Friday, March 28, 2014

Jesus, Did You Just Rub Spit and Dirt on Me?

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 9th Chapter

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on
the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 
The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” 
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. 
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 
Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

I grew up in Florida on the Gulf.  Kelly grew up in the middle of Alabama and our kids grew up in New Mexico and Colorado... all wonderful places but not exactly ocean front.  So, when Kelly became a flight attendant we were able to visit the ocean and I thought I’d introduce them to the thing I loved most about the beach... snorkeling.  I thought if I could give them a mask and snorkel they would see in a whole new way. 

In a way, that’s what Jesus did in today’s lesson.  He gave the man born blind what he needed to see in a whole new way.  Now, in the Bible, blindness is almost always about more than just physical blindness... it’s almost always about faith and believing too, and this is one of those stories.
Jesus tells the disciples that the man’s blindness (both his eye ball blindness and his faith blindness) isn’t anyone’s fault.  It’s just that the man didn’t have what he needed to see.  Just like without a mask you can’t see clearly in the ocean, this man just didn’t have what he needed to see... either physically... or in faith. 

Jesus gave him what he needed.  Jesus picked up some dirt, spit in it, made mud and smeared it in the man’s face and then told him to go and wash.  Imagine being that man.  You are blind and a stranger comes up to you without any warning, makes some spit-mud and wipes it on your eyes and tells you to go wash.  Would you think it would cure your blindness?  Would you go wash because he told you to or would you go wash because some stranger just snuck up on you and put spit-mud in your face!  I don’t know what he thought, but he went and washed and he could see!

Now notice... the man didn’t ask to be healed and Jesus didn’t ask him if he wanted to be healed.  Jesus just did it!  Now remember, this isn’t just a story about a man whose eye balls didn’t work, this is also a story about faith.  So what we learn from this lesson is that we too are given sight... given the ability to believe... given the ability to follow Jesus... ONLY as a gift from God.  We don’t ask for it, we aren’t asked if we want it, we don’t say or do anything.  On our own, we can’t see... on our own we simply don’t have the equipment to follow Jesus... on our own we just can’t believe.
As a good Lutheran, this is where I’m obligated to put in a quick plug for Luther’s explanation of the third article of the Creed.  So check it out, but to be honest, I want you to think more about WHY God wants you to have this gift of faith than worry about HOW the Holy Spirit delivers the gift.  God wants to give us this gift of faith because seeing is simply better than being blind!  Following Christ leads to a better, deeper more abundant life than not following and God wants what is best for us and for all of creation!  

So in some way we will never fully get our minds around, we are washed in the Baptismal Font, just like the Man Born Blind and like him we are given the gift of seeing in a whole new way!  Well the Baptismal Font is ALMOST the same as the Man Born Blind.  The Church, in one of it’s wiser historical moves has eliminated the spit and dirt part!  BUT, the washing is still the same and most importantly the gift of faith... the gift of sight is the same too.  

The first time I got to take my family snorkeling was in the Bahamas.  The waves were a bit large and Kelly’s snorkel filled up with water.  The fish were a bit too creepy for Hanna and things didn’t go well for Maggie either and soon all three of them were back in the boat and I was all by myself snorkeling over a reef in the Bahamas.  Their experience seeing the world in a whole new way didn’t go as smoothly as I wanted.  And to be honest, faith can be that way too.  Some preachers might tell you that with faith, your life is magically full of glitter and unicorns, but in my experience faith is a lot messier than that.  Faith... seeing clearly... can be filled with some real struggles along the way.

Now, some faith struggles can be self inflicted.  Those self inflicted struggles come from insisting that we have to do something to deserve being able to see.  “It can’t really be a free gift... that’s just too good to be true!” they will say and so, in spite of being given the gift of sight... the gift of faith... they choose to keep their eyes tightly shut.   It’s like being given a vacation but refusing to take it; like having the money to fix the leaking roof but saving it instead for a rainy day!  

Other faith struggles though, happen as we honestly try to live into our new gift of sight.  As the Man Born Blind tried to live into his new gift, the people around him were threatened by the idea that God was working in a way they had never experienced before.  His new sight challenged people’s understanding of God and people don’t like their version of God being challenged!  In the end, living into his new gift of sight got him friends that didn’t trust him, parents that didn’t stand up for him, and a community that kicked him out forever.  

A couple of years after we went snorkeling in the Bahamas we tried it again in Mexico in a protected little cove.  This time the waves were almost nonexistent and the ocean stayed out of Kelly’s lungs.  She saw the reef, the fish and even a sea turtle... she loved it!  For Hanna, well, the fish still creeped her out and Maggie still wasn’t a fan and you know what?  That’s all right.  For Kelly it was the right place and time and for the girls it just wasn’t yet. 

And that’s just how it works with living into our faith too.  We’ve all been given the gift of sight... the gift of faith.  When and how we live into that gift is different for each of us, but as we do, we will begin to see the world through God’s eyes.  We’ll see more clearly the hurts and the pains of the people around us but we’ll also more clearly see God active and alive in the world calling us to work with God to transform the world into the place God intends it to be.  

In the Font we are washed and we are transformed from blindness to sight... from dark to light... from disbelief to faith... from deaf to hearing and from lame to walking.  Our sight, our faith, our ability to walk and hear and follow are only and always a gift from God.  How we choose to live into those gifts of faith... that is called discipleship.  Faith is God’s doing... God’s no-strings-attached gift to us.  Discipleship is what it’s called when we decide to respond to that gift, not in fear that it will be taken away, but because we have been overwhelmed by God’s love for us.  It’s a big difference.  Do you see?  Amen.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

It's a LIE!

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 4th Chapter

So Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,
but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” 

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him. Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” 

When I was a kid in elementary school, the boys would take their leftover food at lunch and attempt to create a mixture so vile that even WE would find it disgusting.  It was a challenge!  Today’s Gospel story, is the story of a woman who assumed that in Jesus’s eyes, she would look like a vile, disgusting mix; worse than any leftover cafeteria food mixture created by any 4th grade boy.  The sad part is that she had pretty good reason to assume that would be Jesus’s reaction.  There were a bunch of things about her that any faithful Jewish man SHOULD have found more repulsive than my fourth grade cafeteria tray.  

First, she was a woman.  Women had no legal status.  Second, she was a Samaritan.  Back when the Babylonians took the people of Israel into exile they didn’t take everybody.  The leaders, intellectuals and the wealthy were taken away but many of the regular folks were left.  They ended up marrying non-Jewish people and having kids.  BUT, when the exiles returned, those who had intermarried were considered unclean and they were kicked out of the Jewish community.  Those who got kicked out became the Samaritans.  Third, since she wasn’t Jewish, her water jug was ritually unclean and finally, there was the issue with the men in her life. 

The tradition, of course, is that she was a woman of questionable moral character, but the text doesn’t really say that.  It’s more likely that her earlier husbands had either died or even more likely, abandoned her when they discovered she couldn’t have children, which would have been the “right” thing for the men to do in that culture and would also explain why she was out in public during the “men’s time” to be out in public, because the women would not want her around and possibly “catch” whatever she had that made her not be able to have kids.  

So, she’s a woman.  She’s a woman who’s a Samaritan.  She’s a woman, a Samaritan and unclean.  She’s a woman, a Samaritan, unclean and broken.  She’s a physically broken, unclean, unwanted, Samaritan woman who is doing whatever she can just to get by.  None of that was her fault.  It just was.  But regardless of who’s “fault” it was or wasn’t, she had been carefully taught over the years to expect that ANY person would have found ANY one of those things about her reason to throw her aside... All those things taken together SHOULD HAVE BEEN as disgusting to Jesus as the most toxic cafeteria mix an elementary school boy could ever imagine! ...  But it wasn’t.  

It wasn’t!  Should have been... five or six times over it should have been... but it wasn’t!   Now, she didn’t understand what Jesus was saying at first and really, who could blame her!  She had inherited a story, told over and over and over for generations before her and she had years and years of personal experience of people telling her directly this one particular story; that because of who she was, where she had been born and who her parents had been, that all the life she should ever expect was a leaky, heavy to haul, bucket of stagnant water kind of life.  But Jesus sat there at the well and insisted there was a different story for her life and he stuck with her until she finally heard it, didn’t he?  Back and forth and back and forth they went with Jesus always insisting she hear this new story.  

That new story Jesus insisted she hear, was that her life was worthy of abundance... of living water... of God’s overflowing artesian well of love for her.  Not “someday” when she changed or got converted or started living right, but RIGHT NOW, JUST AS SHE WAS right there at the well... a broken, wounded and abandoned Samaritan woman.  THAT woman was worthy of a life overflowing with the abundance of God’s love for her.  THAT was the new story Jesus had for her and the story he insisted replace that terrible and untrue story she had inherited and that she had been told all her life... it took a while, but when she finally got it, she REALLY got it!  So much so that she went and told the told the world!  

What terrible and untrue story have you inherited?  What awful, false and crippling story have you heard so many times that you fear deep down might just be true?  What story do you struggle to keep shoved back in the back of the closet?  What story do we push down deep into the dark places of ourselves, terrified that it might get out and someone else might see?  

You know the story I’m talking about.  I have a story like that my story says I'm a bad provider for my family I don't know what your story says but we all have one.  That heavy lifting, leaky bucket of stagnant water story?  That toxic mix worse than any cafeteria mess story?  You know that story?  THAT... STORY... IS... A... LIE.  Just like that woman at the well, YOUR life and my life is worthy of ABUNDANCE... of living water... of God’s overflowing artesian well of love!  AND just like that woman at the well, our CONGREGATION is worthy of a life of abundance... of living water... of God’s overflowing artesian well of love too!  Not just in the past and not just someday in the future when we do this or get that right, but JUST AS WE ARE right HERE, right NOW gathered together around THIS well of living water!  (the Baptismal font)

The new story Jesus has for us is that we are worthy of not just a stagnant water kind of life, but an abundant life... a life overflowing, gushing, showering us with God’s love, and that we are worthy of it simply and only because God in Christ says we are!   May you and I come every week to THIS WELL and not just listen to this new story but really HEAR this new story.  May you and I remind one another all through the week that THIS is our true story and may you and I tell each other this true story over and over and over and over again until that old, stagnant lie of a story is dead and buried in a tomb and the only story we can remember is the story of our Baptisms, the story of this well, the story of living water, the story of abundant life, the story of resurrection and God’s infinite, unconditional love for us and for all of creation through Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Fork in the Road? Take it!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 4th Chapter

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

A very smart teacher once told me that when you read about what Jesus did in the Bible you should remember that “The Body of Christ” is called to do the same thing in the world today.  The Church, of course, is the Body of Christ…so you and I and all Christians everywhere... we are the Body of Christ.  That means that together we are called to do the things that Jesus did... feed the hungry, heal people, include the outcast and turn the world up side down.  OK so far, but that’s not the whole story is it?  If the Body of Christ is going to do everything Jesus did, that means we should also expect ridicule, hatred, pain and even death.  Those things don’t sound quite as good and then to top that off, based on today's lesson, it also looks like we should probably expect to be tested.  But what is the test?  It might not be the test you expect it to be! 

When Jesus was tested, the devil had no doubt that Jesus was God’s son.  In fact, when you look at all the times Jesus ran into demons of one kind or another, they all knew exactly who Jesus was.  The real test was not whether or not Jesus was the Messiah.  He was!  Even the demons knew that.  The test... the REAL test was what KIND of Messiah was Jesus going to be.  Would he be the kind of Messiah that fixed the whole world with tricks and slight of hand?  Would he be the kind of Messiah that grabs headlines and fame to get his message out?  Would he be the kind of Messiah that brought in God’s Kingdom by any means neccasary?  

That was the real test.  What KIND of Messiah would he be?  Now, you would think with the devil there, pitchfork in hand, it shouldn’t really be a hard test.  You just don’t do what the red guy with horns says to do.  Right?  But you and I know that when we face these kinds of life tests in our lives there is never a literal pitch fork carrying, horned, red guy with a goatee standing there.  It’s always more subtle than that and I suspect it was more subtle for Jesus as well.

Jesus’s first test was to feed the hungry…feeding the hungry doesn’t sound like a bad thing, and it’s not.  The test was if he was going to just do it, or was he going to do it God’s way by transforming the hearts and minds of the world, so all of creation made sure no one was ever hungry?  His second test was to draw attention to himself so the message of the Kingdom of God would get out better.  You have to admit there is nothing like a huge stunt in the middle of the capital city to draw people’s attention and Jesus’s message isn’t at all a bad message.  But the real test was if he would soak up the spotlight himself OR would he turn the spotlight to God so the world sees the true source of light and life?  Then came the test to rule the world.  Jesus ruling the world.  God’s Son ruling the world.  That can’t be bad, can it?  All the war, suffering, pain and injustice wiped away forever under Jesus’ rule.  Not bad, Right?  But the real test was HOW Jesus would bring God’s Kingdom to the world.  Would he choose might-makes-right or would he bring in the Kingdom of God through love, compassion and completely giving of himself?

That is what makes these tests so hard.  Jesus isn’t asked to do evil things.  Instead, Jesus is asked to do wonderful things, BUT in the world’s way... NOT in God’s way.  For God, the means to the end DO matter and God means to have his Son and the Body of Christ (that means you and me together) work not in the ways of the world but in God’s very different ways of unlimited love, radical inclusion, compassion, honesty, openness, generosity and grace.  

As the Body of Christ we too are constantly tempted to lean on the methods and instincts we’ve learned in the world.  If it’s for the best, the world says to just force it through no matter what it takes.  It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission and it’s better to be effective than to be loved.  As the Body of Christ we are constantly tested to do what we do as the Church, not with God’s methods, but in the way we have gotten used to things working in our every day lives.  God’s ways of being open and honest and vulnerable with one another is scary, because we’ve all learned out there in the world that those qualities are seen and often exploited as weakness, so we’re tempted every day to choose to do it the world’s way instead of God's way.  

Our experience in the world has shown us that living by love, vulnerability and trust can lead to pain.  It’s no wonder that we often seek to avoid those struggles, conflicts or pain and instead just do things in those seemingly safer, more familiar, worldly ways.  It’s no wonder that the Body of Christ often decides to just be careful, go along to get along, to not say anything that might rub someone the wrong way, not make waves and hope and pray that things will just be “OK” in the end.  That's why the world's way is so very tempting!  

The trouble with that is the Body of Christ the Church... has not been called to live just an “OK” life.  God didn’t create us for just an “OK” kind of life!  God doesn’t think “OK” is good enough for us!  God thinks you deserve better than just OK... God wants all of Creation to live not just an OK life but an ABUNDANT life!  So the real test... the real temptation is not to do something awful, but to simply decide out of fear to live a life less than the one God created us to live.  Knowing that SHOULD make the choice easy, right?  But it doesn't.  It’s not easy because it means walking a path like Jesus did and we know the path he walked did not lead him into a comfortable, untroubled or conflict free life.  The path he chose was not easy... it was faithful... but not easy. 

We are the Body of Christ; we are the Church.  We have been led into the wilderness not to try to get us to fail, but to give us the chance to choose the Abundant life God created us to live!  God wants us to succeed!  We are led by the Holy Spirit, we have each other and the promise of angels to care for us when we are exhausted.  We are the Body of Christ... the Church...  no one doubts that... not even the demons.  The test for us for is what kind of Church will we choose to be?  Amen.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Suffering Is Nice… I Suppose, But...

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 6th Chapter

"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

  "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

  "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

  "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Today is the start of the season of Lent and if you take the word of many people on the street, Lent is all about suffering.  If you start a conversation with someone about Lent, you will inevitably end up discussing what you are both giving up.  Chocolate, meat, coffee and even beer are popular consumables to give up.  Facebook and swearing are popular non-food items to give up.  But, is giving something up to create self-inflicted suffering really the reason for the season?  Suffering is nice… I suppose… if you’re into that sort of thing, but suffering is not really what God is looking for in the season of Lent or in any other season for that matter.  The idea that the same God that literally loved us into being wants us to spend the next six weeks suffering is just sort of twisted to me.   
Finding ever more creative ways to make yourself suffer seems to be what people often do for Lent.  But in today’s gospel, Jesus gives only the briefest nod to the “what” people are doing:  Fasting, prayer and giving money to the poor.  Instead, Jesus focuses on making sure whatever we’re doing, we’re doing it for the correct reason “WHY.”  Prayer, fasting and giving money to the poor were all things that Jesus thought were fine things to do in his time and in fact, they still can be really great things to do even in our time.  BUT, the “why” matters!  If you are doing them to suffer for suffering’s sake... frankly, that’s a terrible reason!  

In this lesson, Jesus is challenging us to live beyond the “what” and instead live out of the “why.”  So, why do you give money to the poor?  Jesus said that if you give money to the poor to look good to others, then you’ve missed the point.  But, if you give money as a way to help yourself refocus on people other than yourself and so justice can be done in the world, then THAT’S a good reason “why”.  If you give money so that those who live without, may simply live, that’s a good reason why too and you’ve found yourself a good Lenten discipline.      

How about prayer?  Prayer is not supposed to be a chore, a duty or a punishment.  It also isn’t a magic spell meant to manipulate God.  Prayer is a means to bind us together for mutual support and to build a deeper relationship with God.  It’s a way to tune into one another’s needs and be reminded again that we aren’t alone... our community is with us and God is with us.  Prayer reminds us that we are loved and the universe is larger than just the space between our ears.  If you pray to refocus... to orient yourself to God’s love and pass on that love to the people around you... if you pray so that you can better love your neighbor and be quiet and listen for God, then prayer can be an excellent Lenten discipline.   

What about fasting?  Well, are you doing it to suffer for all the awful things you or the human race has done over the years?  If you want to do that you better plan on never eating again because, let’s be honest, the human race has done some REALLY HORRIBLE things over the years!  However, if fasting will remind you that the food you are missing is not something to take for granted, but something that comes as a gift from God.  That’s not a bad reason.  If it will remind you that the unpleasant hungry feeling you have when you fast is something that nearly 1 in 4 kids in Maine experience every day or that there are 200,000 people in Maine that have that feeling not just for the 40 days in Lent but for 365 days each year... then that’s an even better reason.  Then, if fasting refocuses you so you not only think about those people but ALSO go out and do something to fill the hungry with good things in our community, then that’s the best reason yet and fasting might be a Lenten discipline for you to adopt.    

Can you see what Jesus is doing here?  Jesus is doing what God has done throughout scripture.  Jesus is trying to get us to stop us obsessing about that person in our mirror and focus instead on our relationships with God and one another.  That is what Lent is meant to do.  God tells us we are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds and souls and our neighbors as ourselves.  The prophet Micah summarizes all the prophets by reminding us again that God requires nothing of us except to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God and Jesus takes that same theme and reminds us again, here in the Sermon on the Mount, that we are called to be merciful, pure in heart and peacemakers.  You see, suffering isn’t the goal of Lent!  The REAL goal of Lent is to give us time to pause in our hectic lives, reorient ourselves to better receive God’s love and change our focus from ourselves and our wants, to the people who live all around us and their needs.  Giving alms, prayer and fasting are just three of the most ancient ways to do that.

Maybe suffering is what will do that for you.  I don’t personally get that, but there are lots of things in this world I don’t get.  For me, something like buying soap for St. Mark’s pantry as I shop for groceries for myself works better.  For me, tipping my server at a restaurant way over the normal 20% reminds me that while I’m enjoying this special treat of eating out, the person serving me, and the one doing my dishes in the back are working very hard and are not quite making it from paycheck to paycheck.  For me, packing food boxes, paying the bill for the car behind me at the drive thru, reading to a kid at a school or posting three things I am thankful for on Facebook for 40 straight days works better for me than any kind of self imposed suffering.  Maybe that’s just me, but if you can think of something you think might work better for you than the traditional suffering, then there is still time to change your plans for Lent.

May your Lenten disciplines and journey not bring you meaningless suffering, but may you do the things that will bring your closer to your neighbors and to our loving and compassionate God.  May the things you do refocus you on the “other” and in that refocusing, move you closer to the abundant, meaning filled life God created you to live.  Amen. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

40 Days of Self Loathing! Or How About…Not.

The Rio Grande Gorge outside of Taos, New Mexico is a 1200 foot wide 600 foot deep gorge.  This gigantic gorge is cut into a very flat part of New Mexico by the Rio Grande river and if you found yourself on one side wanting to get to the other side, you would be looking at quite a thing to try to get across.  (if you weren't by the bridge of course)

If Saint Paul had seen this gorge he might have found it a good illustration of how far he felt from being the person God was calling him to be.  He said we always seem to do the things we know that we shouldn't do and don't ever seem to be able to do the things we should.  St. Paul not only knew that about humans but admitted to that human weakness himself.  Martin Luther was always a good one too for pointing out how far he felt from the place he understood God wanted him to be.  He referred to himself as a "bag of maggots" once since he felt that horribly rotten about himself when he looked at where he was and where he thought God wanted him to be.  

It seems like Lent has become a time set aside every year to spend forty days looking into the gorge between where we are and where God wants us to be and then feeling horrible about it.  Forty days of self loathing!  Yeah!  To help with that self abuse, you might want to fast because someone that far from God doesn’t really deserve good food, do they?  You might want to suffer through extra worship services to have an extra opportunity to be reminded that you are not just a bag of maggots, but a huge, squirming bag of maggots.  You may want to read the long genealogies in the Bible in an effort to take on some holy, Biblical kind of mind-numbing hurt.  You could do all of that during the season of Lent  it is sort of tradition after all (although not that old of a tradition really)… but does any of that help you to narrow the gap between the place you are now and the place God is calling you to be?  Do you believe that spending the next six weeks of Lent staring into the canyon that separates you from God will do anything to get you closer to God, or are you just abusing yourself for forty days because it will just feel so dang good to stop on Easter Sunday? 

I'm not sure how we got to this place where Lent is a time of suffering because it really doesn't make any sense.  If you think you are going to suffer for the sins of the world, you have a LOT more suffering to do than anything you can fit into the next forty days.  The same is true if you think you are going to suffer like Jesus did on the cross.  No amount of missed beer, candy or Facebook is going to equal crucifixion.  In the early Church, Lent wasn't a time of suffering but a time to prepare candidates for Baptism.  The disciplines of Lent were meant to intentionally grow faith, to bring you closer to others and to God, not to tear apart your humanity.  

So, instead of being a season to stare with teary, sorrowful eyes into the gorge between how our lives are now and the abundant, meaning filled lives God wants for us, how about if we take the next forty days to work on constructing a bridge and get a little closer to God, our neighbors and that abundant life!  Building a bridge is really what the disciplines of Lent should be about.  I will be the first to admit that building up is harder than tearing down and beating yourself up for six weeks.  It will be harder to work actively on connecting more deeply with God and with your neighbors than it would be to spend the next six weeks looking in the mirror and doing daily, mental, self-mutilations.  However, I think it's past time for us all to give it a try.

There have been a number of Lenten Discipline Lists going around the internet this year.  Some are good and some are terrible.  In the end, whatever you decide to do, ask yourself that particular discipline will move you closer to God, your neighbors and the meaning filled life God created you to live.  If you think it might, then do that.  By the way, the traditional things like fasting, prayer, giving to the poor and extra worship are not bad ideas, as long as the "why" you are doing them is to bridge the gap and build relationships and not stare with self-loathing in the hole.  Here's a couple other ideas

  • Post three things you are thankful for each day on Facebook.
  • Every time you turn on your car pray for a new person (a list on the visor helps in the early morning hours!)  
  • Tip 50%… at least! every time you eat out in Lent.  
  • Pay the bill for the car two behind yours in the drive through.  
  • Buy one item (tuna and peanut butter are good choices) for the food bank EVERY time you go into the grocery store during Lent, even if it's just for milk.
  • Add one minute of silence to your day each day during Lent.  (Yup, that means 40 minutes at the end)  
  • Bring cookies to the neighbors you have never met before.  
  • Babysit your friend's kids for free so they can have a night out.
  • Make homeless gift bags with travel toothpaste, tooth brush, clean socks, comb, soap, candy miniatures and a note that says, "I care" then keep them in your car and give them out throughout Lent.  
  • Send a hand written card to someone each day in Lent.
  • Eat a bowl of ice cream each evening in the quiet and remember the sweetness of the friendship of one specific person with each spoonful.  Taste the ice cream, picture their face, thank God for them being in your life.  (This is my favorite one!)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

We Support Kalei Wilson

(Background:  Kalei Wilson is a high school student in North Carolina that attempted to start a secular club at her school to support students that were not part of a faith group.  At first her club was not even allowed to form at all.  Later it was allowed but now she and her family have been receiving a lot of hate… much of it from Christians.  Rev. Mark Sandlin of The God Article asked for blogs of support for this courageous young woman.  I'm happy to do just that!)   

Dear Kalei,

I'm a Lutheran pastor from Maine with two teenaged daughters and strong ties to North Carolina.  I have a niece in high school there and I graduated from NC State a long time ago.  A Presbyterian pastor friend of mine suggested sending you an open letter of support and I thought it was a wonderful idea.  I hope these words of support and encouragement boost you up as you deal with the garbage that has come your way.  It is always hard to listen to the mean things people say, even when you are on the right side of something like you are.  I know you don't know me but I hope this gives even a tiny speck of encouragement to you and your family.  

Finally, I would like to apologize for the behavior of those Christians who have been so hateful to you and your family.  Providing support for people who feel different from the those around them is one of the greatest things we can do for one another in this life and taking the time and energy to organize a place for that is what makes you stand out as a leader and it is what will eventually cut through the ugliness and make this world a better place.  Thank you for taking a risk for compassion and staying strong!

Hang in there Kalei!  There are tons of folks behind you!


Shiny Jesus… Squirrel!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 17th Chapter

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

We’re at the end of the season of Epiphany... the light season.  At the beginning of this season the star guided wise men across the desert to find the baby Jesus and at this end of the season Jesus himself shines on top of a mountain.  Peter, James and John went with Jesus up the mountain and there they saw Jesus transfigured, which basically means he got super shiny.  Really, really shiny because it says he shone like the sun!  It was God’s not-so-subtle way of trying to catch the easily distractible disciple’s attention and get them to focus on Jesus.
You’ve seen those big promotions at car dealerships where there’s the year end blowout sale?  They inflate a giant gorilla, set up an enormous sound system, have a celebrity give an endorsement and have giant searchlights sweep the sky.  That is sort of what God was doing here.  Doing something big and bright and loud to get the disciple’s attention and then God pointed at Jesus and said, “Look here,” this here is my Son, HE is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING…LISTEN to him…DO what he does...He is the answer…AND He is right HERE with you!

In the Transfiguration, God reminded the disciples, and reminds us, that our focus should be Jesus that we are to be a Jesus church.  That may seem obvious but we're easily distracted.  That means we are not a Bible church, we are a Jesus church.  We are not a young people, retired people, charter member, new member or family church... we are a Jesus church.  We are not a women’s group, youth group, Sunday school, sewing group, altar guild, fellowship group, stewardship or evangelism church either, we are a Jesus church.

Now, don’t get me wrong, those other things are important.  The Bible?  Very important It more clearly than anything else we have, points to Jesus.  And our people, worship and programs are really important too because they also point to Jesus.  But none of those things are were our focus is supposed to stop.  We may start there but in the end our focus should rest on the One that God made shiny on top of that mountain.  The One whom God called “My Son, the Beloved.”  The One who God reminds us is here, right here, always with us... the One we are supposed to listen to.  That’s our focus.  We are called to be a Jesus church and the message of the Transfiguration is that Jesus is to be both our focus and the beacon we follow as we live our lives. 

Apparently Peter, James and John needed this dramatic reminder and to be honest, we may need it even more!  Not only do we have so many more distractions in our lives today with the pace of the world, technology and the information we are bombarded with, but ironically at times it seems that we get distracted from Jesus by thinking and wondering and discussing and confessing things about Jesus! 

There is a story of a church that received a bequest from one of the pillars of the congregation to purchase a painting of Jesus feeding the five thousand.  A group of the most faithful, loyal, devoted Christians in the congregation got together and seriously focused on, talked about and theologized about what kind of painting they wanted to commission for their church.  They deeply wanted to find an artist who would both communicate the essence of the story but would also draw people deeply and personally into this instance of God's grace in the most powerful manner possible.  They focused and talked and prayed and wondered about this story and their task for three hours until someone suggested they take a break and get something to eat for lunch.  Leaving the church they stepped over a homeless hungry man on the doorsteps of their church still talking about Jesus feeding the five thousand.

One of the most important things we do when we come together for worship is to help one another experience a weekly transfiguration.  To remind one another again that Jesus, and what Jesus did and is doing in the world, is to be our focus.  It is a time to realize again, God’s Son is with us listening to us, caring for us, loving us, forgiving us, claiming and naming us, feeding us and healing us.  But also to hear again that Jesus is there to actively guide us to an abundant life, filled with meaning and worth that starts now and never ends.  Later, I'll hold the cup and the bread and tell you, and hopefully remind us all again that Jesus is here, not only in a spiritual way but in a way we can all feel and see and touch and taste.  Holy Communion too, is God reminding us again that God's Son is with us and Jesus is to be our focus!
Just one reminder may not be enough though.  Do you remember how this Gospel lesson started?  It went like this: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain.”  Do you know what happened six days before this?  Six days before this Peter confessed Jesus was the Messiah, God’s Son, but now, just six short days later he apparently needed a HUGE reminder!  Then they went down the mountain and what happened?  They needed another reminder, pretty much right away.  We need those reminders too because focusing on and following Jesus isn't easy.  It means staying on the mountain and getting comfortable isn't an option.  Jesus wants us down the mountain and out in the world transforming it into the Kingdom of God.  We need to, for example, both feed the hungry AND confront people in power and ask why people are hungry.  That sort of thing is scary and we tend to be easily distracted from things that are scary.  So we need the reminder... both of our call AND that aren't alone.  Jesus goes with us leads us and loves us without condition and without limit.

We need all the help we can get inflatable gorillas, searchlights, booming voices, brilliant lights or whatever else it might take to remind us, like God reminded Peter, James and John, that God’s Son Jesus is the light and life of the world.  We need those reminders so we don't get distracted by things of the world or even by things that point to Jesus but instead that we focus on JESUS...God's Son, the beloved so we will LISTEN to him and more than that, FOLLOW him, living as he lived challenging the world to become the place God created it to be the Kingdom of God.  Amen.