Wednesday, December 23, 2015

No Room for THEM!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 2nd Chapter

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

There was no place for them in the inn.  I’d always assumed that there was no place for them in the inn because of this census registration thing and all the rooms at the Bethlehem Motel 6 and every other hotel in town were taken.  I’d always assumed that there was LITERALLY no room for them in the inn because every room was taken.  But the story doesn’t actually tell us why, really.  It COULD have been that every room was taken, but maybe it wasn’t that there was no room in the inn, but that there was no room for THEM in the inn.  For their KIND, there was no room.  They were different in lots of ways, after all.  

They were from AWAY.  They were poor.  They were unmarried and she was pregnant.  She was ready to give birth and that would mean a mess and extra laundry.  She was also a revolutionary.  She was.  In just the last chapter, she gave a passionate protest speech about overthrowing the powerful, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the wealthy away empty.  

So, was there no room in the inn?  Or was there no room for THEM in the inn?  Did they hear, “I’m sorry we’re fully booked for the night” or did they hear, “Go back to where you came from!?”  I think there’s probably no way we’ll ever know for sure, but regardless of whether there was PHYSICALLY no room in the inn or if there was no room for THEM in the inn, what happened that night had the same result.  

That night, God, the Creator of all that ever was, is now and of all that ever will be, decided to be born as a human in the same way that each and every one of us has been born.  God was born that night in the regular, messy, beautiful, painful, glorious, human way.  The Savior of World… God with us… was born as one of us regular folks… but God, the Creator of heaven and earth, was born without a place, without a home… like the carol says, “The Little Lord Jesus, no crib for his bed.”  He was born into the straw and the dirt and into everything else that’s found in a barn.  God came to the world and the world, basically, just didn’t notice.  

When Martin Luther preached a Christmas sermon on this text five hundred years ago he said to his congregation, “Many of you in this congregation think to yourselves:  “If only I had been there!  How quick I would have been to help the baby!  I would have even washed his dirty diapers!”  You say that NOW, because you know now who that baby was and how great Christ is, but if you had been there THEN, you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem.  Childish and silly thoughts are these!  Why don’t you do it now?  You have Christ in your neighbor.  You ought to serve your neighbor, for what you do to your neighbor in need, you do to the Lord Christ himself.”

The message of Christmas is that God has come into the world bringing light into our darkness, life into our death, healing into our brokenness… but the message of Christmas isn’t just that.  The message of Christmas is that God has brought that light, life and healing to the world in a very particular way.  God has brought, and is bringing, that light, life and healing from the bottom up.  God brings all that FIRST to those who, like he was, are unwelcome and unnoticed in the world.  THAT is where God shows up first… among those people from “away”… among THOSE folks who don’t fit what’s “proper” in society… among THOSE people who are relegated to the dung heap in the barn, demonized and marginalized and told to go back to where they came from.  

God in Christ did something amazing that first Christmas… God came among us, as one of us, and in coming as one of us has scooped us up into God’s infinite, unconditional love… and God in Christ has done that, and IS DOING THAT even now, starting at the bottom, with the lost, lonely, forgotten, frightened and hated first and then moves from there to embrace all of creation.  But a big part of the message of Christmas is that God in Christ starts with the ones for whom there is no place in the inn, and as followers of Jesus, that's where we're called to start as well.  May we remember that.  May we remember that God enters our world among the most gritty, forgotten, pushed aside and alienated people.  May we remember, when we encounter THOSE people, that those are God’s people… Christ’s people… and when we take time to notice them... when we offer up a space for them... when we make a place for them in our neighborhoods and our hearts, we do nothing less than make a place there for God.  Amen.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Scroogy McGrinchypants

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke the 1st Chapter

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

At this time of year, I’m known by my holiday nickname… Scroogy McGrinchypants.  In my mind, since Christmas the THIRD most holy day of the Christian year (after Easter and Pentecost) we should decorate and celebrate with just slightly less intensity than we decorate and celebrate for Pentecost.  You may be surprised to learn that I’ve never been able to sell that at home or church!  

But as every Grinch learns, you just can't keep Christmas from coming and at some point it can’t be held back any longer.  Something happens… a sign, even for those of us most Grinchy, that signals the turn into Christmas.  For stores and children it seems that Halloween is that sign.  Halloween costumes put away and Candy Corn on the clearance table… THAT is the sign that Christmas is coming!  For my wife, it’s hearing Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas music from Charlie Brown.  For her, THAT’s the sign.  For me, it’s hanging the greens at church.  From that point on, completely in spite of my usual Scroogy McGrinchypants self, the excitement and anticipation builds and builds until kids and adults and yes, even Pastor McGrinchypants can’t sit still any longer.  From the moment we see that sign, we begin to live our lives jumping around, ready for Christmas to happen.  

John the Baptist, while still in his mother’s womb, had that kind of excitement!  Way before he was even BORN, John was to that jumping-for-joy state of excitement!  Even the most aggressive retailers can only seem to pull off that excitement starting after Halloween, but here, John the Baptist had that excited level of anticipation for the coming of the birth of Jesus, months and months and months before that first Christmas would even arrive!

The even more extraordinary thing is that John isn’t excited for the toys, the food, the parties, eggnog, trees or lights.  John is excited, and excited to the point where he is jumping for joy, because GOD came into the room.  John isn’t jumping for joy months before Christmas for the presents with wrappings and bows… but for the PRESENCE... God with us.  It’s sad really, that the world’s focus on presents with bows leaves me less excited to celebrate God’s presence… God with us.  Because if there’s anything in this world worth exerting the energy and endangering the knees to actually jump for joy, it's God coming to enter the world to be with the likes of me and you!

And God has come for the likes of me and you.  Will Willamon says that if God is willing to get a poor, teenaged, unmarried girl pregnant and then have the audacity to call her blessed, THAT should tell us that this God will go to whatever lengths might be necessary to be with us.  If our God is willing to be born in this regular and very earthly way; is willing to be born to the poorest of the poor, into a scandalous family, then you and I can never make the mistake and say, “Jesus was not meant for the likes of me.” 

God has bent so low and so deep on purpose, so that every single bit of creation could be scooped up into God’s presence, explicitly including the likes of you and me!  Can you imagine being scooped up by God and held in God’s loving presence?  We adults don’t often allow ourselves to show that kind of joy, do we?  When’s the last time you literally jumped for joy?  My last time was at a Maine hockey game.  Sports may be the only time we jump for joy as adults and worse is that aversion to jumping for joy seems to have leaked into the church!  I’m not sure where it started, this idea that church should be a place where people are quiet, stoic and reserved.  Where did it come from, that being in the presence of God should be solely somber and proper?  That certainly wasn’t John’s reaction!  Here in this lesson, John literally does cartwheels in Elizabeth’s womb because he finds himself in the presence of Jesus!  “Well” you might say, “That was John as a child.”   But that’s not the only time Christ’s presence led to great joy!    

You can’t tell me that the mood of the crowd remained somber, with proper Victorian British reserve and Scandinavian stoicism when Jesus turned 180 gallons of water into REALLY good wine?!  You can’t tell me that the people remained calm and subdued when Jesus healed their blindness, cured their leprosy, cast out their demons or raised the dead!  You can’t tell me that after 5000 plus people were filled with delicious fish sandwiches with leftovers to spare, the crowd’s only reaction was to calmly dab the corners of their mouths with a perfectly pressed linen napkin!  NO!  The presence of Jesus… the presence of the ONE who scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty… THAT isn’t a QUIET affair!  It demands a LEAP from the oppression of the earth into the extravagant freedom of the heavens!  It demands we jump for joy!

John's jumping for JOY was the first earthly reaction to the presence of Christ.  Elizabeth's shouts of joy and thanksgiving were the next, and BOTH pointed the world to Christ’s presence… God with us!  But THAT was only the beginning.  John’s whole ministry was spent pointing to Jesus… telling the world THERE is the Lamb of God… THERE is your source of LIFE… THERE is the ONE who brings light into our darkness, JOY into our pain!  

But John and Elizabeth don’t JUST point us to Christ, they also serve as models for OUR ministry too, and not just the ministry of those of us in funny shirts either!  ALL of us are called to BE like John and Elizabeth, continually pointing to Jesus.  We too are called to use words and actions to tell and show our family, friends and neighbors, “THERE is the source of LIFE. THERE is the light that shines into your darkness no matter how deep your darkness might be.”   

We all, like Elizabeth and John, have been filled with the Holy Spirit in Baptism.  We all, live in the presence of Christ.  There at the Table each week we taste and see Christ’s presence most clearly and most reliably in the bread and the wine, but the truth of this story tells us that Christ comes to us… walks into our lives wherever we are, in whatever we’re doing, no matter who we are… God in Christ comes to us and with Christ present in our lives, we are transformed from death to life, from sadness to joy... how can we NOT just jump for joy!  So take your neighbor by the hand.  Even the Scroogy McGrinchyest neighbor you know, and point them to Christ!  Tell them, “THERE is Jesus, the light of the world!”  Show them with your love and compassion and your working for justice, that Jesus has come for them and for us all!  Then invite them to join you and jump for JOY!  Amen.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Get Busy Livin' Or Get Busy Dyin'

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 21st Chapter

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap."  

I have personal experience with “worries of this life” and my guess is that you do too.  I’m also pretty clear with what “drunkenness” is all about having experienced both college and the effects of White Russians in the high altitudes of the Rockies.  But I have to admit, I needed to go look up what “dissipation” was.  I figured it was bad, stuck in a list with other bad stuff, but bad in what way?  It turns out that dissipation can be even more drunkenness, OR it can be a squandering of money or resources OR if you take the science/physics meaning, dissipation is the “loss of energy, especially by heat.”  So, dissipation can be thought of as slamming on the brakes.  You push the pedal and your brakes come together and change the forward energy of your car into heat and you slow down and stop.  

These are the things, Jesus tells us, we are NOT supposed to do as we live and wait and watch in our time.  We all live in this strange time, in-between Jesus conquering death at the Resurrection and the Kingdom of God fully being present.  The temptation, as we get up each day and are almost instantly drown by a flood of horrible news, is to deal with the latest terrorist horror, the latest brutal shooting death, the latest racist rant or call to trade freedoms for promised security… the temptation as we are nearly overwhelmed by that tsunami of life-draining news is to deal with it by escaping it, with things like drinking, shopping or eating to excess.  The temptation as we feel like we're drowning, weighed down by worry and fear in a flood of truly horrible things, is to lash out like a drowning victim.  The temptation is to slam on the brakes to anything or anyone different or new or unknown and “dissipate” the forward moving energy of love, into the raw heat that comes with fighting, friction, anger, violence and hate.  

On Wednesday I was over at the capital with a bunch of area clergy and about a hundred other folks, letting the world know we were residents of Maine who would welcome Syrian refugees.  As I stood there with Father Frank, my Catholic colleague, a man pulled up to the light and said, “If you had a bag of M&M’s and you knew ten of them could be deadly poison, would you eat that bag of M&M’s?”  I think Father Frank, knowing that a deep, philosophical discussion with a guy hanging out of a pickup truck at a stoplight was unlikely, just said, “Yeah, I’d eat them.  M&M’s are delicious.”  The guy shook his head and as he drove off told us that Governor LePage was the best Governor Maine had ever had.  

I’ve been thinking about that ever since… not the part about the governor, but the part about the M&Ms.  I’ve been thinking about that because right there, hanging out of a pickup truck window was a man, weighed down with horrible fear and a terror so strong he would choose to never eat another M&M in his life… he would slam on the brakes of his love of candy coated milk chocolate goodness and dissipate that energy of love into the heat of fear, anger and hatred.  Locked in that fear, he wouldn't even TRY to figure out a way to determine which M&M’s were poison and which were delicious, but instead just cut himself off from all of them forever.  THAT, is precisely NOT how Jesus advises us to wait between the time when he conquered death and when he comes again.  Instead of trying to escape from the hard things that come in this life, instead of handling difficult things with "all or nothing" reactions, instead of fearing and hating and lashing out… Jesus advises us, when these things begin to take place, to STAND UP and RAISE YOUR HEADS, because your redemption is drawing near.

Pulling back, staying away, picking fights, closing boarders… THAT isn’t the way.  Trying to escape the difficult things in our lives by consuming more and more drink or food or buying more things… THAT’S not the way.  Slamming on the breaks and exchanging the energy of love for the heat of fear, anger and hate… THAT’s NOT the way either!  

In the movie, the Shawshank Redemption, there’s a scene where Red, is talking to Andy.  They are both in prison, and Red talks about his fear of living on the outside, not having lived there for decades and decades, but Andy isn’t ready to give in, he’s determined to hold on to hope, even in the face of what seems impossible and at the end of the scene, Andy turns to Red and says, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice really… get busy living, or get busy dying.”

You see, the WAY Jesus tells us to deal with the flood of horrible news, the tsunami of terror and the tidal wave of inequality and injustice is not to hide in fear, but to STAND UP and RAISE YOUR HEAD!  The WAY to deal with all that the world throws at us is to LOOK UP, LEAN IN and GET BUSY LIVING!  To LOOK UP and SEE that Christ, the One who overcame death and the grave, is fully present with us right here… right now!

I think we forget that too easily.  I think I forget that too easily.  We look at the horrors of the world and the pain and grief of the changes and challenges in our lives… we read these passages about some far off coming apocalypse, the end of the world and Jesus coming in the clouds some time in some far off distant future we’ll probably never live to see... and we forget.  

We forget that right there, every week, the Son of Man comes to us… and if we would just LOOK UP… just STAND UP and RAISE OUR HEADS, we would SEE that somehow, each week, wrapped in a cloud of mystery, Christ is fully present in our midst, right there in the bread and the wine.  And there in that cloud of mystery, Christ isn't asking us to wait for some far off mysterious future sign that the world will SOMEDAY be made right.  Instead, Christ is RIGHT THERE, RIGHT NOW and then as we open our hands,  Christ is right here… in each of us. 

We forget... I forget... that Christ is with us, empowering us not to wait in fear FOR a sign, but that we have been empowered to go into the world with courage and love and BE a sign... BE a sign that life is stronger than death, that love is more powerful than hate, that there is room in our hearts, and our state and our neighborhoods for people who at first feel different but who end up being children of God just like us.  

At the end of the Shawshank Redemption, Red finds a note that Andy hid after he escaped from prison and Red had been paroled.  The note says, “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies.”  So, stand up, lift your heads, come to the Table and receive the power of the risen Christ, who comes to us in a cloud of mystery every week and empowers us with unlimited love and grace so that we would BE the sign of hope our world so desperately needs.  Amen.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

Wars and Rumors of Wars

The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, the 13th Chapter

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

Sometimes it feels like only an apocalypse, only God breaking into our world, could have the power to put things right.  Mark’s gospel was written to people who felt just that way, and today feels much the same.  

Children die from hunger.  Only a miracle will do.  Women stay with an abusive partner because they can’t see another way to care for their children.  Only a miracle will do.  The poor and hungry are demonized and people of different races and religions are made to be scapegoats.  Only a miracle will do.  Acts of terror rip apart Beirut and Paris while hate and war drive families into flimsy rubber rafts as their neighborhoods turn to rubble.  Only a miracle will do.  Even in our church at 209, with everything changing around us.  Sometimes it feels like only a miracle will do.

Mark, at the end of his gospel paints a picture of the world getting darker.  The sun sets, darkness falls, midnight comes and the darkness grows.  The moon sets, the darkness becomes overwhelming and before the dawn it is the darkest and the coldest time of the night.  Frustratingly, Mark’s gospel doesn’t “fix” it as we would like.  Instead it sits with us IN it.  It acknowledges that darkness in our lives is real, that life gets colder and darker the longer we wait for relief.  Waiting is hard enough, but waiting for relief that will come at some unknown time is nearly impossible.  We want a sign!  We NEED a sign!  Sometimes we need a sign so badly we create them, hoping to somehow force God to give us the miracle we need.  

So, how long O Lord must we wait!?  THAT’s the question we desperately want answered.  But that answer isn’t what we get in Mark's gospel or anywhere else in the Bible.  What we get isn’t a time table telling us about the future where “one day” we might begin live.  No, what we get instead is an invitation to begin to live RIGHT NOW… right where we are… even feeling trapped in that dark, cold, fear filled place… we hear an invitation to LIVE! 

A quote attributed to Martin Luther says, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”  And one attributed to Winston Churchill says, “If you are going through hell, keep going!”  Those invitations to LIVE even in the midst of darkness… even in the depths of that fear, is an invitation to move, live, serve and love as if that miracle we are desperately waiting for has already come.  And here’s the not-so-secret, secret… that miracle HAS INDEED already come! 

It’s part of the way God created us, that the first thing we do when we are threatened, is that we unconsciously pull back to somewhere familiar, respond the way we’ve responded before.  That’s why our hearts race as we approach the edge of a cliff.  God gave us that reaction so we don't just walk off the edge in blissful ignorance!  The edge of the chasm IS a threat… it’s different… it’s deep and your body tells you, by relocating your stomach up into your throat, to BACK UP!  TURN AROUND!  STOP MOVING FORWARD!  It’s a beautiful gift!  Without that gift our ancestor’s bones would be piled up at the bottom of some chasm and humanity would be extinct!  It’s a really good gift!  

But lashing out or backing away are not the ONLY gifts we’ve been given.  That is not ALL God created us to be.  God made us more than that!  God also created us with the ability to stop and imagine life beyond just instinctual reaction... to imagine life on the other side of the chasm, to see another possibility beyond just attack or retreat, and see the possibility of a life that is more than just an endless cycle of fighting and running.  The truth is that God created us for MORE than that kind of shallow life!  We have been created for ABUNDANT life!  

But HOW?  HOW can we get from here to there?  WHAT can get us to the other side… what can move us beyond just fighting or running... Only a Miracle will do!  Yes, only a miracle will do, but the miracle we need is not a “WHAT.”  The miracle is a “WHO” and the miracle we need... the miracle we HAVE, has lived among us, died in the pain of reactionary fear and been raised from the dead!  The miracle we need to get to the other side of this turmoil, darkness, fear and pain, both far and near, is even now inviting us, poking us, prodding us, provoking us to follow to abundant life!  The miracle we need... the miracle we HAVE is Jesus, and in his death and resurrection has already brought us from fear to abundant life!  

I know it doesn’t feel like it.  But just because it's hard to see, doesn't mean it isn't here.  I see glimpses of the Miracle we need... the Miracle we HAVE, shining through the cracks of our very real pain and very real darkness.  Have you seen the veggies and produce piling up for the Thanksgiving baskets?  When we are generous like that we are walking the Jesus way and the light shines through that generosity into the darkness!  Did you see that beautiful family connection between the daughter of a D-Day aviator and the son of a D-Day paratrooper last week?  When we commit to being together, in that investment of time and being present, we discover that we have always been connected and the light shines in the darkness!  Have you heard our choir?  Have you heard our singing?  When we choose not to get drawn into fights and gossip and reactions and when we choose to not run away when it is hard and instead choose to sing… we are walking the Jesus way and the light shines in the darkness!  

God has created us to live our lives beyond the fear, pain and automatic reactions that draw us away from life and into never-ending life-draining battles.  God has created us for so much more than that... for the abundant life we will discover we already possess by following the Jesus Way… taking one step at a time, as the lesson from Hebrews tells us, PROVOKING one another to love, being together and encouraging one another more and more as we see the Day approaching.  Amen.   

Friday, October 30, 2015

Try not! Come Out! There is No Try!

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 11th Chapter

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 

So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

On THIS mountain!  THIS one… RIGHT HERE… not somewhere else, off in some far off heaven in the sweet by and by.  NO!  Right here on THIS, 209 Eastern Avenue mountain, the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines!  And because nobody believes it right away, the prophet says it AGAIN!  This is YOUR FEAST!  A feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear!  THAT is my favorite image of the Kingdom of God and THAT is what we have been given.  It is a gift of abundance, not scarcity… it’s a gift of plenty, more than enough to share, not one so rare we need to keep it to ourselves… it is a gift which is ours in Christ.  It’s a done deal.  It’s ours… a gift for the guilty, not a reward for the righteous.   

But sometimes, even though that abundant, rich and plentiful gift of light and life is ours, given to us like a present wrapped and placed right there in front of our eyes… sometimes it can be almost impossible to see.  Mary and Martha were in that kind of a spot.  Jesus, the Christ, the source of all light and life was standing right there among them.  But they just couldn’t see the light, because of the darkness the death of their brother Lazarus brought and the sense of betrayal they felt… LORD… if ONLY you had been here. 

There’s a song that powerfully communicates that sort of darkness.  In New Orleans it’s often played at a funeral, and as the friends and family carry the casket through the streets to the cemetery, it’s played as a slow and mournful dirge, in a way that embraces that hurt… acknowledges that darkness… honors the pain of that loss in a way stronger than words alone can convey.  The song rings true because it doesn’t shy away from the overwhelming pain and loss we feel at times in this life… the times when it feels like the end times… times when the sun refuses to shine and the moon turns red with blood…

And when the sun, refuse to shine
And when the sun refuse to shine,
O Lord, I want to be in that number,
When the saints go marchin’ in

And when the moon, turns red with blood
And when the moon turns red with blood
O Lord, I want to be in that number
When the saints go marchin’ in

Their brother Lazarus was dead.  He lay in the tomb, past the time where there could be any hope left, past the time there was any going back, past the time there was anything else to be done.  There he was, and as the King James Version says, “He Stinketh!”  And the whole situation Stinketh!  How had it come to this?  Why had God let this happen?  Why had Jesus stayed away?  Why had Lazarus died?  LORD, if only you had been here! 

And standing there before the tomb, Jesus wept.  Jesus wept, for the people he loved, who were in such pain and anguish.  Jesus wept for the people he loved who still could not see that in him, standing right there in front of them, was the light and the life they were so deeply longing for.  Jesus wept, because the feast… the FEAST of rich food and well aged wine strained clear was set for them… IN HIM, and yet they stood there starving to death! 

I need an acolyte.  Now, I want you to try to take this bottle out of my hand.  Go on… try.  OK, now stop.  Now… stop trying and just do it.  Take the bottle. 

Bernie Roth of Standford’s design school does this exercise with his students to demonstrate a deep truth.  A subtle excuse lies in the idea of “trying.”  It’s as if today is for some vague half hearted attempt but the real action will happen in some future moment.  But as Master Yoda says, “NO!  Try not!  Do or do not.  There is no try.”

Our Master knows that same truth.  Look at what Jesus does next… he doesn’t say, “Lazarus, I’d like you to try to come out.”  “Lazarus, when you feel comfortable… when things seem to not be so strange and odd and uncertain… when things “Stinketh” a bit less, would you consider coming out?”  NO!  Jesus tells Lazarus, “COME OUT!” 

Today, all four churches are together, but I know it's not all in joy.  We’re gathered in a jumble of emotions and feelings.  In a real way we’re gathered like Lazarus… inside a tomb, and wrapped tightly with so much change and transition, conflict and uncertainty… and well… it STINKETH!  We’re wrapped with all that was built by generations past… the wonderful memories of full churches and huge endowments and powerful egos, now bound up and weighed down with guilt and fear and anger and pain… And so, Jesus weeps.  Jesus weeps with us.  Because the grief is real and the pain is deep.  And Jesus weeps FOR US, because together, God has gathered us all together here as the Body of Christ, and abundantly far more light and life than we could ever ask or imagine is RIGHT HERE… all the resources, funds, talent and creativity we need to be about God's work in this city is HERE... We're surrounded by it… we're swimming in it… and still we have a hard time seeing it.  So, Jesus weeps, because the Feast is right THERE, and still we choose to go hungry because we've forgotten the Feast, and hunger feels familiar. 

You’ll notice though, that the weeping in this passage, only lasts for a moment.  It’s the shortest verse in the Bible after all!  And then Jesus gives us a Word… Doesn't ask us... Jesus TELLS us what to do.  Come out.  Don’t try.  Don’t wait.  Don’t hedge your bet and stay wrapped in what was, bound to wallow in all that STINKETH!  Jesus says, "COME OUT!"

COME OUT!  St. Barnabas… COME OUT!  St. Matthew’s… COME OUT!  St. Mark’s… COME OUT!  Prince of Peace… COME OUT!  COME OUT, People of the 209… For the feast is set and it is time to come out into the light and LIVE!    

O when the Saints, go marchin’ in
O when the Saints go marchin’ in
O Lord, I want to be in that number,
When the Saints go marchin’ in!

And on that hallelujah day
And on that hallelujah day
O Lord, I want to be in that number
When the Saints go marchin’ in!  

Thursday, October 15, 2015

How Much is Too Much Baggage?

The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, the 10th Chapter

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

James and John… the sons of Zebedee.  What did you guys think you’re doing?  You KNOW they tried this same thing on their dad Zebedee back when they were kids.  “Dad, we want you to say yes.”  “Say yes to what?” says Zebedee, not having just fallen off the turnip truck.  “Just say yes first and then we’ll tell you!”  You KNOW they tried it as kids and you KNOW it didn’t work.  How do I know they tried it?  Because we’ve ALL tried it!  And how often does it work?  Right!!  It NEVER works!  So why were James and John, who were at least chronologically adults at this point, trying to trick Jesus with kindergarten level material?

Now, I don’t KNOW for sure, but my guess is that kindergarten material was all the material they had left!  This little kindergarten exchange (and I don’t mean to belittle kindergarteners here, they are typically much smarter than James and John) but this little exchange is happening right after Jesus has told them… not for the first time and not for the second time… but for the THIRD time that the Kingdom of God was not, Not, NOT coming to town the way they expected.  Jesus would NOT be raising an army.  Jesus would NOT be kicking the Romans out.  He would NOT be installed as King of Israel the way they thought and all the disciples would NOT be getting cushy cabinet posts.  The Kingdom of God was coming by one way, and one way only… through Jesus’s death and resurrection and the death part was going to hurt… a lot.  

Every time Jesus tried to tell them that however, they basically stuck their fingers in their ears and said, “LALALA, I can’t hear you Jesus.  We don’t like your NEW FANGLED Messiah way Jesus, we want the OLD WAY… the way we’re used to… the way we’re comfortable with!”  The first time Jesus told them he was changing from a “king style” Messiah to a "death and resurrection" style Messiah, Peter spoke for the group and said, “By no means are you changing that!”  The second time, the disciples just changed the subject and talked about who among them was the most awesome and now James and John just changed the subject again and started talking about the seating arrangement in the new throne room!  

You see, what Jesus was telling them was going to happen was NOT how they wanted things to be!  It wasn’t at all what they had been taught for generations would happen!  It’s not what their great grandparents, grand parents, parents nor they had been taught or believed was true and right!  It was not, Not, NOT what they had become used to and comfortable with over all those generations.  

None of them could even begin IMAGINE how this “death and resurrection” crazy idea could possibly work!  Jesus!  What are you thinking?  Jesus!  You’re going against TRADITION!  Jesus!  I don’t LIKE this NEW way!  Jesus!  This is uncomfortable!  Jesus!  I want the OLD way back… the TRADITIONAL way… the MEET, RIGHT and SALUTARY way…  Jesus!  THIS IS REALLY, REALLY HARD!

Interestingly, I think this past week I met James and John’s long lost relative here in Augusta.  I saw him in the mirror.  Not much hair on top.  Ruggedly handsome guy though.  He was sort of dragging around mumbling the same things that James and John were mumbling way back then… “Jesus, this is HARD!”  And putting together four different churches IS hard and a bit messy too.

There are super, happy, excited people in the church stepping on other people’s toes in their excitement trying to help.  There are super grouchy people in the church stepping on other people’s toes, because they are hurt and scared and angry and they want other people to feel their pain.  There are excited people outside the church who are cheering and praying and telling the world how wonderful this is and there are grouchy people outside the church telling people this will never, never, never work and it’s dumb and the pastor is dumb and the priest is stupid and we’re all just sad foolish children for even trying and we’re all doomed…DOOMED!  JESUS!  This is hard! 

It is hard.  Everything that was, is changing into everything that will be.  James and John had NO IDEA what Jesus was talking about when he went on about being “raised from the dead.”  We're used to hearing about Easter but they had never even heard of such a thing and like them, we have NO IDEA what this will all look like when God gets done with us either.  

But that right there... RIGHT THERE is the key bit isn’t it?  WHEN GOD GETS DONE WITH US.  I think James and John and his Augusta relative and folks in and out of the church sometimes forget... GOD is in all of this.  We forget that God has a plan for us… for our benefit and not for our harm… granted, God’s not come out with a full set of blueprints on this (which is really annoying sometimes) but what’s happening here is God’s work and God has this remarkable tendency to work with the least likely sorts of people and the most impossible situations to accomplish the most unlikely, marvelous and miraculous things!  

How on earth was that rich man last week going to get through the eye of a needle?  Even if he gave up all his stuff, he’d still be man-sized and a needle is still needle-sized.  Can’t be done!  But with God… well, God it turns out can reach through the eye of that needle and pull that rich man, James, John, their modern Augusta relative, the Church at 209 and the whole world through!  And how on earth did Jesus pick a couple of hard headed, unchanging, kindergarten minded disciples like James and John.  What a mess!  But with God… well, James and John become St. James and St. John just a bit further down the road on the other side of Easter.  And how on earth can four churches from two denominations with all sorts of sorted pasts with priests and pastors who behaved in much too human ways and conflicts and splits and arrogance and piles and piles of emotional baggage begin to make a go of it together?  I was told this week by one of those people on the outside that it just couldn’t be done!  It couldn’t!  It was impossible!  How did I EVER believe that all of that mountain of horrible baggage could EVER be overcome?  And what on earth did trying this crazy, impossible thing say about me?  

I took just a minute and thought about that question.  What did trying something crazy, new, impossible, strange and infinitely complicated with four churches with beautiful gifts and wonderful stories and also tons of historical, emotional and painfully human baggage say about me?  And then, this long lost relative of James and John said, “I guess it says that I believe in the power of death and resurrection.”  And I do.  I really do!  Amen.  

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Hold On While I Throw This Pulpit Into Reverse

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

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Hold on for just a second… I need to shift this pulpit into reverse and the clutch on this church sticks a little…  Alright, now we can back this thing into the Gospel lesson!  

Sometimes figuring out how to get to the heart of a story takes backing into it, rather than looking at it from top to bottom.  Looking at this week’s story from the bottom up, you see Jesus telling the disciples that when they welcome “one such child” they welcome both Jesus and the One who sent him.  In Jesus’s day, children had no status.  They were property at best.  They could be bought, sold and traded… and were.  But here, in this lesson, Jesus wasn’t pointing only to people below the age of adulthood… Jesus was pointing to anyone who was thought of, or treated by those in power as less than legal, less than important, less than human.  

Backing into this lesson challenges us to ask ourselves, WHO… who, in our day, is considered as, or treated as less than legal, as if their life didn’t matter, as if they were less than human?  Who are the weak, vulnerable and desperate being demonized, terrorized and brutalized by those in power?  We know who they are.  They’re in graphic pictures on the news.  They’re the easy scapegoats of fear filled campaign and policy speeches, they’re the ones who cling to rubber rafts… or fail to… and the ones who, right here in Augusta, get told to go back to where they came from.  Jesus said to the disciples… Jesus says to US… “Whoever welcomes one of THESE in my name, welcomes me.”  In them, we will see Jesus.

Now, if you keep backing up, you back into WHAT.  Jesus asked the disciples, “WHAT were you arguing about on the way?”  Jesus asked like he didn’t know… Jesus knew.  Jesus asked in the same way my mom always asked, “whose shoes are these in the middle of the floor”… Mom knew… and Jesus knew too.  Jesus KNEW they were arguing about who was first and who was last… who was a winner and who was a looser.  Jesus KNEW and THAT’S why he lifted that child up to make this point.  Welcoming the least, the lost and the last… THAT is welcoming Christ.  

But WHY were they arguing!?  Keep backing up into that question and you’ll back right into the heart of this lesson… They were arguing because they were afraid.  When people puff themselves up and argue about who is greater and who is not, you can bet THAT is a person living deeply in fear.  Jesus told the disciples what was going to happen but they didn’t understand… the couldn’t understand because they were AFRAID!

Afraid they were loosing control.  Afraid they'd been wrong about Jesus, that he wouldn’t raise an army, kick out the Romans and become their king…They were afraid that with every step toward Jerusalem they were becoming more like that child… more like someone who wasn’t in control, wasn’t on top and more like one whose life just didn’t matter.  They were afraid that what Jesus was saying was true!  That being transformed by God meant not living on top of the world in a gold plated palace… but that being transformed by God meant living from the bottom… being transformed by a cross.  

What Jesus was saying was true… it still is true… the path to a fulfilling, purpose filled life comes through nailing our preferences, privileges and priorities to the cross and letting them die.  When we insist on holding on tight to what we have, we’re never able to open our hands enough to receive the gift of life God is giving us.  The one prerequisite for resurrection is death.  Easter only happens after Good Friday.  It means loosening our grip, our need to control, our need to hold on to what is known and what’s safe… It means letting go of everything the world tells us is important… allowing all that we have, all that we know, all that we are, to fall more and more and more deeply into the arms of God and completely allow ourselves to be molded, reshaped and changed by God into the new creation God is calling us to be.  

THAT is how it works… but I’ll tell you a secret.  I’m not very good at doing it.  I’m good at thinking about it.  Up here, in my noodle, I understand it… In fact, up here in my noodle I LOVE it for it’s beauty, grace, simplicity, and particularly for it’s irony… but DOING it is hard… I like talking about it too (obviously)… but to let go of my need to be in control… particularly when it comes to the parts of my life around holding onto resources and money so that I… I… can provide for my family.  I find that part very hard to release.  But you know, I think that too is part of what Jesus was trying to teach us with that child.  

There’s a TED talk by Amy Cuddy who advises not to “fake it till you make it” but “Fake it till you BECOME it.”  This is the other reason Jesus pulled that child onto his lap.  Children don’t think about walking until they can do it perfectly… they fake it until they become a walker.  Children don’t contemplate the theory of playing an instrument until they are perfect from the beginning… they fake being a musician until they become one!  They begin with nothing and are transformed into walkers and musicians in the same way Christians like you and me start with nothing and are lifted up and transformed into the radically welcoming, compassionate, loving and generous people God is calling us to be.    

So, just as Jesus walked the disciples one step at a time toward Jerusalem… and one step at a time God transformed them into Saints, we too are called to take one step at a time toward trusting God to mold us into what God is calling us to become as well.  And it’s time to take a step.  Just one small step, away from yourself and toward the other… toward the one the world has demonized, brutalized and forgotten.  ONE, concrete, physical step… not just in our heads… but with our hands and feet, with our actions and advocacy.  

It’s time to take a step.  Just one small step toward being as generous with what we have, as God has first been generous with each of us.  Not just in our heads or with our prayers, but with our money, time and gifts as well.  Just one small step toward a deeper, more regular, continual practice of giving and generosity.  

It’s time for us to take one shaky, stumbling baby step toward God, who like a parent calls each of us, every moment of every day to take one tentative step toward God’s loving outstretched arms, reaching out to us with the biggest possible smile, inviting us to fake it until we become everything God has created us to be.   Amen.