this is all the more important in a culture which habitually and perpetually tends to deny and even run from death and grief and loss. To me, these do not seem to be occasions when the 'dead are burying the dead,' but when those living in faith and hope are doing so. This way of thinking is so much a part of me that I find myself concluding that it surely could be dangerous, or at least profoundly irresponsible, to receive these words of Jesus as some kind of black and white expectation of you and I who follow him. For surely one of the places we must be called to 'proclaim the kingdom of God' is when and where people are hurting the most. On the other hand? The choices he points to now must always contribute to our deliberation --- and not only one time, but again and again and again. Oh yes, we hear today that this very important conversation acknowledges that the choice to follow Jesus does mean that some things one might normally do automatically may simply not get done. Some things will not happen if this does. We hear today that this choice may well take priority over what others in the culture would say is most important. Indeed, it is altogether likely that faithful choices will defy the expectations of this world now.

Oh yes, the words of Jesus push us to wonder at whether our choices are about remaining with or joining the 'dead' --- however that may be defined --- or about moving ahead with the life of the Gospel for the sake of the world.  The outcome of this ongoing conversation may likely look a little different for each of us. As for me, I have found that that this not about making only a one time choice. Rather, it means wrestling with such choices almost every day. Or several times a day. Like I did again just last week. And yesterday. And just this morning.  And as I likely will again tomorrow.

  • What do you think Jesus is saying when he says to "let the dead bury their own dead?" How do you understand him?

  • When in your life have you found yourself making precisely this choice? For you is it a question you struggle with often, even every day?

  • Can you think of times when you have given yourself over to 'burying the dead' in a way that was less than faithful in terms of your walk with Jesus? What did that look like for you? Did you know it at the time or only as you looked back on it?

  • Can you offer a time or times when you chose to leave 'burying the dead' behind and chose instead to be about "proclaiming the kingdom of God?" What did that look like for you?

Sunday, June 12, 2016

On Pigs and Sacrifice and Foreshadowing...

Luke 8:26-39

Now, I do know, of course, that this story is not really about the pigs. Even so? Whenever this Gospel from Luke rolls around, I find myself focusing on them all over again. And yes, I know that most commentators consider this a throw away detail, and perhaps it is. For it is so that swine were considered unclean and therefore expendable to those first followers of Jesus. Maybe they were just a means to get the legion of demons out of the one who had been possessed. And maybe not. Either way? It may be so that you and I hear this story in a different way than those who first heard it. And perhaps this is an example of a way the Gospel is alive: speaking always in new ways to bring home the powerful gift of redemption. Regardless, those pigs were certainly the instrument Jesus used to bring freedom and life to one who had spent countless years living among the dead. And as such? It is possible that they are symbolic of something more.

Now I do not have a whole lot of first hand experience of pigs, even though I have grown up in and continue to serve in a part of the world where a not insignificant part of the economy rises and falls on the price of pork chops and bacon. And yet, I have a story about a pig which goes back to before I was born. It is a small piece of our family lore and it is a story which has been told over and over again.

Muirdale Hospital
As I have shared in this space before, it was the spring of 1960 when my mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis. While she tested positive, the extent of her infection was extremely small --- about the size of a dime on one lung. No matter. Her doctor reacted quickly and had her admitted to Muirdale TB Sanatorium near Milwaukee. When she first arrived, they said she could expect to be there for six months. (It turns out her stay in that place was much shorter. After nine weeks they determined what had been so from the start: she wasn't really sick and they let her go home.)

She was recently married then and found herself suddenly separated from her new husband, my dad. She lost her job as a teacher for there was no tenure to protect her. She was literally cut off from everyone and everything she knew and loved.

To be sure,  there are parts of this story which resonate with the one who was possessed by demons.Though she was not relegated to the "tombs" as he was? She was certainly put together with a lot of other people who were dying. And there was this. She will tell you that while the letters and gifts sent to her were abundant, she received very few visitors. People were afraid.

And this. When she did get out and was able to return home, she felt as though she carried a stigma. When an area school principal called her up and offered her a job (apparently there was a shortage of teachers back then), she replied, "Do you know about me?"  In other words, do you know I am tainted, less than I will ever be again? And he replied, "I do. My son had TB." This was surely an unexpected moment of grace in a difficult time. And yet, while her life mostly picked up where she had left off months before, she would never be quite the same again. Indeed, ever since she has carried an understanding of and sensitivity to certain experiences in the world which she knew nothing of before that time.

So back to the story about the pig. During those months when she was at the TB San, partway through she got a week-end's leave to attend her niece's wedding. She and my dad were out at her parent's home --- a house which sat on an acre of land in the country. While her folks they were not farmers, a family member had acquired a pig and had given it to them. That weekend, it was suggested that Mother should go out and see the pig and so she did. Well, she will tell you that she took one look at that pig and was struck by its lonesomeness. And she started to cry. No doubt, at some level she saw something of herself in that farm animal. For pigs are, in fact, every bit as communal as you and I. No doubt it was lonely! And ever since? It has been a story which has become emblematic of her sense of isolation when she spent those months away from loved ones treating a disease she hardly had. Oh yes, while we smile at it today, when I was a little girl, it would bring tears to my eyes as well to hear her tell this.

And so as I sat with our Gospel story and then as this part of our family story came to mind this week, I found myself thinking about pigs. Indeed, as I was looking into 'pigs' in these last days, I found these words from Winston Churchhill:
"I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals."
Apparently this is found in his autobiography, reflecting a conversation he had with a grandson on their farm.

So it is that along with Churchhill, there are many who would say that among mammals which are not human, pigs do come pretty close:
  • Did you know, for instance, that the average pig has the intelligence of a three year old child?
  • That the pig's best mode of defense is to run and that it can run at the pace of 7 mph?
  • And this, of course, that the pig's heart is so close to a human heart, that some of the parts are interchangeable? In fact, often people will opt for a pigs' valves over artificial ones when replacements are needed!
(For more interesting information about pigs click here: Pig Facts)

No, pigs are not human. And no, they do not compare to Jesus and the sacrifice he made on the cross in behalf of the whole world. Even so, it it too much of a stretch to think about that herd of swine which gave their lives (not to mention the swineherds and their families who must have undergone unimaginable economic hardship for some time to come) as somehow a foreshadowing of what Jesus would do that we might have the chance at freedom and peace and life itself?

Indeed, I think back to that somewhat silly story which has a cherished place in our family's larger story and I remember that it was a pig which somehow enabled my mother to grieve all that she had lost.

A pig.
  • Most of the scholars do not focus on the herd of swine in this story. Coming at it from a different time and place, I always start there. Might this be an example of a time when the Gospel speaks in new ways? Why or why not?
  • Certainly what we would understand as mental illness takes center stage in this story. If you want to see my thinking about this story from this angle a few years ago, click here.
  • If you had to encapsulate the 'good news' of this story in a sentence or two what would you say? Why do you think this story has been saved and passed down?

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Nothing Left to Lose: The Woman with the Alabaster Jar and a High School Graduate

Luke 7:36-8:3

We hosted our community's high school baccalaureate at our church this year. In recent years it has been held in the high school auditorium, but for reasons I have not heard they needed another venue this June. So when they called, we were glad to say 'yes.'

And so it was on Wednesday night that parents and grandparents and younger siblings and graduates donning black flowing robes found their way to the corner of Third and Pine to First Lutheran Church. Family members made their way into the nave early, hoping for a good seat. Graduates gathered in the atrium, lining up so that they might come in together.

My responsibilities were few this year. I was charged with speaking words of welcome and an opening prayer. Since I know the back ways through the building, as soon as I was done, I slipped out the door behind the pulpit and made my way to the balcony. (The view really is the best from up there!) And so I sat and listened as preachers preached and students read and the choir sang and a number of the graduates stood to tell their faith stories.

One among them stood out for as he spoke he did so without notes. Clearly, he had been profoundly shaped by the turning around he had experienced in his faith in these last years. He spoke of not going to church much when he was 'young,' but at the invitation of a friend he connected with a faith community. He shared about he had been brought to his knees on a mission trip with his newly adopted church youth group --- how he had been overwhelmed by gratitude and reduced to tears at what Jesus had done for him. After this young man took his place once more in the front row with the other graduates, we were invited to stand and sing, "Great is Thy Faithfulness." And there he stood with his outstretched arms waving in the air --- a physical gesture of his openness and his gratitude. A physical gesture, I might add, which is not often, if ever, witnessed in the front pew at First Lutheran Church. Or any other pew in our place for that matter.

I cringed a little, I have to admit. Not in judgment, really, but in worry about him for none of his peers, no one else gathered that night, joined him in this. I worried at how his peers would respond --- whether they would laugh at him, ridicule him, ostracize him. Then it occurred to me that these had probably already been his to live through. And then it occurred to me that he really had nothing left to lose. He was at the end of his high school career. In fact, he would probably never see most of these people ever again...(At least this was my experience. Once I walked across that particular stage and into the future, there have been very few who populated my world then who continued to hold any kind of presence in my life.) Seriously, what did he have to lose?

I have to say that usually when I come across the story of the woman of the city in Luke's Gospel before us now that I experience much the same thinking I did about this young man at first. I almost wish I could have taken this woman aside to convince her that there surely must have been a better time and place for her overwhelming demonstration of gratitude. And yet, as I think about it, I am certain she had thought out all the possible consequences before she came as an uninvited guest to Simon's dinner party and wept at Jesus' feet. And in the end, what did she have to lose that she had not already lost? Even more than that, she may have been thinking that this chance may never come again and if she did not take it now, she might never have the opportunity to (almost literally) shower on Jesus her grateful love.

And yet. While the story focuses on the unnamed woman of the city with her alabaster jar, I'm not sure that the story is really, finally, about her. Indeed, I can't help but wonder if it really is about Simon, the Pharisee and his silent judgment of one whose life journey had been so very different from his own. At least that's where the story seems to be left hanging, it seems to me. For while the woman is sent on her way with saving faith and Jesus' own promised peace? Simon is left with Jesus' words contrasting his experience of faith with that of this woman who was known as a sinner -- and he comes across looking as though his life and faith are lacking in some way. And in fact, they are.

Back to the young man who shared his faith story at baccalaureate the other night. I confess that I could not help myself as I listened to him. For it is so that I found myself cringing not only out of concern for him, but also at his very young theology. Oh, while he expressed deep gratitude at God's saving generosity, he also expressed the certainty that he had found his way to Jesus instead of the other way around. Perhaps it is 'splitting theological hairs,' I do know this, and yet living as I do within a theological tradition which stands firm in God's grace and God's initiative in sharing that grace, still I found myself categorizing the boy in a way which was probably entirely unfair. Or at least not in a way that was helpful. Perhaps not unlike Simon did with his uninvited house guest so long ago. Indeed, I confess that I have had to work hard in these last days to be open to the sense of wonder that this young man clearly has experienced in his walk of faith so far. No doubt, life will teach him that God embraced him first. And in the meantime? Isn't it enough to just give thanks with him?

So if nothing else, wondering about Simon the Pharisee in these last days has given me pause to take a deeper look at myself and the silent judgments I make about others most every day. Oh yes, I am certainly reminded once more that the energy it takes to evaluate others is energy which could well be better spent looking at my own heart and all the reasons I have to be grateful for the forgiveness I also so deeply need and have been so freely given.  Perhaps then I, too, would find I had no time left for judgment but only gratitude. Perhaps then, I, too, would discover I have nothing left to lose. Maybe then I would also find myself with my arms waving in the air or weeping at the feet of Jesus. And no doubt my faith journey would be all the richer for it.
  • As you receive this story, who do you think you are most like? Simon the Pharisee or the woman with the alabaster jar? Or do you see yourself in both of them?
  • Is this story more about Simon the Pharisee or the unnamed woman with the alabaster jar? What makes you say so?
  • What would it look like for you if you had 'nothing left to lose?' What might that mean?