Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Devil's in the Hole!

Psalm 46

God is a safe place to hide,
    ready to help when we need him.
We stand fearless at the cliff-edge of doom,
    courageous in seastorm and earthquake,
Before the rush and roar of oceans,
    the tremors that shift mountains.

Jacob-wrestling God fights for us,
    God-of-Angel-Armies protects us.

River fountains splash joy, cooling God’s city,
    this sacred haunt of the Most High.
God lives here, the streets are safe,
    God at your service from crack of dawn.
Godless nations rant and rave, kings and kingdoms threaten,
    but Earth does anything he says.

Jacob-wrestling God fights for us,
    God-of-Angel-Armies protects us.

Attention, all! See the marvels of God!
    He plants flowers and trees all over the earth,
Bans war from pole to pole,
    breaks all the weapons across his knee.
“Step out of the traffic! Take a long,
    loving look at me, your High God,
    above politics, above everything.”

Jacob-wrestling God fights for us,
    God-of-Angel-Armies protects us.

We all have different gifts.  Some people have the gift of having their stuff together.  That’s not my gift.  My spiritual gift is knowing earlier than many, when things are going wonky with people.  But these days, you don’t need any special gift to know that people all over the place feel like the world is unraveling and being strewn all over the place.  

We’re living in such an anxious, upsetting, stormy and violent time.  I can’t remember a time where I’ve seen more people so tossed and battered by the world.   The storms these days seem deadly and unending.  The earth changes, the mountains in the seas shake, the chaos of the sea rages and the solid earth that you thought you could always count on is shaking.  

Wars and terror, our national elections filled with the hate, fear, rage and violence and then here in church… the place that is SUPPOSED to be the solid, never changing earth… two congregations see their solid pasts falling, uncontrollably away.  But there is a promise from God in the midst of all this… it doesn’t change how bad the storm is or how horrible it feels… but it is a rock, solid promise:  The God of Jacob (that’s the God that wrestled with Jacob in the river and gave Jacob the new name of Israel) THAT God, is with us.  

I wrote last week on Facebook about Julian of Norwich.  She was a nun back in the 1300’s.  She was tormented by the question of why there was sin, brokenness, tumult, storms and all the rest of the stuff that unravels us, present in this world.  In a vision, Jesus spoke to her saying:  "It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well".  This was Jesus reminding Julian of the truth of today’s Psalm, that there is no storm, brokenness or even death that doesn't end us up right where God wants us to end up, which is in joy and peace, light and life.  

The hard part is remembering to keep your eye, not on the chaos of the waves of the storms of life, but on Christ.  Even the disciples had trouble with that.  Do you remember the story of Peter walking on water?  He wanted to walk on water to Jesus, so Jesus told him to come on, step out of the boat and do it.  The chaos of the sea was kept firmly under Peter’s feet when he kept his eye on Jesus.  But when he got distracted by the chaos of the ocean… by all that wet stuff between him and Jesus, he was sunk.  

We’re living in a time where it’s SO easy to get distracted like Peter by the chaos of the ocean of STUFF all around us.  We easily get sucked into the worry, hate, vitriol and pain swirling all around us and so we inevitably, like Peter, end up all wet.  But remember, shaking mountains, raging seas and getting all wet is NOT the end of the story!  Even after Peter got distracted, was all wet and sunk in the chaos of that ocean of stuff, he still got pulled out in the end.  The Lord of Hosts was with him.  The truth is that Jesus ALWAYS pulls us out, no matter how deep into the world’s STUFF we might have sunk.  So, as Julian was reminded by Jesus, all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

All WILL be well… But… there’s always a but, isn't there?  Even though all WILL be well… and it will… it doesn’t mean the raging seas and the shaking mountains will magically disappear.  Jesus didn’t dry up the ocean to rescue Peter.  He reached INTO it, and pulled him out THROUGH it!  The chaos of this election will end but it won’t magically make the emotions, fears and anger that it brought so clearly to the surface go away.  All WILL be well.  That is true.  The God of Jacob IS with us.  That is true.  But it is also true that the noise of the chaos of our world and the uncertainty of our church will still be with us on November 9th just as surely as the mountains are still with us after an earthquake and the seas are still with us after a storm.  

Julian of Norwich, after her vision of Jesus reminding her that all will be well, had another vision.  It was a vision where the devil attacked her, trying to take away the hope she saw in Christ.  Too often a personified devil… a red guy with horns and a pitchfork, has been used to scare people and that’s not helpful.  BUT, taking nebulous ideas that have the ungrabable consistency of smoke… things like, chaos, fear, doubt and insecurity and giving them a name and a solid form is a way to remind ourselves that everything that brings darkness, chaos and storms into our lives is finite… it all has a limit… it all has an end…  and that no matter how the chaos and darkness rage, the God of Jacob IS our refuge and all will be well, and all will be well and all manner of things will be well. 

One of my favorite icons is the icon of the Resurrection that shows the devil chained up in hell and the doors of hell blown off their hinges by the resurrected Christ.  I think in the past, I foolishly dismissed the power of actually showing the devil chained up and defeated… still alive, still raging and flailing… still loud and obnoxious, for sure, but powerless and forever stuck in that hole under Jesus’ feet.  That, to me, seems to be a good image for us to hold onto in our world today.

Because the raging and the flailing and the obnoxious noise of the devil will continue to rise into our world out of that hole in the form of hate, fear, sexism, racism, anger, violence and the other horrors of our world.  And all of that obnoxious and horrible noise SOUNDS terrible, BUT… no matter how bad it SOUNDS, the truth is already known!  The devil has no real power anymore.  By the Grace of God, we’ve all been pulled out of the chaos through the waters of Baptism, fed at God’s Table and the Devil, even though still loud and obnoxious, is chained securely under the feet of the Resurrected Christ.  The truth is that no matter how much the world rages, God’s got me.  God's got you.  God's got us and all will be well, and all will be well and all manner of things will be well!  The Lord of hosts is with us.  The God of Jacob IS our refuge.  Amen.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Julian, RuPaul, Rowling and the Stones

Julian of Norwich, RuPaul, J.K. Rowling and The Rolling Stones.  This perhaps unlikely combination of theologians came together this morning in such a fantastic way I needed to write about it.  These days, even the folks who typically have their stuff together are finding their stuff unraveling.  We're living in an anxious, stormy and violent world and I don't know about you, but I most certainly am not one of those people who typically have their stuff together!  So, to me, the storms these days seem deadly and unending.  But this morning, sitting in my tossed-about little boat of a life amongst my unraveledness, these four theologians have converged upon me with some old wisdom shown to me in a way that I could see anew.  

It started with someone posting a quote from Jesus speaking to Julian of Norwich in a vision.  Jesus said to her, "It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well".  I read 'sin' as a word that covers every kind of storm, brokenness, pain and even death itself.  It is Jesus reminding Julian (and me by way of Julian) that there is no storm, brokenness or even death that doesn't end up right where God wants it to end up, which is in joy and light and life.  The trick, of course that I can never seem to remember, is to keep your eye, not on the chaos of the waves in the storm, but on Christ.  When you do that, even the biggest storms can't dampen the joy of what you KNOW is coming in the end.  

But I at least, seem to do that task like Peter walking on water.  The chaos of the sea was kept firmly under his feet when he kept his eye on Jesus and the promise of what was to come.  But when he got distracted by the chaos of the ocean of stuff between him and Jesus he ended up all wet.  I too always seem to get distracted by the chaos and end up all wet.  But that's not the end of that story!  Even after Peter got distracted and wet, sunk in all the chaos of the ocean of stuff, he still got pulled out in the end.  You see, Jesus always pulls us out in the end, no matter how deep the stuff is we sink into.  So, in the end all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. 

That was good, but then Kelly came downstairs and told me about the ending of RuPaul's All Stars.  RuPaul is a drag queen.  Actually RuPaul is the queen of all drag queens and she has a television program where other drag queens compete in an elimination type show.  Anyway, Katia, one of the contestants, was having her end of show talk with RuPaul when they started talking about the voices in our heads that tell us we aren't good enough or we shouldn't try because we'll fail or we're not really lovable, talented or worthy and Katia piped up immediately and said, "yes her name is Debra!"  

That's brilliant, I thought!  She named her demon!  Just as J.K. Rowling reminded us by way of Professor Dumbledore, "The fear of a name simply increases the fear of the thing itself."  Now, with a name, Katia could go toe to toe with Debra because Debra wasn't just some nebulous psychological construct but something real that could be argued with and overcome.  

That revelation then reminded me of something I had read earlier in the morning about Julian of Norwich when I looked back into the context of her visions.  She had another vision you see, after the one that gave that famous quote.  It was a vision where the devil attacked her, trying to undo the hope-filled visions of Christ she had before.  Now, in the past I've not been a big fan of seeing the devil as a personified entity, but this morning it occurred to me that maybe the personification of the devil isn't necessarily something that makes the darkness stronger.  Maybe it's a way to give a name to that darkness so we can get some firmer footing for the fight!  

Could it be that those ancients who talked about the devil and even drew pictures of a demon with red flesh, wings and horns didn't always do it to scare us?  Could it be that some did it to give us a solid, named, target to aim at?  What if those voices in our heads that tell us to live in fear, our country is doomed, that we aren't good enough and we shouldn't even try... what if those voices that Katia called Debra on that show and J.K. Rowling called Voldemort in her books... what if those same forces were called the Devil by similar people of wisdom from the past like Julian?  What if they gave the Devil his name, not to scare us, but to help us remember that nothing with a name, whether it's Debra or Voldemort or even the Devil has any power over us in the end?   

And that led, of course, to the Rolling Stones.  In their song Sympathy for the Devil, Mick sings:

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails 
Just call me Lucifer
'Cause I'm in need of some restraint

Knowing that the name of the Devil is Lucifer isn't supposed to scare us.  It's supposed to be a gift that allows us to fight back those thoughts of fear, chaos and worthlessness and give some needed restraint to that raging ocean of stuff out there these days that seems to be so powerfully dark, chaotic and hopeless in our lives.   

One of my favorite icons is the icon of the Resurrection that has the devil chained up in hell and the doors of hell blown off their hinges by the resurrected Christ.  I think in the past, I foolishly dismissed the power of actually showing the devil chained up and defeated and stuck in that hole.  But the truth is that while the hate, fear, sexism, racism, anger, violence and horror of our world feels terrible right now, the way things will turn out in the end for us all is already known!  God's got this.  God's got me.  God's got you.  God's got us and all will be well, and all will be well and all manner of things will be well and neither Debra nor Voldemort nor the Devil himself has any power to change that because that bugger is tied up in that hole under Jesus' feet!  The visual image of that fact and knowing the name of that sucker chained up down there, makes it just a little easier for me to remember the promise that all will indeed be well.  The name and the image make it easier in the midst of all the terrible storms of this fall to smile with hopefulness in the midst of a world that all too often these days has felt like it's been unraveling around me.  I hope that makes it a bit easier for you to smile as well, because the truth is that all manner of things WILL indeed be well!  

God Ain't Studyin' That!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 18th Chapter

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  It’s just too bad these parables don’t speak to us in our day and age!  Right?

That, of course, was sarcasm.  You can’t escape people proclaiming their righteousness and holding others in contempt these days even if you never watch TV and put your fingers in your ears and shout LALALALALA 24/7!  Folks are positive they have never and will never make a mistake.  If they are forced to apologize they do so only conditionally, saying, “if anyone was offended” and in doing that they both fail to apologize AND blame the one they hurt for having thin skin.  Folks are sure they are right.  Anyone with a different idea is wrong, a criminal or even a traitor.  Politicians may be the easiest to see doing this at this time of year but us regular folk are often just as convinced that we are better than the rest or at the very least, we’re definitely better than “them”, whoever “them” may be.  

Who hasn’t thought they were better than someone else because of something they did or didn’t do.  I’ve never burglarized a house, but years ago my house was burglarized!  That makes me better than them! Right?  God must like me more than them!  But that’s just not the way God works.  As much as a part of me WANTS to think I’m better than whoever broke into my house, the truth is that sin is sin.  His breaking and entering is no worse and no better in God’s eyes than my holding a grudge against him for burglarizing my house!  

No matter who you are and no matter how well you live, we have all fallen short of the glory of God.  We are all sunk without God’s grace.  You could live your life as saintly as a perfectly as the Pharisee in the story; you could pledge a full 10% tithe to the church (you could, you know), you could volunteer for every charity, you could be at church every time the door was open, you could feed the poor and clothe the hungry; you could do it all, and the fact is that your “perfect” life STILL isn’t good enough.  You could be Saint Teresa of Calcutta, and without God’s grace, given to you as a complete and total gift in Christ, you're sunk.  

The same is true on the other end of the spectrum; the same is true of the worst of the worst.  No matter what you have done in your life, no matter who you have hurt, what lies you have told, how many people you have trampled on and no matter how many Pastor’s houses you’ve broken into, without God’s grace you don’t have a chance.  You could be the worst human being that has ever lived and without God’s grace, given as a gift in Christ you are sunk.

Now, it’s a bit easier to see and realize that you are sunk without God’s grace if your falling short is more spectacular.  That was true in Jesus’ day and it’s still true today.  Why do you think it was the lepers, Roman centurions, the unclean, the tax collectors, harlots and the demon possessed that Jesus got through to most often?  They were so obviously apart from God they simply couldn’t fool themselves into believing that they could get to God on their own.  The gap was so obvious they threw themselves at Jesus’ feet and begged for mercy because they KNEW mercy was their only hope.  

For us good and loyal churchgoing folks… it’s harder to see the gap between us and God; we’re good after all!  But if you don’t see the gap… if you see yourself with God already, then their isn’t much of a need to throw yourself at Jesus’ feet and beg for mercy.  And that’s the trap.

We think of sin as something that works on a scale… like a knob that turns from 0-100.  100 is for the genocidal maniacs, an 80 is for murderers, a 50 is for bank robbers, a 25 is for software pirates, 15 is for people who walk off with someone else’s pen, 5 is for Ethyl who said a bad word…once…back in ’48 and 0 is for Mother Theresa and the like.  Burglars who break into pastor’s houses are about a 47 by the way.  

But this isn’t God’s scale!  It’s US who have manufactured this scale of sin and it’s US who look around and measure other people and measure ourselves and we try to figure out where we fall on this cosmic scale of sin.  But God simply doesn’t care!!  We insist on this scale of sin, but God could care less.  

For God, we will never be so good that we don’t need God’s gift of grace.  And for God, we can never be too bad to be out of the reach of God’s gift of grace.  It simply doesn’t matter where you fall on that sin scale because God doesn’t use that scale!  We’ve already been made right in God’s eyes!  We can never do enough right to make God like us and we can never do enough wrong to make God abandon us.  
So, take that gift you have been given… God’s unconditional love and grace… and do your best, as the fully loved mixture of saint and sinner that you are, and pass God’s love on to the people you will encounter this week with the same reckless abandon that God first gave it to you.  The world right now desperately needs that love because, that love, you see, has the power to change the world.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

How God Works

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

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

This story is a parable so it tells us something about the way God works.  It’s not a spoken parable like the Rich man and Lazarus, but a real life situation used as a parable.  Jesus uses both to tell us something about the way God works.  So, there were ten lepers.  They are unclean outcasts with no where to go.  By law they can’t even come up to Jesus to ask for healing.  Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests, because priests decide if you’re clean, and as they go away they ARE made clean.  

Here we need a full and total stop because Jesus has just shown us how God works.  God works in unconditional, indiscriminate grace.  Jesus sees ten lepers across the road.  Regardless of where they’re from, who they were or what wonderful or awful things they may have done in their lives… regardless of what they believe or don’t believe, their political leanings, regardless of their gender, their social standing, their wealth, their poverty, their sexual orientation, or whether they had dogs, cats or guinea pigs for pets… regardless of anything… A N Y T H I N G, Jesus simply and indiscriminately heals them all.  ALL!  But wait!  There’s more!  We ALSO see exactly HOW God distributes grace… and the way God distributes this abundant, indiscriminate grace is through Jesus and THAT still happens every Sunday, right there at that table.  

So, every single leper was made whole and it wasn't because they got themselves right with Jesus.  Not because they put themselves in a place where God might be able to work in their lives (I heard that one on the radio this week!).  Not because they confessed Jesus as their lord and savior.  Not because they were good enough or not too bad.  They were ALL made WHOLE because MAKING CREATION WHOLE is what God is all about!  Period.

Back to the parable.  As the lepers were headed off to who knows where, maybe to the priests, maybe to get Chipoltle, who knows WHERE they went because now they could go ANYWHERE because they are ALL healed.  But one, when they all noticed that they were healed, turns around and comes back to Jesus praising God and thanking Jesus.  And he was (gasp), from AWAY… you know, a Samaritan!  

Since this is a parable and it tells us something about how God works, we need another brief stop to once again hammer home the total, radical, unconditional, indiscriminate grace that had just been done to this human being and the others who were with him.   Samaritans were outcasts from birth and no amount of healing or cleansing would ever fix that.  YET, God’s grace is given to this one too!  

With that in mind we can take the line:  “And he was (gasp) a Samaritan”!  And we can literally put any other label that one person might put on another person into that “Samaritan” slot and begin to understand that God’s grace is for THEM too and even for YOU.  Think of a label that someone has stuck to you.  God’s grace is for people with that label!  Think of a label that you have labeled someone else with.  God’s grace is for people with that label too.  God’s grace is for ALL… All means ALL.  

Back to the parable.  Jesus looks around and, I think sarcastically, wonders out loud, “Were not ten made clean?”  “I healed 10, right folks?  Jesus knew very well that there were ten, AND he knew the other nine weren’t coming back.  Only the Samaritan returned to say “thank you”.  But remember, this is a parable so this tells us something about the way God works.  God’s grace is a done deal.  There are no Divine take-backsies.  God gives whether we recognize it or not, whether we believe it or not, whether we accept it or not, whether we are thankful for it or not.  None of the ten got un-healed. 
Back to the parable.  Jesus turns back to the Samaritan and tells him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”  But what did Jesus mean by that?  Faith didn’t cure his leprosy; God’s love and grace did that.  So if it wasn’t the leprosy Jesus was talking about, what was it?  Remember this is a parable so it tells us something about the way God works.  

God’s grace, it turns out, is not something that will ONLY cure you on the outside, but God’s grace is something that can bring healing and wellness to every part of our lives through all of eternity.  All ten were cured but only one began to be transformed into the person God created him to be right there.  Only one began to understand that God’s total, radical, unconditional, indiscriminate grace went farther than just skin deep. 

God’s love and grace is not conditional.  Everyone has it.  It was and is a gift.  All of creation got it in Christ’s death and resurrection.  Period.  FAITH, on the other hand, is different.  Faith is getting a tiny glimpse of even the smallest little clue about how AMAZING God’s love and grace really is and turning around and returning to Jesus.  Then trying, one step at a time, to live your life as a “thank you” to God for that gift of love and grace.  The best “thank you” you can give is to follow Jesus’s lead and give others exactly what God first gave to you… total, indiscriminate, unconditional love and grace.  And the truth is, the better and better and more FAITH-fully we follow Jesus’s example of unconditional and indiscriminate love and grace… the more we will find that we have not just been made clean, but we've been made WELL too.  Amen.